Tag Archives: growth

Spirit of the Cheetah: A Somali Tale by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed illustrated by Julia Cairns

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Spirit of the Cheetah: A Somali Tale by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed illustrated by Julia Cairns

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This timeless 40 page tale of a young boy as he prepares for his right of passage into adulthood is rich with wisdom, culture, and tradition.  So many gentle lessons can be found in the book, as it leaves deeper understanding and connection to be felt and explored long after the book has been closed and returned to the shelf.  There are seemingly hijab wearing #muslimsintheillustrations, and the author’s name would suggest she is also a Muslim, but with the line, “Called on the spirit of Shabelle,” and talk of the “Spirit of the cheetah,” it is hard to know for sure if the main character is.

The story starts with Roblay running everywhere in preparation for an upcoming race where he hopes to place in the top three, and prove he is a man and no longer a boy.  On the day of the race he races his fastest, but he does not come out at the top.

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His grandfather, his Awoowo, tells him that to be successful he needs to capture the spirit of their people and leave his thumbprint on a cheetah’s coat.  His grandfather then tells him about the cheetahs long ago and how the river is named after them.  He explains that thumbprints on a cheetah’s fur honor those that have proven themselves.

Roblay trains and searches for many days.  He wonders if it is enough to mark a cub.  But his grandfather asks him if he wants to remain a cub.  This motivates Roblay to work harder.  When a year has passed and the race is about to take place again, he finally touches his cheetah.

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He lines up for the race strong, proud and sleek, and he has the chance again to prove he is a man and make his family proud.  Nope, not going to tell you how it ends.

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The book starts with an Author’s notes from both authors and concludes with Notes on the Cheetah.

Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

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Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

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I think everyone has heard about this book by now and how fabulously fun, real, and relevant Huda’s life  is for so many.  I am happy to jump on the praising bandwagon, as this teen/YA 192 page graphic novel really is a great OWN voice unapologetically Islamic mainstream tale.  It does mention periods, relationships, hate crimes, and finding yourself, so probably 14 or 15 year olds and up.  My middle school boys read it, so it isn’t that it is inappropriate, just the target audience is more teen girl.  I know a lot of people, including Huda’s mom according to the inscription, have issues with the title, but I think it is brilliant.  She takes ownership of her name and it isn’t just for shock value, the book is about figuring out who you are, how you feel about Islam, establishing your friend circle, and growing and learning along the way.  My public library has it, as do major outlets, so what are you waiting for, go read, laugh, and feel seen.

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SYNOPSIS:

Huda has just moved to a new school and she is no longer the only hijabi.  She has moved to Dearborn, Michigan and there are A LOT of Muslims.  She is no longer defined by the cloth on her head, she has to figure out who she is.  Who she really is.  And sometimes the best way to do that, is to figure out who you are not.  

Huda tries different clubs, and different circles of friends, both at school and at the masjid.  Along the way she learns how much she craves approval and who is always in her corner.  When a kid at school is targeted for being Muslim, Huda will have to see how much internal hate she carries as well.  Her clothes change, her outlook changes, she tries new things, and she grows, all while the laughs help the story bounce from one serious topic to the next without coming across as arrogant or stereotypical.  This is Huda’s story and we are just along for the ride.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that there is nothing to critique, it reads autobiographical even if parts are exaggerated or only based loosely in reality.  By being so real, and so well done, you are excited when you see yourself staring back, but you feel like you’re a friend learning about Huda even when you can’t relate exactly. Her comics online and her previous two books are all amazing, and I love that she is continually creating new material for us all to enjoy and benefit from.

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FLAGS:

She tells a boy she likes him that she doesn’t really like.  Periods are referenced and blood and a pad are shown, not graphic and gross, but the sentiment is there.  Discrimination is present, as is Islamophobia and stereotypes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Just keep the book out and around: it will be picked up, read, and mentioned, no tools needed.

