Tag Archives: school

Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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This is book two in the series, I couldn’t get the first book from the library, and I wasn’t willing to wait for the one that focuses on Muslim character, Zahra’s story to be published, it could be a few years.  At 224 pages this middle grades book is fairly formulaic with five diverse girls becoming friends, each book featuring one girl’s story with the others serving as supporting characters, and with the tie-in to Disney Princesses, I really didn’t expect much. Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying the characters and their lessons and struggles, sigh.  The book is sweet, the characters like-able, and the author really doesn’t try and force all the characters into every scene.  The book focuses on Piper and the other girls add to her story where it helps, they don’t all have equal time and it doesn’t get confusing because of it.  You can even read the books out of order.  Zahra wears hijab and her Islam is mentioned in a journal entry where she discusses the five pillars, the importance of charity, and getting dirty looks.  There is nothing preachy, but none of the other character’s are defined by their faith and I truly don’t know if I’m bothered by the singling out of Islam being her identity or flattered by it.

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SYNOPSIS:

Five girls are grouped together at school in an advisory class to help prepare them for middle school: Milla, Piper, Ruby, Mariana, and Zahra.  Their advisor loves Disney Princesses and in their weekly journal entries has them write about their assigned Princesses as they explore their similarities and how they would tackle challenges, face fears, and the like.  The girls are diverse in family dynamics, race, religion, ability, etc.  Milla is African American with two moms and food allergies.  Zahra is good at art, Muslim, and likes to sew.  Ruby is a twin, her parents are divorced and she is great at sports.  Mariana is hispanic, and is an amazing swimmer.  Piper is Jewish, has dyslexia and loves to cook.  In the book she is struggling with school, while she excels in her food science creations.  She gets accepted to appear in a kids cooking show competition, but will need the help of her Daring Dreamer friends to prepare for the challenges about to be thrown at her during the competition, and to help her from falling behind in school.

Each girl has their journal entry presented in the book which helps to understand more about the different girls, as well as a little bit of introspection to the events happening in the larger story.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the characters are really supportive, and the lessons aren’t so on the nose.  Piper isn’t just told that she doesn’t have to win the competition to have value, you feel it long before she accepts it herself.  Her personality really comes through and it isn’t for attention or for sympathy, she helps a competitor, there is no giant round of applause or moral reflection, she just helps.  I love that even though the story is Piper’s and her dream, there are larger issues woven in and felt, not necessarily preached. Piper is the middle child and feels she has to prove herself, she remarks on how being pulled out of class in early elementary school to get help has made it hard for her to ask for academic help now, the role of confidence and how charity and giving back is important, even while her own family’s financial situation isn’t clear.  I like the role of Piper’s siblings, they are quirky, but loving, and they work through their annoyances to help each other.  It is heartwarming.

I have my own mixed feelings about Disney Princesses, as a child of the 80’s, the 90’s brought all the glory of Jasmine, and Ariel, and Belle, and Mulan, and my friends and I definitely identified with different characters.  I may or may not have tied my hijab up many a days and claimed that I was Mulan in high school, but somehow with my own daughter I didn’t really bring the Princesses in to her day-to-day existence, I don’t think she has even seen all the movies, we read books (we didn’t even have a tv when she was little), she’s 14 now.  It had become too commercialized, I worried about the messaging more.  This book reminded me of what my friends and I as older “kids” channeled the Disney Princesses to be.  It wasn’t all about pink and sparkles, it was battling the bad guy, hanging on to your dreams, and persevering when things were tough.  This book channels those thoughts, it isn’t in your face Disney, it is more muted, and I appreciate that.  It is a solid middle grade read and I think an enjoyable one at that.

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FLAGS:

In this particular installment, there are no crushes, no holidays, no music, one character has two moms, but in this book, I don’t know that a casual reader would pick up on it. It says “Moms” once, it might be a bigger deal in the story that focuses on Milla, but I haven’t read it to comment.  There is lying and Piper tries to justify it, but I think it is clear and has its own resolution.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It is much too young for a middle school book club, but I think because it is such an easy engaging read, that in a home, or classroom, the book would be appealing to 3rd graders and up.

