Tag Archives: Fun

Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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This is book two in the series, I couldn’t get the first book from the library, and I wasn’t willing to wait for the one that focuses on Muslim character, Zahra’s story to be published, it could be a few years.  At 224 pages this middle grades book is fairly formulaic with five diverse girls becoming friends, each book featuring one girl’s story with the others serving as supporting characters, and with the tie-in to Disney Princesses, I really didn’t expect much. Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying the characters and their lessons and struggles, sigh.  The book is sweet, the characters like-able, and the author really doesn’t try and force all the characters into every scene.  The book focuses on Piper and the other girls add to her story where it helps, they don’t all have equal time and it doesn’t get confusing because of it.  You can even read the books out of order.  Zahra wears hijab and her Islam is mentioned in a journal entry where she discusses the five pillars, the importance of charity, and getting dirty looks.  There is nothing preachy, but none of the other character’s are defined by their faith and I truly don’t know if I’m bothered by the singling out of Islam being her identity or flattered by it.

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SYNOPSIS:

Five girls are grouped together at school in an advisory class to help prepare them for middle school: Milla, Piper, Ruby, Mariana, and Zahra.  Their advisor loves Disney Princesses and in their weekly journal entries has them write about their assigned Princesses as they explore their similarities and how they would tackle challenges, face fears, and the like.  The girls are diverse in family dynamics, race, religion, ability, etc.  Milla is African American with two moms and food allergies.  Zahra is good at art, Muslim, and likes to sew.  Ruby is a twin, her parents are divorced and she is great at sports.  Mariana is hispanic, and is an amazing swimmer.  Piper is Jewish, has dyslexia and loves to cook.  In the book she is struggling with school, while she excels in her food science creations.  She gets accepted to appear in a kids cooking show competition, but will need the help of her Daring Dreamer friends to prepare for the challenges about to be thrown at her during the competition, and to help her from falling behind in school.

Each girl has their journal entry presented in the book which helps to understand more about the different girls, as well as a little bit of introspection to the events happening in the larger story.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the characters are really supportive, and the lessons aren’t so on the nose.  Piper isn’t just told that she doesn’t have to win the competition to have value, you feel it long before she accepts it herself.  Her personality really comes through and it isn’t for attention or for sympathy, she helps a competitor, there is no giant round of applause or moral reflection, she just helps.  I love that even though the story is Piper’s and her dream, there are larger issues woven in and felt, not necessarily preached. Piper is the middle child and feels she has to prove herself, she remarks on how being pulled out of class in early elementary school to get help has made it hard for her to ask for academic help now, the role of confidence and how charity and giving back is important, even while her own family’s financial situation isn’t clear.  I like the role of Piper’s siblings, they are quirky, but loving, and they work through their annoyances to help each other.  It is heartwarming.

I have my own mixed feelings about Disney Princesses, as a child of the 80’s, the 90’s brought all the glory of Jasmine, and Ariel, and Belle, and Mulan, and my friends and I definitely identified with different characters.  I may or may not have tied my hijab up many a days and claimed that I was Mulan in high school, but somehow with my own daughter I didn’t really bring the Princesses in to her day-to-day existence, I don’t think she has even seen all the movies, we read books (we didn’t even have a tv when she was little), she’s 14 now.  It had become too commercialized, I worried about the messaging more.  This book reminded me of what my friends and I as older “kids” channeled the Disney Princesses to be.  It wasn’t all about pink and sparkles, it was battling the bad guy, hanging on to your dreams, and persevering when things were tough.  This book channels those thoughts, it isn’t in your face Disney, it is more muted, and I appreciate that.  It is a solid middle grade read and I think an enjoyable one at that.

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FLAGS:

In this particular installment, there are no crushes, no holidays, no music, one character has two moms, but in this book, I don’t know that a casual reader would pick up on it. It says “Moms” once, it might be a bigger deal in the story that focuses on Milla, but I haven’t read it to comment.  There is lying and Piper tries to justify it, but I think it is clear and has its own resolution.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It is much too young for a middle school book club, but I think because it is such an easy engaging read, that in a home, or classroom, the book would be appealing to 3rd graders and up.

The author’s website: https://www.erinsoderberg.com/daring-dreamers-club.html

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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:

There is magic and magical beings.  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.

