Tag Archives: school friends

Abdul’s Story by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Tiffany Rose

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Abdul’s Story by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Tiffany Rose

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I really don’t know what more you could want from a 40 page brightly illustrated picture book for ages 5 and up.  I felt seen, I got a little emotional, I was inspired, I smiled, I felt compassion and empathy, hope and nervousness.  I was reminded of the power of role models, of getting down on a child’s level, literally.  I was reassured that we all make mistakes, learn differently, and can still thrive. Suffice it to say the book is moving.  The OWN voice lyricism will resonate with children of all colors, but that the messaging is from a Black Muslim boy and is so unapologetic and proud and beautiful, makes the emotions Abdul feels palpable.  Every classroom bookshelf needs this book, every child needs to hear it, read it, and explore the layers contained within.  Alhumdulillah.

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The book starts out with absolute joy.  Abdul loves to tell stories.  Writing stories, however, is something else.  The letters are tricky, they get turned around, they aren’t straight and crisp like the one’s the barber cuts.   His pages don’t look like the neat lines of his classmates.

He decides that maybe his stories aren’t for books.  It isn’t like he even sees stories like his in books:  stories about the people and places that he knows.

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Then one day a visitor comes to class, Mr. Muhammad, and he is a writer.  He encourages the children to, “write new stories with new superheroes.”  Abdul tries, but he keeps making mistakes, and then he has to erase, and before long his paper is covered in smudges and holes.

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Mr. Muhammad encourages Abdul to keep trying and fix the messes later, Abdul has an idea, and with a “bismillah,” he gives it another go.  There is no perfection, there is just determination.  The struggles, success, and support of his peers and Mr. Muhammad, just might change Abdul’s mind about his stories.

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I love that the book is Black centered and Muslim centered.  There is praying salat, mention of bean pies, a classmate in hijab, and saying of Bismillah.  I’ve read the book seven or so times and it has yet to get old.  The characters burst with personality, even the side ones, that I’m positive it will be a favorite at story time and bedtime alike.

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Can be purchased at Crescent Moon Store or Amazon

Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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This middle grade series has been highly recommend to me numerous times over the years, and I finally found a copy to read and review.  It is book three in the series, and I have not read the first two, so I may be missing something, but the book didn’t wow me honestly.  The 147 page story published in 2011 has a lot of potential, but I felt like it didn’t know who the audience would be, and thus often felt cumbersome and disjointed to read.  At times it uses Islamic terms (muezzin), other times the Urdu words (namaz), and way too often the english meanings (ablution, peace be upon you, mosque), often all three in a single paragraph.  It is Islamic fiction and stays adventurous, without getting overly preachy and didactic, but there are some cruel life threatening antics by the girls, and some heavy themes of child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, gender treatment in Islamic spaces, finance and micro loans, but to its credit, it stays on level and, while as a mom some of the adventure needs adult intervention, I think young readers would support the young girls handling so much on their own.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve year old Zahra and her classmates from her Islamic boarding school are headed on a class trip from England to Egypt.  For ten days they will be learning about the history, the culture, and connecting to Islam.  A group of first year girls and their chaperones in a foreign country meet with former students, another girls school from the UK, and some of their chaperone’s husbands giving this short book a lot of characters to get to know briefly, and only in passing.

The adventure starts right away as bully Saira locks a claustrophobic girl in the airplane lavatory in revenge of being locked in a freezer and forced to eat spiders earlier in the school year, and the foreshadowing that these battles are not over is set.  Once in Egypt, the girls muddle through worksheets sharing what they have learned, stopping to pray, and enjoying the experience.  Every so often at the hotel however, they see a girl they have dubbed, “sad girl” and the mystery to figure out what is making her so sad will ultimately make this a trip that brings the girls close to danger, and if successful will make them heroes. Toss in a nasheed concert, a runaway camel, and it is going to be a busy week and a half for them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book presents a lot of Islam, and I think most readers will learn something and see Islam practiced authentically.  There is praying, and wearing hijabs, and halal meat, and Islamic history, and the 99 names of Allah all present in the characters naturally.

