Tag Archives: middle grades

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories by Hanna Alkaf

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Hamra and the Jungle of Memories by Hanna Alkaf

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This 400 page middle grade retelling of Little Red Riding Hood bursts with Malaysian culture, magic, action, and adventure.  The main character and her family are Muslim and hijab, duas, zikr, halal, Qur’an and salat are included throughout.  The mix of legends and characters from Malaysian culture in building the fae world is not contrasted with religious faith, but assumed to both coexist without issue.  The book is clean for ages nine and up and the only concepts worth noting are some intense life and death situations, close male and female friendships, dementia, and the element of fantasy.  The book is set during the Covid-19 pandemic which will ultimately date the book as it doesn’t convey the tone for readers unfamiliar with the curfews, social distancing, controversies, and masking.  Those who have just lived through it, will not need the framing, but in a few years I do fear that the book will be lacking in fully understanding why the tourists, parents, and markets are so absent.  As with all of the author’s books there are also dated pop culture references, that slow the narrative down for today’s readers.  The book grabs you from the start and the second half flies by smoothly, but the middle quarter is a bit slow as the world building is not robust, and the reader is thrust into a magical world that is just accepted without pause, and the reader is asked to accept it at face value as well.

SYNOPSIS:

It is Hamra’s birthday, but the independent 13 year old is not being celebrated- everyone has forgotten: her mother is a front line worker, her father helping those with limited resources, and her aging grandfather and her are left to care for her memory slipping grandmother.  When Hamra, Little Red, storms off to the jungle to collect some herbs, in an act of spite, she defies the rules drilled in to her 1- Always ask permission before you enter.  2- Don’t challenge what you can’t even see. 3- Never use your true name. 4-Never take what isn’t yours. 5-If you hear someone calling your name, never, ever look behind you. She also doesn’t listen to the regular reminders to tie her shoes.  Simple rules, that when broken set the story in to motion.  Along with her best friend Ilyas, the two will strike a deal with a weretiger for their transgressions that takes them on a journey to try and save Opah, themselves, and prove their quest a success.  The characters they meet, the clues they unravel, the legends they understand, and the scenic islands they explore are as lush as the love Hamra has for her family and the drive she has to return home safely.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the way Islam is truly part of the characters, and a natural extension of how they see the world and act within it.  I wish there was stronger world building blending the world of the known and the fantasy for the reader.  The writing of the Malaysian setting is beautifully unapologetic and I love that there is not a glossary or overly explained descriptions, it is immersive and I appreciate that, but the framing of the two worlds I felt was a bit disjointed and needed some fleshing out.  At times it feels more telling than showing in detailing the depths of the legends or the superstitions that are true for the story.  I did enjoy the characters’ quirks and stubbornness, there is not a lot of arc and growth, but with the intensity of the adventure and culture, I didn’t feel it lacking in development.  For much of the book I didn’t quite appreciate the Covid-19 framing, but by the end I understood that it was a way to have the tourist spots void of people, the parent’s out of the way; a little more development though would have had the uncertainty of so much more fully realized.

FLAGS:

Fear, trickery, danger, loss, death, music, musical references, dammit is said.  There is some violence, close male and female friendships, and a possible trigger of dementia in a loved one.  There is myth, legend, magic, fairies, fae, and fantasy, if you are ok with the concepts in general the presentation is clean even with mixing religion and these concepts.  If you are uncomfortable of fantasy and Islam coexisting, this book draws the two worlds very close.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have taught two of her books in middle school book club discussions, and I would teach this one as well.  It is enjoyable to see Malaysian Muslim characters so confident in their identity and having adventures that are enhanced by their faith and culture while focusing on larger themes of friendship, family, forgiveness, and adventure.

The book comes out in March of 2023, I’ve preorderd mine HERE and I hope you will as well.