The author’s website: https://www.erinsoderberg.com/daring-dreamers-club.html

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Beautifully Me by Nabela Noor illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

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Beautifully Me by Nabela Noor illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

beautifullyThis 40 page glowing OWN voice book bursts with body size positivity, Bangladeshi culture, Islamic terminology, diversity, and a beautiful message.  The illustrations and theme alone make the book worth your time and reveal how few body positive books are out there for our early elementary aged children.  That being said, the book might require or benefit from some child led discussion.  If your child is aware of various body shapes including their own, then this book is a great mirror to build them up and as a tool in emphasizing the critical importance of understanding and knowing people are beautiful just as they are.  If your child doesn’t seem to be aware that society views individuals with a larger body size as being a negative, this book might take a little navigating as the theme is more focused on pushing back on fat shaming than it is on accepting all body types.  The book also opens its self up to discussions about pronoun identity, what beauty means, why people tease or be mean to themselves and others, and being aware of how our words affect those around us.

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The family is visibly Muslim with Zubi starting with salaam.  The mom wears hijab and a sari, even at home, Dadi also has her head covered.  Eid is mentioned as a time when a gift was given that is too tight to wear, and worth noting from an Islamic perspective- Zubi’s sister is dieting to look pretty at a school dance.  Bangladesh is represented in the foods and some of the phrases the family says, and the clothing mentioned and depicted in the illustrations.  There is a glossary at the back.

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Zubi is excited for her first day of school, she slides on her dress and shirt her mom had made for her in Bangladesh and her bangles on each arm.  She heads to her parents room to show off her outfit where she finds her mom in a gorgeous yellow sari complaining about her big belly.  At breakfast Dadi has made flaky parathas, but Zubi’s older sister Naya is dieting and would rather have oatmeal. Dad calls the girls to take them to school when his mom asks how come he hasn’t worn the new shirt she got him for Eid.  He embarrassedly admits he has put on some pounds and his size is now a large, not good.

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At school she is having fun and even makes a new friend, but at recess some one yells that Alix looks fat.  Alix is wearing a yellow dress that Zubi thinks is beautiful and doesn’t understand why when they are called fat in it, it comes across as negative. After each incident Zubi mulls over what she is hearing and what it means for her, once she is home though she isn’t quite ready to talk to her family about it.  At dinner, it all hits her as she decides she too shouldn’t eat, that she should be on a diet to be pretty.  She heads off to her room, as her family realizes the impact of their own views and words about themselves, have had on Zubi.  The family works to unpack their own mistakes and be better all while making sure the message to Zubi is that you are beautifully you.

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I like that the book has the dad helping the mom put on her sari, and the dad comes and chats with Zubi about what happened at school.  Mom might be in the medical field, she seems to be wearing a white coat over her sari, which is subtle and impressive that she is going to work in a sari for anyone that has ever tried to wear one and simply get in and out of a car (just me maybe).  I do like that the mom remarks that she should be kind to her body since it housed her daughters.  I think reminding us that bodies serve a miraculous function is important.   I love the diversity in the classroom and how full of life Zubi is in all aspects of her day.   She is proud of her culture, and sees those around her as being bright, kind and funny, not just the shape of their bodies.  Some of her self reflections after an incident do highlight that many kids, including Zubi, don’t see body size as good or bad, its just one’s body.  Hopefully the adults reading the book will also be reminded and realize that is a message worth actively working to maintain, at any age.

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I think some of the criticism about the book not showing healthy food choices, or overall health is that we sometimes expect one book to do it all when there aren’t a lot to chose from.  The book celebrates being beautiful AND being big.  It doesn’t need to address all the societal and adult baggage that comes from food choices, lifestyle, health, judgement, stereotypes, etc.. And I think if you feel really strongly and defensive about it, then focus on pushing for more books, not one book to do it all.  Encourage illustrators to show a variety of body types on the pages of books in young children’s hands as well as by toy makers, cartoons, movies, tv shows, etc..  Body positivity and being confident in yourself, no matter your size, shape, appearance, benefits everyone. Celebrate being beautiful.

