Tag Archives: OWN Voice

A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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This Secret Garden retelling mixes the heart of the original with a dash of modernity, the flavor of desi culture, and the lyricism of a good writer.  Over 368 pages the slow plot but rich imagery will draw readers in, hold their attention, and leave them thinking about the characters they have been fortunate to spend time with on Long Island.  Islam is practiced and normalized and naturally woven into the Muslim characters’ daily lives without othering or over explaining.  I did struggle a bit trying to keep the relationships of who was supposed to be caring for the protagonist at various points since her parent’s died clear, but once I abandoned stressing about it I was able to be swept away.  I recently reread The Secret Garden with my own children and the original is not plot heavy, nor action packed, but I watched as my own children were drawn to the slower, more grounded (pun intended) nuanced tale, and I think this book, in the same vein, will find its way in to the hearts of middle grade readers.  The book is clean, there is a possible crush hinted very slightly at the end, periods are also endured, and I do have reservations of the terrible marital relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Clayborne, but it establishes that change will occur, so at least it isn’t normalized.  There are sprinkles of magic implied regarding the house, but it is always framed without clarity and in a subtle way to set the tone and the emotions the characters are feeling more than centralizing something rooted (see I did it again) in fantasy.

SYNOPSIS:

The book updates and mirrors the original fairly well with an obstinate orphan arriving at a sprawling house, finding a prickly boy, and setting off to form a tentative toleration of one another with friendly neighbor kids in a garden that is unquestionably off limits.

Maria Latif arrives from Pakistan against her will to be taken in by a distant relative (I’m not sure how she is related), but Asra has been called away and she is forced to stay with Lyndsay, the new wife of Mr. Clayborne.  The first wife was a friend of Maria’s family, but Lyndsay is just as emotionally overwhelmed and lost as the child in her charge.  With Mr. Clayborne away on businesses, his mother Charlotte keeps them all on edge.  When Colin Clayborne is expelled and returns home, more tension erupts and the two children find themselves in an off limits garden trying to make the most of a difficult situation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mix of poetry and standard novel format.  It is beautifully written and clearly the author does a remarkable job of making her very unlikeable characters worm their way in to the reader’s heart.  Both Maria and Colin are thorny and difficult, stubborn and rude, but you seriously cheer for them, and I did shed a few tears at the end.  With the author’s writing ability apparent, I’m still not sure why the foundation of the relationships and getting Maria to the Clayborne home is so cumbersome.  It is too muddled and it drags the book down every time it is revisited.  The Dadi having the aunt’s phone number was too easy, the inconsistency of the neighbors having no relationship to the Clayborne’s for so long and Lyndsay not even pausing to think another Bangladeshi family living a few houses down might be my husband’s first wife’s friends, seems inconsistent.  Honestly Lyndsey in general needed to read like a competent woman struggling, not a teenager in over her head. I disliked her and Mr. Clayborne’s relationship and I would hate to think any reader would find it ok or normal.

I love the Islam and how it presents when the character has to pray, she goes and prays, it is part of the story and it is seamless.  I don’t think the culture is handled quite as well.  Lyndsay is a foot writer who is always cooking, yet knows nothing of desi foods? If Colin’s mom is desi, wouldn’t she at some point tried to cook familiar foods for him.  Half the neighborhood is Bangledeshi, so it seems everyone has a parent or step parent or distant relative that is desi and I loved the normalizing, but it seemed a bit assuming.  I don’t think kids will wish it was more clear, but as an adult reading it, I felt like it needed to be interjected more without explanation, or if left as is, adding some context. I also wanted to know what Maria’s parents did and a little introspection from Maria.  Again as an adult I see how her anger and grief changes how she remembers them, but from them always being away, to such soft poignant memories at the end, I think kids will need a little hand holding to understand the grief process and her understanding of them.  As it is, they just seem terrible and then all of the sudden great, and the pacing gets thrown off in the process.

FLAGS:

It seems to hint at the end that Maria might have a bit of a crush on Colin, I honestly thought up until a single line that they were making a chosen family with the people who cared for them, but that line seemed to suggest it might be more of a romantic feeling than friend or brotherly.  I read an early copy, so this is subject to change.