The book starts with Zahra and her mom and aunt rushing to the airport, they are running late.  Zahra’s aunt is not Muslim and presumably her mom is a convert, there is some really awkward dialogue before the family leaves, and it is called out as being awkward, but it just didn’t seem to fit either.  Why would a girl’s brother tell a non Muslim to wear a scarf? A character that is just in the first scene? I’m hoping there is more to her as a character in the first two books, and maybe this is a reference to something, but it just reads really weird and unrealistic (I hope).

Similarly, I am sure the first two books cover the forcing a bully to eat spiders and why she was locked in a freezer, but to just see that this is the level of the pranks, is a little disturbing.  The book acknowledges that locking a girl in a bathroom who has claustrophobia is dangerous, and that triggering the camel to run-off was similarly potentially deadly, but what about the other cruelties? It doesn’t even hint that there is more there, and I would have liked to see some context to recognize that these aren’t benign pranks, they are pretty big acts.

The child trafficking and kidnapping plot really had me wishing that the girls at least talked to Anu Apa. Having preteens take on such a dangerous situation so haphazardly was a little stressful for me, and I need to find some middle grade readers to help me see the actions through their eyes.

The randomness of the nasheed concert didn’t seem to fit for me, the song she wrote wasn’t that good, the whole thing came together too easily, and then some of the girls taking off their hijabs in wildness seemed such an odd tangent to me.

The biggest obstacle for me was the terminology and diction.  I don’t think it matters if the readers are Muslim or not, use the Islamic terms.  The teachers and students go to an Islamic school, it isn’t a stretch to have them use the proper term of salat instead of namaz, they can remark on the athan, not azan, they can say Assalamualaikum, they don’t need to say in english peace be upon you, and upon you when they greet, it seems so halting to the authenticity of the characters and flow of the story.

I think part of the difficulty in getting these books in the US is they just had one edition printed, and I genuinely hope that at some point the author will revisit the books especially now that she has been published mainstream for her other works, and hopefully grown as an author.  There is a lot of good in the book, it just could use some polishing and updating.

FLAGS:

Child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, cruel pranks, physical assault.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get these books on a classroom shelf based on this one book.  If a classroom or library already has them, I wouldn’t remove them.  Utlimately, I don’t know that many readers will stick with the sorting out of all the characters in the beginning of the book, and those that do I think would probably be slightly disappointed, not with the presentation of Islam, but in the side story building details.

An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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If you are a long time fan of Ayesha Dean and you have been waiting for some children in your life to grow up just a little, so you can share the strong Muslim detective books with them, you are in for treat.  This book is a short novelette for middle grade readers!  It isn’t a prequel detailing her personal backstory, but it does show how she got her first taste of sleuthing at age 13.  If you are new to the series: the book like all the others is Islam centered, fast paced, authentically voiced, and an overall fun read.  Unique to this book is that it is for ages 8 and up, and takes place in Ayesha’s home country of Australia.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha is at a new school, she has recently started wearing hijab and she just wants to settle in to it all with friends Jess and Sara.  Things have been going missing from year eight lockers, but it isn’t until Ayesha is a victim does the concern really hit home.  Add to that getting paired with the jerk Dylan Wyley for a project in Indonesian class, and Ayesha is not having a good day.  When she senses some suspicious activity, she is on the case: ready to get her stolen book back, take down a bully, put her Tae Kwon Do training to use, and make it to the library to pray her salat on time.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed the relatable voice of young Ayesha, having read all of the other books in the series, it was sweet to get a peek of her in her younger school days.  I love how much Islam is in the book, and not in a preachy way, but rather in a ‘I’m Muslim and this is how I see the world and this is what I do’ sort of way. I’m not going to lie though, I wanted more backstory on how she became friends with Jess and Sara, how she settled in to living with Uncle Day when her parents died, and all the backstory four books solving crimes around the world just couldn’t get to.  But I fully realize, that is just something I may never get (hint, hint) and will have to be content with the fast paced, culture and Islam rich stories that we thankfully get.  I’m not complaining, I just get overly invested.

