Tag Archives: Muslim Family

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

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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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.

Anisa’s International Day by Reem Faruqi

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Anisa’s International Day by Reem Faruqi

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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.

Hamza’s Pyjama Promise by Marzieh Abbas

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Hamza’s Pyjama Promise by Marzieh Abbas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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A Mermaid Girl by Sana Rafi illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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A Mermaid Girl by Sana Rafi illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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I honestly don’t know how I feel about this book.  I have read it and reread it and thought about it and read it again, and ignored it and read it again, and alas I have no idea.  I really am having a hard time articulating my thoughts on this 40 page children’s book.  I think part of the problem is that I’m reading it shortly after reading another “religiously inclined” clothing inspired picture book for the same target demographic and I’m having a hard time not comparing them.  When I intentionally start to write a review that doesn’t compare them, I am cognizant that my readers probably will and the review spirals.  So I’m going to establish what I love about this book, and then highlight why I’m torn and leave it to you all to draw your own conclusions and opinions.  InshaAllah this will not be the new norm, I will not make a habit of straddling the fence, but for this book, I think it is the only way.

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I absolutely love the illustrations.  The warmth and joy the pictures portray are endearing and smile inducing.  I love the mother and daughter relationship and how feelings are not dismissed or belittled.  The mom connects the little girl to a legacy of strength and conveys her confidence, that the little girl is similarly brave, not just when things are hard, but especially when they are.  The little girl is shown to “feel” confident and joy in her clothing, not just “look” pretty, which is messaging that I love.  It is never too early to show that how one feels is more important than how one looks.  This depth, is not examined, but by simply using the words “When I put it on, I feel like a dainty seahorse,” rather than saying, “I look like a dainty seahorse,” the priority is not lost on the reader.  I like that the character has growth and challenges and has to reaffirm her position and as a result raises herself and those around her as well.

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So why some confusion you ask.  Well- the word burkini is used to explain the little girl’s new swimsuit.  Burkini traditionally is a Muslim implied modest swimsuit, derived from combining the words burka and bikini.  That said, anyone of any faith can order a burkini online and their faith is not a factor.  The little girl is young and doesn’t wear hijab, her hair is not covered.  The mother and the ancestors pictured wear hijab, but Islam or Muslim is never in the text.  Part of me likes this, people wear modest swimwear for a lot of reasons: comfort, religion, sun protection, personal preference.  Similarly for head coverings in a pool some people where them for hair preservation, modesty, hijab, aerodynamics, speed, preference, comfort, etc..  Unlike hijab which is in the Quran, birkini is not an “Islamic requirement.”  No one is forcing you to swim, no one is forcing you to wear this brand or that style if you choose to swim.  Covering and wearing modest clothing is a must on Muslim women, covering the awrah is required after puberty.  I both like that the little girl is covering up and wish that it said why she is, but also appreciate that it is left open.  I like that you should be able to wear whatever you want and be comfortable with it.  I like that you don’t have to conform, and you can be you and whether that comes from a religious rationale or a fashion one or a health one or a comfort one, it doesn’t matter, don’t police what women wear.  But the implied illustrated framing is Islamic and the link is not there in the text.  See why my thoughts are scattered.

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Similarly, the term “mermaid” is gender specific.  But colloquially it is often used to just describe someone with a human top half and fist tail.  So, isn’t “mermaid girl” redundant? At the end when male presenting Sam asks if he can be a Mermaid girl too is it implying gender neutrality? Is it like female kids saying they want to be a girl policeman or a lady firefighter?  Does it matter?

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The story starts with Heba and her mother looking at photographs of past generations on their wall remarking how they are all mermaid girls.  Heba has gotten a new swimsuit, and her and mama are going to match in their new burkinis.  When they get to the pool however, all the excitement is pushed back on when her friends ask her if she can swim in that, and they tell her it doesn’t look like a real swimsuit. Heba sticks up for herself, but when she looks around, she sees, they are right, she doesn’t look like everyone else.  Mama reminds her of those before her and reassures her that she is not alone. She rejoins her friends, doing all the things she wants to do, and by the end they too want to be mermaid girls.

