Tag Archives: Muslim Characters

Ida in the Middle by Nora Lester Murad

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Ida in the Middle by Nora Lester Murad

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Preorder available here: Amazon

Dear Black Child by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Lydia Mba

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Dear Black Child by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Lydia Mba

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This beautiful 32-page picture book by Muslim author Rahma Rodaah radiates joy through the text and illustrations.  The powerful and lyrical words on the page inspire confidence to take up space and encourage celebration through their messaging and tone.  My three-year-old enjoyed me reading it aloud, it kept his focus and his interest, and my seven-year-old read it over my shoulder and then numerous time on his own.  The sway and images painted by the text are so well refined that you could truly read this book a dozen times and still be moved by the passages.  The illustrations compliment the author’s message in their reflection of Black children of all shapes, sizes, shades, and mobility.  There is even a visibly Muslim woman in hijab (#muslimintheillustration) that looks like the author herself.

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I look forward to sharing this book with various story times in the community, in my children’s classes, and in regular rotation at my own home.  Framed as a letter to a beautiful Black child, the book speaks to “you.”  It starts with encouraging you to stand in your own light, take up space, say your name proudly, and proclaim your native tongue.

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It inspires the Black child to speak confidently, roam freely, to be rooted, yet move swiftly. To write the books and tell the stories that only they can tell, and to trust their inner compass.  It also reassures them that they are not alone, that there are those that will always help, always cheer them on, and remind them of their glory.

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The book is as powerful as it is beautiful and I hope it finds a home on every classroom, library, and home bookshelf.  I purchased mine here.

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Mr. Grizzley’s Class: Rahma’s Gift by Bryan Patrick Avery illustrated by Arief Putra

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Mr. Grizzley’s Class: Rahma’s Gift by Bryan Patrick Avery illustrated by Arief Putra

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This 32 page early reader is part of Mr. Grizzley’s class, a series that sets out to help promote social and emotional skills in real life settings for ages five to seven.  The diverse class is featured in all the books with one student being the focus of each individual book.  This book highlights Rahma, a visibly Muslim girl of color, who has a gift of helping others with their problems.  The richly illustrated story shows what happens when she is having troubles with a friend, and what Mr. Grizzley and fellow classmates can do to help her find a solution.  I like the premise, I like the focus, I like the illustrations, but I did not understand the messaging.  I don’t understand why Rahma had to own the entire apology.  Sure, friendship is more important than a small misunderstanding and moving on by saying your sorry, even when it isn’t all your fault, has merit- but the book doesn’t take all that in to consideration.  It has Rahma taking responsibility for Madison not talking to her, Madison misinterpreting something Rahma did and getting jealous, and Rahma owning all the lacking communication, when clearly both of them failed to do so.  I found myself confused reading the book the first time, clearly I must have missed something, right? No.  And now writing this, I’m actually quite upset.  So, while the idea of the book and series might be sweet, I don’t feel like this particular book was well executed.  I have not read any others in the series, and thankfully checked this out from the library.  There is nothing particularly Islamic or religious in the book other than the hijab Rahma wears.

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The book starts out with Rahma nearly late for class because she was helping other kids resolve an argument.  It is a gift of Rahma’s to help others work out their problems.  When she tries to tell her best friend Madison about it, Madison doesn’t respond.  When Rahma tries again, Madison says, “I’m not speaking to you.”

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As a result when they pair up for math, Rahma works with Annie.  She tells Annie she isn’t working with Madison because she is mad at Madison for not speaking with her. Annie prods a bit and Rahma says, “I’m not talking to her if she won’t talk to me.”  Annie encourages Rahma to find out what is wrong.

Mr. Grizzley is then told, and he also tells her to find a way to find out why she is mad. At recess, Chad comes to thank Rahma for helping him and Ashok, and when she tells him her problem he gives her, her advice back, “listen to the other person.”

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Rahma definitely is in a pickle since Madison won’t talk to her, but with incredible maturity she tells Madison she doesn’t know what she did to make her angry, but she is sorry that she feels bad.  Madison caves and tells her she is jealous because Rahma made a necklace for Semira and she understood it to mean that because she didn’t make one for her, she didn’t want to be her best friend any more.  Semira and Rahma explain that Semira’s dog was sick and she was sad, so Rahma made it for Semira to cheer her up. The girls hug and all is well.

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The book concludes with directions on how to write an apology letter, a glossary, questions to talk about, and prompts to write about.