To all my arrogant ignorant readers out there, that like me, might be a bit confused about Australian schooling and culture- I embarrassed and humbled myself and annoyed the ever gracious author to learn more about Ayesha’s world.  In Australia the lockers are located in the students’ homeroom classrooms (tute rooms), hence they don’t often padlock them.  High school refers to ages 12-17, and sometimes 11th and 12th grade are called senior school, and “How did you go” is a phrase in Australian English.  See, aren’t you glad I asked, now we know, and can widen our view together.

The only thing that I think I would have liked to see would have been a bit of pause before Ayesha got into a fight.  It is high energy, and she does it to help someone, but I feel like at 13 years old, in a book for 8 year olds, and as someone familiar with Tae Kwon Do, it should have been more articulated that she was nervous to engage in a physical altercation, and was only doing it because she could not diffuse the situation, get the victim away, and thus had to step in.  I recognize that pulling out of the scene might have made it lose momentum, but I felt a little off celebrating a school fight without that pause of introspection.

FLAGS:

Fighting, stealing, bullying, Islamohobia, racism, bigotry.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The book is short and for a younger age than I meet with, but I look forward to purchasing the book on February 20, 2022 to have available in the school library for anyone to pick up and read, inshaAllah.

Seven is Special! By Shagufta Malik

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Seven is Special! By Shagufta Malik

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I’ve seen this book on and off over the years, but it wasn’t until I saw @muslimkidsbooknook’s post about it, did it register that it is a chapter book, with a plot and story.  I thought it was a journal for seven year olds with prompts perhaps.  Needless to say I judged a book by its cover and hope at some point the author will consider changing the title, redesigning the cover, and tightening up the story, because there is a lot to enjoy in this book, but to get to it, you have to get it in your hands, and open the cover.  The doodles, the author’s voice, and the playful font over 128 pages will appeal to elementary aged girls, but boys will find plenty to relate to as well if you can convince them to give it a try.

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SYNOPSIS:

Seven-year-old Maryam has started taking her salat more seriously, and finally the family, her parents and her, are going on a REAL holiday.  They are going for Umrah.  Maryam is so excited, but then the trip gets canceled and her mom is sick, and Maryam is tired of always feeling different than her classmates.  Will everything work out? Will prayers and duas be answered? Will eight be great?

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book stays on a seven/eight year old level, but I do question how much stress is on how sick the pregnant mom is, and how kids will understand that.  I was sick, very sick, with all my pregnancies, and my older children saw me and it still affects them, in sometimes surprising ways.  My oldest daughter says she is never having kids.  Granted she is 14, but I would worry that reading a children’s book that mirrors something that was pretty traumatic for her to see will cement her impression about childbearing.  Obviously, I could be the exception, and perhaps like many literary mirrors it would make her relate more to the story.  I know she is above the target audience, but the illness of the mom is a large part of the book, and it is very detailed and specific.  I think if you are a young child reading it, you might ask your mom if that was her experience, and it could be a lovely conversation about heaven being at your mother’s feet, and the tests and blessings of it all, but the book really doubles down on some of the details of the throwing up and vomiting, and I wish her being sick could be shown in more situational ways.  Maybe she tried to do an activity with her daughter, but couldn’t, or she had to ask another mom to help with something she normally did at Maryam’s school, etc..  There are such wonderful tangible little nuggets in the book about salat at the park, and kids duas, and making wudu in public, that I think a little reframing of the illness and symptoms is definitely in the author’s skill set.

I love the unapologetic voice of being Muslim and some of the insecurities that Maryam faces and grows from.  Kids will enjoy seeing their concerns articulated, and inshaAllah benefit from her perspective as they make decisions about their own identity and attitude.  I know some families make a big deal about starting salat at seven, but when the book starts she has been seven for a while, so I’m not entirely sure why that was the focus of the book’s title.  Additionally, the pink cover really screams that it is a girl book, and I think boys will be nervous to be reading a “girl book,” that really isn’t gender specific in the storyline.  Yes, there are all sorts of stereotypes in that assessment, but I think you all get what I’m saying.

