Tag Archives: fantasy

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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It is hard to believe that this book is middle grade- the world building, the social and political commentary, the authenticity, the history, the humor, the writing quality, the richness, really makes me embarrassed that as a child I never gravitated towards books like this.  Everything I love about contemporary fiction seems to be done so well in the handful of fantasy books I’ve read of late, add in layers of adventure, imagination, and nuance, and I don’t know why I took so long to embrace this genre.  Not to say every MG fantasy is written this well, but why settle for only friendship, family, and identity issues when you can have all of it and dragons?  This 352 page book about a Chinese American Hui Muslim kid is action packed, culture rich, unapologetically Muslim, and a gripping good time.  While I think lower MG could handle and enjoy the book, there is nothing explicit, it does in passing mention eunuchs, concubines, and adult entertainment, along with the main character stating that he is not attracted to girls a few times and that he acts like a girl, but presents as a boy, thus making me think middle school aged might be a better fit.  If younger kids read it, they may or may not even pause or notice the aforementioned possible flags, I only highlight them, so that my readers are aware and can be prepared to explain and discuss if needed.  As an adult reading it, I can see clearly that Zach is gay, but I don’t know that most kids will catch it.  The author skillfully hints at it, but doesn’t make it the focus of the story, ultimately making me feel like if you want to see it you will, if you don’t, you probably won’t. Oh and the chapter titles, they are awesome!

SYNOPSIS:

Zachary Ying is twelve and while he isn’t comfortable in his Maine school, he manages.  He dumps the delicious Chinese food his mom makes every day so that no one teases him for the smell it carries.  He tries to impress the other members of the Mythrealm club, a vr video game, without rocking the boat, and he loves his single mom who works hard since his father was killed in China advocating for the rights of Uyghurs.  He knows little about Chinese history, the language, or myths, but that all starts to change when his VR gaming headset becomes the host for the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. 

His mom becomes the target of demons and when her soul is taken, Zachary is off to China to secure the barrier that divides the worlds and keeps the spirits at bay.  To do that though he is going to need to learn Chinese history, the power of artifacts, and the role of myths in keeping stories alive.  With two friends, also possessed by past emperors, joining him, the adventure is non stop.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ramadan is mentioned on the very first page, that Zach’s mom wears hijab, that he only eats halal, and that details about life in China for Muslims is shared.  It isn’t the main part of the story, but it adds such a powerful layer, that I found myself looking up Hui Muslims and trying to rectify how little I know about Islam in China.  

The social commentary about which individuals from history are remembered and why some are celebrated and others vilified was so impressive to see in a MG fantasy book.  It doesn’t ask you to agree with the narrative, nor does it preach anything, it just presents it in all its beautiful shades of gray glory albeit often shrouded in humor.  I truly feel that most MG authors talk down to their readers, if these themes can be so strongly presented and consumed, what superficial fluff did I waste my time reading as a preteen?  Thankfully I’m an adult that loves juvenile fiction, so there is still hope for me yet.

FLAGS:

Magic, mythical gods, fighting, violence, lying, deceit, killing, crushes, same sex attraction, concubines are mentioned as are eunuchs, but nothing more is said about them.  Affairs and mistresses in context to myths and past emperors are mentioned.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could teach this.  Once you sense that he is gay it is hard to unsee, and in an Islamic school, that would be problematic.  I will have my own kids read the book, I don’t think there would be any concerns for me there.  A few weeks ago concubines were mentioned in a khutbah, so I’ve already had to explain that to one of my kids. 

PRE-ORDER BEFORE MAY 10, 2022 or PURCHASE AFTER HERE

Lowriders to the Rescue by Cathy Camper illustrated by Raúl Gonzalez III

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Lowriders to the Rescue by Cathy Camper illustrated by Raúl Gonzalez III

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This is my first Lowriders book, so admittedly there was a lot going on that I really don’t feel confident that I understood, but even with that, it was a sweet story of first love (crush), Arab and Latinx joy, humor, social activism, environmentalism, gentrification, and fun.  I don’t know that the other books in this middle grades series explain the characters or their world any more or less, so I think it can be read as a standalone book, and I think the 140 page detailed illustration filled pages will tempt even the most reluctant readers to give it a try.

