Tag Archives: islamic fiction

Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with School (The Story of Halal Money) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra bint Absar Kazmi and Urooj Khan

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Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with School (The Story of Halal Money) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra bint Absar Kazmi and Urooj Khan

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This delightful 70 page early chapter book is filled with humor, Islam, and a sweet story that ties it all together.  The book definitely has a teaching agenda, but it carries it with hilarious banter and relatable examples, all while covering a topic not often discussed in children’s books: money.  The book has a few grammar, vocabulary, and consistency concerns, but they are easy to overlook for readers 2nd grade and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Twins Zayd and Musa are very, very different.  Both boys enjoy cricket, but Zayd is more focused and enjoys homework, whereas Musa tends to daydream and often says something funny, but unintentionally.  When Musa makes the case in Science class that food, water, shelter, and money are all needed to survive, the class finds him hysterical.

Musa knows not to argue, his teacher is his elder and he knows he should have taqwa and be respectful, but he doesn’t give up on his idea either.  When the boys’ mom talks about halal money and gives them Islamic references for how money should be handled, Musa has a great idea: kids should be paid to go to school.

Once again, the whole school finds him funny, but Saeed Uncle, a neighbor who helps feed the poor at a roadside stand, doesn’t dismiss Musa’s idea and tells him, in some places kids are paid. And offers to take him and show him.

With references to sahabas who had great wealth and examples of how wealth can be used for good, Musa and Zayd learn numerous lessons, and share them with those around them, in a fun, engaging manner.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I get that the book is preachy, but in my mind, it is a story built around a teaching concept, so it doesn’t bother me.  I love the jokes and the tone.  At times the book is written quite formally, but being the author lives in Karachi, Pakistan, I assume that part of it, is just different standards.  I appreciate the Quran Circle table that lists where the Quran mentions wealth and the glossary.  I didn’t quite get all of the random facts included throughout, as some were about money, others about school, but I think kids will enjoy them none-the-less.  The illustrations are enjoyable, the text bubbles often hilarious (once again, a few I didn’t get).

I liked that it mentioned not drawing faces, and not going somewhere alone with someone you aren’t close with.  It is said in passing, but I love that those little nuggets exist in a book that is about something more, but normalizes and takes advantage of the opportunity to remind children of basic safety and Islamic concepts.

There are some awkward tense changes, and a few gaps in the story, but overall, I really enjoyed it and need to find the first one in the series.

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:
This would be a great book to use in a middle grades Islam class as a starting point to having students research the Quran and Sunnah to find information on a topic.  The humor will keep kids engaged, and the concept is an important one.  I plan to make all my kids read it, so that we can discuss as a family, and benefit from the lessons presented.

Eliya’s Explains Miracles by Zanib Mian illustrated by Daniel Hills

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Eliya’s Explains Miracles by Zanib Mian illustrated by Daniel Hills

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It is quite remarkable how my standards and expectations have grown and evolved.  I anxiously have waited for the next book in the Eliyas series, having loved the Angels book that came out nearly two years ago.  Zanib Mian’s voice makes the reading of nearly all her books enjoyable, whether it is a fictionalized tale or an Islamic knowledge book with fictionalized framing.  This book disappointed me however, because I now expect and crave references and sourcing for books that present facts or at least qualified and named scholarly approval to be mentioned.  I also was not comfortable with the depiction of Buraq on the cover, on a full page illustration within the book, and on the back cover.  The text itself is lovely and informative, and nothing “seemed” off factually in this 92 page early chapter book, but the lacking reassurance of the content contained within prevented me from truly loving the book.

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SYNOPSIS:

Eliyas has finally convinced his family to go camping.  With a late start and a lot of chaos they will have to set up the tent in the dark, alhumdulillah there is a full moon out.  As they drive to their campsite and marvel at the moon, they begin to discuss the miracle of the moon being split in to two.  As they find a place to settle, they discuss miracles about water, as they collect firewood they talk about the tree where Rasul Allah gave khutbahs from crying when he moved to give the khutbah from elsewhere.

