Tag Archives: War

Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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This 320 page full color middle grade graphic novel is a powerful and moving read. The memoir focuses on the young Syrian boy who began reporting on the war from the perspective of children and sharing his work on social media.  The raw emotion, the determination to make a difference, the familial love, are conveyed in a way that allows eight and nine year old readers to connect to living through horror with compassion and outrage and empathy.  Older readers will also be drawn in and moved by the relatability of a boy their age having his world turned upside down.  I particularly like how the book dispels so many assumptions and stereotypes by showing what life was like before the devastation, a bit about the role of outside forces and political oppression, and really creating a mood where you can imagine what you would do if you were in Muhammad’s situation.  The book is heavy, but also has a lot of hope and and joy. I tend to like nonfiction graphic novels that are character driven like this one.  I find I understand the scope of what they are enduring by seeing it through their eyes and feeling like I know them and thus can better grasp what their reality is.  There are photographs at the end which further connect the readers to Muhammad and Syria, and I hope this book finds its way into classrooms, libraries, homes, and hearts, so that we might be better to one another.  Readers of When Stars are Scattered will similarly love this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book begins with eight-year-old Muhammad hanging around his father’s carpentry shop in Eastern Ghouta, playing soccer and pleading to by treats from the candy seller.  When Assad’s soldiers come, destroy his soccer ball, and his family warns him not to trust anyone, including the new candy seller, Muhammad’s world is suddenly not so certain.  When his family must seek shelter at a moments notice, homework is left, videogames paused, and fear very real.

Muhammad is the miracle child, born after the family didn’t know if they could have any more children, he is the fourth, and spoiled. Even with destruction and sheltering though, there is joy, more children are born in to the family, and while Muhammad’s status might be in question, his love of his little brother and sister, motivate him to do something to create a safer home.

At age 13, his father and uncle go for Jummah salat, and his father is killed while praying.  At 15 Muhammad is done hiding, he knows he will never be safe and he starts filming and sharing stories of children as a way to honor is father and fight back against oppression.

With the support of his family, and constant worry that Assad’s army will target him, Muhammad keeps telling the stories of those with no voice.  Eventually his following grows, catches international attention, and gives Muhammad purpose.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the format for this story, you truly can’t put it down.  It shows the emotion so powerfully that you cry when characters are lost.  You know hundreds die every day, but the singling in on a character that you have grown to love dying moves the reader, add in that you know this was a real person and that Muhammad really endured the loss, and it reminds you of your humanity.  The love the characters all have for their oldest sister is absolutely incredible.  The pages of the family just being so connected are my absolute favorites.

The characters are Muslim and it is a part of their daily lives, there is no pulling out of the narrative and explaining or preaching.  The women wear hijab, they plead with Allah swt, they reflect on Allah’s plan, they go for prayers at the masjid.

FLAGS:

Death, destruction, war, fear. It is not sensationalized, and I truly think middle grade and middle school readers will benefit from reading, even the sensitive ones.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think the book would be wonderful to teach in the classroom tying literature, current events, and history together.  I absolutely think every library, classroom, and home bookshelf should feature this book.

It can be pre-orderd here

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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Anything I write about this YA book will fail miserably in conveying how powerful, beautiful, lingering, moving, emotional, and overall masterfully written every one of the 432 pages are; it just might be my favorite book of the year.  I do know that this will be my new standard for Muslim OWN voice stories, as the authenticity was absolutely engulfing, I’m not Syrian and I could feel it and naturally, I also verified it.  There is no pandering to a western gaze, the story and characters pull you in and show you Syria from the ground, there is no telling, there is no lecturing, it is mesmerizing storytelling at its finest.  The book has mental health issues, war, and a sweet “halal” romance, that I think upper YA, 16 plus, can handle and appreciate.  I hope every adult will spend time with this book, it truly is incredibly well done, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Homs is under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, but that isn’t enough to keep pharmacy student Salama and her family safe.  Her mother is killed, her father and brother taken, and so she moves in with her best friend Layla, her pregnant sister-in-law, her only family left.  Working as a doctor in the hospital where anyone remaining is given responsibilities far above their skill level, education, and experience- every day is a struggle to survive.

