Tag Archives: History

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

ABC’s of Pakistan by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Michile Khan

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ABC’s of Pakistan by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Michile Khan

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I absolutely love this ABC book, it truly does Pakistan proud and I’m thrilled that I could obtain it, it wasn’t easy, sorry not sure where you can get it in the USA, and it isn’t available even at Liberty Books in Karachi, but if you can find it, grab a copy, or two because it really is a well done tour of the country.  My only suggestions would be thicker pages, the hardback 8.5 x 11 binding is nice, but the pages seem to have curled in the transporting from overseas.  Also, some pages have a large A or E, but others such as the words for B, C, D, are just all flowing story style over a two page spread.  I don’t mind one way or another, but I do side with consistency, either have the letter on all pages singled out, or on none.  The effort to string the pages together makes it read very much like a story, and I appreciate that it features little snippets of fact and history in talking bubbles throughout.

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Little Hassan and his cat Makhan introduce themselves and then take you on a tourney of Pakistan.  Included are landmarks, handicrafts, foods, famous people, festivals, sports, and more.  It concludes with a reminder to carry facemasks and hand sanitizers, which might date the book a little in the future, it was published in 2020.

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The book works for non Pakistani’s to learn, especially those of us with children that have not been to the “homeland,” as well as for Pakistanis in Pakistan to feel proud of their culture, history, tradition, and landmarks.  There are beautiful masjids and the azaan mentioned and hijab wearing and non wearing women, as well as famous men and women included.  It is inclusive on the F for festivals page where it mentions Eid, Basant, Christmas, Diwali, and Children’s Literature Festival.

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Enjoyable text and illustrations alike. InshaAllah, will be more readily available if we can convince the author and illustrator and publisher that there is demand, I hope, hint hint.  Happy Reading!

The Katha Chest by Radhiah Chowdhury illustrated by Lavanya Naidu

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The Katha Chest by Radhiah Chowdhury illustrated by Lavanya Naidu

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This 40 page picture book for preschoolers and up shows connection to family, memories, and Bangladeshi culture as a little girl explores the quilts made from her Maa and aunts’ worn out saris.  This book has been on my radar for a while and while there is nothing wrong with the slow and thoughtful story, it didn’t sweep me up in a hug and wow me, as I had hoped it would.  The illustrations are as critical as the words in conveying the message, and the illustrations are indeed beautiful, I guess I just needed more.  More connection to the emotion the little girl was feeling recalling the strong women in her life, more impact to the fact that her Nanu is no longer with them, and more understanding about the history of Bangladesh that seems to shape the memories.  I worry that most readers simply won’t get anything other than the surface level of the book, which is ok, the memories woven through generations manifesting in quilts, is tangible and perhaps enough.  I feel like, however, the framing of the story and the textless illustration pages attempted to add more layers to the story, and I think to anyone not Bangladeshi, those layers might not be understood.  I wish their was an afterward with notes about the pictured references, inclusion of such backmatter would really open the book up to a wider audience, and give the book discussion and staying power in my opinion.  If you are Bangladeshi this book will be a treasure I’m sure, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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Asiya loves going to her Nanu’s house, there are treasures there.  Her favorite treasure is the katha chest.  An old trunk full of the quilts made from the old worn out saris of her Nanu, Maa, and khalas. She snuggles in their warmth and listens to the stories they tell. Stories of hardship, joy, skills learned, moves made, loss, death, love and family.

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Boro Khala’s looks like Khalu’s medal, from a sad time when he was away.  Mejo Khala bright oranges and yellow like her fingers.  Shejo Khala’s is stiff and neat, she is never messy.  Choto Khala’s has a white streak like the white saris she wears since Khalu died.  Maa’s katha is patchworked and different than the others, and Nanu’s is paper thin and smells of tea, old books, porcelain and wood.

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There is an author’s note and illustrator’s note detailing the construction and value of kathas, but nothing about Bangladeshi wars, wearing white after a husband’s death, or the textile skills and artistry shown.  The book would read well with context or activities about family heirlooms, connections, and traditions.

