Tag Archives: Islam

A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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This Secret Garden retelling mixes the heart of the original with a dash of modernity, the flavor of desi culture, and the lyricism of a good writer.  Over 368 pages the slow plot but rich imagery will draw readers in, hold their attention, and leave them thinking about the characters they have been fortunate to spend time with on Long Island.  Islam is practiced and normalized and naturally woven into the Muslim characters’ daily lives without othering or over explaining.  I did struggle a bit trying to keep the relationships of who was supposed to be caring for the protagonist at various points since her parent’s died clear, but once I abandoned stressing about it I was able to be swept away.  I recently reread The Secret Garden with my own children and the original is not plot heavy, nor action packed, but I watched as my own children were drawn to the slower, more grounded (pun intended) nuanced tale, and I think this book, in the same vein, will find its way in to the hearts of middle grade readers.  The book is clean, there is a possible crush hinted very slightly at the end, periods are also endured, and I do have reservations of the terrible marital relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Clayborne, but it establishes that change will occur, so at least it isn’t normalized.  There are sprinkles of magic implied regarding the house, but it is always framed without clarity and in a subtle way to set the tone and the emotions the characters are feeling more than centralizing something rooted (see I did it again) in fantasy.

SYNOPSIS:

The book updates and mirrors the original fairly well with an obstinate orphan arriving at a sprawling house, finding a prickly boy, and setting off to form a tentative toleration of one another with friendly neighbor kids in a garden that is unquestionably off limits.

Maria Latif arrives from Pakistan against her will to be taken in by a distant relative (I’m not sure how she is related), but Asra has been called away and she is forced to stay with Lyndsay, the new wife of Mr. Clayborne.  The first wife was a friend of Maria’s family, but Lyndsay is just as emotionally overwhelmed and lost as the child in her charge.  With Mr. Clayborne away on businesses, his mother Charlotte keeps them all on edge.  When Colin Clayborne is expelled and returns home, more tension erupts and the two children find themselves in an off limits garden trying to make the most of a difficult situation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mix of poetry and standard novel format.  It is beautifully written and clearly the author does a remarkable job of making her very unlikeable characters worm their way in to the reader’s heart.  Both Maria and Colin are thorny and difficult, stubborn and rude, but you seriously cheer for them, and I did shed a few tears at the end.  With the author’s writing ability apparent, I’m still not sure why the foundation of the relationships and getting Maria to the Clayborne home is so cumbersome.  It is too muddled and it drags the book down every time it is revisited.  The Dadi having the aunt’s phone number was too easy, the inconsistency of the neighbors having no relationship to the Clayborne’s for so long and Lyndsay not even pausing to think another Bangladeshi family living a few houses down might be my husband’s first wife’s friends, seems inconsistent.  Honestly Lyndsey in general needed to read like a competent woman struggling, not a teenager in over her head. I disliked her and Mr. Clayborne’s relationship and I would hate to think any reader would find it ok or normal.

I love the Islam and how it presents when the character has to pray, she goes and prays, it is part of the story and it is seamless.  I don’t think the culture is handled quite as well.  Lyndsay is a foot writer who is always cooking, yet knows nothing of desi foods? If Colin’s mom is desi, wouldn’t she at some point tried to cook familiar foods for him.  Half the neighborhood is Bangledeshi, so it seems everyone has a parent or step parent or distant relative that is desi and I loved the normalizing, but it seemed a bit assuming.  I don’t think kids will wish it was more clear, but as an adult reading it, I felt like it needed to be interjected more without explanation, or if left as is, adding some context. I also wanted to know what Maria’s parents did and a little introspection from Maria.  Again as an adult I see how her anger and grief changes how she remembers them, but from them always being away, to such soft poignant memories at the end, I think kids will need a little hand holding to understand the grief process and her understanding of them.  As it is, they just seem terrible and then all of the sudden great, and the pacing gets thrown off in the process.

FLAGS:

It seems to hint at the end that Maria might have a bit of a crush on Colin, I honestly thought up until a single line that they were making a chosen family with the people who cared for them, but that line seemed to suggest it might be more of a romantic feeling than friend or brotherly.  I read an early copy, so this is subject to change.

Maria gets her period and it is detailed what she is feeling.  I think boys and girls can and should read it.  It is presented on age and appropriately: cramps, achy, dry about blood leakage, having it start young like her mother, etc..

