Tag Archives: friendship

The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

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The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

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This culture rich, American set, upcoming 416 page YA book proudly shows the characters’ Islam as it shares a story of pain, privilege, guilt, adversity, hope, and family dynamics.  The book is an easy read that is hard to put down, and is remarkably clean for the threads of romance, war, and mental health that permeate the pages (note that here are triggers of loss, separation, death, suicide, drowning, trauma, hate, and bullying).  There, however, are also some plot holes, contradictions, and weak threads that I feel obligated to note, but ultimately don’t make the book a bad read.  I think 16 year old readers, both Syrian and not, as well as Muslim and non Muslims will benefit from the characters sharing their lives and peeling back surface layers to show an intimate account of expectation and obligation for Syrian American girls in today’s world with the backdrop of war in Syria.  The book’s first few pages are powerful in their Islamic centering and unapologetic normalizing of salat and hijab and identity. The Islam in the forefront fades as the story progresses and I don’t think I can sign off on the relationship between two characters as being “halal,” but starting the story with fears of praying on the side of the road as a mom’s concern is next level.  Most book parents are trying to get their kids to pray, in this family- prayers are happening five times a day and on time, so the worry is knowing where you are when Maghrib time hits, because it obviously won’t be missed or delayed, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Khadija’s mom is queen bee in the tight knit Syrian community in Detroit and Khadija does not fit the mold of what the queen’s daughter should be.  It isn’t that Khadija is a rebel, she loves her mother, her faith, her roots, and well, boxing.  Khadija is wealthy, and privileged and so much of what is expected is for appearance sake only.  Khadija knows this, and takes boxing lessons for free in exchange for helping keep the gym clean as to establish this as her own thing, no strings attached.  When Khadija’s mom takes in a Syrian refugee and her daughter, Leene, Khadija has to figure out if she is threatened, jealous, or impressed by the new arrivals and what that means about her own family.

Leene shares the narrative with Khadija and shares her transition to life in America and in the Shaami home along with her past.  The loses she has faced, the obstacles overcome, and the secrets she keeps in order to face each new day show glimpses into the destruction of the Syrian war on a way of life and the beauty lost. 

The two girls are at odds with each other for much of the book, but as their stories start to intertwine, they find themselves with similarities and strengths that show they are a benefit to each other, despite their stubbornness and fiercely independent personalities.  In a race to reclaim what was once lost, the girls start to trust each other, and when family is further threatened the two girls allow themselves to be vulnerable and work together to save what matters.

Clearly I am trying not to spoil the book, nor takeaway from the climax, but I think most that start the book, will find themselves glued to the pages and will understand why I am choosing not to disclose too much.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The first chapter completely blew me away, I loved the idea of such a strong hijabi girl boxing and being so unapologetic about her Islam and culture.  I must admit I cried at the end as well.  It was tied up very neatly, arguably too perfectly, but there were tears none-the-less and no matter what I critique about the book, I was moved by it. The writing is engaging, and entertaining, no doubt, but alas, I have some questions, lots of questions in fact: How did the mom’s meet? One is super posh and high class, the other refugee with very little, how did their paths cross? How did Leene convince her mom to let her travel even if the ‘why’ was kept hidden? After everything they have been through wouldn’t being left to travel to the Middle East be a huge obstacle that needed to be overcome, it reads inconsistent and unbelievable. How hard was it for the “girls” to leave the “boys,” I would imagine it was devastating, yet it didn’t even get a mention.  

What changed so much about the family dynamic when they stopped going to Syria, the author shows the joy of Syria and being together for the family, but I think if you are not Syrian and do not know Syrians well, some of this thread, is going to fall short.  I talked to @muslimmommyblog and could see the reflection of the characters for her, but if I didn’t have her shared experience to flesh out the characters, I don’t know that I would have understood the weight of the guilt, the helplessness, and the frustration.  Similarly, only through talking to Shifa did I understand the pressures of being an American Syrian girl, if I’m being honest, Khadija the majority of the time, just reads whiney. Other family dynamic questions involve the dad and brother.  Was the dad always so absent? It must not have happened overnight, right? And exactly how old is Zain? He reads like he is 12, but he is in high school? Additionally, high school graduation is very important for both girls for very different reasons, but their is no talk of college or career plans, which was noticeably missing from the book.