 

Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

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Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

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A mix of information and entertainment, this 124 page comic book is divided into thematic sections which further break down in to mini-episodes or comic strips that feature a situation, an Islamic advice often based on a Hadeeth or Quranic ayat that is noted, and a misinterpretation taken to a comical extreme. The book is a great way to remind ourselves and children, middle grades and up, aspects of our faith that we might know, or introduce us to specifics that we should know, by showing the concept in exaggerated action. Because the examples are relatable and come from everyday life, the humor is that much more enjoyable, and as a result makes the “lessons” that much more memorable.

The three sections cover topics included in 1: Muslim Identity/Mindset, 2: Habits/Lifestyle, and 3: Adhkaar/Prayer, after an introduction of the characters, and the magic of the ‘Aalim Hat are explained, the stories begin. They are not sequential and can be read in any order, and are about four to 10 pages each. The book surprisingly does a good job of not getting overly predictable. Even though you know something is going to be taken incorrectly or to the extreme, it doesn’t drag on or get redundant. At times Ayye, is overly preachy, ok, all the time, but the persona is intentional and reads intentional, as his grounding of events is actually the point of the book.

The illustrations are clear and enjoyable. They are expressive and easy to follow. The glossy pages and full color print help keep the readers, especially the younger ones, tuned in to what the lesson is, and what silliness is ensuing. The hardbound 6 x 9 book is great to have around where it can be picked up and thumbed through. I read the entire thing in one setting, as did my 12 and 14 year old, and all of us have subsequently picked it up and flipped through it to muse over sections once again. A few of the pages seem to bleed into the binding and require some effort to see the cut off text, hopefully the book will have multiple reprints and this can be rectified. If you don’t follow the author on Instagram you should @LalaArtwork.

It is important to note that I am not a scholar, or anywhere remotely qualified to opine on the authenticity or interpretation of the points given in the book. The hadeeth are sourced, stating if it is a Saheeh hadith or found in Bukhari or Muslim for example or who narrated it. And ayats from the Quran tell the surah and verse. They are sourced when stated, there is not a bibliography at the end.

Potential concerns in the book: it does show a Muslim celebrating halloween and birthdays in a comic about Eid. In an episode about being strangers in this duniya, it mentions drinking and clubbing and nudity, boyfriends, etc. as things to avoid in this world. There is hyperbole and revenge, and bad judgement, but it is all in fun to make clear Islamic points and I think children nine and up will have no trouble understanding what is real and what is exaggerated, inshaAllah.

Huda and Me by H. Hayek

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Huda and Me by H. Hayek

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At 194 pages, this book just became required reading for all my children save the two year old.  Meant for middle graders, I absolutely loved this book.  Sure literary siblings often run away and have adventures, think Claudia and Jamie Kincaid from Mixed Up Files, or the sisters in Ticket to India, but this Australian Muslim duo adore each other and are doing it to reach their parents and save their other five siblings from an evil Aunty babysitter.  In some ways the book couldn’t and hopefully wouldn’t really happen, it is plausible however, and the way it is written bouncing back and forth in time until the resolution, and the absolute authenticity of the characters make the book hard to put down and had me laughing out loud.  The book is for everyone, Muslim kids specifically though, will feel an incredible kinship to the Muslim family and relate to the anxiety of making wudu in a public restroom, the shock of having the athan clock tossed in the freezer, the nervous looks between siblings hoping someone else will speak up about what Muslims can’t eat, mistaking a nun for a hijabi, amongst so many other little sprinkled in examples.  The power of OWN voice writing is exemplified and celebrated, and provides a mirror that a large swath of Muslims children, not just Lebanese Australians will benefit from and enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

