Tag Archives: middle grades

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

Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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This middle grade series has been highly recommend to me numerous times over the years, and I finally found a copy to read and review.  It is book three in the series, and I have not read the first two, so I may be missing something, but the book didn’t wow me honestly.  The 147 page story published in 2011 has a lot of potential, but I felt like it didn’t know who the audience would be, and thus often felt cumbersome and disjointed to read.  At times it uses Islamic terms (muezzin), other times the Urdu words (namaz), and way too often the english meanings (ablution, peace be upon you, mosque), often all three in a single paragraph.  It is Islamic fiction and stays adventurous, without getting overly preachy and didactic, but there are some cruel life threatening antics by the girls, and some heavy themes of child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, gender treatment in Islamic spaces, finance and micro loans, but to its credit, it stays on level and, while as a mom some of the adventure needs adult intervention, I think young readers would support the young girls handling so much on their own.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve year old Zahra and her classmates from her Islamic boarding school are headed on a class trip from England to Egypt.  For ten days they will be learning about the history, the culture, and connecting to Islam.  A group of first year girls and their chaperones in a foreign country meet with former students, another girls school from the UK, and some of their chaperone’s husbands giving this short book a lot of characters to get to know briefly, and only in passing.

The adventure starts right away as bully Saira locks a claustrophobic girl in the airplane lavatory in revenge of being locked in a freezer and forced to eat spiders earlier in the school year, and the foreshadowing that these battles are not over is set.  Once in Egypt, the girls muddle through worksheets sharing what they have learned, stopping to pray, and enjoying the experience.  Every so often at the hotel however, they see a girl they have dubbed, “sad girl” and the mystery to figure out what is making her so sad will ultimately make this a trip that brings the girls close to danger, and if successful will make them heroes. Toss in a nasheed concert, a runaway camel, and it is going to be a busy week and a half for them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book presents a lot of Islam, and I think most readers will learn something and see Islam practiced authentically.  There is praying, and wearing hijabs, and halal meat, and Islamic history, and the 99 names of Allah all present in the characters naturally.

The book starts with Zahra and her mom and aunt rushing to the airport, they are running late.  Zahra’s aunt is not Muslim and presumably her mom is a convert, there is some really awkward dialogue before the family leaves, and it is called out as being awkward, but it just didn’t seem to fit either.  Why would a girl’s brother tell a non Muslim to wear a scarf? A character that is just in the first scene? I’m hoping there is more to her as a character in the first two books, and maybe this is a reference to something, but it just reads really weird and unrealistic (I hope).

Similarly, I am sure the first two books cover the forcing a bully to eat spiders and why she was locked in a freezer, but to just see that this is the level of the pranks, is a little disturbing.  The book acknowledges that locking a girl in a bathroom who has claustrophobia is dangerous, and that triggering the camel to run-off was similarly potentially deadly, but what about the other cruelties? It doesn’t even hint that there is more there, and I would have liked to see some context to recognize that these aren’t benign pranks, they are pretty big acts.

The child trafficking and kidnapping plot really had me wishing that the girls at least talked to Anu Apa. Having preteens take on such a dangerous situation so haphazardly was a little stressful for me, and I need to find some middle grade readers to help me see the actions through their eyes.

The randomness of the nasheed concert didn’t seem to fit for me, the song she wrote wasn’t that good, the whole thing came together too easily, and then some of the girls taking off their hijabs in wildness seemed such an odd tangent to me.

The biggest obstacle for me was the terminology and diction.  I don’t think it matters if the readers are Muslim or not, use the Islamic terms.  The teachers and students go to an Islamic school, it isn’t a stretch to have them use the proper term of salat instead of namaz, they can remark on the athan, not azan, they can say Assalamualaikum, they don’t need to say in english peace be upon you, and upon you when they greet, it seems so halting to the authenticity of the characters and flow of the story.