Then there is the angsty storyline of Younes.  The perfectly selfless guy who doesn’t center his Islam as much, but does want to have a prolonged engagement.  What does that even mean, and how will that be ok Islamically, with them already laying on the 90s Bollywood style glances and loving confession?  Also why does Khadija frame morality through an Islamic lens for most things, but for the relationship resorts to worrying about what her mother will be ok with?  And was the family ok with Younes? How is he at the BBQ? Speaking of places he shouldn’t be, how was he at the party Nassima isn’t Arab enough for, when she at least speaks Arabic and he does not?

I think it best to just enjoy the story for what it is, not look too deep, not ask questions, and just enjoy the rep, the story, the characters, and the emotions released with the climax and conclusion.

FLAGS:

Romance, crushes, road rage, bullying, Islaophobia, mental health, death, killing, war, destruction, suicide, drowning, abandonment, separation, loss, grief, rebellion, angst, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would not work for a middle school book club, and I really should say that this wouldn’t work for a high school book club either, but I know many older high school girls that would absolutely love this book and I think it might be possible to convince them that the relationship is more than the text shared, and was approved by the families and made halal.  Considering so many holes exist, it might be possible to control the narrative in a book club setting on the permissibility of the relationship.  It would definitely depend on the girls reading the book and I would strongly suggest that whether you read this book in a group or hand it to a teen, that you make it clear what a halal relationship looks like and that this is a work of fiction.

The book releases in March 2023 and as always to show support for OWN voice Muslim character filled stories please consider pre-ordering the book: you can do so here on Amazon.  And once the book releases please purchase, checkout from your library, and encourage your schools to shelve titles to encourage similar books to be published and made available, thank you.

Salim’s Soccer Ball: A Story of Palestinian Resilience by Tala El-fahmawi illustrated by Naveen Abu Saleem

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Salim’s Soccer Ball: A Story of Palestinian Resilience by Tala El-fahmawi illustrated by Naveen Abu Saleem

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This 58 page rhyming picture book weaves together a tale of a little boy and his lost soccer ball, with larger issues of community, oppression, and perspective for the youngest of readers to older children too.  I am noted to be skeptical of rhyming books, but the large font, the sweeping pictures, and the dropping of occupation, struggle, and resilience really make this book a treat. Add in discussion questions and an author’s note and you have a solid book that deserves space on home, library, and classroom shelves.  My only wish, was that the book was hardback.  The horizontal layout with a soft cover make the book difficult to read during story times as the pages flop back.  The book is long, but the text on most spreads is minimal and while I could not identify the author’s religious identity, their are numerous hijab wearing #muslimsintheillustrations as Salim journey’s around his neighborhood and into his grand father’s memories.

Salim wakes up, brushes his teeth, and is out the door to play soccer with his best friend Qusai, but the ball goes flying and Salim can’t find it. He starts walking down the hill and it seems to have disappeared.

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He asks the fisherman, Abu Zaid, if he has seen it, and he hasn’t, but he offers to help.  They then go and ask the seamstress, she hasn’t either, but she puts down her tatreez, offers reassurance, and offers to help.  As they head out they bump in to Dr. Bassam.  “‘I will help you look,’ the kindly man said. “I can fix broken bones with very few supplies.  A lack of resources has made me clever and wise. Resilience and courage are plentiful here. We will find your ball. Salim, no need to fear.'”

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The searching continues, with a small break for khanfeh, and then Qusai is found, and so is the ball.  Like so many joyful items, the barbed wire of the apartheid wall has destroyed the soccer ball. Upset, Abu Omar, calls out to Salim, and his grandpa embraces and consoles the young boy recalling a donkey with wonky ears and life on the farm.  With resilience and joy Salim heads home to a community surprise and a hopeful future inshaAllah.

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The book concludes with five discussion questions that connect Salim’s experience to universal experiences of people everywhere.  It is followed by factual and personal author’s note about Palestine and the book.  

