Tag Archives: poetic

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

The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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This is not a religious story, it is part cultural, but it is really all heart.  The sweet relationship between a boy and his sidi stole my heart in The Turtle of Oman, and in this stand alone companion book, I once again was swept away by the admiration and relationship of the two.  This lyrical middle grade book is slow and enveloping with its cadence and detail.  There is no real climax, but the character driven story will linger long after the last of the 322 pages are read.  The book is clean, and never states the characters are Muslim, but it hints at it.  It celebrates Oman and America, and would be a great read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime with its poetic passages, lists, and emails back and forth across the ocean.

SYNOPSIS:

Aref has finally left Oman for Michigan and as he and his mother board the plane and start their adventure to America to join their father who has gone ahead to set everything up, Aref’s heart aches for all he has known in Oman, and for his beloved grandfather.  Once in Michigan, his days are filled with tagging along with his parents to their university classes, exploring Ann Arbor, making friends, and getting to know the neighbors.  Everything in America is new and different, but sometimes the same too.  He writes messages catching his Sidi up on all that he is taking in, and Sidi writes back, but it isn’t the same.  From new flavors of ice cream, the first snow, celebrating Christmas for the first time, and giving a speech on Martin Luther King Jr Day in an Omani hat, there are so many new things Aref feels his Sidi is missing, if only he would come and visit.

Sidi on the other side of the world is lonely.  He is trying to take computer classes so he can email his grandson, he can’t figure out how to message on his smart phone, and tries to avoid going anywhere that reminds him of Aref.  But he and Aref went everywhere in his jeep, so Sidi doesn’t go out, and is not doing well as a result.  It will be three long years before they return to Oman, and Sidi might need to be brave and board a plane.  The reunion is not a surprise for the reader, only for Aref, but it is tender and warm and worth the journey for them both.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I wish there was some clear Islam, there is mention of not celebrating Christmas normally, a prayer room at the airport, peace be upon him when there is a death, and prayer beads, so it is possibly there if you search, but it isn’t at the same time.  I know I say this a lot in books like this, but it seems that when the religion and culturally religious words are withheld it seems a bit hollow.  A family coming straight from Oman to America doesn’t say Assalamualaikum ever, or make dua when hardships arise, or say InshaAllah or MashaAllah? It seems watered down and overly dismissed. I guess the way Christmas is framed is understandable, they are trying so many new American things they decide to give each other one gift to try it too, I wish though Ramadan would have been mentioned or Eid.

All that being said, I absolutely love Aref and the world through his daily actions.  He is endearing and his love for his grandpa is goals.  I love that Aref’s new school is so diverse and that everyone is celebrated and accepted, it isn’t a story of him being the new kid, but rather them all bringing something unique to the school experience.  The first graders as conflict resolvers is either a bit hard to believe or based on something real and absolutely brilliant, I am still undecided about that. Also as an adult reader, I couldn’t help but notice how money never seems to be a problem, and while I don’t know if children will pick up on it, it seemed a little surprising for two parents that are professors to never stress about it.

The language and emotional pull the story has is remarkable, and I think the slower pace would be hard for kids to get used to initially, but it will win them over and the rhythm of the story will hook them and make it hard for them to put the book down once they get going.

FLAGS:

Some bullying discussions

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Too young for any book clubs I host, but definitely want it on the library shelf.

The Most Powerful Night: A Ramadan Story by Nada Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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The Most Powerful Night: A Ramadan Story by Nada Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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This beautiful poetic book about Laylat Al-Qadr explains in detail and wonder the importance of the most blessed night in the blessed month of Ramadan.  The soft purples and pinks of Laila’s room, and the repetitive refrains set the mood and tone of an informative bedtime story that will convey the awe and mercy of the night to seven and eight year olds.

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The book is 40 pages, and pretty text heavy, but it flows smooth enough, and the details in the pictures are enough to keep little ones engaged. Younger and older children will also enjoy the story as both an introduction to the night the Quran first came down, and as a reminder of the gifts to be had.

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Laila is sad that Ramadan is leaving as she peers out the window and sees the moon resmembling a crescent again.  Her mother takes the opportunity to tell her about the blessings of the last ten nights, and Laylat Al-Qadr specifically.

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“The Night of Power and Miracles,” Laila’s mother explains is a night like no other, that comes only once a year.  Thousands of angels come down until there isn’t a speck of space that they do not fill.

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The night that is better than a thousand months and all our deeds are multiplied 70 times, the night the Holy Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (saw).

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Laila wants to make sure she pronounces it correctly and practices saying Laylat Al-Qadr.  Excited to make sure she is praying and reading Quran that night, she is desperate to know what day it is.  Her mother explains to her that we do not know.  Laila uses this to her advantage to get to stay up past bedtime for each of the last 10 days.

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The book begins with Surah Al Qadr in Arabic and with the meaning of the translation in English.  It ends with a glossary, more information about Ramadan, and a glimpse of the author’s first book: Ramadan Around the World.

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The 9 x 11 hardback binding and font are beautifully done and with there no other books for children that I can think of that discuss Laylat Al-Qadr, I foresee this one being read at least once a year, if not more, for many years to come, alhumduillah.