Tag Archives: series

Mr. Grizzley’s Class: Rahma’s Gift by Bryan Patrick Avery illustrated by Arief Putra

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Mr. Grizzley’s Class: Rahma’s Gift by Bryan Patrick Avery illustrated by Arief Putra

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This 32 page early reader is part of Mr. Grizzley’s class, a series that sets out to help promote social and emotional skills in real life settings for ages five to seven.  The diverse class is featured in all the books with one student being the focus of each individual book.  This book highlights Rahma, a visibly Muslim girl of color, who has a gift of helping others with their problems.  The richly illustrated story shows what happens when she is having troubles with a friend, and what Mr. Grizzley and fellow classmates can do to help her find a solution.  I like the premise, I like the focus, I like the illustrations, but I did not understand the messaging.  I don’t understand why Rahma had to own the entire apology.  Sure, friendship is more important than a small misunderstanding and moving on by saying your sorry, even when it isn’t all your fault, has merit- but the book doesn’t take all that in to consideration.  It has Rahma taking responsibility for Madison not talking to her, Madison misinterpreting something Rahma did and getting jealous, and Rahma owning all the lacking communication, when clearly both of them failed to do so.  I found myself confused reading the book the first time, clearly I must have missed something, right? No.  And now writing this, I’m actually quite upset.  So, while the idea of the book and series might be sweet, I don’t feel like this particular book was well executed.  I have not read any others in the series, and thankfully checked this out from the library.  There is nothing particularly Islamic or religious in the book other than the hijab Rahma wears.

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The book starts out with Rahma nearly late for class because she was helping other kids resolve an argument.  It is a gift of Rahma’s to help others work out their problems.  When she tries to tell her best friend Madison about it, Madison doesn’t respond.  When Rahma tries again, Madison says, “I’m not speaking to you.”

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As a result when they pair up for math, Rahma works with Annie.  She tells Annie she isn’t working with Madison because she is mad at Madison for not speaking with her. Annie prods a bit and Rahma says, “I’m not talking to her if she won’t talk to me.”  Annie encourages Rahma to find out what is wrong.

Mr. Grizzley is then told, and he also tells her to find a way to find out why she is mad. At recess, Chad comes to thank Rahma for helping him and Ashok, and when she tells him her problem he gives her, her advice back, “listen to the other person.”

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Rahma definitely is in a pickle since Madison won’t talk to her, but with incredible maturity she tells Madison she doesn’t know what she did to make her angry, but she is sorry that she feels bad.  Madison caves and tells her she is jealous because Rahma made a necklace for Semira and she understood it to mean that because she didn’t make one for her, she didn’t want to be her best friend any more.  Semira and Rahma explain that Semira’s dog was sick and she was sad, so Rahma made it for Semira to cheer her up. The girls hug and all is well.

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The book concludes with directions on how to write an apology letter, a glossary, questions to talk about, and prompts to write about.

I loved Rahma’s phrasing of her verbal apology and wish that would have been the focus of the book: how to take someone’s feelings in to account even if you don’t know how you contributed or even if you feel you did not do something wrong.  As it is written with the two page spread at the end on how to write an apology note though, I feel like Rahma took on a lot of the blame unnecessarily.  I know I’m reading in to it a lot, but I don’t like the vibes that the book gives.  Madison in my opinion was in the wrong multiple times throughout, and Rahma each time took ownership and worked through it.  Yes, truly that is a gift, but I really hope people don’t take advantage of Rahma in the future.

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Must Love Pets: Friends Fur-Ever by Saadia Faruqi

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Must Love Pets: Friends Fur-Ever by Saadia Faruqi

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This 208 middle grade novel by a Muslim author features a desi family and the protagonist’s love of pets.  Iman Bashir is on summer break and is determined to convince her mom and grandfather that she is responsible enough for a pet dog.  The internal realization of selfishness, her ability to problem solve, be a good friend, and know the limits around her, keep the story from being whiny and annoying.  The writing is superb and the characters relatable.  I wish there was a bit more Pakistani culture, or some indication of the characters faith (there is one Salaam), not because all books need it, but rather because it almost seems that text goes out of its way to not contain it.  The story is clean and the first in a series that I think most kids will enjoy. The father in the story has passed away and at times Iman struggles with sharing her thoughts on him, I don’t think it would be triggering, it is subtle and adds depth to the story, but it is worth noting incase it hits too close to home.