Maria gets her period and it is detailed what she is feeling.  I think boys and girls can and should read it.  It is presented on age and appropriately: cramps, achy, dry about blood leakage, having it start young like her mother, etc..

Implied magic (possibly), music and musical instruments being played, milaad, lying, sneaking, being kicked out of school for physical assault, close male and female friendships, ADHD stigma.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION

I think this book would work in a classroom and would appeal to readers in an Islamic or public library.  I would consider it for a middle school book club, I think readers will connect and feel empathy for Maria, Colin, and Lyndsay and be better for it.

I preordered my copy HERE and I hope you will do the same

A Dupatta Is…by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Anu Chouhan

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A Dupatta Is…by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Anu Chouhan

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I read this 30 page early elementary book a few times before writing this review and honestly my cheeks hurt because I cannot stop smiling.  The lyrical writing radiates warmth and pride, culture and tradition, legacy and identity, while acknowledging both the playfulness and solemnness of a piece of fabric.  My heart breathed with the clarity and articulation that is felt and contained within the fabric that perhaps all Pakistanis feel, but cannot convey so poetically.  The book may be meant for children four to eight years old, but all readers will appreciate the text and illustrations that seamlessly flow like a favorite dupatta grabbed while running out the door. I struggled with picking only a few images to share, as every page became my new favorite as the book progressed.  Admittedly though, one page did give me pause as it conflated incense burning with getting rid of evil spirits which comes across as a religious belief, but is a cultural practice.

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The book starts out with the actual physical description of what a dupatta is and how it is adorned.  It then moves on to describing the color, the sound, the smell, the place, the function, the art, the beauty, the fun, the faith, the legacy, and the identity.  Each spread ends with the words, “but a dupatta is so much more…” seamlessly weaving so many facets of what a dupatta is together to create a true understanding of it from a tangible, to cultural, to practical perspective.

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I love that there is a page about faith, and praying five times a day with a dupatta being worn, it is a little odd that there is a portrait decorating the wall behind the two characters making dua, but at least it is clearly behind them.  I absolutely loved that so often the wearer of the dupatta was also wearing a hijab, particularly the bride picture- which is absolutely gorgeous.  It signals without words that a dupatta can be worn to cover a Muslim woman’s head, but it is also often not.  The backmatter further details that it was once worn as part of the national dress and as a form of modesty, but now is often worn as an accessory.

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One summer in Pakistan, a friend and some cousins and I started trying to formulate 101 Things to do with a dupatta (wipe noses, pull things out of the oven, catch fish), it was the year of net dupattas so clearly covering your head was not one of them.  Sure we were being silly, but to see the book also highlight wiping sticky hands, and wrapping it up like a sari, and using it as a cradle to rock a baby was very, very accurate and heartwarming.

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Please pre order this book, it signals to publishers that these books are in demand and is a way to show what type of books we want to see.  I preordered  mine here.

The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

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The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

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This culture rich, American set, upcoming 416 page YA book proudly shows the characters’ Islam as it shares a story of pain, privilege, guilt, adversity, hope, and family dynamics.  The book is an easy read that is hard to put down, and is remarkably clean for the threads of romance, war, and mental health that permeate the pages (note that here are triggers of loss, separation, death, suicide, drowning, trauma, hate, and bullying).  There, however, are also some plot holes, contradictions, and weak threads that I feel obligated to note, but ultimately don’t make the book a bad read.  I think 16 year old readers, both Syrian and not, as well as Muslim and non Muslims will benefit from the characters sharing their lives and peeling back surface layers to show an intimate account of expectation and obligation for Syrian American girls in today’s world with the backdrop of war in Syria.  The book’s first few pages are powerful in their Islamic centering and unapologetic normalizing of salat and hijab and identity. The Islam in the forefront fades as the story progresses and I don’t think I can sign off on the relationship between two characters as being “halal,” but starting the story with fears of praying on the side of the road as a mom’s concern is next level.  Most book parents are trying to get their kids to pray, in this family- prayers are happening five times a day and on time, so the worry is knowing where you are when Maghrib time hits, because it obviously won’t be missed or delayed, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Khadija’s mom is queen bee in the tight knit Syrian community in Detroit and Khadija does not fit the mold of what the queen’s daughter should be.  It isn’t that Khadija is a rebel, she loves her mother, her faith, her roots, and well, boxing.  Khadija is wealthy, and privileged and so much of what is expected is for appearance sake only.  Khadija knows this, and takes boxing lessons for free in exchange for helping keep the gym clean as to establish this as her own thing, no strings attached.  When Khadija’s mom takes in a Syrian refugee and her daughter, Leene, Khadija has to figure out if she is threatened, jealous, or impressed by the new arrivals and what that means about her own family.

