Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Inventors of the Golden Age (Just like) by Umm Laith and Muhammad Khaider Syafei (Proud Little Muslims)

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Inventors of the Golden Age (Just like) by Umm Laith and Muhammad Khaider Syafei (Proud Little Muslims)

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Usually when you purchase a personalized book, the charm is that you get to see a name of your choosing in the story, and that you can make the main character look a certain way.  So imagine my surprise when this book arrived, and yeah sure my son’s name and likeness was included, but the story and information contained was also really well done and engaging.  This book, even without the personalization, is a solid story highlighting Fatima al-Fihri, Abbas ibn Firnas, al-Zahrawi, al-Idrisi, and their skills of generosity, persistence, kindness, and adventure as they shaped the world as we know it.

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The fourth wall is broken as the book speaks to the reader encouraging them to come on an adventure in to the Golden Age.  A time when scientists, engineers, explorers, doctors, and astronomers were making remarkable advancements.

The first stop is Morocco to learn about Fatima al-Fihri and how she established the first university.  Her generosity in building and creating a place of Islam and learning is what set her apart and made her so remarkable.  It is then on to Abbas ibn-Firnas in Spain and his attempts at flying.  He failed often, but his mistakes helped him as he persisted and continued to learn and understand and make flight of humans possible.

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Al-Zahrawi, the surgeon, is who is detailed next, as his knowledge, skill, and inventions he made are still used today.  His regard for his patients fear and nerves and his kindness is what the book stresses before moving on to the mapmaker al-Idrisi.  Al-Idrisi was adventurous as he traveled the world making his maps and switching the poles.

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The book then focuses on the reader encouraging them to be generous and adventurous, kind and persistent, in making the future better like those mentioned from the past.

The book is horizontal, the pages thick, the faceless illustrations warm and detailed and the rhyming text flowing and appropriate for preschool aged children and up.

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The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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I really enjoyed this book.  It is self published, and the expectation was zero and I honestly read all 214 pages in two sittings. I probably could have read it faster, but ahh kids and dinner, and my middle school son somehow got to it to read when I put it down.  We both enjoyed the quick pace, the strong Islamic presence, and the historical fiction based plot.  The book has a bit of language, hell and damn a few times, mentions prostitution and a brothel in two instances, and alcohol is present, but it is always crystal clear on Islamic and Muslim behavior.  The book is linear and straight forward and  probably YA readers will appreciate it, but I think it really is a middle school aged read, I think technically that makes it Young YA or Lower YA.  My only small grievance is the modern slang.  I appreciate that it isn’t written like Treasure Island and that you understand what the pirate crew is saying in plain modern English, but the few mentions of “idiot,” “chill out,” and “awesome” stick out very obviously and could easily be “fixed.”  Overall, so very impressed by the consistent pacing, historical references, writing quality, and internal reflection on our ummah’s strengths and weaknesses.

SYNOPSIS:

Farid is a young boy in Tunisia, and as the Spaniards start to flex their influence, his life begins to change.  The son of a fisherman, the family can barely enter the waters under the watchful eyes of the Spanish fleets.  When approached after a fight to join an Islamic pirate crew by Captain Aruj of the Barbarossa and his brother Khidr, he decides to leave his family and stretch his wings.   Having always dreamed of being in a leadership role, his optimism, and eagerness is quickly put to the test as the crews’ first mission in Northern Africa fails and sends the pirates scrambling on land.  They journey to the Mosque of Uqba (Great Mosque of Kairouan), and get help from the Emir in Tunis to replenish their losses.  It is then onto Tripoli where friendships and internal issues of race, and nationality threaten the cohesion of the Muslim pirates.  But it is in Spain where things really come to a head and Farid finds himself separated from his crew, in-prisoned for years, and tested both physical and emotionally that the story finds its climax before ending, and leaving the reader ready for more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I have a soft spot for historical fiction, the original American Girl books for me were treasures to behold.  So the setting of this book really won me over: the mention of rulers, historical landmarks, the pain of the Inquisition on Spanish Muslims, the fact that there was a not just one map in the book, but two, all great things.  Like I mentioned above the pacing of the book is quick, from start to finish, and it is a pirate story so there is death, violence, battles, killing, and treason, but seeing as often in books about these type of things, I find myself glossing over the long detailed battle scenes, I was grateful that they are short and quick and possibly overly simplified.  It discusses weaponry, but it is not detailed, no glossary is needed, although there is one of the Islamic words at the beginning.  As for the Islam presence, it is very much a part of the story.  They raid a ship, the alcohol goes in the sea, they call athan differently, the characters discuss different madhhabs, just rulers are just even if they aren’t Muslim, and terrible rulers can also be Muslim, it doesn’t shy away from internal reflection and I appreciate that.  The only thing that caught my attention of being unaccounted for Islamically was when Farid puts on red and gold pants to head in to battle.  One- that seems the opposite of camouflage, and two- many Muslim don’t find it permissible for men to wear red and gold, obviously different people feel differently, but it seemed odd that the colors were specifically mentioned in such a quick moving book to no end.

Character-wise, I wanted a little more insight into Sameer and his racism, I also would have liked a little more about Farid’s first day in the sun after imprisonment.  I liked that the Jewish struggles under King Ferdinand in Spain weren’t just mentioned, but were brought in to the story.  And while I appreciate the reasoning for showing that Muslims were hiding behind a brothel to participate in learning and worship and thikr, that and the mention of a woman trying to seduce Farid in the street, both make the target audience a little more mature than the rest of the book might warrant otherwise.

FLAGS:

There is killing, fighting, raiding, stealing and there is plenty of physical violence.   The book mentions prostitution, seduction, and there is a fleeting glance at a woman that the main character pauses for, knowing he should lower his gaze, but then she is rescued and never seen or heard from again.  There is mention of alcohol as it is captured, as non Muslims stagger around drunk, etc.. There are a few curse words used a few times each: damn and hell and God.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I would absolutely do this for a middle school book club amongst a mature group of girls and boys.  It is an easy read, but the discussions would be phenomenal as history and context would all come in to play.

For the sake of buzz and growth and attention, I hope the author will shop the book around, if he hasn’t already, see if it can be published on a larger platform and gain some traction.  We need books like this, solid Islamic fiction books, that aren’t shy to show our strengths and weaknesses and inspire our youth.

House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

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House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

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This 278 page magical realism YA book featuring a Muslim family grabs your attention and heart in the prologue, unfortunately it quickly releases it, and until you get over a third of the way in to the story, it is a struggle to read.  Once you accept that half of the book, the storyline set in the present, is going to be terrible, you enjoy the historical narrative and appreciate that the short book with a quick pace spends more time in the subcontinent during partition, than it does with the painfully underdeveloped characters trying to make sense of past secrets and their present day manifestations.  The book doesn’t have any major flags in terms of religious representation, it is just ritual acts of praying and reading Quran, nothing detailed or explored, and relationship-wise there is nothing high school readers can’t handle (spoilers and more details can be read in the FLAGS section).  Despite being a first time author, she works as an editor, so one would really expect the climax to hit harder with clearer writing, the characters to be developed, the details written to serve a purpose, and the protagonist teen’s voice not to read overwhelmingly at the beginning as a five year old.  The overall story concept and historical fiction component are exciting, the development of the characters just really failed an otherwise engaging read. 