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The Great (Food) Bank Heist by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

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The Great (Food) Bank Heist by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

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As an adult setting out to read this book, I imagined that the goal of the book was to bring awareness to a specific issue, food insecurity, and to rally support to help others with this basic need.  The beauty of Muslim author and activist Onjali Q. Rauf, however, is that even with such a clear intent, the storytelling, character building, and  enjoyment of the book makes you connect to the plot and issues and feel the message, not just be told it.  For children seven through 12  with no prior expectation of the book, they will be emotionally effected by the reality shown and feel empathy and compassion for characters that will hopefully translate into their real life.  My 10 and 12 year old boys read the book in about an hour, not realizing what the book was going to be about and hounded me to read it with glowing reviews.  This 103 page middle grades book has diverse characters (none are Muslim), and is a great story, a great educational tool, a great empathy check, and a great resource for how to get involved to start helping food banks, and breakfast clubs, all while being funny, relatable, kind, and engaging.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nelson, his younger sister Ashley, and their Mum work together to make hard “tricky” months manageable.  They are creative with their meals, they go to breakfast club, and they use their vouchers on Thursdays at the food bank.  Some times though, it isn’t enough, Mum has to pawn her jewelry, they go without meals, and generous friends share their snacks.  When the food bank starts running low, Nelson breaks his secrecy about breakfast club and his close friends Krish and Harriet are determined to help figure out why donated food isn’t reaching the bank and what they can do to make sure it does.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows how the family has food insecurities on a day-to-day basis and how never feeling full affects so much of the characters’ attention.  I also love that it shows their mom works, she is a nurse and works really hard, they don’t steal or load up on food that is donated, they are very grateful for all assistance given and their friends don’t judge them.  It shed light on a different narrative that many children perhaps don’t think about: that people they know and are close with, might be hungry.  I think the maturity of the kids is a lesson to adults reading the book too, that reminds us that kindness and assistance doesn’t need to come with judgement or arrogance.  The characters are all really likeable, they aren’t perfect, but even though the book is short, you feel your heart being affected by them in their handling of the mystery and the larger concept of hunger.

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FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would read this book aloud in a classroom (2nd-5th), and if I get a chance to participate in Lunch Bunch (where a book is read to children while they eat their lunch) at our local Islamic School, I will start off with this book.  I think kids have bigger hearts than we often think they do, and while they might not recall the less fortunate when you want them to finish all the food on their plate, they often notice kids without lunches at school and share without prompting.  

Here’s a great clip and reading by the author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVYBLh0kODc

Happy Reading!

 