Leene shares the narrative with Khadija and shares her transition to life in America and in the Shaami home along with her past.  The loses she has faced, the obstacles overcome, and the secrets she keeps in order to face each new day show glimpses into the destruction of the Syrian war on a way of life and the beauty lost. 

The two girls are at odds with each other for much of the book, but as their stories start to intertwine, they find themselves with similarities and strengths that show they are a benefit to each other, despite their stubbornness and fiercely independent personalities.  In a race to reclaim what was once lost, the girls start to trust each other, and when family is further threatened the two girls allow themselves to be vulnerable and work together to save what matters.

Clearly I am trying not to spoil the book, nor takeaway from the climax, but I think most that start the book, will find themselves glued to the pages and will understand why I am choosing not to disclose too much.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The first chapter completely blew me away, I loved the idea of such a strong hijabi girl boxing and being so unapologetic about her Islam and culture.  I must admit I cried at the end as well.  It was tied up very neatly, arguably too perfectly, but there were tears none-the-less and no matter what I critique about the book, I was moved by it. The writing is engaging, and entertaining, no doubt, but alas, I have some questions, lots of questions in fact: How did the mom’s meet? One is super posh and high class, the other refugee with very little, how did their paths cross? How did Leene convince her mom to let her travel even if the ‘why’ was kept hidden? After everything they have been through wouldn’t being left to travel to the Middle East be a huge obstacle that needed to be overcome, it reads inconsistent and unbelievable. How hard was it for the “girls” to leave the “boys,” I would imagine it was devastating, yet it didn’t even get a mention.  

What changed so much about the family dynamic when they stopped going to Syria, the author shows the joy of Syria and being together for the family, but I think if you are not Syrian and do not know Syrians well, some of this thread, is going to fall short.  I talked to @muslimmommyblog and could see the reflection of the characters for her, but if I didn’t have her shared experience to flesh out the characters, I don’t know that I would have understood the weight of the guilt, the helplessness, and the frustration.  Similarly, only through talking to Shifa did I understand the pressures of being an American Syrian girl, if I’m being honest, Khadija the majority of the time, just reads whiney. Other family dynamic questions involve the dad and brother.  Was the dad always so absent? It must not have happened overnight, right? And exactly how old is Zain? He reads like he is 12, but he is in high school? Additionally, high school graduation is very important for both girls for very different reasons, but their is no talk of college or career plans, which was noticeably missing from the book.

Then there is the angsty storyline of Younes.  The perfectly selfless guy who doesn’t center his Islam as much, but does want to have a prolonged engagement.  What does that even mean, and how will that be ok Islamically, with them already laying on the 90s Bollywood style glances and loving confession?  Also why does Khadija frame morality through an Islamic lens for most things, but for the relationship resorts to worrying about what her mother will be ok with?  And was the family ok with Younes? How is he at the BBQ? Speaking of places he shouldn’t be, how was he at the party Nassima isn’t Arab enough for, when she at least speaks Arabic and he does not?

I think it best to just enjoy the story for what it is, not look too deep, not ask questions, and just enjoy the rep, the story, the characters, and the emotions released with the climax and conclusion.

FLAGS:

Romance, crushes, road rage, bullying, Islaophobia, mental health, death, killing, war, destruction, suicide, drowning, abandonment, separation, loss, grief, rebellion, angst, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would not work for a middle school book club, and I really should say that this wouldn’t work for a high school book club either, but I know many older high school girls that would absolutely love this book and I think it might be possible to convince them that the relationship is more than the text shared, and was approved by the families and made halal.  Considering so many holes exist, it might be possible to control the narrative in a book club setting on the permissibility of the relationship.  It would definitely depend on the girls reading the book and I would strongly suggest that whether you read this book in a group or hand it to a teen, that you make it clear what a halal relationship looks like and that this is a work of fiction.

