Tag Archives: Palestine

You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

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You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

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Books like this are hard for me to review, and I have gone back and forth on whether I should post anything or not.  On the one hand, we need books that are unapologetically Palestinian written by Palestinians.  They need to be celebrated and elevated and I want to offer my support to the stories, to the voices, to the authors, illustrators, everyone involved.  On the other hand, if I didn’t love it, why should I shy away from saying so, when I have purchased the book (pre-ordered and changed the shipping address even, to have it delivered to me on vacation because I didn’t want to wait to read it).  The book is emotional, but the last six pages unraveled the whole book for me, and in a picture book particularly of this nature, when you finish- if you don’t have a cathartic pull, you start to find holes in the story as you feel deflated.  The book, I would go out on a limb to say, needs to be discussed and given context even if you are Palestinian.  As someone who is not, I recognize my arrogance in such a statement and am happy to be corrected, but from a literary reviewer standpoint the book needs discussion and additional context.  The Nakba is only articulated in one paragraph in the author’s note.  In the story itself there is no indication that what happened to Thaer happened to so many Palestinians in 1948.  The use of color and how it is depicted in the illustrations is tangible and powerful, but as odd as it is to say, the words got in the way of the story.

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The book starts with Thaer trudging to school in dull sepia filled pages to begrudgingly sit at a desk and begin an art lesson.  He is glad the spitballs are just spitballs and not real explosions, but the tone is still melancholy.  When he sees boys playing soccer he recalls the last time he played soccer, and the memory comes alive in color.  He was in Yafa, it was the day before the Zionists came and took his family’s home.

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The teacher, back in muted tones, asks him to draw what has made him smile, and Thaer gives it a try.  Blue for the color of the sea, green for zeit and za’tar, brown for taboon to get fresh bread, etc..  When he takes the drawings home to his mother, she is not impressed.  Drawings are silly and colors aren’t going to bring Baba and Susu back.

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Defeated, the next day in class, Thaer recalls the men pounding down the door and Baba being shoved in a truck and Susu falling.  The next day at school they hang up some of their pictures and Thaer talks about his sister.  (SPOILER) On the way home Thaer paints the alleyway and brings color to his and his mom’s world.  His mama says that he is the color, and when the following day’s prompt is to draw what you want to be when you grow up it shows Thaer (presumably) on the beach as an adult painting.

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The disconnect for me occurred with the painting of the alleyway.  I was incredibly invested in the story, my heartstrings were being tugged, I was breaking for this character and his experiences, and it all came to a screeching halt because I couldn’t understand where the paint and the alleyway and the mama’s change of heart all manifested from.  As for the ending, I think I know what the author was going for, but it didn’t connect with any of my kids aged 2-15 nor my mother, a 40+ year early elementary veteran teacher.  I wish I could have taken a picture of their faces as she read the book to them.  The frozen expressions of huh and confusion at the end, until my 11 year old to broke the awkward silence to ask if the boy wants to be a painter or a father or an adult?  Those facets coupled with the often advanced vocabulary, makes the book an important one, but one that needs a lot of outside commentary to connect with the readers and to further the conversation about Zionism, al-Nakba, the occupation, and the continued oppression of Palestine.

There are flags of loss, kidnapping, sorrow, violence, etc., that parents will have to gauge if their children can handle. I’m not sure what age group is the best fit, the murder of a young girl, the forced displacement from one’s home, the removal of the father are all heavy themes.  I appreciate that it isn’t “watered down” for a western gaze so to speak, but I wish there was more about what happened to the dad, is there hope he is alive? I wish there was something about this not being an isolated reality for the protagonist and his family.  I wish there was some conversation or connection between the mother and son, because the loss of continuity really derailed the story.

As for the idea of the story, and the use of the illustrations to physically show two worlds I think is a great idea, it just sadly fell apart for me at the end: the faltering conclusion and the loss of emotional buildup that the first two thirds of the story worked so hard to create.