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There is nothing religious aside from the hijabs worn, Dome of the Rock, Masjid al Aqsa, and Church of The Holy Sepulcher in the backgrounds of a few images.  I purchased my copy from Amazon HERE and can also be purchased through Shop Palestine HERE.

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An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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I truly am glad I read this book. I love historical fiction, visiting Spain is on my bucket list, this book has a map, details about what is historical what is fiction, has Islam woven in to the heart and soul of the story and characters, and yet it was a hard read.  The first few pages grip you, the last 50 bring it all together, but the middle 250 were hit and miss in this lower YA/upper MG book.  I honestly had to force myself to keep reading.  My teen and tween son couldn’t get past 38 pages or so, and I’ve asked around and no one I know that started the book, finished it.  I think ultimately there are just too many characters, too many points of view, that even though the history is rich, the literary points all in order, their isn’t enough character connection to hold the readers through the wandering details.  This author’s style is a bit more slow, but I think in the House of Ibn Kathir series, the setting of being in school and having friend problems is relatable to readers; boarding horses on to a boat, deciding to wage war, and going in to battle are not familiar concepts, and without the emotional connection it loses momentum.  The climax is nice but ultimately rather lackluster, and the beauty of characters taking shahada, Jews being freed, Solomon’s table, an old lady with a premonition, and a character dying are just not enough to keep the story in reader’s hands, unfortunately. 

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SYNOPSIS:

The summary might make the book seem fast paced, and while it does constantly move forward to a clear destination, it isn’t a “buckle your seatbelt and hang on” type of story.  The setting is Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, 92 years after the Hijrah.  The book opens with two young siblings Ben and Bella, overlooking the coast, dreading their lives under Visigoth oppression, and hiding their Jewish culture and faith.  It then jumps to the Governor of Ceuta, Count Julian (Ilyan), awaiting to meet with Umayyad leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad.  He is hoping to rescue his daughter from the court of King Roderick and convince the Muslim General to enter Iberia, restore the rightful king, and free the people essentially.  Add in voices from Qasim, a young Berber, and Jacob a captured Iberian, and the stage is set to get everything in order to cross the straights, survey the enemy, take on the King, and introduce Islam to the new land.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the Islam and the history and the fictional liberties.  I love that the book is clean, although, I do wonder if more information about Lady Florinda would have helped the reader understand her father’s desperation, I do understand the vagueness, but it is a glaring omission that keeps the reader curious.  Ultimately I wanted more backstory.  The little given about the characters was engaging.  I loved the teasing about being a shepherd, Jacob coming to love Islam, Bella not wanting to marry, but it seemed to always stop short of sweeping me away.  I didn’t cry (SPOILER) when Hisham died, I barely knew him.  I didn’t feel the urgency to hide and escape from Leander’s proposal.  It set up to add depth regarding Old Mother Magda, the Cave of Secrets, and the unverified death of the king, but after being stated it was never mentioned again or resolved for any real purpose. 

All that aside, I think the book has value, it is just really dry in spots, a lot of spots, and given the vocabulary, the changing narrators, the choppiness between chapters, and the history, it is hard to keep reading or be anxious to pick up once you have put it down.  So with all that in mind, I think the book would be great to use in a classroom setting.  You could read a chapter Monday, and then pick it back up on Thursday and not worry that no one remembers anything because it is focusing on new characters anyway.  In a middle school, or upper elementary the book would be a great crossover between History, English, and Islam classes. The book would naturally lend itself to the students keeping character journals, the supplements and backmatter would allow for references and insight in to real history, and I think the book would do really well in this set up to connect with the audience. 

The Epilogue was nice, but a little disjointed.  I appreciated the updates on the characters and it showing Muslims and people of other faiths coexisting and being accepting even within families, but the connection to the story was a little lost.  Similarly, I love that it mentioned  Abbas Ibn Firnas, but I don’t know that most kids know enough about him to know what is being hinted at and what the outcome was of his flight at the end.

FLAGS:

Death, war, battles, killing, nothing graphic, very tame, not graphic or detailed gore.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I could get middle school students to read the book for a book club, it would have to be motivated by a grade to get through it in a classroom setting I’m afraid.  See above to read my thoughts on how to present it.