The family of Eliyas, his younger brother, older sister and parents learn and discuss the miracle of the Quran, Prophet Dawud and Prophet Sulaiman peace be upon them both speaking with animals, Buraq and the night journey, Prophet Ibrahim (as) being in the fire, Prophet Musa (as) dividing the sea amongst other things, Prophet Isa (as)’s ability to heal the sick and with Allah’s permission breath life in to a clay bird, and the she camel miracle of Prophet Salih (as).

The camping trip, the siblings bickering and then helping one another, and Eliyas having to admit to forgetting the food, all tie the miracles together in an easy to read and engaging manner.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I really love Zani’b Mian’s books, and I genuinely hope that she will consider removing the illustration of Buraq and having the miracles sourced, or the book “approved.”  Kids will read this book over and over again, long after they have grown out of the early chapter book demographic and inshaAllah it will inspire deeper knowledge to be sought.

I love the quiz at the end-with answers, playful fonts and doodles throughout the book, the short chapters, and relatable banter between the characters.

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FLAGS:

Depiction of Buraq

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Even with the depictions it could possibly be used as a read aloud story to first and second grade and up.  If you were a teacher or in a capacity to read the story to the students, so that they might not dwell on the illustrations, the book could be shared.  For reassurance, have someone more knowledgeable than I verify the miracles shared for accuracy though, before sharing.

This book, like so many of the books I review was purchased from http://www.crescentmoonstore.com and no I do not promote the store because it benefits me in any way, I just really the store, the service, the selection, and the prices.

Turning Back to Allah: Sulaiman’s Caving Calamity by Aliya Vaughan illustrated by Rakaiya Azzouz

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Turning Back to Allah: Sulaiman’s Caving Calamity by Aliya Vaughan illustrated by Rakaiya Azzouz

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Good early elementary books can be tricky: the voice needs to read authentic, the lessons not preachy, and the scenarios relatable, all while not talking down to the reader or talking above their comprehension.  As fabulous middle grade books seem to be popping up at record speed, I find myself reading the same old books with my fourth child who is six.  Alhumdulillah, this book was nominated in the Muslim Bookstagram Awards 2021 competition and I was able to purchase and receive it quickly from Noura at Crescent Moon Store.  My son can read it, although because of the British terminology, he did better when I read it to him, none-the-less, he could explain it, he genuinely understood and related to the main character, and was emotionally connected to the outcome of the story.  The 49 page, color illustrated story is perfect for independent readers first or second grade and up.  The book also contains comprehension questions, etiquettes for du’a, a list of times and places when du’as are answered, and evidence for the story from hadith.  Additionally there are ayats from the Quran at the beginning and end of this well sourced book, alhumdulillah.

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SYNOPSIS:

Sulaiman is getting ready for an overnight scout trip in some caves.  He is nervous having been stuck in his apartment elevators the summer before and being lost at a park with his family.  His stress has him being mean to his little sister, and his dad tries to mediate, but you can sense that their normal bickering is heightened because this is going to be hard for Sulaiman.  The scouts meet up to board their mini bus and Sulaiman is acting weird, he wants to sit by the window, he wants to read signs, finally he tells Jacob about his worries and the two boys agree to stick together like glue while they are in the caves.  Foreshadowing is set, and when Sulaiman’s batteries roll away and he stops to retrieve them he gets separated from the group and he will have to rely on his faith in Allah swt to feel less alone and brave what is to come.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that when Sulaiman is arguing with his sister he doesn’t have hadith quoted at him.  Sure it is ideal, but really, as parents we just want the bickering to stop most times and our kids to be nice.  It is often easier to instill morals and lessons in calm times, not in the middle of an emotional kerfuffle.  At the same time, when he is scared, he falls back on the lessons he has been taught from the Quran and sunnah.  I love how it reads realistic.  We want our kids to turn to Allah swt for all things, but sometimes to teach that we encourage them to seek Allah swt in times of happiness and times of hardship.  Sulaiman is scared, really scared, and he turns to Allah swt, and it is heartfelt and emotional.