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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I saw this book at the library and was shocked: a Palestinian pov story written by an Israeli.  I checked it out, braced myself, and got ready to rage.  Except it isn’t blatant, and I can’t just chop it up to obvious hate, but that isn’t to say that the 183 page middle school book should be shared and deemed harmless: it subtly minimizes the occupation of an entire people, it in many ways glosses over the apartheid taking place.  It gives the inequity lip service, and I’m sure many western non Muslim, non Palestinian readers will find the book balanced, but I never could quite shake the looming shadow throughout, of trivializing the oppressive regime that is Israel.  I don’t know if the undermining is intentional, and I couldn’t find anything with a Google search to see how the book was received by Israelis in 1994 when it was published (it was translated in 2000), but either way it provides a great example as to why OWN voice books are so much more powerful.  This is not the oppressors’ story to tell.  I’m not saying the author isn’t sympathetic to the Palestinian struggles or that she actively supports encroachment of Palestinian homes, I honestly don’t know her stance.  I do know that the lived experiences of Palestinians though, is best left to be told by people that live it, have lived it, and those that feel loss because of it.  It is not a narrative to be told by the force that is causing the pain.  My biggest worry is that readers will take away from the story that the situation isn’t that bad, that Israelis are taking care of this poor injured Palestinian boy out of the goodness of their hearts so they must be nice, and at the end of the day the two sides are just two opposing forces, but the people once they get to know each other, bond over the fact that they pee the same and can be friends.  It waters down that it is, and was, major international powers backing the Israelis and that it is not, nor has it ever been, a simple disagreement between two equal sides. No I don’t expect every book about the region to detail the specifics, but don’t tell me that killing of children, a life of checkpoints, curfews, and fear can all disappear over a few months when the “enemy” provides medical care, regular meals, and arts and craft times. I’m not Palestinian and I can see the short-sided reality of that real quick.  It leaves young impressionable readers with a very skewed view, no matter how diplomatic the author attempts to be on the surface.  And I cannot support it.

SYNOPSIS:

Palestinian boy Samir injures his leg in a bicycle accident, quite seriously, and his mother who cleans for an Israeli lawyer is able to get him a special permit to be taken to the Jew’s hospital to be cared for by a visiting American surgeon.  He speaks broken Hebrew, but understands quite a bit as he has worked in a Jewish grocery store in the past.  When he gets to the hospital, he is placed in a room with other children to wait.  He stays there for weeks until the doctor can arrive and then even after the procedure he stays for physical therapy for weeks before he can return home.

While he is there, he gets to observe and know, in some ways, the other patients.  Yonatan is always buried in a book, but at night, when the other kids go to sleep he talks to Samir and plots with him a trip to Mars.  Yonatan’s mom lives in American, he lives with his dad who is an astronomy professor.  He also ethically is a vegetarian and saves his kabobs and chicken from his meals to give to Samir.  There is a girl that was hit by her father and refuses to see him, and one that is like a princess that doesn’t like to eat.  Tzahi wears a colostomy bag and is always jumping around and causing trouble.  His brother is a paratrooper in the Israeli army and he hates Palestinians.  It is hard for Samir when the brother comes to visit, the fear is real.

Samir’s younger brother Fadi was recently killed by Israeli soldiers and the memory, horror, and anguish is still very fresh for Samir and his entire family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I really couldn’t articulate the saccharin taste the book was causing to form in my mouth as I read.  The curfews, and check points and loss of Fadi was being discussed and contrasted to the luxury of the Israeli hospital, and then it began to occur to me that, it was almost worse than just being blatantly hateful.  The placating and sugar coating slowly diminishes the horrors of reality.  At the beginning Samir doesn’t want to go to the hospital, he would rather have a limp, but the narrative slowly becomes about the kids in the hospital also have stressing and hard lives, and that seems sweet, except, their issues while specific, are universal.  Samir’s leg is as well, but the oppression of his people is systemic and helping him doesn’t erase that the same people running the hospital killed his brother, dictate his reality, and his future opportunities.  It is not enough for the “anti Palestinian child” to have a surgery that corrects his ability to urinate and at the very end, they pee in to the planters.  It might work on the surface, but it trivializes too much. If Samir would have gotten to tell them about his life and his pains, and his experiences, and they would have accepted them as valid, maybe I could see bridges being built, but bonding over basic human functions, and celebrating that an Israeli boy finally talks to a Palestinian, isn’t compassion, it is arrogance.

The only real positive takeaway I had of the book was that even in the tiniest human kindnesses Yonatan showed Samir it was something for Samir to contrast with his life long friendship with Adnan.  That growth of realizing what makes a good friend was more humanizing and affectionate than any other storyline in the book.

