Tag Archives: Non Fiction

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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52 Poems for 52 Weeks: A Lunar Year by Abdullah Mansoor

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52 Poems for 52 Weeks: A Lunar Year by Abdullah Mansoor

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This isn’t the typical book I would review, but after spending some time in a middle school language arts classroom teaching this school year, I thought I should at least acknowledge the value a book like this can have in a classroom or homeschool curriculum, and that it shouldn’t be completely overlooked and dismissed.  I didn’t get swept away by any of the poems, and honestly am confused by the title seeing as the title page quickly clarifies that a lunar year is 51 weeks? That being said, poetry is such a religious and cultural staple that haikus, sonnets, acrostic poems, free verse absolutely should be taught through an Islamic lens, and why not.  So, while it might not be a book that an upper elementary through middle schooler would pick up and read on their own, it is structured to be taught, and I think educators should consider implementing it in whole, or in part, when teaching structure, and rhyme scheme, and iambic beats.

The poems vary in style and topic and length, and are divided by the Islamic lunar calendar months written in Arabic calligraphy. The true value of the book is the backmatter, though in my opinion.  The details about the poem, about form and structure and prompts to try your own.

I could really see slipping in an Islamic poem when teaching Shakespearean sonnets, and encouraging children to write a ballad or limerick in praise of an Islamic tenant.  I’m a big fan of blurring what is Islamic and what is secular as I don’t find them mutually exclusive, and this little book did a great job reminding me that Islamic centered poetry is important, and Islamic poetry isn’t just translated from other languages.

Happy reading, and inshaAllah happy writing!  The book can be found HERE for purchase.

Ordinary People Change the World: I am Muhammad Ali by Brad Meltzer illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

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Ordinary People Change the World: I am Muhammad Ali by Brad Meltzer illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

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I think this 2022 published biography of Muhammad Ali just might be my favorite.  At 40 pages long and meant for first graders and up, it actually mentions that he is Muslim in multiple places.  So often these biographies about him or Malcolm X fail to incorporate their religion and just relegate their name changes to a footnote or after thought.  The book is engaging, informative, it is sourced, and the illustrations adorable.  My kids and I have read the book multiple times and are still enjoying the detailed illustrations (they even include #muslimsintheillustrations) and text.  Sports fans and even those that are not will appreciate what Muhammad Ali achieved, overcame, and accomplished.

The biography starts at Muhammad Ali’s birth and ends with his fight in Zaire- detailing his personality, growing up, how he got into boxing, becoming Muslim, refusing to go to war, and his biggest fights.  It weaves in how he worked against racism, standing up for his religion, and living life on his terms, at every step.  As the chronological story fades, it shows him lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta, and the text starts to focus on the lessons that Ali fought to highlight, by encouraging us to continue his legacy.

The illustrations show how his message is still powerful and inspiring to athletes, kids, ordinary people-everyone, the world over.  Ali stays depicted as a small child throughout, and the author captures his charisma, charm, and entertaining persona.  The final spread before the sources and further reading suggestions show a timeline of Muhammad Ali’s life and a few photographs of his life.

I need to read the other books in the series to see if they are just as engaging.  Undoubtedly Muhammad Ali’s story is entertaining and inspiring even when poorly written, but I have a feeling this particular biography really shines because the author and the subject matter came together.  I highly recommend this book for families, schools, and classrooms alike.

You can order it at Amazon and if you use this link, I get a few pennies! Thanks!