I’m embarrassed to say, but I was a little confused by the being lost in a park prior story thread.  It either needed more detail, or maybe just more context, but I thought it was the same park they are heading to with scouts, then realized it was a completely separate park and incident, so I would like a bit more framing of that story line.  Also the stress of being stranded in the elevator, doesn’t directly connect to the rest of the story, perhaps bringing up some claustrophobia fears would have helped tie it all together.  As it is, it just seems that Sulaiman seems to be tested a lot and rather traumatically.

The illustrations being in full color and full page are a welcome surprise in the book.  However, there is one two-page illustration that shows the kids laughing before boarding the minibus, but it isn’t derived directly from the text, and I initially thought Sulaiman was being laughed at for his fears.  I went back, and it doesn’t seem that is the case, but I wonder if I was the only one confused by that illustration.

All-in-all the book physically is appealing to children with the open font, colorful pictures, size, and length.  The story is relevant, and the islamic tie-ins powerful, alhumdulillah.

FLAGS:

Some teasing, possible bullying among siblings.  Some scary moments mentioned and explored: being stuck in an elevator, lost in a park, left alone in a cave.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun read aloud in a second grade class.

Could Be Anything! by Eman Mouneimne El Ayoubi illustrated by Victoria Romanenkova

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Could Be Anything! by Eman Mouneimne El Ayoubi illustrated by Victoria Romanenkova

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This is not normally a book I would review because it will read like paid endorsement, which it is not.  It is a 32 page personalizable book, that I’m highlighting because it exemplifies a concept of Islamic literature, that is often lacking.  We have numerous books teaching Islamic concepts to toddlers and preschoolers, but forget to teach the secular concepts through an Islamic lens.  We often have a bookshelf of Islamic books that include learning to say Alhumdulillah, and the names of Allah swt; and a bookshelf of non Islamic books that features stories about dinosaurs, monster trucks, and being silly.  This book reminded me of how important it is to have books that do both.  Not to necessarily preach, or even teach, just to merge the two shelves and present a singular framework of Islam, a way of life, not just a religion to our youngest believers.

Sure the name and customizable appearance is fun, but deeper than that, learning about different careers knowing that Allah swt created all of us to do so many worthwhile jobs is a great lesson to be sharing.  The larger concept of teaching Qadr to our children is only presented on the back cover of the book and can be implemented by using the parent guide at the end of the story.

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The book starts with asking what you want to be when you grow up and informing the child that Allah swt has a plan for us all.  Each page after then mentions the child’s name, introduces a career, and ties back to that Allah swt has written, or decreed something for us.

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The highlighted careers vary from being a parent, to an astronaut.  A teacher to a chef, a mechanic to a dentist.  There is no priority, nor opinion on one career or job or hobby being more important or more valuable than another.

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The pages are bright and colorful and the paperback book thick and sturdy.  I did struggle with the word “could,” and often would self edit as I read and would change it to, “Ayub ‘can’ be anything.” I’m not sure why the diction is what it is, but it reads incorrect to me.

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The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Esa & Sol’s Adventures: The Hunt for the Saphaea by Asma Maryam Ali, illustrated by Eman Salem

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Esa & Sol’s Adventures: The Hunt for the Saphaea by Asma Maryam Ali, illustrated by Eman Salem

It is a bit tricky to review a choose-your-own-adventure style book, as each story twists and turns and leaves the reader with a different ending and thus, a different impression. I tried to explore every story line in a book that I had little expectation of, it is an intentionally splintered story after all, but even at that, this fell really short. The core of the story: a Muslim and Jewish boy in Cordoba, Spain in 1080 exploring real facts in a fictionalized story about hunting down a missing astrolabe, really had a lot of potential, unfortunately the tiny size (maybe 3.5 x 5.5 inches) and only being 76 pages, the frightening cover, and the misprinted footnote glossy right at the start, set the tone for a weak forgettable book, and by the time you get to the actual story and plot, you really have very little substance to change your mind.

