A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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This fabulously fresh and honest book told in alternating OWN voices shows how two seemingly different 6th grade girls discover how much they have in common as they learn about themselves and their families along the way.  Sarah is a Muslim Pakistani-American, and Elizabeth is Jewish and has an English immigrant mom, the two come together over food, family stress, discrimination, and middle school social drama to form a solid friendship.  But fear not, it isn’t easy and the book will keep upper elementary/ early middle school girls hooked.  Not sure if boys will be as drawn to it, but if they can get over the brief mention of having a period, they too will enjoy the story.  The 336 page book shows how much we have in common, and how hard fitting in can be for everyone.

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah is starting a new school, a public one, having been at a small Islamic school prior to 6th grade.  She is not happy about it and to top it off, her mother is teaching an after-school cooking class at the school that she is required to attend.  Hoping to sit in the back drawing and go unnoticed, she finds she can’t sit quiet when her classmates start giving her mom a hard time.  Unaware of why she had to leave her previous school, and tired of her mom needing her help with her catering business, Sara also has to help her mom study for her citizenship test, handle two little brothers, deal with no friends at school and not being able to celebrate Halloween.

Elizabeth loves cooking. Her mother does not.   She is excited to learn Pakistani food at the cooking club even if her best friend thinks they shouldn’t be learning things from “them.” Elizabeth is admittedly nerdy, and struggling with a life-long friend finding others to spend time with, her life at home is difficult too.  Her dad is always traveling for work, and her mom is depressed with the recent passing of her mother in England, to the point of not really functioning.  With Elizabeth doing the cooking at home, and trying to get her mom to study for her citizenship test, Jewish holidays and obligations get neglected, and Elizabeth not knowing how to help her new Muslim friend handle racism,  is spiraling herself.

When the two girls decide to give each other a chance they find they might be able to be more than just cooking partners, but it seems like one of them always does something to mess it up.  Either saying something hurtful, getting defensive, or not sticking up for each other.   The girls get their mom’s together to study for their test, but it isn’t so easy for the girls, who are hesitant to trust one another.

An upcoming cooking competition, offers the girls a chance to make a cross cultural fusion dish that can wow the judges, help Sarah’s family’s financial situation, prove to the school that diversity is a good thing, and hopefully give the two girls a solid friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic it sounds and feels and how it doesn’t focus on boys or crushes, but on friendship between two girls at an awkward point in their lives and the family stresses they are experiencing.  The book is for all readers and does a great job of not going overboard with what the girls face.  I love how tolerant they have to learn to be with one another and that they have to learn to drop their defensive guards.

I read the book in two settings and didn’t want to put it down, it has enough pull that you really want to see where the book is going and are happy to overlook the slight repetitiveness of them stressing about the competition, but doing nothing but talking about the stress. Really the competition doesn’t even seem that important at the end, but considering everything going on, that to me is exactly as it should be.

I love the rich culture of Pakistan, England, Islam, and Judaism that seep in and never get preachy or dogmatic, but get celebrated and experienced.  This is why OWN voice books are so beautiful and powerful.  Admittedly, Elizabeth’s family is not super religious, but a few more similarities would have been nice.  Yes her brothers are eating pepperoni Hot Pockets, but a shout out about halal/kosher marshmallows would have really rung true for so many of us that stock up at Passover.

I also love how the side characters have substance and aren’t just used as a foil to show something about the main characters.  They get a little flesh on their own, and that enhances the richness of the story.  Seeing that they have their own struggles to overcome as well shows how none of us have it all together, and that we are all capable of improving ourselves.

FLAGS:

The girls meet during school hours when Elizabeth lies about her period starting to get out of class.  Sarah mentions that hers has already started.  Elizabeth mentions that her Jewish grandmother is visiting her son and his husband, nothing more is said, just that.  There are some derogatory things said about Sarah and being Muslim and Pakistani, but really mild.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to find a way to do this book for a middle school book club.  I’ve already told my 13 year- old daughter it is required summer reading.  The Muslims have diversity within themselves, some wear hijab, Sarah does not.   The book is so relatable and the personas sound the age for their views and struggles and perspective.  The financial stress, the mental illness, the immigrant experience, the racism, the politics, are all wonderfully woven together, and the food, well, there is a reason I didn’t recommend this book at the beginning of Ramadan, you are welcome.  Happy Reading.

 

Our Superhero Edhi Baba written and illustrated by Maria Riaz

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Our Superhero Edhi Baba written and illustrated by Maria Riaz

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This is a hard review to write.  I have been trying to get this book in my hands since it was published and just could not.  I’d ask people to bring it from Pakistan, or try and order it on Amazon to find it out of stock.  And then finally I was fortunate that my cousin was able to purchase it for me, get it to my dad who was visiting Karachi, my dad then mailed it to me within the U.S. and voila a book that sells online for $15 (and is currently in stock) in my hand for RS 475 (less than $3), I mention this because if I had paid $15 for a 7×7 inch book that has only 16 pages, I’d be grumpy.  Having paid less than $3 (plus shipping) and involved multiple family members in the process, if I’m honest, I’m still a little disappointed with.

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The book is beautifully illustrated, the author is the illustrator so why not make the book larger, so the illustrations could be appreciated?  The book is really short and very vague, even the note at the end could provide so much more about this national hero, his accomplishments, his struggles, his goals, his legacy.  And I’m not sure why it doesn’t.

