Ayesha Dean: The Istanbul Intrigue by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean: The Istanbul Intrigue by Melati Lum

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I’ve tried numerous times to get my preteen daughter to read a Nancy Drew book with little success, yet she devoured this mystery and is eagerly waiting for more.  The protagonist is relevant, resourceful, fun, and a practicing Muslimah too.  At 240 pages, the spacing and large font make the book easily accessible, and tempting to dive in to.  The pacing is pretty good, and while there are a few hiccups with storytelling style, the book overall is worth adding to yours and your child’s reading list.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha’s parents are deceased, but her Uncle Dave has raised her as a Muslim following her parent’s wishes.  Having graduated high school she is off on a celebratory trip with her two closes friends: Jess and Sara, her uncle and her friend’s dad to Istanbul, Turkey.  The adults have a business conference and the girls are hoping to explore and enjoy all the sights of the Turkish Bazar, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and more.  While looking for a book to gift Uncle Dave, Ayesha and her friends discover a secret message sewn into an old book of maps and set off to collect clues and solve a 100-year-old ibn-Arabi mystery.  Obviously, I don’t want to give too much away but there are villains, and shady characters, and dear friends, and lots of yummy food.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the heroine is a hijab wearing, salat praying, Tae Kwon Do trained, fashionable, kind, young lady.  She has integrity and resourcefulness, that make the reader want to cheer her on.  Her friends are significantly less developed, I really couldn’t tell you much about them, and honestly had to look back to recall their names.  I understand why they are in the story for Ayesha to play off of, but I’m hoping that they will have a bit more substance in future novels.  Other side characters had more depth than Sara and Jess did, and even getting them out of the way for the climax seemed to further diminish their roles and importance.

I loved learning about Turkey through the characters, the history, architecture, the food.  The author really shined when talking about Islamic history as well.  When Ayesha and Emre explore the Sultan’s Privy Chambers at the Topkapi Palace, and look at Prophet Muhamad’s (saw) sword and bow, the excitement and reflection is palpable.  In other places however, I felt like the narrator’s voice was completely jarring and distracting to the engaging story at hand.  In the midst of pursuing a lead, the story comes to an almost standstill to say, “the friends chatted amiably as they walked, admiring the city as they went (69).”  The majority of the descriptions are so vivid that the few places where they cease are noticeable and awkward.

I also loved the diversity of the friends, even Ayesha’s own personal makeup adds some depth and appreciation that she has chosen to practice Islam.  Ayesha prays and tries to make sure she is not alone with a boy, she is conscious of her hijab and notes the Islamic elements in her own life and in her environment.  Obviously the book takes place in Turkey and she is unraveling an Islamic mystery of sorts, but I think the book works well for Muslim and non Muslim middle schoolers alike.  The book is not preachy, and the translations of prayers and poetry are framed in a historical or inspiring, not doctrine manner.  Similarily, I think you might be able to get boys to read it too.  It inspires girls who perhaps can identify with the main character, but I think even boys will be impressed with what Ayesha can accomplish.

FLAGS:

The book is fairly clean, there is some intense moments with kidnapping and having guns drawn, but nothing too haunting.  Ayesha obviously makes a good “friend” but nothing happens or is even detailed as wanting to happen between her and Emre.  Just Emre’s dad regularly teasing them as he looks for a wife for his son.  The only real flag for me was the exploring of the harem at the palace and the mention of concubines, and eunuchs.  A lot of detail is not given just that the women must have felt trapped, but it is a heads up if your child asks you about it, to be ready to answer.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a fun book club book to explore deeper some of the sites and history of Turkey.  I would have to explain the harem before hand I think, but I think it can be done factually to avoid to much over thinking for the young readers.  I think to track the clues and “map” out the trail in a group completely with pictures of the real places would really bring the story to reality.

Interview with the author: http://mvslim.com/meet-melati-lum-criminal-lawyer-who-also-has-a-passion-for-writing/

Why we need more heroines like Ayesha Dean: http://www.muslimkidsguide.com/why-do-we-need-more-muslim-heroines-like-ayesha-dean/

 

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The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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A Muslim Afghani Shah tests a poor Jewish man in this “softened” Jewish folktale.  I say softened because the author’s note at the end implies that she is retelling a well-known story in the Jewish tradition that often features mean-spirited characters.  In this version, however, the interaction between the rich Shah and the poor man, the Muslim and the Jew, are framed in contrast to show mutual respect, similar values, and the trust one has in God.  