I loved Rahma’s phrasing of her verbal apology and wish that would have been the focus of the book: how to take someone’s feelings in to account even if you don’t know how you contributed or even if you feel you did not do something wrong.  As it is written with the two page spread at the end on how to write an apology note though, I feel like Rahma took on a lot of the blame unnecessarily.  I know I’m reading in to it a lot, but I don’t like the vibes that the book gives.  Madison in my opinion was in the wrong multiple times throughout, and Rahma each time took ownership and worked through it.  Yes, truly that is a gift, but I really hope people don’t take advantage of Rahma in the future.

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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.

Tittle Tattle Talia: A Story about Gossiping by Salwah Isaacs-Johaadien illustrated by Zeyneb Yildirim

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Tittle Tattle Talia: A Story about Gossiping by Salwah Isaacs-Johaadien illustrated by Zeyneb Yildirim

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I really enjoyed this Islamic moral book about gossiping.  Over the years I’ve taught a few Sunday school lessons, class lessons, and even hosted story times on the Islamic cautions regarding backbiting, and honestly I don’t think kids really grasp how easy it is to commit the act and be a part of it.  They understand they shouldn’t do it, what the punishment is, and that it is bad, but I don’t know that the materials I’ve used and seen, have really connected with younger kids without a lot of supplementing; and this book highlighted that we really can be messaging better on a child’s level.  The pages are incredibly text heavy, but neither I nor my audience seemed to mind until close to the end, because of the comedy and relatability of the story up to that point.  I think the coach getting overly involved took it back to being a lesson from adults and broke the child perspective tone.  I do love that the kids that listen to the gossip are also held accountable, the importance of the coach’s message clearly is important, but the story telling quality would have benefitted from a few tweaks.  The illustrations are cute, unfortunately the font is not very appealing.  I do like that the salwat is given in Arabic, and that Hadith are mentioned in the text as well as in the backmatter with an author’s note.

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The story starts with Talia owning that she loves to share tales about the people around her, before telling one to her older sister.  Her sister tries to stop her and tells her that she needs to watch what she says or she might one day have to eat her words.  Talia wonders what eating your words means.  Similar situations occur between Talia and her brother, her mother, as well as her father.  Each time the story is reprimanded and a funny euphuism remarked upon and then giggled about by Talia.

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At school she does the same, telling stories, often at the expense of a boy named Ahmed, and the more interest the other kids show, the more outrages her tales become.  She soon starts telling them about everyone, and her classmates and friends grow weary and fearful that they might be next.

It all comes to a climax when Talia’s classmates say enough is enough and stop talking to her, and go as far as refusing to pick her when picking teams, and playing with her at all.  The coach concludes then that the match should be cancelled and Talia should apologize.  The cancellations seems extreme, and the forcing to apologize almost takes away from the emotional realization that her “tales” have become bullying.

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As Talia leaves, her classmates gather up and she sees Ahmed not joining them.  When she gets to her front gate, her friends catch up to her and apologize and acknowledge their roles in perpetuating the gossip.  Talia then goes to find Ahmed and get him some ice cream to apologize.

I don’t quite think the friends needed to apologize, I think they should have just realized their role, I think with discussion it might be clarified, but I worry that it defers Talia’s ownership of wrong doing, and could send some mixed messages.

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It is also a little pausing that Talia makes up a story about why a girl wears hijab, when her own mother wears hijab and she is clearly Muslim.  On the one hand, I like that it shows how ridiculous her tales have gotten, but it also could seem like she is falling for a stereotype as well.  There is good rep in the illustrations of those that cover and those that don’t, there is a child in a wheelchair and lots of shades of skin colors and hair types.  The text also contains traditional Islamic names and some that are not.

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The book helps our children to be better and the story engaging enough to be memorable, that while I wish it was cleaned up a better to strengthen the writing, I do find it a benefit on a shelf to be shared at bedtime, in classrooms, in story times and as a reminder to not participate in gossip or listen to it.

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The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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I didn’t know what to expect as I opened this 416 page book: it was recommended to me, my library had it, and I wanted a break from reading on a screen, so I dived in.  The map, the character list, and the setting of 13th century Mongol empire had me bracing for a complex read. I gave myself a goal of a few chapters to see if I could connect, but by page 20 I was completely absorbed and not to be disturbed.  The character driven plot is written in a rather contemporary manner, although the setting is historical fiction (with a lot of noted liberties) it reads really quickly and easily.  It is definitely 16 and up, romantic YA and has triggers of suicide, murder, drowning, death, war, abuse, misogyny.  While reading it, there often felt like there were holes in the plot as the story builds on itself in quiet layers- the story is fairly linear just broken up and rearranged in time, but the informatio

n shared is gently teased out, and nearly every hole filled by the final page.  I think if someone told me about the book in detail, I would not have read it.  There are many things that I feel like I shouldn’t like about it, but truth be told, I enjoyed the story.  The tokenish Islam found a way to convince me it was done intentionally, the (few) main characters present held my intention at all times, the backmatter detailing the research and liberties just all combined masterfully, that I feel compelled to share the story on my platforms even though the Islamic rep is only slightly more that the YA equivalent of a #muslimsintheillustrations tag.