SYNOPSIS:

Maera’s brother Asad goes missing in 2011 from their grandfather’s home in Pakistan while they are visiting.  They search and cannot locate him or a body, the loss devastates Maera’s family.  Ten years later, her grandfather passes away, and the next morning a greenhouse appears in their backyard in America.  Not just any greenhouse, her grandfather’s greenhouse from Pakistan.  Maera thinks she is going crazy, her mother doesn’t acknowledge the structure, she doesn’t acknowledge much, not about the reality in front of them, not the night Asad disappeared, or the needs of her daughter. Maera’s aunt (mom’s twin) and cousin come from Pakistan to mourn the loss of the grandfather together, he passed in Pakistan, not sure why Maera and her mom didn’t go there, but I digress.  Cousins Jamal, aka Jimmy, and Maera are the only two that seems determined to figure it all out.  Their grandfather’s journal turns up and with Maera’s friend Sara and Rob, the neighbor and former best friend of Asad, the four of them set out to understand what is going on in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse seems to be alive, and entering it dependent on the whims of something within, a churail,  a shape shifting creature of myth that is more than a witch, a succubus that targets men.  A woman who died violently and was wronged by men, whose feet are turned backward, and who is neither alive or dead.  As the four work through the journal, venture in to the greenhouse, and confront those within, secrets will be unearthed, exposed, and finally dealt with.

The historical interwoven story is that of the grandfather during colonial British rule and partition.  As a young boy Haroon is searching for his father fighting in Burma and the adventures he has along the way. Shah Jehan’s father takes Haroon in at one point, and the girl with an emperor’s name sneaks him out to watch the village deal with the churail who are killing the men in their village.  The incident scars Haroon, but his affection for Shah Jehan and the role she will continue to have in his life is established. The understanding that the subcontinent is being carved up and starved by the colonizers in the name of freedom is made clear in the characters that Haroon encounters and the quickly maturing boy grows in to a young man as he starts to understand the world around him and the larger powers at play.  When the migration and violence between Hindus getting to India and Muslims going to Pakistan occurs, the pieces in the past and present come together to reveal the terrors that the greenhouse houses. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved the commentary both in the text, and explicitly detailed in the afterward about how culturally the past is handled.  How little generations discuss what they have endured and been through.  I have been asked by my father-in-law a few times to try and coax my mother-in-law to detail her journey with their oldest son from India to Pakistan.  She has apparently never clearly told what happened, what she saw, and what they experienced.  She waves it off now, but her own children didn’t even know there was more to the story, and as my inlaws approach their 90s I have little hope of them recalling or sharing their stories.  Recently my son needed to hear some first person accounts of war, so he contacted my American grandfather to learn about his time in the Korean War, much of it I knew, Americans, generally speaking, talk about this type of experience in passing.  My son, also wanted to compare his story to someone who lived as a civilian through a war, and asked my mother-in-law, his Dadi, about her experience living through the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, not that long ago, and we all sat spellbound as she recalled the sirens and how they kept the children fed and calm and whatnot.  They were stories no one had thought to ask it seemed.  She has seven children and almost thirty grandchildren.  This book struck such a chord with me, I need to actively seek out these stories before it is too late.   Chances are no one else in the family will. Not speaking the language fluently has cost me my chance to learn my own father’s family’s stories and I need to find a way to gather my husband’s family’s stories before it is too late. I love that in the book, The Past is capitalized as if it is a named living person shaping the lives of so many.  It is, and these stories are wonderful reminders and motivators to ask the elders to share their memories.

The present day story thread, however, is chalked full of holes, one dimensional characters, and pointless tangents.  Sara and Maera read like they are early elementary aged.  They are so terribly voiced in the beginning, I have no idea, how an editor author and mainstream publisher did not require correction.  The dialogue, the action, the role of the parents, it is terrible.  Speaking of terrible, the mother and aunt are absolutely flat and useless.  They mope, sleep and sit in the corner.  I don’t understand why you wouldn’t develop them to link the past story to the present one.  I’m not being picky here, it is that bad.  I also wanted to know why the dad left.  Seems like it would flesh out the mom a bit, justify her approach to life.  Sara and Rob are obviously brought in to serve as vessels for the action, and for Maera and possibly Jimmy to play off of.  But their backstories are so pathetic.  How do you not know or see your neighbor for ten years.  Ok, I get that he was Asad’s best friend and your family in their grief and denial pushed him away, but he never checked the mail or took out the trash, or was seen? And Sara offers absolutely nothing to the story other than to be part of the forced crush/romance line pairing off her and Jimmy and Rob and Maera.  Alhumdulillah, it stays tame with the angsty longing and hand holding.  

