Our Granddad by Maryam Ahmed illustrated by Kulthum Burgess

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Our Granddad by Maryam Ahmed illustrated by Kulthum Burgess

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This 29 page (four chapter) middle elementary book about understanding sickness, old age, and a bit of death, makes some good points about sabr and dua and Allah testing us with illness.  The story, however, is really dry and never becomes more than just a vehicle for conveying the author’s message of how Islam views elders and the challenges often brought upon as they age.

SYNOPSIS:

Hafsah, age 8, and her 11 year old brother Hasan are meeting after school so that they can join their parent’s in the long drive to Devon to check on their sick grandfather.  The drive is apparently really long, but being that we don’t know where the kids live or how long the drive is, we just know it is a long, painful, miserable drive.  The family is silent with worry about the grandfather on the trip, but no indicators as to what his diagnosis or symptoms are is given, just that he is ill and as the night and drive progress, the children worry he is dying.  Hasan, in the darkness of the car, sheds some tears about losing his fun granddad, but no details about the adventures they go on, or why he is fun are shared.  Their mom encourages them to continue to make dua and tells them that maybe the illness is a blessing, but the children don’t understand what she means by that.

When they arrive, the children are told it is too late bother their granddad and to wait til morning to see him.  The next day the doctor tells them he had an asthma attack and is on new medicines that are helping.  Seems like there should be more to the illness, as asthma once the attack is over can be controlled, and no other mention of heart problems or pneumonia or other diseases are indicated.  Hafsah and Hasan finally get to see him and are surprised he is awake and talking and they learn that sometimes Allah tests us by giving us hardships and that their duas and prayers were helping.  He shares the hadith, “No Muslim is afflicted with an ordeal, be it an illness or something else, without Allah thereby causing his sins to drop away just as a tree sheds its leaves.” Unfortunately, the hadith is not footnoted or attributed, but the characters and readers understand the lesson and find peace in knowing that every hardship is an opportunity not a punishment.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the concept of the book, just not the execution of the principles it instructionally conveys.  Kids need books that explain some of the big concepts that they can’t necessarily understand or even ask about, such is why do we get sick, what is going to happen to our grandparents etc.  The book really just needed more showing and less telling.  It details how the kids chase each other home from school, but doesn’t tell of the adventures that granddad and Hasan go on, it just tells us that they miss having these adventures.  There is no character development, and there is definitely space for the reader to feel for the grandpa and the concern of the kids, but it is glossed over in words not in anecdotal sharing.

The book is British, and some of the words and phrases might be confusing to American kids, such as the description of the grandfather being poorly used repetitively.

The book is presented well with clear font and spacing on glossy pages bound in a hard illustrated cover.  There are small detailed life-like pictures throughout the story that show the kids and family.  The females are in hijab and the family is clearly Muslim.

 

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This is probably a decent book to have in an Islamic School library, it would function as a reference book more than a novel or book kids would naturally pick up.  If doing a theme on aging or sickness, or tests from Allah, this book would fit in nicely in adding to a discussion, but outside of that, I can’t see that kids will even remember the book or what it is about.

 

 

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Yani’s Hajj: The Journey of a Lifetime by Fawzia Gilani illustrated by Sophie Burrows

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Yani’s Hajj: The Journey of a Lifetime by Fawzia Gilani illustrated by Sophie Burrows

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With less than a month until Hajj, this book should definitely start making an appearance in your children’s story selection rotation.  The focus is not on the parts of hajj, but rather the desire and intense yearning to go for the sake of Allah (swt).  Granted, it doesn’t take much to get me to cry these days, but this 27 page book for ages 5 and up, got me emotional.  Going for hajj is always something to plan for and hope for, and the sweetness of the reminder that we plan, and Allah plans and Allah is the best of planners is so beautifully brought to life, that I benefitted from the reminder and my kids from the lesson.

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Yan is a farmer, a poor farmer, who loves Allah and wants to go for hajj more than anything else.  So he decides to work hard and fill up his money bag so that he may go.  After years of hard work his bag is full and he begins his first steps in his journey proclaiming his love for Allah.  After a few days of walking however, he comes upon some sad children who have recently lost their school to a fire.  Yan, uses his money and time to fix the school and returns back to his farm to start saving up again to go for hajj.IMG_5486.jpg

When his bag is full again and he sets out again, he is met by an injured boy who is being yelled at by his owner.  Yan, once again reaches into his money bag to generously do the right thing, in this case to pay off the boy’s debts and takes the boy home with him to be nursed back to health.

