Tag Archives: Soccer

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

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I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well.  The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA.  The book is personable, relatable, and informative.  I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone.  The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect.  The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture.  Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters.  While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion.  But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies.  Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans.  The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity.  They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp.  Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning.  Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion.  The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace.  They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity.  Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten.  The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions.  The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.  The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.  

I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid.  It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood.  Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.

I love that sports and art are universal.  Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math.  He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability.  Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan.  He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper.  Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.

I love the diversity of everyone in each country.  Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a .  There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone.  I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims.   We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family.  That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.

FLAGS:

Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war.  It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that.  Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club.  It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect.  The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan.  He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed.  Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly.  The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.  

The Great Hair Exchange by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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The Great Hair Exchange by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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I don’t know if twins plot and plan to trick people, but I think those of us that are not twins, and don’t have any in our immediate family, all assume that switching places with someone who looks exactly like us, would be a regular prank with hilarious outcomes and convenient benefits. Two twin Muslim girls with different hair and vastly different personalities learn to love themselves, appreciate how God made them, and get reminded that sneaking has consequences, all while evoking giggles from the reader throughout their adventurous day in each other’s shoes (hair?). This 32 page full-color, high-gloss, fantastically illustrated book is filled with silliness and lessons that will appeal to children five and up.

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Bushra and Roda, are nearly identical, except Roda has curly hair, and Bushra’s is straight.  They often want to try different hairstyles, but their parents tell them they should appreciate how God made them and they can experiment when they are older.  The girls decide that their parents, with their perfectly wavy hair, just don’t understand and sneak in to their parents’ bathroom before school to straighten and curl their hair accordingly.

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Surprised at the final results, “You look like me!”The girls realize they are going to get in trouble and decide to switch clothes and backpacks and head off to school.  At school the girls are ushered in to each other’s classes by their teachers despite their protests that they aren’t who they look like.

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The girls carry on as each other struggling in classes they normally excel in, get annoyed by their hair, and suffer through lunches that they don’t like.  Roda even fools herself as she bumps into a mirror thinking she is going in to hug her sister, and Bushra is startled by a spider that Roda loves.

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After school their dad drops them off at their after school activities and still doesn’t suspect a thing. Roda goes to Bushra’s soccer game and Bushra to Roda’s girl scout hike.  When it starts to rain, the girls’ hair returns to its natural state and when they get picked up, they have a lot of explaining to do.

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The girls are reminded that hair gadgets require supervision, that God made us all unique and being dishonest is not ok.  From here on out the girls still prank their friends and teachers, but do so with their parent’s knowledge.

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The book is fun and silly and for both Muslim and non Muslim’s alike.  It uses the word God, not Allah, and while the mom wears hijab, and the girls do on the last page, there is nothing Islamic or even Islamic specific in the book.  I feel like the grammar on the last page is off, but nothing too major.  The book ends with five discussion questions.

The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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I’m not sure why Amazon states the book is for pre-school and up, when the publisher, Kube, posts this book for ages 7 and up.  I think 3rd or 4th grade soccer/football fans will enjoy the book.  There are some slightly mature ideas presented and worked through, and the soccer lingo assumes the reader knows the sport.  Plus the quality of the illustrations and the small font isn’t going to entice someone not already excited to read the book based on the content within.  My boys, ages 8 and 9, enjoyed the book, as did I, once the story got going.  It doesn’t really grip you from the first sentence, but as the story progresses and the way Islam is woven in makes for some learning experiences in the midst of a few intense football matches.

SYNOPSIS:

The boys at the Sunday Madrasa do not enjoy their time there.  They find the Imam boring and thus are not inspired to learn. When they sneak a football into break time however, they suddenly feel more engaged and present in their lessons.  A change the Imam notices and appreciates, but doesn’t know the reasoning for as he strictly forbids football and finds it a waste of time.  Outside of Madrasa, Junayd is having a hard time at home.  He has to help out a lot at his father’s restaurant and his older brother Saleem has gotten in trouble with the police.  His mom prays for the kids, but is also at a loss as to how to help with the stresses at home.

During a secret game of football in the masjid courtyard, an arrant ball breaks the neighbor’s greenhouse window, and the boys are forced to come clean about their covert game.  The Imam demands the kids stop playing and that they tell their parents what they have done, so that they may earn some money to replace the window.  As the kids come through with the money and the Imam sees the kids resort back to their lackluster attitudes to learning.  He gets an idea to start a football club after madrasa classes.  The only problem is that he knows nothing about the sport and no parents are willing to help.