Implied magic (possibly), music and musical instruments being played, milaad, lying, sneaking, being kicked out of school for physical assault, close male and female friendships, ADHD stigma.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION

I think this book would work in a classroom and would appeal to readers in an Islamic or public library.  I would consider it for a middle school book club, I think readers will connect and feel empathy for Maria, Colin, and Lyndsay and be better for it.

I preordered my copy HERE and I hope you will do the same

Hamza Attends a Janaza by Shabana Hussain illustrated by Atefeh Mohammadzadeh

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Hamza Attends a Janaza by Shabana Hussain illustrated by Atefeh Mohammadzadeh

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For years it has been noted how few children’s Islamic books about grief and loss are available, and while numerous titles have come out in the last few years, it wasn’t until I saw this new book, did I realize how desperately we were in need of a book on janaza.  I love that the author establishes on the first page that this book is not focused on grief, but rather about death, the burial, and preparing to meet Allah (saw) in the hereafter with our deeds.  The beauty is that while the topic is critical and needed, the story is also well done.  It may not focus on emotion, but it has a lot of heart and tenderness, thus making it a wonderful addition to all book shelves for children preschool and up as a brief introduction to how Islam views death, the rituals of burial, and the worship that surrounds it. Packaged with clear text, robust backmatter and absolutely adorable illustrations, I am very happily impressed with this book.

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The book starts with Hamza telling about his favorite day of the week, Saturday, the day he spends with his Nano-ji and cousins, but one day all that changes when his mom gets a phone call about the loss of a community Uncle.  Mom says, inna lillahi wa inna illahi rajioon quietly in to the phone and Hamza knows something is wrong, but doesn’t quite understand why the passing of Uncle Sameer, the owner of the local sweet shop, means he has to attend a janaza instead of going to his grandfather’s house.

Hamza’s parents explain the reward of going, and remind him that we all have to leave this world one day. They recall Uncle Sameer helping bandage his knee when he got hurt and gave him a lollipop.  Once in the car, Hamza wants to know what is going to happen.  His parents explain the ghusl and the body being wrapped in the kafan and the body being put in the ground.

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When they get to the masjid there are a lot of aunties on the women’s side, including Auntie Salma who everyone is hugging and reassuring.  After dhuhr the janaza begins, but it is a standing up namaz, and is very short, and Hamza is confused. Later outside the long box is loaded into the car, duas are made, and the body taken to the cemetery.

At the graveside, more duas are made, and Hamza worries that Uncle will be lonely.  When his father explains that his good deeds will keep him company, Hamza remembers the kindness Uncle Sameer has shown him and makes duas.

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The backmatter contains hadith about what still benefits those that have died, reward for attending a janaza, a glossary, discussion points, suggested activities, and duas.  The book is a great starting point to introducing death, rituals, and answering questions any child might have in a gentle manner.  

I bought the book from Crescent Moon Store 

 

An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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I truly am glad I read this book. I love historical fiction, visiting Spain is on my bucket list, this book has a map, details about what is historical what is fiction, has Islam woven in to the heart and soul of the story and characters, and yet it was a hard read.  The first few pages grip you, the last 50 bring it all together, but the middle 250 were hit and miss in this lower YA/upper MG book.  I honestly had to force myself to keep reading.  My teen and tween son couldn’t get past 38 pages or so, and I’ve asked around and no one I know that started the book, finished it.  I think ultimately there are just too many characters, too many points of view, that even though the history is rich, the literary points all in order, their isn’t enough character connection to hold the readers through the wandering details.  This author’s style is a bit more slow, but I think in the House of Ibn Kathir series, the setting of being in school and having friend problems is relatable to readers; boarding horses on to a boat, deciding to wage war, and going in to battle are not familiar concepts, and without the emotional connection it loses momentum.  The climax is nice but ultimately rather lackluster, and the beauty of characters taking shahada, Jews being freed, Solomon’s table, an old lady with a premonition, and a character dying are just not enough to keep the story in reader’s hands, unfortunately. 

