Tag Archives: words

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf


This 320 page YA book is hard to put down and middle school readers and up that love words, a good mystery, and fantastic writing are in for a treat.  I can’t recall the last whodunit that had me absolutely sure that I knew who was guilty, while simultaneously doubting myself until the reveal.  I mean, maybe there wasn’t even a crime to unravel? And fear not, I’m not going to spoil anything in this review.  Just know that this Muslim authored, Muslim character filled, Malaysian set, Scrabble feast is worth a space on your shelf as it will undoubtedly make a place in your heart and beg to be read again and again to see what you missed.


It has been one year since Najwa has competed in a Scrabble tournament, one year since her best friend, Trina Low, died playing Scrabble at the very same tournament, at the same hotel, with many of the same participants.  And with Najwa battling her angry negative thoughts, splotchy memory, nerves, and grief, she is walking a fine line of functioning and faltering.  When Instagram posts and messages start popping up from Trina’s account, everyone becomes a suspect in unraveling what really happened and doing it fast enough to prevent it from happening again.

The backdrop is the Scrabble games that are still taking place, the play on words, the scoring, the plotting, the twists, the scrambling, and unraveling of so many characters that are more connected than they first appear.


I love Scrabble, my mom and I used to play weekly when I was in junior high through college, and while the games were “friendly,” and neither us very good, the game holds wonderful memories. Usually chess is referenced for strategies in real world approaches, so to see Scrabble on a competitive level and have it being in many ways a metaphor for the larger storyline truly had me giddy.  I’m still grinning in fact as I write this review.  The mixing of the two story lines is flawless, with the word play, and scoring, and definitions, that I am just beyond impressed with the writing, the clarity, the intensity, and the way it holds the readers attention.

Many of the characters are Muslim and they mention their hijabs, waking- or rather trying to wake each other up for fajr. At one point Najwa and Mark, Trina’s ex-boyfriend are meeting to talk and she acknowledges the halal gap left as they sit down and how they are both always mindful of her Muslimness and his non Muslimness.  Islam is there, but is not a big part of the story. I beamed when it popped up, but if doesn’t influence the story much, for example one night Najwa plans to sleep in her hijab incase she has to run for her life, so you know, she won’t be slowed down by trying to cover her head.  Yeah, the book has some dry humor too.

There is a large mental health role in the book, as it seems in all of the author’s books: The Weight of Our Sky and The Girl and the Ghost.  Najwa is coping with her grief and trauma and working closely with her doctor to improve her situation.  Other characters mention going to therapists and likewise getting professional help.  I love that it isn’t just a character trait, but that it is a big part of the story, and not in a negative way, but in an actively working to manage it way.

I like how the gender neutral character is handled and pronouns are used.  It is not opined upon, it is not in your face, it is a side character, they have a preference of how to be referred to as, a quip is made that if they win they don’t want to be queen of the tiles, but a more less gendered term perhaps monarch, and that is it.  It is not a judgement, it is not a big part of the story, and no one makes it a huge issue, the character isn’t fleshed out much, but they are respected and have more to their personality than this one facet.  I think that provides a great approach in seeing something in literature that can perhaps spark important conversations in real life in need be.

The only slight pauses the book gave me were when it talks about how incredibly wealthy and distant Trina’s parents were, but then for much of her life she lived in a modest town house style house.  Also, despite Mark and Najwa’s awareness of boundaries, and Najwa being called out for crushing on Mark, at one point he hugs her and I don’t know if that is an oversight or was intentional.


There is death, murder (?), poisoning, deceit, plotting, cheating in multiple ways, kissing, crushes, relationships, multiple mental health threads, intense competition, danger.


I would love to do this as a book club selection.  I think as long as no one spoils the outcome there would be so much to chat about: the twists and turns, the way Islam and Malay culture is shown, the influence of western culture, concept of competitive Scrabble, pronoun sensitivities, and healthy friendship.  Girls and boys in middle school will be drawn to the story, and I can’t wait to share.

Zara and Hakeem Learn ‘Alhumdulillah’ by Shabeena Rehman illustrated by Kevin Payne

Zara and Hakeem Learn ‘Alhumdulillah’ by Shabeena Rehman illustrated by Kevin Payne


Board books from the UK! The glory of a well bound chunky book for toddlers to tote around, chew on and hopefully learn something from, with all the joy of international shipping.  I delayed buying these books for so long, because of it, and finally I gave in and just in the nick of time as I have started a weekly preschool story time, and this series is perfect for three and four year olds with limited attention spans and in need of repetition.

Zara and Hakeem, a brother and sister duo wake up to find their mother not feeling well, and instructions that they will have to help Daddy, Grandad and Grandma with the daily chores.  Then Mummy sneezes and says, Alhumdulillah.


It seems the books  all have a pattern, something happens that sets the stage, then Hakeem and Zara pause and think hard about what to say, there is then an English translation/explanation about the meaning and then a universal, Muslims from all around the world say or do this, before the story resumes.

I don’t mind the break in the story, but the phrasing is a bit cumbersome and slightly off in this book.  Why are the kids thinking hard about what to say, when Mummy had just said it? If they were thinking hard about what she had said or where confused why she said it, I feel like it would make more sense. 


I really like that the book shows that all Muslims say something the same, it is a good time to start to show this age bracket that they are connected to something bigger, without overwhelming them.  

The story continues with Hakeem helping daddy vacuum and Hakeem sneezing when some dust flies up.  Then Daddy and Zara mow the lawn when the grass makes Zara sneeze, everyone, Grandad, Grandma, all take a turn sneezing in different scenarios and everyone practicing to say Alhumdulillah.  


By dinner, Mummy is feeling better, but Daddy has a sneeze attack and takes to laying down as he is not feeling well, and tomorrow the kids will have to help Mummy with the chores.  A humorous full circle, that even toddlers will laugh at.

The kids I read the book to, loved the loud Atchoos and the cute illustrations, a few of the older four year olds, wanted to know why Yar Hamukumallah was not also said.  They also wanted to know why when the dad sneezed four times they only said Alhumdulillah three times.  I read a variety of books about being sick and we talked about using tissues and sneezing into our elbows, washing our hands, and not coming to school when we are sick.  The book was great to explore how mom was sick and dad must have caught her cold.  But that sneezing from pepper and cat hair, didn’t mean you were sick.  The kids also saw that everyone in the house has to help out, sick or not, old or young, male or female, which is always a great lesson to reinforce, Alhumdulillah.


The book is 18 pages of text.  The illustrations show the mom and grandma in hijab, they are bright and colorful and engaging.  Children will enjoy getting carried away with the sneezes and the Alhumdulillahs when read aloud and will enjoy looking back at the pictures and details independently afterward.  This is a great story to put on repeat and then watch your own toddler retell the story on their own.

Overall, well worth the shipping! I hope US bookstores will stock the series as our little ones need books that are funny, clever, and well done.