Salaam, with Love by Sara Sharaf Beg

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Salaam, with Love by Sara Sharaf Beg

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This 288 page YA contemporary Islamic romcom is very Islamic centered, and the storyline provides some nice twists along the way.  Unfortunately the writing is terrible.  Not the storytelling or even grammar per se, but the contradictions, errors, underdeveloped characters, and the inconsistencies. Yes I read an uncorrected proof, but this book is a mainstream major publisher presented book coming out in a few weeks, and it is in desperate need of some attention.  I really don’t think it is the author’s fault, it reads as if this was a manuscript that got shopped around and picked up and then never refined, polished, and made to sparkle.  The only saving grace is that as terrible as it is literary wise, once the main character starts to get over her “internalized islamophobia” (thank you @bintyounus for bringing this concept to my attention), the book as a whole presents a lot of unapologetic specific Islamic content on every single page: how Eid salat is different than normal salat,  the beauty of tajweed, the meanings of so many duas and surahs said regularly, the list goes on and on and doesn’t just cover the basics.  The flip side is that the characters are in a band that performs Islamic songs, but with instruments and everyone is fine with it, there are artists in the book drawing faces and portraits hang on walls, it is a romance, but it at most an arm or hand is touched and when tropes about Desi college choices are pushed back on the parents break the stereotype and relent.  There are threads of cultural-ism within Islam, Islamophobia and a violent near death experience, but the book is very clean and  honestly has a lot of potential, I have no idea why it is so sloppy.  SO SLOPPY, and I took notes, so buckle up.

SYNOPSIS:

Seventeen year old Dua is an only child and her doctor father and caterer mom are the only Pakistani and only Muslims in their small Virginia town.  They decide for Ramadan that they are all going to go and stay with family in Queens, New York for the whole month.  They have given Dua less than 48 hours notice to plan to spend the end of her summer with cousins she hasn’t seen in five years.  The parents hope that Dua will benefit from being around family, being closer to other Muslims in the month, and enjoy the cultural environment.  Dua is not excited, but when bear hugs and genuine smiles meet her at the door, she is sucked in to a bustling house and the happiness and drama that is bound to unfold.  Sharing a room with her older, law school bound cousin Mahnoor is by far the hardest relationship to cultivate.  Newly engaged, Mahnoor is quiet, reserved and deeply unhappy.  Dua makes little progress, but with Ramadan starting and her cousins setting goals for the month, Dua is determined to do better in all aspects of her life.  As she gets close to Mahnoor’s best friend, Haya, she also gets closer to Haya’s brother Hassan.   It is Ramadan though, and she isn’t good around boys, but Hassan is a hafiz and is helping her reach her memorization goals for the month, Hassan is also in a band and needs Dua’s help.  When Mahnoor’s engagement is called off to Haya and Hassan’s brother, everything comes to a standstill between the families, but when a cousin is shot, the families come back together to support one another and deal with their decisions and their outcomes.  By the end of Ramadan, every character has changed and grown and is sad the month is over and that Dua and her family are leaving.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Suffice it to say I love how Islam centered it is. I honestly checked the publishing information because of how much Islamic content is included, also for the amount of errors.  The book did not start off well for me with Dua trying to separate herself from her “religious” cousins.  The ones who practice communally and wear hijab.  She was not like “them” and the dichotomy of measuring religiosity as acceptable or not, too much or too little, enrages me.  It sets up that she practices Islam but in a relaxed manner and has been taught by her parents, and it is who she is, but it isn’t a huge part of her life.  As the story progresses, it seems that she just doesn’t know a ton of surahs, she actually is pretty religious, and devout, it is very awkward and not presented clearly, which is why I attributed it more to her being in denial or embarrassed by her identity, not about her level of belief.  Dua is also not like-able, she is incredible privileged and arrogant commenting on the size of houses and rooms, and her shoes.  About half way through she starts to comes across as clumsy, not sure then why is she always wearing heels.  Ultimately she is just not well-developed and often reads like an annoying helpless child.  The framing of Dua being a musician and not being so religious is quickly questioned as she gifts her cousins music paraphernalia, and looks at portraits on their walls.  If most are like me, and both families are praying, fasting, reading Quran, active musicians and artists and ok with hanging pictures, one would assume they are pretty in-syc with one another on their religious views and in practice.