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SYNOPSIS:

The summary might make the book seem fast paced, and while it does constantly move forward to a clear destination, it isn’t a “buckle your seatbelt and hang on” type of story.  The setting is Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, 92 years after the Hijrah.  The book opens with two young siblings Ben and Bella, overlooking the coast, dreading their lives under Visigoth oppression, and hiding their Jewish culture and faith.  It then jumps to the Governor of Ceuta, Count Julian (Ilyan), awaiting to meet with Umayyad leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad.  He is hoping to rescue his daughter from the court of King Roderick and convince the Muslim General to enter Iberia, restore the rightful king, and free the people essentially.  Add in voices from Qasim, a young Berber, and Jacob a captured Iberian, and the stage is set to get everything in order to cross the straights, survey the enemy, take on the King, and introduce Islam to the new land.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the Islam and the history and the fictional liberties.  I love that the book is clean, although, I do wonder if more information about Lady Florinda would have helped the reader understand her father’s desperation, I do understand the vagueness, but it is a glaring omission that keeps the reader curious.  Ultimately I wanted more backstory.  The little given about the characters was engaging.  I loved the teasing about being a shepherd, Jacob coming to love Islam, Bella not wanting to marry, but it seemed to always stop short of sweeping me away.  I didn’t cry (SPOILER) when Hisham died, I barely knew him.  I didn’t feel the urgency to hide and escape from Leander’s proposal.  It set up to add depth regarding Old Mother Magda, the Cave of Secrets, and the unverified death of the king, but after being stated it was never mentioned again or resolved for any real purpose. 

All that aside, I think the book has value, it is just really dry in spots, a lot of spots, and given the vocabulary, the changing narrators, the choppiness between chapters, and the history, it is hard to keep reading or be anxious to pick up once you have put it down.  So with all that in mind, I think the book would be great to use in a classroom setting.  You could read a chapter Monday, and then pick it back up on Thursday and not worry that no one remembers anything because it is focusing on new characters anyway.  In a middle school, or upper elementary the book would be a great crossover between History, English, and Islam classes. The book would naturally lend itself to the students keeping character journals, the supplements and backmatter would allow for references and insight in to real history, and I think the book would do really well in this set up to connect with the audience. 

The Epilogue was nice, but a little disjointed.  I appreciated the updates on the characters and it showing Muslims and people of other faiths coexisting and being accepting even within families, but the connection to the story was a little lost.  Similarly, I love that it mentioned  Abbas Ibn Firnas, but I don’t know that most kids know enough about him to know what is being hinted at and what the outcome was of his flight at the end.

FLAGS:

Death, war, battles, killing, nothing graphic, very tame, not graphic or detailed gore.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I could get middle school students to read the book for a book club, it would have to be motivated by a grade to get through it in a classroom setting I’m afraid.  See above to read my thoughts on how to present it.

I purchased my book on Amazon and will receive a few pennies if you decide to purchase a copy using this link.

Mama in Congress: Rashida Tlaib’s Journey to Washington by Rashida and Adam Tlaib with Miranda Paul illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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Mama in Congress: Rashida Tlaib’s Journey to Washington by Rashida and Adam Tlaib with Miranda Paul illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this book.  Books by politicians are always suspect, by a politician currently in office- more so, and a book written about one’s self can be a little self promoting to say the least, but when I saw my library had it, I put it on hold and thought to give it a shot.  Surprisingly, the book is really cute.  It is framed as her son (one of the contributors) telling his mom’s story, it owns that while yes she was one of the First Muslim Congresswomen, there were a lot of people before her that ran and paved the way.  What really shocked me was the amount of Islam in the book: Salat-al-Istikharha, actively learning about Islam not just as culture, there is an Ayat from the Quran, etc.. The book says for ages 4-8 and for the amount of text on the pages, there is no way a preschooler will sit through this. I can see this book, however, being used in an elementary classroom to teach about the American political system, and inspiring kids that they can make a difference, that they can rise to positions of leadership without compromising who they are, and that no matter their background, and that they can be successful in following their dreams.  I don’t think Congresswoman Tlaib should be put on a pedal stool for some of the policies she has supported or bills endorsed, but I think even if you don’t support her politically, her story and her accomplishments do show possibilities for minorities to reach the highest levels of government.  The fact that she is a Palestinian Muslim Women and has found success in the context of American government as told from a child’s perspective, really surprised and impressed me, and I can see it being a worthwhile story to share with young students.

The book starts with two boys on the steps of the capitol, Adam and Yousif wondering if the president is their mom’s boss, and mom, saying that no, the 700,000 people in the district she represents are.  The book then pulls back and Adam starts to tell the story of him and his brother going to work with their mom, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib the representative from Michigan.

