Tag Archives: retelling

A Second Look by Hannah Matus

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A Second Look by Hannah Matus

a second look

Ok, so y’all, don’t be like me, don’t judge this book by it’s cover, its inside font and spacing, or even the blurb on the back.  Judge it based on this sentence: A modern ISLAMIC Libyan cultural retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, that is done so, so well.  It is seriously so well written and so effortlessly adapted that for those that know the original by heart you will giggle and be giddy with anticipation of how the characters and plot points are turned Islamic.  And those that have never read or watched the original or any of the many adaptations, will be sucked in and swept away by the story at hand.  Oh sure it needs a few tweaks here and there, but truly this hidden gem sat untouched on my shelf with it’s unattractive cover for way too long.  Alhumdulillah for @bintyounus giving the book a start and squealing with glee until the entire @muslimbookreviewer crew dropped everything and read the book.  Not that it was hard, once started, this book stayed glued to me as I tried to sneak minutes at dismissal, at work, while cooking, and talking on the phone to stay in the world so masterfully created.  The book is  halal, but the characters for the most part are in their twenties and I think I wouldn’t object to older teens reading it, but it is an Adult or New Adult book, in both characters’ ages and readers’ interest and appeal.

SYNOPSIS:

The five sisters in the BenTaleb family are all unmarried, balancing life, school, jobs, and daily stresses as varied Muslim Libyan young women in America. With so many girls, the parents of Jana, Elizza, Maryam, Leedya, and Kawthar are known in the small Midwest community as Abu l’Banaat and Umm l’Banaat.  When two young businessmen from Libya come in to town to teach at the local university, the eligible bachelor’s are sough after and all the drama, angst, longing, and courtship comes to fruition. Throw in a distant cousin who is an imam, a scandal with a younger sister, social media updates, and cultural expectations, and you have yourself a book full of laughs, tears, cheering, and joy.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how seamless the retelling is, the pop culture references, and how relatable and rich the writing is.  I was blown away by the beautiful strong Islam present that somehow never comes across as preachy, but is so thoughtfully present in presenting ideology, cultural pushback, western conflict, that Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the story.  I’m fairly certain every Muslim Jane Austen fan has thought how similar books written so long ago mirror the courting etiquette of Muslims, and this book delivers all of those hopes and imaginings: the names of the characters, the opposing perspectives of the sisters- I really can’t stop gushing, and haven’t since I finished the 200 page book.  There is so much Islam, swoon, and it is presented so well.

FLAGS:

As an Adult book it is clean, even as a New Adult book it is clean.  I hesitate to call it Young Adult because it is about marriage, and there is a scandal with a sister, and mention of wedding nights, and STDS and lingerie, nothing is explicit, but for as halal as it all is and how practicing the character’s all are, these few mentions elevate the story from suitable for a 13 year old, to being ok for older teens.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think everyone should read it and come gush with me.  You can purchase the book here.

Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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We tend to love people and books that do things first, for good reason, they raise the bar, set the standard, and pave the way for all those that come after.  And no, this is not the first middle grade traditionally published book to have Muslim characters having a completely non-Islamic-identity-centered plot, BUT it might just be the best one I’ve read.  The amount of Islam woven into the characters and storyline is absolutely incredible and seamless. The writing quality keeping dual male point of views separate, engaging, and unique without judgement, is nearly flawless.  The emotional connection of the writing and characters and plot had me both laughing out loud and crying unapologetically within the span of the 276 pages of the book.  This book is a treat for the readers and everyone eight and up I’m quite nearly certain will enjoy this Muslim authored, unapologetically Muslim approach about two 8th grade strangers realizing they are twin brothers and getting to know each other.

SYNOPSIS:

Shaheer lives with his dad and paternal grandfather.  They are well-to-do with his father being an ER physician, but they move around a lot, and never stay in one place long enough to make friends, unpack boxes, or feel like they have a home.  Ashar has lived in Virginia since he was four.  He and his mom recently moved out of living with her brother and his family, but they are next door so even though money is often tight, family and love are always present.