FLAGS:

Murder, fear, harassment, oppression, bullying, teasing, violence, gun violence, abuse, talk of urinating, showering in front of others.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way, I will never have Palestinian children read about their life experiences from an Israeli person speaking through a Palestinian character.

Birmingham Boy by Kate Rafiq

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Birmingham Boy by Kate Rafiq

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This 36 page ‘day-in-the-life-of’ book, follows a young boy and his mom on a day out and about in his city of Birmingham, England. Told in rhyme a few Urdu words are sprinkled in as general city observations are made, fun is had, and kindness is shown. The book touches on homelessness and protests, and the illustrations take the story deeper and show support for Black Lives Matter and Palestine, multiple hijab wearing women (#muslimsintheillustrations) throughout the city (including a burkini swimming mama), storefront signs acknowledging a diverse community, street artists, and different races, religions, and cultures everywhere.

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The book starts off with Birmingham Boy waking up, based on the Arabic signage in his room, I’d guess his name is Zakariya, everything is quiet and still- except for a giant that he sees outside his window.   He refers to the homeless man throughout the story as a giant, it doesn’t seem to be a negative description, nor is the boy scared, he shares food with him at one point, it is just what he refers to him as. 

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He then heads downstairs for breakfast of toast and dudhu (milk), before getting in a pram and heading out in the town.  They go past the deli and the flower show, and the giant on his cardboard mat.  They see someone getting their hair cut at the barbershop and they arrive at the swimming pool.

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The mom and son swim and play and Birmingham boy takes a nap in his stroller as his mom and he head off to their next location.  He wakes up to the sounds of the masjid and sees his mom praying.  He plays and then joins her in salat.

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After the masjid it is off to a cafe for cakes and tea, which they share with the giant, before they head off to a rally for justice and peace.  The book carries on in this sweet style of visiting places and interacting with the community until ending with a bath and dinner and getting tucked in to bed for the night.

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Being American and living in Birmingham, Alabama, my kids and I also learned about the sights of a different Birmingham and they got to learn some British words such as pram and wellies.  I loved the inclusion of Islam in their daily life and the joyful illustrations.

Arab Arab All Year Long! by Cathy Camper illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi

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Arab Arab All Year Long! by Cathy Camper illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi

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This 40 page month-by-month celebration of Arab culture, both old an new, will be a source of pride and smiles for readers of all ages.  The author is an Arab American of Lebanese decent and the illustrator was born in Lebanon.  The book shows Muslim’s teaching others about Ramadan, looking up hijabi fashions, as well as making cookies at Easter and dressing in sleeveless shirts.  To be Arab is not a monolith and this book seems to convey that culture and tradition and love are all it takes to be included in the broad diverse identity of being Arab.

January starts with finding stars with Arabic names, and February recalls how a comic about Martin Luther King, Jr. helped inspire the Arab Spring.  The kids in turn make a comic to teach others about Ramadan.  March is a chuckle about Arab time, and April is making maamoul with Sitti for Easter. May is learning to write Arabic and June for gathering grape leaves to make warak enab.  July is picnics that remind mama of Morocco and making perfume with familiar smells and memories. 

August is playing the doumbek with Dad who is in an Arab band. September is researching hijab costumes to wear to comic con.  Dressing up like Umm Kulthum wins first prize.  October is pomegranate time, which means the kids jump in the tub to eat and enjoy the messy fruit. Chilly November air requires the Palestinian keffiyeh to keep memories warm, and December when friends are busy over winter break it is time for sleep-overs and henna parties.

I like that dressing up is not for Halloween and that while some examples are country specific, many are general.  The book specifically mentions a few Arab countries, but the electronic arc did not include all the supplemental information that the published hardback book will contain.  I can’t wait to check it out and gift to my Arab friends and their children. 

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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This 36 page toddler to kindergarten book features a little lion that doesn’t like to sleep.  One night he wishes for friends to play with and his crib starts shaking and moving and a magical adventure begins to unfold. The story highlights and celebrates Palestine, as that is where the crib takes him, but the story is also about not wanting to go to sleep, not wanting to miss anything fun, and seeing nighttime and daytime routines.  I love that it shows tatreez (embroidery), and mentions olives, and the friends he makes on the beach playing soccer are so welcoming, even gifting him a keffiyeh to keep warm with, but I really wanted more sites of Palestine, and more childish adventure and wonder about the beloved country.  The book mentions wishing and uses the word “hate” in describing how Laith feels about bedtime.  The taytas wear hijab, but there is no mention of religion.  The book is a great introduction to Palestine or a mirror for Palestinian children to see themselves in a fun animal led universal story.