Random details that serve no purpose reach a pinnacle with the paragraph long time spent on Maera wearing Rob’s tank top.   I have no idea why we should care that she is wearing a tank top.  Sure as a Muslim reviewer it furthered the notion to me, that she is probably more culturally religious, and yes I know Muslim’s dress to different degrees of modesty, but I really couldn’t find any other reason for the emphasis on the black tank top. Overall, all the friendships in the story seem so off: Rob and Asad, and Sara and Maera.  They should be easy plot points, but they don’t connect, or read believable.  

Plot wise: if you had a building magically appear in your back yard along with a journal, would you not read that journal as fast as possible? Sure you would lose sleep and maybe skip a meal or two, but hello, a building just appeared in your back yard that is moving and growing, your grandfather died and your brother’s body was never found: stop what you are doing and read the journal.  It mentions that when Asad went missing there were a lot of other kids, cousins at the house, so where are they now? Why was there no mention of them, and only Jimmy seems to have a vested interest in the grandfather passing, and the growing need to remember Asad.  I did not understand the sacrifice and hair connection and how that was what Maera understand the Churail to be asking for.  I did not understand the end of chapter entitled “The Separation,” it says they entered together, so…. ya?Off and on in the greenhouse there are multiple churail, this seems inconsistent with what we learn from the one churail about leaving.  The whole climax needs a Cliff’s Notes synopsis.  I honestly have no idea what happened.  The churail was scared of the beast, but they all went off together, affectionately? I’m trying not spoil anything here.  Why was the churail so different at the beginning compared to the end, why did she get a growth arc, when the other characters didn’t? Shouldn’t there have been some cathartic reprieve verbalized between the mom and SPOILER (sorry I tried) Asad? I felt deprived.  

There were a few grammar errors, but because I read an ARC, I’m hoping they have been corrected

FLAGS:

There is a little bit of language (F word at least once).  Children are conceived, it isn’t explicit, but the fact that it happened is critical to the story.  There are crushes, angsty/longing, hand holding, hugging.  There is sexual assault implied as a major plot point, but not detailed.  There is death, and killing, often gruesome, some real, (hits harder), some far fetched.  The book is YA and  ok for high school readers and up in my opinion.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would be interested in seeing if some of the muddled passages are cleaned up in the published physical copy, the book’s characters are weak, but the historical fiction component is a story that needs to be shared more and more as we, collectively, seek to understand the past, the impact of colonization, and the emergence of telling our OWN voice stories.  For all the flaws, I haven’t completely written off the book, I’m hopeful that even if this one doesn’t make the cut for a book club, that inshaAllah the author will keep writing and filling in the blanks.

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

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I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well.  The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA.  The book is personable, relatable, and informative.  I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone.  The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect.  The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture.  Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters.  While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion.  But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies.  Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans.  The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity.  They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp.  Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning.  Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion.  The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace.  They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity.  Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten.  The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions.  The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.  The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.  

I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid.  It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood.  Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.

I love that sports and art are universal.  Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math.  He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability.  Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan.  He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper.  Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.

I love the diversity of everyone in each country.  Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a .  There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone.  I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims.   We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family.  That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.

FLAGS:

Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war.  It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that.  Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club.  It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect.  The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan.  He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed.  Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly.  The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.  