Dua is not the only character that is poorly voiced, fractured, and inconsistent.  Her parents are so unrealistic and awkward in the beginning I physically cringed reading them telling her their reasons for going to New York.  In the car on the way, they even quiz Dua on her cousins names.  She hasn’t seen them in five years, she isn’t a toddler, she should know their names, she has clearly purchased incredibly personalized gifts for them, and is filled with detailed memories of when they all met up in Pakistan together, the whole scene is pointless. One of the cousins, Ibrahim, is blind and Dua says that a few years ago her parents had to explain to her what it meant to be blind.  Seriously?  I get the learning how to let him take the lead and how to interact, but you as a teenager didn’t know what it means to be blind? When you met him in Pakistan you didn’t know he was blind? The four year old cousin is cute and adorable, and has the vocabulary and mannerisms of a seven or eight year old at times, most times.  The 12 year old cousin has the wisdom of an old uncle and why do none of the adults in the book seem to work?  The book probably should have started at chapter five, it seems the book hits a bit of a stride that at least makes it readable.  

A huge plot of the book is the band, Sheikh, Rattle, and Roll, but the details about it are terrible.  Mahnoor is walking out the door and her mom tells her to take Dua.  The reader doesn’t know where they are going, but Mahnoor reluctantly agrees and they head out on the subway.  Mahnoor constantly is telling Dua to hurry so they aren’t late and miss it, when they arrive, the band performs one song and that is when Hassan and Dua and Haya all meet.  But the other two band members are her cousins, she is staying in their house.  What? Rabia is constantly talking, that is her character quirk, how does Dua not know that they are performing? Not know they are in a band?  No way would it not be mentioned.  And why only one song? That is so random.  At the end when they perform again on Eid, it is a concert, it is again only one song.  A concert is not one song.  Do they not practice or load up equipment, how is all this going on in one house and Dua is so clueless? 

The inconsistencies are aplenty.  A few examples: it says her cousin doesn’t wear make-up, a few chapters later has a whole face of make-up, on Eid she even does Dua’s make-up.  When they all are sitting down to write their lists of plans for Ramadan it says they don’t have to share their lists.  Yet a few lines later Dua is singled out in a very creepy way to share hers.  In a single paragraph it says that at home she prays fajr half asleep, or late and in a rush before school, but concludes the description by complaining that praying in congregation is more difficult for her to focus in.  Huh? praying while half asleep or in a rush gives you more focus than praying in jammah?  Even non Muslims are going to be scratching their heads.  At one point as Dua is trying to figure out what she wants to study and if she wants to start an MSA in her high school, since she is the only Muslim, she internally discusses how she wants to prove herself to her parents.  Then when she decides what she wants to do for her, she remarks that she isn’t just doing it to prove to her parents, but because she wants it for her.  The only problem is, no where have we seen or has it been established that her parents are requiring this proof.  

There are odd errors as well.  The athan on a phone goes off, the Uncle reaches in to his pocket for his phone and turns off his iPad.  That is a big pocket indeed.  Dua gifts Hassan a CD, really a CD? What is this 1999? Who gifts CDs in 2021? Dua starts playing a keyboard in someone elses house and no one mentions it other than the two people with her, how big is the house that you can’t hear it? The Uncle gets upset that Dua doesn’t pray Asr right at time, but a lot of people prefer Asr specifically to be prayed later within the time frame.  In a two chapter frame it mentions letting out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding three times, word for word the same.

I was genuinely surprised that music being questionable was not brought up at all, two of the bandmates are huffaz.  The author lets her own qualifiers slip in, perhaps her own desire to not take a stand that could seem alienating.  She says, “allegedly” the time right before iftar is the best time to make dua.  As Dua tries to figure out what is going on with Hassan she often remarks how it is hard or confusing “especially because he is Muslim.” Would a relationship with a non Muslim be ok, less hard, more hard? There is no lowering of any gazes, which for as religious as everyone in the book is, should have at least been mentioned even if not adhered to.  The book puts on odd stress on tasbeehs and kufis, not sure why.  

I do like the genuine love the characters have for Islam, Allah, Ramadan, salat.  It is so much a part of every thing they do, and it is lovely.  I also love Dua’s friend in Virginia, Kat, she is fasting in solidarity and wants to join the MSA even though she isn’t Muslim, but a seemingly amazing friend.

FLAGS:

The on-gain-off-again engaged couple do touch hands at Eid prayer.  Hassan touches Duas arm when she is perceived as helpless.  There are anti Islam protests and an angry man shoots Adam.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If the sloppiness gets resolved, the book could be used as a high school book club choice.  Those girls love them some halal romance, and this book is incredibly religious and clean. 

