Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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I have read a fair amount of fictionalized accounts of the war in Syria, the journey of refugees, and their resettling in various countries, but this was the first graphic novel on the subject that I have seen, and I was excited to wait my turn behind my kids to read it.  My 7th and 4th graders read it in about 20 minutes and said they really liked it, knowing that it was a quick read, I wanted to take it in slowly and examine each picture to grasp the full message that the author, a Lebanese journalist, was conveying.  Definitely meant, for ages 5th grade and up because of the content, I appreciated the book more than I loved it.  It seemed rather choppy and the fictionalized parts come across just as a front to convey facts.  The book definitely is a great introduction to the conflict, and the format will appeal to a broad range of individuals.  

SYNOPSIS:

Told from the voice of Amina, a bright young girl who rushes home to show off her latest A grade paper to her family, is met instead by a bomb striking the beautiful peaceful neighborhood.  The images on the first page are destroyed as her younger brother Youssef must be located in the rubble and debris.  Now in Canada, Amina tells the story of their journey from Aleppo.  The bouncing around of time, provides some context to how life became under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, how checkpoints and emergency rule changed everything about Amina’s life.  As war creeps in it isn’t just inconveniences and fear, but also death, as further shown through Amina’s uncle who has joined the rebel army.  The family decides they need to flee to Lebanon and truly believe it will be just for a little while. 

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They rent an apartment for a year, but when they cannot afford rent they relocate to a refugee camp, where they stay for two years.  Amina’s father is determined that Amina stays in school but as work remains scarce and Youssef’s health continues to deteriorate.  Amina is forced to take a break from school to try and find work.  Eventually her father arranges to go by raft to Europe to try and start a new life and bring his family there once he is settled.  The terms of the loan to pay the smugglers is steep and when the raft doesn’t make it too far before tossing its passengers, Amina’s father Walid is forced to return to Lebanon unsuccessful. 

It isn’t until Amina’s family considers, like many other families in the camp, to get her married to keep her safe.  That Amina upon picking up some aid at a UN reception center, spills everything to a worker there, and a week later the UNHCR contacts the family to help move them to Canada.  The readers at this point I would assume are relieved the family will be safe, and are surprised when the family isn’t sure if they want to leave.  Syria is there home, and before the mom will agree to anything, she wants to go back to Syria to see her newborn niece.  Once in Syria, she sees that her home is no more as she remembered it, and agrees to be resettled anywhere.  Through the same flashbacks and flash-forwards in time, we also see that life in Canada is not easy.  The family is welcomed and helped and grateful, but it isn’t yet home, and the ghosts of Syria are still present.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I kind of like how choppy it is upon further reflection.  At first it annoyed me, but as I thought about it more and more, I have decided I like that it isn’t easy and smooth and fleshed out, the tone of the unknown comes through by not over narrating the emotions and circumstances.  I also like that everything that happens to Amina and her family is anchored in reality and the footnotes, references, and facts are all in the Endnotes.  Having said that, I wish their was a little more character development, it reads like a bunch of facts strung together and connected by this fictional family.  There isn’t anything wrong with it, but a little more warmth for the characters would have added a beautiful level and would not have been hard to come by at all.  There are so many stories from this conflict out there, and the reason they resonate with so many isn’t from all the facts and numbers, but often from the individuals that make the numbers real and haunting.  I felt like this book fell short on the human element unfortunately.  The only character I really felt had some heart, was the dad, he was awesome, and his love for his family and determination for his daughter’s education was definitely felt.

The book does drop some acronyms and political alliances to add context but not overwhelm the reader.  It definitely hints that there are a lot of groups vying for power, and control: Assad, Russia, ISIS, US, rebels.

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I love that the flashbacks to pre-war Syria are so relatable.  Kids need to really understand that we are all so much more alike than different.  Not just in our hopes and dreams, but even in our daily lives.  The characters in the book are the same as us, their lives look great,  maybe even better.  They have friends, and families and jobs, and cell phones, they also unfortunately, have war.