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FLAGS:

Illness, a bit of a temper bubbling over, stress.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think young readers that are handed the book and start it, will finish reading it.  It is a super quick read, and with the drawings and conversational language, they will enjoy the pages as they fly by.  It is an elementary read, and anyone older will probably see the foreshadowing that the mom is expecting, while the second and third grade readers, will probably be genuinely surprised.

Little Seeds of Promise by Sana Rafi illustrated by Renia Metallinou

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Little Seeds of Promise by Sana Rafi illustrated by Renia Metallinou

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This sweet, well-done 48 page picture book for early elementary aged readers shows the fear associated with being in a new place, the love of an elder family member, and the courage it takes to make new friends.  The story focuses on a young Pakistani girl who has recently moved to a new country and how she tries to remember the wisdom of her Nani to blossom in her new home.  The culture rich story is universal and lyrical, with hints of making duaa, greetings of salam, and the soothing sounds of the athan that make memories of home so foreign to her in her new residence. Young readers will empathize with Maya, and see the symbolism in the seeds she is anxious to plant and cultivate.

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Maya finds her new home unfriendly and cold, she feels different with her food, and clothes, and way she speaks.  Home to her is dancing in the warm mansoon rains, saying As-salamu ‘alykum, and waking up to the sweet athan.  Nani was also there, her old home.  Sweet Nani with her hundred wrinkles, smelling like flowers.  When Maya left, Nani gave her a gift.  Little seeds of promise, so that they and she might bloom where planted.  But Maya doesn’t know where to plant them, she carries them with her everywhere she goes, but like a secret, she keeps them close.

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Channeling her Nani’s tenderness, she knows that she has to plant them if one day she wants to be surrounded by flowers.  Maya loves flowers, dancing around them, praying among them.  Maya finds a patch of earth.  She longs for rain, she hopes for warmth. She makes way for the rays of the sun.  The text talks of flowers, the illustrations show both the plant and the growing friendships.  For days nothing happens, with the seeds or the classmates.  But Maya remembers that seeds have a long journey from the ground up.

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Maya nurtures her seed, just the one she dared plant, with love and kindness.  She too feels ready to burst.  Can she be brave enough to plant all the seeds, can she share them, and her self in her new world? Can their be warmth here, like there was over there? Can this too be home?

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I love the symbolism and juxtaposition of the seeds growth with her own.  The character arc and the transition of home being one place to being the other, is very well done, older readers will feel an aha moment when they grasp it and younger kids will enjoy both the surface story and the dialogue you can have with them about blossoming where planted.

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Religion is not a strong thread, but Islam is present in her memories of her maternal grandmother and all the warmth and love that those memories contain.  I love that the classmates were never mean, they just didn’t know her either.  I wish there was a bit more diversity of skin tone and mobility in the classroom illustrations and the friend circle she is hoping to join.  Overall, a beautiful OWN voice picture book that will be enjoyed for multiple bedtime, small group, and classroom readings.

Ms. Marvel Stretched Thin by Nadia Shammas illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

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Ms. Marvel Stretched Thin by Nadia Shammas illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

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This tween graphic novel of our favorite Muslim superhero is authored and illustrated by a new Muslim duo that share an OWN voice story over 110 pages about balancing life and priorities and making time for family.  There is a little bit of action, but the majority of the plot, really is balancing it all, with the help of school friends, one being the hijab wearing brilliant Nakia, and Kamala’s friends from Avengers Training: Miles Morales (Spider-Man) and Tippy Toe (Squirrel Girl).  This seems to be a different format of a lot of the same story-line found in the Avengers Assembly: Orientation book, but for fans of the characters and genre, this middle grades graphic novel (comic book?) will be well received with it’s easy to follow panels and relatable story.  For desi and/or Muslim kids they will appreciate the mehndi celebration, the hijab wearing side characters, the pressure to do well in Quran class, and the tight rope Kamala’s parents give the mixed gender group of friends.