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After some time he again has a full money bag and sets off for Hajj.  Along the way he finds a village trying to build a mosque and after two months of helping with the funds and offering his own labor, the mosque is complete and Yan returns home.

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Now Yan is old, and after many years he looks in his money bag and it is not full and he sadly admits he cannot do hajj.  But then the boy he saved, Habeeb, returns with a horse cart to take him for hajj and they pass through the village where he repaired the school and is greeted with rose petals and gifts of ihram, they then pass by the mosque he helped build and the villagers gift him with food and water, they then arrive at Habeeb’s house and he is given a bag filled with money and at long last Yan’s dream comes true as he sees the Kaaba.

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The book shows how steadfast Yan’s love of Allah is and how generous and patient he is in pursuing that love. The illustrations of him aging are truly touching and gentle.  In some ways it reminded me of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, but with a happier ending, in bringing a large grown up concept down to size and presenting it in a genuine way.

 

 

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

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Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

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This is not a YA book.  The back of the book and about 75% of the story could really make it seem ok for mature middle school and early high school readers, but I’m reviewing it as a “public service announcement,” that it really isn’t appropriate for a young adult demographic.  No where does the book claim to be YA, I’ve just seen a lot of people online ask if their 13-16 year old (ish) daughters would like it.  That being said, the 351 pages of halal romantic comedy a’ la Pride and Prejudice inspiration, really is a fun light summer read that I enjoyed and feel young college age girls and up will too.

SYNOPSIS:

Set in Canada, Ayesha is 27 and still sorting out what she wants in life while considering expectation, obligation, and passion.  Born in India, she came to Canada after her father died in secretive circumstances, and with a workaholic mom against marriage, a Nani who once studied to be a police officer, a Nana who quotes Shakespeare at all times, Clara, a best friend, and a flighty beautiful younger richer cousin, this cast of characters cheer her on, gently nudge her, and support her, giving a diverse and nuanced view of what a Muslim family looks like and how they interact.  Then throw in Khalid.  A very black and white character in his views on Islam, and culture and pretty much everything, and you have a storyline with a lot of potential, twists, and interconnections.  

Khalid works with Clara, lives across the street from Ayesha, and has an incredibly controlling mom who has just sent a marriage proposal to Ayesha’s flighty cousin Hafsa.  When a conference at the masjid forces Ayesha and Khalid to work together after meeting earlier, tension and sparks fly, and to top it all off Ayesha is pretending to be Hafsa. 

Khalid has his own team of supporting characters, Amir an alcoholic- womanizing-homeless colleague who for some reason is considered a friend, a sister who was banished to India and forced into an arranged marriage 12 years earlier, an Islamaphobe boss, and his own baggage regarding his father’s sudden death. 

Bring in the Wickham character of Tarek and the cast of characters is complete for all the action to go down at the mosque and give the Aunty Brigade a whole lot of gossip to process and spread.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is fairly predictable in the major story arcs, but there are a lot of twists that keep you hooked, and the author’s writing is smooth and fluid.  Being it is a loose retelling of a classic, I wasn’t expecting much and was pleasantly surprised how well the story would stand alone as an OWN voice piece about growing, maturing, changing and willing to challenge oneself. 

I love that every Muslim and desi character in the book is different and unique and not a cookie cutter of stereotypes and tropes.  Most of the females cover, but they are nuanced in how they do it, what it means, how they carry themselves etc., some shake hands with males some don’t, some are comfortable in bars, some are more reserved, some have never had a boyfriend, some have, and they really show the reader that Islam is a deeply personal conviction and the rules are interpreted and challenged differently for each person.  It also shows different male approaches and the internal struggles of doing what you want to do and what you know you should or shouldn’t do in a very realistic non preachy way.

My favorite relationship by far is that of Ayesha and Clara, I love that Ayesha’s non Muslim friend knows that Khadijah (RA) proposed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and jokes about rishtas and frequently asks “What would Nana do.”  Seriously, as someone of  Paki background, who started covering in high school, who is half American and proud to be Muslim, this is friendship goals!