I purchased my book on Amazon and will receive a few pennies if you decide to purchase a copy using this link.

Elephant’s Makeover by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Ikram Syed

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Elephant’s Makeover by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Ikram Syed

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I absolutely respect and appreciate Rukhsana Khan and even my least favorite Ruqaya’s Bookshelf published book is still a good quality book, so I preordered this with such giddy delight.  And yet, when I read it the first time, I didn’t get it.  I put it away, pulled it out again weeks later and still wasn’t feeling it, I repeated this process over and over, and finally, I’ve resolved what I’ve always known: that it is ok not to love a book.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still love and respect everyone involved, but alas, it just didn’t appeal to me.  So, as always, I’m accountable for my thoughts and my thoughts only and you are free to disagree and argue with me, it isn’t personal, and I will try and point out good and problematic elements so that you can make your own decisions based on your preferences and see if the book would be a good addition to your shelves or not.

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This hardback Muslim authored, Muslim illustrated anthropomorphized book takes the shape of a moral fable in which Elephant has no friends, attributes it to her appearance, forces the insects and animals around her to give her their eyes, waist, nose, arms etc., and then when they still don’t like her is persuaded by ant to return the body parts, apologize and be content to be ant’s friend.

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My problem I think with the book is that it conflates appearance with friendship without a clear moral, and then Elephant being forced to change by Ant to have a friend seems to reinforce a questionable mindset, even if Ant is more or less in the right.  There is no self reflection on the role of appearance, or what kindness looks and feels like, or even insight into what self confidence, friendship, and body appreciation entails.  It lumps it all together, uses outside influences to get elephant a friend, but doesn’t really articulate any lessons learned or moral to be conveyed.  If I am mistaken and the book is not set to be a moral inspired fable, the climatic joy of the book is simply, what- Do as you are told to have a friend? 

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The book starts out with the other animals questioning, but essentially bullying Elephant about her size, calling her big and awkward and wondering if she can even see or hear them.  Elephant then looks in the mirror and picks herself apart, body part by body part. She tells Owl, who has beautiful eyes to switch with her. Owl doesn’t want to, Owl needs eyes to see, but the transaction occurs.  Next up is Wasp, who has a tiny waist, then Mole with a star shaped nose, etc.  The result is a bizarre looking “Elephant” and numerous unhappy, unable to move critters.  Yes, they are all friends, size, nocturnal, predator, prey not brought in to consideration.  The animals leave and Elephant is still friendless and feeling bad.  Ant pipes up that he knows what should be done.  Interestingly Elephant doesn’t want to listen because it is “just an ant.”  Ant responds, “I have a million friends and I know how to be nice.”  So now we are using appearance, having friends, and being nice as synonyms. Elephant agrees to listen, Ant forcefully convinces Elephant to give everything back and apologize. Ant agrees to go with Elephant, once the animals and insects get their body part back they race off in fear.  Elephant is left back to normal but still with no friends when Ant says that he likes her.  So, was Elephant really sorry? Did she learn to be nice? To be a friend? Did she want to give the parts back or did she do it so Ant would be her friend? Did she appreciate the function and beauty of her own body? So many loose ends that don’t show any growth, teach a moral, convey entertainment or joy, or make me get what the purpose was.  It left me, and my children confused.  And again, had we laughed along the way and been entertained, I wouldn’t need a character arc or lesson, but sadly we closed the book having not felt those feels at all.

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When the cover was revealed I’ll admit I was intrigued by the texture and tone of the elephant, but for some reason the inside pages went from creepy with poignant intent, to a little disturbing, The body parts of the animals are removed and swapped and reaffixed with masking tape.  I’m not opposed to slightly dark humor in children’s books, but I think this could really bother some younger kids that will dwell on the idea of body parts being taken unwillingly.  The text is sparse and presumably the book is for younger readers, so consider this if your children are sensitive.

There is nothing religious or Islamic in the book, nor is their scientific elements to why the animals bodies are the way they are or for what purpose.  It does not discuss environment or relationships in a non fiction manner.  The clear large simple text would suggest the book is for 4-8 year olds.

