Tag Archives: hope

My Baba’s House: A Poem of Hope by Dr. Amani Mugasa illustrated by Eman Salem

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My Baba’s House: A Poem of Hope by Dr. Amani Mugasa illustrated by Eman Salem

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I wanted to love this Islamic centered children’s book about grief, but I found it a bit problematic and misleading.  I am by no means an expert in Islamic matters of death or in psychological bereavement, but the note at the beginning of the book- if I wasn’t already going to look at it critically- really raised some warning flags.  It says that the book is not an instructional book on Aqeedah, that even though the title and whole story is about a house being built that “the book only expresses the idea that we hope and pray that Baba’s good deeds will lead him to Jannah, that that the rest of the family will meet him there one day, not that he is there already.” So, before you even start the story, it seems that the disclaimer is making it clear that this book is not religiously accurate, and that it is just meant to soothe and provided hope.  After taking all that in to consideration, and reading the 26 pages of text over a dozen times, I think I finally pinpointed why the book further reads problematic for me.  It is the repeating phrase, “Your Baba has been building a beautiful house for you,”  because he hasn’t right? He has built a house for himself through his good deeds in this duniya, he benefited HIS parents by being a righteous Muslim.  The words “for you” completely take the book in my head from being a slight suspension of timing where the deceased are, in to be misleading.  So if the book is not accurately framed and only to be taken as something “to open the discussion,” what is the point? Why fill it with Islamic references and concepts, if they will then have to be clarified, corrected, and re taught?  Sigh, I’m happy to listen to those that want to change my mind, truly I am.

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The rhyming book starts out with a mom and two kids being consoled by the text that their Baba has been building a house for them with Allah’s help.  That it is amongst the flowers, made with Allah’s powers. That with every good deed he did, their Baba becomes a builder, that there are pure rivers and trees, and that the house is hidden through Allah’s gate.

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To find their Baba’s house they will walk with Prophets, and see ripe fruits, and smell sweet musk.  There will be rivers of milk and he will carry them above his head.  The illustrations on this page are a little off in my opinion the shadows of a person elevating and even the girl looks a little concerned.

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I like that the next spread addresses that only Allah knows when the day will come that we reunite. And then the next pages tell how the children can help decorate their Baba’s house by calling adhaan, reading Qur’an, being kind, giving charity, and making duas.

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The book concludes with encouraging patience and finding reassurance in knowing we belong to Allah and to Him we return.

With the exception of the one page, the illustrations are adequate and show a mixed racial family.  The rhyming lines are rather weak, and ultimately there are just better books out there about grief that don’t have to be so qualified for accuracy.

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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The hype is correct: this book is moving, impactful, powerful, reflective, all the feels.  The writing superb, the plot gritty, the characters seem real, so real.  One of my all time favorite authors is John Irving because every word seems deliberate in his books, not every plot point or every paragraph, every. single. word.  And it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that strikes me in that same vein of the author being so in control of the story, and my (the reader’s) emotions being so completely at the mercy of the words to come.  I think I could read this book five more times and each time peel back a new layer and see something I hadn’t seen, or understood, or felt before.  I cried, I cheered, I sighed and unclenched my jaw, and I am still haunted by the lives of the characters.  Not just the “main” ones.  All of them, they all are real and fleshed out and have character arcs and live in shades of gray.  There are no checkboxes for skin tone or religion or sexual preference they each are more than a label, they are complex and real.  I could easily be convinced that they are in fact real people and that their world and stories are not fiction at all.  That is how well it reads, that is how hard it is to close the window on the world they let us see.  The book is YA (374 pages) and with the drugs, abuse, alcohol, relationship, complexities of it all, I would think 16 year old’s and up can, strike that, should, read this book.  The characters are Muslim, but it never even goes near being preachy, these are complex characters and stories, and remarkably there is no internalized Islamophobia or watering anything down, each character deals with faith, like everything else, in their own way.