Saleem by chance comes to collect his brother one day, and as he hollers advice from the sidelines, the Imam recruits him to coach the team.  In response the Imam ever so gently uses football to teach not only the madrasa kids, but Saleem as well.  When the boys learn of an upcoming tournament, the Madrasa enters an A and B squad and the Shabab Al-Nasr, Victory Boys, will be tested not only in their play, but also in their manners, and understanding of what it means to be a team and Muslim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Imam grows and changes.  I mean it is a kids book about soccer, but really it is the adult in the story that shows the most heart.  He goes out of his comfort zone, reevaluates his opinions, and admits when he is wrong.  High five Imam!  I also like that he didn’t give up on Saleem, and the way he leads him is with such kindness and compassion, that even youngsters, will be impressed.  

The book does not talk down to the reader, which is nice, but at the same time I think it pushes the age appropriateness a bit with the detail devoted to alcohol being sold at the restaurant, Junayd’s father’s flaws, and even Adam’s dad’s tantrum of sorts.  There really aren’t any nice parents in the book.  We don’t learn much about the moms, but none of the dads seem too supportive.  Really the only nice adults are the Imam and the neighbor who’s window they broke.

The timeline isn’t entirely smooth, the kids come together and play well as a team remarkably fast for how intense the tournament is, and how well they perform. And some of the characters could have used some fleshing out, I couldn’t really tell you much about them.  The font is really small and the spacing often forgotten.  The book is about 95 pages with a glossary and an acknowledgement at the end, fortunately the 2nd book in the series seems to space the words and lines out more and is 155 pages.

The story is solid and for the most part well written.  I read it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed the lessons learned and then put into practice.  The book isn’t preachy, but you are glad to see the Imams words given life in the other characters’ actions.  Saleem changes quickly, but the author and story account for it in a way that is believable for the audience and the message of not giving up on one another comes through loud and clear.  There is a lot of technical detail about the sport, but it doesn’t drag on, it adds to the excitement even if you just know the basics.

FLAGS:

The talk of alcohol, of Saleem being with a group of kids and a stolen car, there is some yelling and aggressiveness from the adults.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The story is a bit short for a book club selection, but I would definitely consider it for Lunch Bunch (where I read to 4th and 5th graders while they eat lunch).  And I think most Islamic School libraries and classrooms should stock the series.  

https://thevictoryboys.com/

No Ordinary Day by George Green

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No Ordinary Day by George Green

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I was really, really excited to get this book in my hands.  An early chapter book, about Islam and sports, with diverse characters, that seemed to be the start of a series featuring the “Childhood Champions,” seemed to have the potential to fill a gaping void in Islamic fiction.  And while the book shows promise and has a lot going for it, it falls short of what it could be, and perhaps with the ever growing book options, what it should be. 

To be clear the Islamic lessons and values are on point as are the pictures, it is the holes in the story, the random text layout inside and the lack of depth that keep this book from reaching its full potential.

SYNOPSIS:

Ibrahim normally needs help to get up for school on Mondays, but not on this day. On this day they were promised a surprise at school and Ibrahim can’t wait to see what it is.  When the 8-year-old gets to school he and his friends are delighted to meet Hakeem Muhammad a soccer star on the California Spartan’s Team in town to play against the local Harlem Knights.  To win one of the five tickets that he is giving away the students have to recite some ayats from Juz Amma and tell why it is important that they study the Quran.  Ibrahim goes first, and we don’t know what he recites, but he says that studying Quran makes him feel happy and inspired.  Which to me didn’t really meet the criteria of the competition.  The next student is also a member of the “Childhood Champions,” but we know nothing about Jannah, other than the one page bio at the beginning of the book.  Jannah recites some mystery ayats and says that knowing the meaning helps her with reciting, a bit more of an appropriate answer, but still kind of not fulfilling the question in my opinion.

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All five kids in the crew win tickets for them and their families for the game that night.  A limo picks them up and they get to meet Hakeem in the locker room.  When they arrive  he is praying, so they wait, say salam, chat, and then are shown to the VIP box.  The game is close, Hakeem scores the winning goal for the Spartans and the kids go home happy. No real problem or solution, the climax is just the game.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the font was chosen to help kids with dyslexia and the full color internal pictures are a nice plus.  I don’t understand how it was determined how much text is on a page, as it is so varied and inconsistent, that it seems like a draft rather than a final copy.