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

FLAGS:

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

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

 

Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an  Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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At 40 pages, this biography about Pakistani born artist Shahzia Sikander is filled with culture and experiences.  The story shows the influences of her family, the city of Lahore, her love of math, and her art education have in shaping her in to the artist she is today.  The book features photographs of her work at the end, but I found it odd that she didn’t illustrate the book herself.  The playful blocky pictures and text would appeal to first or second graders with some assistance, but would be better suited for readers a bit older if they are unfamiliar with some of the cultural and artistic vocabulary.  There is no mention of Islam in the book, when researching, it says her family is Muslim.  It seems she went to Catholic school, and a road trip was taken that included visiting the Sistine Chapel.  A few illustrations show people in hijab and it mentions the athan ringing out five times a day.  The book was interesting, but I wish I could have found it at the library, rather than purchasing it.  I don’t know that it will be read more than once, but that speaks more to personal preference, rather than the quality of the book. If you enjoy fine art, are from Lahore, are a fan of Shahzia Sikander’s work, you will definitely enjoy this book.

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The story starts with a girl stepping in to a painting with many rooms, filled with many people in a joint family.  It is her (Shahzia’s) home, and her family.  The rooms are filled with ancient fables, Russian fairy tales, poetry, English, Urdu, Bollywood songs, and American Westerns.

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Outside is the city of Lahore, in Pakistan, streets rich in smell and color and sound exist: orange jalebi and strings of jasmine, sounds of Qawwalis and pop music, the melodic call to prayer from the minarets.  As a child she plays cricket and climbs trees and flies kites.  Up on the roof she trains pigeons and looks out at the horizon.  

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When it gets hot, her family heads north.  They once traveled all the way to Rome.  She visited the Sistine chapel, her and Michelangelo share a birthday.

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At school she is shy. She loves math, as it is a tool to understand the world.  She finds she is also good at drawing birds, and people.  She studies miniatures with a magnifying glass.  Eventually training in miniature painting with a master.  Art becomes her ticket to new worlds.

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She heads off for America, taking her roots with her, but once she arrives she cannot leave.  Her passport is the wrong, color.  She lives in New York and cannot return to Pakistan for nine years.  Now she can travel and soar and share her work with the world.

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There is a glossary at the end and more information about Shahzia and her paintings.

 

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.

Sasquatch in the Paint by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

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My tween boys read the first two books in the Streetball Crew Series and recommended I read book one because there is a Muslim character and I’m a fan of the basketball all-star author who draws on his own life and experiences growing up in the story.  It is 265 pages, an AR 4.5, and while the story is decent, and I enjoyed the majority of it, I didn’t love it.  I was not thrilled at the choppiness of the story telling and ultimately the way Islam was presented.  Obviously there are plenty of Muslims that will occasionally eat pork and who get violent as they get more religious, but I don’t think it is the norm and definitely isn’t a message most middle grade Muslim readers would identify with, nor want non Muslims assuming about Muslims as a whole.  The book randomly has a sudden Muslim chapter toward the end and attributes some threats on the main character as being from Muslims becoming more devout.  The main character is not Muslim, this is a side character and her family, and you don’t find out til the book is nearly over that she is Muslim. I worry how younger readers will be affected by the negativity toward Islam, as it really isn’t explored or even part of the story.  There is enough going on in 8th grade Theo’s life with out the insertion of religion.  I was glad I read it so that I could discuss it with my boys, but I would encourage the book for more middle school aged kids, if at all.  The book involves basketball as a subplot, but has larger life lessons and developments away from the game.  Do be aware one of the young characters smokes cigarettes, there is female objectification talk among the male characters, racism is discussed, there is some physical assault, and beer, R-rated movies, tattoos, branding, and dating are mentioned in this coming of age book.

SYNOPSIS:

Theo is 13, in 8th grade, and over the summer has grown six inches.  He identifies as a science nerd and a geek and is on the Academic Olympic team at his school.  He now, however, finds himself on the school basketball team, and has no idea what he is doing.  Towering over everyone, he is assumed to be good, but his lanky body and new found size brings him ridicule and teasing. His life long best friend, a fellow geek, can’t figure out why he won’t just quit the basketball team, but Theo is oddly enough,  enjoying the concept of team, and suddenly being recognized in the halls.  When he joins a pickup game to improve his skills however, he gets in a fight with another kid, get’s threatened by some guys on motorcycles, and teased by a weird girl named Rain.