SYNOPSIS:

Sokar is an Arab Muslim monarch butterfly, and the fires have taken so many of her family, and cut the survivors off from being able to safely migrate.  She comes to town with a broken wing and in desperate need of help, only to find prejudice against her at every corner, until she meets the Lowriders:  Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio.  Lupe is an impala, Elirio a mosquito, and Flappy a land octopus with brand new glasses who falls for Sokar at first sight.  Sokar, however, has concerns with the environmental impact the lowrider car has knowing that the fires and pollution are all related.  Add on that the Upscale Business Association gentrifying the neighborhood, and everyone is going to need to work together to save the monarchs, the neighborhood, the environment, and a tender friendship.  As characters find connections between Arab and Latin foods, Arabic and Spanish words, the readers will find similarities from the real world with this crazy one with people, animals, insects, and flying cars.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The author saw my review of Arab Arab All Year Long! and let me know that this book also had Islamic representation, and that I should check it out.  I love that there are Islamic phrases (inshaAllah, salam), a possible hijab on Sokar, connections to Moors of Spain, and Arab culture.  Part of me doesn’t love the love interest, crush thread, but it is between a land octopus and a butterfly and there is only a kiss on the cheek, so, I’m not sure it is that big of a deal.  I love that environmental concerns, discrimination and activism are the heart of the story, yet somehow it doesn’t read preachy.

The similarities of words, foods, and my favorite throwing of a chancla/throwing of a shabashib are all amazing for readers of all backgrounds to see and be made aware of.  I love the teamwork, altruism, and compassion that so many of the characters show, while not sacrificing the humor and quirkiness of it all.

I was a bit concerned with the posters going up everywhere, that seems like a lot of waste and excess, in every other instance they were so mindful: making the car solar powered, reducing plastic in the ocean, etc..

FLAGS:

Racism, discrimination, crush, kiss on the cheek, death, loss, destruction.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would work for a full on book club selection, but I think it would be a popular book to give to a kid to read and then chat about it with them when they finish.  The book has a lot to discuss and maybe in small groups it would be a good selection.  I’m hoping to get it in the library when it releases and I’ll come back and report on how it works with reluctant readers, avid readers, and in getting the kids reading, thinking, and laughing.  You can pre-order yours to show support for the author by clicking HERE.

The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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This 152 page book reads like a historical fiction interfaith Magic Treehouse for middle grades tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I learned about Sephardic Jews, the language of Ladino, Prince Abdur Rahman, and a tiny bit about the Abbasids overthrowing the Ummayads.  I love that it starts with a map and ends with sources, facts about what information is real in the book and what is fiction, and a bit about Muslims and Jews and how to be an ally if you witness prejudice.  The book is co-authored, and in many ways the Jewish narrative does take the majority of the focus, but the Islamic phrases sprinkled in, the Islam practiced by a major character, and the setting, allow for both religions to shine and combine to make a compelling magical time traveling story for third graders (and their parents) and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Cousins Ava and Nadeem are in fifth grade and spend their afternoons afterschool with their Granny Buena.  Granny and Ava are Jewish and Nadeem is Muslim, though they believe differently, they always seem to find more that is the same, and respect is always given.  When they face bullying at school Granny Buena pulls out a crystal box full of buttons and tells the children, and the cat Sheba a tale about their ancestor Ester ibn Evram.  When she stops the story short, the two kids exam the button closer and find themselves back in time tasked with saving Prince Abdur Rahman and getting him from Africa to Spain.  They aren’t sure if that will be enough to get them back to their own time though, but they don’t have time to overthink it because if they fail, the Golden Age of Islam won’t happen, peace won’t come to Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the region, and their Jewish ancestors may face the backlash of helping the Muslim escape.  Along the way, they learn about their own family traditions, beliefs, and gain wisdom to handle their bullying problem at school.