There were a few surprises for me, for example that buses between Lebanon and ISIS held Syria took/take people back and forth.  Similarly,  I was surprised to see that the punishment of smuggling cigarettes was being beheaded, but maybe more surprised that the book included it.

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It is reassuring for readers to know that the family survives, but the harrowing journey of seeing body bags, cutting costs to survive, risking it all to trust smugglers with fake life jackets, paint pictures of a journey that will stay with the reader.  The book doesn’t talk down to anyone, if something seems too simplistic, it almost encourages the reader to go research more about it.  

There isn’t any mention of Islam or religion, the females wear hijab, that is the only indication along with their names that they are a Muslim family.

FLAGS:

The violence, is pretty haunting and while the images and text aren’t graphic, the splatter of blood and guns and death are very present.  There is also mention of cigarettes.  While not explicit and possibly over the heads of some readers, the book does show that the loan sharks would be willing to take Amina, “Something nice and sweet…like you,” to help pay off the family’s debts.  A former classmate of Amina also invites the family to her wedding.  At 13 Amina’s family is also considering getting her married as a way to help keep her safe.  

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be better in Social Studies class more than in a Language Arts one. It would be a great supplement to share even, when discussing current events.  Its a quick read, a factual account and a powerful one at that.  

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsZZwxM7YyQ

Publisher’s Synopsis: https://www.fireflybooks.com/index.php/catalogue/product/11566-escape-from-syria

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Imagine by Shoohada Khanom illustrated by Faiza Benauvda and Vicky Amrullah

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A bright and colorful, well illustrated book for preschoolers to stretch their imaginations with and giggle at, while never straying too far from an Islamic concept or reference.  The book mentions something  Islamic on nearly every one of the 32 pages: dhikr, Quran, Ramadan, Prophet Yunus, salah, saying salam, Eid. 

I absolutely love the premise of the book, asking whales about Prophet Yunus, having an octopus help serve iftaar, it really is a lot of fun. The illustrations are great.  The 8.5 by 8.5 book size completely filled with colors and friendly faces, are well done and engaging.  The amount of text on the page is appropriate for the age group and the binding and weight is adequate, nothing to get excited about at a $13 price point.

The book is written in four line stanzas, but I really struggled to not get tongue-tied on nearly every page.  I think the loose rhyme is fine, it just seems really forced in some places, and non-existent in others.  And even when it isn’t forced, the rhythm is a tad off.  I read it to myself and struggled, so I scooped up my 3-year-old and tried twice to read it to him before making a final attempt to make it flow, and feeling somewhat successful.  I think part of it is me, I try to read it like I’m doing a story time, and not like a bedtime story.  But here: read this page and see if you agree.

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I think it is me, and now I’m projecting all my issues on you the reader, and this cute book, I apologize, but here’s one more.  I feel like I’m becoming a broken record when I complain about the price of books and lacking editors.  I promise I have atrocious grammar myself, and make a ton of mistakes typing these reviews, texting my friends and posting on Facebook.  I can’t even blame auto-correct half the time.  So, when I spot errors, and can’t get through a stanza in a children’s book, I get grumpy.  I paid money for this, the author spent a ton of time on it, and the illustrators too, and the publishers…maybe that is the problem.  I love the idea of small publishing companies and self publishing, but why am I once again sitting here with a beautiful children’s book in my hands shaking my head at a really silly mistake.

“I’d try climb on top of another,”

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Sigh.                                                                                                                                                               

Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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I enjoy Hena Khan’s books, I love basketball, and I love that this three book series is written for 3rd-5th graders.  I didn’t love the cover, however, which I attribute to the reason I waited so long to start reading the book, I know, lame.  But luckily the books were in the public library and I had a few hours on my hands and was able to consume the first two books, and look into ways to get the third one ASAP!  Written on an AR 3.8 level the 126 pages fly by, the second book On Point is 130 pages and an AR 4.0, and the third book in the series, Bounce Back comes out in October.