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Before she was elected their yama and yaba immigrated from the West Bank to America, where Rashida was born.  Eventually there would be 14 kids born and Rashida would choreograph dances, basketball games, and seek privacy to dance like a pop star, or chase after the bookmobile.

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Comments toward her well-spoken mother to learn English, embarrassment at the smell of the factory polluted environment, and an offer by a high school teacher to join the debate team, helped pave the way for Rashida to find her voice and make changes.

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Rashida was the first in her family to graduate high school and from there she went to college and then law school.  She also started to learn more about Islam and the reasons behind her family’s traditions.  Her favorite passage from the Quran became, “with hardship comes ease.”

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She started working with an elected official from the Michigan House of Representatives and started a family.  When a seat became vacant she was encouraged to run.  No Muslim had ever been elected to the Michigan House and even her own yaba didn’t think people would vote for an Arab, so she prayed Salat al-Istikhara and did a lot of thinking.

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The book shows what she wanted to accomplish and how she went door-to-door and found both success and hardship meeting with the people.  Ultimately though, she won the seat and held it for many years.  When Adam was 12 she decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, and he and his brother joined in to help knock on doors.

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She won, and was one of two Muslim women to be elected that year.  Adam and Yousif dabbed in celebration at the inauguration as their mom was sworn in in her Palestinian thobe. On her first day, however, there were threats, and Adam though they should hide the fact that they were Muslims.  Their mom told them it is important to be their authentic selves, “that sometimes it takes many to run for there to be a first.”

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The book concludes with a glossary, an infographic of the branches of government. Can be purchased here.

Ida in the Middle by Nora Lester Murad

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Ida in the Middle by Nora Lester Murad

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Ideal for middle school readers (upper mg/lower ya), this magical realism book takes readers from middle school in American to a Palestinian village outside of Jerusalem through the consumption of some magical olives.  Written by a Jewish author married to a Palestinian Muslim who raised their three daughters in Palestine, the book features a lot of Islam, but is Palestinian centered in its insight, critique, culture, and dreams.  Over 224 pages, Ida starts to find where she fits in both in understanding her self within her family, her place in America, her passion in life, and what it means to be Palestinian.  The story is important, and is told in a way that will encourage readers to learn more about the occupation.  Nuances are shown in characters and groups, but the line that the occupation is oppressive is never compromised.  I appreciate that the author writes from her own experiences and openly acknowledges that she is not trying to take away from Palestinian born and raised OWN voice stories, but she is an advocate, she has raised her children and lived in the West Bank, and her characters reflect a sense of intimate knowledge, love, and appreciation.  Even with Ida having to decide to stay in America or Palestine, the two countries are not pitted against each other or seen as black or white, as to which is better or worse, the middle is where much of the story takes place, and appreciating your culture no matter how much others are trying to erase your existence, is always stressed.

SYNOPSIS:

Ida is the middle child of her Palestinian immigrant family and isn’t artistic like her younger sister, a ballet dancer like her older sister, or a soccer player like her father.  She wishes she was invisible.  Especially when her classmates turn on her every time there are conflicts in the middle east.  When it seems that everyone wants to diminish her heritage, she finds herself at a new school, unsure of where she fits in.  With anti Palestinian attitudes and Islamophobic people, Ida just wants to go unnoticed, unfortunately middle school requires a passion project to be presented and Ida has no idea what her passions are, and how she will face the crowds.

One day when looking for a snack she finds a jar of olives stuffed in a cupboard- olives brought by a family friend from her now deceased aunt in Busala, one bite and she is magically transported to the familial village.  It is an alternate reality of what life would be if her parents never came to America.  Not only is she in a country she has never seen before, meeting family members she has never met before, but even her own parents and sisters are somehow different.  She enjoys the warmth, the communal activities, the extended family.  Her mom in hijab, the athan being heard, the men all going for jummah, but then they sit down for a meal and the same olives are served and Ida accidently takes a bite and is whisked back home.

Once home, she longs for so much of Palestinian life, but relishes in the convenience and ease of America as well.  Her passion project still looms and she finds herself hoping to escape it by going back to Palestine.  When she finds herself back near Jerusalem she ventures out with her Aunt, who isn’t dead in this reality, and learns more about the occupation and oppression, and how the families interact with the various Israelis: some sympathetic to Palestinians, some actively working to help Palestinians, and some settlers- forcefully killing and bulldozing Palestinian homes.