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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I have been waiting for this book for a really long time: a girl leaves an Islamic school for a public middle school and is not just unapologetic, but proud of who she is and of her religion, all while navigating such a huge life change and the day-to-day stresses of school, family, friends, and life. This is it right, the middle grade 288 page book that holds up the mirror to our own experience as a typical Muslim family in the west, that so many of us have been waiting for? Except, sigh, for me it was just ok. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to seeing mainstream (Scholastic) Muslim protagonists shining and making their salat on time, this book is revolutionary and amazing. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I guess I wanted more than a tweak on Aminah’s Voice. I wanted to relate. I’m not a hafiza, nor do I know many 12 year olds that are. I enjoy boy bands, but have never been asked to join one. Sure the details and her decision to follow Islam the way she understands it is a great message, but it doesn’t clearly appear til nearly the end of the book, and until I got there my brain was constantly finding holes in the narrative, to the point I got out a notebook and started taking notes. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t read the book, and I know I am clearly in the minority here, so brace yourself this is a long review. If you see this at your child’s book fair and you think it looks cute, grab it, it is. I am cynical and jaded and I’m owning it, so perhaps we can agree to disagree, I’m just sad that I didn’t absolutely love it, so hold on, because I’m going to get it all out so that I can move on, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Nimra at her Ameen, a celebration to acknowledge her completion of not just reading the entire Quran, but of memorizing it. Her best friend Jenna, her non Muslim neighbor, is there and as everything is explained to her, the readers learn about Surah Yaseen, becoming a hafiza, and the schooling differences that Nimra and Jenna have had. That night when Jenna is sleeping over and the girls are watching Marvel’s Infiniti War, Nimra’s parents inform Nimra that she will be starting public school and that the two girls will finally be together. The news is big, but Jenna shrugs it off, and Nimra senses that something is off between them. When school starts, Jenna is surprised that Nimra is planning to wear her hijab to school, and this is before they have even left in the morning. The rest of the day: comments by Jenna’s friends, purposefully being excluded at lunch by Jenna, and being overwhelmed with a big school and so many teachers, makes Nimra miss her small three person Islamic school. Additionally she loves art, and is always tucked away in a corner with a sketch pad, her parents, however, have made her take Spanish instead of art class, and the frustration is painful. When she asks the principal for a quiet place to pray, another girl Khadijah pipes up that she can pray in the band room where she does. Khadija and her immediately hit it off, but she has already prayed, so Nimra sets off on her own to find the room. As she is about to start, some music starts, so to tune it out and focus on her salat, she recites aloud. When she exits, three boys are in awe at her vocal abilities: Bilal, Waleed, and Matthew, three Muslim boys. Better known as the middle school celebrity boy band, Barakah Beats, the boys beg her to join them. Nimra says she’ll think about it, but as the days show her and Jenna drifting further apart, being in the band might just be the way to get Jenna to pay attention. Unfortunately, Nimra’s family doesn’t believe Islam allows for musical instruments. She acknowledges that it is controversial, but that her family doesn’t play any instruments, attend concerts, or get up and dance. She figures she can join the band, just long enough to get Jenna’s friendship back on track and then dump the band without having to tell her parents. There is just one giant hiccup, they are planning to perform at a refugee fundraiser, oh and she really likes hanging out with the boys and Bilal’s sister Khadijah.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Had I read this book five maybe seven years ago, I’d be gushing, swooning, but when the author says in the forward that she is showing a girl proudly owning her religion, and essentially daring to be her authentic self, I expect something almost radical, revolutionary even. We are all settling in to seeing our Muslim selves in fiction and acknowledging that we are not a monolith, that we are diverse and flawed and valuable, but this premise felt different somehow, and I really wanted to connect with Nimra and her family, so when I didn’t, it hurt. It isn’t just a main character Muslim POV, or an OWN voice book, it is portrayed as being authentic to those of us that love our faith and don’t feel like we need to tone it down to be American. We are second or third generation American Muslim, we know our deen and this is our country, there is no going back to a homeland or assimilating. The book is about her being true to her self, but I don’t know that I know what she wants or what she believes, aside from her parents. The book addresses intergenerational conflict of power and expectation between her parents and grandparents, but other than for Spanish vs Art class, it seems to skim by the music issue, the main issue of the book. The book expects readers to acknowledge the maturity and voice of a 12 year old girl, but that same expectation isn’t given to the readers of nearly the same age. It glosses over any articulate arguments for why musical instruments are or are not allowed. It mentions that some people feel it is ok if the lyrics are not bad, some say it isn’t ok, that there are disagreements, that there are controversies, but it never explicitly answers, why? And readers are going to notice. I found it incredibly odd, that the music controversy is at the heart of this book, but the safe alternative is art and drawing. Drawing faces is a HUGE point of differing opinions among Muslims, perhaps as big, if not bigger than music. Nimra is always sketching and it mentions that she often is drawing super heroes: people, with faces, and possibly (magic) powers! The whole book she is in the band, and she regrets that she is using it to get back at her friend, but there isn’t a whole lot of internal debate if she thinks music is haram like her parents or it is ok, she just stays in the band, and plots how she will leave it so her parents don’t find out. SPOILER: I like that she ultimately makes the decision that is best for her and leaves the band after fulfilling her commitment, but we never see that, that is what her heart is telling her. There is no self exploration or critical thinking, it is just justifying why she is doing it, and then not doing it.