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This 32 page, AR 4.6 picture book, is beautifully illustrated and would work fabulous in interfaith settings, as well as in any lesson teaching how we should trust God in all things.  For children not of Islamic, or Jewish, or Afghani backgrounds, there is very little preaching and would still work very well as a moral narrative or even as a culture lesson, as it is a folktale.  From a current events standpoint, it would also do well with older children, as it shows that Muslim and Jews co-existed quite nicely once upon a time in Afghanistan as well.  

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The plot is warm, although the Shah is clearly abusing his power as he meets a poor shoemaker and passes royal decree after royal decree to test the man’s faith that “everything turns out just as it should” and that God will provide.  The Shah decrees no one can repair shoes in the street, followed by banning the selling of water in the streets, and so on, until finally the poor man finds him self in the Shah’s Royal Guard without a sword, ordered to kill someone.  Not wanting to spoil how he handled the prediciment, I’ll suffice to say, in the end the poor man is made the shah’s advisor and presumably all is well. 

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Throughout the tests, we also meet the poor man’s wife, who is supportive and very hospitable as they feed the Shah dressed as a peasant and offer him what little they have.  Her clothing is incredibly similar to what Muslims in Afghanistan wear, and makes me want to research this aspect for accuracy and to satisfy my own curiosity.    

Overall, a sweet interfaith folktale that I hope to share at our next interfaith storytime.

The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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This 32 page book written on an AR 4.2 is very text heavy and poorly illustrated, in my opinion, but if you have a patient audience, the story is really sweet and flows pretty well.  Plus, the moral and introduction to 4th through 6th graders about hunger and food scarcity in a gentle non condescending manner, makes the book stay with the reader in a humbling way.

On Saturdays, Mama works and its just Nora and her baba hanging out.  And every Saturday night, Nora’s baba makes couscous, but tonight Nora is starving and the couscous is taking too long.  As they wait Baba tells her a story about the butter man.

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Growing up in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, how much food the family had depended on the rain and the crops.  Once during a drought, Nora’s grandfather had to leave his family to try and find work, so the family could eat.  As the portions of bread Nora’s baba was given decreased in size and the butter disappeared completely, his mother would urge him to go outside and wait for the butter man, to ask him to spare a little.  As he would sit and wait he would nibble and the bread and would finish it still waiting for the butter man.  This daily ritual passed the time as his stomach rumbled, and finally after a while his father returned with flour, couscous, vegetables, and meat.  Baba tells Nora that while the butter man never came, the rains did.  And just as Nora hopefully appreciates true hunger, so does the reader, Mama then comes home, the couscous is ready, they say Bismillah and dive in.

butter.jpgThe only real Islamic reference is Bismillah, being said before they eat.  The story is followed by an Author’s note and a much needed Glossary.  A bit of Moroccan culture comes through as the baba waits for the butter man, and with all the talk of food, but it isn’t done well for me in the illustrations.  The characters’ closeups are distracting, and while the Author’s note explains their clothing and what not, I feel like they didn’t help the story come to life.

Here is a book trailer:

 

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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Take Jumanji, turn it into a chapter book, flavor it with steam punk, set it in a Middle Eastern inspired marketplace, and have the protagonist be a Bengali-American, hijab wearing Muslim on a quest to save her little brother with her two BFFs from New York. Bam, you now have a 298 page AR 5.4 reading level booked called The Gauntlet.  

Published by Salaam Reads (Amina’s Voice) this book is written for all kids, the main character’s religion and culture just add depth and a connection to the game they have fallen in to.  I found this book on Scholastic, and when I got it, I handed it to my daughter to screen for me.  I asked her once she finished if it had any Muslims in it and how were they presented, to which she gaped at me and said, “umm mom the whole thing is about a Muslim girl and it is awesome!” So naturally I moved it higher up in the “to be read pile” and while I agree with her assessment, the book is more plot than character driven, and there isn’t a lot of theology in it, just a race against time to get out of the game alive.

SYNOPSIS:

It is Farah Mirza’s 12th birthday and while she should be downstairs visiting with her guests from her new school, she is holed up in her bedroom with her little brother Ahmad and her best friends from the old neighborhood, Essie and Alex, playing board games, the Mirza family’s favorite pastime .  When Aunt Zohra tries to coax them from the room she mentions a gift for the birthday girl is in her room, and the kids sneak off to get it.  Only it isn’t the book she brought to give Farah that they find, it is a bewitched game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand that lures kids in, and keeps them if they cannot out play the Architect.  When Ahmed falls in, the trio has no choice but to follow him in to try and rescue him and escape, before time runs out.