When Israeli military troops enter their village, the families meet to discuss the best course of action, the families do not agree, there is no clear way to prepare, there is no guarantee of survival.  Ida starts to find her voice, and when the soldiers enter, Ida finds herself rushing out to help a small boy. Guns, demolition, rocks, tear gas, fear, so much fear, what can one person do? What can one village do?  What will Ida do?

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is relatable and moving, not just for those with a tie or interest in Palestine.  It is a coming of age story that shows a girl grappling with forces so much bigger than herself, while at the same time dealing with homework and friends and stereotypes.  Ida has a lot to figure out and the book doesn’t sugar coat a happy ending, it simply provides a moving story based on reality, through a character whose quirks and personality you find yourself rooting for.

I love the presence of Islam and the way it is apart of Ida and her surroundings, even though she makes it clear early on that her family is not religious.  The Quran is mentioned, the athan, various salat, hijab, Hajj, Ayatul Kursi, Ramadan, Eid, wasting food as being haram.  In Boston her friend knows she doesn’t eat pork, she went to Sunday school to learn Arabic at the mosque when she was younger.  It doesn’t gush with Islam, but it is present, for example Ida’s sister and her joke about a good Palestinian girl shouldn’t have a boyfriend, it isn’t tied to their religion. The story is a Palestinian one, and as someone who is not Palestinian, the images, the foods, the smells, the love all seemed to embrace everything I’ve ever heard Palestinian friends talk about, and it feels like a warm hug to read the effects being in Palestine has on Ida.

I love that the author is upfront about her perspective, and I love that she is putting this story out there.  The writing is sufficient: I was invested in the story, and it was an easy read. I don’t know that I’ll remember it months from now for it’s imagery or power, but I’m certain I’ll remember the commentary about life under occupation and the struggle to not be erased by a world that doesn’t seem to care about the settlers still taking Palestinian homes and their way of life away by force.

FLAGS:

Fear, crushes, death, injuries, loss, magic, bullying, racism, Islamophobia, guns, physical assault, threat of force, destruction.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Our school is majority Palestinian.  Years ago when we read Where the Streets Had a Name, I learned so much about the students, their families, their own experience living under oppression, that I can’t wait to present this book with the middle schoolers and take notes on their thoughts.  I would not lead the discussion, I would let them, their voices will not be erased by me.

Preorder available here: Amazon

Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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At 384 pages, this middle grades book takes on hijab, terrorism, Islamophobia, finding your voice, and fighting back.  At times the book was insightful and smoothly written, at other times the voice seemed childish and the writing directionless.  The inconsistencies don’t ultimately make the book good or bad for me, but rather very forgettable.  I read the book over the span of three days, but honestly remember very little about the book without looking at my notes.  The writing just isn’t particularly strong.  I never connected with the main character, and no it wasn’t because I didn’t agree with her wearing hijab out of solidarity, I accept that people make the decision for a variety of reasons, somehow I just never felt sympathetic to her as a person, or found myself cheering her on.  Her naivety vacillated too much for me to find her believable, and the pacing of the book made it hard to get revved up.  I think upper MG and middle school readers will be a better fit for the book with hate speech, assault, school bans, concert, musical references, and alt right indoctrination.  I think the book is worth shelving in a classroom/school library and I’m considering it for a book club selection, but I’m skeptical that the book would be finished, even if started, by most readers without some incentive to see it through.

SYNOPSIS:

Aaliyah and her friends are at a K-pop concert when a terrorist attack kills and injures numerous people.  A Muslim takes responsibility and with it coming on the heels of numerous London attacks, Islamophobia is at an all time high.  For 13-year-old Aaliyah, it is a stranger yelling at her mother in a parking lot, her best friend Lisa ignoring her, and her brother getting riled up in retaliation, that gets her to wonder why her mother wears hijab, when she started, and decide to start covering herself, in solidarity. As a result for Aaliyah there is now increased bullying at school which results in physical assault, and teachers turning a blind-eye.  It reaches an all time high when a religious display ban goes in to effect.  Still dealing with trauma from witnessing horrific violence, Aaliyah decides to push back.  Finding her inner strength and finding allies in a few good friends, and a secret cat adoption, she finds enough motivation to keep her plugging forward against the growing hate in her world. When she finally finds her voice will it be enough to overturn the ban and save her brother? Nope, not going to spoil it.  The fight is not a one-and-done, as anyone who has gone up against racism and systemic oppression knows, and this fictional book keeps that integrity and doesn’t give a happy ending, but rather hope and motivation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the Islam is centered in a consistent and empowering way.  At times it is a perspective that I’m not completely onboard with, but a few pages later the insight is powerful and the messaging clear.  I found it odd that Aaliyah doesn’t know when her mom started covering or why, or anything about hijab, it comes off very immature. The book keeps culture and religion separate, hijab a choice, and I like that it was Aaliyah who wants to cover even when her parents try to talk/force her out of it.  I find it a little off that she doesn’t go to the mosque, but her father consulted with masjid folks when looking for advice for handling the alt right groups.  She prays a few times in the book and it being mentioned is nice.