The book releases in March 2023 and as always to show support for OWN voice Muslim character filled stories please consider pre-ordering the book: you can do so here on Amazon.  And once the book releases please purchase, checkout from your library, and encourage your schools to shelve titles to encourage similar books to be published and made available, thank you.

Basking in My Brown by Fatima Faisal illustrated by Anain Shaikh

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Basking in My Brown by Fatima Faisal illustrated by Anain Shaikh

This picture book celebrating brown skin, particularly in girls, and specifically from a Desi culture point of view, takes on the notion of dark brown skin not being as ideal as compared to lighter skin.  If this is not a concept you are familiar with, I don’t think that the book will hit home, but as someone who has heard this refrain of staying out of the sun to not get darker since childhood, aimed at my friends and cousins (I turn red and burn in the sun), I do appreciate this owning and pushing back on a ridiculous colorist mindset. I don’t love the “magic” diction choice, and there is nothing Islamic in the book, save some covered heads that could be religiously inspired, or culturally, or even weather related, and I’m not sure if the author or illustrator identify as Muslim, but I’m sharing anyway because I know young Pakistani girls particularly, hear this colonial mindset messaging still, and I support undermining it.  This book is not about systemic oppression and racism and taking up space, this book is internal cultural acknowledgement of a pointless beauty notion.

A young girl begins the book telling of things she loves: trips to Pakistan to fly kites with her Dada, her mother’s dinner parties, swimming, climbing trees, but most of all she loves basking in the sun.  One day while playing with her friend Zoya in the warm sun, Zoya abruptly says she should go in before she gets too dark.  The protagonist counters that she loves all the shades her beautiful brown turns and equates it to magic.

She holds out her hand to show her magical brown skin shimmering, and connects the beautiful brown to the brown clay pot her Nani used to carry water in, the brown shawl her mother wore when coming to a new home, the brown of the henna her sister puts on, etc..  She says her brown skin has its own story of being proud, brave, courageous, soft, sweet, and fearless.

Zoya decides she likes the magic and decides to stay and bask in the sun. The author on the final spread raches out to brown girls to own, embrace, and celebrate their brown skin.

Hold Them Close: A Love Letter to Black Children by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Patrick Dougher with photography by Jamel Shabazz

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Hold Them Close: A Love Letter to Black Children by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Patrick Dougher with photography by Jamel Shabazz

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The power, the lyricism, the images, the layers- this book is not just for children, it is for everyone.  I have spent time with this book and it cannot be rushed, it needs to be felt and explored and reflected upon to feel the emotion that seeps from each and every page.  The book is remarkable in the amount of hope and warmth combined with history and social activism present.  It weaves together the personal with the community with the struggle past and present so flawlessly, but for me it is the pictures that complement the text so well that make this book spectacular on so many levels.  It is not a book for me to review, it is a book for me to support and elevate in any way I can.  The author is Muslim, there is nothing Islam specific in the text, aside from mentioning Malcolm X, and it should be required reading and sharing for everyone.  May Allah swt make us better to one another and actively work against oppression, ameen.

The book is framed as a letter, encouraging happy things to be held close.  For the young and old with stars in their eyes to be be held and elevated.  For stories of greatness to be passed down.  Stories of Kings, of Sojourners and Malcolms.  

The book encourages pushing away the disappointments, but to let the tears come. To not forget the lynchings, slavery, police brutality, oppression.  To stand and make it heard that you matter.

The illustrations are a mix of photographs and collage style layers.  The joy in a child that is very real, carrying those that came before.  Images of the past pulled to be seen in the present, very much a part of today.  The colors, the expressions, the hope, it radiates off the page with the coaxing of the text and becomes a feeling of both being held, and feeling support to take the next step.  Absolutely beautiful from beginning to end.

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The backmatter contains an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, Background information, and Selected Sources.

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Available in libraries and book sellers, including here.