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SYNOPSIS:

Kamala is being stretched thin with school, super hero training, writing her fan fic, moderating the website, and helping out with her nephew Malik while her brother and sister-in law are on vacation.  The stress has her embiggening all out of whack too, it is a lot for one girl, and when an evil robot takes advantage it will mean even more disappointment for her Ammi.  Kamala ruins her fancy mehndi dress and in embarrassment makes her family leave early, she is late to pick up Malik, and she is sleeping through school.  Finally, with the only two people that know about her alter ego, Kamala gets help from Nakia and Bruno to take down the robot.  She then combines her “club” friends, with her school friends, so that her family can meet everyone, and they can hopefully help her feel more at easy and less stretched thin.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t mind the story telling being more personal and less action, but the robot element is really underdeveloped and very much minimized, I’m not even really sure what the point of it was and how it was resolved.  The book seems to be confused if the kids are pre teen or teens, they are called both in the book, and I don’t know if it is an error, or is a joke from Tony Stark, but the voice seems to be ambiguous as well, which makes it hard to completely connect to the characters.  I wish the mom wouldn’t cover when at home, I mean I’m glad to see her covering and talking about Quran and all, but being an OWN voice portrayal, it would have been nice to see that detail.  The way that the friends as boys is handled is actually really well, it doesn’t become a whole religious or cultural soap box issue, but chaperones are present and the mom is on top of it. There is no hint that anything would be going on, but it is nice to see that accurate representation.  I also like the diversity that is present even within the Desi family.  Sadly, the book as a stand alone is rather forgettable, I’m not entirely sure what to compare it to, if there will be more in this particular series, or just more like it from other MCU characters, but for people that love Marvel, at least this rep exists if nothing else, it does offer a reminder to all kids to prioritize their time, ask for help when needed, and to make space for their families.

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FLAGS:

Clean. There is a destruction seeking robot and villain, but very tame.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think the book would be fun on any middle grade classroom shelf.  There isn’t much to discuss, but kids especially in Islamic schools will  enjoy the representation.

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A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Peggy Collins

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A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Peggy Collins

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I know many of you are thinking, another book about school for girls in Afghanistan, and given the reception by most to the author’s first book, The Library Bus,  I can sense the rolling eyes.  I was in the minority on that one, as I enjoyed it, but, this one is simpler, sweeter, more universal while being complimented by culture, and I hope it is a more authentic and accurate OWN voice portrayal.  I know I have a lot to learn about white washing narratives and breaking down colonial paradigms, so I promise if you disagree I will listen.  But I genuinely enjoyed the illustrations and little Aria finding a way to make a bench so she could sit comfortably at school with her prosthetic leg.  The girls go to school, and the furniture was burned to keep warm in the winter, a concept that the author verifies at the end as something experienced in his own life.  Aria has to find a way to sit in class because she wants to learn, and lack of wood working experience, resources, and doubt that a girl can do it from her classmates, isn’t going to stop her.  Over 32 pages, early elementary age children will meet a determined young girl as she pieces together scraps to build a bench.

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Aria has been in the hospital for a while after an accident took her leg.  She is excited to be back at school, but quickly realizes it is hard to sit on the floor with her new helper leg.  She tries leaning on the wall, standing even, but just getting up and down off the floor is really difficult.  At home when she mentions it to her mom, her mom reassures her that she can get through it and her little brother offers to help her carry her things.

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That night Aria considers how much she would miss school if she isn’t able to figure something out.  Then she has an idea, she’ll build a bench.  At school the next morning, classmates tell her “Girls don’t build benches,” but Aria responds, “I can do anything a boy can.”

With that, a single friend joins Aria as they comb the city for discarded wood, broken furniture, screws, and nails.  They assemble the resources and when they have enough Aria and her mom head across town, past the Blue Mosque, to visit the carpenter, Kaka Najar.  He shows them how to fit the pieces together like a puzzle and loans them the tools needed to be successful.  He even gifts her some sky-blue paint, “the color of courage, peace, and wisdom.”

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That weekend Aria and her mom and little brother build a bench, paint it blue, and get it to school.  When the other students see it, their excitement bubbles and they imagine building tables, book cases, and more.  Anything is possible after all, there is paint left in the can and they are willing to work together.