SYNOPSIS:
Two nine-year-old boys start off the story chasing after their donkey who has run off and sent their oranges spilling over all around the square. They should clean up the chaos, but they remember that they are supposed to meet Zarkali, the greatest astronomer in all of Spain, as he finally has a job for them after months of waiting. His latest work is a brilliant astrolabe, but when they get to his workshop he isn’t there. When he finally arrives with his assistant Aleho they are frantic as the astrolabe, the Saphea, is missing. The boys were to be asked to help transport it, as they would blend in unnoticed, but now that it is missing what should they do? Should they search for it? Investigate if it was stolen? Accept their punishment for the mess with the oranges and their donkey? Let the first choice of many begin the adventure.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the author’s knowledge about Muslim Spain and how she tries to introduce it to children perhaps unaware of the rich history. The inside illustrations are wonderful, the cover truly misleads readers, and naturally I wish the book was larger in size and longer in length. The foundation of the story, the getting to know the characters and their world, needs to be longer. The story should be established before you have to make decisions. It is historical fiction, but needs the world building attention that a fantasy book would require, and this book just doesn’t have it. As a result the choices and endings, are all over the place, not just twists in the stories, but huge changes. Some of the paths no longer focus on the astrolabe that is missing, and seem to offer both threads of something far more sinister at play and choices that keep the boys lives mundane. The book counts on the reader re-reading the tale and making different choices, otherwise your interaction with the book could truly be over in nine pages, nine tiny pages at that. And like I said above regarding the cover and size, they don’t entice one to pick it up and read, then if your adventure is only a few pages long, and you already notice the repeated definition on pages 4 and 6 (before any choices are offered), chances are you won’t revisit the book, learn about real people, marvel at scientific discoveries, travel the region, appreciate interfaith harmony, and get swept up in a historically fictionalized tale that puts you in the drivers seat.

FLAGS:

Fine for middle grades and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I highly doubt the book would even be looked at on a classroom library shelf, I have been trying for days to get my own children to read the book: they love to read, they love history, they love books with options, but they have yet to open the front cover.

I went for Hajj by Na’ima B. Robert illustrated by Paula Pang

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I went for Hajj by Na’ima B. Robert illustrated by Paula Pang

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Before I review this delightful book, I would like to make a public service announcement of sorts.  It is not Hajj season, not even close.  I pre-ordered this book on June 23 from Amazon, I should have/was supposed to have it before Hajj in the middle of July.  I got it TODAY! When I realized that the US publication date was delayed for a book already published in the UK, I reached out to Kube Publishing and they suggested trying “an independent bookseller such as IslamicBookstore.com or CrescentMoonStore.com.”  I know this.  Noura is a dear friend, but I messed up.  Please don’t do the same.  SUPPORT LOCAL BOOKSELLERS! I’m sorry, lesson learned.

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Now back to the book that already feels like a classic staple that needs to be on every Muslim families book shelf, and in every public learning space for non Muslims to enjoy and benefit from as well.   The 31 page “inspirational, semi-fictional narrative” is perfect for ages two to seven as it mimics the beloved Eric Carle and Bill Martin, Jr. classic, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? but framed around Hajj and what is seen, done, and heard.  Each two page spread begins with, “Hajji, hajji…”.

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The book starts with a detailed Note to Parents and Teachers that explains the points to highlight, and discuss with children.  The story is then organized by the steps of hajj in broad strokes and illustrated with both charm and detail that will hold readers and listeners attention.

Hajji, hajji what did you wear?

I wore two white sheets

And my shoulder was bare.

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The book starts with the little boy narrator on the plane looking down on the clouds and sea. He then puts on his two sheets, hears the call to prayer,  sees the black stone and the station of Ibrahim before he makes his seven tawaafs, runs between safa and marwa and heads to Mina. He prays at Arafat like the Prophet (saw) did, and falls asleep in the cold night desert air.  He sees stones being thrown and eats meat on Eid before getting his head shaved.  The book concludes with a glossary.