SYNOPSIS:

Zayd Saleem is in 4th grade and is desperately trying to move from the D squad basketball team to the Gold team with his best friend Adam.  The only problem is he is a pretty scrawny kid, and he has committed a lot of his day to practicing violin.  His desperation forces him to be less than honest and the consequences that follow may strip him of the chance to even try out for the team at all.  The basketball story is intertwined with a rich cultural Pakistani-American backdrop and familial characters that are relatable and fairly fleshed out.  Zayd’s mamoo, maternal uncle, has agreed to meet someone to consider marriage, which brings out some humor as the whole family, including grandma and grandpa, have big roles to play.  Zayd also has to figure out why he gets such stomach aches as he makes regular notes in his food diary, and has to balance the universal themes of friends, school, and homework, as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The font and spacing is wonderful for the target demographic, sprinkle in the illustrations and the book is not intimidating in length or size.  The book is very real and relatable, kids of all backgrounds will relate to the basketball storyline and the video games and players mentioned.  I loved the cultural environment.  My kids absolutely loved the mentioning of the Pakistani food that they eat, and customs they participate in, and dynamics they know all too well.  I don’t know that a non Desi (someone from the Indian subcontinent) will get it, love it, and not be turned off by it.  The books are published through Salaam Reads and I would imagine the author and publisher know what they are doing, and the library has numerous copies, so clearly, I’m over thinking it, but I really want to get feedback on the cultural aspect, because it is done really well and I think it would show promise for future books.  

I love that the book is about a boy and basketball, but it isn’t limited to being a boy book or a sports book.  The story moves seamlessly through all facets of the characters life that makes it pretty memorable for what could have just been a sports story with a moral.  The “life lessons” are clear and obvious, but not overly elevated.  The little mistakes that Zayd makes are a part of his life, as are the consequences, but his family helps him through them, and help him learn.

There isn’t anything preachy or blatant about Islam in the book, but the characters are Muslim and it mentions that the parents are heading to the mosque at one point to help with a fundraiser.  

FLAGS:

There is lying, but that is kind of the lesson being worked through.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I recently agreed to help a teacher with her “Lunch Bunch.”  Once a week students can opt to eat lunch in the library and have a book read to them.  They must commit for the duration of the book and I think for a 4th and 5th grade group this book would be a lot of fun.  It would probably only take two sessions to read and with the diverse class I can see if they get the cultural stuff or if it just bogs down the story to them.

Author’s website: https://www.henakhan.com/power-forward/

 

Love by Matt de la Pena illustrated by Loren Long

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Love by Matt de la Pena illustrated by Loren Long

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This 40-page-book may have a simple title, but most of us know, there is nothing simple about love, and this book shows love in many forms from a child’s perspective as they grow.  Sometimes picture books are basic and inspired to teach, or simply entertain.  Sometimes when picture books try to do more, the audience is confused when the pictures and amount of text on page don’t seem to align.  And sometimes, large pictures, with thoughtful poetry make the pages come to life and sing.  The book is written on an AR 3.7, so people thinking this book is for preschool aged children seem to be upset by the concepts hinted at and illustrated, but for older kids, this book has amazing power, and beauty that can show just how complex this universal feeling is.  

Love is your parent’s voice, love is burnt toast, love is the stars after your house burns down, love is in your grandpa’s wrinkles, love is staring back at you in the bathroom mirror.  But sometimes love also burns out and love is shielding you from things that might hurt you, and love separates people too. 

 

As humans, we can all relate to the same emotions, whether we give and receive love the same, the book shows the value and meaning it has to us all.  Hurray for illustrator Loren Long, because page after page, shows diversity of color, mobility, socio economics, age, and religion.  On a page where the love of the child is keeping her from seeing the TV that the family is crowded around a cross is present, and then a few pages later,bam, there is a girl in hijab looking up at the trees and listening to the love shared in their rustling. 