Heroes Like Us: Two Stories by Onjali Q. Raúf

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Heroes Like Us: Two Stories by Onjali Q. Raúf

So this book is a little unique in that it is two stories, and The Great Food Bank Heist, one of the stories, has already been published, and the other story is a bit of an epilogue to The Boy at the Back of the Class.  So, I’m just going to review the first story in the book, The Day We Met the Queen, and while you probably can get away with not reading The Boy at the Back of the Class first, I wouldn’t want you to.  It is such a good book and you really should read it, everyone should. Yes, it is that good. So back to The Day We Met the Queen, the first story in the upcoming middle grade 176 page book, about refugees and kids making a difference.

SYNOPSIS:

This charming story shows what happens to Alexa and Ahmet and the whole crew as they prepare to met the Queen for tea.  The group of friends is about to show the entire school their invitations and share the two questions each that they plan to ask the monarch, the list was 52 questions, but because the Queen is nearly 100 years old, they have been advised to shorten the list.  On the day of the assembly news crews are present and Brenden-the-Bully is acting a little strange, as Ahmet starts talking the auditorium erupts with stink bombs and everyone leaves running.  The kids think it is just the bully striking again, but the gossip at the school and reports on the news imply it might be more than that, and the kids might not make it to the Queen’s tea after all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love getting some closure on the story, while simultaneously showing that refugee treatment and rights is not a thing yet resolved.  The idea of the Queen being at the center of the book definitely adds to the coincidental timeliness of it all, but that she is easy going and relatable to the children is still the takeaway whether you were a fan of the real Queen or not.  I love the voice of the protagonist and the relatability that her concerns are with the target audience. I particularly enjoy the critique about the media and the clarity in which the children understand the flaws and limitations of what they are told in the news both on the school level and on a global stage.  There isn’t anything Islamic in the text, Ahment is Muslim, as is the author.

FLAGS:

Hate speech, deception, bullying

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is an author that brings big real issues to children’s stories as well or as consistently as Onjali Rauf. Both stories in this book should be shared with middle grade readers and up to be discussed, reflected upon, and learned from as often as possible.  You can preorder your copy here: https://amzn.to/3Eq2G4M

The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

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The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

This sweet middle grades book about two girls in Ghana is a friendship story and a rags to riches gem.  The 336 pages immerse you in a rich and vibrant culture and share a story that while at times simplistic, really pulls you in and makes the over the top happy ending, tearful and joyful.  I read the entire book in one setting and loved that there was no glossary, or white pandering; the story works in the explanations and details for those unfamiliar with West African cultures to share a story about classism, friendship, growing up, and challenging stereotypes.  I loved while so much was new to me and culture specific, so much, at the same time, was universal and relatable to all.  The story is OWN voice, the main character is a wealthy girl,  but the friend is a poor Muslim one.  I am not sure where the religious representation ended and the cultural practices started, but the book does not criticize any culture or traditions, it only criticizes the mindset that one is superior to another because of where they are from.  I also don’t know that the Muslim character will mirror global Muslim experiences, but having the character identify as Muslim and be such a wise and determined friend, makes her a great character to cheer on and love no matter the reader’s background.  This would be a great book to teach, to shelve, to read aloud, and to discuss.

SYNOPSIS:

Fourteen year old Abena is spending her summer with her aunt in Makola market while her mother has traveled to London to give birth.  Abena’s father is a physician and her friends are part of the wealthy and privileged class that attends American schools, vacations abroad, lives in mansions with servants, and have the latest phones.  In a bit of a culture shock spending the weekdays with her aunt at the bustling market, Abena starts to see her country and its people in a different light. One day while getting out of her aunt’s car she makes eye contact with a kayayoo, a porter who carries customers purchases on their head.  She snaps a picture of the girl who appears about her age wearing an orange scarf, as she secretly is working on a journalism competition, and something about the girl intrigues her.  The two smile and carry on.  Later when they meet again they realize they do not share any common languages, they both speak a number of dialects and languages, yet somehow the girls connect.  Day after day they sneak away to have lunch together and learn about one another as they learn each other’s language, culture, history, and dreams.  Faiza opens Abena’s eyes to so much about Ghana that she had never known existed and Abena teaches Faiza English, science, shows her the internet and gives her the foundation for how to read and write.  Abena’s aunty does not approve of their friendship: stereotypes and assumptions about poor Muslims from the North prevent her from treating Faiza as an equal.  Yet, she doesn’t forbid the friendship either.  As the girls’ friendship grows, summer vacation comes to an end and goodbyes will have to be made.  Things get expediated though, in a climax of misunderstandings, regrets, and friendships separated by class and religion.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that right before Abena sneaks Faiza on to the laptop to Google dinosaurs, and the solar system, and cities in Ghana and maps, I was Googling images of geles, okro and Makola market, maps to see where Hausa and Dagomba regions are, and enjoying learning about people because it is so enriching whether fictional or in real life.