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The book is well done and is a great mix of information and entertainment, alhumdulillah.

The Tale of a Tiny Droplet by Ally Daanish illustrated by Oana Cocheci

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The Tale of a Tiny Droplet by Ally Daanish illustrated by Oana Cocheci

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I would imagine if you were to pitch the idea of this book it would go very favorably.  A raindrop goes on an adventure to a desert kingdom after facing adversity for being small, an ocean wave wants to consume her, a chance encounter with a grain of sand and confidence in Allah swt to keep them safe leads to refuge being offered in an oyster who journeys them through the ocean to salam its inhabitants only to wash up near the palace and at the feet of a prince who has been searching for a treasure for his mother’s crown.  The problem comes in its delivery.  It is told in rhyme that is incredibly forced and trying to do too much.  It is a 32 page children’s picture book trying to blend religion, science, adventure, and two points of view.  It needs to be clear, not concerned with a rhyme scheme that muddles the themes.  The book has potential and with the QR code and online teaching resources I could see an Islamic school teacher using this to explain how a pearl is formed and the incredibleness of one of Allah’s creations, but it will take a lot of outside explanation.  I am confident that no four to six year old is going to independently understand clearly what is going on.  I myself had to read it multiple times to figure out what was going on, and even then I found more holes, inconsistencies, and head shaking then there should have been in a large, glossy, well illustrated, effort filled book.

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A tiny droplet wants to be free, but this personified little water being’s friends tell her only great things live in the kingdom and she is too small.  Not sure how greatness and physical size become synonymous, but they do apparently.  So, on a windy day, the raindrop jumps out of the sky to join the ocean as a means to reach the kingdom.  A hurricane, or wind gale, catches her and she collides with a grain of sand.  But the pov switches, and the sand collides with her and it hurts the sand.  Grain apologizes and Droplet says not to worry she she is heading to the ocean too.  Grain warns her that the ocean isn’t safe, that there is a big wave who will consume them.  Droplet says she isn’t afraid and trusts Allah swt will keep them safe.  The wave threatens to chase them with all its pride (?) if they dare to run and hide.  The pair find an oyster to hide in and they swim with the tide. The oyster is bothered by their tiny feet so he throws them a blanket.  The wave continues to give chase, but they trust Allah swt and after months and days they wash up on the kingdoms shore.

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The book then pivots and focuses on a young prince who is searching for a gem for his mother the Queen.  Her crown has lost its shine.  He has travelled for months and day through mountains and valleys to no avail. One day while walking, back home on the beach, he hears voices hoping for safety from the wave.  Droplet and Grain think the wave has perhaps finally got them, but it is the prince opening the oyster and finding just the gem he needs. The book concludes with the pearl saying “Alhumdulillah” to the distant stormy sky, “All things can live in the kingdom and its palace rising high.”

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So my questions, first I’m not sure how a droplet isn’t free, is there only one wave in the ocean? Who is talking at the end, obviously the anthropomorphism as a science lesson kind of hits a dead end, it went from two talking objects to one new talking object, so thats creepy.  Wouldn’t it have been better to end when the gem was found and then have an info or fact page highlighting how pearls are made, having two distinct characters morph into one is a bit jarring story wise. The concept of the kingdom not allowing in little things, and then concluding that all things are welcome, is also so painfully underdeveloped.  Even little readers are going to find that assumption so off the mark.  I like that they trust Allah, but Droplet keeps saying she isn’t scared, but continues to run? swim? The duo don’t want to be consumed, but essentially aren’t they consumed by the oyster? The Pearl feels like it beat the wave despite its size, but it was the other drops that were telling Droplet she was too small, not the wave.