Once inside the game, they are in a city called Paheli. It resembles an old Middle Eastern city with large souks, market places, even a small masjid, surrounded by sand and levels absolutely breathtaking in both their beauty and in their threat to the children.  The inhabitants are those that played the game and lost. The challenges the kids must face range from a life size game of mancala to a taste test of Bengali/Indian sweets.  As they rush from challenge to challenge they meet a kind tea shop owner, giant lizards, spies and police of the architect and see fairly detailed descriptions of different parts of Paheli. The gamemaker/designer known only as the Architect senses that the kids will win, so he starts to cheat, and then feels bad and arranges to meet the players.  When the children meet him, and hear his story, they feel some sympathy for him, but not for the Jinn that holds the ultimate power over the game.  Obviously they do escape, but I won’t spoil the fun the process is, nor the sweet surprise of the reunion.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that at the core, the story is driven by love for a sibling and requires the teamwork and cooperation of friends.  The rest is just frills from this central and clear message that is woven throughout the book.  While it is idealistic, there are hints that it isn’t overly so.  Yes Ahmad with his ADHD is a lot to handle at times, and the friends do have their squabbles, but ultimately both friends and family are worth risking it all.  I love that Farah is Bengali, many of the foods are Indian, and they are set in the Middle East, but yet somehow it seems interchangeable, this made me laugh, and while in other instances might have annoyed me, I liked how connected it made everyone seem, more alike than different.  Essie and Alex know some of the foods and cultural lexicon from growing up in New York.  They don’t find things different, they had lots of kids in school that wore hijab. Readers unfamiliar with some of the words and names found in the subcontinent and Islamic history might be put off a bit by the regular use of these words and the lacking glossary, but if you identify with any of it, you will celebrate seeing yourself in this book, just as Farah relished in seeing something of familiarity in Paheli.  

The book is fast paced and the detail given to the setting and cultural aspects are fun, but I really don’t feel like I connected much with the characters as a result.  There is very little character development and I actually had to look back in the book for some of the names to write this review.  There also isn’t much religion in terms of belief or practice.  The buildings and the food and the tone all hint at Islam, but I would have loved to hear an athan, or even her pausing to pray.  Not even that is there.  She wears hijab and that is about it in terms of religion.  

Ultimately I love that it is a mainstream book, with a strong storyline that is action packed and fun for older elementary and early middle schoolers that is clean and familiarizes and thus normalizes a culture not often seen in young adult fiction.  

FLAGS:

None, it is clean, at times possibly a bit scary with human bones, but not anything overly haunting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be an amazing book for a book club, and I would play the games that they play in the gauntlet at the meeting.  There isn’t a ton to discuss in terms of introspection and growth, but there is enough, and it is fun.  Plus, there aren’t a lot of books like this for Muslim kids to see themselves in, that I think it would be a blast for them to read, and enjoyable for the adults to watch them get swept away.

Interview with the Author: http://ew.com/books/2017/03/27/karuna-riazi-gauntlet-jumanji/

 

Twenty-Two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo illustrated by Jamel Akib

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Twenty-Two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo illustrated by Jamel Akib

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This 40 page biography written on an AR 6.5 level, tells the story of Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and his microcredit banking initiative.  The book topic is inspiring and for the most part the author does a good job of bringing it down to a middle school level. You can tell the author tries to flesh out Muhammad Yunus by starting the book with him as a boy, and relaying how he was raised and how his parents and boy scouts shaped him.  Despite her efforts however, at times it reads more like a resume, not a children’s picture book.

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Other than his accomplishments, and work history, I didn’t learn anything about him that made him relatable as a person, nor did I learn much about Bangladesh, or Islam.  And yes, I know it is a biography, but it felt like it was a void that needed filling.   I did learn about the program he started, a few of the obstacles that had to be overcome and I particularly liked that those receiving the microloans also had to learn about money, finance, and banking to pass a test before getting approved  And that 94% of those receiving the help have been women.  Grameen Bank is now a global bank, and the help he has given to so many is truly inspiring and something our youth should understand through humanitarian, economic, and compassionate lenses.

The title comes from the incident that brought Muhammad Yunus’ desire to help to fruition. He saw a woman weaving a beautiful basket, and learned that she could not afford the supplies to weave the basket, to sell in the market and as a result needed a loan.  Banks would not loan the equivilant of 22 cents because it was too small, and money lenders would charge so much interest, that after the basket sold, and the money lender repaid, there was scarce enough funds to purchase enough food for the family, let alone enough to buy new supplies, and thus the cycle was unbreakable.  He wanted to make her and those like her independent, not needing charity or the kindness of others to get her ahead, and thus the seven day course, test, and microcredit system evolved.

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The illustrations I think are both rich and well done.  The effect of the watercolors flesh out the text heavy pages with detail, but don’t create a distraction from the concepts and accomplishments being presented.  Following the story is a two page afterward telling additional awards and continuing the story of Muhammad Yunus with two real life photographs.