SYNOPSIS:

The story bounces between the past in Lahore, Pakistan and the present in Juniper, California.  In Lahore it is Misbah’s story and in the desert it is her son’s, Salahudin and a girl she has taken under her wing, Noor’s.  When the book starts we see Sal with a drunk father dropping him off at school where his girlfriend is waiting, and his best friend, Noor, not speaking to him for the last few months after she confessed to bein in love with him.  Noor lives with her uncle after her entire village in Pakistan was destroyed when she was 6, and he wants nothing to do with Pakistan, Islam, or Noor going to college.  He owns a liquor store and makes Noor work there.  Sal’s mom is sick and has always been their for Noor, so when she takes a turn for the worse, Noor and Sal are brought back together, Noor’s uncle is enraged that she is missing shifts, and Sal’s father is constantly searching for the bottom of a bottle.  Things are bad, but they are about to get a whole lot worse.  Sal’s mom dies, the motel Sal’s family owns is in severe debt and the options for saving it are less than ideal.  The small town starts to feel familiar as everyone’s stories are fleshed out in Juniper and Lahore and two star-crossed narrators are forced to confront both the stresses of high school and impending adulthood, and deep, dark realities of abuse, loss, and generational trauma.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could have been a thousand pages, and it still would have felt too short.  Much like her fantasy writing, the book seems to start with world building and roping the reader in to thinking that they can handle what is about to come, then much like a band-aid being pulled off, the pain hits, and the wound starts bleeding again.  Somehow despite it all, you can’t look away, you can’t stop reading, there is hope.  Hope for the characters, hope for happy endings, hope for survival and peace.

I absolutely love the quality of writing, things dangled early on, come back, often with subtly and restraint that you could easily miss them.  When discussing the book with @muslimmommyblog, I felt like we both were finding threads we had possibly not considered and connections that added nuance and staying power to the plot.

So often, the more religious a character in literature is, the stricter they are presented, the less kind they are seen, but in this book it was the opposite, the loving couple were the imam and his defense attorney wife, the glue that radiated kindness to Sal, Noor, and so much of the town is a hijab wearing strong woman.  So many tropes and stereotypes were uprooted, tossed aside, and reimagined.  There is compassion for a Muslim alcoholic, a liquor store being the employment of a Muslim, consequences for dealing drugs, yet nothing “haram” is really ever glorified, it is gritty and repulsive, but there is no judgement, there is only understanding and sadness.  Palpable despair that rattles your bones and makes you wish the world was different.

I don’t want to spoil the book, I was able to read it largely not knowing what the plot would delve in to. In many ways the trigger warning at the beginning was the only thing that braced me for what was to come. The level of religion and how it was woven is through the gentleness of some of the characters and hatred of others, was expertly done.  There are not ayats in the Quran quoted or speeches given, there is love, and faith and hope that manifest as duas and longing and finding ways to be Muslim in action, not just in appearance. When the characters start to make-out their Islamic conscious is drawn in, when they grapple with their hope and future- trust in something bigger is considered. It is not a Muslim book, not even an Islam centered book, perhaps Muslamic, but really about characters who are Muslim and dealing with the cards they have been dealt.

FLAGS:

Alcohol use, drug use, relationships, kissing, touching, longing, language, physical assault, physical violence, domestic violence, hate, racism, stereotyping, Islamophobia, there are mentions of a lesbian relationship and a bi relationship, a child out of wedlock, death, addiction, sexual assault, repressed trauma, bullying, teasing, lying, music,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have a 15 year old daughter, and I probably will have her read the book this summer, I think there is a lot to discuss and I think in the right hands the book could be used for a high school book club.