I love that there isn’t judgement by either girl on trying to understand why children are given to aunts to raise or why women are forced to marry.  It shows so much without othering any facet of sub culture within Ghana or anywhere for that matter.  Abena’s cousins aren’t put down for being wealthy, or Faiza for being poor.  Even the Haji looking for a fourth wife is not favorable because he is old and has brown stained teeth, not because there is judgement upon him having more than one wife or the family wanting their daughter to marry him.

I often remark that I like middle grade books that don’t tie everything up in a neat and tidy bow, but this book went the other extreme and tied everything up far in to the future, that I ended up loving the extreme nature of it as the tears of joy dripped off my cheeks.  If you are going to do it, do it for a reason, and this book did it to great effect.

Faiza is Muslim she wears hijab and stops Abena from taking it off at one point, but then at the end she has braids hanging out from underneath her scarf.  There are crushes and hugging between Faiza and males and an implied potential romantic relationship between Faiza and a non Muslim male that is never given pause.  A character goes for hajj, it mentions a space that Faiza uses for prayer, and it mentions Faiza’s Muslim family members getting drunk.  Nothing more than these details are given about being Muslim, other than her being labeled as a Muslim and identifying as one.

FLAGS:

Theft, crushes, lying, classism, racism, running away, drinking beer, getting drunk, forced marriage.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think that the book would lend itself very easy toward discussion and appreciating a people and culture that for many in the west would be new and unfamiliar.  I think outside research to supplement would be a natural extension and that the characters, their voices, their lives, and experiences, will stay with readers of all ages as we can rest easy knowing that they got their happy endings.

Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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This 320 page full color middle grade graphic novel is a powerful and moving read. The memoir focuses on the young Syrian boy who began reporting on the war from the perspective of children and sharing his work on social media.  The raw emotion, the determination to make a difference, the familial love, are conveyed in a way that allows eight and nine year old readers to connect to living through horror with compassion and outrage and empathy.  Older readers will also be drawn in and moved by the relatability of a boy their age having his world turned upside down.  I particularly like how the book dispels so many assumptions and stereotypes by showing what life was like before the devastation, a bit about the role of outside forces and political oppression, and really creating a mood where you can imagine what you would do if you were in Muhammad’s situation.  The book is heavy, but also has a lot of hope and and joy. I tend to like nonfiction graphic novels that are character driven like this one.  I find I understand the scope of what they are enduring by seeing it through their eyes and feeling like I know them and thus can better grasp what their reality is.  There are photographs at the end which further connect the readers to Muhammad and Syria, and I hope this book finds its way into classrooms, libraries, homes, and hearts, so that we might be better to one another.  Readers of When Stars are Scattered will similarly love this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book begins with eight-year-old Muhammad hanging around his father’s carpentry shop in Eastern Ghouta, playing soccer and pleading to by treats from the candy seller.  When Assad’s soldiers come, destroy his soccer ball, and his family warns him not to trust anyone, including the new candy seller, Muhammad’s world is suddenly not so certain.  When his family must seek shelter at a moments notice, homework is left, videogames paused, and fear very real.

Muhammad is the miracle child, born after the family didn’t know if they could have any more children, he is the fourth, and spoiled. Even with destruction and sheltering though, there is joy, more children are born in to the family, and while Muhammad’s status might be in question, his love of his little brother and sister, motivate him to do something to create a safer home.