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Laith is a lion, his mom is a giraffe and his father a bird (perhaps a hawk or falcon), he loves bath time and story time, but not bedtime, he doesn’t want to miss anything.  So when he makes a wish and finds himself flying outside in his crib, he is disappointed to see mama and baba asleep. his taytas asleep, and all of his friends sleeping too.  He wishes for someone to play with, and roar he is off to Palestine, where his night is their daytime. 

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In his world every character is an animal, but in his adventure, the characters are human.  He sees a grandma and eats an olive before asking some kids playing soccer on the beach if he can join.  As they play and cheer he gets cold and wants to go home.  He invites his friends, but they have to stay.  They gift him a keffiyah, and he leaves. 

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On his way back to his room, he looks in on his friends. Daliyah is getting dressed for school.  Zain and Idris are brushing their teeth, and his taytas are making breakfast. When he wakes up he tells his parents he wants to go back to Palestine, and they remark on him having a beautiful dream. 

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I love that there are diverse kids depicted in Palestine, that Laith’s grandmas are involved in his daily life, that the concept of day and night on different sides of the world is accounted for.  I don’t know how I feel about the voyeurism, sure it is innocent enough, but maybe Daliyah could have been getting ready for school, rather than getting dressed.  I like that the keffiyah came back with him and the illustrations show the Dome of the Rock.  

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I bought this as an ebook, because I was impatient and didn’t want to wait for shipping to show support to Palestinian books and authors.  It came with a coloring sheet as well, and is $2.99 on the website https://www.laiththelion.com/ it is also available as a hardback book on the website (heavily discounted) or on Amazon at its regular price.

Sitti’s Olive Tree by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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Sitti’s Olive Tree by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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This lovely 27 page book is a story infused with love, culture, and olive oil.  The hardbound, large thick pages are richly illustrated as the text, perfect for ages preschool to second grade, tell of the olive harvesting season in Palestine.  The story is framed between a young girl learning about the past from her grandma’s memories and enjoying the olive oil sent by her uncles from their homeland.  The story is warm and informative and does not discuss politics or conflict. There is a key hanging on a map of Palestine in the illustrations, but nothing in the text.

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Young Reema watches her Sitti make hummus. When a drop of olive oil slips down the side of the bottle and Sitti wipes it up and rubs it in Reema’s hair.  Reema wants to know how olive oil, zeit zaytoun, can be used in such different ways. As Reema is reminded of how far the oil has traveled and recalls that her Sitti never buys olive oil at the store, the two settle in for Sitti to tell Reema some of her memories about the harvest on her ancestral land.

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Olive harvesting season comes at the end of the year and the families gather to pick the olives and fill the buckets before climbing ladders and catch the falling olives on blankets.  The elders sort them, and at the end of the day they eat and drink tea and coffee and laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

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They tell stories to pass on to the next generation just like Sitti is doing to Reema, because the olives keep the families together.  Sitti hopes one day Reema will go to Palestine and play among her family’s trees.

I wish there was a bit more detail about the hummus, it seems to imply that the garbanzo beans are whole and not smooshed or blended, also when it lists the other things Sitti’s grandparents would do with the olives, the list is olive oil, olive soap and olives for eating.  I would imagine there are more things to do with the olives, even perhaps detailing the way the olives for eating are pickled, or preserved, or prepared would have been nice.

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There is a glossary of a few terms at the end.  There is nothing religious in the text, but many of the women wear hijab in the illustrations.

Overall this book is well done and serves an important point in showing a culture that is rich and full, aside from conflict and politics.  It is a sweet story between a grandmother and her granddaughter and shows how stories, traditions, and food help pass on culture and heritage.

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The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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I was really surprised by the number of gaps in this 46 page story that is so adorably illustrated and seemingly planned out. I thought perhaps I was being overly critical, so as always I tested it on my kids, and they too were confused by the main character’s rational and choice of words, the holes in the narrative, and the inconsistency of the characters. The book is wordy, so conciseness cannot be the reason for the holes, and it is published by a publishing company, so I would assume it has been proofed. Really the point of stories connecting us and giving us comfort when we need it, is sadly lost. I had hoped to love this fictional story of a Palestinian girl using prayer to give her comfort in her new home, but alas it seemed to be trying to weave in too much, and as a result the story isn’t fabulous for me unfortunately.