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I had no idea this illustration was present, and gasped aloud.  I said nothing to my daughter, finished the book, and handed it to her to read.  She turned the page and gasped aloud as well saying, “there’s a muhajaba, haha, we are in it too.”  Granted she is my daughter, so environment and genes account for something, but EVERY PAGE I think resonates with someone, and that gasp in my living room from me, from her, could come from anyone who turns a page in this book and bam suddenly feels represented, feels included, feels validated.  That my friends, is LOVE. 

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We are more alike than different.

 

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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I don’t read a lot of sci-fi books, ok so maybe I haven’t really ever read one…or maybe a few have snuck through and then been forgotten.  So, I was excited to read this book by a Muslim author with Arabic poetry and Moroccan inspired backdrop sprinkled in, if nothing else it had me intrigued.  The book is a 308 page YA book that came out two months ago and was available in both hardback and on audio at my public library.  I was thinking to listen to the audio version with my kids, but the book was ready first, and the reviews on the back cover by other authors, all mentioned that the book was “romantic” and “sexy,” huh? The synopsis online and even on the inside flap, hinted much more at rebellions and body doubles, and life on a small moon in a distant fictional galaxy.  Needless to say I didn’t check out the audio book and decided I should proof it for my self first.  I started the book, no less than five times.  Like I said, it isn’t a familiar genre and I was a little confused.  I decided to just keep plugging through the fifth time, and sure enough when my eyes started to get sleepy I realized I was more than half way done with the book.  I guess when you are building worlds and culture you have to start somewhere and the confusion worked itself out after that.  I’d say the book is for teens.  The romance isn’t explicit, save some kissing, but a lot is implied and better for kids a little older than middle school.

SYNOPSIS:

Amani is turning 18 and about to attend her majority ceremony, where her cultural daan, facial tattoos will be marked on her face.  Surrounded by her loving family of parents and two older brothers, and close friends, drones from the main planet attack the festivities and kidnap Amani to the palace that the Vathek empire has taken over after conquering the planet and two moons.  The storyline is pretty straightforward, the confusion for me was the world building of establishing the culture, the religion, the symbols and characters all intertwined at the start.  The understanding of what life was like before the occupation and now under Vath rule, about the tribes, the birds, and how so much has changed.  

Once Amani is enslaved in the palace and had her near identical features to the princess, surgically made to match the ruthless half Vathek, half Andalaan ruler, the setting is developed through stories and flashbacks that clear up the confusion and make the book a fast and fairly easy read.  As the princess’ body double Amani must learn to act and carry herself as Princess Maram so as to not be discovered when sent in to complete tasks that would put the real princess in danger.  The job of Amani, however, also develops in to her filling in for Maram, whenever the spoiled princess, doesn’t want to do things.  In the process of these engagements, Amani spends a lot of time with Maram’s fiance, Idris, who is Kushaila and as part of the war truce betrothed to Maram.  Maram and Idris are friends, who understand their roles, but when Idris figures out Amani is playing a role as well, the two of them fall in love, complicating matters considerably.  Throw in some Andalaan cousins, forced to the outskirts under the new rulers, a royal half-sister vying for the crown, and a rebel who looks like a beloved Prophetess recruiting Amani to join them as a spy, and you have a protagonist trying to stay alive while following her conscious as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the world created seems plausible and real.  I love that I was engaged and intrigued and able to finish the book (yay!), but ultimately the book reads more like a romance book, than a sci-fi one.  Aside from the planet, droids, holograms, and modes of transport, it could be any culture and religion even here on Earth being fleshed out and established as the back drop for the story.  I love that Amani holds to her culture and the love she feels for her people, their language, poetry, and their history is palpable and descriptive. 