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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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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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This stand alone middle grade read by Muslim author Nizrana Farook is similar to her first two books about an elephant and a whale in that it is set in Serendib a long time ago and revolves around a beautiful wild animal and clever, endearing, determined young children. This actual story is an easy read at 203 pages (the end of the book is the first four chapters of one of her previously published books).  I think seven and eight year olds will enjoy getting to know Selvi and the beautiful leopard Lakka that she considers a friend.  For me the ending took an odd turn that seemed out of place, but up until then I was enchanted by the lush imagery, sheer determination, and sweet friendship shared within the pages.  The main character is not Muslim, but presumably some of the side characters are with names such as, Amir and Salma.

SYNOPSIS:
Selvi and her mother live in a small home on the mountain.  Most days she runs wild with a golden leopard she has named Lakka.  She keeps her distance, but there is a pattern to their interactions, and when Selvi’s mother finally allows her to go to school, and she finds the other children unkind, Lakka becomes her only friend.  One day poachers are on the mountain hunting not just any leopards, which are protected by the queen, but the rare golden one that is often seen in the area, Selvi tries to interfere.  And before she knows it, they are after her.  She hides near a home, and when the poacher’s come looking for her, she is at the mercy of Amir to lie and say he hasn’t seen her.  Amir is a classmate, a mean one, but he has seen her before with the leopard, and suddenly Lakka is not so alone.

Between making friends at school, battling her uncle’s rules to start behaving more ladylike, and keeping a leopard safe, the adventure is fast paced and the story entertaining.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love kids outsmarting adults and saving the day, it makes for good story telling.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I really felt like it was forced.  I truly do not understand why the children needed to take a drugged Lakka to the port and back.  Why not leave him with the new friends and go to the port without him? He is a wild animal, we have been given reasoning for so much of the human animal interactions to be believable, that this seems to be negligent.  So much could have gone wrong and for what? There was no need.  The kids wanting to see punishment handed out is motivation enough for them to make the journey in my opinion.  Sigh, I don’t know that younger kids will be as bothered as I am, but I think fourth graders and up will definitely question it and be confused.  I also don’t know that I have ever seen the sneak peak of another book included at the end, being for a book previously published.  Aren’t they usually for upcoming releases? Either way, it seemed to make the last portion of the book deflate a bit for a story that was engaging, entertaining, and hard to put down until then.

FLAGS:

Lying, poaching, abuse, threats, killing, animal cruelty, bullying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime.  The short chapters have little illustrations above the headings that hint at what is to come, and the writing style is perfect for short blocks of time.

The book is available on Amazon

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.

Egypt by Aya Khalil illustrated by Magda Azab

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Egypt by Aya Khalil illustrated by Magda Azab

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This sweet board book is part of a series, the other two books are Japan and France, releasing in October.  All are brightly illustrated, 20 page books for ages zero to four and take the littlest of readers into a country, through sights, experiences, foods and language.  This particular book does not feature any visible #muslimsintheillustrations but the author is Muslim, and so I am reviewing and sharing it here.

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The framing of the book is a day in the life of a little girl, who wakes up with bosas from her mama and baba and greetings of Ahlan.  Some of the words are written in Arabic script with the English transliteration and pronunciation provided, other times it is just the English transliteration of the Arabic with the pronunciation asterisked and written smaller immediately below the text.

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Once she is awake, she gets dressed, brushes her teeth and is off with her baba to buy pita and ful.  The busy street offers sights to see and fruits to pick from.  She ponders and asks herself and the readers which one to choose.

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At her Teita and Geddos there is dancing and tabla playing before walking back home along the Corniche.  Dinner is served and bedtime has arrived. The book concludes with a summary of her day linking the Arabic words to the illustrations and English meaning, as well as some pronunciation tips for the Arabic sounds.

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As a Muslim reviewer I had to hope there might be one hijab clad woman in the illustrations, I know many Muslims don’t cover and Egypt is diverse, but considering the lens I review from, I feel obligated to state that opinion.

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A little more critically, I was a bit surprised on the page with the colorful boats that the color names yellow, blue, and purple, were not included in Arabic and only in English.  Seemed that would have been an naturally and easy inclusion.

Overall, the book did a good job of celebrating Egypt without over explaining, keeping it bright and engaging for toddlers.  I really like the language being shared in a story context, not just a book with a picture on it and words in different languages.  I also liked that while the details were Egypt specific, there were also pages that were universal.

Available for preorder and purchase here

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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