I think part of the difficulty in getting these books in the US is they just had one edition printed, and I genuinely hope that at some point the author will revisit the books especially now that she has been published mainstream for her other works, and hopefully grown as an author.  There is a lot of good in the book, it just could use some polishing and updating.

FLAGS:

Child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, cruel pranks, physical assault.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get these books on a classroom shelf based on this one book.  If a classroom or library already has them, I wouldn’t remove them.  Utlimately, I don’t know that many readers will stick with the sorting out of all the characters in the beginning of the book, and those that do I think would probably be slightly disappointed, not with the presentation of Islam, but in the side story building details.

Horse Diaries #6: Yatimah by Catherine Hapka illustrated by Ruth Sanderson

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Horse Diaries #6: Yatimah by Catherine Hapka illustrated by Ruth Sanderson

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I love that a reader talked to her mom about this book, and then they brought it to my attention. Published in 2011 it is book six in a popular middle grade series told from the horse’s perspective where each book features a different culture from around the world and is set in different time periods. This book is told from an Arabian horse’s perspective in the 9th century and details her growing up an orphan, trying to understand the Bedouin humans around her, and establishing herself as a war mare.  Allah swt is mentioned quite often, as is Arab hospitality, and some guests at one point are briefly mentioned as they are on their way to Hajj.  My problem with the story is the portrayal of the raids.  I don’t know enough about Bedouin culture in the 9th century to opine on the accuracy of the raiding that would occur between tribes, but when juxtaposed with the humble God fearing, grateful religious people, blatantly stealing from the neighbors, it is hard to cheer for Yatimah and her humans at being thieves.

SYNOPSIS:

The birth of Yatimah takes the life of her mother, the beloved war mare of Nasr.  Her loss puts distance between the Bedouin leader and the foal.  Nasr’s daughter Safiya, however, has a soft heart for Yatimah and the two form a close bond. As Yatimah is accepted to nurse from another mare and grows with the companionship of her colt, Tawil, the two young horses show the reader how when the grazing starts to disappear in the desert, they are fed dates, and when those start to deplete they move to more fertile lands.  Always on the move, they raid other camps to steal sheep, and camels, and horses as needed, and work to prevent other’s from stealing from them.  Since the death of Yatimah’s mom, Nasr has not found a proper war mare, and thus the training of Yatimah begins. The climax is a raid that will give Yatimah a chance to prove herself and win over the still distant Nasr.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the illustrations and the detail that often accompanies them.  I also really appreciate the appendix at the end that gives information about Arabian horses, Bedouins, and war mares.  I learned a lot about the specific strengths of Arabian horses, and why the Bedouins favored riding mares over stallions. 

I liked that many of the exhausting stereotypes were not present in this book in regards to women.  Safiya is a young girl at the beginning and then starts to wear hijab as she grows, but she is still free to come and go as she pleases it seems.  Her father respects her and shows affection and kindness to her throughout.  I just find the premise a little off that we readers, are hoping that Yatimah becomes the lead thieving horse.  It mentions that it doesn’t make sense to the horses, but to have that be the whole point of the story, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially when the story could have been developed in so many other ways to focus on something a little bit more positive.

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FLAGS:

Stealing, thieving, death, loss.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think the book would be fine on a classroom bookshelf, but I wouldn’t highlight it unless I was prepared to discuss with young readers the culture and why perhaps this was such a part of the lifestyle.  I would not want to perpetuate any stereotypes of Muslims, or provide a negative impression on readers that are drawn to these books because of their love of horses.  I learned a lot by reading the books, but I worry what a 8 to 10 year old would take away about a culture and religion after reading such a story, I fear the word barbaric may arise.