At age 13, his father and uncle go for Jummah salat, and his father is killed while praying.  At 15 Muhammad is done hiding, he knows he will never be safe and he starts filming and sharing stories of children as a way to honor is father and fight back against oppression.

With the support of his family, and constant worry that Assad’s army will target him, Muhammad keeps telling the stories of those with no voice.  Eventually his following grows, catches international attention, and gives Muhammad purpose.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the format for this story, you truly can’t put it down.  It shows the emotion so powerfully that you cry when characters are lost.  You know hundreds die every day, but the singling in on a character that you have grown to love dying moves the reader, add in that you know this was a real person and that Muhammad really endured the loss, and it reminds you of your humanity.  The love the characters all have for their oldest sister is absolutely incredible.  The pages of the family just being so connected are my absolute favorites.

The characters are Muslim and it is a part of their daily lives, there is no pulling out of the narrative and explaining or preaching.  The women wear hijab, they plead with Allah swt, they reflect on Allah’s plan, they go for prayers at the masjid.

FLAGS:

Death, destruction, war, fear. It is not sensationalized, and I truly think middle grade and middle school readers will benefit from reading, even the sensitive ones.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think the book would be wonderful to teach in the classroom tying literature, current events, and history together.  I absolutely think every library, classroom, and home bookshelf should feature this book.

It can be pre-orderd here

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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We tend to love people and books that do things first, for good reason, they raise the bar, set the standard, and pave the way for all those that come after.  And no, this is not the first middle grade traditionally published book to have Muslim characters having a completely non-Islamic-identity-centered plot, BUT it might just be the best one I’ve read.  The amount of Islam woven into the characters and storyline is absolutely incredible and seamless. The writing quality keeping dual male point of views separate, engaging, and unique without judgement, is nearly flawless.  The emotional connection of the writing and characters and plot had me both laughing out loud and crying unapologetically within the span of the 276 pages of the book.  This book is a treat for the readers and everyone eight and up I’m quite nearly certain will enjoy this Muslim authored, unapologetically Muslim approach about two 8th grade strangers realizing they are twin brothers and getting to know each other.

SYNOPSIS:

Shaheer lives with his dad and paternal grandfather.  They are well-to-do with his father being an ER physician, but they move around a lot, and never stay in one place long enough to make friends, unpack boxes, or feel like they have a home.  Ashar has lived in Virginia since he was four.  He and his mom recently moved out of living with her brother and his family, but they are next door so even though money is often tight, family and love are always present.

The first day of eighth grade finds the two boys at the same school, staring at each other and wondering how they can maybe find the pieces of themselves that have always been missing. The idea is good, but the reality is complicated.  Ashar and Shaheer’s parents have refused to even acknowledge each other to the boys over the years, extended family plays along, and the boys have to decide if they can even forgive their parents for doing this to them.  Throw in a cousin who knows the boys are switching places, hockey practices, a masjid remodel, and the ever looming threat that Shaheer will be moving yet again and the stage is set for a lot of laughs, tears, and characters that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The retelling of “The Parent Trap” is not predictable, nor does it talk down to the reader and tie everything up in a nice unrealistic bow.  There are twists and disappointment and hope and joy, not just for the characters, but for the readers as well.  The side characters are even fleshed out and memorable, not just as foils for the protagonists (I loved cousin Zohra), but as characters with a vested interest in how it all plays out.  I was surprised how clearly different the characters are, even when imitating one another and how nuanced their differences are.  They are not simply opposites: one is not good the other bad, one outgoing one an introvert, rather they are just different, as any two siblings undoubtedly would be.

I absolutely love how Islam is so much a part of the story, a part of the characters, a part of the details, but is not the whole story.  There is no Islamophobia, internal or external, there is no religious othering, it is masterfully done and Muslims and non Muslims alike will benefit from the real tangible expression, growth, and presentation of faith for the characters.