There are seven children in the family and when Mum and Dad announce that they have to make an emergency trip to Lebanon, the kids don’t understand why they need Mum’s friend Aunt Amel to stay with them in Australia.  They don’t really even like Aunt Amel, but they don’t really know her either and as their parents leave, they have no choice but to endure until their parents return.  When Aunt Amel assigns them all duties: 17 year old Omar is the 24/7 chauffeur, Kholoud becomes her personal stylist, twins Suha and Layla must keep her supplied with baked goods and tea, Akeal is the butler, Huda is the maid and little Raheed will be glued to her, some of the kids think it could be fun until they realize they are being used to provide Aunt Amel with a holiday in exchange for her staying with them. The kids are required to be up by five in the morning, are not allowed to talk to their parents, and some are even kept from school to provide the services Aunt Amel demands.  The kids grudgingly try to endure, but spunky Huda is pushing back, and with the help of the retired Polish Sleep Doctor next door, a plan is hatched, tickets are booked, and Akeal and Huda are making a run for Beirut. Along the way they will be met with an Islamaphobic teen pulling off Huda’s scarf, a variety of minders keeping track of the unaccompanied minors through airports and plane rides, and baited breath as they have obstacles at every step to find their parents in a country they have never even been to before.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is incredibly well written, I sometimes stumble a bit with Australian authored books, but this one was easy and universal in most of the dialogue and vocabulary. I enjoyed what was sprinkled in, and as a privileged American didn’t get lost at any point.  The shifts in the timeline to keep the story fast paced and moving also made the stress of “if they could pull off the escape” a little bit subdued allowing the experience and dialogue and connections along the way to really be enjoyed.  I think it was a smart move to not have it be full steam ahead, gritting your teeth, but more in the moment seeing why they had to do what they did, and how it was panning out for them.

I absolutely love that the family is unapologetically Muslim living in a western environment.  They don’t celebrate birthdays, but they seem ok with make-up, they pray, the mom wears hijab I believe, but I don’t think the sisters do, it really is such a relatable family with their own quirks and tests and they are active and doing their best.  It could be my family or most families I know, well lately my kids bicker a lot, that’s why it is required reading for them, but that is off track.  Back to the book, I was so proud of Akeal sticking up for his little sister wearing a scarf to be dressed up and not backing down from confronting her harasser.  I love the spunkiness but maturity of Huda.  From page one you are cheering them on, and it doesn’t let up.

FLAGS:

Kids scheming and lying and running away, all for good cause mind you.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be super fun to read aloud to a 3rd or 4th grade class, but I don’t think it would work for a middle school book club, it is just too quick of a read.

The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

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This 295 page middle grades AR 4.8 book is a fast passed romp through New York City as two 12-year-old kids explore freedom and fear in a new city while grappling with their own sense of identity and what it means.  The OWN Voice story features immigration, chronic disease, family, bravery, and friendship.  There is lying and avoiding police, sneaking and “borrowing” a horse, but it is all for a good cause, and third grade and up will enjoy this read.  There is very little religion in it, but the main character does say salam, notice the similarities between amen and ameen, and reference eid as his holiday. 

SYNOPSIS:

Jason D, known only to his mom and aunt as Shah, was named by a nurse when his mom wanted to make sure he had an American sounding name, and his middle initial D is for December, which comes from her staring at a calendar when asked if she wanted her son to have a middle name.  Life is fairly simple, he enjoys sneaking on to the roof of his apartment building to imagine training pigeons, his mom works at a dry cleaners, they walk where they need to go, money is tight, but they do ok, and his dad passed away before he was born.  His mom is from Afghanistan, but he doesn’t speak much Dari and his mom speaks English, but not confidently.  On her birthday as they are about to enjoy a cupcake he saved up for, the news in the background is covering protestors chanting for illegal immigrants to go home, and Jason’s mom starts to tell him about how she ended up overstaying her visa and  is living in the US illegally.  

Jason’s dad worked with the US military in Afghanistan and with his work came the promise of visas to America for him and for his wife to study.  Many of the locals though didn’t like that he was cooperating and vowed to take their revenge.  With the family in the US and Jason’s mom starting to study medicine, Jason’s dad had one more job in Afghanistan and sadly was killed by anti American Afghans.  Fearful to return, she chose to stay, but with a new baby, few resources, no family and friend support, eventually she was forced to drop out of school and remain undocumented knowing that to return would be at great peril to her and her son.  At some point she befriends an Indian lady, Seema and to Jason, she is Aunt Seema, the only family other than his mother that he knows.  

When a few weeks later Jason sees his mother being taken away by two officers, he knows that this is what she warned him about when she told him the truth about her legal standing.  Terrified and alone, Jason only knows that somehow he has to get to New York to Aunt Seema so that they can figure out how to save his mom.  He grabs a few pictures of his father, whatever money he can find a broken address and heads to the big apple from New Jersey.

Having never been to NYC or really out of his hometown, he loses his backpack to a dog, and struggles to figure out how to get a ticket to get in to the city.  When he arrives at Penn Station he is overwhelmed and exhausted and passes out, hitting his head, and landing himself in the hospital.  