The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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I have a vague memory of being told that this book features a Muslim family when I reviewed the author’s first book, but I can’t find the message, nor recall who sent it and to where.  The text does not suggest any religion by any of the characters, but that being said there are “Islamic” names present in this 195 page middle grades book by a Muslim author and set in Serendib, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka.  The fast paced story pulls you in and sets three kids up for adventure, overcoming fears, outsmarting adults, and becoming heroes along the way.  I didn’t love this book as much as The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, but it probably isn’t fair to compare them.  The book was released last year in the UK and will release shortly here in the US, I don’t know that I would rush out to purchase it, but I would definitely put it on hold at the library.  It is an adventure filled read from a boy protagonist perspective, it starts with a mutiny, features treasure, plotting, close encounters with a whale, and bringing justice to murderers and thieves.

SYNOPSIS:

Zheng has never had much of a family, and when his Captain’s First Mate and the cook poison their merchant ship crew and leave them to die, Zheng escapes.  He washes up on the shore of Serendib, not far from Galle, and is found by local fisherboy Razi.  Razi is a fisherboy that doesn’t fish, or rather no longer fishes, not since his father was killed by the sea.  Razi just tries to help get Zheng some food and get him out of the sun, but when Marco and Cook question him about the whereabouts of Zheng, he protects the boy and gets himself involved.  Promising not to tell anyone about Zheng, he immediately tells his twin sister Shifa.  Shifa is the rational one int he group and doubts Zheng’s adventure stories.  Her quick thinking and clever sneakiness provides time-and-time again in the book, a chance for the three kids to rescue each other, find the treasure, and return it.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is so fast past and unapologetic.  The descriptions of the island, and the plants and sea life, really is impressive and insightful into a country and culture not often explored in children’s books.  My mommy heart did not like that the kids would just leave for days at a time, and they never even thought that she might be worried, spoiler, she was! 

I like how subtly the grief and loss of the father manifested in Razi.  How he had to reconcile his emotions and start to move forward.  It isn’t in your face, but I would imagine that any child who has gone through something similar, would be reassured by seeing a fictional character experiencing something similar.  It is reinforced by Zheng’s lack of family and his need to find a “home.”

I felt like a few plot holes were too quickly glossed over in the heat of action.  I don’t know that it is a result of carelessness, I think it was more to keep the story fast moving and appropriate for the target audience, but I could have used a little filling in of the gaps: the ease of pulling people in to boats, where Zheng was going at the end and how it was all figured out, how Cook and Marco found Zheng, how everyone in Galle immediately recognized the dagger, why the kids were never killed even though numerous people were drugged at the beginning without a second thought, what the praise was for the returning of the dagger, what the oxen cart owner’s response was to the damaged cart, etc..

I wish there would have been a prayer to Allah swt at some point, or a bismillah, or an Assalamualaikum. The sister’s name, Shifa, and the medicine man that she trains under, Abdul Cader, imply a tinge of Islam, but I would have liked a tiny bit more, the book sets itself for lots to be sprinkled in, the children nearly die multiple times, but it was never there.  

FLAGS:

Death, lying, sneaking, near death experiences, grief, loss, theft.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun elementary read-a-loud with the short chapters and fast paced action.

Click to access The-Girl-Who-Stole-an-Elephant-Comprehension-worksheet.pdf

An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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If you are a long time fan of Ayesha Dean and you have been waiting for some children in your life to grow up just a little, so you can share the strong Muslim detective books with them, you are in for treat.  This book is a short novelette for middle grade readers!  It isn’t a prequel detailing her personal backstory, but it does show how she got her first taste of sleuthing at age 13.  If you are new to the series: the book like all the others is Islam centered, fast paced, authentically voiced, and an overall fun read.  Unique to this book is that it is for ages 8 and up, and takes place in Ayesha’s home country of Australia.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha is at a new school, she has recently started wearing hijab and she just wants to settle in to it all with friends Jess and Sara.  Things have been going missing from year eight lockers, but it isn’t until Ayesha is a victim does the concern really hit home.  Add to that getting paired with the jerk Dylan Wyley for a project in Indonesian class, and Ayesha is not having a good day.  When she senses some suspicious activity, she is on the case: ready to get her stolen book back, take down a bully, put her Tae Kwon Do training to use, and make it to the library to pray her salat on time.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed the relatable voice of young Ayesha, having read all of the other books in the series, it was sweet to get a peek of her in her younger school days.  I love how much Islam is in the book, and not in a preachy way, but rather in a ‘I’m Muslim and this is how I see the world and this is what I do’ sort of way. I’m not going to lie though, I wanted more backstory on how she became friends with Jess and Sara, how she settled in to living with Uncle Day when her parents died, and all the backstory four books solving crimes around the world just couldn’t get to.  But I fully realize, that is just something I may never get (hint, hint) and will have to be content with the fast paced, culture and Islam rich stories that we thankfully get.  I’m not complaining, I just get overly invested.