Similarly, culture is presented as a part of the characters in various forms without overly explaining or white centering.  This is who the characters are and their present predicament, as crazy as it is, could happen to anyone, of any culture or of any faith, the two are not corollary. But because it is happening to Ashar and Shaheer, the reader is brought into their world where salat/namaz, athan, mosques, hockey, entrance exams, volunteer work, finances, naan, pineapple on pizza, donuts, and nihari are all present and all unapologized for.  Well, except for the pineapple on pizza.

The best part of it all, is that it is also clean.

FLAGS:

Nothing an eight year old can’t handle, but there is deception as they imitate each other, parental arguing.  There is mention of Shaheer putting his headphones on and listening to music. Zohra plays flute in the band and it mentions when she has practice or that the family all goes and supports her. Male cousins and female cousins interact with each other freely.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If my middle school book club is mostly 6th graders in the fall, I think I will feature this book as soon as it is released on October 4th.  Even if it is a bit below “reading level” the writing is engaging and I don’t think even the most cynical book club member will be sorry they spent time with this book.  It would be a quick read for them, but an enjoyable one for sure.

It can be preordered here on Amazon

Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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This 272 page unapologetically Muslim MG tale takes on some heavy concepts: child labor, jinn, education, and gulab jamun- I mean greed.  Through the eyes of feisty, determined, clever, and strong Nura, though, the trials of life and society are never without hope, a sense of adventure, and good intentions.  The characters are likeable, the Islam wonderfully present and often centered, the social commentary remarkable, but the framing for me, made it a bit of a struggle to read at times.  It is set up like Alice in Wonderland or even Silverworld, where the characters living in a real world stumble in to an alternate reality, and thus the world building occurs in real-time so to speak.  The reader has no idea what is going on until it is happening, no clue what the rules and constraints of the fantasy world are until some detail is needed to help or hinder the protagonist, and personally I struggle with this wandering style of narrative.  I have mentioned before that as a child I really never read fantasy, and I think this is why, I  need the context to ground the story so that I might lose myself in the adventure at hand.  If you are fine with this framing and at ease with Islamic jinn fantasy, then this book will be a lot of fun.  If you find fantasy “shirk-y” do know that Ayat ul Kursi is used to save the day, but that there is a lot of imagination regarding the beings made of smokeless fire, a casino is present along with dancing, indentured labor, and the fear of death.

The book releases in July 2022, and as always pre-orders help show support for books, authors, and the OWN voice content that they entail, so if this book seems like a good fit for your 3rd/4th grade reader and up you can pre-order it here: https://amzn.to/3MVvxQo

SYNOPSIS:

Nura lives in the small industrial Pakistani city of Meerabagh.  Her father has passed away and her family is too poor to send her to school, instead she must work so that her siblings might eat.  Her mother works in a sweat factory and Nura in the mica mines.  The illegal child labor and cruel owners provide less than ideal working conditions for the children forced to mine the sparkly mineral.  Nura’s mom wants her to quit, Nura herself doesn’t enjoy the torment, but somehow she takes it on as a challenge to be the best miner in Meerabagh, pushing her self deeper into the fragile tunnels.  With bestfriend Faisal always warning her about going too far, she decides to finally listen to her mother and quit the mines, but not after she makes one final effort to find the rumored “Demon’s Tongue” treasure.  She digs too deep though, and the mines collapse, children are lost, Faisal among them. Determined to find her best friend, she plunges in to the fallen mines and finds herself on the pink waters outside the luxurious jinn hotel, the Sijj Palace.

Nura has always been warned about jinn, qareens and the tricks they play on humans, but when a life of luxury is dangled in front of her, Nura pushes her better judgement aside to enjoy a life she has always dreamed of.  It isn’t just the food and clothes, but it is the respect and honor she is given as she wins a food eating contest, gambles in a casino, and gets decorated for a dance party.  It all comes crashing down however, when in an attempt to impress the painted boy, she cuts off his horn.  Status revoked, Nura is sent to the labor force, where she will remain for eternity, imprisoned and at the disposal of the hotel.  What is more, after the three day festival of Eid al Adha, her memories of her life before coming to the jinn world will disappear. Nura is determined to escape, but nothing in the jinn world is easy, and for a 12 year old girl with fading memories, this might be more than she can endure.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nura is unapologetically Muslim.  Even though she is poor, there is time spent on the pages detailing the feeling of Eid al Adha, the familial togetherness and community festiveness even if it all is meager, it still has value.  I also really like the relationship between Nura and Faisal.  They drive each other crazy and have nothing in common, but they never give up on each other.  They act like siblings, tolerating each other’s annoying quirks, while never wavering on their concern and worry for one another.  It is sweet and well fleshed out.