 

Freestyle: A Graphic Novel by Gale Galligan

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Freestyle: A Graphic Novel by Gale Galligan

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I one hundred percent understand that Muslims are not a monolith, but, I’m truly tempted to reach out to the author/illustrator of this upcoming 272 page middle grade graphic novel and ask her why she chose to have the female instigator in this coming of age story- that focuses on a dance crew, said girl tutoring a boy one-on-one in his bedroom, Halloween and a school dance, wear hijab? Yes there is also parental expectations, friend drama, leaving for high school stresses, and yo-yoing, but Sunna Ahmad being presented as a Muslim definitely gives me pause.  There is no romance in the book save a few background characters filling in frames holding hands, and it never articulates that Sunna or her older brother Imran are Muslim, but she doesn’t wear hijab when home with her family, does wear it when she goes out, so it definitely seems to imply it.  The cover and inside pages are bright and clear, and I think the book will be very tempting for young Muslim readers with the visible hijabi on the front.  Additionally the book is published by Scholastic, so if you are a parent whose kids get book order forms and attends a school where the Scholastic Book Fair is a big deal, you might want to read the entire review to see if it is Islamic representation that you are comfortable with supporting.

SYNOPSIS:

The Eight Bitz B Boy band is in their final year of middle school before they all go in separate directions for high school.  They want to win this year’s competition, or at least the leader of the crew, Tess, does.  Tess doesn’t want them freestyling and messing around, she wants the choreography and dancing in-synch and on-point.  Her military dictatorship is tearing the crew a part.  When Cory’s grades are not where his parents want them, he is grounded from dancing and forced to work with a tutor, Sunna Ahmad.  Sunna is weird, always writing intently in a secret notebook at school, and Cory wants nothing to do with her.  When he happens to see her throwing her yo-yo at school, though, he is impressed.  Reluctantly she trades teaching him yo-yo tricks if he agrees to do the work needed to get his grades up. Using yo-yo angles to teach geometry, it doesn’t take long before the two are friends.  It comes to a culmination when he invites her to the Halloween dance and his crew is both shocked and mad that he is hanging out with her, when he should be practicing with them.  As secrets and intentions come out, Cory has to make things right with his parents, his crew, Sunna, and himself.

WHY I LIKE IT:
I love graphic novels, they show context and setting and emotion, that often can’t be conveyed as well with words.  I absolutely love that Sunna wears different clothes on different days, from the hijab to the outfit, she has personality in her clothes as any middle schooler would, and nothing is mentioned about her hijab or her long sleeves, but the reader see’s it hopefully in a positive light. I do like the detail of her not covering at home when she is alone, or in the flashbacks when she is younger.

The story overall is decent and the added hip hop dancing and yo-yo infused details set the story apart, but some of the character building and plot points are a little rough.  When Sunna first starts tutoring Cory she feels like an adult disciplining, and reprimanding him.  She comes across as really arrogant and condescending, that he is somehow beneath her, yet they are the same age, in the same school, and are lab partners.  It reads off for no reason.

Similarly, I understand that the tension between middle schoolers and parents can be a source of contention, but the forced apology from Cory’s parents is incredible demeaning and cringe.  Sure flesh out that he shouldn’t yell at his parents, (Sunna shouldn’t either for that matter), but while the delivery was poor, the message was heartfelt and I think a book like this encouraging young kids to talk to their parents would be a great message, rather than have it almost glorified to not make the effort at all.  Not saying that the effort will always be received, but the forced apology would turn even kids with a good relationship with their parents questioning if it is worth talking to their mom and dad.

Poor communication and the stress it causes is a theme of the book, and I don’t understand why Tess keeps her choreography dreams a secret from the crew.  It seems underdeveloped, had she said that, that was the motivation, I think all the other seven members would have stepped up, not walked away.