To all my arrogant ignorant readers out there, that like me, might be a bit confused about Australian schooling and culture- I embarrassed and humbled myself and annoyed the ever gracious author to learn more about Ayesha’s world.  In Australia the lockers are located in the students’ homeroom classrooms (tute rooms), hence they don’t often padlock them.  High school refers to ages 12-17, and sometimes 11th and 12th grade are called senior school, and “How did you go” is a phrase in Australian English.  See, aren’t you glad I asked, now we know, and can widen our view together.

The only thing that I think I would have liked to see would have been a bit of pause before Ayesha got into a fight.  It is high energy, and she does it to help someone, but I feel like at 13 years old, in a book for 8 year olds, and as someone familiar with Tae Kwon Do, it should have been more articulated that she was nervous to engage in a physical altercation, and was only doing it because she could not diffuse the situation, get the victim away, and thus had to step in.  I recognize that pulling out of the scene might have made it lose momentum, but I felt a little off celebrating a school fight without that pause of introspection.

FLAGS:

Fighting, stealing, bullying, Islamohobia, racism, bigotry.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The book is short and for a younger age than I meet with, but I look forward to purchasing the book on February 20, 2022 to have available in the school library for anyone to pick up and read, inshaAllah.

Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

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Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

omar rising

This middle grades 224 page read is quick and memorable.  The story is set in Pakistan and the characters are probably Muslim, but there is no religion mentioned until nearly the end, and even then only in passing.  The only culture specific references are the characters’ names, social etiquettes, and the foods mentioned.  By and large, the story is universal and could take place anywhere, and probably does take place everywhere.  While I wish it would have had more cultural and religious references, it is an OWN voice story after all, the book is enjoyable, the characters endearing, and I think young readers will benefit from spending the school year with Omar, seeing classism up close, and cheering for an unjust school system to be challenged.

SYNOPSIS:

Omar is the son of a servant and when he earns a scholarship to a prestiges boy’s school for seventh grade, the entire village is bursting with pride.  When he gets there though, it is hard, really hard.  The scholarship kids aren’t allowed to participate in any extra curriculars, they have to do service hours, and they have to maintain the ridiculously high A plus grade average or be expelled.  It seems that that headmaster is out to get the scholarship kids, and Omar in particular.  As the scholarship students struggle to stay afloat, Omar has to determine if it is all worth it. He spends all his time studying, even when he goes home to visit his mother, and while he doesn’t want to let the village down, he is struggling to find the optimism to keep fighting for his place.  When Omar learns that the system is designed to make the scholarship kids fail, and that those that are kicked out are called “ghost boys,” he has to decide to how hard to push himself and ultimately how hard to push to break down the system that treats him and those like him like second class citizens.  Luckily, Omar has some supportive teachers, some loyal friends, and a whole lot of determination.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is universal, it is at times a much tamer version of the YA book Ace of Spades which also explores second class citizens in posh private schools as a theme, and at times I even felt some Dead Poet’s Society vibes.  The cultural setting and names however, to me is a mixed bag.  I’m glad that it didn’t become another story about problems in another country with judgmental overtones, but at the same time, to be so void of cultural references seemed too far of an extreme in the other direction to make the story feel real richness and authenticity.  I love that the story isn’t about bullying and that a number of characters have depth.  I was genuinely confused for a large portion of the book about what the orientation in the summer entailed.  It was clarified much too late that it was a weekend, but I was at a loss trying to figure out how he knew some of the campus, some of the other scholarship kids, had a roommate, yet knew so little of the school and what it would be like.  I am not sure why that information was delayed, but seeing as I read an arc, I hope it is clarified in the final copy.