In terms of character development, only Nimra is really explored, the side characters are all pretty flat. Jenna gets some depth, but not much. I mean, how does Nimra’s best friend and neighbor who comes over every day after school not know that she has been working on memorizing the Quran? Not know how to dress at a religious themed celebration, a halter dress, really? Jenna is never shown to be a good friend, or even a nice person, the tone around her is negative from the start. We are told she is a good friend, but we never see it. The conversation about Nimra wearing hijab to school is like two lines, but is made to be a much bigger issue in Nimra’s head as she feels things haven’t been right since then. But, I’m not buying it. The girls go to movies, they go shopping, and she wears hijab, so why would school be so different? All of Jenna’s friends know about Nimra, so she can’t really be that embarrassed by Nimra’s scarf if they go out when she is wearing it and none of the other classmates seem surprised. I also felt off with the portrayal of the character because we so fervently believe that often the best dawah or even method to break down stereotypes and bigotry is to get to know some one personally. Jenna knows all of Nimra’s family and has for nearly her whole life, and she is so hateful and clueless to everything Islam? It is a stretch, the family prays, fasts, dresses Islamically, cares for her, feeds her cultural food, yet she is oblivious to it all. I get that her hate or lack of interest is probably reflective of how a lot of our neighbors are, but there aren’t many non Muslims in this book, and that portrayal is going to linger heavily for young readers.

Nimra is likeable enough on the surface, but the more you think about her, she isn’t really any different than those she is hurt by. She is mad when Julie assumes she doesn’t speak English, but she assumes Matthew isn’t Muslim because he is white. She checks her self in other ways, but this one seems to slip by. Other inconsistencies I noticed are when the first day of school teachers are really mean to her, but then it is never mentioned again. I wanted to know did they keep at it, did she prove them wrong? It was built up and then just abandoned. At her old school there were two other girls doing hifz, but when she meets up with one at Saturday school it seems they both are no longer at the school either. Did they graduate? Did they abandon it? Her Quran teacher comes to see her perform a song, perhaps a little understanding about her point of view in addition to the other Muslim’s in the band would have helped explain the why music is controversial in Islam. Also, does and would ADAMS allow music at an event? I’m genuinely curious. I even tried to Google it. Most masjids probably wouldn’t, but maybe a community center would. Readers are going to be so confused why Nimra is so stressed when the religious teacher and the place of worship are fine with it.

The friends as boys thing is sweet, but a little surprising, having three boys come over to hang out and watch a movie, high fiving them, sure it isn’t shocking, but its a bit inconsistent given the narrative. Plus, Nimra trying to help hook Waleed and Julie up? For as much as the book doesn’t want to sell itself out, little acts like this without a little hesitation or comment or introspection, kind of make it seem like its trying to normalize non Islamic acts as being ok.

I love the pop culture Marvel references, The Greatest Showman songs and the shoutout to Amal Unbound. I even loved the Deen Squad remixes getting acknowledged, but it made me wonder if all the songs of Barakah Beats are Islamic themed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it would be interesting to know since the entire school adores the band, even asking for autographs at one point.

FLAGS:

Nothing a third grader and up couldn’t handle: music, art, lying, bullying, talking about crushes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’d pass on the book as a middle school book club option, as it really is a middle grades read, and the thematic issues brought up for discussion are better found elsewhere. If I had an in person classroom, however, I would have the book on my shelf, it is a quick short read, that I think might encourage a discussion on music to take place, or at least allow readers to see a proud Muslim doing well in different environments.

Huda and Me by H. Hayek

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Huda and Me by H. Hayek

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At 194 pages, this book just became required reading for all my children save the two year old.  Meant for middle graders, I absolutely loved this book.  Sure literary siblings often run away and have adventures, think Claudia and Jamie Kincaid from Mixed Up Files, or the sisters in Ticket to India, but this Australian Muslim duo adore each other and are doing it to reach their parents and save their other five siblings from an evil Aunty babysitter.  In some ways the book couldn’t and hopefully wouldn’t really happen, it is plausible however, and the way it is written bouncing back and forth in time until the resolution, and the absolute authenticity of the characters make the book hard to put down and had me laughing out loud.  The book is for everyone, Muslim kids specifically though, will feel an incredible kinship to the Muslim family and relate to the anxiety of making wudu in a public restroom, the shock of having the athan clock tossed in the freezer, the nervous looks between siblings hoping someone else will speak up about what Muslims can’t eat, mistaking a nun for a hijabi, amongst so many other little sprinkled in examples.  The power of OWN voice writing is exemplified and celebrated, and provides a mirror that a large swath of Muslims children, not just Lebanese Australians will benefit from and enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