SYNOPSIS:

Iman has been begging, or rather asking her mom for a dog at every chance she can get, but after 43 rejections she is thinking she needs a new plan.  When she meets the new neighbor, Olivia, who is the same age as her and her best friend London, an idea is hatched to start a pet sitting business.  Iman’s mom is always stressing how important it is to help others after all.  Opportunity strikes when Sir Teddy’s owner has to rush out of town, the girls offer their services to watch the beloved dog.  But how do you share caring for a dog at three different houses? How do you let your parents know what you have committed to? What do you do when your brother is allergic to dogs, or you have a cat that doesn’t like dogs, or your house is still in boxes? What do you do when your first customer goes missing?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the side stories the best: the grief of losing a parent, the Dada Jee and his lemons, the soccer team helping search for the missing dog.  The story itself is fine, albeit predictable on the surface.  Where it really shines is in the point of view of Iman.  I love that her internal dialogue knows that she is being selfish, that she is being a bad friend, but that she is still feeling these very real feelings adds depth to the book, character, and plot.

I like that the mom is a strong single mom, and I hope that as more books in the series are written we get to see some emotional unpacking and connection between her and Iman.  I do like that the meaning of Iman’s name is explained in Arabic, and desi foods are featured, but I couldn’t help but feel that the writing would set up for something more, and then abruptly pull back.  There really is no explanation about why Dada Jee doesn’t like dogs other than saying in Pakistan they aren’t allowed in the house.  So finish the though, face palm, they are not let in because religiously which has influenced culture- dogs are generally not brought inside, it is a bit of a contentious point.  I get because Muslims feel differently about dogs it was probably kept out, but she is a talented writer, she could have still acknowledged the hole in the rationale without committing to a side.  Sure in my Islamic School Librarian head, I would have loved the characters taking their shoes off when they enter the house, eating halal, and pausing to pray, but I accept that isn’t the story.  At times though it didn’t feel OWN voice, it felt very watered down on the cultural rep and it makes me wonder why it was really included at all.

FLAGS:

Clean.  Loss of a parent.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This is a solid MG book and would be a great addition on a school or classroom library shelf.

Ali and the Gladiators by Farheen Khan illustrated by Evgeniya Erokhina (Ali Series Book #1)

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Ali and the Gladiators by Farheen Khan illustrated by Evgeniya Erokhina (Ali Series Book #1)

This new early chapter book series from Ruqaya’s Bookshelf comes as a boxed set (Books 1-5), so I wasn’t sure if I should review all of them as a collection, or just the first book.  I don’t typically review additional books in a series, but these books can be read out of order and stand alone just fine.  Ultimately, I’m just going to review the first book, but know the entire series is silly, clean and engaging for ages 7 and up (2nd grade will love these), they will connect with boys, girls, Muslims, non Muslims, and get readers of all ages smiling, if not laughing, at Ali’s outrageous adventures and choices.  Ali is presumably Muslim, the author is Muslim, the publisher is Muslim, but there is nothing religious at all in the text.  Even the one about Eid is very culture framed, not “I’m Muslim and this is what we do and why,” so to speak.  In Ali and the Gladiator there is a friend named Abdullah, his parents are referred to as Mama and Baba, they eat at Moe’s Shawarma Shop, and eat daal and roti at home, so there are hints of culture and religion that will further mirror a Muslim reader’s experience, but the focus is on the hilarious situations that Ali finds himself getting in to and out of with good friends, kindness, enthusiasm, and bravery.  All the books are about 60 pages long with short chapters, detailed pencil style drawings every few pages, inviting text, and an activity at the end.