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A Sari for Ammi by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

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A Sari for Ammi by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

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This book combines knowledge with a sweet story and a spunky narrator.  Over 32 brightly illustrated pages the reader learns about the art of dyeing yarn, weaving, and the tradition of weaving saris in India moving from Mysore to Kaithoon in Kota.  The little girl loves it all, helping her father dye the threads, and watching her mother work the loom.  It often takes a month to make a sari, and her mother makes beautiful saris, but she never wears them.  With the help of her older sister Sadaf, the little girl hopes to earn enough money to gift her mother a beautiful sari to wear.  It will take a lot of work, some community help, and some sacrifice, but Ammi is worth it and the girls are up for the challenge.  Preschool to early elementary readers will enjoy learning about the daily life of these amazing Indian Muslim artisans and a craft that they perhaps were not aware existed.

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The buffalo are sleeping, but in the afternoon Abba is busy dyeing threads, and mama is weaving colors into prints of mangoes, peacocks, birds, leaves, and flowers.  The whole family helps.  Abba goes to the haat to sell the completed saris.  Sometimes Mama goes as well, but she doesn’t wear the saris, she wears worn-out salwar-kameezes.

One day, when Ammi finishes a particularly beautiful sari the little girl asks her to keep it, but her Ammi says, “If we keep the saris, how will we eat?”  The little girl doesn’t understand, they don’t eat saris.

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Sadaf explains to her little sister that the only way their Ammi will wear a sari is if they buy her one.  So the little girl breaks her bank apart to count the money she has and convinces Sadaf that the things they wanted with the money are nothing compared to how much they want something for their mother.

But Sadaf says they only have enough money for a towel, not a sari, so the girls gather some items to sell to the junk man.  They have enough to buy Ammi a duputta, but still not a sari.

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They wander home through the wheat field trying to come up with other money raising ideas.  The wheat remind the little girl of worshippers on Eid day- all praying together at the mosque.  The little girl remembers that sometimes their neighbor Amina Khala purchases dyed threads from them and they rush over to see if she has any work for them.  Luckily she does, and they have just enough to buy a sari for Ammi and be rewarded with a smile and tears from their beloved and talented mother.

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The book has an information page at the end about The Saris of Kaithoon, as well as a glossary.  The story ends a bit abruptly, but the teardrop in the illustrations, the hugging, and the smile, do provide a universal relatability to parents everywhere when their children gift them something so genuinely from the heart.  The illustrations also show women with their heads covered going about their daily life.

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

FLAGS:

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.

 

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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Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories from Ancient Times to Present Day by Wafa’ Tarnowska

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Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories from Ancient Times to Present Day by Wafa’ Tarnowska

img_7464A nonfiction picture book for teens that features amazing women from ancient times to the present day.  Many of the women featured are Muslim and each entry receives a teasing summation page with a full page portrait from one of five international artists before a two page, more in-depth biography is presented.  The 112 pages feature an introduction, and a map to start the book off, and acknowledgements and a glossary at the end.  There are large time gaps that I wish would have been commented on, the geographical pool includes India which surprised me, and in one of the entries the way hijab is discussed seemed judgmental to me, but other than that the stories are absolutely remarkable.  There are amazing women in every culture and throughout all time periods, but to see one that highlights a region that is stereotypically oppressive to women is a sight for sore eyes.  I learned so much and marveled at the intellect, bravery and determination shown from being rulers of empires to intellectuals to scientists and artists everything in between.

The book starts with Nefertiti born in 1370 BCE and concludes with Zahra Lari, a hijab wearing ice skater from the United Arab Emirates born in 1995.  There are “celebrities” such as Amal Clooney, Fairuz, Cleopatra, Sheherazade and many that might not be as well known.

I particularly enjoyed learning about Zenobia the 3rd century warrior queen who conquered a third of the Roman empire in just five years.  Sufi mystic and poet Rabi’a al Adawiyya and her devotion to Allah swt.  Eqyptian Shajarat al-Durr who was nicknamed Queen of the Muslims in the 13th century.  And Hurrem Sultan from the Ottoman Empire.

Not every one featured was a ruler or married to one, and not are so far in the past, which in many ways gives the collection it’s charm.  Somayya Jabarti was the first female editor-in-chief in Saudi Arabia in 2014 and  Maha al Balushi is the first Omani woman to fly professionally for her country’s airline in 2010, examples of two women presented that cracked the glass ceiling by following their own dreams.