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Noor is new at school and stands out. She finds comfort in remembering the things that are the same. 1-Allah could still see and hear her. 2- The Angels were still by her side, and 3-She still slept under the same moon. She also wears clothes that remind her of home and provide an unspoken clue as to where home is for her.

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At school Noor has a problem, she needs a place to pray, but at lunch time the kids are not allowed to go inside and the dinner lady guards the door. Noor needs a distraction to sneak in the building and it isn’t clear if she provides the distractions, or just benefits from a baby bird falling out of a nest, a snake being in the grass, and a classmate getting hurt. Either way, when the teacher is occupied, Noor enters the building and finds a closet to pray in.

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On one such visit to the closet she finds someone already in there, Hannah. Hannah is there because she doesn’t like being on the playground because she is different. Noor never asks why Hannah feels different, so the reader isn’t made aware either. Hannah asks her why she is there and Noor says she comes “to pray because it reminds me of where I’m from.”

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When Hannah asks where she is from, Noor doesn’t just simply answer, she tells her stories about her homeland, the mountains, olive trees, where the athan floats in the air and fisherman return to the shore with their catch. The next day Hannah is there again, and Noor tells her more stories and legends about her culture and lessons of the Prophets. Noor learns that through her stories she feels connected to her old home.

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Weeks pass, and one day when she sneaks in to the school, she finds the door locked. With no where to go she heads back to the playground and starts to cry that she won’t be able to pray. She then sees Hannah disappear and she follows her in to the drama studio. When she enters she sees sets built that look like the setting of her stories, of her home. Hannah knew she missed home and built her sets to look like Palestine.

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Other kids miraculously enter, and Noor begins telling them her stories, without praying first. The other kids seem to enjoy her stories and Noor learns that she can pray anywhere while holding on to her three reassuring thoughts.

The illustrations are engaging, although I’m not sure where the prayer rug seems to magically come from for Noor to pray on in the closet the first time. Had the book just been about prayer and finding a way to pray, or just about the stories connecting us to our past I think it would have been more powerful. I’m glad that Noor loves salat and that Hannah is a good friend, but I feel like by trying to do too much, the poignancy of the little things was lost.

And as for my questions: Can’t Noor ask for a place to pray? Can’t she pray outside? How is Hannah making the sets all by herself? Noor says she prays because it reminds her of home, she doesn’t pray for the sake of Allah or because it is required of her? Why did Hanna feel different, and why didn’t Noor bother to ask? It says that she needed to distract the dinner lady, isn’t that dishonest even for a good cause? Did she harm the baby bird so that it would need rescuing? Put the snake in the grass? Hurt the little girl so that she could get by the teacher? How was Hanna getting inside at lunch time? How is the school ok with a kid coming inside to build a whole set with school materials, but can’t let another child inside to pray for less than 5 minutes? And if Noor didn’t feel comfortable asking for a space to pray, clearly Hannah had connections to get permission to create a huge scene, couldn’t she have asked, or helped Noor ask?

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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I had debated picking up this book knowing that it isn’t labeled YA and I’m painfully behind on a stack of books I want to review, but after reading @muslimmommyblog’s review I opened the first page: that was 24 hours ago, I couldn’t put it down.  I’ve seen a lot of comments about this book being more YA than adult fiction because it tidies everything up so precisely at the end.  I’ve also seen critiques from non Muslims that it is overly preachy at times.  Many Muslims are so swept away by the rawness and presence in Islam in the book that they are making their teens read it.  So I wanted to read it and review it to determine if it is appropriate from my perspective for teens, and offer my take on it.  Ultimately I think while much of the Palestinian-American protagonist’s life story in the book occurs as a child and young adult coming of age, that the “flags” are so critical to the story and so numerous, that no matter how deftly and non specific she handles these issues and moments, that the book really is meant for more mature readers. I’ll detail it more below in the FLAGS section but to highlight a few mature spots mentioned in the book to varying degrees:  extra marital affair, alcohol, making out, groping, nudity, sex, voyeurism, killing, shooting, physical abuse, profanity, suicide attempt, bigotry, etc.  The writing is absolutely superb, and it isn’t sensationalized, but it is there and provides understanding as to why the characters often are as they are to a point that you need to understand them with a certain clarity.  I would think this 298 page book would most appeal to early college age readers where one is hopefully open minded enough to understand the characters relationship with religion whether they are Muslim or not, old enough to have some of their own life to reflect upon, and on the cusp of a new chapter that they realize the role their choices can make as they move forward.