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All confusion aside, my kids and I might just not be the ideal readers.  My six year old didn’t know what a pearl was, so he was incredibly confused.  I thought the book was going to be about the water cycle, so it took me a minute to realize that wasn’t where the story was going. There is a QR code on the front and if you go to the website a number of resources are available https://www.lotehouse.com/product-page/the-tale-of-a-tiny-droplet. I wish there was info within the binding though to explain the process of sand and water in an oyster making a pearl and I wish a heavy handed editor would have cleaned up the text.  Sadly, a potential great book mixing adventure, science and deen just really missed the mark.

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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I have been waiting for this book for a really long time: a girl leaves an Islamic school for a public middle school and is not just unapologetic, but proud of who she is and of her religion, all while navigating such a huge life change and the day-to-day stresses of school, family, friends, and life. This is it right, the middle grade 288 page book that holds up the mirror to our own experience as a typical Muslim family in the west, that so many of us have been waiting for? Except, sigh, for me it was just ok. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to seeing mainstream (Scholastic) Muslim protagonists shining and making their salat on time, this book is revolutionary and amazing. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I guess I wanted more than a tweak on Aminah’s Voice. I wanted to relate. I’m not a hafiza, nor do I know many 12 year olds that are. I enjoy boy bands, but have never been asked to join one. Sure the details and her decision to follow Islam the way she understands it is a great message, but it doesn’t clearly appear til nearly the end of the book, and until I got there my brain was constantly finding holes in the narrative, to the point I got out a notebook and started taking notes. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t read the book, and I know I am clearly in the minority here, so brace yourself this is a long review. If you see this at your child’s book fair and you think it looks cute, grab it, it is. I am cynical and jaded and I’m owning it, so perhaps we can agree to disagree, I’m just sad that I didn’t absolutely love it, so hold on, because I’m going to get it all out so that I can move on, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Nimra at her Ameen, a celebration to acknowledge her completion of not just reading the entire Quran, but of memorizing it. Her best friend Jenna, her non Muslim neighbor, is there and as everything is explained to her, the readers learn about Surah Yaseen, becoming a hafiza, and the schooling differences that Nimra and Jenna have had. That night when Jenna is sleeping over and the girls are watching Marvel’s Infiniti War, Nimra’s parents inform Nimra that she will be starting public school and that the two girls will finally be together. The news is big, but Jenna shrugs it off, and Nimra senses that something is off between them. When school starts, Jenna is surprised that Nimra is planning to wear her hijab to school, and this is before they have even left in the morning. The rest of the day: comments by Jenna’s friends, purposefully being excluded at lunch by Jenna, and being overwhelmed with a big school and so many teachers, makes Nimra miss her small three person Islamic school. Additionally she loves art, and is always tucked away in a corner with a sketch pad, her parents, however, have made her take Spanish instead of art class, and the frustration is painful. When she asks the principal for a quiet place to pray, another girl Khadijah pipes up that she can pray in the band room where she does. Khadija and her immediately hit it off, but she has already prayed, so Nimra sets off on her own to find the room. As she is about to start, some music starts, so to tune it out and focus on her salat, she recites aloud. When she exits, three boys are in awe at her vocal abilities: Bilal, Waleed, and Matthew, three Muslim boys. Better known as the middle school celebrity boy band, Barakah Beats, the boys beg her to join them. Nimra says she’ll think about it, but as the days show her and Jenna drifting further apart, being in the band might just be the way to get Jenna to pay attention. Unfortunately, Nimra’s family doesn’t believe Islam allows for musical instruments. She acknowledges that it is controversial, but that her family doesn’t play any instruments, attend concerts, or get up and dance. She figures she can join the band, just long enough to get Jenna’s friendship back on track and then dump the band without having to tell her parents. There is just one giant hiccup, they are planning to perform at a refugee fundraiser, oh and she really likes hanging out with the boys and Bilal’s sister Khadijah.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Had I read this book five maybe seven years ago, I’d be gushing, swooning, but when the author says in the forward that she is showing a girl proudly owning her religion, and essentially daring to be her authentic self, I expect something almost radical, revolutionary even. We are all settling in to seeing our Muslim selves in fiction and acknowledging that we are not a monolith, that we are diverse and flawed and valuable, but this premise felt different somehow, and I really wanted to connect with Nimra and her family, so when I didn’t, it hurt. It isn’t just a main character Muslim POV, or an OWN voice book, it is portrayed as being authentic to those of us that love our faith and don’t feel like we need to tone it down to be American. We are second or third generation American Muslim, we know our deen and this is our country, there is no going back to a homeland or assimilating. The book is about her being true to her self, but I don’t know that I know what she wants or what she believes, aside from her parents. The book addresses intergenerational conflict of power and expectation between her parents and grandparents, but other than for Spanish vs Art class, it seems to skim by the music issue, the main issue of the book. The book expects readers to acknowledge the maturity and voice of a 12 year old girl, but that same expectation isn’t given to the readers of nearly the same age. It glosses over any articulate arguments for why musical instruments are or are not allowed. It mentions that some people feel it is ok if the lyrics are not bad, some say it isn’t ok, that there are disagreements, that there are controversies, but it never explicitly answers, why? And readers are going to notice. I found it incredibly odd, that the music controversy is at the heart of this book, but the safe alternative is art and drawing. Drawing faces is a HUGE point of differing opinions among Muslims, perhaps as big, if not bigger than music. Nimra is always sketching and it mentions that she often is drawing super heroes: people, with faces, and possibly (magic) powers! The whole book she is in the band, and she regrets that she is using it to get back at her friend, but there isn’t a whole lot of internal debate if she thinks music is haram like her parents or it is ok, she just stays in the band, and plots how she will leave it so her parents don’t find out. SPOILER: I like that she ultimately makes the decision that is best for her and leaves the band after fulfilling her commitment, but we never see that, that is what her heart is telling her. There is no self exploration or critical thinking, it is just justifying why she is doing it, and then not doing it.