It is great to learn about the strength of the women from the past and see how to add to the legacy.  The book is a great reference, as well as a source of inspiration for people of all backgrounds to enjoy and appreciate.  I found the book at my local public library in the YA/Teen nonfiction women section.

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

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Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

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This 165 page AR 3.9 book about the 42 days in 1991 that Iraq was at war with the United States is told from an 11 year old half Kurdish Christian boy’s perspective, but he mentions that he has friends that are Muslim and culturally and historically the book is relevant, important, and engaging as well.  I had my 9, 11, and 13 year old read it to gain perspective of the Gulf War, the difference between politics and people, and to see diverse religions co-existing despite stereotypes, especially in the middle east.

SYNOPSIS:

Ali gets the highest score on his Atari console the day that the bombs start falling.  Ali and his brothers Shirzad and Ahmed, and sister Shireen along with their parents retreat to the safest room in the upper middle class home to hopefully stay safe.  With experience of surviving the Iran-Iraq war which ended just three years earlier, the kids camp out at night in the room farthest from the nearby school and spend their days playing soccer in the abandoned streets.  The safe room was determined by knowing that Saddam uses his own people as human shields and places military installments in public service locations so that he can use propaganda to try and convince people that the enemy is bombing schools and hospitals intentionally to harm the innocent.

When the electricity goes out and the water cuts off, the family is forced to accept government rations.  Their dad is a dentist, but as he is essentially property of the state, he is forced to work as a medic and is often absent from home.  The family lives in Basra, which is in southern Iraq and near to the invaded Kuwait, thus all the troops pass through the city and the children spend their days keeping up their house, playing soccer with their friend Mustafa and trying to avoid the bullies Omar and Umar who’s father is in Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.

Ali speaks English because of his love of American TV and feels that if he can meet some US soldiers he will convince them that he should be in America not in Saddam’s Iraq.  He loves Superman, video games, soccer, his family, and his country, but the people, not the leader, he loathes Saddam, even though he knows he can’t ever speak ill of him.

A trip to get rations results in Ali seeing public executions and a colleague of his math professor mother’s getting hauled away.  A visit from their cousin gives them news that their father is missing. Life is not easy for the family, and yet they know they have it better than a lot of other people.  After the war, once again the family will have to put back together their lives and carry on.

The book concludes with a 14 year jump and Ali translating at the trial of Saddam Hussein where the leader who has been hiding is found guilty and sentenced to be killed by hanging.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ali is so relatable, he could really be a kid anywhere which makes what he sees and hears and experiences all the more intense.  The way that the book shows how the soldiers are forced to be soldiers, the citizenry at the mercy of the government, and the inability to speak freely so very real and frightening, is strong, but not traumatizing to the reading audience.  Even Ali being forced to observe the killing of  people in the street is handled with the target audience in mind.  They are Kurdish and had to deal with that within Iraqi society, which is a nice added layer to understanding that Iraqis are not a single monolith.  I love how the family had to go to the governor’s house and how nice his son was, even though, they are all Ba’ath Party members and part of the larger oppressive system.  It shows that things aren’t always black and white, and to convey all this to eight and nine year olds so clearly is quite remarkable.

I also like that the book holds up over time.  My kids had no idea what Atari is or was, but they could understand that it is a video game, and that it was an escape during the night for Ali to imagine he was playing a game trying to catch the falling bombs as a way to be brave and endure.

FLAGS:

Execution, death.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club, it is a bit short and definitely more middle grades, but it would allow kids to identify and imagine and discuss war through the fictional characters and voice their understandings of an authoritarian government structure, which would be interesting.

Author’s Reading Guide: http://www.jenniferroy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Playing-Atari-Teacher-Guide.pdf

 

 

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

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Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

boy

I was not expecting to be so absorbed by this 362 page AR 5.4 book.  I knew it was about a Syrian refugee in Brussels and his friendship with an American kid living in Europe for a year, so I knew that Islamaphobia and immigration would all be factors.  I also knew that as a middle grade book it would be optimistic, and a bit of a stretch at times,  but when I had to pause in the first chapter to wipe the tears off my cheek, I knew that while it could be billed as, another refugee story, it really was going to be a poignant story about humanity and friendship and family and making a difference, so I settled in and was swept off to Belgium and the adventure of two determined kids.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with 14-year-old Ahmed on a boat with his father hoping to reach Greece from Turkey, when the boat stalls, his father and two other men, the only other people on the dinghy that know how to swim, jump into the sea to drag the boat.  When a storm swell hits them, his father is lost and Ahmed, who left Syria when an explosion killed his mom and sisters, is all alone.