I like that the kids in the book think for themselves, and that the adults don’t have all the answers.  I enjoyed the passages asserting why the family came to the UK generations ago and why they have stayed, is powerful.   A few of the characters that are really strong at the start don’t ever get mentioned again.  Which is fine, but I did wonder about Harpreet and why Yusuf’s friends weren’t contacted when Aaliyah was sleuthing about.

Loved the literary shout-outs, and the hypocrisy of allowing swim caps and hats but not hijab, but sigh, didn’t love the cat thread.  I think I just don’t like fictional cats, I sound like a broken record.  I think the inclusion was to show how much Aaliyah had to keep hidden in her life and how she needed comfort, but I don’t know, sigh, I found the contrast of tone jarring to the pacing.

There is a glossary at the end, and the definition of Hijab is a bit odd, highlighting Western and South Asian terminology and not the Middle Eastern or even global use of the Arabic word.  I don’t know that the glossary is even needed as the book really tries to establish that the characters are a part of their society and don’t need footnotes and differential treatment, so the inclusion of a glossary for me, diminished the point a bit.

FLAGS:

Assault, hate speech, bullying, fear, death, injuries, bombing, terrorist attack, lying, music, mention of a transgender/gender neutral student, a rainbow pin. sneaking out.  Criticism of police, alt right indoctrination.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is unique in showing affects of the alt right and not having it all work out in an MG book.  It shows the anxiety and fear that Muslims often feel and the determination of not becoming victims. It also does a good job of showing that something like a religious symbolism ban doesn’t just affect Muslims, but people of various faiths and culture, and thus when common ground is found, there are more allies that one often thinks.  I think it could work for a middle school book club and undoubtedly the discussions would be great, but I am given pause with the main characters view of hijab as not being something in the Quran, but rather done in protest and in solidarity.  I think once I see which kids are interested in book club I can gauge if it is something that we can work through and discuss or not.

Hamza’s Pyjama Promise by Marzieh Abbas

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Hamza’s Pyjama Promise by Marzieh Abbas

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When I flipped through the book standing on my porch as the delivery truck drove away, I groaned a little internally at the simple illustrations, terrible font, large amount of text on each page, and the four fingered boy at the center of it all.  Alhumdulillah, I gave it a chance and ended up really liking it.  The book stayed with me, then I read it to my kids and it stayed with them.  Then I mentally made a checklist of all the teachable ways this book could be used in an Islamic school classroom, story time presentation, bedtime reading, and even just as a regular reference point.  This Islamic fiction book packs a lot of information in while connecting to religious concepts kids are most likely familiar with and silly points that will make five to eight year olds giggle.

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The book opens with verse 65 from Surah Yasin in English meaning of the translation and the Quranic Arabic.  The story then begins with it being bedtime for young Hamza and him running up the stairs to put on his rocket pyjamas.

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When he brushes his teeth he looks in the mirror and finds notes hanging all over addressed to him.  The first letter he reads is from his hands reminding him to wash them before he does anything and reminds him Prophet Muhammad (SAW) “said the best Muslim is the one who doesn’t harm others with his hands or tongue.”  It then mentions that the left hand doesn’t like carrying weight so use your body to ensure you get your book of deeds on the Day of Judgement in your right hand.

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The book continues with eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and feet writing messages urging Hamza to cover his eyes when something inappropriate pops up on the screen, or protecting his ears from listening in on other people’s conversations.  Every point of how to act is connected to an ayat in the Quran or Hadith of Rasullallah.

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After reading the letters, Hamza makes wudhu, says a dua before bed which is shared in English, promises to take care of the body Allah swt has blessed him with and then asks the readers what their pyjama promise is.