There are seven children in the family and when Mum and Dad announce that they have to make an emergency trip to Lebanon, the kids don’t understand why they need Mum’s friend Aunt Amel to stay with them in Australia.  They don’t really even like Aunt Amel, but they don’t really know her either and as their parents leave, they have no choice but to endure until their parents return.  When Aunt Amel assigns them all duties: 17 year old Omar is the 24/7 chauffeur, Kholoud becomes her personal stylist, twins Suha and Layla must keep her supplied with baked goods and tea, Akeal is the butler, Huda is the maid and little Raheed will be glued to her, some of the kids think it could be fun until they realize they are being used to provide Aunt Amel with a holiday in exchange for her staying with them. The kids are required to be up by five in the morning, are not allowed to talk to their parents, and some are even kept from school to provide the services Aunt Amel demands.  The kids grudgingly try to endure, but spunky Huda is pushing back, and with the help of the retired Polish Sleep Doctor next door, a plan is hatched, tickets are booked, and Akeal and Huda are making a run for Beirut. Along the way they will be met with an Islamaphobic teen pulling off Huda’s scarf, a variety of minders keeping track of the unaccompanied minors through airports and plane rides, and baited breath as they have obstacles at every step to find their parents in a country they have never even been to before.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is incredibly well written, I sometimes stumble a bit with Australian authored books, but this one was easy and universal in most of the dialogue and vocabulary. I enjoyed what was sprinkled in, and as a privileged American didn’t get lost at any point.  The shifts in the timeline to keep the story fast paced and moving also made the stress of “if they could pull off the escape” a little bit subdued allowing the experience and dialogue and connections along the way to really be enjoyed.  I think it was a smart move to not have it be full steam ahead, gritting your teeth, but more in the moment seeing why they had to do what they did, and how it was panning out for them.

I absolutely love that the family is unapologetically Muslim living in a western environment.  They don’t celebrate birthdays, but they seem ok with make-up, they pray, the mom wears hijab I believe, but I don’t think the sisters do, it really is such a relatable family with their own quirks and tests and they are active and doing their best.  It could be my family or most families I know, well lately my kids bicker a lot, that’s why it is required reading for them, but that is off track.  Back to the book, I was so proud of Akeal sticking up for his little sister wearing a scarf to be dressed up and not backing down from confronting her harasser.  I love the spunkiness but maturity of Huda.  From page one you are cheering them on, and it doesn’t let up.

FLAGS:

Kids scheming and lying and running away, all for good cause mind you.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be super fun to read aloud to a 3rd or 4th grade class, but I don’t think it would work for a middle school book club, it is just too quick of a read.

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.

I Can Help by Reem Faruqi illustrated by Mikela Prevost

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I Can Help by Reem Faruqi illustrated by Mikela Prevost

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This 44 page early elementary book is absolutely beautiful: the message, the relatability, the representation, the heartfelt author note.  Reem Faruqi is brilliant.  Once again she takes something so personal to her and allows the readers to see pieces of themselves in her OWN voice narrative.  This book at it’s core is about peer pressure, but the way it stays with the reader will resonates deeply and powerfully.  Readers will remember the choice Zahra made and the way it changed not only her relationship with Kyle, but also her own view of herself, while forgetting the names of the classmates that teased her and made her question herself.  It is not the outside reprimanding that gives this book it’s strength, but the guilty conscious that such a young character has to come to terms with as she moves forward.

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There are 18 kids in Zahra’s class in early fall, when the leaves are about to be the color of Nana’s spices.  One of the kids is Kyle.  Kyle often needs a helper, and Zahra is happy to help him with his cutting and gluing and writing.  The two have become friends.  Kyle is funny and nice and shares his cookies.

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Zahra also likes the praise she gets for being such a good helper.  One day when the leaves have darkened, Zahra is climbing a tree and hears some of the girls making fun of Kyle.  She doesn’t want to listen, but her ears want to hear.  When she comes down, they ask her why she helps him.  She doesn’t really know.