When he awakens he is met by doctors making sure he is ok, and police trying to locate his parents, he opts to pretend he has amnesia and can’t remember anything.  This buys him time, and also acquaints him with Max, a girl with wires coming out of her head and who claims they are running tests on her to understand her level of genius.

The two hit it off and hitch a plan to escape the locked hospital floor, have a day of adventure in the city, and get Jason D to his aunts house.  Naturally this plan is going to have all sorts of obstacles, but thats the story and that is where the fun and discovery unfolds.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was impressed at how emotionally cathartic the conclusion was.  I hadn’t realized how invested I had become in these two kids and their run through the city.  It was touching, and heartfelt, and a big sigh of relief when it all wrapped up.  I like that both kids are so very different, yet dealing with similar thematic issues from different perspectives.  Max is an epileptic and is kept on a short chain to ensure her safety. She is trying to find and define who she is outside of the medical diagnosis.  Jason is trying to understand if he can be American and Afghan and what that means about where he belongs, and where home is.  There is a lot that they ponder over as they run through central park and the zoo, duck into subways, and get all sorts of turned around on the streets.  Through it all though the kids show just how clever and smart they both are with the quick thinking, riddle solving abilities, and perpetual optimism.  It is at times far fetched, stealing a horse and bumping in to your doctor in the New York City Marathon, and at other times completely plausible, sneaking in to a zoo with a field trip group and ducking through turnstiles to get on the subway.

FLAGS:

Lying, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This is a bit young for even early middle school readers, but would make a great addition to a summer reading list.  I think kids will marvel at the riddles and determination of the two protagonists and imagine a world where kids could maybe get away with such a bold adventure.

Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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This 36 page toddler to kindergarten book features a little lion that doesn’t like to sleep.  One night he wishes for friends to play with and his crib starts shaking and moving and a magical adventure begins to unfold. The story highlights and celebrates Palestine, as that is where the crib takes him, but the story is also about not wanting to go to sleep, not wanting to miss anything fun, and seeing nighttime and daytime routines.  I love that it shows tatreez (embroidery), and mentions olives, and the friends he makes on the beach playing soccer are so welcoming, even gifting him a keffiyeh to keep warm with, but I really wanted more sites of Palestine, and more childish adventure and wonder about the beloved country.  The book mentions wishing and uses the word “hate” in describing how Laith feels about bedtime.  The taytas wear hijab, but there is no mention of religion.  The book is a great introduction to Palestine or a mirror for Palestinian children to see themselves in a fun animal led universal story.

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Laith is a lion, his mom is a giraffe and his father a bird (perhaps a hawk or falcon), he loves bath time and story time, but not bedtime, he doesn’t want to miss anything.  So when he makes a wish and finds himself flying outside in his crib, he is disappointed to see mama and baba asleep. his taytas asleep, and all of his friends sleeping too.  He wishes for someone to play with, and roar he is off to Palestine, where his night is their daytime. 

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In his world every character is an animal, but in his adventure, the characters are human.  He sees a grandma and eats an olive before asking some kids playing soccer on the beach if he can join.  As they play and cheer he gets cold and wants to go home.  He invites his friends, but they have to stay.  They gift him a keffiyah, and he leaves. 

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On his way back to his room, he looks in on his friends. Daliyah is getting dressed for school.  Zain and Idris are brushing their teeth, and his taytas are making breakfast. When he wakes up he tells his parents he wants to go back to Palestine, and they remark on him having a beautiful dream. 

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I love that there are diverse kids depicted in Palestine, that Laith’s grandmas are involved in his daily life, that the concept of day and night on different sides of the world is accounted for.  I don’t know how I feel about the voyeurism, sure it is innocent enough, but maybe Daliyah could have been getting ready for school, rather than getting dressed.  I like that the keffiyah came back with him and the illustrations show the Dome of the Rock.  