FLAGS:

Music, dancing, girl and boys being alone with each other, girls and boys arms around each other, attending a school dance, girls and boys dancing together, Halloween being celebrated, birthday being celebrated, yelling back at parents, lying, secrets.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

In all honesty, I would probably not have this book on the library shelves, and would not display it during the book fair.  It normalizes a lot of gray if not haram actions for a very impressionable demographic because the character is visibly Muslim.  If the character was not visibly Muslim, I actually might be ok with shelving it and selling it.  The rep may be intended to show inclusion, but the character does not show actions that Islamically are appropriate.  If it were one or two actions, I might reconsider, but it is a lot very specific and varied activities.

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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This stand alone middle grade read by Muslim author Nizrana Farook is similar to her first two books about an elephant and a whale in that it is set in Serendib a long time ago and revolves around a beautiful wild animal and clever, endearing, determined young children. This actual story is an easy read at 203 pages (the end of the book is the first four chapters of one of her previously published books).  I think seven and eight year olds will enjoy getting to know Selvi and the beautiful leopard Lakka that she considers a friend.  For me the ending took an odd turn that seemed out of place, but up until then I was enchanted by the lush imagery, sheer determination, and sweet friendship shared within the pages.  The main character is not Muslim, but presumably some of the side characters are with names such as, Amir and Salma.

SYNOPSIS:
Selvi and her mother live in a small home on the mountain.  Most days she runs wild with a golden leopard she has named Lakka.  She keeps her distance, but there is a pattern to their interactions, and when Selvi’s mother finally allows her to go to school, and she finds the other children unkind, Lakka becomes her only friend.  One day poachers are on the mountain hunting not just any leopards, which are protected by the queen, but the rare golden one that is often seen in the area, Selvi tries to interfere.  And before she knows it, they are after her.  She hides near a home, and when the poacher’s come looking for her, she is at the mercy of Amir to lie and say he hasn’t seen her.  Amir is a classmate, a mean one, but he has seen her before with the leopard, and suddenly Lakka is not so alone.

Between making friends at school, battling her uncle’s rules to start behaving more ladylike, and keeping a leopard safe, the adventure is fast paced and the story entertaining.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love kids outsmarting adults and saving the day, it makes for good story telling.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I really felt like it was forced.  I truly do not understand why the children needed to take a drugged Lakka to the port and back.  Why not leave him with the new friends and go to the port without him? He is a wild animal, we have been given reasoning for so much of the human animal interactions to be believable, that this seems to be negligent.  So much could have gone wrong and for what? There was no need.  The kids wanting to see punishment handed out is motivation enough for them to make the journey in my opinion.  Sigh, I don’t know that younger kids will be as bothered as I am, but I think fourth graders and up will definitely question it and be confused.  I also don’t know that I have ever seen the sneak peak of another book included at the end, being for a book previously published.  Aren’t they usually for upcoming releases? Either way, it seemed to make the last portion of the book deflate a bit for a story that was engaging, entertaining, and hard to put down until then.

FLAGS:

Lying, poaching, abuse, threats, killing, animal cruelty, bullying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime.  The short chapters have little illustrations above the headings that hint at what is to come, and the writing style is perfect for short blocks of time.

The book is available on Amazon

Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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This 272 page unapologetically Muslim MG tale takes on some heavy concepts: child labor, jinn, education, and gulab jamun- I mean greed.  Through the eyes of feisty, determined, clever, and strong Nura, though, the trials of life and society are never without hope, a sense of adventure, and good intentions.  The characters are likeable, the Islam wonderfully present and often centered, the social commentary remarkable, but the framing for me, made it a bit of a struggle to read at times.  It is set up like Alice in Wonderland or even Silverworld, where the characters living in a real world stumble in to an alternate reality, and thus the world building occurs in real-time so to speak.  The reader has no idea what is going on until it is happening, no clue what the rules and constraints of the fantasy world are until some detail is needed to help or hinder the protagonist, and personally I struggle with this wandering style of narrative.  I have mentioned before that as a child I really never read fantasy, and I think this is why, I  need the context to ground the story so that I might lose myself in the adventure at hand.  If you are fine with this framing and at ease with Islamic jinn fantasy, then this book will be a lot of fun.  If you find fantasy “shirk-y” do know that Ayat ul Kursi is used to save the day, but that there is a lot of imagination regarding the beings made of smokeless fire, a casino is present along with dancing, indentured labor, and the fear of death.