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When she is helping him later, she sees the girls staring at her, and she snaps at Kyle.  The next day Ahmed helps Kyle instead.  Zahra misses being around Kyle, but he says that she is mean and he doesn’t know her any more.  Zahra doesn’t know herself any more either.

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The next year finds Zahra at a new school, and when the opportunity presents itself for her to help someone, she jumps to offer herself as a helper remembering Kyle and finding her voice, one that she recognizes.

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The book is inspired by the author’s own experience, and the rawness and relatability shines through.  The illustrator also relates to the book and needing help with physical limitations.  There is nothing overtly religious or cultural other than the mention of the spices, Zahra’s and Ahmed’s names, and the term for Zahra’s grandfather.  The diverse kids in the classroom and the universal messaging make this book a must read for every kid and big person.  Be kind, always be kind.

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The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

nadia

This middle grades AR 4.5 OWN voice book by Muslim author/comedian/surgeon/activists Bassem Youssef mixes text, comic strips, and illustrations over 166 pages to tell a story about ancient Egypt, friendship, leadership, xenophobia, and life sprinkled with magic.  It has a lot of potential, and I liked the lessons that Egyptian-American Nadia learns, but it just seemed lacking to me.  It seems to be book one in a series, and in many ways it reads like an introduction.  The magical element is underdeveloped to me and often just annoying.  The micro aggressions,  racism, and character’s ages would suggest upper middle grader readers would gravitate toward the book, but the overall writing style and length would more appeal to younger readers.  This disconnect makes the book hard to pin down and hard to connect with.  I’ll definitely check out future books in the series even though no religion is mentioned, because this brown girl has a lot of potential to break down Arab-American stereotypes and empower readers to be proud of where they and their families are from as universal obstacles are worked through.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nadia has just come back from a summer vacation visiting family and friends in Egypt and can’t wait to get ice cream with her best friend Adam.  She picked up an Egyptian comic book for him and is anxious to see if he likes it.  Except the comic book seems to have disappeared and when she asks her many bobble heads to help her find it, her necklace with a hippo amulet starts to glow and an ancient Egyptian teacher, Titi, starts talking to her from the now found comic book pages.  As Nadia figures out how to control this ancient man who lives around her neck and in papers around her, she also has to deal with a new kid that acts like a bully and has the admiration of her best friend Adam.  Nadia loves facts and her and her friends call themselves the Nerd Patrol.  Nadia can be a bit bossy though, and while usually her friends let it go, she seems to be stepping on toes lately, especially with Adam.  When a competition at school is announced that will result in an exhibit at the Museum of American History, Nadia will have to use her “genie” to get help coming up with ideas for her display, coping with a bully, restoring friendships, and learning how to be a leader before her friendships fall apart.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nadia is so proud of her culture and doesn’t feel like she has to pick one of her hyphens over another.  She brings Egyptian food for lunch, wears Egyptian inspired clothing, and is still very “American” as well.  Ancient Egyptian tidbits as well as modern day Egyptian information seeps through and weaves into the story smoothly.  The  diverse side characters are also a plus.  I think her trying to handle the bully in multiple ways makes the story resonate with other kids and gives readers something to ponder over.  I worry that most readers, however, won’t know who Elvis Presley is, or get if Titi is really helping or not and how it all comes together for him.  I am curious to see if he is a major character in future books, because I still have a lot of questions about his knowledge and understanding of the world after being trapped in an amulet for so long. Really, she could have learned so much from him, she just scratched the surface.

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FLAGS:

There is teasing and bullying and racism, subtle and overt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short and superficial for a middle school book club selection, but it could be a fun read aloud in a 3rd or 4th grade class.

Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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The author of this wonderful middle grades novel reached out to me after I reviewed her book A Galaxy of Sea Stars, to let me know that this book too has a Muslim character.  As we exchanged emails back and fourth I learned more about her work with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven Connecticut (IRIS), and the impact the people she has met there have on her and her writing (the new paperback version of Galaxy has bonus content that reflects this).  Allies and advocates are gifts for Muslims and for our fictional representation.  The details and warmth of her Muslim character, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, is seamless and accurate, and while this is not his story, his support of the main character helps normalize Muslims as friends and in daily life.  He takes time out for his five daily prayers, he refuses to shake a female’s hand, and he uses the word inshaAllah.  The story is Ruby’s though, and her journey pulls you in from the first chapter and leaves you cheering for her long after you close the book.  Over 295 pages (AR 4.1) you witness Ruby find her voice, dare to not be invisible, accept friendship, and help others.   