I tried really hard not to include spoilers, so forgive some of the vague sentiments.

SYNOPSIS:

The story without any spoilers is quite simple- a slave girl, Jinghua, is mourning her dead brother and comes across Prince Khalaf, son of Timur, the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate, while working in the family’s service.  Shocked by his kindness, and persona, she falls hopelessly in love with him and when his family is exiled she decides to stay with the prince and the khan rather than flee.  They journey together and their feelings grow.  To save his family’s rule, however, Prince Khalaf decides to attempt to wed the daughter of the the Great Khan.  Princess Turandokht is exceptionally beautiful, wise, and powerful.  She refuses to wed and has set up a test for any prince wishing to try and marry her.  She has three riddles, each one to be answered in seven minutes, anyone who answers wrong is immediately put to death.  Numerous suitors have been killed.  When Khalaf sneaks off in the night to test his wits, the story of how how intertwined Jinghua and Khalaf’s stories are comes to light before the final riddle is answered.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It is not OWN voice, it is researched and based on a tale from The Thousand and One Days, but having very little to no knowledge of Mongol history (I’ve read the book Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World years ago, but that is about it), and have never seen or read the opera, poetry, or stories that this tale has presented as, I have nothing to compare it to. The book does not need knowledge of the story or time frame to make sense, but the backmatter is well done and makes the process of the story more fulfilling.

For the majority of the book, Islam and the khan and prince being Muslim is just a label occasionally remarked upon when the khan praises the Eternal Blue Sky, instead of Allah swt, and that is about all.  In fact Allah swt I don’t think is ever mentioned in the book.  Based on the information in the back about Mongol’s and a few dialogues in the book it seems that many practices were a hodgepodge of many faiths and traditions, especially by leaders to unite their subjects.  A few ayats from the Quran are mentioned as are some hadiths loosely, which are sourced at the end.  Khalaf gets drunk, and acknowledges that it is haram, and sleeps next to Jinghua for warmth which he also notes is haram.  It mentions a few times that he prays.  There is a weird emphasis on his turban, but it could be culturally Muslim (?), so I let it slide.

The first person voice really sets a good pace for the story, and all of its twists and turns, but does make the love, crush, infatuation theme seem very naïve in the beginning, with more telling than showing.  I think it is accurate for Jinghua, but does require the reader to just accept it and keep reading.  It seems at times she is also rather helpless and so desperate to be seen that the stereotype is a bit cringe, particularly at the end.  I get that appearance and women’s worth is tied to the time and setting, but it still doesn’t completely absolve how triggering the main character’s portrayal can be.

Jinghua’s religious beliefs of the Song Dynasty made me understand the offerings made to her ancestors and the ghost of her slain brother to be religious in context, not literary fantasy.  Many places have labeled this a fantasy romance book, but I don’t know that the world building was fantasy as much as it was historical reimagining.  Either way, there are ancestral ghosts that the main character dreams about and often sees, the epilogue pushes this element, but in my mind still adheres to the same point of ghosts and ancestors being a religious thread.

A found the fear of water story detail a little forced as she was not scared of water when washing out the bloody clothing in the river alone, but then was terrified to stand near a river.  Perhaps a minor detail, but one that I noticed none the less.

My favorite character is the the cantankerous old goat, I’m not going to say much about him other than if at first you hate him, stick around, he might win you over.

FLAGS:

There are multiple suicides and it is glorified, seen as a mercy, and shown as an act of desperation.  There is cruelty and classism along with misogyny and reducing a woman to her appearance.  There is talk of penises and them being seen when urinating, as well as one scene of an erection being felt.  There is killing, war, battle. murder, death, that is fairly detailed.  There is language and crudeness.  There is talk of rape, and affairs, and fornicating.  There are a few kisses, one while a character is drunk, one forced upon a nonconsenting woman. Jinghua disguises herself as a boy. There are theological concepts present and ghosts.  Alcohol and wine are consumed. Nothing is over the top or overly stressed to the point of being obnoxious, but it is present and older YA readers can probably handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to discuss with readers, but not my students, I don’t think it would work for an Islamic school book club selection.  The “Muslim” character gets drunk, kisses two different women, has an alter to honor the dead, places offerings of wine.