SYNOPSIS:

Afaf’s life story unfolds out of order and with occasional interruptions from an outside point of view.  It opens with her at work, as a principal of an Islamic girls high school in Chicago as we see her dealing with parents upset with things taught at the school and the balance she tries to achieve in guiding her girls to be strong, confident, well-informed Muslims in a diverse America.  It then flips back to 1976 and begins the tale of Afaf’s life with her parents, immigrants from Palestine, her older sister and younger brother.  Not ever feeling like she fits in at school, she loses any sense of normalcy at home when her 17 year old sister Nada goes missing.   There were problems at home before: her mother never being happy, Afaf never feeling her mother’s affection, her father having having an ongoing relationship with another woman, but as days and months go by, and no clues can find Nada, it will be the event that seemingly tore the family apart.  Afaf’s mother has a mental breakdown, Afaf’s father takes to drinking, and thus Afaf and her younger brother Majeed have to navigate much of their life on their own.  In high school Majeed finds baseball and becomes the ideal student and son.  Afaf lets white boys feel her up and has a reputation for being easy.  She doesn’t cross the line, but her reputation and name on the back of bathroom stalls is fairly accurate.  When their father is involved in a car accident, he finds Islam.  The family is very cultural, but not religious at all.  Eventually Afaf and her brother accompany their father, much to their mother’s protests to the Islamic Center and while Majeed has no interest in religion let alone Islam and never returns, Afaf feels an instant peace and the opportunity to redefine herself and continues to go and study Islam.

The book jumps regularly in sections, not every other chapter, and at some point it shows Afaf as an elementary school teacher making the commitment to wear hijab and preparing to wed a Bosnian man with a broken war filled past.  It jumps and has her brother home from law school visiting and her mother attempting suicide by drinking drano and being found laying naked in a bath tub.  After recovering, her mother returns to Palestine and never returns.  In yet another vignette, it has Afaf and her husband and father preparing to go for Hajj, where her father passes away, and has her returning to find she is expecting her third child a little girl.  There are other surprises that I’ll not reveal, but some of these jumps are interrupted by a voice of a radical alt right mant who walks into the girls school and starts shooting, finding himself face to face with the principal, Afaf.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am seriously blown away at the quality of writing, and the interweaving of religion and culture.  It is a main stream book and it has a lot of religion in it.  It isn’t so much long passages of preaching, the father would like it to be that way, but the other characters keep him in check.  But the quiet transformation of Afaf and having Islam save her from a life she was not content with.  I love that it has joy and happiness despite all the tests and obstacles.  The book could have been really heavy and drag, but it wasnt, it was compelling and hard to put down.  The characters will be with me a while and I can see myself rereading the book just to visit them again.  

I was a little confused with Afaf’s limited Arabic and her mom’s limited English.  How did they communicate? I get that perhaps it was symbolic of their broken relationship, but seriously when Afaf is seven and not understanding Arabic and her mom is not understanding the police and neighbor in basic English, something is a bit off.  I like that insight is given as to why Afaf is fooling around with any boy that wants her and that it shows it isn’t about the acts themselves.  I also like how it showed her conflicts in reporting an Arab child in her class being abused at home by her father and how the response was so sad by the community.  While Islam saves her and holds her to a higher standard, it doesn’t appeal to her brother, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy of people who are Muslim: abuse, owning liquor stores, and it doesn’t make everything better for her.  She has to suffer consequences of her choices, she just feels that Islam gives her the tools to persevere and understand and have hope.  

I love the food, oh man, hearing all the dishes being cooked and served and cleaned up after, really made me very hungry.  The cultural elements of the music and songs and oud really ground the book and make the OWN voice value ring so true and strong.  The racism and bigotry feels very real as well.  The author is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the way that she articulates such pointed examples of not being given the chance to move up in the elementary reading group, side comments the high school coach makes to her, and the general stereotypes thrust upon her, are very powerful.