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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This 44 page fictionalized retelling of Queen Goharshad, a 15th century monarch of the Timurid dynasty in Afghanistan should really be a larger book than 8 x 8 to appreciate the artwork that is detailed and stunning.  The story of Goharshad, wife of Emperor Shah Rukh, and her influence on art, music, culture, higher education, and architecture, is one that we should be more familiar with, but the actual text and manner in which the story is conveyed isn’t consistent for me and I wanted more details about the society she stepped in to to rule,  I know it is fiction, and meant for 2nd to 4th graders, but I would like to think that readers will want to know what obstacles she had and what support she enjoyed and from where.  That they will question if it was a rich kingdom that she could pay musicians to play everywhere, and wonder if families sent their daughters to the University she built, ask why it wasn’t for women to design a  Masjid, and what was the name of the smaller mosque that bore an older woman’s name? The book at times overly summarizes and at other times is haltingly detailed.  It is a good read to reflect a strong woman and her influence on her land, but unless assigned, I don’t know that seven to ten year olds will pick up the book and be inspired by it enough to change their perception of the Afghanistan that they may see on the news.

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Seven centuries ago Goharshad loved beautiful things such as painting and the texts of Rumi.  Her brothers played at being like Genghis Khan and teased her for not being brave.  She vowed to be brave with beauty even though she didn’t know what that even meant.  At age 14 she was given in marriage to the king, Shah Rukh, in Herat.  She ruled with her husband and had resources and time to spread her beauty by speaking up and being brave.

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Her first act of beauty was by filling the kingdom with music.  She wanted music every day in the court and beyond. Music that was playful and pious, music that painted pictures in the listeners minds and brought joy like the laughter of God.  She next sketched and designed a beautiful and enchanting garden to be built.  It doesn’t say where it was, but that people came from all around to enjoy it.

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Feeling braver she turned her sights on building a mosque in the western city of Mashhad.  She designed it and called the court architect, Qavam al-Din Shirazi to discuss.  He doubted if it was right for a woman to design such spaces, but she assured him that she had the talent for it, so construction began.  An elderly woman refused to sell her cottage for the new project unless a mosque with her name was built.  The advisors wanted the old woman put to death or imprisoned, Goharshad disagreed appreciating the woman’s strength and instead agreed.  The big mosque was built with Goharshad’s name and a smaller one on the property with the old lady’s.

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With such an accomplishment complete, the Queen again summoned the architect and expressed her desire to build a great center for learning.  A college for girls, a grand mosque for prayer, and a vast library.  She wanted the structure decorated with paint from precious stones and sold her crown to finance the project.

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After her husband died Goharshad reigned, but sadly after she died, much of her accomplishments died as well.  Over time, harsh weather and war, nearly all her buildings disappeared and those that remain, do so in ruin.  The book ends with hope that memories of her will endure, A guide to some of the words in the story,  an Author’s note, and a Guide for Parents and Educators.

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There is not a lot of Islam in the story, just the building of masajid .  Some may take issue with her stress and celebration of music, and likening it to God laughing, but if you look at it as her story, it should be able to be appreciated even if you disagree.

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The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

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The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

img_8312This historical fiction piece about Malcolm X follows him through incarceration with flashbacks to his childhood and teenage years.  Written by his daughter it is hard to know where this 336 page book is factual and where it takes artistic freedom with filling in the blanks. A few creative liberties are mentioned in the author’s note at the end, but some sources in the back would help clarify, as she was a toddler when her father was killed. The time frame of Malcolm X’s life and a large portion of the book covers his introduction and conversion to The Nation of Islam, but it never mentions even in the timeline at the end that he left it, or that they were responsible for his assassination.  The book is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, it is also so very humbling and empowering. I just don’t know that younger middle school readers (the stated intended audience is 12-18), will really grasp the content, his condition, and his searching, while trying to keep all the characters, time frame references, and slang straight.  With the mention of his girlfriend who he is/was sleeping with, as well as the drugs, the alcohol, and the abuses occurring in prison, older teens might be able to handle the book better, and be tempted after to dig deeper to learn about him going for Hajj, becoming Sunni, changing some of his views, and ultimately being gunned down in front of his family.