The book is perfect for the beach, or a day at the pool, it is light and silly and really you just go with the outrageousness of some of the details.  There are a few thought provoking themes, but really it is just fun and sweet.

FLAGS:

I was really impressed how halal the main story romance remained, however a few of the side stories are a little intense for younger readers and don’t really appear until about 2/3rds of the way into the book.  Yes, Clara has a live in boyfriend and there are a few jokes and situations involving  hooking up, virginity and porn, along with some characters smoking and drinking and being around alcohol, but then the climax really puts more mature situations on center stage. 

Khalid’s sister had an abortion resulting from a pre-marriage relationship and thus was sent to India.  Amir shows Khalid a porn website where hijabi and niqabis strip and pose, a website that is discovered Tarek runs and Hafsa is featured on. The website and the pregnancy/abortion really are the crux of the book and it becomes a big portion of the last third of the book.  It isn’t that the content is overly detailed, it just what the concept presents.  It isn’t salacious or pornographic or titillating in presenting the information to the reader, but the mere presence of it in the story would make it inappropriate for a YA book or younger readers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way the book could be taught in an Islamic school book club setting, however, if the teachers wanted to start a book club, this one would be a great candidate.

 

 

 

Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed illustrated Anoosha Syed

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Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed illustrated Anoosha Syed

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Aside from me desperately wanting to get Bilal’s family a pressure cooker this 40 page book does a good job, and follows a reliable tradition of using food to introduce a “foreign” culture while simultaneously showing universal themes that show how similar we all are when it comes to family, meals, friends and feeling loved.  

Bilal’s favorite food is daal, lentils, and when he is out riding his bike with his friends, his father calls him in to help him make it.  Confused as to why Bilal’s dad would need to start dinner so early in the day, Bilal’s friends join in, in helping make the slow cooking traditional asian subcontinent dish.

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They line up the spices, they put it in the pot, and then they wait.  They put their shoes back on and play hopscotch, they go swimming, they go for a hike and it still isn’t done. 

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At one point Bilal is worried his friends won’t like it, but after waiting all day and gathering more friends at each activity, when the time finally comes they all dive in and love it.

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I love the diversity of the friends and that the dad is cooking and involving his son.  I also like that everyone is willing to try something new and give it a chance.

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The book would work for all kids ages 4 and up with the expressive colorful illustrations, diction, and amount of text on the page.  The book is 9×8 so it works well in small groups and at bedtime.  

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If you eat daal your kids will love seeing themselves in the pages, if you have never had daal there is a recipe at the end following an Author’s Note. 

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There is nothing religious in the book, and anyone from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh could easily take ownership of the dish and story.  The Author’s note mentions that Bilal’s grandparents are from Pakistan and with a name of Bilal chances are he is a Muslim character.

 

The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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At 246 pages I’m not sure if this book would be classified as Young Adult, but I think it could be, as its message, focus and presentation makes it a valuable thought provoking read.  And the cleanliness of everything being resolved so neatly might almost be too coincidental for older, more jaded readers, where I personally wasn’t too bothered by how much emotional action was packed in to the book and how quickly it was resolved as the characters were compelling and the pacing made it an enjoyable quick read.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows two women, Reem and Leah as their very different worlds and circumstances come together when they move in to the same apartment building.

Reem is a Syrian refugee whose past is presented in bits and pieces as her fragmented memories surface in the story.  She is searching for her 10 year old brother Adar, as well as trying to create a future for her self in London.

Leah has recently lost her husband, left her training as a doctor, and is trying to make a life for her and her son, Elijah, away from her parents’ shadow of expectation and demands.

When the two ladies meet, neither is completely settled or functioning, yet the desperation each is feeling causes Reem to ask for Leah’s help, and Leah agreeing.  The two become friends as they share parts of their world with one another and slowly start to heal.

Then Reem’s secret pregnancy comes to light, her abusive husband finds her, Leah’s posh friends abandon her, and their apartment building, the tower, catches fire.  Granted it doesn’t all happen that quick and there are lots of details that make their pasts, their friendship, and their goals for the future believable and inspiring, as well as making the pain for those lost in the fire emotionally wrenching.