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I bought this as an ebook, because I was impatient and didn’t want to wait for shipping to show support to Palestinian books and authors.  It came with a coloring sheet as well, and is $2.99 on the website https://www.laiththelion.com/ it is also available as a hardback book on the website (heavily discounted) or on Amazon at its regular price.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

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The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

elephantI have to admit this 240 page middle grade OWN voice book had me invested and glued to the pages.  I was swept away to Sri Lanka and in disbelief at the boldness, cleverness, and spunkiness of the Robin Hood-esque 12-year-old protagonist.  I could not put it down as my head worked over time to figure out how this trio of children, one being a Muslim girl, was going to get out of the heap of trouble they had caused.  Yes, admittedly it wraps up a bit too quickly and simply, the main character Chaya doesn’t learn her lesson and is a terrible friend, and there isn’t a good moral of lying and stealing being bad.  But all that aside, the book is a fun adventure that while written pretty straightforward and clearly, is rich in adventure, culture, and excitement for second to fourth grade readers (and 40 year old moms that love strong girls).

SYNOPSIS:

Chaya is the daughter of a tribal representative, whose mother has passed away.  She goes to school, attends the temple once a week to learn Sanskrit, and at dawn is known to steal things to give to those in need.  At night time, people are on guard, expecting trouble, but dawn seems to be the perfect time to take what she needs from people that won’t even notice.  The book starts out with her stealing jewels from the Queen with the hopes of helping a friend who was bitten by a crocodile get medical help in the next town over.  The people in Sarendib have an unjust king, and stealing from his wife to help take care of people that need assistant is a job Chaya takes seriously.  Her heart is in the right place, but when a guard sees her she stops to visit a friend who works in a wood shop to hide the jewels until the heat dies down.  The box they hide the stolen goods in is purchased by a young Muslim girl, and now Chaya has to steal them back from her to get them to people that are in need.

The chain of events is just getting started, and when the jewels are discovered the wood working Neel takes the blame and is imprisoned, and the new girl in town, Nour, is determined to help free Neel from prison and save the villagers from being tormented by the royal guards.  Chaya devises a plan to free Neel from the palace dungeons, but nothing ever quite goes to plan and all the prisoners are freed.   As she runs to escape her own doom, she steals an elephant to get away, the king’s elephant.

The entire story is a series of follies and at each turn the children have really good intentions, they just keep snowballing into situations beyond their control with the stakes constantly multiplying.  I really don’t want to give it away, but they might just bring down a monarchy as they tromp through the jungle on an elephant, accidentally burn down villages, and find that even though Nour is a wealthy meat eater, they can in fact be friends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is outrageous, yet grounded.  I was sucked in from the first few short chapters and didn’t look back.  Chaya is oh so plucky and her fallibility and flaws make her so endearing.  She is a bit of a mean girl to Nour, but I think she shows growth.  The slight raised eyebrow regarding her, is that she didn’t learn some grand lesson, and in fact is possibly emboldened by her thieving and getting away with it.  There probably should have been some humbling at the end, but she is bold and outspoken, and not one for regrets.  I absolutely love the letter she left her father owning up to her role in the whole hullaballoo, and as an afterthought acknowledging that she skipped two days of school.  She is a cheeky one, but her heart is huge and she has her own sense of integrity that is unwavering.

I like that Nour is acknowledged as being Muslim, eating meat, and going to mosques before she moved.  It doesn’t articulate that Chaya doesn’t like her for her faith, but it isn’t helping the two girls befriend each other either.  I love the elephant, and the plants, and fruits, and animals that bring the story to life.

FLAGS:

Lying and stealing. Some destruction of property.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can’t see me doing this as a book club selection, it is just too young of a target audience, but it would be a blast to read aloud to a second or third grade class, or to assign in a classroom setting.  The chapters are really short that early chapter readers will feel accomplished when they complete the book, and the subject matter will compel them to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

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The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

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This middle grades 208 page book is part of a series, but this particular installment is co-authored by Hena Khan, takes place in Pakistan, and features Muslim side characters in the quest to find and protect the mythical, magical, and illusive unicorns.  The adventure is quick, the cultural and religious references sincere and appreciated, the characters quirky and fun, and the writing smooth and enjoyable.  I can’t speak for the whole series, but I think second to fourth grade readers will enjoy the eccentric teacher, the clever kids, and the knowledge about animals, culture, and geography that is woven in to the story to keep it engaging.  I don’t think you need to read the books in order, but I would encourage it.

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SYNOPSIS:

Elliot and Uchenna are elementary aged students and also members of the secret, Unicorn Rescue Society.  When a classmate starts a newspaper and interviews local businessman, the kids teacher, Professor Mito Fauna spots what he thinks is a unicorn horn in an accompanying picture and is determined to go and protect, once found, the imaginative creatures.  He enlists the kids and Jersey, a creature with a blue body, red wings, a goat face, clawed front legs and hooved hindlegs, to set off in his single propeller plane for the Himalaya mountains of Pakistan.