The first day of eighth grade finds the two boys at the same school, staring at each other and wondering how they can maybe find the pieces of themselves that have always been missing. The idea is good, but the reality is complicated.  Ashar and Shaheer’s parents have refused to even acknowledge each other to the boys over the years, extended family plays along, and the boys have to decide if they can even forgive their parents for doing this to them.  Throw in a cousin who knows the boys are switching places, hockey practices, a masjid remodel, and the ever looming threat that Shaheer will be moving yet again and the stage is set for a lot of laughs, tears, and characters that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The retelling of “The Parent Trap” is not predictable, nor does it talk down to the reader and tie everything up in a nice unrealistic bow.  There are twists and disappointment and hope and joy, not just for the characters, but for the readers as well.  The side characters are even fleshed out and memorable, not just as foils for the protagonists (I loved cousin Zohra), but as characters with a vested interest in how it all plays out.  I was surprised how clearly different the characters are, even when imitating one another and how nuanced their differences are.  They are not simply opposites: one is not good the other bad, one outgoing one an introvert, rather they are just different, as any two siblings undoubtedly would be.

I absolutely love how Islam is so much a part of the story, a part of the characters, a part of the details, but is not the whole story.  There is no Islamophobia, internal or external, there is no religious othering, it is masterfully done and Muslims and non Muslims alike will benefit from the real tangible expression, growth, and presentation of faith for the characters.

Similarly, culture is presented as a part of the characters in various forms without overly explaining or white centering.  This is who the characters are and their present predicament, as crazy as it is, could happen to anyone, of any culture or of any faith, the two are not corollary. But because it is happening to Ashar and Shaheer, the reader is brought into their world where salat/namaz, athan, mosques, hockey, entrance exams, volunteer work, finances, naan, pineapple on pizza, donuts, and nihari are all present and all unapologized for.  Well, except for the pineapple on pizza.

The best part of it all, is that it is also clean.

FLAGS:

Nothing an eight year old can’t handle, but there is deception as they imitate each other, parental arguing.  There is mention of Shaheer putting his headphones on and listening to music. Zohra plays flute in the band and it mentions when she has practice or that the family all goes and supports her. Male cousins and female cousins interact with each other freely.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If my middle school book club is mostly 6th graders in the fall, I think I will feature this book as soon as it is released on October 4th.  Even if it is a bit below “reading level” the writing is engaging and I don’t think even the most cynical book club member will be sorry they spent time with this book.  It would be a quick read for them, but an enjoyable one for sure.

It can be preordered here on Amazon

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

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The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

I was a little nervous to read an adult fantasy book with jinns, both in terms of length and knowing I would undoubtedly compare it to the Daevabad trilogy, but I got an ARC and dove in.  I was put off by the use of gods, and that there was no Islam present at all.  I’m not sure if the author identifies as Muslim, or what her background is, so I told myself I’d read at least 25% and then state I didn’t finish it because I primarily review juvenile fiction with Islamic content or by Muslim authors.  Well, lets suffice it to say that arbitrary percentage came and went and I had no intention of putting the book down.  So why am I featuring it? Simple, it is clean and I liked it.  Aside from the plural little g gods, the book is Arab culture rich as a retelling of the Arabian Nights, according to @muslimmommyblog the Arabic is accurate, the story is engaging, and really my only question is, why isn’t it YA?  I have a handful of reasons why I focus on children and teen lit, but one very strong one is that the books are “cleaner” in theory.  Lately though, it has been hard finding YA that followers of my reviews can confidently share with teen readers.  I think this one, although it isn’t a religious mirror, the salaams, culture, Arabic, and storyline, tinge the framing and make it a fun “safe” read to suggest to our kids.  At 480 pages, it probably is best for ages 15 and up, and it ends on a cliff hanger, so I’m not sure what the next book might introduce, just be aware this review is for this book alone.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla aka Loulie aka The Midnight Merchant hunts and sells magic jinn relics that she locates with the help of her jinn bodyguard Qadir.  After her tribe was slaughtered by a mysterious army, and she the only survivor, Qadir and her have been a team.  When her skills align with the needs of a powerful sultan she is forced to go on a journey with his son, the prince and one of his 40 thieves, to find a magic lamp that will lead her to answers about her past, offer her chances of revenge, test her abilities, plague her with loss, and fill the pages with adventure.  Stories of the One Thousand and One Nights are weaved in through oral storytelling, world building is built and explored through the characters’ understanding their world and the jinn, and the non stop action keeps the story moving forward with minimal dialogue and a lot of high energy showing.  Clearly if I say too much, the excitement will be lost, and I don’t want to spoil the characters’ arcs, their foibles, their illusions, and the climax- seeing as it is a linear story and if the motivation to move forward is lost, the book will lose its charm.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book keeps pace pretty well, a lot of the spoilers are not dragged out and I appreciate that they are not used to dangle the reader’s interest.  The story has depth, the characters are fleshed out, and the truth and illusion reveals are done without insulting the reader.  I’m still undecided about the (SPOILER) comic book quality of death for the main characters, but it keeps it interesting, so for now at least, I’ll play along.