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There is nothing religious in the text, save the mention of walking past a mosque, but in the illustrations the women are all covering their heads when they are out, and are uncovered at home, the school uniform seems to be a white hijab and black abaya.  I wish there were some Pashto words sprinkled, and it was a bit off that she was building a bench, but the finished project was a bench and table. The end has an Author’s Note and I enjoy seeing the smiling faces and bright illustrations in a book set in Afghanistan.

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Llama Out Loud by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

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Llama Out Loud by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

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This 245 page middle grade doodle filled novel features a Pakistani-British protagonist as she endures life with a family that yells, brothers that prank, aunts that meddle, and now a magical talking obnoxious stuffed llama.  Yasmin Shah stopped speaking years ago, and a 10th birthday wish has brought about Levi, a llama who uses highly unconventional methods to help Yasmin stand up for herself and find her voice.  At times funny, tender, and relatable, the book similarly often feels really forced as it relies on predictable jokes for cheap laughs:  bum worms, wee wee taunts, the threat of being sent to Daadi in Pakistan as a punishment, bras and knickers being thrown around, etc..  The overall message is good and silly, and middle graders will probably feel some anxiety and frustration with Levi, but ultimately enjoy the book, and look forward to future books in the series.  

SYNOPSIS:

Yasmin lives in a full loud home.  It is her 10th birthday and she feels completely unseen.  Her mom has made her a lovely cake, but when her brothers use pepper to make her sneeze, the cake gets destroyed and she once again meets the wrath of her family.  She wishes she could stand up for herself, and just like that her life gets a whole lot crazier.  A stuffed old stained llama she saw in the market and her aunt decided to gift her, has sprung to life and won’t stop talking.  Levi seems determined to make Yasmin’s life even more miserable.  He shows up in her backpack at school and his misguided help gets her detention, he doesn’t want her to be friends with the octogenarians she plays checkers with at the local senior center and embarrasses her and gets her banned, life at home is more miserable too as he takes revenge on Yasmin who keeps trying to get rid of him.  At times it is hard to know if Levi is really trying to help and is just really misguided, or if he is out to get her.  As Yasmin loses her elderly friends and the chance to be checkers champion at the OLD home, she slowly lets new kid Ezra wear her down and possibly be her friend.  The climax reveals not just her voice, but a remorse for Levi that further helps Yasmin determine what her life will look like moving forward.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Antics aside, the story is about Yasmin being pushed/encouraged to be heard in her life.  The jokes amplify the need for her to find her voice and defend herself, her love of the old people and determination to win the checkers tournament is endearing, and her struggles with kids her own age shows real heartache.  I absolutely love Ezra and his mannerisms.  He is new at school, trying to meet Yasmin where she is at, and encourage her all while trying to focus, channel his energy, and fit in as well.  Yasmin’s family redeems itself and I think readers will get the exaggeration of much of the antics, but really Levi is annoying and while younger readers might find him hilarious and well-intentioned, I think anyone older than the intended audience will just want to strangle him.  

The illustrations, the comic strips, and the little flourishes on the pages are wonderful.  They bring the book to life and provide the charm and humor that the text needs to connect with the readers.

The only religious thing mentioned is Eid at the beginning.  Some of the women in Yasmin’s family wear a scarf on their head and her teacher wears hijab, it isn’t mentioned in the text.  I could not find if the author or illustrator identify as Muslim, I read that the author’s father is Pakistani so culturally and perhaps experience wise it is OWN voice, and reads with a lot of authenticity.  

FLAGS:

Possible verbal abuse, anxiety and bullying.  Mention and illustrations of undergarments.  Plotting and planning to harm/destroy a magical talking toy.  Practical jokes, threats, lying, deception, back talking, deceit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d use this as a book club selection as it is for younger children than middle school.  But I think it is a fun book to have around the house and classroom for middle grade readers to pick up and chuckle over.