FLAGS:

So there is a lot, as stated in the intro, but I want to articulate a bit of why I maintain older teens for the book even though it isn’t overtly sensationalized. I’ll walk through some of the major flag themes.:

Take the drinking. The father is an alcoholic, but the mother and children hate it, Majeed drinks beer with his friends, but isn’t Muslim, yet the Khalti is somewhat religious and they pour amber drinks at Thanksgiving. So there is some moral lesson, which I think you could argue is fine in YA or even middle grades.

Relationships/sex/body: The father is having an affair with a much younger woman, they refer to her as sharmoota and everyone knows about it, no other details are given. Afaf lets boys touch her naked body, but draws the line at intercourse, she says she on some level doesn’t want to do that to her parents or something of that nature. Right before proposing marraige, her and Bilal do kiss. Once they are married it mentions them making love in the mornings. It mentions masterbating and blow jobs. The shooter and his girl friend have sex, the shooter watches an Indian neighbor nurse her baby through the door and sees her exposed breast with some detail and then goes home and masterbates. When the mother is pulled out from the tub after attempting suicide it doesn’t just mention she was naked, it comments on her pubic hair.

Violence: An Arab Muslim male classmate, drives Afaf away from her bike and the slaps her telling her basically that she should not be such a slut. Afaf punches another girl in a fight at school. A child in Afaf’s class is being hit by her father. Mother lashes out at Afaf, she ends up burned. The climax is a mass shooting where 14 students and a teacher are gunned down and killed. Self harm: car crash while drunk, suicide attempt with drano.

Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would make a great book club selection for those in their early 20s and up. It is well done, just not for younger readers. The book is very popular and numerous author interviews can be found with a quick Google search.

The Little Green Drummer by Taghreed Najjar retuld by Lucy Coats illustrated by Hassan Manasrah

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This book is perfect for early readers that are more fluent than picture books, but not quite ready for a full on chapter book.  With five chapters, pictures on every one of its 73 pages, this book is a joy to read both on your own or out loud to a group.  It is fun for Muslim children and non Muslim kids, and a great addition to bedtime or story time at Ramadan, or any other time of the year for that matter.

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SYNOPSIS:

Samia and her Yaba live in Lifta, Palestine and her dad’s job in the month of Ramadan is is to wake the whole village up as the dawn waker-upper.  Samia loves his important job, and hopes one day to do it too, but her dad says a girl has never done it before.  Samia doesn’t understand why, girls can shout and bang drums as well as anyone else.

The day before the start of Ramadan, Yaba is not feeling well and doesn’t know what he will do.  Samia sees her chance and says she can do it.  Her drum is loud, her lantern is bright, and her dog, Barkie, will keep the wild wolves away.

As she sets out in the dark, she sees orange scary eyes in the woods and sings a song to herself to keep her brave as Barkie defends her.  When she gets to the first house, they are surprised to see her, but the children of the home rush out to join her with their own drums.  When the three children and Barkie get to the next house, their friend Omar wants to join in with his tambourine.  This continues as the village children join together with whatever instruments, even pots and pans, they have to make sure everyone gets up in time for suhoor.  For five is louder than four, all the way up to nine being the loudest of all.

The children all sing and the villagers reward them with candy and treats.  On the way back home the wolves stay away and when they reach home Samia’s dad is feeling better and can’t wait to hear of her adventure.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is based in truth which is detailed at the end of the story on three pages that tell about Lifta, and how after a war the people were not able to return.  It also tells about Ramadan as the story text itselft mentions it very little.  Yes, it takes place in Ramadan, and the people need to be woken up to eat before the day starts to fast, but the afterword gives a bit more about the holiday and Eid that follows.

I love that the book is about a girl doing something because she can, I was afraid it was going to be like Hiba Masood’s Drummer Girl, but it takes a different turn in showing Samia having to be brave, showing team work and cooperation in getting the job done, and the village not even really caring who wakes them up, her being a girl doing a “man’s job” is never even mentioned again.

The book is fun with the sound effects and inclusion of everyone and the illustrations are incredibly well done.

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FLAGS:

The book is clean, the “scary part” is quick and while it adds a little tension, not enough to scare even sensitive little ones.  The dog stands his ground and becomes the Dog King of the Village.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m trying to see if I can do this as an online story time during Ramadan amid Covid 19.  It is a super quick read, and is a lot of fun, but the small (8×5) size might make the pictures hard to see.  I think all kg through 2nd grade classes should have this story.  It explains a cultural celebration of Ramadan in a universal way that will make Muslims feel proud and non Muslims excited to learn about something new.

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