In terms of character development, only Nimra is really explored, the side characters are all pretty flat. Jenna gets some depth, but not much. I mean, how does Nimra’s best friend and neighbor who comes over every day after school not know that she has been working on memorizing the Quran? Not know how to dress at a religious themed celebration, a halter dress, really? Jenna is never shown to be a good friend, or even a nice person, the tone around her is negative from the start. We are told she is a good friend, but we never see it. The conversation about Nimra wearing hijab to school is like two lines, but is made to be a much bigger issue in Nimra’s head as she feels things haven’t been right since then. But, I’m not buying it. The girls go to movies, they go shopping, and she wears hijab, so why would school be so different? All of Jenna’s friends know about Nimra, so she can’t really be that embarrassed by Nimra’s scarf if they go out when she is wearing it and none of the other classmates seem surprised. I also felt off with the portrayal of the character because we so fervently believe that often the best dawah or even method to break down stereotypes and bigotry is to get to know some one personally. Jenna knows all of Nimra’s family and has for nearly her whole life, and she is so hateful and clueless to everything Islam? It is a stretch, the family prays, fasts, dresses Islamically, cares for her, feeds her cultural food, yet she is oblivious to it all. I get that her hate or lack of interest is probably reflective of how a lot of our neighbors are, but there aren’t many non Muslims in this book, and that portrayal is going to linger heavily for young readers.

Nimra is likeable enough on the surface, but the more you think about her, she isn’t really any different than those she is hurt by. She is mad when Julie assumes she doesn’t speak English, but she assumes Matthew isn’t Muslim because he is white. She checks her self in other ways, but this one seems to slip by. Other inconsistencies I noticed are when the first day of school teachers are really mean to her, but then it is never mentioned again. I wanted to know did they keep at it, did she prove them wrong? It was built up and then just abandoned. At her old school there were two other girls doing hifz, but when she meets up with one at Saturday school it seems they both are no longer at the school either. Did they graduate? Did they abandon it? Her Quran teacher comes to see her perform a song, perhaps a little understanding about her point of view in addition to the other Muslim’s in the band would have helped explain the why music is controversial in Islam. Also, does and would ADAMS allow music at an event? I’m genuinely curious. I even tried to Google it. Most masjids probably wouldn’t, but maybe a community center would. Readers are going to be so confused why Nimra is so stressed when the religious teacher and the place of worship are fine with it.