Haunted by the physical manifestation of her fear, “Khawf,” who urges her to fulfill her promise to her brother of keeping Layla safe and getting them out of the country, Salama at eighteen years old has to find a way.

Before all the pieces come together to escape, a boy enters the picture, Kenan, who gives Salama hope, who distracts her from the death and destruction that has consumed their lives.  A boy unwilling to leave his beloved homeland.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m a crier, but this book brought out ugly angry tears, shocked tears, heartbroken tears, sentimental tears, you get the point, this book held me in its grasps and never let go. I.COULDN’T. PUT. IT. DOWN. If this is the author’s debut novel I can’t even fathom what is yet to come.

I love that the characters are Muslim, and that they pray together, that they plead with Allah (swt) and meet at the mosque.  It is who they are, it is not up for debate or in need of explanation, it is what it is and it is not anything to discuss.  The parts where a character pleads with Allah for death over being taken, absolutely wrecked me.  Just as efforts to keep everything halal between Salama and Kenan made me beam.  (If I’m completely honesty, I did on occasion get frustrated, I mean come on they are being shot at, bombed, nearly sexually assaulted, scoop her up in your arms and console, her, I know haram, but it is fiction and I was invested, and there is a war.  Thankfully, I am not an author and she kept it all clean and her characters much stronger and mindful of the shortness of this world.)

I love that there are political voices, but that it isn’t a political book trying to give back story to the conflict.  In so many ways the news has failed to keep a light shining on Syria and books such as this, remind those of us outside Syria without strong connections to the land, that the conflict is still raging.  If this was a journalistic article it would be a human interest piece, it is character driven.  Readers see themselves in the characters that live lives that most of us of privilege could never imagine, yet here we are spellbound by the characters, their choices, their dreams, and their safety.  This book shows the power of fiction in opening our eyes to the horrors that are happening in our time, by giving us a face and a character to care so deeply about, that we are spurred to action and determined to not remain apathetic.

FLAGS:

Death, torture, physical abuse, sexual assault, fear, loss, coercion, war, murder, torture, child abuse, crimes against humanity, starvation, mental health, PTSD.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to use this book in a high school book club.  The story and themes of the book would open themselves up to discussion so effortlessly and the beauty of the writing would be a gift to share with students.

Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern illustrated by Michael Sloan

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Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern illustrated by Michael Sloan

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I really like the concept and approach of this 192 page non-fiction graphic novel.  It isn’t a memoir or OWN voice retelling, it is basically an in-depth news story about a Syrian refugee family that has been fact checked and then illustrated.  Unfortunately, parts of the story are really choppy and unresolved, details shared for no purpose and occasionally reinforcing of stereotypes.  The book is an easy read and the Muslim family is shown to practice and be fleshed out, but more than once I found myself questioning what the author’s commentary was suggesting/implying based on what was being included.  I allowed my 12 year old son to read it before I was finished, but the last few pages had both misogynistic and homophobic slurs coming from bullies so I made sure to discuss that with him.  I think upper middle school to YA is probably the ideal readership because of the subject matter of escaping war, facing financial insecurities, PTSD, bullies, islamophobia, and navigating a new environment when you are not quite a child, but not yet an adult either.

SYNOPSIS:

Naji’s family is undecided if they should leave Syria or not.  Part of the family has permission to travel to Connecticut in America, but part of them still do not, including Naji’s grandmother.  The war has already imprisoned Naji’s father and uncles in the past and with the US election showing Trump having a chance, they feel like they need to make a decision quickly.  Naji loves all things American and is the only one in the family anxious to get to the US and get on with life, but when the moment of saying good-bye arrives, he has doubts.