As the two women once again try and survive hardship, this time together, they make progress before a terrorist attack on the mosque again sets them back.  Through all these major plot points details about how Reem got to England, and the atrocities she suffered that her mind blocked out are made clear.  Additionally, more about Leah and her families involvement in the tower fire and their friends’ involvement in human trafficking all tie the lose ends up. In the final pages there is hope and resilience and respect from the reader for the brave characters brought to life and their determination to persevere.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is a very personal, character driven story about a horrific fire, reminiscent of the Grenfell fire which claimed the lives of over 70 people.  I also absolutely love how Islam is presented.  The Muslim characters are tangibly real.  Reem wants to fast because it is Ramadan, but has the excuse that she is pregnant, but tries anyway.  She prays, she covers, she meets a Muslim that doesn’t cover, but they pray together at the mosque later and become great friends.  Leah is interested in Islam and asks questions and when she cooks for her Muslim friends she gets halal meat.  There is an amazingly helpful character Mo in the story who Leah is crushing on, but he refuses to be alone with her, or touch her, and when she tells him of her feelings, he says that everything she likes isn’t him it is his religion.  Leah and Reem discuss how the sunnah’s of the Prophet influence Mo and his brother and it is quite detailed.  Quranic ayats are quoted in character’s dialogues in natural presentations, not preachy or misplaced.  It hints at the end, when Leah has joined Doctors Without Borders and is in the Middle East that perhaps she has taken shahada, but it isn’t a plot point and isn’t mentioned explicitly.

My biggest complaint about the book is the random foreshadowing that pulls out from the story to hint that something more is going to happen between certain characters or be of more importance later.  I think it happened three times, and each time completely unnecessary. The story and characters and writing are clear and done well enough that needing the hint sells it all short and it wasn’t just annoying and irritating, it really kind of made me mad.  Here I was feeling an attachment for a character or what they were experiencing only to be reminded that there will be more, rather than letting me go along for the ride with the character.

I also was bothered by the font and spacing.  It is really tight on the pages, but with big margins, that a little breathing room would have been nice.  So, much happens in the book, that I wanted to be able to relish in each event and often I felt the presentation made it rushed and I found myself skimming, more than I would have liked.  I would have also liked to know what parts, if any, were based on or inspired by real events: the tower fire, human trafficking, stealing organs, artifacts coming out of Syria, refugee treatment in London, etc.

FLAGS:

There are memories of war and dead bodies.  The stealing of organs and dumping of bodies into the ocean.  There is a lot of death after the fire and after the shooting at the mosque.  There is a lot of blood, a terrorist act, a baby being delivered, a drunk man at a party.  Nothing is overly sensationalized, but it is a gripping book with some intense moments.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if middle school can handle the book, the characters are older, so it won’t resonate with them like a traditional YA book would, but I’m tempted to have my almost 13 year old read it so we can discuss.  I will most definitely suggest it to the high school book club adviser as there is a ton to discuss and relate to in this action packed book.

Author’s website and Q and A: https://shereenmalherbe.com/

 

 

Lubna and the Pebble by Wendy Meddour illustrated by Daniel Egneus

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Lubna and the Pebble by Wendy Meddour illustrated by Daniel Egneus

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This beautifully illustrated book with simple text and story, is heartwarming and powerful in conveying emotion about child refugees. 

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The 32 pages tell the story of young Lubna who has escaped something horrible and picks up a pebble when she and her father reach their new home, a World of Tents.  She finds a felt tip pen and draws a face on the pebble and the pebble becomes her friend.  She tells it her secrets, her dreams, she keeps it warm as winter approaches.

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Then a little boy arrives, Amir, and Lubna and he become friends and she introduces him to Pebble.  One day Lubna learns she is leaving the tents to go to a new home and even though Pebble is still her best friend, she knows Amir needs him more.

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This book is truly a picture book, as the text is made magical because of the pictures.  The simplicity and love that Lubna feels for a rock reveals how much pain she has seen without details having to be given.  The fact that Amir doesn’t laugh or find being friends with a rock odd, cements the idea that these children have seen too much.  The compassion that Lubna displays by passing on her beloved Pebble also shows how much love and comfort they have, we all have, to give.

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The book has many layers, and the superficial one makes it a sweet story for children as young as four, the deeper understanding would appeal to kids up to 2nd or 3rd grade.  There is no mention of religion, culture, or a specific country.  I think Muslim children will assume Amir and Lubna are Muslim, but really the names could be from any culture or faith.