The book concludes with pictures and captions of Hamza’s bedtime routine of brushing his teeth, reflecting on his day, making wudhu, reciting tasbih (SubhanAllah 33 times, Alhumdulillah 33 times, and Allahu Akbar 34 times), reciting Ayat ul Kursi, and sleeping on  your right side.

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There are no sources in the book, but most seems “general knowledge” so to speak.  And for as preachy as the book may sound in my review, it really isn’t.  The character’s voice or rather the body parts’ voices are relatable and light.  I think young ones enjoy that they are hearing things they have probably heard before and making a connection to them being repeated in a new way.  Having your body parts talk is both silly and sobering as the target age group can imagine it happening.  It really reminds kids that their actions are seen and recorded, in a non scary or overwhelming way.

I look forward to sharing this book in library story times, masjid story times, and regularly with my own children.  The publisher is a Shia press, but I don’t think any Muslim would find anything controversial in the book (please note though I am not highly educated in these things). And while American’s may find the spelling of pyjama hard on the eyes, with the exception of that one word the book is not region specific or difficult to connect to for global readers of any age.

Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile by Rukhsana Khan

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Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile by Rukhsana Khan

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I’m not sure how I missed this 1999 published YA book by the OG-groundbreaking-industry-changing- Rukhsana Khan, but until @bintyounus mentioned it to me recently I didn’t even know it existed.  The book has so much Islam, ayats, hadith, salat- Islamic fiction self-published often doesn’t have as much as this mainstream book has, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the content was a bit shocking.  Part of my surprise I think comes from the fact that the book is only 206 pages, it takes its title from a game I remember playing in elementary school at recess, the main character is in 8th grade and the cover is soft pinks.  This book is solid YA both now, and nearly 25 years ago, it carries some incredibly heavy themes: attempted suicide, topless photographs, sexual coercion, cigarette smoking, assault, racism, misogyny, toxic relationships, neglect and more (see flags below).  The book is memorable and hard to put down, the Islam is confident and explored, even when weaponized by an older sister, but there is no denying the story telling abilities of the author, and  while I won’t be letting my 11 or 13 year old read it any time soon, I know I benefitted from reading it- reminiscing about wanting Lucky Jeans and standing in awe of how EVERY. MUSLIM. DESI. author making it in mainstream today is benefitting from the path paved by Rukhsana Khan.  On behalf of readers everywhere- thank you.  Thank you for fighting to tell your stories your way, raising the bar, and offering real Muslim characters from a Muslim voice. 

SYNOPSIS:

Zainab has no friends and doesn’t own a pair of Lucky Jeans, she is the only one in 8th grade that doesn’t.  She feels like if she could trade in her polyester pants for the “cool” pants everyone has, she’d be accepted.  When that plan fails and lands her in trouble, she gets tasked with directing her house’s school play.  The teacher convinces her that it will be a way for her to make friends, and earn her classmates respect, but middle school is never that easy.  Everyone is in love with Kevin, including Zainab, but he is a jerk and if he isn’t the lead, no one else will audition.  Jenny is poor, but has a big chest, so even though she is nice to Zainab, she is more in love with Kevin who only wants her for one thing, and takes advantage whenever his girlfriend isn’t around.  Add to the drama Zainab’s very strict older sister who lists off Zainab’s faults every night with Islamic references to try and make Zainab a better person, and this coming of age story will require Zainab to sort through it all and find her own way to be.  There are a lot of subplots that circle around the play, social circles, toxic relationships, and self growth, that while the characters are worried if they will win the competition and break the curse, the readers (at least this 41 year old mama) are hoping that the characters will survive the year unscathed. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family is the same family that will become its own story in Big Red Lollipop just grown up, with names changes, and that the story is summarized.  I’m still a little torn if I love the raw grittiness of the way the two sisters interact or if it goes too far and leaves a bitter taste about Islam.  I really am on the fence about how young readers, both Muslim and non Muslim, in 1999 and in 2022, would view the role of Islam in the dynamic.  I think it reads powerfully, but I had a hard time going back to look at it through my 13 year old eyes and it as an adult it is intense.  I still can’t believe that this book was published with how much Islam it contains, even the play put on in a public school was religiously centered.  White privilege is called out and stereotypes about whites are stated, a Hindu character and the Muslim main character work through their baggage, economic privilege is opined on, women’s rights and expectations discussed, comments about “othering” are present-  it really covers a lot. Quite impressive in a lot of ways. 