Mona’s Scrapbook Adventure by Nouha Deliou illustrated by Kadhima Tung

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Mona’s Scrapbook Adventure by Nouha Deliou illustrated by Kadhima Tung

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Algerian culture, as far as I’ve seen, is incredibly underrepresented in western literature and not represented at all in children’s books.  I love that this author, who felt the same- did something about it.  This 40 page colorful story incorporates Algerian traditions and culture with universal themes of sibling love, wedding excitement, and being sad about change.  The OWN voice warmth shows Muslim characters in America holding to traditions and making new ones.  The book is long, but is not text heavy.  For toddlers and preschoolers up to second grade, I can see readers enjoying the detailed descriptions of the dresses and foods, and feeling the feelings of little Mona as her beloved older sister prepares for her wedding and ultimately leaving with her husband.

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The book starts on the morning of the big day, Layla’s engagement.  Mama explains to Mona that the Imam will do the kitab and that her older sister is excited because she has known Ahmed since school and likes him a lot.  Once dressed Mona watches Layla get ready in traditional Algerian clothes.

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When Ahmed and his family arrive, he and Layla announce that after the wedding they will be moving from New York to Arizona.  Mona is devastated, as the women start to zaghreet in celebration. She wonders if she can go with them, but decides she can’t leave her parents.  Later that night, Layla and Mona chat and decide that Mona will help plan for the wedding and they will make a scrapbook.

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Over the next few months, clothes are bought, cakes are tasted, flowers are decided upon, and Arayech is made.  The night of the henna is fun, but then it is the wedding, and then time for Layla and Ahmed to go. Happy tears and promises to always be connected conclude the story before a scrapbook page for the readers is revealed to make their own designs.  That is followed by a glossary, and information about the author and illustrator.

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I love the detail about the different cultural and regional Algerian dresses in the illustrations, the Algerian traditions shared through the text, and the connection between the two sisters. The book is available in hard back or paper back and I got mine from Crescent Moon Store  

Mona's Scrapbook Adventure

Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

That’s Not My Name by Anoosha Syed

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That’s Not My Name by Anoosha Syed

not my name

I have been looking forward to this book, as I’ve enjoyed so many of the illustrations the author has created for other authors, and was anxious to see what kind of story she would write for her own authorial debut.  Unfortunately, the book didn’t wow me.  It is rather forgettable, the book conflates notions of not being able to pronounce someone’s name with not being memorable and with not having a “normal” name, and then recognizing how so many classmates have unique names too.  A bit scattered in messaging, and overall reading like an adult talking, not a young girl of four or five, on her first day of school.  No doubt the illustrations are beautiful, and the book isn’t “bad” or a “waste of time,” but it isn’t a strong clear story.  I’ve seen reviews where people find the little girl rude, and I don’t know that I’d agree with that, she is frustrated and wants to scream, “that’s not my name” when people say it wrong, but I do agree that she could model what to say better and how to handle it.  Not that I expect those with uncommon names to have to carry the weight of making things easy, but the little girl at the end remarks that she has so many new friends at school with “unique, beautiful names, and she always makes sure she says them right,” implying that some dialogue, both about her name and about theirs, takes place to ensure pronunciation is correct, and some “showing” of how that is achieved would be nice.  Before the story starts, on the title page, there is a pronunciation breakdown of Mirha, but not in the text itself. There is nothing Islamic in the book, the Grandmother wears a scarf loosely draped over her head, there is a crescent and moon wall hanging in an illustration, and the girl’s name is claimed to be Arabic in origin.

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The book starts with it being Mirha’s first day of school.  She is excited to learn, to play, and to make friends, but when no one seems to be able to say her name, she starts to feel shy. Frustrated and sad she decides to change her name, and tells her mom when she gets home.  Her mother tells her, her name is beautiful and why she was named what she is named.  She builds her up and the next day armed with her mother’s words she is ready to make friends and teach them how to say her name. By the end of the book Mirha has friends, and wants to be your (the reader’s) friend too.

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The voice of the book is inconsistent at times it feels very older kid, almost adult, even though the 40 page book is meant for three to five year olds.  The examples read like an adult reflecting on their childhood struggles with their name, not as a young girl finding her voice and appreciation for the name she has.

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When Hayden asks if he can call her Maya instead of Mirha it is because Maya is easier.  Kids are hearing all sorts of names for the first time when they enter school, that conversation seems so forced.  Whether the kids are in preschool or daycare or kindergarten, most of the names they are hearing of their classmates are being heard for the first time.  If they watch a lot of tv and YouTube and movies, they have heard a whole variety of names, they are not going to have a dialogue that sounds like that, at that age, just not realistic.  Similarly after the first day of school she wants to change her name to something “normal?” What is a “normal” name even, then the mom even reinforces that notion when saying she knows she named her something “unique and different.”  A concept that returns at the end when asserting that Mirha has friends with lots of unique names.  Seems to go in circles.