There aren’t a lot of characters, but there are a lot of names for each character and at times in the thick of fast paced action sequences, I did get a little confused as to what was happening to whom and who was saying what.

I don’t truly understand why the divinity is plural or why they say salaam, but nothing else “Islamic” is remotely present save the concept of jinn.  I suppose though for all the fantasy books that use Islamic terms and imagery and then present them horribly, I should be glad that this one really doesn’t conflate the two, but an athan in the background or a few inshaAllahs, sigh I suppose a girl can dream.

FLAGS:

Language, violence, murder, killing, deceit, minor seduction, betrayal.  Very clean not just for an adult fantasy, clean for most any YA or Teen book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It would be a bit of a pivot for me to feature this book as a book club selection because there is plural deities and NO Islam, but it is very tempting to suggest it to the high school advisor.  The book comes out May 17, 2022, you can preorder it which helps show support, or order after it releases on Amazon.

Rapunzel: An Islamic Tale by Fawzia Gilani illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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Rapunzel: An Islamic Tale by Fawzia Gilani illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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Having read the other “princess” retellings by Fawzia Gilani I didn’t rush out to acquire this book, but when a friend said it was available at the public library, I was surprised and admittedly curious.  This book just like the others in the series are very much in my eyes “Islamic fiction” for how centered Islam is for the characters and how it is used to frame the story toward a religious message.  The fact that a small city library in a Southern state purchased and shelves it, is pretty impressive.  As for the story, well it is really long, and wordy, and every page is filled with tiny text filled lines that I doubt most kids will be able to sit through.  The Islamic content is very present, the Uyghur setting appreciated, but wow do the 41 pages pack a lot of text in to a fairytale re-telling. There is a lot of Islam and Quran and at times it fits well, at other times incredibly forced.  The book claims it is for ages 5-8, but truthfully I don’t know that any age would be able to sit through it and be engaged.

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In a tangled forest lives a wife and her husband, a clockmaker and a woodcutter.  Before they married, the wealthy and cold Shuna Leng had hoped to marry the woodcutter, but he never asked, and she never forgot.  As a result seeing her neighbors happy keeps her jealous heart plotting and conniving to bring the couple misery and pain.

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One day, while pregnant, the wife has a strong craving for rapunzel greens.  Some just happen to grow on Shuna Leng’s property.  The husband is nervous to ask, but when his wife falls weak he makes an effort.  She doesn’t answer, so he picks some growing along the path and leaves coin for payment.  This wife regains her strength and then begins craving them again.  He decides to do what he did last time, but is caught.  The evil woman agrees that he can have all the rapunzel greens he wants but if the baby is a girl she shall be given in payment.

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Once born the baby is taken and kept hidden from her parents.  Various governesses are employed over the years to tend to Rapunzel and who teach her Islam and kindness.  Ever so often they have to up and move and abandon their routine when people start asking questions, but the lessons learned from the Quran stay with Rapunzel and she endures what she must.

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Eventually she ends up in a tower, she offers to help a stray boy recite Quran, and the evil plot of keeping her locked up unravels.  Yes SPOILER she is returned to her parents.

It is a decent retelling in theory, it just is really long, and there isn’t quality character building to invest the reader to the side stories being presented.

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Count by Ibrahim Moustafa with Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhadu

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Count by Ibrahim Moustafa with Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhadu

count

This graphic novel retelling of the classic, Count of Monte Cristo, is for middle school readers and up and is by a Muslim author and illustrator. There is nothing Islamic or cultural in the text of this 136 page sci-fi twist, and there is some kissing, a whole lot of killing, brutality and violence, but I think the swashbuckling tale will appeal to early teens and adults who enjoy fast paced reads whether they have read the original tale or not.

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SYNOPSIS:

Commoner Redxan Samud is elevated to Captain and marries his beloved, the first few pages of happiness, however, quickly disintegrate as he is framed and wrongfully imprisoned by the jealous powers that be.  Life in the hovering prison are barbaric, but the meeting of Aseyr, provides him with a plan and means to move forward.  First he will have to survive the death battles in the prison, escape the inescapable fortress, before he can locate the Isle of Sorrow, take control of ARU and extract his revenge.  Oh, but his revenge is strong, so very, very strong.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I was admittedly hesitant to give the book a try, but when writer Shireen Hakim sent it to me, and my kids saw it, I thought I should read it first before letting them dive in.  I read it in one sitting, the story is engaging and clear.  I never was confused with who was who and why something was happening.  At times though it seemed too quick and that details were glossed over, or impact was minimized because major plot points were not given enough time to be felt.  I would have liked some answers provided of basic logistics and of character’s getting from one place to another, and how plans came to fruition shared in the story.  Additionally, some fleshing out of situations to ground the story a bit and make the revenge and extraction of revenge more cathartic, would have elevated the book and made it a popular choice in my house to be reread again and again.