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The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz illustrated by Saffa Khan

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The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz illustrated by Saffa Khan

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I’ve noted over the years how much I want to love these type of collections, but ultimately I just don’t.  The reason I gave this one a try was quite simply the reassuring introduction.  The book immediately detailed the checklist required to make it into the book, the criteria required, and acknowledged the limitations that the book overall, and personalities included, would have in the presentation. There are sources at the end for each of the 30 people included as well.  Unlike most books in the genre, this book got out in front of my most common complaints: the lack of transparency for how the people were selected, where the primary source information was obtained from, how the order is organized, and the Eurocentric and pop culture framing that is both pandering and renders the book cumbersome a few years after it is published.  For the most part, this book is the best I’ve seen yet, but that isn’t to say I loved it.  While the requirements to be included were made apparent, there is still a lot of opinionated statements about how “religious” or “conservative” or “devout” or “mainstream” or “strict” a person is or was, that rubbed me the wrong way.  Also knowing that the person had to identify as Muslim to be eligible seems like a black and white issue, but a few of the personalities are very controversial (some noted and some not), and I am not an expert at all.  One of the problems with books like this is they present as non fiction, and no matter the transparency, just the mere fact of who is included and who is not is a judgement call and wrought with bias.  It is nice to thumb through, but I don’t know that it would get repeated use, or that it could really be used as a reference.  It is informative and I recognize that I went in to it very skeptical, but only a few text passages connected faith to the person’s accomplishments, and so while they identify as Muslim, it doesn’t necessarily radiate pride or admiration for Muslims as a whole.  For better or worse, if anything, it made me want to conduct my own research on many that were featured. 

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The 30 included in the book:

 

A few I was concerned by, which made me question the ones that I learned something new about. Clearly there are reasons that I shy away from non-fiction.  I wish the book would have had Muslim beta readers, I am willing to assume that it did not.  Take for example the section on Saladin, I absolutely get why his name is shown as both Saladin and Salah al-Din, the book is in English presumably for western readers and that is how he is known.  But why when it says that his real name is Yusuf, is Joseph in the parenthesis? No one else’s names in the book are given the English equivalents of their Arabic or Persian or other native language. Similarly so few tied back to Islam or an Islamic perspective being credited for having a role in their noteworthy accomplishments.  Even Muhammad Yunus when it discusses how interest was not a part of the micro loan process- it didn’t add even one more sentence explaining that interest is not allowed in Islam, why leave that out?  

I liked that the parameters required that the person was influential more globally than just to their own country, but Rebiya Kadeer seemed to be more localized in her work with Muslims in China even when she moved out of China, blurring the rigid standards of who was to be included and who was to be left out.  

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I do like that it mentions Rumi’s religion is often conveniently ignored as the west has made him a hero and chosen to forget his faith.  Similarly, I like that it tries to correct when Ibn Battuta is called the Marco Polo of Islam, for in reality Marco Polo was the Ibn Battuta of Europe.  And I appreciated that Benazir Bhutto was noted as being controversial and not well liked. 

If this type of book appeals to you, you can purchase it here.

 

One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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This book is so long overdue, yet at the same time it was worth the wait.  The writing is simply superb: Fatima al Fihri is celebrated, Islam is centered, there are references, and the story compelling.  We, Muslims, as a whole know so little about the beautiful impact fellow Muslims have had on the current world and our way of life, that to see this book being celebrated in public libraries, in Islamic schools, at masjids, and retail bookstores, truly makes you sit up a little straighter, and reach confidently to get this book in your hands to share with those around you.  Thank you Mindy (@moyuksel.author) for these 40 pages of absolute delight, ages 5 and up will read it to learn, read it again to enjoy, and inshaAllah read it repeatedly to be inspired.

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The book begins with a Hadith regarding seeking knowledge and leaving knowledge behind.  It then begins the biography of Fatima as a small girl curious about the world around her starting with the word Iqra, read, from the Qur’an.  It sets the stage of her living in the desert in the early ninth century, a time where some boys went to school and some girls learned at home. Her connection to Islam and it teaching her the value of knowledge caused her wish, to build a school, to grow stronger.

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When war destroys her town her family flees to the busy city of Fez, Morocco.  She begins to accompany her father to the souk and enjoys listening to talk of planets, distant lands and different languages and wishes these scholars could educate everyone. She grows and gets married and her and her family become wealthy merchants.