WHY I LIIKE IT:

I love that I learned so much, and from what I could Google and ask about from those more knowledgeable, the facts about the time period and cultures all seem to check out.  Only one passage comparing Jewish belief and the text of the Quran is phrased oddly in my opinion, the rest of the Islamic sprinkling is well done.  There are numerous bismillahs, mashaAllahs, stopping for salat, quoting of the Quran and more.  The narrative is primarily Jewish, but the setting Islamic with athans being called and Salams being given.  The book does have a lot of Jewish detail, but I don’t think it was preachy, and the further uniqueness of Ladino words and culture I think would appeal to all readers no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they are with the two religions.

There are some questions that as an adult reader I wanted to know more about: how Nadeem and his mom are practicing Muslims in a strong Jewish family, how making sure history happened as it happened the first time sent the two kids back…then why were they sent there at all, is there going to be more button adventures, were their two cats or was it the same cat?   Honestly, a lot of the more obvious fantasy plot holes were accounted for and done quickly and simply: how their clothes changed but the button remained, how they could speak the language, how confused their aunt would be when her real niece and nephew arrived, etc.. The writing quality kept it all clear for the reader, and did so without the pacing of the story suffering.

FLAGS:

Near death experience, magic, mention of killing, fear, deception, bullying, fighting, physical altercation, misogynistic assumptions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great story to share if I return to the classroom. The history, the religions, the storytelling would provide so much to connect to and learn about.  As a book club selection though, it would be too young for our middle school readers and ultimately too short.  I would consider it for a read a loud with fourth and fifth grade.

To Purchase: Here is the Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3D9LyxI

Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

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Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

compasscoverDo you ever find yourself in the middle of an amazing historical fiction fantasy adventure graphic novel, reading as fast as you can to find out what happens next, while simultaneously having absolutely no clue what is going on? Yeah, I am was confused often in this upper YA/Teen (16+) 136 page book set in Europe during the Islamic Golden Age and starring a female from the renown House of Wisdom.  I’m fairly positive it is my own limitations that made the book confusing, but for those wiser and more versed in graphic novels, I would recommend this book.  It has action, adventure, science, history, philosophy, a strong Muslim character, friendship, wisdom, ingenuity, a bibliography, Mongols, Druids, and a dragon.

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SYNOPSIS:
Shahidah El-Amin is a Compass from the House of Wisdom, she is not a thief, she seeks knowledge which means that she is incredibly educated, fierce, and scrappy: part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider perhaps.  She is a hijab wearing, dua invoking, Qur’an quoting, don’t give me alcohol even as you are about to kill me, strong confident Muslim. 

The book opens with her finding an artifact and being betrayed by a fellow scholar and friend, Ling Hua, a Chinese scholar.  The two race to Wales to get to the possibly rumored Calderon of Eternal Life for different reasons and using different methods.  Along the way Shahidah shows her skills in surviving, understanding what her priorities are, and learning about friendship.  She will battle Master Hua, the Khan, a dragon, a bear, the Druids, a leper just to name a few as the fantasy world is developed and built up with historical accuracies thrown in.

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WHY I LIKED IT:

I love that the lead is a fierce female Abbasid Muslim from Baghdad and that there are a variety of religions and cultures mentioned and depicted.  It refers to Shahidah as an Arab witch by the enemy and calls Muslims “Mohammedans” which takes a bit of getting used to and I never got comfortable with.  I love the inclusion of ayats in transliterated text of the Arabic, and the concept is wonderful.  I got lost though in some of the world building and plot.  I think the action and illustrations are clear, but the text needed a little clarity in my opinion.  Again, I acknowledge my lack of familiarity with the concepts and format of the book.

I loved the bibliography and the notes included at the beginning and end.  I actually would have liked more information on the House of Wisdom and as always, a map.

FLAGS:

The concept and references make it for more mature readers.  There is also violence, a mention to love making, and depicted death, gore, killing, etc..

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Even though it is for older readers, I think it would be great on a library shelf for middle grades and up.  It probably isn’t for everyone, and many wouldn’t be tempted by it even, but the few kids that like this kind of content, will absolutely love the book.

Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

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Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

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This 336 page YA graphic novel set in a fictitious world draws on the authors’ Arab culture and creates relatability for universal readers everywhere.  Themes of coming of age, war, family honor, discrimination, classism, deceit, and friendship, all interweaves with rich illustrations and warmth.  With a few unnamed #muslimsintheillustrations the story shows a lot of heart and with some language, violence, death, and oppression would be best suited for 9th grade and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Aiza and her family belong to the Ornu tribe and are treated as second class citizens in the Bayt-Sajji Empire.  With their traditional arm tattoos and seemingly more plentiful food, they are greatly disliked by the larger community and oppressed at every opportunity.  Aiza dreams of joining the army, rising in ranks, earning citizenship for her family and changing their future.  She also dreams of being a hero.  When she finally convinces her family to allow her to enlist, they also encourage her to hide her identity, and just like that, she is off.

Once in training she is pushed to excel or risk being sent to the front lines.  As she navigates new friendships, harsh instructors, and the shadowy General Hende, Aiza learns there is so much more to war and politicking than meets the eye.  Her life, her loyalties, her understanding of the world will all be tested, as Aiza must decide which path is for her.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The text and illustrations are seamless in conveying a united story, I was a little nervous with two authors, and I like that the story has twists and multitudes.  I loved seeing strong women in the military, as the authors’ say tough girls with swords.  While reading it I was completely submerged in the story and the characters, but writing this review a few days later, I’ve largely forgotten the characters names and quirks.  I’m not sure if it is because I read a digital version, or because the character building is a little lacking.  I don’t know that I was emotionally invested in some of the major plot points because I was not seeing the struggles it was requiring of the character to endure.  Admittedly I have not read a lot of fantasy graphic novels, so I don’t know that I have a lot to compare it to, but I do plan to read a physical copy when I can, and read follow up books in the series, to see if my impression changes.

FLAGS:

Some language, bullying, oppression, violence, death, killing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is nothing religious in the text, so I wouldn’t use it as a book club selection, but I would definitely shelve it in a school library, classroom, and keep it in mind for readers that love these kind of books.

This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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At 512 pages this teen/YA fantasy book immerses you in the lives of two characters pitted against one another that are inevitably, drawn to each other.  The world building is slow, as it seems to spend more time character building and shaping the magical Jinn filled world around the characters, through their eyes, and their interactions, than simply building a world, and then dropping characters in it.  It never seems to drag, but the rising action is not concluded, it in fact ends on a cliff hanger raising the expectation for the next book in the series to take the story toward more action, emotion, and twists.  I absolutely love and applaud the author’s note that articulates and clarifies that this book is not religious in nature and that threads of Islam and Persian culture are just reference points for this completely fictionalized tale.  There is a passionate kiss, and violence, but this book is remarkably clean and an enjoyable read for ages 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The story opens with Alizeh sitting by the fire sewing.  She is freezing, she is always freezing, she is a Jinn, but her veins are ice.  Completely alone, she is working as a maid, but as she is on probation, she lodges in a tiny closet away from the other service members, and is deathly afraid of the dark.  Her loving parents raised her and nourished her, she is educated and strong, but since their deaths she has been on the run, trying simply to survive in a world where Clays forbid Jinn from using their magic.  Alizeh is no ordinary Jinn though, the earth has chosen her to be the future Queen, her ever-changing eyes prove it, but for now, she has no kingdom, no family, no friends, no hope to lead.  Only cryptic riddles given to her by Iblees that she dreads and fears, but warn her of impending dangers.

Kamran is the second storyline that builds the world of Ardunia.  As the crown prince, and future king, he has returned from touring the country and has had his eyes opened to the forces threatening the empire, the inevitable war that is looming, and the shortage of resources that threaten them all.  He is irritable and brooding and acting out of character when he intervenes in an altercation in the streets between a servant girl and a young boy.  This sets off a series of events that will bring Alizeh and Kamran into direct conflict as their worlds intertwine and their passions build.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the clarification at the beginning, stating that this is not Islamic and that religious and cultural inspiration was just that, inspiration. It allowed me to get comfortable and enjoy the tale for what it is.  I wasn’t worried about checking things, or worrying about religious impressions and accuracy, it was so freeing, thank you.  I really hope that there is a map in the final physical copy, because I just really like maps.  I liked the Persian numbers and script on the chapters and the references make the book that much richer and fleshed out.