I love that society is focused so much on the strength of women.  Yes Maram’s dad is the evil overlord, but she is the future.  Amani is the protagonist, it is her mom’s strength that she calls on so often in her trials and torture.  The Prophetess that delivers hope is a female, that the poetry comes from women, and is gifted by women.  I love that the leaders of the rebellion are women, that the cousin that has not given up on the true bloodline of rulers is female and that the Dowager is such a strong, yet loving beacon that deserves the truth about Amani’s identity.  At one point, when presenting herself as Maram to Idris’s aunt, the two have a conversation:

“You must eat more,” she says in heavily accented Vathekaar.  “If you are to be any good at bearing daughters.”

“Why daughters?”

“Only your daughters will have the stomach for the future,”  she said.  “It is why your mother had you.”

 

I don’t really like the love story between Amani and Idris, it seems too easy, even though obviously it is plagued with impossibility, there should have been more tension.  Maybe it isn’t even the relationship, but more that Idris isn’t nearly as developed as Amani and Maram, and it shows.  I’m hoping there will be more books in the series and that he will be given some depth, because a lot is told about him, but the authenticity seems lacking.  The disjointedness of the romance could also be the pacing of the book.  I felt like somethings dragged and climaxes seemed rushed. Again, I’m hoping this is more setting the stage for further adventures, and that the next book will delve more in to the political-warring-rebel story line that the author definitely can delve in to and capitalize on along with Amani and Maram’s relationship.

Maram is my favorite character, how delicious that the antagonist is not one, or even two dimensional.  She is cruel, and scared, and vulnerable and everything in between.  I loved the interactions between the two young women.  I wanted to know more from Maram, how she felt about, well, everything, and I’m really hoping holding back on those insights was intentional for a purpose.  While she evokes both hatred and pity from Amani, she evokes so much curiosity and exasperation from the reader it is refreshing.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, the characters have their own fictionalized religion, and religious texts.  The names are familiar to the Muslim world, and arabic words sprinkled in with no definition, definitely will make Arabic aware children feel a connection to the characters and setting of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think one could do this as a book club book for high school aged students.  And while I dislike labeling books for one gender or another and all the stereotypical tropes that that implies, I feel like because of all the romance and the amount of time spent on Amani and Idris the book might appeal more to girls.  The book spends a lot of time on these two as it is their talking that creates understanding of their world for the reader.  It is more telling than showing, and these two snuggled up or caressing each others faces is the manner in which the information seems to be expressed.  I’m holding out hope that the rest of the series will break away from this set up.

author’s website:  http://www.somaiyabooks.com/

article with excerpts: https://ew.com/books/2018/02/19/mirage-somaiya-daud-preview/

FLAGS:

There is kissing and affection.  There is also some violences broadly as the Andalaan’s are tortured and attacked and specifically, as Amani has a bird sent to attack her, and she is regularly hit and beaten. Nothing too extreme for high schoolers.

 

 

Little Brother for Sale by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Fuuji Takashi

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Little Brother for Sale by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Fuuji Takashi

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Oh how I love to read sweet books and repeatedly thumb through warm engaging illustrations.  This book is beautiful, fun, and (possibly) very relatable.

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A big sister, Asma, is ready to get rid of her little brother, Hamza, so that she can enjoy all her parent’s attention.  But when the mailman won’t let her ship him to grandma, and neither the lady walking down the street nor the neighbor next door want to buy him, she is determined to find someone to take him off her hands.  Alas though, it is Hamza’s nap time and while mom makes salat Asma finally gets some time to herself.

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Except she misses having someone sharpen her crayons, or eat the blueberries she doesn’t like, and there is no one to dance with her around the living room.  She decides that maybe she does like her little brother, and lays down next to him with promises of loving and protecting him forever.  Ahhh…..