 

It Must Have Been You! by Zanib Mian illustrated by Fatima Mian

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It Must Have Been You! by Zanib Mian illustrated by Fatima Mian

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This rhyming 32 page book follows around a small girl, “about the same age as you,” who seems to make a mess every where she goes.  She never lies or even responds to the accusations of her unintentional messes, as she gets caught each time by someone in her family who points their finger and identifies the clues that led them to their answer. Luckily, she uses this pattern to her advantage as she cleans up and makes her family a card resulting in hugs, kisses, and love.

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Written for younger kids (4-6), the book is bright and colorful and very well done.  Even two and three year olds will enjoy the sing-song rhythm and chunky engaging illustrations.  The pages are thick and the binding solid, especially for a soft back book.  The 10 x 10 square size works well for story time and bedtime alike.  However, because the text is incorporated into the illustrations, if you are reading to a group, you will want to read it a few times before you present.  Looking at it straight on, the word order is much more clear and if you are reading it with emerging readers, I would recommend pointing to the words as you read, so as to help guide your listeners.  The fonts get a little crazy, which is part of the fun, but again may require some assistance to help the younger readers decipher the words.  Older independent readers (up to age 7 perhaps) might like the slight challenge of figuring out what word comes next, so that the story makes sense.

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The mom wears hijab and that is the only islamic reference or overt implication.  A fun book that thus far with multiple readings has yet to get monotonous and boring, yay!

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Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

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Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

wishtreeI saw this book on Scholastic when I searched for “Muslim” on the website, a regular endeavor of mine, and was surprised to see it pop it since the synopsis on the back doesn’t mention Muslims or Islam.  So I researched it a bit, and sure enough the discrimination of a Muslim family in this tree’s neighborhood is the catalyst of this giant Oak Tree, sharing her story and enlightening the characters and readers with her wisdom.  At 215 pages, this slow and thoughtful book is a short read on an AR 4.2 level.  The pages are well spaced and the black and white drawings keep the reader engaged. And while I bought the beautiful hardback book, I didn’t read it, I listened to the two and a half hour audiobook version, and it was fabulous as well.

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SYNOPSIS:

Aside from maybe Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, I can’t recall too many books being narrated by a tree, but like The Giving Tree, the lessons and wisdom come through loud and clear and stay with you long after the story has ended. Red, is an old Oak Tree that has been around for over 200 years.  She has many stories that she shares with her inhabitants: the possums, the raccoons, the skunks, the birds, her best friend a Raven named Bongo, but never humans, for they must not hear her speak, that is kind of a rule.  But when 10-year-old Samar’s family moves in and people don’t respond well to the new Muslim neighbors, the tree considers getting involved.  Samar spends a lot of time near the tree, and the animals enjoy her presence, while most people tie wishes to the wishing tree on May 1st (Wishing Day), trees are good listeners and Samar tells Red that she wishes for a friend.  This coupled with the act of vandalism someone commits against Red by carving “LEAVE” into her trunk, pushes the tree to ponder what makes people friends and how can she help Samar.  When the owner of the home who’s land Red resides on decides to have her cut down, Red throws caution to the wind and speaks.  Hoping to bring two kids together that need one another, and by extension their families and the whole neighborhood, Red has her work cut out for her.  Luckily she isn’t alone, her animal friends are up for the challenge and the lucky reader gets to laugh with the funny animals, ponder roots, and inclusion, and friendship, and diversity through the loving gentle manner of a tree.  It may be written for fourth graders, but I think everyone can draw upon the lessons, the depth, and the compassion needed to help Samar, to save Red, and to learn to be better to one another.  

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WHY I LIKE IT:

It flows like prose, the deliberate manner in which the story is told, grabs hold of you and halts time.  I love the relevance of inclusion and differences, there isn’t a magic wand, that makes everyone like everyone at the end, but there is hope.  And sometimes that is more powerful.  I listened to the book with my daughter, a 6th grader, and it was nice to chat about it with her after.  What makes people friends? How do people become friends? We move a lot, so she was really insightful about how sometimes friends are just friends because of proximity or because their parents are friends, she really had to think about what has kept certain people in her life, and I loved that this book gave us a starting point to have such a meaningful dialogue.  There isn’t much about Islam in the book other than that the Samar’s family is Muslim and that her mom wears hijab.  

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FLAGS:

None. It’s clean.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this for a 3rd to 5th grade Book Club.  It has so many lessons presented in a non preachy way that the students would add themselves so naturally and effortlessly into the narrative and grow from it.  The book has won numerous awards, and the author is well known, so it also will encourage children to read other books of hers.

Author’s website: http://wishtreebook.com/

Teacher’s Guide: https://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/teachers-guides/9781250043221TG.pdf