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FLAGS:

Death, violence, murder, rage, kissing, torture, plotting, deceit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Not a contender for a book club read, but I would shelve it in a middle school classroom and in the school library for graphic novel and comic book enthusiasts as well as for high school students who might be familiar with the classic it references.

Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

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Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

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This middle grades retelling of the classic fairytales: Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, replaces white characters with diverse Desi characters, reclaims female characters’ empowerment, and weaves the stories together with Rumaysa first freeing herself, and then using a magic necklace that takes her to those in need  (Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara) in her quest to find her long lost parents.  After a few chapters, I started writing a list of gaping-huge-ginormous plot holes, they are frequent and laughable, then I took a deep breath and recalled the similar eye-rolling inconsistencies that plague perhaps all fairy tales, but specifically Disney-esque ones. Once I let go of trying to understand why Rumaysa is wearing hijab while locked in an isolated tower, or how the witch can’t remember her name, but Rumaysa knows the name her parents gave her when she was kidnapped on the day of her birth, or that she knows she was kidnapped and her whole backstory, just to name a few, the book was much more enjoyable.  I still have major issues with some of the forced Islamization and cultural tweaks, but not because they existed, but rather because they weren’t strong enough.  Why have an Eid ball for all the fair maidens in the land.  It was awkward to read all the young people showing up to pair off, and then people asking the prince to dance, and him saying he didn’t know if he could.  Why not just make it an over the top Desi wedding with families, where dancing and moms working to pair their kids off is the norm. Having it be a ball for the maidens in the land, just seemed like it was afraid to commit to the premise of twisting the fairytales completely.  There are a few inconsistencies, however, that I cannot overlook.  This is a mainstream published books and there is at least one spelling error and grammar mistake.  I could be wrong, as it is British, and I am by no means competent in even American English, but I expect better.  Even content wise, Prince Harun for example, is wearing a mask, but the text comments on his blushing cheeks, eyes, eyelashes, and smile, not a typical mask perhaps? And don’t get me started on the  illustrations, the same awkward ball has Ayla leaving, and in the picture not wearing a mask concealing her face as the text states.  Overall, the inside illustrations are not well done.  The cover, by artist Areeba Siddique is beautiful with the shimmery leafing on the edges, that would have brought the inside pages a lot more depth and intrigue than the ones it contains.  Despite all the aforementioned glimpses of my critiques to follow, I didn’t hate the book and quite enjoyed the light handed morals and feminism that was interwoven with clever remarks and snark. The first story has Rumaysa wearing hijab, finding a book about salat and praying.  The second story takes place on Eid and Ayla eats samosas, discusses Layla and Majnun, and has a duputta. The third story I don’t recall any culture or religious tidbits other than keeping with the consistency of cultural names.  There is mention of romance between an owl who has a crush on a Raven, but the heroines themselves are learning to be self sufficient from errors of their parents/guardians and are not looking for any males to save them.  Other than that the book really needs an editor and new illustrations, I can see fairytale loving middle grade kids reading the book and finding it enjoyable, or even younger children having it read aloud to them a few chapters at a time, and being drawn in to the stories and eager to see what happens next. It would work for that demographic, but perhaps no one else.

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SYNOPSIS: (spoilers)

Rumaysa’s parents steal vegetables from a magical garden when there is no food or work to be found, as a result when Rumaysa is born, the owner of the garden, an evil witch, takes Rumaysa and places her in a tower protected by an enchanted forest and a poisonous river.  No one can get in, and Rumaysa cannot get out.  In the tower Rumaysa reads, no idea how she learned, and spins straw in to gold as she sings a song that channels the magic she consumed in utero from the stolen garden.  With only rations of oats to eat, a friendly owl named Zabina frequents Rumays daily and brings her berries and news .  When he brings her a new hijab, Rumaysa has the idea to lengthen the hijab with bits of gold over time, so that she might escape.  When she finally gets her chance, she is met by a boy on a magic carpet named Suleiman, and is both shocked and annoyed that someone got close to the tower, and only after she saved herself.  The two however, and Zabina, are caught by the witch and must escape her as well.  When that is all said and done, Suleiman gives Zabina a necklace that takes one to someone in need of help.  His parents want him to save a princess, he wants to study in his room, so he hands off the necklace hoping it will help Rumaysa find her parents, and he heads off on his flying carpet.