SYNOPSIS:

Malcolm Little is living between Roxbury and Harlem and going by the nickname Detroit Red.  When the story opens, Malcolm and his friend Shorty are about to tried for stealing a watch, a crime that he acknowledges he committed, but undoubtedly doesn’t deserve 8-10  years in prison for at age 20.  Nearly every chapter starts with a flashback to an earlier time and then concludes with the atrocities of prison life at hand.  As the narrative flips back and forth Malcolm’s story and awakening emerges.

Born in Omaha the Little family’s home is burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, they move a few times as the growing family grows closer together and establish themselves as followers of Marcus Garvey in advocating for Blacks.  Malcolm’s preacher father is killed when Malcolm is six years old and his mother institutionalized when he is 13, for refusing to feed her children pork amongst other things, and thus leaving the family grasping as they know she isn’t crazy, yet cannot get her released.  Malcolm is incredibly bright and attends a nearly all white prep school, but even after being class president, a teacher discourages him from pursuing his dreams of being a lawyer, and Malcolm drops out of school and ends up being a hustler.  His white girlfriend, a married woman in Boston and her friends convince him to rob some wealthy white neighborhoods and when he later takes a stolen watch to be fixed he is arrested and found guilty of grand larceny, breaking and entering, possession and more.  He is sentenced to Charlestown State Prison and day-to-day life is rough.

The guards at the overcrowded prison are aggressive, the food un consumable, and being put in the hole as punishment is beyond inhuman.  Malcolm is filled with anger and rage and is still trying to hustle people.  He learns his family has become followers of The Nation of Islam and he doesn’t want to hear it, he doesn’t want to hear about his prison mates preaching the Bible and he doesn’t want to hear about God.  He feels betrayed by God and feels guilty for not being a man his father would be proud of, the refrain: up, up, you mighty race! echoes throughout.

Throughout it all his family’s love is felt in visits, letters, and warm memories of life before his incarceration.  His flashbacks to events in his childhood that defined him, inspired him, molded him, show what a beautiful family he had and how racism in large part destroyed it.  His parents valued education and discipline and his elder siblings carry that torch and pass it on to the younger children, they are a large family and their love is palpable for each other and for the liberation of Blacks in America.

Little’s sisters write letters and eventually get Malcolm transferred to a much nicer prison, Norfolk, where he really channels his rage into reform, determined not to leave the same man he entered as.  He has access to a full library, he joins the debate team, he takes classes, converts to The Nation of Islam and then refuses to get a polio shot and is sent back to Charleston for the remainder of his sentence.

The book concludes with his release, and teases that members of his family are becoming uneasy with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  At the very very end, he meets Betty, the lady who will be his wife.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this chunk of Malcolm X’s life shows the transformation of his thinking, how outside influences forced him to dig in to himself and reflect in such a profound way.  The book is as timely as ever as the systemic racism that is determined to see people of color fail is still running and growing.  There is a little mention of how veterans are treated better in other countries on the front lines than they are at home when they return that I wish was explored more, but there are so many characters that flit in and out of Malcolm’s prison world, it is hard to tell them apart as it is Malcolm’s story and his development that is being told.

Not surprisingly, I wish there was more about him converting to Sunni and going for Hajj.  The book stops before then and I am sure that most readers, will not understand the difference between The Nation, the Ahmadis mentioned, and Sunni Muslims.  This concerns me as the acceptance of Elijah Muhammad as a Prophet is hard to read.  I think some conversation with readers would be necessary as the book offers little if any to differentiate.

I like that each chapter starts with a direct quote of Malcolm X and the the fact that the relevance of his words in today’s world don’t need any explanations or context is devastatingly powerful.  I also appreciate how engaging and smooth the writing is.  You really feel the layers of Malcolm X the character, being pealed back and him coming into the proud confident leader that he is known to be.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, mention of him sleeping around, memories of kissing his girlfriend, alcohol consumption, cigarettes, drug use, violence, beatings, abuse.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this as a book club for middle school.  Possibly if I was a high school teacher I would offer it as outside reading or extra credit when reading about the Civil Rights Era, or if I was teaching the Alex Haley, Auto Biography of Malcolm X.