The friends as boys thing is sweet, but a little surprising, having three boys come over to hang out and watch a movie, high fiving them, sure it isn’t shocking, but its a bit inconsistent given the narrative. Plus, Nimra trying to help hook Waleed and Julie up? For as much as the book doesn’t want to sell itself out, little acts like this without a little hesitation or comment or introspection, kind of make it seem like its trying to normalize non Islamic acts as being ok.

I love the pop culture Marvel references, The Greatest Showman songs and the shoutout to Amal Unbound. I even loved the Deen Squad remixes getting acknowledged, but it made me wonder if all the songs of Barakah Beats are Islamic themed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it would be interesting to know since the entire school adores the band, even asking for autographs at one point.

FLAGS:

Nothing a third grader and up couldn’t handle: music, art, lying, bullying, talking about crushes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’d pass on the book as a middle school book club option, as it really is a middle grades read, and the thematic issues brought up for discussion are better found elsewhere. If I had an in person classroom, however, I would have the book on my shelf, it is a quick short read, that I think might encourage a discussion on music to take place, or at least allow readers to see a proud Muslim doing well in different environments.

Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

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Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

Lala

A mix of information and entertainment, this 124 page comic book is divided into thematic sections which further break down in to mini-episodes or comic strips that feature a situation, an Islamic advice often based on a Hadeeth or Quranic ayat that is noted, and a misinterpretation taken to a comical extreme. The book is a great way to remind ourselves and children, middle grades and up, aspects of our faith that we might know, or introduce us to specifics that we should know, by showing the concept in exaggerated action. Because the examples are relatable and come from everyday life, the humor is that much more enjoyable, and as a result makes the “lessons” that much more memorable.

The three sections cover topics included in 1: Muslim Identity/Mindset, 2: Habits/Lifestyle, and 3: Adhkaar/Prayer, after an introduction of the characters, and the magic of the ‘Aalim Hat are explained, the stories begin. They are not sequential and can be read in any order, and are about four to 10 pages each. The book surprisingly does a good job of not getting overly predictable. Even though you know something is going to be taken incorrectly or to the extreme, it doesn’t drag on or get redundant. At times Ayye, is overly preachy, ok, all the time, but the persona is intentional and reads intentional, as his grounding of events is actually the point of the book.

The illustrations are clear and enjoyable. They are expressive and easy to follow. The glossy pages and full color print help keep the readers, especially the younger ones, tuned in to what the lesson is, and what silliness is ensuing. The hardbound 6 x 9 book is great to have around where it can be picked up and thumbed through. I read the entire thing in one setting, as did my 12 and 14 year old, and all of us have subsequently picked it up and flipped through it to muse over sections once again. A few of the pages seem to bleed into the binding and require some effort to see the cut off text, hopefully the book will have multiple reprints and this can be rectified. If you don’t follow the author on Instagram you should @LalaArtwork.

It is important to note that I am not a scholar, or anywhere remotely qualified to opine on the authenticity or interpretation of the points given in the book. The hadeeth are sourced, stating if it is a Saheeh hadith or found in Bukhari or Muslim for example or who narrated it. And ayats from the Quran tell the surah and verse. They are sourced when stated, there is not a bibliography at the end.

Potential concerns in the book: it does show a Muslim celebrating halloween and birthdays in a comic about Eid. In an episode about being strangers in this duniya, it mentions drinking and clubbing and nudity, boyfriends, etc. as things to avoid in this world. There is hyperbole and revenge, and bad judgement, but it is all in fun to make clear Islamic points and I think children nine and up will have no trouble understanding what is real and what is exaggerated, inshaAllah.