They arrive in Torghar, Pakistan and make a rough landing that nearly kills a local boy.  Alhumdulillah, Waleed is fine, and in true Pakistani and Islamic tradition the boy takes the visitors to his grandmothers home to be fed and welcomed.  Waleed agrees to help the Americans find a man known only as the “Watcher,” to see what he knows about unicorns and the hunters that come to poach for sport.

Hiking the mountains and getting short of breath makes each act that much more difficult, but alas the kids find the Watcher, aka Asim Sahib, but sadly *SPOILER* don’t find unicorns.  Rather a species of mountain goats, markhors, that have two long twisted magical looking horns. The wealthy businessman brothers also show up in their helicopter to capture, not kill the markhors.

The rescue society follows them and learn that the sinister brother are testing out the magical properties of a bezoar on pit viper bites.  Needless to say it doesn’t work and the rescue society must rescue the dying butler, and captured markhors.  All is not lost, even if they didn’t find any unicorns, at least they made new friends, and know that if they haven’t found the unicorns yet, hopefully no one else has either.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that there is praying, and thikr, and ayats from the Quran quoted and explained in the book regarding saving animals, caring for each other and trusting Allah swt.  There is culture regarding taking gifts, welcoming guests, drinking tea and even breaking stereotypes of what a boy from Lahore visiting his family in the mountains knows and doesn’t know.  It isn’t preachy on any accounts, but the messages relayed in their silly way are very well woven in and leave a wonderfully represented impression of Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan.

The diversity featured in the book is nice, even within the main characters: one is an African American girl, one a Jewish boy, and the teacher is Hispanic.  The story at the end, A History of The Secret Order of the Unicorns, takes place during the reign of Charlemagne at a monastery, and features a boy named Khaled and his little sister Lubna. It is clearly intentional and a reflection of the author and illustrator.

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FLAGS:

There are some possibly gross moments featuring the goats licking urine, tea being made from the markhors’ saliva and the near death of a man requiring venom to be sucked from his leg.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is definitely below a middle school book club level, but I think younger elementary teachers and parents would see students get hooked on the series and would benefit from having the books around.

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The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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This book is not a quick read, it begs to be read aloud and the pictures poured over.  The 48 heavily text filled pages are a trip back in time before the tale twists in on itself and becomes a story that gets more outrageous with each upgrade.  It claims to be for grades first through fourth, but I think it would need a lot of hand holding and attention to get any children to read it.  The story would really come to life at bedtime with a loved one, or in a classroom with discussion, but I don’t know that most children in that demographic would willingly pick up the book, read it, enjoy it and reflect on it, without some guidance.  The illustrations show characters in hijab and thumbing tasbeehs, the text mentions Allah swt and in phrases calling on Him in exasperation.  There is a “kiss”, it is a love story after all, and some demons and sorcery, but I think it is clean enough and silly enough that kids of all ages will enjoy it and not find it offensive or scary.

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Many years ago an old man in the old city of Damascus, would walk around carrying a large chest and tell stories.  Four lucky kids for only one piaster each could look into the chest and see the images of the story, the other children could listen to the story for free.  He didn’t come often, but when he would come the children would rush to meet him and listen to the stories, their favorite the one of Sami and Leyla.

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Sami was a shepherd boy, he was beautiful, but poor.  Leyla was the daughter of the richest farmer in the village and after their “accidental” kiss Leyla and Sami met every evening despite Leyla’s father forbidding it.  The whole village is in a buzz over the two lovebirds.  When Leyla is kidnapped, her father reluctantly tells Sami that if he can bring her back then they can marry.  When Sami returns with her, Leyla’s father pretends to be ill and in need of milk from a lioness.  Once again he promises that if Sami can obtain the milk than the two can marry.  Sami not only gets the milk, but returns riding a lion.  Leyla’s dad says that he is brave indeed, but that his daughter can only marry a rich man and needs to pay 300 camels as dowry.  Sami heads to Damascus to steal the camels from the king, but gets caught and put in prison.  Lucky for Sami, a dove comes to visit him and after he saves her life, she grants him one wish.  Yes, the animals can talk.  The camels and freedom are granted, but still Leyla’s father is not willing to allow the marriage.  He summons a sorcerer to send demons to turn his daughter in to a lizard.  When night after night the demons fail and beat the sorcerer, it is revealed that the father hired him.  The next day the two are married.