I love that this book is about Muslims and for Muslims, the star athlete prays, and connects with Allah swt, and is proud of it.  His praying before the game is not weird to his teammates, which is awesome for kids to see.  The conversation after his salat with the kids is also pretty powerful, but the setup is incredibly awkward. Yasin won a ticket for reciting Quran, so why the answer about why he is praying before the game started with explaining that he prays five times a day, seems jarring to the flow of the book and story.  I liked the insight about praying and being grateful whether they win or lose, but the catalyst for the exchange was really forced.   Loved that Hakeem made sajood when he scored and that Ibrahim was asking Allah for help.

I wish the ayats the kids recited would have been shared.  I think the book is for muslim kids, so it would have helped if they really inspired something tangible that the readers could relate to.  The book is very bland and it could be much more memorable.  I’ve read the book three times, and couldn’t tell you any of the students names.  I had to look back to write this review.

 

I’m not a soccer expert, but I think the winning goal would have been called back for offsides, I’m hoping I’m mistaken.  The breaking a world record for loudest fans seemed a stretch, but kids 6-8 probably would be bothered by it or find it out of place.  The book says it is for ages 6-12, but I can’t see kids 12 years old getting much out of this 40 page book.  

FLAGS:

None the book is completely clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book wouldn’t work for a book club selection, but I would probably have it in a school library for kids transitioning to chapter books, and in a classroom for excitement and novelty.  There isn’t anything “wrong” with the book, it just needs a good editor and a little more.  It really is almost there.

https://www.launchgood.com/project/childhood_champions__no_ordinary_day_a_book_for_muslim_children#!/

 

Captain Lilly and the New Girl by Brenda Bellingham illustrated by Clarke MacDonald

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This book is part of First Novels, a collection of books in Canada that focuses on easy to read early chapter books that encourage kids to transition from leveled readers, while getting to know a single character in a realistic contemporary world.  There are a lot of Lilly books, but this one caught my attention because of the hijab wearing girl on the front, presumably the “new girl.”  At an AR 2.8 this 64 page book is great on so many levels, and really does meet the First Novel goal of presenting a simple theme and showing the main character grow.

SYNOPSIS:

Lilly is changing soccer teams, and only finds solace when many of her school friends will also be joining.  While each of the girls has different opinions and levels of enthusiasm about the team, they all are committed to one another as the “Wolves” stick together in a pack.  This loyalty is tested when a new girl is brought in to fill in for an injured wolf.  The foreigner, from America, wears a scarf, and just like with soccer, there are a lot of differing thoughts on the matter.  The reader see what Lilly feels as it is told from her perspective, which makes the issue not so much about the hijab itself, but about how a 9 or 10-year-old thinks and processes new concepts.  Ultimately, the Wolves as individuals and a team, have to decide what to do when an opposing team says that Sara has to take off her hijab if she wants to play.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is real, with strong independent girls.  The side characters aren’t cookie cutters of each other, they all have personalities and quirks, and I love that they don’t all agree, yet they all can make it work.  The book’s catalyst is the hijab, but it isn’t preachy and it is presented and understood through a non-muslim elementary-age character.   I don’t think Islam or Muslim is even mentioned, nor any culture, she is American, and the book takes place in Canada.  It addresses safety regarding the hijab, comfort in wearing sweats and not shorts, and being hot in a long sleeve shirt, issues that any reader can understand and ponder about.  The book isn’t gripping, but for the age group and the intent, it is spot on.  The font, spacing, size of the book, and simple illustrations, urge kids to read a “chapter book” and think about something they may not have ever thought about before.

FLAGS:

Clean, it does say words like “suck,” but it isn’t disrespectful.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this as a Book Club book, because the kids can read it fairly quick, but I would probably read it aloud to kids and have them discuss, or have them somehow read it in groups and discuss.  There are a few websites that can help facilitate the discussion, but kids would definitely have opinions on how the situation was handed, how they might handle it, and what they think of the team’s sponsor.  

https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?a=1&tid=40533

Click to access FirstNovels_Series_ActivityGuide.pdf

http://www.formac.ca/firstnovels