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Yeah, the book is pretty predictable, but the details make it charming.  I love the diverse characters and the love and warmth they all exude.  I love that when she drags her brother out in the wagon and holds up the for sale sign, mom is peeking out from the kitchen.  I reassured myself that she was there, so it was ok for Asma to be talking to the mail man, a potential stranger, and the lady walking down the street, muslimah or not. 

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The only slight hiccup to me was what one-year-old, he was seemingly taking his first steps in the first picture, can sharpen crayons? Maybe I just failed to prepare my children, but other than that, the book is smooth, and well done.

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The binding quality, the font, the amount of text on the 26 pages, is definitely preschool to first or second grade, and the illustrations will mesmerize even toddlers who won’t understand why the book is so silly. 

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The book has been floating around my house and I’ve seen my 11 year old pick it up and read it on her own, and then read it to the three year old mutltiple times.  She possibly was getting ideas, but maybe it also reminds us that siblings really can be both annoying and lovely as well.

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Digging Deep by Jake Maddox text by Wendy L. Brandes illustrated by Katie Wood

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Digging Deep by Jake Maddox text by Wendy L. Brandes illustrated by Katie Wood

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It is great to see a beautiful hijabi on the front of a sports book, written by a non Muslim, published by a major publisher, and having the story have nothing to do with the cloth on her head, but rather the skills on the court.  Teaching lessons about teamwork and self-worth, there is a whole series of these books about different sports with different main characters, and this one focuses on volleyball and a girl named Asiyah Najjar.  I’d maybe recommend this 63 page book to kids starting to feel confident with early chapter books, but more on that later.

SYNOPSIS:

Asiyah plays rec volleyball and enjoys it, but when her friend Lucy convinces her to try out for the traveling team, she has to not just be good enough to make the team, but focused enough to not let her teammates down.  With daily practices, comedian Asiyah feels like everyone is taking the new team way too serious and she questions if she wants to continue.  She loves playing the piano and with school work, her time is being consumed by volleyball.  When she overhears her friends doubting her commitment to the team, she, with the support of her brother, decides to dig deep and give it one last, serious, try.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Asiyah mentions in the first chapter that she is nervous about the traveling team, because of her hijab and that people in town know “what it is, and why I wear it,” she says.  She never mentions that she is Muslim or why she wears it, just states that the people around her know. Religion and faith are never brought up again.

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There are some slightly off things in this book for me.  According to the publisher, the book is meant to appeal to 8-11 year olds,  but to me, the style of the book is aimed for 6-8 year olds.  Those who need pictures and a large font and big spaces between lines and short chapters.  The illustrations, however, in the book make the main character and her friends seem like high school students, with their heavily makeup looking faces, or at least middle school with the main character wearing hijab.  After reading the book, twice, I still don’t know how old the main characters are.  They seem pretty independent, but then when Asiyah’s parents have to run some errands, her brother Rad walks her and Lucy to volleyball practice, like an escort.  

That’s another thing, of all the ethnic or religious names that could have been chosen, Rad seems like an odd choice in that it will come across as funny to readers and kind of mitigate the amazingness of having a socially accepted female Muslim athlete on the cover, again, just my opinion.

Another slightly confusing thing for me is that the book is a “Jake Maddox book,” but he isn’t really the author.  After looking in to it, I think it is more like a series or type of sports book that other’s write for and include his standards, “each of his stories is stamped with teamwork, fair play, and a strong sense of self-worth and discipline (http://www.capstonepub.com/consumer/products/digging-deep/).” The book is ok for 2nd graders, the lessons learned will resonate in the moment and teach a point, but the characters will be quickly forgotten.  The book has questions at the end and a glossary of volleyball terms which would be great for kids interested in volleyball.  

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FLAGS:

Clean, the characters listen to music and Asiyah plays the piano.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a book club book, but with the standards of sportsmanship and the integrity I’d probably have it in my classroom.  The book is a super short read, so reading it would help boost struggling reader’s confidence, and with so many books in the series, if the child likes sports, they will have lots of options with positive messages to engage with.

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