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Tragically, her father and husband die, and Fatima must decide what to do next for her family.  She decides to help her community as a form of sadaqah jariyah and make her wish a reality.  She sets out to build a school where everyone can live and study for free.  She purchases land, and the building begins.  Fatima oversees each detail and names it the al-Qarawiyyin after her hometown in Tunisia.  It takes two years to build and it still functions today.

The back matter is just as compelling as the story with an Author’s Note, information on The University of Al-Qaryawiyyin, a Glossary, Bibliography, and a Timeline.  The only complaint I have about the book, are the illustrations.  I really don’t understand why half of her hair is showing when based on the time and her connection to her faith, she most likely was a niqabi.  I don’t understand the continuity of the hijab from a young child to adulthood.  I get that it shows her influence moving forward at the end, but it could have been a small print on an outfit for token representation of symbolism, I don’t get it as being a complete outfit her whole life.

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I absolutely love the role of Islam in both Fatima’s life and in this book.  It is so much a part of her and her wish, that every reader will recognize how connected her faith and the creation of the University were and I’m confident both Muslim and non Muslim readers will be in awe of her devotion and accomplishments, inshaAllah.

My First Book About Ramadan: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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My First Book About Ramadan: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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Once again, Sara Khan pushes the standard of what can be conveyed and presented in a toddler board book.  This book on Ramadan not only introduces concepts of the blessed month to our littles Muslims, but also provides details that will allow the book to stay relevant even as a child grows.  The soft, yet colorful pages allow the book to be engaging and attention holding for ages 2 and up, and provides a great way to get young children looking forward to Ramadan, as well as be read repeatedly during the month.  The 26 thick pages have a facts and questions about Ramadan at the end which make the book shareable with non Muslims and the many shapes, colors, cultures, and ages that make up our Muslim communities fill the pages that radiate with joy and love.

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The book starts out expressing the excitement of Ramadan, the new moon, and the anticipation.  It then talks about how Allah swt wants us to fast from dawn until sunset.  It mentions the five pillars, and fasting in Ramadan being one of them, and what it means to fast.

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It focuses on doing good deeds to make Allah swt happy.  It also dedicates a two page spread to showing who doesn’t have to fast, which answers that inevitably next question that people ask.  The book then says that even if you aren’t fasting, there are still blessings everyone enjoys in the month and spends a few pages detailing those activities and acts of worship.

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It mentions that Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an and that Laylat al-Qadr is the night of power, but doesn’t give much detail about either. Eid is celebrated at the end and a dua is made referencing a hadith in Bukhari about entering through the gate of Ar-Rayyan.

I love that the book’s tone is that this is what Allah swt wants us to do, and this is what makes Him happy.  Even with numerous Ramadan books out there, this one still manages to find a way to be unique, and truly the entire series is enjoyable and beneficial, alhumdulillah.

 

Journey of the Midnight Sun by Shazia Afzal illustrated by Aliya Ghare

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Journey of the Midnight Sun by Shazia Afzal illustrated by Aliya Ghare

What an absolute joy to learn about something real for the first time in a children’s picture book meant for ages 3-5.  I am baffled that this story wasn’t celebrated and shared by not just Muslim’s everywhere, but Canadians as well.  It is a sweet instance of real life being harder to believe than fiction.  It warms your heart and reminds you that there are so many good people doing selfless things for the benefit of others, every single day, subhanAllah.  As for the 32 page book itself, story inspiration aside- I kind of wish it had more details of the real story in it.  The factual blurb on the back cover was a bit more awe inspiring than the totality of the book.  I think it is because it is meant for such little ones, but I don’t know for sure.  I hope that there will be more books for various ages, about this mosque’s incredible 2010 journey. 

There is a small community in Inuvik, in Northern Canada.  The growing Muslim community has outgrown their one room space and it is more expensive to build a masjid there, than to deliver a pre built masjid from Winnipeg. 