I am admittedly fairly new to fantasy, so I enjoyed the slower pace and character building.  I found it enveloping and smooth, there were small conflicts, but the subtle world building through understanding the characters, and their perspectives, was a nice framing for a story that very easily could have dragged, but in reality flew by.  The only point that I found unrefined, was how much Alizeh knew of her past and the impact it had on her current situation.  There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect in teasing that thread.  The reader knows who she is, so I’m not sure why she seems to not know, and then proves that she does, there is no subtlety in that regard.  And the only character, that seemed underdeveloped was that of Hazan, his banter with the Kamran grated on my nerves, and I didn’t understand the abruptness of his and Alizeh’s relationship, it seemed forced.  Nearly everything else in the book was very organic and gently referenced and established very deliberately, but it almost seemed like I missed a chapter or two, when all of a sudden Hazan emerges as being such a main character in Alizeh’s life.  Undoubtedly it was a surprise for the reader, but some nuance in the revelation through Alizeh’s eyes, would have assisted in the continuity of the character and tone of the book.

FLAGS:
A kiss, and attraction, talk of illegitimate children.  There is killing and violence, attempted assault: physical and sexual, not detailed, but referenced as a fear as she walks alone at night.  There is darkness and talk of the devil, deceit, lying, plotting.  Nothing an early teen could not handle.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would have to delay deciding if I could do this as a book club selection until I read the next book.  There is so much potential, that I truly hope that I can introduce the series to young readers to enjoy, get lost in, and discuss.

Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Make sure you are sitting in a comfy spot when you crack open this middle grades fantasy adventure, because it hits the ground running from the very beginning and doesn’t let up over 368 pages.  The like-able and relatable brother sister duo snarkily banter and bicker about everything from cultural Indian (Desi) folklore, religious stories, Marvel, Lord of the Rings, He-Man, Arabic Sesame Street, Star Wars, hygiene, fears, potential science fair projects, and food, all while battling jinn, devs, peris, and reality as they work to save the worlds.  The book is chalked full of STEM concepts, cultural touchstone, Islamic footholds, pop culture, and fun, as one character remarks, it is the ultimate fan fiction. I regularly Googled people, references, and concepts, and ended up learning quite a bit.  And don’t fret if you ever get lost or confused, or something doesn’t make sense, you don’t have to worry that you missed something or that the author left a gap in the narrative, the book moves quick and Amira’s constant dialogue and commentary points out all the ridiculousness of what they are experiencing and the questions that she wishes she had time to ask, explore, and discover.  The author never loses control of the narrative, and keeps the world building on level without skimping on details and understanding.  I have not loved any of the author’s previous books in their entirety, I think this one, however, is her best one yet, and the switch to middle grades is a good fit.  

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Amira and her 10-year-old brother Hamza are heading to the Shriner’s Madinah Temple in their hometown of Chicago to explore the exhibit of Ancient Astronomy artifacts, or as Hamza calls it “tools that belonged to dead Muslim Astrologers.”  Hosted by the Islamic Society of Ancient Astronomy corresponds with the eclipse viewing party of the incredibly rare super blood blue moon.  In typical Hamza fashion however, a Nerf gun is brought and things are touched.  When Amira is tasked with bringing her brother up to the roof to learn how to use the telescopes, the two scuffle over a small box with a tiny moon inside, a series of snatching and tussling between the siblings cause the Box of the Moon to break, or rather start working.  As day turns to night, the moon seems to be breaking a part, and everyone in the world is suspended in sleep except for Amira and Hamza, and an entire jinn army is heading their way.