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Over time the pictures in the chest began to fade and new pictures from modern advertisements are used to replace the traditional images.  Leyla becomes Colgate, yes, from a toothpaste advertisement.  She has a glorious smile and is now the daughter of a car dealer who drinks only Fresh Mountain mineral water.  She gets kidnapped and Sami hears about it on his Filix portable radio that she is being held in a club and is forced to serve ice-cold Coca-Cola.  The story continues like this, but at some point the children in the story become bored with the new version, and sing the jingles for the items mentioned instead, until the story teller packs up and leaves.

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Two years pass and no one has heard from the story teller, some say he went mad, others that he died.  Then one day he comes back to town and the children all run to listen to his stories.  There is a chest to peer in, but there is nothing inside, like magic however, when the old man starts to tell his story, the images appear in the minds of the children.

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The illustrations are wonderful and detailed, and radiate warmth and richness.  The conversation I had after with my own kids, about what was valued and the power of stories is so powerful to see dawning on the listeners.  They get it, they do, and they realize how ridiculous the “updates” were.  When they realize it is the story teller and the magic of being together and sharing a story, they too become one of the children in the book and it is wondrous to observe.

In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Hatem Aly

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In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Hatem Aly

I know I am a little late to the review party of this highly anticipated beautiful book, but for good cause: I wanted to test it out in a virtual storytime for preschool to third graders before I chimed in with my opinion of this 40 page picture book ideally for four to eight year olds, but wonderful for all ages. The hardback binding, the glossy pages, the AMAZING illustrations and the factual information at the end, make this one of my favorite books ever for Muslim and non Muslim readers alike. If you can, gift this book to your child, your child’s teacher, their friends, your friends, and ask your library to shelf it. It is unapologetically Muslim, and has the power to mirror our own love of our masajids as well as encourage others to stop in and visit if they are curious about what a mosque is like. After reading it aloud, my only critiques are the very thing pages that make it hard to turn when reading to a group, and the small font which is appreciated so that the illustrations can be enjoyed, but hard to read when the gloss causes a glare and the thin pages bow. The only words in the text that gave me pause is when the “imam tells us stories…” to explain the khutba and speech, and when it says after salat “I whisper heartfelt wishes.” I understand the intent, but feel like the word “stories,” isn’t the correct word for ayats and hadith, nor is “wishes” the right framing of duaa or longings. I also wanted there to be a page number in the references section referring back to the pages in the book that link the inspired illustration of mosques to the real ones detailed at the end. Undoubtedly minor stuff for a book that came with a lot of expectation and yet still managed to blow me away, alhumdulillah.

The book shows diversity of tones, body shapes, and mobility as it welcomes and invites you in to a mosque. The shoes are lined up like beads as you enter and you let your toes sink in to the carpet. We wear our best clothes and get hugs from aunties because we are loved. Grandfathers do thikr on tasbihs and its ok to snuggle up with your dad while he is praying. Grandmas are reading Quran and little kids help put out prayer rugs. The imam gives speeches about unity and that we are all from the same creator. The muezzin calls us all to prayer and we stand in lines linked together with friends like a long chain. Hijabs flow and sometimes we get distracted. We say greetings to the angels on our shoulders and whisper our wishes. We learn to help others, we play in the courtyard and gaze up at the domes. We feel safe and joyful like our friends of other faiths in their places of worship and all are welcome in the mosque.

The book does not shy away from Islamic words in Arabic, nor from faith references such as the “most High,” and “subhanAllah.” The glossary at the end covers their meaning and the text flows in a way that you can stop or review afterward with relative ease. The imagery in the text of the shoes like beads, and standing in salat like a chain, are warm and relatable, and the illustrations, they are magical. The expressions on the children’s faces as they try and pray and stay still, but alas are children and they are silly and sweet and not chided, but loved, is so refreshing in both the text and pictures. The different masajids that are referenced, and the detail make repeated visits to the book heartwarming and joyous.

I love the lists and details about mosques around the world at the end, and the successful portrayal of genuine love and connection Muslims feel to the mosque as a place of coming together, or worship, or friendship, of play, of charity, of community, and of openness.