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I appreciate that examples are given about not seeing your name on keychains or having the barista get it right, but again, she is under the age of five, are these really her points of reference for having a less common name than those around her?  When her mother is making the case that she shouldn’t change her name she references that names such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo are memorable.  First of all, what (under) five year old knows those names or who those people are, and second of all, now her name is not memorable? I thought it was hard to pronounce? Has she done something worthy of history books and admiration? I get what the author is trying to do, I often tell my students that they need to demand people say their names right.  If they can rattle off names from Pokemon, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Beyblades, they can say the beautiful names they have been given.  But the kids I am saying it to are not in preschool, nor am I conflating the pronunciation of their names with being names of famous people that are memorable. Additionally, I do not speak Arabic, but a quick Google search does not show that Mirha means happiness in Arabic, and I have heard from native Arab speakers that they also found the meaning off.

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The illustrations are engaging, the broader message of getting people’s name right and demanding people get your name right is important, it just needed a more age aligning voice and connecting with the reader.

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Anisa’s International Day by Reem Faruqi

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Anisa’s International Day by Reem Faruqi

international

Full of determination, creativity, culture, misunderstandings, and learning from your mistakes, this story will resonate with readers 6-10 who want to solve problems on their own, stand out and be special, and who must own up to their mistakes when they happen.  In just under a hundred pages of story, the characters are developed and made memorable, the voice realistic, and the story engaging and enjoyable.  I love that there is no cultural or religious identity crisis, no parental fixing of problems, and no preachy moral overtones.  There are many lessons learned, explored, and threaded through the book, but the incredible writing never lets the threads overpower the story.  The emotional attachment to Anisa has you cringing when she messes up, cheering for her to solve a problem, and sighing in relief when amends are made.  The backmatter is quite robust with recipes, a glossary, numerous activities, and notes from the author.  I know the book says it is meant for grades 3rd through 7th, but I think early chapter book readers will enjoy it the most.  There is not a lot of Islam in the book, but enough that Muslim readers will appreciate the representation and OWN voice authenticity.

SYNOPSIS:

Anisa is an artist, a baker, and pushes herself to be ingenious in all she does.  With her aunt’s wedding coming up, her and her sister and their A-Z Bakery are tasked with making cookies for a party, and her Nani in Pakistan has even sent clothes for her to wear.  Included in the package is a beautiful kurta that Anisa decides to wear to school.  Inspired by her pride in her culture the teacher, Miss Torres, decides the class will have an international day.  Anisa can’t wait to bring samosas, but Prerna from India commits to bringing them first and ingenious Anisa can’t copy her.  To make matters worse, Anisa’s best friend Katie doesn’t seem to like the mehndi Anisa got put on at the dholki.  Misunderstandings, assumptions, and hurt feelings get amplified when Anisa takes action, and when everything gets put out in the open, she will have to find a way to make things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the drama is not over sensationalized, it is on par for 3rd grade and the solutions are as well. The teacher and Anisa’s parents are supportive and present, but they don’t solve the problems or force reflection, the children in the story do.  I love the subtle backstory of Anisa and Prerna seeming to be in competition, but finding support in one another as the story moves through.  I also love that no one puts pressure on Anisa to be the most creative or the best at anything, it genuinely feels like her personality and a standard she expects for herself.  I was glad that there was no cultural (or religious) self doubting.  The problems with a friend is communication, approval, and misunderstanding.  The mehndi is the catalyst, but it is not meant or perceived to be a symbol of a whole culture and identity.  It is just mehndi. Of course I also love that the apologizing is not just saying sorry, but rather making things right.

There is mention of the aunt wearing hijab and taking it off because Anisa’s dad is not home, that is tucked in and appreciated.  There are black and white illustrations sprinkled throughout that show women in hijab (#muslimsintheillustrations) as well.  The pictures are not finalized in the arc I received, so I will update the included images in this review at a later time.

FLAGS:

There is mention of music, not sure if it is just drums, or other instruments as well. Makeup is also worn by the adult women and mentioned a few times.  Anisa is mean, but she does apologize.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think fans of the Yasmin series (Saadia Faruqi) will move on to this book, and also enjoy the upcoming Marya Khan series also by Saadia Faruqi. The book fills a gap for this reading demographic, and will add relatability, representation, and warmth to whatever shelf it is placed on.