With the help of some non profit and local groups, a masjid is built and sent north, hopefully able to reach its final destination before the river freezes.  The journey is fraught with obstacles: roads are too narrow, bridges not ready, low utility wires. weather concerns, construction, the masjid tipping over, but alas it arrives, alhumdulillah.

The entire community welcomes the new masjid, and the Muslim’s have a new space to pray and gather.

I like that there are maps and indicators of the distance.  And while I like the interfaith aspect in Inuvik being presented, it seems incredibly specific in a very vague book for small children. Why is the imam identified separately, the whole paragraph is just awkward.   Additionally, there is no explanation for why a minaret was needed or if it is critical to a mosque.  Some information other than the children wanted one, would help avoid confusion seeing as this mainstream published book is not targeting only Muslims who would know the function of a minaret, and that they aren’t required structures.

Some links about the event that inspired the story:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-11731017

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2010/11/10/north_americas_most_northerly_mosque_officially_opens_in_the_arctic.html

Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an  Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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At 40 pages, this biography about Pakistani born artist Shahzia Sikander is filled with culture and experiences.  The story shows the influences of her family, the city of Lahore, her love of math, and her art education have in shaping her in to the artist she is today.  The book features photographs of her work at the end, but I found it odd that she didn’t illustrate the book herself.  The playful blocky pictures and text would appeal to first or second graders with some assistance, but would be better suited for readers a bit older if they are unfamiliar with some of the cultural and artistic vocabulary.  There is no mention of Islam in the book, when researching, it says her family is Muslim.  It seems she went to Catholic school, and a road trip was taken that included visiting the Sistine Chapel.  A few illustrations show people in hijab and it mentions the athan ringing out five times a day.  The book was interesting, but I wish I could have found it at the library, rather than purchasing it.  I don’t know that it will be read more than once, but that speaks more to personal preference, rather than the quality of the book. If you enjoy fine art, are from Lahore, are a fan of Shahzia Sikander’s work, you will definitely enjoy this book.

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The story starts with a girl stepping in to a painting with many rooms, filled with many people in a joint family.  It is her (Shahzia’s) home, and her family.  The rooms are filled with ancient fables, Russian fairy tales, poetry, English, Urdu, Bollywood songs, and American Westerns.

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Outside is the city of Lahore, in Pakistan, streets rich in smell and color and sound exist: orange jalebi and strings of jasmine, sounds of Qawwalis and pop music, the melodic call to prayer from the minarets.  As a child she plays cricket and climbs trees and flies kites.  Up on the roof she trains pigeons and looks out at the horizon.  

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When it gets hot, her family heads north.  They once traveled all the way to Rome.  She visited the Sistine chapel, her and Michelangelo share a birthday.

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At school she is shy. She loves math, as it is a tool to understand the world.  She finds she is also good at drawing birds, and people.  She studies miniatures with a magnifying glass.  Eventually training in miniature painting with a master.  Art becomes her ticket to new worlds.

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She heads off for America, taking her roots with her, but once she arrives she cannot leave.  Her passport is the wrong, color.  She lives in New York and cannot return to Pakistan for nine years.  Now she can travel and soar and share her work with the world.

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There is a glossary at the end and more information about Shahzia and her paintings.

 

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk, introduction by Omar Al Akkad, illustrated by Gerardo Alba, Kasia Babis, Alex Beguez, Tracy Chahwan, Nomi Kane, Omar Khouri, Kane Lynch, Maki Naro, Hazel Newlewant, Jeremy Nguyen, Chelsea Saunders, and Abu Zubaydah

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Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk, introduction by Omar Al Akkad, illustrated by Gerardo Alba,  Kasia Babis,  Alex Beguez,  Tracy Chahwan,  Nomi Kane,  Omar Khouri,  Kane Lynch,  Maki Naro,  Hazel Newlewant,  Jeremy Nguyen,  Chelsea Saunders,  and Abu Zubaydah