Outside of school it is just Theo and his police officer dad. Theo’s mom has recently passed away and the two are creating a new normal, that is until Theo finds out his father is giving online dating a try.   After the first abysmal basketball game, Theo is forced to go visit his cousin in LA who is a tiny bit older than him, but much rougher.  He constantly teases Theo and puts him down.  He claims to be a great musician, but no one has ever heard his music, and suddenly on this visit, he seems a bit more insightful, which has Theo confused. 

With Theo being pulled in multiple directions, he risks being kicked off the basketball team, moved down to alternate on the Brain Game Team, killed on Friday by the motorcycle gang and to top it all off, a CD of his cousins music has been stolen from Theo’s backpack and band has gone viral with one of the songs.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is a coming of age book for boys.  I feel like there are a lot of girl books out there, but this one really does get into a young males head.  It isn’t always pretty, and while women/girls are at times objectified in his thoughts and while chatting with his friends, I think he realizes it and doesn’t treat or talk to women in a negative way.  I like that race is discussed as he is one of 14 black kids in his school of 600.  There are times when he or his family are treated different for their skin color, but his mom never allowed him to accept it to be a reason for not being the best ‘you’ and she would make them put money in a jar any time they blamed race for something bad happening, a tradition they continue even though she has passed.  I like the pop cultural references, a lot of books overdo it, this book makes it pretty smooth and relatable.

*Spoiler Warning* So Rain, turns out to be Matar, Arabic for Rain, she has convinced her aunt and uncle to let her change schools while her parents are in Iraq (her mom is Iraqi, her father a Quaker from Pennsylvania) and call her by her American name and let her wear American clothes (no hijab).  The motorcycle villains, are her cousins, who were trying to find her and were threatening  Theo to try and find out where she was.  Their frustration with her behavior and dress is what prompted them to hit Rain which made her run.  Rain and Theo discuss why after September 11, she was tired of being accused of being a terrorist and so she wanted a fresh start.  Her uncle and aunt are noted as being nice, but clearly the devout Muslim cousins are what will be remembered.  She also discusses sometimes eating pork, that hijab is modesty in the Quran, not a requirement to cover your hair, and that she is Muslim, but doesn’t know if she will be when she is older.

The book didn’t find its flow for me until nearly half way through, maybe about page 100 or so.  It seemed to struggle to get all the characters introduced, flesh them out, and then decide what the book should be about.  Once it got through all that it flowed better, but still left me confused as to why there was a spontaneous breakfast party, why a lawyer would so quickly get involved in the music case, why Theo was withdrawing from his friends, why Rain wouldn’t just talk to Theo, how Rain had friends she could stay with after just starting at the school, how Rain could switch schools without her parents there. Really the Rain character in general seemed really forced.

FLAGS:

I listed most of the potential concerns in the opening paragraph so that anyone, like me that would think, ‘oh fabulous a middle grade sports book by a Muslim author’ would be aware that there are a few potentially concerning elements.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club selection, it is a little all over the place, my 11 year old disagrees and thinks it would be a great book club read, so I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Video interviews with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about the book:

https://video.disney.com/watch/sasquatch-in-the-paint-with-kareem-abdul-jabbar-4e8f920a40dec5fcc9be6a5d

 

Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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An amazingly empowering simple story that breathes pride and beauty in to names and our identities.  The 40 pages are a celebration of the rhythm of our names and the dreams and hopes that they contain for us.  Perfect for kindergarten to second graders, readers of all ages will find something valuable in this book.  Those with “common” names might reevaluate what their names mean or why they were so named, children with “unique” names will find the music and confidence to ask others to learn their name correctly, older kids might reconsider shortened nick names, and we all inshaAllah will make more of an effort to get people’s names pronounced right.

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A little girl has had an awful first day of school.  As she stomps toward her mom at dismissal.  No one could say her name.  Not even the teacher, it got stuck in her throat.  Her mom gently reminds her stomping is only for dancing, and tells her that her name is a song.

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The little girl is skeptical, but as they say people’s names on their way home, and find the magic and rhythm and beat in each one, they address the horrible things that have happened to the girl that day regarding her name.  At lunch girls pretended to choke on her name, and later one boy said her name was scary, some even tell her, her name sounds made up.

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Her mother explains that some names come from deep in the heart, not the throat and cannot be choked on, that names are fire and strong, and that names are made from the sky when our real names were stolen and so new ones have to be dreamed.