Max is 13 and his parents and sister have just arrived in Belgium for a year.  Not a great student, Max learns that he will be going to a local school where French is spoken, and will be repeating 6th grade.  Less than thrilled with the news, he is additionally hurt that his parents didn’t tell him first.

The two stories start off separate with Max trying to find his footing in school and scouts where he understands very little, and has no desire to learn, and is also getting picked on by a kid named Oscar.  He learns about the history of his street and house during World War II from his after school tutor and a police officer that used to live in the house they are renting and makes regular checks on how it is being maintained.  

 Ahmed has been staying with Ibrahim and his family, another man that tried to drag the boat in the sea, but with news that they are probably going to be forced to return to Iraq, suggests that Ahmed register in as an unaccompanied minor so that he could find a place to stay.  Ahmed knows that if he registers in Beligium he will never make it to England, he hires a smuggler for 300 Euros to get him there.  When the smuggler steals his money and his phone, Ahmed worries his organs could be next, and jumps out of the moving car,  

Ahmed runs through a neighborhood looking for shelter and safety and some warmth from the frigid air.  Ahmed finds the basement of a house unlocked, he then finds a wine cellar room that is empty and decides to stay for the night as he figures out his next step. One day turns in to two and before he knows it, he has a routine of finding food upstairs during the night, which he records so that he can repay the family one day, caring for the family’s discarded orchids, and working on his English.  Then one day Max goes downstairs and discovers Ahmed living there.

Deciding he isn’t a terrorist, Max decides not to turn Ahmed in nor tell his parents, and the two become friends.  The two enlist Farah, a nice Muslim girl at school to help, and they get Oscar too, to forge papers to get Ahmed in to school.  While the biggest problem should be keeping a kid hidden in the basement, and keeping him fed and entertained, the situation is compounded as terrorist attacks by Muslim extremist plague the city and Europe, making everyone on high alert.  The police keep checking in and anti immigrant sentiment rises.  When Ahmed gets accused of being a bomb maker his secret is out, but can his knowledge of how a jewish boy was hidden in the neighborhood during the war keep him free? Nope, I’m not going to spoil it, you have to read it, trust me, you’ll thank me for it!

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love, love, love, the history parallel, and the truth in the story of Albert Jonnart and Ralph Mayer that is woven into this modern fictional story.  I love that Max so plainly says that the stories are the same and that laws that aren’t right shouldn’t be followed, yes! The book reads a lot like Refugee by Alan Gratz crossed with The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf with the kids being so heroic and determined and awesome, throw in a dash of The Diary of Anne Frank, switching out a boy for a girl, a Muslim for a Jew, the basement for the attic, and a diary for a fictional story, and you have this book.

I love that the adventure and excitement shows how resourceful kids can be even when they don’t share common language.  Max speaks English and is learning French, he is helping Ahmed learn better English and some French, when they talk to Farah who speaks Moroccan Arabic /Berber, they often have to go through Oscar who speaks French and English.  Yay, for American television and kids who’s hearts are bigger than the obstacles they are taking on.  Additionally, when the kids hit a dead end, they reach out to Jews in America for help, knowing that the two religions have more in common than politicians and the media would like to think.  Seriously, kids should rule the world.

Ahmed is a religious boy that prays, refuses meat even when hungry to ensure it is halal, and makes sure that Max knows in Islam kindness and charity are the norm and commands, not the violence that people are doing in the name of his religion.  A lot of the moms of the kids at school where hijab, and the author gets the Islam right and believable.  It doesn’t get preachy, but a fair amount of information about Islam is shared.

FLAGS:

A lot of lying. Some violence, death, hate speech. There is mention of smoking and the adults I think drink wine at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m hoping to do this as a middle school book club selection, because it really is so good.

Author’s website: https://katherinemarsh.com/books/nowhere-boy/

Teaching: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tid=60364