The necklace doesn’t transport Rumaysa to her parents, however, it takes her to a street where a girl is throwing rocks in desperation having been denied attending an Eid ball after her dress was torn to shreds.  The story starts with Ayla’s back story before Rumaysa arrives, but the two girls befriend each other, Rumaysa uses her magic gold weaving abilities to conjure up a new and beautiful dress and golden shoes and the girls head to the ball.  When Ayla heads off to get samosas she meets the prince, but doesn’t know he is the prince.  They argue about the play Layla and Majnun and when her stepmother asks about the dress, Rumaysa and Ayla make a run for it.  A shoe is lost, the stepmother comes to know, the guards search for the missing girl, and all is well.  Except Harun is incredibly shallow and superficial and only interested in Ayla’s clothes and status, so she rejects him and points out that she is much too young for marriage.  She instead reclaims her home, fixes her relationship with her stepsisters and begs Rumaysa to stay.  Rumaysa makes her excuses and is whisked away to a land that is being ruled by a man and his dragons.

Originally the land of Farisia is ruled by King Emad and Queen Shiva, but they have become unjust and disconnected from their people.  When Azra gets a chance to steal Princess Sara and take the kingdom, he does.  Rumaysa arrives to free a sleeping Sara from the dragon and restore apologetic and reformed leaders to the thrown.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I do like the spinning of familiar stories and either updating them, or twisting them, or fracturing them, so I am glad to see an Islamic cultural tinge available.  I feel like the first story was the strongest conceptually even if the details and morals weren’t well established.  The second story was strong in the messaging that Ayla, and any girl, is more than just a pretty dress, but the premise was a little shaky and not that different from the original.  The third story was a little lacking developmentally for me and all three I felt could have gone stronger in to the religion and culture without alienating readers or becoming heavy.  There are characters illustrated in hijab, some in saris, some in flowing robes. Princess Sara is noted to be a larger body type and I appreciated that in elevating the heroines, other’s weren’t put down.  Even within the book, there is diversity which is wonderful.  

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FLAGS:

There is lying and stealing with consequences.  “Shut up” is said.  There is magic, death, destruction, and a brief mention of an avian crush.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could see this being used in a classroom for a writing assignment to urge students to write their own tales.  I think it is fourth or fifth grade that children read fairytales from different points of view: think the three little pigs from the wolf’s perspective or the Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, and this book would lend itself easily to that lesson as well.

The Adventures of Nuh’s Ark by Khadijah Khaki illustrated by Tashna Salim

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The Adventures of Nuh’s Ark by Khadijah Khaki illustrated by Tashna Salim

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If you are looking for a comprehensive or somewhat detailed story about Prophet Nuh (AS), this book isn’t for you or your child.  If you want a silly story with hilarious animals to introduce your little one’s to the concept of the animals boarding Nuh’s Ark as a commandment from God, then order this book already!

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This 24 page rhyming hardback 8×10 book written for preschoolers through early readers takes the idea of animals boarding Nuh’s ark and tells what it is like in a fictional account narrated by the animals themselves.  And focuses on a pair of confused koalas as to what is going on.

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The poor koalas, are not prepared for rain and don’t do well in small spaces.  They pack too much and can’t keep up, but luckily the other animals are nice and they all work together until it stops raining and they can disembark on to land.

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The pictures are cute and comical and bring the text to life.  With the conversation bubbles adding to the story, even the pages that are a bit text heavy keep the younger listeners engaged, as they know something funny is about to be said.

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Also, the book is one in a series or three, so far, and the characters are the same ones found in the Adam and God’s Creation book as well (might be in the Ibrahim one too, but I haven’t read that one), making the nameless animal characters actually memorable as they say silly things, and are pictured being rather unique too.

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The books do not use the word Allah, but do mention God, and the Arabic of Nuh, rather than Noah, and there is mention of why there is a flood and how long it will last, but nothing quoted directly from the Quran.

My older elementary and middle school kids found the books silly as well, and giggled their way through.  It is a a fun read that even adults won’t mind repeating.  If you want a more Prophet story retelling, Migo and Ali Love for the Prophets is a good non fiction book, and it, along with the three book Lunar Learners serious can all be found at my favorite supplier Crescent Moon Store.