When jinn leaders Abdul Rahman and Maqbool reach the children they must convince them that they are not there to harm them, but rather to recruit them as the chosen ones to save the worlds: Qaf and Earth and the barrier, the moon, that keeps the realms separate from destruction at the hands of Ifrit.  The confusion over there being two of them creeps up, but is squashed as Suleiman the Wise left tests to prove that the chosen one is properly equipped to battle Iftrit as it has been prophesized.  The children must work together to prove themselves they must then actually seek out and defeat Ifrit.  As tests and challenges arise, it becomes clear (pun intended) that the two are not the chosen ones, but with no option of turning back they must forge ahead none-the-less.

“What? We’re Indian, dude, we were basically born half doctor.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Amira and Hamza’s banter.  The references are at times laugh out loud funny.  Similarly, I was impressed by all the historical and STEM concepts intertwined in the story, there is even a tiny bit about mental health.  I learned about parts of the moon, historical figures, folklore, and more.  The characters are Muslim, Amira wears Ayatul Kursi around her neck and they talk of Sunday school.  The book isn’t religious though, in they aren’t saying Bismillah before they embark on things, or supplicating when in danger, but they greet different beings with peace, and the framing is clearly from an Islamic paradigm.  I think the high speed pacing works for most of the book, and somehow you still get to know and connect with the characters, but at times a slight pause to clarify a point would have been nice.  I would have liked to have the kids proving they were the chosen ones a bit more articulate and dramatic before hand rather than in retrospect.  I feel like the jinn transportation of cauldrons could have used a bit of backstory as well.  And a little fleshing out of the scroll, the government structure and communication methods of Qaf, would have helped some of the transitions between the action.  I read a digital ARC and it had a page reserved for a map, and I think when the physical book comes out that will be really helpful, as I didn’t quite fully understand the 18 realms and their locations  in comparison to the locations the children encounter.  

FLAGS:

UPDATE:  I TOOK THIS BOOK AS COMPLETE FICTION. THAT THE ISLAMIC PREMISE WAS A STARTING OFF POINT, AND DIDN’T DWELL TOO MUCH ON THE ACCURACY.  I READ AN ADVANCED READER COPY OF THE BOOK THAT DID NOT HAVE ALL THE SUPPLEMENTAL AUTHOR’S NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END.  I WAS UNAWARE THAT THE AUTHOR FELT SHE WAS INCOPERATING FACT AND ACCURACY IN THIS INCREDIBLY FICTIONALIZED BOOK. AND AS A RESULT I AM NERVOUS TO SUGGEST THIS BOOK TO THE MIDDLE GRADE INTENDED AUDIENCE.  IF YOU HAVE A MUSLIM CHILD THAT IS WELL VERSED ON PROPHET SULAIMAN, THE CONCEPT OF FICTION, AND IS OLDER THAN THE IMPRESSIONABLE EIGHT OR NINE YEAR OLD INTENDED AUDIENCE, ONLY THEN PERHAPS WOULD THIS BOOK WORK FOR YOU.  IT WOULD BE VERY MISLEADING IF YOUR CHILD TAKES THE TWISTED STORY AS FACTUAL AND BASED ON THE NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END, THIS VERY WELL COULD HAPPEN. To read more about the concerns you can click here and head over to Muslim Mommy Blogs take on the book.

There is magic and magical beings. A transgendered jinn.  It mentions Amira and Hamza celebrating Halloween. Death and fighting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a great audio book to listen to with the family or a read aloud in a middle grades classroom.  It is too young for middle school readers to not find it slightly predictable, but if you had it on a classroom or home shelf I am sure it would be picked up, read, enjoyed by middle grades and middle schoolers alike.  It reads much like the Rick Riordan Presents series and I hope that there are more books featuring Amira and Hamza in the future.