Once they arrive in America, all their doubts multiply as life is difficult, help is hard to come by, and day to day fears of safety have not been left behind.  School, finding jobs, learning the language, and facing hate are just the big things that plague a family who has left everything to start over in this detailed account that follows Naji and his family as they navigate their new world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the book has been approached as a news article.  I just didn’t like the unresolved threads that seem to take up so much of the narrative only to be abandoned.  I really struggled with the idea that Naji knows America and obviously media is global, but is shown to be confused by a dining table.  I didn’t like the commentary of Naji’s sister Amal and her hijab, I find it hard to believe there aren’t other hijabs in the school or larger community and why it is made to be such a big deal by her, and those trying to help her.  It would seem small after everything she has been through.  I do like that there are a few other Muslims in the school and at least they discuss that there is not a nearby masjid.  I wish other Muslims would have been around to help settle the new family.  I know a few groups that helped in immigrants in New England, so that there were no Muslims in the welcoming groups seemed hard to accept.  By and large it does show Islam being practiced, not just names and hijabs, which I appreciated, but for a book that is based on a real family, with graphics, I really expected a stronger emotional impact that ultimately for me was just not there.

FLAGS:

Death, abuse of power, war, language, bullets, shooting, kidnappings, detainment, destruction, kids making out in hallways, implied rape/sexual assault, death threats, racism, islamophobia, misogyny, slurs, name calling, differential treatment, fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This wouldn’t work for me for a book club selection, but if I ever teach a journalism class again, I think I would some how incorporate this book as a way to show what journalism can be, and also as a clear way to show how what parts you include and what parts you keep out affect the messaging of the story as well.

Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

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Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

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This 336 page YA graphic novel set in a fictitious world draws on the authors’ Arab culture and creates relatability for universal readers everywhere.  Themes of coming of age, war, family honor, discrimination, classism, deceit, and friendship, all interweaves with rich illustrations and warmth.  With a few unnamed #muslimsintheillustrations the story shows a lot of heart and with some language, violence, death, and oppression would be best suited for 9th grade and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Aiza and her family belong to the Ornu tribe and are treated as second class citizens in the Bayt-Sajji Empire.  With their traditional arm tattoos and seemingly more plentiful food, they are greatly disliked by the larger community and oppressed at every opportunity.  Aiza dreams of joining the army, rising in ranks, earning citizenship for her family and changing their future.  She also dreams of being a hero.  When she finally convinces her family to allow her to enlist, they also encourage her to hide her identity, and just like that, she is off.

Once in training she is pushed to excel or risk being sent to the front lines.  As she navigates new friendships, harsh instructors, and the shadowy General Hende, Aiza learns there is so much more to war and politicking than meets the eye.  Her life, her loyalties, her understanding of the world will all be tested, as Aiza must decide which path is for her.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The text and illustrations are seamless in conveying a united story, I was a little nervous with two authors, and I like that the story has twists and multitudes.  I loved seeing strong women in the military, as the authors’ say tough girls with swords.  While reading it I was completely submerged in the story and the characters, but writing this review a few days later, I’ve largely forgotten the characters names and quirks.  I’m not sure if it is because I read a digital version, or because the character building is a little lacking.  I don’t know that I was emotionally invested in some of the major plot points because I was not seeing the struggles it was requiring of the character to endure.  Admittedly I have not read a lot of fantasy graphic novels, so I don’t know that I have a lot to compare it to, but I do plan to read a physical copy when I can, and read follow up books in the series, to see if my impression changes.

FLAGS:

Some language, bullying, oppression, violence, death, killing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is nothing religious in the text, so I wouldn’t use it as a book club selection, but I would definitely shelve it in a school library, classroom, and keep it in mind for readers that love these kind of books.

Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Set in Daraya, and based on a real events in Syria, as well as the author’s own life in Lebanon, this 32 page elementary and up story does an amazing job of showing relatable childhood adventures and ingenuity shining through even in the most horrific of environments.  The book is inspiring and warm, but the backdrop of war is very much present.  Some young children may be bothered by the images and text, while others will benefit from understanding the humanity that is affected by such violence.  I know the book says the pages are not final, but I wanted to put it out to help drum up interest.  I feel this story would best work in intimate settings where discussion, compassion, and gratitude can all intuitively transpire.