The Chronicles of Bani Israil: The King, Queen, and the Hoopoe Bird by Dr. Osman Umarji illustrated by Sama Wareh

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The Chronicles of Bani Israil: The King, Queen, and the Hoopoe Bird by Dr. Osman Umarji illustrated by Sama Wareh

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At 134 pages the fictionalized retelling of Prophet Sulaiman’s (AS) kingdom and interaction with Queen Bilqis comes to life from the point of view of a Hoopoe bird.  The book is marketed as a “Quranic fantasy adventure,” which I found a bit misleading.  The book is rooted in Quran and Hadith facts according to the author, and colored in to try and tie a story together, but even for 3rd and 4th graders I don’t know that there is much adventure or suspense.  As a prophet story it is pretty solid, but as an adventure book it seemed a bit scattered in its attempts to give history, draw in unrelated anecdotes and make it seem intense, when the dialogue suggested otherwise.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with the narrator setting the stage to tell his story of being in Prophet Sulaiman’s army nearly 3,000 years ago in the land of Sham.  Told in first person and  limited to what he saw, the Hoopoe bird (Hud-hud) addresses the reader and begins his tale.  He first gives some information about Hoopoe birds and Prophet Dawud (Prophet Sulaiman’s father), before lovingly describing Jerusalem and how the Bani Israil came to the land of Sham.

The first real glimpse of what kind of ruler Prophet Sulaiman is, is given with the detail allotted to how he repaired Masjid Al-Aqsa.  The bird then tells of Prophet Sulaiman’s many powers and gifts from Allah (swt), the ability to control the wind, control liquid metal, speak with animals, and of course the Jinn.  Slowly, the reader begins to understand how impressive Prophet Sulaiman’s kingdom is, not just by being told, but being shown, so to speak, and reminded pointedly by the Hoopoe that despite so much power how humble towards Allah swt, Prophet Sulaiman remained.

There is a tangent about his love of horses, before the Hud-hud takes center stage again as a spy in the powerful army of men, jinn, and animals. The story of the ants is shared and about half way through the book it is on one of the bird’s scouting missions that he sees a Queen and her people worshipping the sun.

The back and forth between Prophet Sulaiman and Queen Bilqis as Prophet Sulaiman urges the Queen to allow her people to worship Allah or risk invasion is a familiar tale and one the author asserts he tried to use only Islamic sources to include.

The book ends after the Queen has visited, embraced Islam, more anecdotes about Prophet Sulaiman’s wisdom are shared and how even in his death he attempted to show the doubting people the power and oneness of Allah swt.  The revelation of the termite breaking his walking stick and the retirement of the bird who had lived a most wondrous life, conclude the story before an Author’s Note at the end of the book.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Prophet stories and especially ones that are easy to read, memorable, and factual.  I think the book does a decent job in a fictionalized retelling of getting a lot of the important information in, albeit sometimes a bit forced, but keeping it on level for upper elementary and being clear and concise.  I didn’t stumble on grammatical mistakes or find parts confusing, it was well told and presented.  More than once in the book, I felt like it would have made a better oral story than written one.  The bird had to articulate how he knew stuff if he wasn’t there, and he kept asking the reader questions or telling them to pay attention.

The book is meant for Muslim kids and I wish there would have been footnotes or sources.

The illustrations were nice, they are full color but I am admittedly bias as I grew up writing letters to the illustrator who was my penpal for a few years.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Doesn’t fit my book club criteria, but definitely think kids would benefit from reading the story and discussing how the author shared the information, what they think the Hud-hud’s life was like and then maybe trying to retell a story of their own from a different perspective.

 

 

 

Allies by Alan Gratz

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Allies by Alan Gratz
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This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character.  While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel.  With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional.  An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.

SYNOPSIS:

The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy.  Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.

The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.

Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis.  What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim.  In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds.  When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.

19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.

Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can.  Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.

We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps.  But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux.   And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.

All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at.  The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense.  But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people.   The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are.  The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.