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All the way home they go through names, diverse names, beautiful names.  The next day she doesn’t want to go to school, but she has a song to teach.  When her teacher starts calling  out names, the little girl starts tapping the rhythm, when Ms. Anderson starts to struggle on the little girl’s name, she starts to sing it.  She explains that her name is a song, and that she will teach it to them.  The other children then ask her to sing their names. And with a smile on her face, it is music to Kora-Jalimuso’s ears.

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I love that there are three pages of the names mentioned in the story and their origins and meanings listed.  I also like that the little girl’s name is not revealed until the end.  The pronunciation of the names is in the text, all of them, even Bob.   And when I read the name Trayvon, I felt an added weight of saying people’s names, breathing them into our lives and not forgetting them.

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The family could be Muslim based on the mom’s head wrap.  The author is Muslim and there are Arabic and Islamic names included in the story.

Nimrullah: The Quest for the Green Dagger by Aaron Spevack

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Nimrullah: The Quest for the Green Dagger by Aaron Spevack

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Oh this one was hard for me to finish.  It was the only thing I took to keep me entertained on a 7 hour plane ride in February as I was determined to read this, and even between the going and return flight, I couldn’t force myself to get through it.  Four months later out of sheer stubbornness I finished this 204 page book and I’m not better for it.  If it was your thing, I’m glad for you, but I didn’t get it, I don’t know what age group I’d even suggest it for, and for all the potential it could have had in being a fantasy series with religious overtones like Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or some grand adventure with moral highlights, for me it was just a simple story made complex by huge religiously vague passages and too many dozens of characters.

SYNOPSIS:

The bare bones of the book is pretty straightforward.  Much like even Lord of the Rings or any basic video game, the main character has to do this, then do this, then do that to succeed and win and reach the end.  In this book it is a ten year old boy named Ahmad who crawls under the mimbar of his Massachusetts mosque and finds himself in a land of talking animals who need him to go on a quest to save their way of life.  His sister Amina also finds her way to this enchanted land and Nimrullah’s garden, but they have little interaction with each other or with Nimrullah, a tiger and head of the Dar al-Ashjar folk.  Along the way Ahmed meets beavers, and snakes and rabbits, and dragons, all with names and random tidbits of information flung in, but no real purpose or back story or attachment.  Ahmad is given a book by a turtle that will guide his internal journey, that quite often Ahmad doesn’t understand and the author doesn’t even share the text so the reader doesn’t understand, and when the author does share the text it is paragraphs and pages long, that what it means is baffling to me as an adult, let alone any elementary aged child.  The point of the journey is to get to a green dagger that is on an island in a crystal sea, but he isn’t going to an island to get it, he is going to a mountain and then a cave.  The villains are the Kadhibun that mine crystal and enslave the animals from Dar al-Ashjar in factories destroying the crystal sea, and thus the environment and animals’ way of life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love what the author tried to do.  Even comparing it to C.S. Lewis’ work gave some hope that Muslim children would find a surface level adventure story to fall in love with, and be compelled to understand the symbolic undertones of religion, morality and faith.  However, it not just fell short, it never really gave itself a chance.  There is too much telling and not enough showing.  All the characters and animals and references to things are not explained and lose the reader, and even when I would go back I wouldn’t find concrete points to fall back on.  There are too many characters that are just name dropped and become more words to skim over.  Major battle scenes are never detailed, and the narrator resorts to saying, “it would be hard to explain.”  Characters are trusted, but no reason to trust or mistrust them is provided. Litany’s are to be recited, but aren’t shared. “Ahmed opened his book again, and started reading the commentary, which contained the litanies.  Their details cannot be mentioned here, as such a sword cannot be handed to anyone.” There is a litany of the mountain, litany of the cave and a litany of the crystal sea.  But, apparently the litany of the sea is the same as the cave one, huh? It really is a mess, I’m sad to say.  It builds up to something and then just lets it drop.  On top of that, and now I’m just ranting, there are no page numbers!  

The overall moral of Ahmad learning self contron and slaying his ego and trusting Allah and being patient is all there, but it is so hidden and muddled that I don’t think the average reader will find it inspiring or triumphant.  It is almost like the author tried to put a ton of Sufi knowledge into a children’s book, but forgot to simplify it for children.  Just having the framework of a ten year old boy surrounded by talking animals isn’t enough to deliver the message, the message itself has to be palatable for kids too.  And basic writing and story telling are critical as well.