A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

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A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

This middle grades magic realism novel draws you in and pulls on your heartstrings pausing only to offer pointed commentary on friendship, self-awareness, and self acceptance.  Oh sure there were parts that seemed a bit repetitive and parts I had to read again because the continuity was just off enough to have me confused, but the book has power, and especially for a debut novel I was blown away.  Well, actually I was in tears, and thats a pretty strong emotion to be felt in 246 pages, so be impressed.  I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim, she was born in Bahrain and has lived in Kuwait amongst other places.  The main character, Safiya,  experiences her mother’s memories in Kuwait where Eid and the Athan are briefly mentioned and a few characters wear scarves.  There are culture rich Arabic names, but no religion is mentioned outright.  Saff has Christmas money, eats pepperoni, a side character has a boyfriend and they kiss, and there is just a touch of magic to tie it all together.

SYNOPSIS:
Safiya’s parents have been divorced for a few years, and when she chose to live with her dad, her Saturdays became one-on-one time with her mom.  Her mom, Aminah, is a lawyer from Kuwait who can chat with anyone and everyone about anything and everything.  The complete opposite of video game loving Saff who struggles to find her voice, and has nothing in common with her articulate, headstrong, independent, theater loving mother.  The two rarely get along and after a particularly intense fight, Safiya decides to not spend Saturday with her mom, but rather head out with her best friend Elle and new year eight friends at the mall.  When her dad tells her to come home asap, she knows something is up, but could never have imagined how life altering the days events are about to become.

Aminah is in a coma, and Safiya is full of regret and fear.  As she sits next to her mother’s hospital bed and drinks in her perfume, she is drifted to a far away land filled with a crumbling house and a magic like quality.  Approaching this oddity like her favorite video game, she explores her mother’s memories, and finds a girl not so different from herself.  As reality and magic merge in young Saff, she begins to sort through her feelings toward her mother and come to peace with what she has to do and endure and overcome.

In the process of handling her life-changing home situation, Saff, also finds the strength to call out cruel acts from classmates, find her voice, and cut out toxic friendships while cultivating supportive ones.  The journey on both fronts will have readers cheering for Saff while wiping away tears.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the quick pace and rawness of the characters.  Grandma, mom, and Safiya all say and do things they regret while hot and angry and have to learn the consequences and humbling that needs to occur to fix what their words have broken.  No character is completely good, nor completely bad, and in a middle grade book that is powerful. Each one has relatable qualities that really make the book memorable.  

Safiya has to really work out what is going on with her best friend, Elle, and what she is willing to accept and what lines she is not willing to cross.  The character’s maturity is inspiring, and I love it.  She doesn’t fancy boys (yet), and doesn’t see liking boys a sign of maturity.  She doesn’t want it forced on her, and she doesn’t want to give up things that she enjoys just to “fit in.” The fact that she can articulate how Elle is a chameleon blending in to her surroundings where she is just a plain old lizard is wonderful.

I enjoy the magical trips to Kuwait.  They don’t show much of the culture, but what is revealed is lovingly conveyed.  I like that it did acknowledge that Aisha knows Arabic, but struggles a bit to read it.  I would have loved more Arabic words sprinkled in, but at least it accounted for the linguistic abilities as it jumped between countries.  The book is set in England, so some of the concepts or phrases might need a bit of explanation for younger American readers.

I wanted more information about the backstories just beneath the main story line.  How did Safiya’s parents meet? Was the divorce amicable? Did her dad have any family around? How did Aminah leave for England at such a young age alone? How come Saff never visited Kuwait? How come Saff didn’t know about Aminah’s friends? How did the friends take Aminah leaving? Why didn’t they just email her the invitation? Why did they still have it? How did the girls meet in the middle of the night? I know that the book is middle grades, but just a bit more would have helped some of the holes feel shallower, and the overall story details more polished.

FLAGS:

Teasing, death, boyfriend, kissing, illness, verbal fighting. Nothing middle graders can’t handle, although the mom is kind of terrible to Aminah at the beginning.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be an awesome fourth or fifth grade book to read and discuss. I don’t do a book club for that age, nor do I have children in that age group at the moment, but I am planning to suggest it to teacher friends I know.  The book would appeal to boys and girls, but I think girls especially those going through friend dramas and girls butting heads with their moms will really benefit from this quick memorable read.

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

yusufazeem

It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.