The book releases in July 2022, and as always pre-orders help show support for books, authors, and the OWN voice content that they entail, so if this book seems like a good fit for your 3rd/4th grade reader and up you can pre-order it here: https://amzn.to/3MVvxQo

SYNOPSIS:

Nura lives in the small industrial Pakistani city of Meerabagh.  Her father has passed away and her family is too poor to send her to school, instead she must work so that her siblings might eat.  Her mother works in a sweat factory and Nura in the mica mines.  The illegal child labor and cruel owners provide less than ideal working conditions for the children forced to mine the sparkly mineral.  Nura’s mom wants her to quit, Nura herself doesn’t enjoy the torment, but somehow she takes it on as a challenge to be the best miner in Meerabagh, pushing her self deeper into the fragile tunnels.  With bestfriend Faisal always warning her about going too far, she decides to finally listen to her mother and quit the mines, but not after she makes one final effort to find the rumored “Demon’s Tongue” treasure.  She digs too deep though, and the mines collapse, children are lost, Faisal among them. Determined to find her best friend, she plunges in to the fallen mines and finds herself on the pink waters outside the luxurious jinn hotel, the Sijj Palace.

Nura has always been warned about jinn, qareens and the tricks they play on humans, but when a life of luxury is dangled in front of her, Nura pushes her better judgement aside to enjoy a life she has always dreamed of.  It isn’t just the food and clothes, but it is the respect and honor she is given as she wins a food eating contest, gambles in a casino, and gets decorated for a dance party.  It all comes crashing down however, when in an attempt to impress the painted boy, she cuts off his horn.  Status revoked, Nura is sent to the labor force, where she will remain for eternity, imprisoned and at the disposal of the hotel.  What is more, after the three day festival of Eid al Adha, her memories of her life before coming to the jinn world will disappear. Nura is determined to escape, but nothing in the jinn world is easy, and for a 12 year old girl with fading memories, this might be more than she can endure.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nura is unapologetically Muslim.  Even though she is poor, there is time spent on the pages detailing the feeling of Eid al Adha, the familial togetherness and community festiveness even if it all is meager, it still has value.  I also really like the relationship between Nura and Faisal.  They drive each other crazy and have nothing in common, but they never give up on each other.  They act like siblings, tolerating each other’s annoying quirks, while never wavering on their concern and worry for one another.  It is sweet and well fleshed out.

The threading of education was also done well.  Nura finds the idea of school repulsive, but it grows and changes as the obstacle of being illiterate slows her down, and ultimately she changes her mind.  The growth arc is subtle, but powerful, and Nura’s intellect, cleverness, and ingenuity is never dimmed as a result of her lack of formal schooling.

The characters, even the “bad” ones are given some depth and sympathetic qualities, and Nura has to recognize some of her own flaws and choices as she journeys through the book.  Desi culture is present primarily in food and clothing, but it adds depth to the story and flavor to the experience.

The food eating competition, however, didn’t really impress me.  I get that it was to flesh out the jinn world and show Nura’s smartness, but I thought the jinn in the water were eaten, only to have them reappearing, and the founding premise is that jinn are tricksters, so to have Nura tricking them seems to blur the lines of integrity.  Also the bird was critical, and then never seen again, the scene just didn’t read as tightly edited or as clear as it should have in my opinion.

I didn’t love that a casino either, or that it was so central to the story. If it would have said something about gambling being haram and jinn being free to do what they want, like it did when discussing how Eid is celebrated by non practicing jinn, I might have not been as bothered,  but it seems an odd setting nonetheless, for a middle grade book.

FLAGS:

Gambling, child labor, indentured servitude, magic, fantasy, jinn, destruction, bombing, fire, death, fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this could work as a middle school book club read.  It is a little below level and age, but there is a lot to discuss and connect with, that I think it would be a lot of fun.  Our school is ok with fantasy reads, so for us it definitely deserves a place on the bookshelf in a classroom, school library, and possibly (depending on your views of fantasy) a home library.