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There is music depicted and women in one and two piece swimsuits.  As someone who wore modest swimwear my whole life, this book had a lot of mirroring of summers arguing with life guards, showing up with other Muslims at public pools to rude comments and aggressive stares, and swimming all over the world to people asking where they could get a suit like mine as well.  Definitely normalizing swimwear that looks like a burkini is a great concept to see in a book.

I do wish there was backmatter.  Perhaps giving voice to the many reasons women should be free to wear what they want at all times, but how particularly in water activities it has become a political point of judgement and policing.  Perhaps something about how this little girl is wearing it for religion and modesty, but that people everywhere wear things for lots of reasons.  I like the ambiguity, but also wish their was more of a connection to Islam/Muslims.  I leave it to you to make your own decisions.  I found my copy at my local library, it is mainstream published and can be purchased here as well.

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

As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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Anything I write about this YA book will fail miserably in conveying how powerful, beautiful, lingering, moving, emotional, and overall masterfully written every one of the 432 pages are; it just might be my favorite book of the year.  I do know that this will be my new standard for Muslim OWN voice stories, as the authenticity was absolutely engulfing, I’m not Syrian and I could feel it and naturally, I also verified it.  There is no pandering to a western gaze, the story and characters pull you in and show you Syria from the ground, there is no telling, there is no lecturing, it is mesmerizing storytelling at its finest.  The book has mental health issues, war, and a sweet “halal” romance, that I think upper YA, 16 plus, can handle and appreciate.  I hope every adult will spend time with this book, it truly is incredibly well done, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Homs is under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, but that isn’t enough to keep pharmacy student Salama and her family safe.  Her mother is killed, her father and brother taken, and so she moves in with her best friend Layla, her pregnant sister-in-law, her only family left.  Working as a doctor in the hospital where anyone remaining is given responsibilities far above their skill level, education, and experience- every day is a struggle to survive.

Haunted by the physical manifestation of her fear, “Khawf,” who urges her to fulfill her promise to her brother of keeping Layla safe and getting them out of the country, Salama at eighteen years old has to find a way.

Before all the pieces come together to escape, a boy enters the picture, Kenan, who gives Salama hope, who distracts her from the death and destruction that has consumed their lives.  A boy unwilling to leave his beloved homeland.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m a crier, but this book brought out ugly angry tears, shocked tears, heartbroken tears, sentimental tears, you get the point, this book held me in its grasps and never let go. I.COULDN’T. PUT. IT. DOWN. If this is the author’s debut novel I can’t even fathom what is yet to come.

I love that the characters are Muslim, and that they pray together, that they plead with Allah (swt) and meet at the mosque.  It is who they are, it is not up for debate or in need of explanation, it is what it is and it is not anything to discuss.  The parts where a character pleads with Allah for death over being taken, absolutely wrecked me.  Just as efforts to keep everything halal between Salama and Kenan made me beam.  (If I’m completely honesty, I did on occasion get frustrated, I mean come on they are being shot at, bombed, nearly sexually assaulted, scoop her up in your arms and console, her, I know haram, but it is fiction and I was invested, and there is a war.  Thankfully, I am not an author and she kept it all clean and her characters much stronger and mindful of the shortness of this world.)

I love that there are political voices, but that it isn’t a political book trying to give back story to the conflict.  In so many ways the news has failed to keep a light shining on Syria and books such as this, remind those of us outside Syria without strong connections to the land, that the conflict is still raging.  If this was a journalistic article it would be a human interest piece, it is character driven.  Readers see themselves in the characters that live lives that most of us of privilege could never imagine, yet here we are spellbound by the characters, their choices, their dreams, and their safety.  This book shows the power of fiction in opening our eyes to the horrors that are happening in our time, by giving us a face and a character to care so deeply about, that we are spurred to action and determined to not remain apathetic.

FLAGS:

Death, torture, physical abuse, sexual assault, fear, loss, coercion, war, murder, torture, child abuse, crimes against humanity, starvation, mental health, PTSD.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to use this book in a high school book club.  The story and themes of the book would open themselves up to discussion so effortlessly and the beauty of the writing would be a gift to share with students.