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We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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A mature upper middle school/high school aged fantasy romance, written by a nikabi and filled with ancient Arab imagery and Arabic words.  Story-wise it read to me like a mashup of Hunger Games and Ember in the Ashes, and while the overall story is good, the first 60 pages of world building were utterly confusing to me.  I told myself I would read at least 100 pages and then decide if I wanted to continue, luckily before I hit 100 pages I found a glossary of terms, characters, and places online, and the story moved from world building to character development and I enjoyed the rest of the ride.

SYNOPSIS:

In a world that is slowly being taken over by the dark magic that is the Arz, a deadly forest that surrounds the country of Arawiya, one girl in one of the five Caliphates, Zafira, dares to venture into the darkness to hunt game and prevent her people from starving.  Unfortunately the Caliph of her state looks down upon women and this regular heroic act must be done with her impersonating a man and keeping her efforts as covert as possible.  Life for Zafira is hard as she not only juggles this masquerade, but her father has recently been killed, her mother is mentally absent, her best friend is getting married, the Arz is growing, and the people around her are starving.

In more or less alternating chapters we also learn of Nasir, the ‘Prince of Death’ who is an assassin for the Sultan who has also now taken over as Caliph of Sarasin.  Forced to kill innocent people by his heartless father, Nasir also is mourning the loss of his mother,  as he tries to earn his father’s approval and find some validation for his current life.

The two characters come together when an immortal witch summons Zafira to retrieve a magic book from a cursed island beyond the Arz and Naisr’s father sends him to intercept her.  The majority of the book takes place on the island of Sharr, an island that is not only a location, but a living consuming character, and involves a variety of other enchanted beings from the various states.  An immortal Safin, Benyamin, one of nine elites, Kafirah, and Altair, a general from Sarasin that weaves them altogether and complicates everything.   This group, the zumra, must work together to save Arawiya, while constantly evaluating how much they can trust one another, as well as themselves.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the detail and was pleasantly surprised with the pacing.  The chapters are short and kept the plot from dragging for 471 pages.  Having read it and enjoyed it, I don’t know that I can properly discuss it though.  There are things that I just accepted and moved on with without pondering over, because I don’t know if I understood it well enough to even ask the question aloud.  That being said, I feel like I got the story and I understood where the characters were coming from and I closed the book feeling satisfied and willing to read the next one in the series.  The characters grow and develop and they have a satisfying arc without being overly cliche or predictable.  I think Nasir grows much more than Zafira and knowing that the next book is more focused on him, intrigues me.  Altair is by far the most fascinating character and I hope to see more of him as well.

There is a map at the beginning of the book that I referenced A LOT, and truly I have no idea why the glossary and character list was not included in the book, as it is desperately needed. There are a lot of Arabic words and I would like to get an Arabic speaker’s perspective on how knowing what the terms meant affected the story comprehension. 

I like that Zafira has to find confidence in shedding her cloak and stepping in to herself, but I felt it told it more than it showed.  Some of the states are governed by women, the founders are women, that I didn’t feel her fear in hiding her gender.  Similarly, I wanted more information on who/what exactly the Lion of the Night was/is and where the affinities come from.  Perhaps minor points, but details that kept me from immersing myself in this fantastical land and kept me feeling like an outsider peering in and trying to connect with events just out of reach.

FLAGS:

There is a lot of killing, and some of it gruesome.  There is abuse and details of branding and a tongue being cut out.  There is alluding of sexual acts but nothing defined, random comments between characters and implications of girls in a room in the morning.  There is kissing and an intense makeout session that is used to achieve a battle goal, but it is detailed and the characters reflect on how it made them feel in terms of desire, longing, wanting, etc.  So, while it is there, it is there for a purpose other than titillation, that is why I think mature middle school could handle it.  There is a scene in a bar, but none of the main characters drink.  There is some language, albeit not in English.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I could do this with 6th graders in my middle school book club, but I will definitely suggest it for the high school one.  I think there are a lot of ways things can be interpreted and because it is a fantasy there is no right or wrong which would make the discussion fascinating.  The romance I think makes the book lean to being more female oriented, but I think there is enough action that boys will also enjoy it overall as well.

Book Website: https://www.wehunttheflame.com/

The book just came out, so I’m sure in the next few weeks and months there will be more tools, more interviews, and more details of what is to come in the series.