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

A Bear for Bimi by Jane Breskin Zalben illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

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A Bear for Bimi by Jane Breskin Zalben illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

This 40 page picture book for preschool and up does a decent job of highlighting how many of us have immigrants in our family history who have relocated much like the immigrants today. The story focuses on Evie and her family welcoming a Muslim family to the neighborhood.  Some are excited to help, including a Muslim neighbor, others are not so welcoming.  The book shows some of the obstacles an immigrant might face, ways someone already established can help, and just how to be a good neighbor- all on a simple pre-schoolr to first grade level.  For little kids it is a good story to start a discussion, and for slightly older kids it is nice to see Islamic names in the text, smiling hijabis in the illustrations, and different characters to identify with.

Evie’s parents tell her that a family from far away is moving in next door, she asks if they are coming like her grandparents did, and indeed they are.  When they arrive Evie runs out to introduce herself to Bimi. Evie’s parents help the Said family move in.  But one neighbor, Mrs. Monroe just glares out the window.

Bimi asks his parents about Mrs. Monroe and Evie asks hers.  Bimi’s parents tell him that some people are scared of people that seem different, and Evie’s parents wish Mrs. Monroe would remember what it was like when she first came to America.

That night Evie has an idea to help furnish Bimi’s house.  The whole neighborhood helps out, including Fatima who lives around the corner.   After getting the apartment set up, they all share a meal, everyone that is, except Mrs. Monroe.

When the kids go out to play, Mrs. Monroe’s shopping bag spills, and Bimi helps her and Mrs. Said invites her in.  Later Evie gifts Bimi her teddy bear and Bimi gives Evie a stone from his grandma’s garden.  Evie asks him what he will name the bear, and when he says Evie, the reader knows the two are friends, and Bimi is “home.”

The book isn’t exciting, emotional, or particularly memorable, but there is value in it and I appreciate the Islamic representation.

Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan illustrated by Wastana Haikal

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Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan illustrated by Wastana Haikal

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This early chapter book packs a lot of personality, growth, and fun into 127 pages.  The writing quality is engaging and the characters relatable.  If you have read the Zayd Saleem books you will recognize the family in this new stand alone series.  Either way though, from the surprising Naano to the fun Mamoo, the neighborhood children and the desire to maintain her reign as Queen of the neighborhood, the book may be meant for 7-10 year olds, but based on the kids in my house, anyone that picked it up, read the entire book before putting it back down.  The grandma covers her head, it mentions she reads Quran, there is a Salaam or two, an InshaAllah, and desi cultural foods mentioned.  The focus is not on religion or culture, but the layer adds depth to the characters, and normalizes names and practices in a universal plot.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zara’s neighborhood has a lot of kids in it, and Zara has the reputation of being the leader who rules with grace and fairness.  It is a position she takes very seriously.  When Mr. Chapman moves out and a new family moves in, Zara fears losing her place.  The new girl Naomi has a lot of ideas and everyone seems to like them.  Zara has a grand idea to set a Guinness World Record, but with her little brother Zayd messing her up, nothing is going as planned for the summer.

As she finds her self alone a lot and not having much fun, she decides to change things up.  She works to be less bossy, less controlling, more willing to to share her crown.  With a lot of heart, internal growth, recognizing her strengths and weaknesses, the neighborhood kids just might have a record-breaking summer.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story wasn’t just surface level, it acknowledged some emotions and stresses and introspection, that I was pleasantly surprised to see played out in an early chapter book.  I really just enjoy the family, they read relatable and fun. The Nanoo’s surprise ability to hula hoop and her pettiness over a cooking competition genuinely made me smile.  The neighborhood kids and the politics of the different aged children having to find ways to compromise reminds me a lot of my summers as a kid, and the nostalgia was sweet.  I like the Islamic touchstones, I would have loved if they had to go in at sunset to pray or something of the like, but I was glad that at least that Nanoo reads Quran and an inshaAllah in the text made me feel seen.

FLAGS:

Music, dancing, frustration, jealousy

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book should definitely be on every library and class shelf.  It releases tomorrow on Amazon, but Crescent Moon Store already has it.