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This 208 page graphic novel, is indeed graphic.  The unbelievable horrors detailed in the stories shared are all sourced and referenced in the nonfiction anthology. The intent isn’t shock and awe like the war that created such abysmal breaches of justice to be done in our name (Americans’), but is definitely a painful reminder of how fear and mismanagement allows the US treatment of individuals to grow and continue outside of the rule of law, and all that the US claims to represent.  The careful use of words such as “detainees” instead of “prisoners,” “enemy combatants” instead of “terrorists” or “criminals,” have allowed Muslim men to be held since 2002 without charges, legal representation, habeas corpus, or basic human rights.  When the prison was being filled, you’d hear about it in the news, when the government released heavily redacted reports on torture, you’d catch a headline or two, but there are still people being held, and for the most part, we, the world, have perhaps forgotten.  This book is a reminder, it is insight, it is so important that high school and college aged children are aware of what we are capable of, that adults are not allowed to forget what we are doing.  As it says in the intro, “To indict the people who did this is to indict the country that allowed it to happen.” We are all guilty, and this book is not an easy to read as it will make you angry, and devastated, and exasperated.  Don’t let the graphic novel format and simple text fool you, this is a difficult read, emotionally, and you should force yourself to sit with it- sit with the outrage and frustration, and see if it can spur you to action.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book is broken up to provide an introduction, map, facts, and a timeline, it then starts with the author arriving for a media tour to Cuba.  Some background stories about key individuals in understanding the effects of torture and better and more accurate ways to interrogate, and then the fateful day September, 11, that changed everything.  From here the stories are individual accounts of prisoners, lawyers, politicians, etc., each depicted by a different illustrator, to show a very rounded view of the effects of the prison, and thoughts by different people in a  variety of associations. 

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Some of the prisoners were swept up by neighbors responding to leaflets promising wealth for turning people in.  Some were taken from their homes for no reason, a few were taken from the battle field, but every single one has never had charges against them, nor a day in court, the few that have been able to be represented have been released without being accused of anything, hence, found to be innocent.  The doubling down on the concept of Guantanamo being the worst of the worst, administration after administration has made it so prisoners have to be released to countries they have never been to, with unknown rights or a way forward.  Those that are still detained have been there for nearly 20 years. 

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WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE BOOK:

I like that the book is personal, it is harder to dismiss or forget, or be unaffected when you are looking at images and surrounding yourself with guards and lawyers that are saying over and over, that these prisoners are innocent.  I like that it challenges Americans to demand more of America, it isn’t just putting the USA down nor does it read like the narrative has it out for the USA, it is very much an personal calling out, that we have made errors and continue to make errors out of arrogance.    

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FLAGS:

The images and language are at times graphic and one should be aware of the potential triggers of torture, and abuse. There are curse words spoken, and violence detailed.  High school and up.

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My First Book About the Qur’an: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children y Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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My First Book About the Qur’an: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children y Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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I had planned to review the Ramadan book in Sara Khan’s My First Book about series, but needless-to-say all of the board books in the collection look remarkably similar and the one on my shelf, that I thought was the Ramadan one is this one, the one about the Qur’an.  Rather than find another Ramadan book, I figured to just go with it, Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an after all, and the book is both informative and engaging for little Muslims.  The soft detailed pictures and sturdy binding introduce toddlers and up to the belief in Allah, the pillars, care for all creation and being good to one another.

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The book starts out stating the the Qur’an tells us in the beginning there was only Allah, and that He created everything.  His creations are as big as the heavens and the Earth and as small as the creatures we cannot even see.  He created the trees and mountains and the angels and jinn, as well as the people, He made us all special.

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Allah wants us to follow His rules and sent books and Prophets to show us how to act.  He wants us to be good to one another, to be thankful, to look after our world, and everything in it.  Allah wants us to worship Him alone and pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan, give money to the poor, and go for Hajj.

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He also wants us to have families and to get married and raise our children to be good Muslims, so that when we die we will go to Paradise.  The book ends with facts about the Qur’an and questions and answers that can help further the conversation, increase understanding, and encourage love for the holy book.