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SYNOPSIS:

Ali really wants to impress his teacher, Mr. O’Reilly and a big project on Rome will be a great opportunity to do so, but he isn’t anxious to get started.  He has his April Party to prepare for, his friends to hang out with, and plus he knows he works best under pressure.  When he finally realizes he should get started, all the books on Rome are checked out, save a small book on the floor, yes Ali is on the floor in the library.  The book is about how to become a gladiator and that gives Ali an idea.  As his imagination works out the details he is off to his favorite store, the hardware store.  He has weapons to make and actors to train, and beasts to tame.  The assignment is supposed to be written, but Ali is extra and he does not want to be boring.  When he raises his hand to go first in the presentation, Mr. O’Reilly is confused, no one is presenting, they are just handing in their reports, but when gladiators and a “ferocious” cat enter the room, it is clear that Ali has his own way of doing most everything.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is fun and well written.  The characters grow and the writing and descriptions smooth, the illustrations add detail and the books are perfectly silly for their intended audience.  So many books for this demographic resort to brattiness or potty humor, and I love that these are outrageous shenanigans, but they don’t cross into being obnoxious

I do wish there was more Islam in the books, or really any.  It doesn’t need to be Islam centered of preachy, but to add a bit of depth to the characters and flesh out their backgrounds would have been nice.  The desi foods are included, why not mention halal or toss in some inshaAllahs or that Ali gets to work on his weapons after fajr.

I absolutely love the presentation of all five books in a hard glossy case.  They look lovely on a shelf and would make wonderful gifts for Eid, or any time really.

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FLAGS:

none

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I hope to have these in our school library, and encourage the 2nd and 3rd grade teacher to look in to having them on their classroom shelves.  Kids will be tempted to pick them up off the shelf, they will thumb through them and be drawn in, inshaAllah once they read one, they will read the whole series, and if that isn’t praise for a book series, I don’t know what is. Happy Reading!

My First Book About Ramadan: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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My First Book About Ramadan: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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Once again, Sara Khan pushes the standard of what can be conveyed and presented in a toddler board book.  This book on Ramadan not only introduces concepts of the blessed month to our littles Muslims, but also provides details that will allow the book to stay relevant even as a child grows.  The soft, yet colorful pages allow the book to be engaging and attention holding for ages 2 and up, and provides a great way to get young children looking forward to Ramadan, as well as be read repeatedly during the month.  The 26 thick pages have a facts and questions about Ramadan at the end which make the book shareable with non Muslims and the many shapes, colors, cultures, and ages that make up our Muslim communities fill the pages that radiate with joy and love.

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The book starts out expressing the excitement of Ramadan, the new moon, and the anticipation.  It then talks about how Allah swt wants us to fast from dawn until sunset.  It mentions the five pillars, and fasting in Ramadan being one of them, and what it means to fast.

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It focuses on doing good deeds to make Allah swt happy.  It also dedicates a two page spread to showing who doesn’t have to fast, which answers that inevitably next question that people ask.  The book then says that even if you aren’t fasting, there are still blessings everyone enjoys in the month and spends a few pages detailing those activities and acts of worship.

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It mentions that Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an and that Laylat al-Qadr is the night of power, but doesn’t give much detail about either. Eid is celebrated at the end and a dua is made referencing a hadith in Bukhari about entering through the gate of Ar-Rayyan.

I love that the book’s tone is that this is what Allah swt wants us to do, and this is what makes Him happy.  Even with numerous Ramadan books out there, this one still manages to find a way to be unique, and truly the entire series is enjoyable and beneficial, alhumdulillah.

 

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.

The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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I was kind of surprised how well done this YA culture rich 350 page romance story was in holding my attention.  I don’t know that I had any expectations, but I was genuinely engaged in the growth of the protagonist as she began to emerge from her naive political state, and I look forward to some resolution from the cliffhanger conclusion of this the first book in the Marghazar Trials series.  The characters are practicing Muslims who pray and mention Allah swt regularly, they also acknowledge when they make extreme departures from basic Islamic tenants such as drinking, dancing, murdering, exhibiting racist attitudes, and mixing freely with the opposite gender.  It doesn’t stop any of the characters from behaving as they wish, but at least it is noted. The Urdu words and Pakistani setting in this fictional reimagining is filled with warmth and love, and while there are some steamy scenes and outright cruelties, I think 15 year olds and up can handle the contents, and recognize the suspension of reality and moral laxities for the sake of telling a story.