The relationship and love themes are not shied away from which caught me off guard.  I expected some making-out and heavy petting, but was surprised it went to topless photos, a character’s mom being a nudist, and that there is a lot of forced touching.  I think for most Islamic school 8th graders, this book would be too mature, in fact I genuinely hope it is. Not to say it is not accurate, but it is very critical to the story and I think would need some discussion.  

I love that the characters draw you in, as much as you despise everyone picking on Zainab, you know she isn’t a pushover and you really pull for her.  I didn’t want to put the book down and kept reading because I wanted to make sure she was ok, see what choices she made, and in a fairly short book, that is remarkable story telling.

FLAGS:

The book is for mature readers in my opinion.  There are relationships, assault, cigarettes’, nudists, kissing, spying, sexual assault, coercion, topless nude photographs, attempted suicide, bullying, teasing, cheating, physical assault, language, verbal abuse, stereotypes, talk of female anatomy, and use of Islam to hurt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would shelve this in the library, I would see if perhaps there is a version with a different cover, one that might signal a more mature reader.  I would worry if an early middle schooler read this, I think it would be a lot for them to take in, process, and reflect on.  It isn’t a light read, and would need some discussion, but ultimately I don’t know that a middle school book club at an Islamic school would be the right place for it. It could be for sure, but not the one I’m currently at.

Ordinary People Change the World: I am Muhammad Ali by Brad Meltzer illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

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Ordinary People Change the World: I am Muhammad Ali by Brad Meltzer illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

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I think this 2022 published biography of Muhammad Ali just might be my favorite.  At 40 pages long and meant for first graders and up, it actually mentions that he is Muslim in multiple places.  So often these biographies about him or Malcolm X fail to incorporate their religion and just relegate their name changes to a footnote or after thought.  The book is engaging, informative, it is sourced, and the illustrations adorable.  My kids and I have read the book multiple times and are still enjoying the detailed illustrations (they even include #muslimsintheillustrations) and text.  Sports fans and even those that are not will appreciate what Muhammad Ali achieved, overcame, and accomplished.

The biography starts at Muhammad Ali’s birth and ends with his fight in Zaire- detailing his personality, growing up, how he got into boxing, becoming Muslim, refusing to go to war, and his biggest fights.  It weaves in how he worked against racism, standing up for his religion, and living life on his terms, at every step.  As the chronological story fades, it shows him lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta, and the text starts to focus on the lessons that Ali fought to highlight, by encouraging us to continue his legacy.

The illustrations show how his message is still powerful and inspiring to athletes, kids, ordinary people-everyone, the world over.  Ali stays depicted as a small child throughout, and the author captures his charisma, charm, and entertaining persona.  The final spread before the sources and further reading suggestions show a timeline of Muhammad Ali’s life and a few photographs of his life.

I need to read the other books in the series to see if they are just as engaging.  Undoubtedly Muhammad Ali’s story is entertaining and inspiring even when poorly written, but I have a feeling this particular biography really shines because the author and the subject matter came together.  I highly recommend this book for families, schools, and classrooms alike.

You can order it at Amazon and if you use this link, I get a few pennies! Thanks!

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Grandpa Ali and Friends Volume 1 By Yasin Osman

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Grandpa Ali and Friends Volume 1 By Yasin Osman

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This 46 page comic strip compilation follows the intergenerational Somali-Canadian members of a family. With crossword puzzles, word searches, advice, and graphs sprinkled in-the book at times was laugh-out-loud funny, heartwarming, ironic, and honestly, there were things that I didn’t quite understand-and those perhaps were my favorite parts.  The book features Muslims and immigrants and life in the west, and those I could relate to, but I am not Somali, and there aren’t a lot of Somali books available, so I loved the opportunity to see the culture and humor and themes that a book written authentically chose to highlight.  The book is not a graphic novel, the characters and their situations are not a cohesive narrative, so if I didn’t understand a particular joke, it didn’t linger or carry over.  By the time the book was done a sense of love, community, and joy left me waiting for the next installment and a desire to read more voices that are not easily found in Muslamic YA literature.

The humor is at times culture and experience specific, and I feel honored almost to witness a book for a particular group by a member of that group and thus don’t feel a need to “review” the book in my typical fashion.  I simply wish to highlight that it exists, share some inside pictures, and hopefully send some support its way. You can purchase it on Amazon.

Happy Reading y’all.