 

A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

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A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

This middle grades magic realism novel draws you in and pulls on your heartstrings pausing only to offer pointed commentary on friendship, self-awareness, and self acceptance.  Oh sure there were parts that seemed a bit repetitive and parts I had to read again because the continuity was just off enough to have me confused, but the book has power, and especially for a debut novel I was blown away.  Well, actually I was in tears, and thats a pretty strong emotion to be felt in 246 pages, so be impressed.  I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim, she was born in Bahrain and has lived in Kuwait amongst other places.  The main character, Safiya,  experiences her mother’s memories in Kuwait where Eid and the Athan are briefly mentioned and a few characters wear scarves.  There are culture rich Arabic names, but no religion is mentioned outright.  Saff has Christmas money, eats pepperoni, a side character has a boyfriend and they kiss, and there is just a touch of magic to tie it all together.

SYNOPSIS:
Safiya’s parents have been divorced for a few years, and when she chose to live with her dad, her Saturdays became one-on-one time with her mom.  Her mom, Aminah, is a lawyer from Kuwait who can chat with anyone and everyone about anything and everything.  The complete opposite of video game loving Saff who struggles to find her voice, and has nothing in common with her articulate, headstrong, independent, theater loving mother.  The two rarely get along and after a particularly intense fight, Safiya decides to not spend Saturday with her mom, but rather head out with her best friend Elle and new year eight friends at the mall.  When her dad tells her to come home asap, she knows something is up, but could never have imagined how life altering the days events are about to become.

Aminah is in a coma, and Safiya is full of regret and fear.  As she sits next to her mother’s hospital bed and drinks in her perfume, she is drifted to a far away land filled with a crumbling house and a magic like quality.  Approaching this oddity like her favorite video game, she explores her mother’s memories, and finds a girl not so different from herself.  As reality and magic merge in young Saff, she begins to sort through her feelings toward her mother and come to peace with what she has to do and endure and overcome.

In the process of handling her life-changing home situation, Saff, also finds the strength to call out cruel acts from classmates, find her voice, and cut out toxic friendships while cultivating supportive ones.  The journey on both fronts will have readers cheering for Saff while wiping away tears.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the quick pace and rawness of the characters.  Grandma, mom, and Safiya all say and do things they regret while hot and angry and have to learn the consequences and humbling that needs to occur to fix what their words have broken.  No character is completely good, nor completely bad, and in a middle grade book that is powerful. Each one has relatable qualities that really make the book memorable.  

Safiya has to really work out what is going on with her best friend, Elle, and what she is willing to accept and what lines she is not willing to cross.  The character’s maturity is inspiring, and I love it.  She doesn’t fancy boys (yet), and doesn’t see liking boys a sign of maturity.  She doesn’t want it forced on her, and she doesn’t want to give up things that she enjoys just to “fit in.” The fact that she can articulate how Elle is a chameleon blending in to her surroundings where she is just a plain old lizard is wonderful.

I enjoy the magical trips to Kuwait.  They don’t show much of the culture, but what is revealed is lovingly conveyed.  I like that it did acknowledge that Aisha knows Arabic, but struggles a bit to read it.  I would have loved more Arabic words sprinkled in, but at least it accounted for the linguistic abilities as it jumped between countries.  The book is set in England, so some of the concepts or phrases might need a bit of explanation for younger American readers.

I wanted more information about the backstories just beneath the main story line.  How did Safiya’s parents meet? Was the divorce amicable? Did her dad have any family around? How did Aminah leave for England at such a young age alone? How come Saff never visited Kuwait? How come Saff didn’t know about Aminah’s friends? How did the friends take Aminah leaving? Why didn’t they just email her the invitation? Why did they still have it? How did the girls meet in the middle of the night? I know that the book is middle grades, but just a bit more would have helped some of the holes feel shallower, and the overall story details more polished.

FLAGS:

Teasing, death, boyfriend, kissing, illness, verbal fighting. Nothing middle graders can’t handle, although the mom is kind of terrible to Aminah at the beginning.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be an awesome fourth or fifth grade book to read and discuss. I don’t do a book club for that age, nor do I have children in that age group at the moment, but I am planning to suggest it to teacher friends I know.  The book would appeal to boys and girls, but I think girls especially those going through friend dramas and girls butting heads with their moms will really benefit from this quick memorable read.