FLAGS:

Omar and a girl are friends, they hug at the end, but it seems rather innocent, and more sibling like as they were raised together.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a good book on a shelf, and would possibly work as a read aloud to grades four or five.

 

Girls Who Code by Stacia Deutsch and Michelle Schusterman

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Girls Who Code by Stacia Deutsch and Michelle Schusterman

I sadly think that it is safe to say that whenever you see a book that features a cast of characters meant to include multiple minority groups, certain representation is going to read more generic and formulaic than others.  Translation: just because you see a hijabi on the cover, do not rush out to obtain, purchase, and read the entire series.  Chances are if a scarf wearing Muslim is being featured, the details will be simplistic, the rep mediocre, and the OWN voice emotion lacking.  Also know, that other minority groups will have similarly been included for their surface level representation and not necessarily for any real depth.  This includes the boxes to be checked for Black, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBTQ+ storylines, characters, and/or side references.  This is a sweeping generalization, and inshaAllah when I am proven wrong, I will happily point those books out too.  This series hopes to appeal to middle grade female readers (AR 4.0-4.6) with an emphasis on coding, but not so much on how it is done or how they learn it, but how it helps them in their other passions and dramas.  I read books two and four, since the Muslim character is not introduced until book two and I wanted to see how she is developed as the series advances.  Each book is told from a different girl’s perspective so it is assumed that book five, could be Leila’s, but honestly with the focus on crushes, dances, and relationships, I won’t be sticking around to find out.

SYNOPSIS:

BOOK 2: TEAM BFF: RACE TO THE FINISH! is told from Sophia’s perspective.  She is hispanic, has lots of little sisters, loves sports and has a lot of responsibility.  The original four girls reach out to Leila, a new girl from Pakistan to join their coding team and even end up naming their robot Zahira.  When Soph is forced to take care of her siblings instead of go to the hackathon, she will have to learn to ask for help and lean on others when she can’t do everything herself.  It also means she will have to take charge with the upcoming dance and ask Sammy out herself.

BOOK 4: SPOTLIGHT ON CODING CLUB:  The school is doing a new virtual format for the talent show and that means that the coding club has to design a website, an app, and collect all the data.  They don’t have much time, and with everyone’s time stretched thin with other obligations, Erin keeps volunteering to do more.  Her hope is that if she is so busy she can’t think, her anxiety won’t flare up  and she won’t stress too much about her dad who is deployed on a secret mission.  When their teacher announces that she is leaving, the group seems to be falling apart as well, and something will have to give.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The first two books are written by one author, and then three is written by someone else, as is book four.  The writing quality of book four is much better, and the insight in to mental illness, divorced parents, a parent actively deployed, and being stretched too thin, will resonate a lot stronger with readers, than the more whiney presentation of the second book.  Each book seems to also present with a new crush storyline: in the second book it is Sophia recognizing changing feelings for a friend, and in book four it is a lesbian crush that has the side characters angsty.  I wish more about the girls as individuals was stressed rather than having them all be defined by their hundreds of hobbies and extracurriculars.  I was exhausted just imagining all the places they have to be in a week and the frantic pace they must keep to ensure they get there. I get that the demographic is probably giggly over crushes, but honestly they seem so forced and unnecessary in books that already have a lot of moving parts.

FLAGS:

Lying, crushes (gay and straight), anxiety triggers, stress.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t know that I would even shelve these in an Islamic School, the idea is good, the execution not so much.