The threading of education was also done well.  Nura finds the idea of school repulsive, but it grows and changes as the obstacle of being illiterate slows her down, and ultimately she changes her mind.  The growth arc is subtle, but powerful, and Nura’s intellect, cleverness, and ingenuity is never dimmed as a result of her lack of formal schooling.

The characters, even the “bad” ones are given some depth and sympathetic qualities, and Nura has to recognize some of her own flaws and choices as she journeys through the book.  Desi culture is present primarily in food and clothing, but it adds depth to the story and flavor to the experience.

The food eating competition, however, didn’t really impress me.  I get that it was to flesh out the jinn world and show Nura’s smartness, but I thought the jinn in the water were eaten, only to have them reappearing, and the founding premise is that jinn are tricksters, so to have Nura tricking them seems to blur the lines of integrity.  Also the bird was critical, and then never seen again, the scene just didn’t read as tightly edited or as clear as it should have in my opinion.

I didn’t love that a casino either, or that it was so central to the story. If it would have said something about gambling being haram and jinn being free to do what they want, like it did when discussing how Eid is celebrated by non practicing jinn, I might have not been as bothered,  but it seems an odd setting nonetheless, for a middle grade book.

FLAGS:

Gambling, child labor, indentured servitude, magic, fantasy, jinn, destruction, bombing, fire, death, fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this could work as a middle school book club read.  It is a little below level and age, but there is a lot to discuss and connect with, that I think it would be a lot of fun.  Our school is ok with fantasy reads, so for us it definitely deserves a place on the bookshelf in a classroom, school library, and possibly (depending on your views of fantasy) a home library.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Must Love Pets: Friends Fur-Ever by Saadia Faruqi

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Must Love Pets: Friends Fur-Ever by Saadia Faruqi

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This 208 middle grade novel by a Muslim author features a desi family and the protagonist’s love of pets.  Iman Bashir is on summer break and is determined to convince her mom and grandfather that she is responsible enough for a pet dog.  The internal realization of selfishness, her ability to problem solve, be a good friend, and know the limits around her, keep the story from being whiny and annoying.  The writing is superb and the characters relatable.  I wish there was a bit more Pakistani culture, or some indication of the characters faith (there is one Salaam), not because all books need it, but rather because it almost seems that text goes out of its way to not contain it.  The story is clean and the first in a series that I think most kids will enjoy. The father in the story has passed away and at times Iman struggles with sharing her thoughts on him, I don’t think it would be triggering, it is subtle and adds depth to the story, but it is worth noting incase it hits too close to home.

SYNOPSIS:

Iman has been begging, or rather asking her mom for a dog at every chance she can get, but after 43 rejections she is thinking she needs a new plan.  When she meets the new neighbor, Olivia, who is the same age as her and her best friend London, an idea is hatched to start a pet sitting business.  Iman’s mom is always stressing how important it is to help others after all.  Opportunity strikes when Sir Teddy’s owner has to rush out of town, the girls offer their services to watch the beloved dog.  But how do you share caring for a dog at three different houses? How do you let your parents know what you have committed to? What do you do when your brother is allergic to dogs, or you have a cat that doesn’t like dogs, or your house is still in boxes? What do you do when your first customer goes missing?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the side stories the best: the grief of losing a parent, the Dada Jee and his lemons, the soccer team helping search for the missing dog.  The story itself is fine, albeit predictable on the surface.  Where it really shines is in the point of view of Iman.  I love that her internal dialogue knows that she is being selfish, that she is being a bad friend, but that she is still feeling these very real feelings adds depth to the book, character, and plot.