As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave.  To have a Muslim in  an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable.  There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.

FLAGS:

There is a bit of mild profanity.  There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson.  There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.

Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com

 

 

Islamic History for Kids: Story of Badr by Qasim Riaz

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Islamic History for Kids: Story of Badr by Qasim Riaz

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This fictional story of a non-fiction-historical event over 37 large, 12×12, pages really brings the battle of Badr to life for readers ages seven and up.  The book is engaging and keeps chidden focused, excited, and clear as to what is unfolding, why the battle was important for Muslims, and why it still has lessons today.  Unfortunately, there are no source notes, bibliography, or references in the book, so I’m not sure how accurate the details are, and I haven’t yet had a chance to have someone more knowledgeable than I check it for accuracy.  The ayats from the Quran quoted are identified in text and yes, I understand it isn’t a reference book, but even having some imam or scholar give their approval would reassure people considering purchasing the book.  Additionally, fairly prominently there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the book that says, “The characters in this book are entirely fictional.  Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental,” which is a common disclaimer, but in a book of this nature, it did strike me as odd.  So, you may want to read it first yourself before presenting it to your child as fact.

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There is also a typo that my children discovered rather quickly and pointed out to me, I was a little disheartened when I asked about it, to discover the author knew about it before mailing it out, but for some reason didn’t find it necessary to put a note or let the customer be aware of it. I put a post-it note in mine to show all of you, and will be taking a black marker to it shortly.  Mistakes and typos happen, but I felt that they should have let the consumer know, once they knew that it was there, for accuracy sake.

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The book starts off with a brother and sister fighting, Zain and Zahrah.  When the father goes to stop them, Zain tells him that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) used to fight, and the father concedes the point, but points out it was not something he wanted to do.  He tells them that for the first 13 years he didn’t fight back even when the Quraysh made fun of him.

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The kids ask who the Quraysh are and why they didn’t believe the Prophet, to which the father lovingly answers their questions before telling him about the verses revealed allowing them to fight from Surah Al-Baqarah.

They learn about Abu Sufyan returning from Syria with a large caravan and how the Prophet wanted to surprise them. Only to learn that Abu Sufyan had arranged a much larger army from Mecca to come and attack the Prophet and his Companions.

There are details about how they determined the size of the army based on how many camels were being eaten, and how the Muslims camped near the wells to control the water.  The story reads smoothly and pulls out when the children have questions seamlessly.

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As the battle is set 1000 soldiers against 313 Muslims, the book explains how the battle starts with three duels and explains how Utbah, Shaiba and Walid battle Hamza (RA), Ali (RA), and Ubaydah (RA).  The Ansar win all three battles and the Quraysh charge.

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Prophet Muhammad (SAW) makes duas, and Allah (SWT) answers sending a thousand angels following one after another to help.

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When the dust settles the Muslims are victorious and the order is given for the prisoners to be treated kindly.  They are given food, rides, and the opportunity to pay a ransom for their freedom or they could teach 10 Muslims to read and write in exchange for their release.

With the story concluded the father then makes sure the children understand some of the many lessons from the battle.  Including having Allah on your side, trusting Allah, putting in your best effort, and being kind and generous even to those against you.

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There is no illustrator listed, but the pictures are done really well showing modern relatable, squabbling kids getting drawn in to a historical story by their father.  The emotion on the characters faces adds depth to the story and engages the readers in seeing and understanding a desert battle so long ago.

The text on some pages varies quite noticeably, with some pages barely having a line to spare and some only being a line or two long.  It does slightly affect the rhythm (and aesthetic) of the book, but it is manageable as long as you remember to give the kids enough time to see the picture on the short pages, as the overall size makes the book perfect for story time to large and small groups.  The book stays on level, which is nice, and there is a glossary of abbreviated terms (AS, RA, SAW, SWT) at the end.

The company: Ghazi Production is planning Uhud to be the next book, and informed me a bibliography will be included in that one.  InshaAllah!