The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

wild ones

At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

silverworld

At 304 pages this middle grades fantasy OWN voice book attempts to weave together a granddaughters love for her Teta, with her adventures in a mythical world that only she can save.  In much the same way of Narnia, or Gregor the Overlander, or even Alice in Wonderland, the book takes a realistic character and pushes them, in this case Samara aka Sami, just beyond, into a world filled with mystery, adventure, and lessons.  The Lebanese flavor sprinkled in adds a little depth and uniqueness to the story, and aids a bit in the world building, but it isn’t a strong presence outside of ifrits and character’s names.  Teta is a Beduin that has a prayer rug and tarot cards and a painting of the Virgin Mary that she calls Fatima, and Sami’s deceased dad was American and the house has Christmas lights.  At one point the book remarks that Teta “likes to pick and choose her beliefs.”  The premise starts with Teta showing signs of dementia: speaking in a language no one but Sami can understand, and not eating and seeming present, the resolution as a result could give children the wrong idea about treatments for such real conditions, and adults might want to make sure their middle graders wont be triggered by the decline of a loved one.  The book is written well and holds reader’s interest, the world building is decent and the character’s relatable, I don’t know that it is overly memorable, but it is a fun light magical read with culture and family and friendship at its core that readers will enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami and her brother Tony, along with their attorney mom Alia and maternal grandmother, Serafina, have just moved to Florida from Ithaca, New York.  The children’s father was killed and the family has moved a few blocks away from his sister to start anew.  Sami is not settling in, and to make matters worse, Teta has stopped talking coherently, and Aunt Ivory and Alia are looking for a nursing home to place her in.  For some reason though, when it is just Sami and her grandma, she can communicate just fine, and Teta tells stories of her adventures with her flicker Ashrafieh in Silverworld.  Sami doesn’t necessarily believe the stories are true, but she gets the idea to use her Teta’s fairy stories to try and save her grandma, but when she finds her Teta’s spell book and peers into an old beloved mirror, Sami is taken to Silverworld and realizes that it is not just her grandmother’s future at risk.

In a world of flickers and shadows, Sami finds two balancers that taker her in and guide her: Dorsom and Natala.  The world is a reflection of the Actual world, but the Shadow Nixie is consuming the land and taking prisoners.  The balance is off, and Sami is convinced that this darkness is what is also harming Teta.  Between shadow spies and giant rotifers, magic and prophesied destinies, Sami must push her fear away and accept that she can be the one to set things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Sami has to step in to her own and fight for what she wants, even when she is afraid.  I love the relationship she has with her Teta it is very warm and palpable.  I feel like the “saving Silverworld will save her Teta thread,” however, is lost in the middle of the book, it might be the catalyst and might have worked out that way in the end, but I don’t know that the middle makes the case that the two efforts are one and the same.  I appreciate that there are glimpses of Lebanon in the story with the athan in the background and spinning dervishes, but outside of Teta and a bit of the food, the cultural elements seemed a bit forced and deliberate instead of stemming from a natural flowing place.  A bit odd since it is an OWN voice novel, but maybe I was just wanting more. I would have liked more information about how Teta settled in America, learned English etc., or about her tattoos and Beduin upbringing. Another thing that seemed off to me was the close relationship of Dorsom and Sami at the end.  I hadn’t over nearly 300 pages realized that they were that much closer than Sami and Natala.  I even went back to see if I had missed something, but I couldn’t find that I had.  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were going to see Nixie either, I mean yes it was logical for they type of book it is, but I don’t know that Sami really had a plan for Silverworld or her Teta, she was just going to Nixie’s castle to get there.  There were also a few inconsistencies such as Sami wishing her and Tony could go fishing or surfing, when the book has made it clear that Sami is afraid of the water, particularly the ocean.

FLAGS:

There is magic, killing, death. There is talk of goddesses, there is a female character, a shadow, that has two flicker husbands and children with them both.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would appeal to middle school readers, it is a solid middle grade book.  I do think fourth and fifth grade shelves would benefit from having this book available to be picked up and enjoyed.