SYNOPSIS:

Ruby has just moved to frozen Vermont from their last “forever home” in Florida.  Originally from D.C., Ruby and her mom have been moving to places they have vacationed to try and find joy.  Since Ruby’s father, a police officer, died, the two of them have been broken and barely surviving.  The only constant is a cousin, Cecy, who helps them out and convinces Ruby’s mom to come back to her childhood town of Fortin, and to be closer to her.  The winter is bitter, the house is freezing, and even with Cecy arranging for Ruby’s mom to have a job, it only takes a day for Ruby’s mom to be arrested, fired, and for Ruby to be on her own.  With only a garbage bag full of belongings, and some thrift store finds for warmth, Ruby’s plan is the same as it has been in every other town they have landed in: keep her head down and be invisible.  Ruby’s dog, Bob, though has other plans, and when he takes off into a neighbor’s yard filled with ‘No Trespassing’ signs a meeting with Abigail takes place that will change Ruby.

Abigail Jacobs is known in Fortin as the “Bird Lady.”  She has a home, but lives in a shed on her property, dresses in layers of scraps and scarves, feeds the birds, and keeps to herself.  The rumor is that she killed her husband and daughter, everyone knows it, it could just never be proven.  There are also stories that she has a moon rock.  When Ruby meets her she is angry and cold, but the way she interacts with the animals and her knowledge of the moon, keeps her intrigued and even though Ruby’s mom forbids her from visiting Abigail, Ruby and her develop a friendship of sorts.

At school Ruby’s plan to go unnoticed is challenged by Ahmad Saleem, a refugee who lives with his uncle a grocery store owner and is teased by a few classmates for his accent and disappearances at lunch time when he goes to pray.  He is kind and and determined to help Ruby and immediately declares her his friend.  Ruby tries to avoid him, but eventually he starts to win her over.  With the upcoming wax museum, a Fortin favorite, drawing near, Ruby tries to explain to her teacher that they will be leaving back to D.C. before the final presentation, but Mr. Andrews isn’t letting her off and somehow she finds herself researching Michael Collins, the astronaut that stayed on the space shuttle alone to circle the dark side of the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic walk. 

With the mayor singling out Abigail with his new ordinances, Ruby’s mom deciding not to take the plea deal and fight her case at trail, the short cold days, the desire to return to D.C., the wax museum approaching, and Ruby needing answers, Ruby at some point will have to stand up and speak out.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story unfolds in layers.  You don’t know where it is going, but the slow peeling away shows the complexity of people and situations.  The book doesn’t shy away from confronting stereotypes and looking beyond appearances.  I like that there is some discussion of Islamophobia, when Ahmad is overheard speaking Arabic for example, but the character that needs the most standing-up for is an elderly white woman.  The small pivot allows the book to avoid a familiar theme and shows the reader a Muslim shop owner helping the tattered woman that the town fears and resents. I enjoyed the strong reminder of how women and science and their careers have not been widely accepted until recently.  I think many readers will be surprised that much of Abigail’s rumors stem from her being a brilliant educated woman that society struggled to respect then and now.  I absolutely love the science and space aspects that bring Ruby Moon, her neighbor, and her class project together.

I wish there was a little bit more about her mom and her relationship at the end.  The disconnect in their relationship warranted the sparse information in the majority of the story, but I needed some hope for the two of them.  Same for the relationship with Cecy.  I get that Ruby doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom’s cousin, but as Ruby grew in so many ways, I wish that her appreciation of what Cecy has done for her and her mom would have also been realized in some capacity.

FLAGS:

Ruby being dishonest. Death, injury of a pet, physical assault, bullying, teasing, Islamophobia.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t focus an entire book club on this book, but I think it would be a great addition to a summer reading list.  The insight into a character trying to find herself within her own family and experiences with connections to history and science would be a benefit to any child to read and reflect upon.