SYNOPSIS:

The book makes clear from the onset that “In the very olden time, there lived a semi-barbaric king. . . This is not his story.” This is the story of 18 year old Durkhanai, an orphaned princess raised by her grandparents, the King and Queen of Marghazar.  Marghazar is a prosperous country that is waging war on two fronts and does not let outsiders in, ever.  When the book begins it is doing so begrudgingly to avoid war with the neighboring districts that are working to unify and have recently been attacked.  With ambassadors arriving to determine the guilt or innocence of the one district unaffected by the terrorist attacks, the foreigners are seeing the inner workings of the kingdom for the first time.  All the ambassadors are females of various ages and experience, save the one from Jardum.  Asfandyar is young, dark, and handsome, and immediately discriminated against by the Badshah for his complexion.  Additionally Shehzadi has been warned by many to stay away from Asfandyar, which naturally makes him a great character for her to be swept away by.  She holds out for a while, but with her people mysteriously getting ill, her betrothed melting in to the background, and cracks in her country making themselves obvious, Durkhanai will find herself struggling to understand her heart, her country, her family, and her future, and with the cliff hanger ending, no simple answers will be given to her, or the reader.

WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that there is a map at the beginning, and lots of supplemental offerings at the end.  There are a lot of Urdu words and phrases and while I am moving away from feeling like all OWN voice books need to include glossaries, I think non Desi readers will be appreciative in this particular book to have one available.  For someone with some knowledge of the language the inclusion of the titles and relations and phrases between the languages is expertly done and delightful. There is also an author Q & A, as well as reader discussion questions.  There is a content warning at the beginning alerting the readers to physical and sexual assault as well as racist behavior and language and makes clear that it is contained to the characters and the story and is not the reflection of the author and publisher.  I like that it is there, and I like that the princess makes a stance against the racism and the sexual assault that she witnesses.

The high school girls at our Islamic School are always wanting “halal” romance books.  Ok so really they just want romance books, but I try and keep their pickings halal, and so I am forever reading these books trying to find new titles to recommend.  The book is very 1990s Bollywood in terms of romance flags.  There is a lot of proximity and caressing of necks and longing, and familiar obligation.  There is some snuggling and kissing, so maybe 2000s Bollywood, but the characters thus far don’t cross “that” line.

I really appreciated that Durkhanai was fleshed out and relatable.  Even though the setting is long ago, and the genre is romance, she didn’t wait to be rescued, even when she was hurting or pining, she was still maintaining her obligations and moving forward.  I also love that it showed some depth to her emotions.  She recognized that Asfandyar would let her speak and would show his support by being there, but he pushed back on her and challenged her too.  Rashid on the other hand would speak for Durkhanai and would fawn over her in a very superficial way almost.  Sure neither relationship was ideal, but from her perspective at least she was able to see how various presentations made her feel.

I was a little lost in some places, but I was reading quick and had distractions so I’m not entirely sure if it is my carelessness or plot holes or if gaps will be filled in future books.  I needed more reasoning though, for why Durkhanai’s cousins, Zarmina and Saifullah, truly hated Asfandyar as much as they did, or what exactly Saifullah was plotting and how it connected to ratting out the princess.  For all that is seemingly going on, the Badshah and Wali always seem available to chat and are often just lounging around.  I know it is not their story, but the negotiations, the plotting, everything seems to be done very slowly and could really use some fleshing out to show some depth to the side characters.  Other than a few voices, the side details are lacking.

FLAGS:
Lying, killing, racism, sexual assault, physical assault, plotting, murder, kissing, manipulation, touching, caressing, sneaking around, theft, cruelty, cursing, romance.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is not an Islamic story or even a moral one, it is entertainment and it could possibly be used for a book club if the participants relish in these kind of books, but it probably wouldn’t have wide enough appeal and would alienate nearly all the boys from joining.