The Unexpected Friend: A Rohingya Children’s Story by Raya Rashna Rahman illustrated by Inshra Sakhawat Russell

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The Unexpected Friend: A Rohingya Children’s Story by Raya Rashna Rahman illustrated by Inshra Sakhawat Russell

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I have mixed feelings about this book. On the surface I am thrilled that there is a story highlighting the plight of the Rohingya for children and that it includes some character depth and relatability to global readers. On the flip side, the book is very vague and could be any refugee in any camp and is not Rohingya specific. Additionally, I feel that it is too idyllic. I am no expert by any means, I wouldn’t even say that I am well-versed, but the book paints an impression of a thriving organized camp with medical help, orderly food lines and a vibrant school. Yes, it talks about the lines being long, and naturally if you are out collecting firewood, it is a bit rugged, but I don’t know that the lasting impression is a humanitarian crises. I understand that in a 36 page, kindergarten to 2nd grade book, political complexities and horrors are not a natural platform, but I worry that the aim of bringing attention to the situation will miss its mark by not capturing its truth more clearly.

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Faisal has just finished his afternoon prayer and while outside the mosque he hears a faint chirping and discovers a small bird with a hurt wing.  He and his friend Rahim take the bird to the learning center to be cared for while the boys head to the forest to collect firewood.

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The forest can be dangerous, but in order to cook, they must have wood to burn.  While in the forest, the boys encounter an elephant and remark on how they are depleting the animals’ natural habitat.  When leaving Faisal trips and falls, scattering his collected firewood and breaking his arm.

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Rahim offers to share his firewood with Faisal and the two head back to camp to get Faisal to the doctor.    Like the bird, who’s wing has been bandaged, Faisal now too has a hurt appendage.  The two spend every minute together for weeks, and when both have healed, Faisal admits he doesn’t want to let the bird free. He knows it is the right thing to do and alas allows the bird to go.

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The book has an afterword regarding Cox’s Bazar and information about the author and Save the Children Foundation.

Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Set in Daraya, and based on a real events in Syria, as well as the author’s own life in Lebanon, this 32 page elementary and up story does an amazing job of showing relatable childhood adventures and ingenuity shining through even in the most horrific of environments.  The book is inspiring and warm, but the backdrop of war is very much present.  Some young children may be bothered by the images and text, while others will benefit from understanding the humanity that is affected by such violence.  I know the book says the pages are not final, but I wanted to put it out to help drum up interest.  I feel this story would best work in intimate settings where discussion, compassion, and gratitude can all intuitively transpire.

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Nour’s best friend is her cousin Amir, they love to read and imagine adventure and secret societies.  As their dream to create a secret club, complete with a secret password and handshake, for them and their friends starts to come to fruition, war arrives first. 

Families are forced to seek shelter away from the bullets at night in their basements, and only are allowed to venture out when absolutely necessary.  Every time Amir goes out, he collects any books he finds, and encourages his friends to do the same.  

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They begin sorting the books, and trying to decide what to do with them, when Nour has an idea to create a secret library.  Everyone pitches in when an empty, half destroyed basement is located, and the books are moved and set up on discarded planks of wood.  A boy next door is entrusted with the secret handshake and becomes the deputy librarian.

As word spreads, everyone from boys and girls to soldiers and rescuers, collect books to stock the shelves and checkout books to keep their minds busy.  The library, named Fajr, is open every day from morning to evening and closed during Jummah.  It becomes the city’s best kept secret and a source of hope for the community.

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There are references at the back that tell about the true story of the Secret Library in Syria, the author’s memories of hiding in the basement in Lebanon, a glossary of terms, information about Syria, the illustrator’s research, information about the war, and famous libraries in the Middle East.

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Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Uma Mishra-Newbery and Lina Al-Hathloul illustrated by Rebecca Green

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Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Uma Mishra-Newbery and Lina Al-Hathloul illustrated by Rebecca Green

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This 40 page early elementary book based on the efforts of the real life woman, Loujain AlHathloul, and her work to change the laws regarding women driving in Saudi Arabia, had a lot of promise.  Unfortunately, the symbolism connecting flying and driving, just didn’t work for me.  No one can flap their arms and fly, so to demand gender equality for an unrealistic action, is a big stretch that ultimately stretches itself too thin.  There is nothing Islamic, except women wearing a hijab in a few illustrations, or even Saudi specific in the book.  It talks of the desert, but the country is unnamed.   Overall, I just had so many questions such as: if she was flying before sunrise- how was she not seen returning from the sunflower patch, can women then never leave an area, are there ways they can fly as passengers, are there other modes of transportation, at what age are children allowed to fly, and so many more, that they prevented me from being inspired by the story.