I like that the mom is a strong single mom, and I hope that as more books in the series are written we get to see some emotional unpacking and connection between her and Iman.  I do like that the meaning of Iman’s name is explained in Arabic, and desi foods are featured, but I couldn’t help but feel that the writing would set up for something more, and then abruptly pull back.  There really is no explanation about why Dada Jee doesn’t like dogs other than saying in Pakistan they aren’t allowed in the house.  So finish the though, face palm, they are not let in because religiously which has influenced culture- dogs are generally not brought inside, it is a bit of a contentious point.  I get because Muslims feel differently about dogs it was probably kept out, but she is a talented writer, she could have still acknowledged the hole in the rationale without committing to a side.  Sure in my Islamic School Librarian head, I would have loved the characters taking their shoes off when they enter the house, eating halal, and pausing to pray, but I accept that isn’t the story.  At times though it didn’t feel OWN voice, it felt very watered down on the cultural rep and it makes me wonder why it was really included at all.

FLAGS:

Clean.  Loss of a parent.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This is a solid MG book and would be a great addition on a school or classroom library shelf.

Lowriders to the Rescue by Cathy Camper illustrated by Raúl Gonzalez III

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Lowriders to the Rescue by Cathy Camper illustrated by Raúl Gonzalez III

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This is my first Lowriders book, so admittedly there was a lot going on that I really don’t feel confident that I understood, but even with that, it was a sweet story of first love (crush), Arab and Latinx joy, humor, social activism, environmentalism, gentrification, and fun.  I don’t know that the other books in this middle grades series explain the characters or their world any more or less, so I think it can be read as a standalone book, and I think the 140 page detailed illustration filled pages will tempt even the most reluctant readers to give it a try.

SYNOPSIS:

Sokar is an Arab Muslim monarch butterfly, and the fires have taken so many of her family, and cut the survivors off from being able to safely migrate.  She comes to town with a broken wing and in desperate need of help, only to find prejudice against her at every corner, until she meets the Lowriders:  Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio.  Lupe is an impala, Elirio a mosquito, and Flappy a land octopus with brand new glasses who falls for Sokar at first sight.  Sokar, however, has concerns with the environmental impact the lowrider car has knowing that the fires and pollution are all related.  Add on that the Upscale Business Association gentrifying the neighborhood, and everyone is going to need to work together to save the monarchs, the neighborhood, the environment, and a tender friendship.  As characters find connections between Arab and Latin foods, Arabic and Spanish words, the readers will find similarities from the real world with this crazy one with people, animals, insects, and flying cars.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The author saw my review of Arab Arab All Year Long! and let me know that this book also had Islamic representation, and that I should check it out.  I love that there are Islamic phrases (inshaAllah, salam), a possible hijab on Sokar, connections to Moors of Spain, and Arab culture.  Part of me doesn’t love the love interest, crush thread, but it is between a land octopus and a butterfly and there is only a kiss on the cheek, so, I’m not sure it is that big of a deal.  I love that environmental concerns, discrimination and activism are the heart of the story, yet somehow it doesn’t read preachy.

The similarities of words, foods, and my favorite throwing of a chancla/throwing of a shabashib are all amazing for readers of all backgrounds to see and be made aware of.  I love the teamwork, altruism, and compassion that so many of the characters show, while not sacrificing the humor and quirkiness of it all.

I was a bit concerned with the posters going up everywhere, that seems like a lot of waste and excess, in every other instance they were so mindful: making the car solar powered, reducing plastic in the ocean, etc..

FLAGS:

Racism, discrimination, crush, kiss on the cheek, death, loss, destruction.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would work for a full on book club selection, but I think it would be a popular book to give to a kid to read and then chat about it with them when they finish.  The book has a lot to discuss and maybe in small groups it would be a good selection.  I’m hoping to get it in the library when it releases and I’ll come back and report on how it works with reluctant readers, avid readers, and in getting the kids reading, thinking, and laughing.  You can pre-order yours to show support for the author by clicking HERE.

The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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