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Nour’s best friend is her cousin Amir, they love to read and imagine adventure and secret societies.  As their dream to create a secret club, complete with a secret password and handshake, for them and their friends starts to come to fruition, war arrives first. 

Families are forced to seek shelter away from the bullets at night in their basements, and only are allowed to venture out when absolutely necessary.  Every time Amir goes out, he collects any books he finds, and encourages his friends to do the same.  

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They begin sorting the books, and trying to decide what to do with them, when Nour has an idea to create a secret library.  Everyone pitches in when an empty, half destroyed basement is located, and the books are moved and set up on discarded planks of wood.  A boy next door is entrusted with the secret handshake and becomes the deputy librarian.

As word spreads, everyone from boys and girls to soldiers and rescuers, collect books to stock the shelves and checkout books to keep their minds busy.  The library, named Fajr, is open every day from morning to evening and closed during Jummah.  It becomes the city’s best kept secret and a source of hope for the community.

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There are references at the back that tell about the true story of the Secret Library in Syria, the author’s memories of hiding in the basement in Lebanon, a glossary of terms, information about Syria, the illustrator’s research, information about the war, and famous libraries in the Middle East.

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My Name is Bana by Bana Alabed illustrated by Nez Riaz

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My Name is Bana by Bana Alabed illustrated by Nez Riaz

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OWN voice books are always important, and while we see a rise in minority voices claiming their own stories, to read a child’s story about war and hope by a child, is particularly impressive.  Bana Alabed was born in 2009, she is an activist, a Syrian refugee, and now an author.  Her clear voice doesn’t stumble and her perspective is unapologetic, yet hopeful.  Over 40 pages she tells her story in her own words with beautifully warm and complementary illustrations filling the pages.  For kindergarten and up, this book stands out in a crowded field of refugee inspired stories for its authenticity, strong author, and overall emotional connection.

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Bana begins her picture book memoir by asking her mother why she was named Bana.  Her mother explains that she was named after a tall bushy tree that grows in Syria.  Her favorite tree.  A tree that is qawai, Arabic for strong.

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Bana then asks what it means to be strong.  And once again her mother lovingly explains, that strong is to be brave even when you are scared, and to be sturdy so others can lean on you.  It also means you use your mighty voice to speak up when something is wrong, you read, study, and exercise your body.

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Bana appreciates her name, and being strong, because war came to her country.  When bombs fell they had to hide, when her brothers were scared, she had to keep them distracted, when they moved to a new place where they didn’t know the language or any people, she had to be strong still.

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As a young girl, Bana tweeted about the war, the book doesn’t touch on that, but it does show her being strong as she shares her story all over the world.  It then returns to her and her mother discussing amal, Arabic for hope, and Bana imagines herself strong, reaching into the sky.

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The book ends on a simpler note of acknowledging her little brothers’ names: Laith and Noor, lion and light.  The Author’s Note at the end is just as powerful as the text of the book and provides more information about Bana’s experience and outlook. The way that war is handled is not overpowering for young readers, and will provide a great starting point of discussion.  The relationship between Bana and her mother is warm and supportive and equally deserving of mention with the little people you share the book with, alhumdulillah.

“Kids shouldn’t have to always be strong.  Every child deserves to live in peace.” Bana Alabed

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

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The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