This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

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At 512 pages this teen/YA fantasy book immerses you in the lives of two characters pitted against one another that are inevitably, drawn to each other.  The world building is slow, as it seems to spend more time character building and shaping the magical Jinn filled world around the characters, through their eyes, and their interactions, than simply building a world, and then dropping characters in it.  It never seems to drag, but the rising action is not concluded, it in fact ends on a cliff hanger raising the expectation for the next book in the series to take the story toward more action, emotion, and twists.  I absolutely love and applaud the author’s note that articulates and clarifies that this book is not religious in nature and that threads of Islam and Persian culture are just reference points for this completely fictionalized tale.  There is a passionate kiss, and violence, but this book is remarkably clean and an enjoyable read for ages 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The story opens with Alizeh sitting by the fire sewing.  She is freezing, she is always freezing, she is a Jinn, but her veins are ice.  Completely alone, she is working as a maid, but as she is on probation, she lodges in a tiny closet away from the other service members, and is deathly afraid of the dark.  Her loving parents raised her and nourished her, she is educated and strong, but since their deaths she has been on the run, trying simply to survive in a world where Clays forbid Jinn from using their magic.  Alizeh is no ordinary Jinn though, the earth has chosen her to be the future Queen, her ever-changing eyes prove it, but for now, she has no kingdom, no family, no friends, no hope to lead.  Only cryptic riddles given to her by Iblees that she dreads and fears, but warn her of impending dangers.

Kamran is the second storyline that builds the world of Ardunia.  As the crown prince, and future king, he has returned from touring the country and has had his eyes opened to the forces threatening the empire, the inevitable war that is looming, and the shortage of resources that threaten them all.  He is irritable and brooding and acting out of character when he intervenes in an altercation in the streets between a servant girl and a young boy.  This sets off a series of events that will bring Alizeh and Kamran into direct conflict as their worlds intertwine and their passions build.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the clarification at the beginning, stating that this is not Islamic and that religious and cultural inspiration was just that, inspiration. It allowed me to get comfortable and enjoy the tale for what it is.  I wasn’t worried about checking things, or worrying about religious impressions and accuracy, it was so freeing, thank you.  I really hope that there is a map in the final physical copy, because I just really like maps.  I liked the Persian numbers and script on the chapters and the references make the book that much richer and fleshed out.

I am admittedly fairly new to fantasy, so I enjoyed the slower pace and character building.  I found it enveloping and smooth, there were small conflicts, but the subtle world building through understanding the characters, and their perspectives, was a nice framing for a story that very easily could have dragged, but in reality flew by.  The only point that I found unrefined, was how much Alizeh knew of her past and the impact it had on her current situation.  There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect in teasing that thread.  The reader knows who she is, so I’m not sure why she seems to not know, and then proves that she does, there is no subtlety in that regard.  And the only character, that seemed underdeveloped was that of Hazan, his banter with the Kamran grated on my nerves, and I didn’t understand the abruptness of his and Alizeh’s relationship, it seemed forced.  Nearly everything else in the book was very organic and gently referenced and established very deliberately, but it almost seemed like I missed a chapter or two, when all of a sudden Hazan emerges as being such a main character in Alizeh’s life.  Undoubtedly it was a surprise for the reader, but some nuance in the revelation through Alizeh’s eyes, would have assisted in the continuity of the character and tone of the book.

FLAGS:
A kiss, and attraction, talk of illegitimate children.  There is killing and violence, attempted assault: physical and sexual, not detailed, but referenced as a fear as she walks alone at night.  There is darkness and talk of the devil, deceit, lying, plotting.  Nothing an early teen could not handle.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would have to delay deciding if I could do this as a book club selection until I read the next book.  There is so much potential, that I truly hope that I can introduce the series to young readers to enjoy, get lost in, and discuss.

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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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!

Ramadan by Mari Schuh

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Ramadan by Mari Schuh

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This 16 page holiday book is one in a series of six.  It keeps the text simple, the images bright and inviting, and turns the pages in to a search and find activity to increase time spent with the material.  The information is accurate and basic, there is nothing wrong (phew) with this recent addition to the very crowded nonfiction holiday book field.  In fact I appreciate that dates are explained and that the food looks tempting even if non Muslim children aren’t familiar with the dishes.  It shows a child in sajood and explains that he is praying. The realistic pictures show smiling faces and Muslim kids will feel represented. Non Muslim readers will become familiar with Ramadan as a time of fasting, the Quran, and prayer.

The pictures to look for are given at the beginning and again at the end with the “answers.” The limited pages have very minimal text.  The first one mentions a lantern being hung for Ramadan. It then states that Ramadan is a Muslim holy month where people fast, don’t eat or drink.

It shows a picture of the Quran and says it is used to pray, before showing someone praying on a prayer rug. When the sun has set it is time to eat. Dates are a sweet fruit to snack on after dark. It then shows a child and adult making dua and again reiterates that the holy month is for praying and helping others.