FLAGS:

The book is clean

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a basic book club, I couldn’t even get my 9 year old son who reads over 300 pages a day to get past the first third.  If I am missing major Sufi tenants, which I definitely could be as I know very little about Sufism, and this book is a foil for much bigger and more critical concepts then perhaps someone with Sufi knowledge teaching children in a clever way, will find this book useful, unfortunately I’m not that person, so I think I’ll have to pass on suggesting the book to others.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Three hundred and forty pages written in verse that beautifully consume you and leave you emotionally changed and vulnerable and humbled all at once.  The book claims it is for middle grades, but I think middle school will appreciate it more, and I sincerely hope everyone of all ages will take a couple of hours to fall under the spell that is woven to tell a story of a refugee leaving home and starting anew in America.

SYNOPSIS:

Jude is a 12 year old girl living on the beach in Syria, watching American movies with her friends and hanging out at her dad’s store.  With an older brother and a little sister on the way, life as told from her own perspective is pretty good.  Until it is not.  Until the crimes they only hear about happening in Aleppo and Damascus start to hit closer to home.  Until her brother starts sneaking out to meetings with other youth hoping to change the politics of their country.  Until a raid almost catches Jude and her brother and her parent’s decide it is time for Jude and her mother to journey to America, for a little while, to visit her mom’s brother and deliver the baby.

America is not like it is in the 90’s movies that Jude loves: Pretty Woman, Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality.  Her American aunt and her Uncle that seems to have forgotten his Syrian upbringing, are gracious and welcoming and their daughter, Sarah, who is less than a year older than Jude waxes and wanes in her approach to her cousin.  Adjusting to school, life without baba and her brother, and all the other adaptations that moving to a new country entail are brought to life through Jude’s eyes and understanding of the world around her.  As she comes of age and decides to wear hijab, as Islamaphobia shakes her sense of justice, and her little sister is born, the reader sees her grow and change and mature and find themselves hoping that she will soar.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the style of the story telling somehow gives life to so much.  With verse some things are highlighted in detail and other things skimmed over and yet at the end, not only do you feel like you understand Jude, but a lot of the side characters as well, which caught me off guard.  Truly the writing is strong and deliberate.  A lot of the politics and war crimes occurring in Syria are not detailed, and I have to assume that is because the point of view is a 12 year old girl that is blissfully in her own world.  I imagine this is also why the target audience is listed as 8-12 year olds, because it simplifies a truly horrific situation.  Also because despite moments of raw vulnerability, the book stays pretty optimistic and hopeful.  

I like that the characters are Muslim, and that the mom scolds her brother for not going to the mosque.  The book does talk about Jude’s period starting and thus Jude starting to wear hijab, which is one of the reasons I feel like early middle school might be a bit more appropriate age group.  There isn’t too much talk about faith and Islamic beliefs, but a few tidbits are sprinkled in, prayer, not eating pork, modesty.  The book is not gender exclusive, but I think girls will gravitate much more to Jude’s perspective, experiences and voice.

The only thing I found a bit off is that the book takes place in modern time, present day, yet none of them have cell phones or social media.  Jude Skypes her dad, yet writes letters to her friend back in Syria and is distraught when they don’t have a forwarding address to send them to after her friend also leaves home.  It seems that social media, email, a cell phone number, something would be available for them to all keep in touch.

FLAGS:

There is mention of Jude and her friends having to sneak in to see Pretty Woman because Julia Roberts is a prostitute, and mention of blood between one’s legs and periods starting.  The book otherwise is pretty clean.  It hints at her kind of crushing on a boy that is in the play with her, but nothing more than friendship is explored.  Violence mentioned is minimal and language is clean even when dealing with hate crimes in America.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a good chance that next year the students joining the middle school book club will be all girls, so if that is the case and the school counselor feels all the girls can handle the puberty aspects mentioned I would totally do this book.  The book reads very quick and might be a good way to get new kid to give a book club a try as well.

Author’s website: http://jasminewarga.com/about

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/80127-q-a-with-jasmine-warga.html

Interview with the Author: https://www.hbook.com/2019/04/authors-illustrators/publishers-previews/spring-2019-publishers-preview-five-questions-for-jasmine-warga/