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I’m not sure how to really review this 167 page book.  It is the translated YA work of an Arabic Epic that took place somewhere between the seventh and 10th centuries and began possibly being compiled in the 1100s.  It was told orally, but when written, comprised some 6000 pages.  The translator notes that the choices of what to include and how to translate, all potentially alter and reshape the narrative, so as a reviewer I’m simply going to review the text in my hands.  I have no outside knowledge of this epic woman, and approached the book as I would have in high school when reading The Odyssey or Beowulf: some of the history is accurate, the characters fictitious, the culture possibly representative.  As a result, I find the comparisons to Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen on the back cover, very odd choices.  At times the contemporary diction, in my opinion cheapens the narrative.  Sure I appreciate the modernization of the text to make it an easy read, but throwing in modern slang seems too much.  I found the book’s framing unfortunately counterproductive of what it hoped to achieve.  I have no idea what the other 5,900 pages include and what the translator had to choose from, but the majority of the book focuses on marriage, being raped by her husband, and working to prove who the father of her Black son is when her and her rapist husband are white.  I was prepared for battles, and conquering, and fighting misogyny, and saving the down trodden, not every one just wanting to marry her.  Many of the characters are Muslim, some convert to Christianity to escape Dhat al-Himma, the Quran is quoted, prayers are made, the Kaaba visited.  I do however, take issue with the explanation of the child’s skin coloring being attributed to intercourse (rape) occurring while Fatima is menstruating and a case of Prophet Muhammad (saw) being used as proof of this occurring.  So much of the text is footnoted, this instance is not, and I find it disturbing.  The book also contains a lesbian character who ends up marrying a man, violence, death, and many other potential flags (see below) that might make it better suited for older college age readers.

SYNOPSIS:

The story doesn’t begin with the birth of Fatima, but rather with her great great grandfather.  It sets the stage a bit to show culture, how women and honor are treated, and the line of her ancestry.  When we get to know Fatima a few chapters later she is being born and her gender is a disappointment, so she is hidden away.  As she grows away from her tribe she becomes an accomplished warrior and captures her father in a raid.  When she returns to her people, her cousin, Walid, born the same time as her, is struck by her beauty and wants to marry her.  She refuses.  Repeatedly.  Finally she agrees to battle him and if he wins, she will marry him.  She wins, and he still doesn’t back down, finally she is forced/tricked in to marrying him by the Caliph’s agent.  The two are pronounced wed, but little changes for Fatima, she is a warrior and does not seek intimacy or companionship.  Eventually, her husband Walid enlists the help of Fatima’s milk brother and friend, Marzuq, to have him drug Fatima, so that he can rape her.  He acknowledges the rape, the whole community does, but allows it, because he is her husband.  When the child is born he is Black and Walid and his family refuse to accept that the child is his.  Amira Fatima is socially put on trial for being a whore and that the child is illegitimate.  As Walid works to have them killed, Fatima works to prove her innocence and carry on with her life trusting in Allah swt completely, all while the Arab-Byzantine battles are raging in the borderlands.  As Abdelwahhab, Fatima’s son, grows he too becomes a formidable warrior and the two have continued adventures.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the richness of the culture coming through a compelling story. Fatima is incredibly devout in her worship of Allah, swt.  She does not falter, ever.  When she is being tested she needs only her faith, at one point a man converts to Islam upon having a dream as a result of her conviction in praying.  That being said, I genuinely don’t understand a few critical points.  How can a woman who single handedly destroys tribes not be listened to, to make her own decisions to lead her own life.  I get that that is perhaps the poignant point of the story in today’s context, but there are a lot of strong women in this book, so why does her marriage and being defined by her not wanting to marry get so much of the spotlight? Her father didn’t want her, but they don’t resolve anything, they just reunite and all is well.  I need more.  I want to know what happened to Walid once he became Christian, was it a permanent thing, a temporary fix? What ended up happening between her and Marzuq? He was her trusted advisor and immediately regretted drugging her, what happened to him.  I want more about her mother, maybe even her Aunt or other women to see how their lives compared and contrasted to the powerful women highlighted.  How did they view her, was she inspiration, an anomaly, beloved, loathed?

I appreciate the footnotes, the introduction, the Note on the Translation, the further reading list, help with pronunciation and the character list.  A map would have been nice.

FLAGS:

There is violence, killing, rape, talk of sexual intercourse and menstruation.  There is misogyny, racism, flirting, sexual temptation, a lesbian character, magic, jinn.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would not be able to lead a proper discussion on this book, I am just not knowledgeable enough on the larger story.  I think I would like to be a student or be able to join a discussion led by someone well versed in The Tale of Princess Fatima and all the subtext that brought her story to life and maintained it over time.  It would be fascinating.

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.  

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.