Tag Archives: Shirin Shamsi

Zahra’s Blessing by Shirin Shamsi illustrated by Manal Mirza

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Zahra’s Blessing by Shirin Shamsi illustrated by Manal Mirza

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Just when you think all the Ramadan stories have been told, you flip open a new book, hold your breath as the stage of predictability is set, and alhumdulillah in this case, you squeal with delight when the big reveal in a children’s book swept you up and surprised you too.  This 32 page richly illustrated story for elementary readers is heartfelt, culture rich, informative, and embracing.  The book doesn’t dwell on the details of Ramadan, fasting, and Eid, but intentionally focuses on some of the feelings, blessings, and acts that make the month extra special.

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Zahra looks up at the Ramadan moon as she hugs her teddy bear and sends a prayer up asking for a little sister. The next day Mama is packing up beloved clothes, and ones that the family has out grown to be donated.  They discuss giving without hoping for anything in return and once again Zahra asks her mama for a little sister. To which her mother lovingly replies that she should be patient.

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When Teddy goes missing, Zahra can’t help but think a little sister would help her find it.  Iftar that night are all of Zahra’s favorite desi foods and prayer after is her asking for a sister and Teddy.  The following day Mama and Zahra take the collected donation items to the shelter and Zahra realizes how sad she is about losing Teddy and these refugees have lost everything.

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Zahra spends time with the children at the shelter and gets to know them.  She wishes she could find Teddy to gift to a young girl named Haleema.  Some days Ramadan crawls slow, and other days fast.  The family reads Quran together, fasts during the day and prays at night.  The night before Eid, Zahra’s dad whispers a secret to Zahra, one that she keeps close to her all through Eid prayers the next day.

Not going to spoil it, although I’m sure you can guess what is going to happen.  There are hints in the remaining illustrations, but I think kids will enjoy not having the heads up.  The book concludes with some informational blurbs and details about the Muslim author and Muslim illustrator.

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I enjoyed the illustrations, they are bright and bold and festive and unique.  They compliment the text completely as they show praying, reading Quran, making duas, etc.  The text doesn’t get preachy, it doesn’t even mention Allah swt or God, but talks of prayer and blessings.  The combination of the text and illustrations, however, definitely convey a strong unapologetic Ramadan/Muslim centered story.  Overall, it is universal and warm and sweet, and both Muslim and non Muslim children would benefit from reading it.

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My only concern is the page that the family is making dua together, it seems odd that they are all sitting in a line as if they have just prayed, but not prayed with the dad in front and the mom and Zahra behind. I read an electronic arc of the book and I look forward to purchasing a physical copy to add to my bookshelf.

Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

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Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

shirin shamsi

This 127 page book has a lot of potential, but ultimately didn’t win me over.  It is one of those that needs a good editor to encourage the author to flesh out the characters, take advantage of a potentially cathartic resolution, and fill the gaping holes in the story.  Meant for ages 8-12 the tiny font, and tight spacing, make the book really dense and intimidating to look at and read.  The book, as written, should be well over 200 pages, if spaced appropriately for the target audience.  Once you accept the presentation and get in to the story, it isn’t an awful read, it just could have and should have been so much more.  I hope the author revisits it and polishes it up- the time travel, the science DNA component, and the death of the protagonist’s parents, offer a lot for Muslim and non Muslim readers to sink their teeth in and be swept away by, but ultimately, I don’t know that most readers will be motivated to finish the book, and those that do, won’t remember anything about it.

SYNOPSIS:

Laila’s dad has recently died, and with her mother having died years earlier, Laila is now 13 and an orphan living with her stepmom and baby sister.  Feeling resentful that her dad remarried and had a child that took time away from her in his final span of life, doesn’t make Laila a very kind person at home.  Her best friend Beth, even points out how cold she is to her family.  With school vacations approaching, Laila is headed for Umrah with her dad’s brother, her uncle, and his wife.  While making tawaf, Laila loses her aunt and uncle in the crowd and finds herself transported to 7th century Arabia.  She hears a baby crying and learns that the baby’s life is in danger.  To save her, she must get the baby, the baby’s mom and baby’s sister from Makkah to Yathrib.  The only way to do that is to join a caravan, and they can only join a caravan if they have a male escort.  So Laila chops off her hair, acts like a boy, and gets them in the caravan.  They meet bandits along the way, but nothing too scary, they arrive in Medina and right before they meet RasulAllah, Laila finds herself back in the present.  She is in a hospital, but the doctors do not know what is wrong with her so they release her.  She returns to the US, relays the story to Beth, and decides that at an upcoming field trip to study DNA, she is going to submit the baby’s hair that she still has for dating.  The results show it is from 1400 years ago and a family heirloom of her step moms reveals that the baby is a great great great great… grandmother of her’s.  Resolved to open her heart to her family, Laila is a changed person, alhumdulillah.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the premise, it is like Sophia’s Journal and When Wings Expand  thrown together and scrambled.  Laila is struggling with her faith and is trying to find it, while also finding a way to move forward after losing her father.  There are just a lot of things that aren’t answered, are contradictory, or don’t make sense.  It says she learned Arabic because her mother spoke it, her dad is desi, but really no hiccups speaking in 7th century Arabia other than forgetting the word for scissors?  She at one point said she was a cousin from the north, but while on the caravan mentioned that she had never travelled through the desert.  There really should have been more action with the thieves and the regrouping when the men came back.  Similarly, her gender reveal should have been a bigger deal than it was.  I was hoping there would be a mention of if her hair was long or short when she awoke in the hospital, I don’t think I missed it, but maybe, or maybe it wasn’t there.  Once back home, there really needed to be a reunion scene with Laila and her stepmom and half sister, I mean the whole point of the time travel was to save a baby. Really? Nothing? I was disappointed that it was glossed over and mentioned as a retelling to Beth and pushed aside.  The second climax is when the DNA testing is being questioned, but I didn’t get the need for the babysitter and everything to be rearranged for a two second conversation with the principal accusing Laila of theft, a phone call should have sufficed, plus when Laila and Beth mention it to the scientist, it seems everyone was questioned, but Beth wasn’t, something wasn’t consistent there either.  Overall, the book needed more action for a book that involves time travel and more emotional attachment and character connection for a book that involves a newly orphaned young teen girl.

I like the conveying of Islamic facts and information and history in a fairly smooth way.  At the beginning, Umrah being explained was a little text bookish, but it smoothed out as the book progressed.  I love the little flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, I wish there would have been some information about the remarriage of her father and her emotions on the matter at that time.  It is one thing to be grieving, but really she is a brat to her step mom, and if the uncle and aunt live right there, not sure where they live, someone should really be working on getting them all some family therapy, not a quality situation for anyone.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use the book as a book club selection, nor would I think it would get read if on a classroom shelf.  I might use the premise of going back in time to meet Prophet Muhammad, as a writing prompt though.  Would be a good assignment with factual and Islamic references to get kids stretching their imagination to make it all come together and work.