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The book starts with Loujain believing in her self and knowing that one day she will fly.  She dreams of a place of a million sunflowers, a picture her dad has given her inspires her to seek out bright colors, capture them on film, and hang them in her room.

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In the morning her father straps on his wings, and flies off.  Loujain is not allowed to fly because she is a girl.  Her family tells her that one day she will.  When she tells the kids at school, they laugh at her.  When she pushes her dad to teach her, her mother advocates that he should.

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Loujain and her father practice flying before the sun rises, and finally they make the long journey to see the sunflowers.  Her father takes a picture of Loujain, and it appears the next day in the newspaper.  Other girls are inspired and begin to demand the right to fly too.

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I love the mom in the book, and her encouraging of Loujain’s dad to teach her.  She asks him, “if you don’t support her, who will?” I don’t know why the mom isn’t wearing a hijab on the last page though.  It seems like there is a subtle message there about hijab being legally required as well.

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The book is a reach, and for me it didn’t connect or leave an impression.  The information about the prison sentence and push back to achieve the legal change was far more interesting and memorable, but only a few paragraphs long at the end.

A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Peggy Collins

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A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Peggy Collins

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I know many of you are thinking, another book about school for girls in Afghanistan, and given the reception by most to the author’s first book, The Library Bus,  I can sense the rolling eyes.  I was in the minority on that one, as I enjoyed it, but, this one is simpler, sweeter, more universal while being complimented by culture, and I hope it is a more authentic and accurate OWN voice portrayal.  I know I have a lot to learn about white washing narratives and breaking down colonial paradigms, so I promise if you disagree I will listen.  But I genuinely enjoyed the illustrations and little Aria finding a way to make a bench so she could sit comfortably at school with her prosthetic leg.  The girls go to school, and the furniture was burned to keep warm in the winter, a concept that the author verifies at the end as something experienced in his own life.  Aria has to find a way to sit in class because she wants to learn, and lack of wood working experience, resources, and doubt that a girl can do it from her classmates, isn’t going to stop her.  Over 32 pages, early elementary age children will meet a determined young girl as she pieces together scraps to build a bench.

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Aria has been in the hospital for a while after an accident took her leg.  She is excited to be back at school, but quickly realizes it is hard to sit on the floor with her new helper leg.  She tries leaning on the wall, standing even, but just getting up and down off the floor is really difficult.  At home when she mentions it to her mom, her mom reassures her that she can get through it and her little brother offers to help her carry her things.

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That night Aria considers how much she would miss school if she isn’t able to figure something out.  Then she has an idea, she’ll build a bench.  At school the next morning, classmates tell her “Girls don’t build benches,” but Aria responds, “I can do anything a boy can.”

With that, a single friend joins Aria as they comb the city for discarded wood, broken furniture, screws, and nails.  They assemble the resources and when they have enough Aria and her mom head across town, past the Blue Mosque, to visit the carpenter, Kaka Najar.  He shows them how to fit the pieces together like a puzzle and loans them the tools needed to be successful.  He even gifts her some sky-blue paint, “the color of courage, peace, and wisdom.”

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That weekend Aria and her mom and little brother build a bench, paint it blue, and get it to school.  When the other students see it, their excitement bubbles and they imagine building tables, book cases, and more.  Anything is possible after all, there is paint left in the can and they are willing to work together.

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There is nothing religious in the text, save the mention of walking past a mosque, but in the illustrations the women are all covering their heads when they are out, and are uncovered at home, the school uniform seems to be a white hijab and black abaya.  I wish there were some Pashto words sprinkled, and it was a bit off that she was building a bench, but the finished project was a bench and table. The end has an Author’s Note and I enjoy seeing the smiling faces and bright illustrations in a book set in Afghanistan.

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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.  

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.