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The book is framed with kids presenting superheroes in class: Superman, Hulk, Spiderman, etc., two kids wearing grey shirts and white pants start their presentation about Edhi.

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In rhyming lines the kids talk about how Edhi’s mother would give to the needy and how he continued this giving whatever he could spare from a young age.  How giving everyday made his heart grow big.  He gave to everyone and didn’t discriminate based on skin.  It mentions that he started an ambulance service and we should follow his plan of helping and donating.

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The note at the end talks about how to donate and how superheroes have big hearts and share not just with people they like, but even people they don’t like.  The author then says that she donates money and skill.

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The writing is clear enough for the sparse words on the page.  I don’t want to critique a Pakistani writing rhymes in British English, because I speak one language, and clearly realize the beauty in being able to speak and write and convey in more than one language, but it is a bit awkward in parts.

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The idea of the book is beautiful.  Edhi was a humanitarian that needs recognition both within Pakistan and abroad.  But, I really wish this book had a bit more substance to it.  I think it can get a conversation going with little kids, but older kids will find it very generic, and unless a nearby adult can add to the story, it sadly won’t be remembered.

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A portion of the book goes to support edhi.org, but it doesn’t specify how much.

(size reference):

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The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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While in the midst of moving from Knoxville to Birmingham nearly 4 years ago, a lady reached out to me telling me that a colleague of hers, also an author, was a follower and fan of my blog and had recently passed away, she asked if she could send me a copy of her friend’s books.  I agreed, not knowing what type of books the lady had written and didn’t think much of it.  In the chaos that is moving, I received the books and boxed them up and then unboxed them and vaguely remembered that they were about Muslims in China.  I put them in the to be read pile and just never got to them.  Then as the plight of the Uyghurs started to be known here in the US, something tickled my brain, but nothing came of it, until recently when I realized, a lady, a non Muslim years ago was trying to tell the Uyghur’s story, and had reached out to me, and I didn’t get it, and still wasn’t getting it.  So alas, I have now read the Vine Basket, and while it might not present Islam the way we are used to seeing it in life and in print, the characters do identify as Muslim and this middle grade book is a simply woven, beautiful story that gives voice to a population that is horrifically being silenced.  The AR 5.0, 252 page book is a quiet book that will stay with me: the drunken father, the threat of being sent to a factory, the loss of tradition;  I am so glad I read the book, and only wish I could reach out to the author to hear more about her knowledge of the region, of the people, of the culture that is being erased.

SYNOPSIS:

Mehrigul is 14, and since her older brother left, she has been forced to leave school to help her father sell goods in the marketplace.  More often than not though, it is solely Mehrigul’s responsibility as her father drinks and gambles away the meager earnings the family makes. Her mother, ashamed of the poverty the family endures along with some presumed mental illness and headaches, seeps further and further away from the reality of life and the chores that need to be done to ensure food and survival of the family.  Her younger sister is the only spark in a dreary and difficult life, and Mehrigul is determined that she should stay in school and be shielded from the darkness hanging over the family.

One day while in the market, an American woman approaches Mehrigul and asks to purchase a frivolous grape vine basket Mehrigul had made and hung to decorate the cart.  She offers her 100 yuan, more money than Mehrigul has ever seen, and asks her to make more baskets, and that she will be back in a month to purchase them. The basket serves no purpose like the willow baskets her grandfather weaves and despite the money, Mehrigul’s father is not happy.

Mehrigul is forbidden from making the baskets for the American, and the fact that she will even return is dismissed.  Her father grows increasingly cruel toward Mehrigul and keeps her busy to prevent her from making more.  Mehrigul seeks solace in her elderly infirm grandfather who tries to help her find inspiration and time to make her baskets as he sees in her a gift that has value in their old culture.  At one point as her father steals her baskets to take on a “religious” pilgrimage to the mountains.  And her planting crops in the fields leaves her hands cut and swollen, unable to make more with just days left before the American lady is due to return.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I was really uncomfortable with the idea of a white American savior coming to a dying oppressed culture to offer hope, until I read the afterwards and understood that much of the story was inspired by the author’s own experience and that she worked with Uyghur’s to get the story right.  The book reads like historical fiction which makes the day to day life of this modern book all the more heart breaking, it isn’t about the past it is the present, and life in East Turkestan is bleak.  I like the character of the father, he is an abusive mess, yet somehow it isn’t that easy to write him off, he has his own struggles and the depth of character I found in him, in a middle grades book, is haunting.  I also really like how Mehrigul’s story is so foreign to us here in America, yet her emotions and insights are universal and thus relatable.  She wants to find her place, and excel, and help her family, and she is scared, doesn’t know who to trust, and takes on more than most children any where should, but often are forced to do.

The characters identify as Muslim and as a people the Uyghurs are Muslim.  They say salam in the story, but only to the grandfather, and the girls all cover their hair with scarves.  The father obviously drinks and gambles, two practices, not permitted in Islam.  Mehrigul fastens a talisman and connects her prayers to it as a form of worship which I would imagine is cultural perhaps, and when things go awry she remarks she should have prayed to Allah swt.  The father goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, which again seems off from traditional Islam, but is presented in the book instead as odd because the father is not normally religious.  Islam is not a big part of the book, so it is hard to know if the representation of it are isolated to who the author met, or a larger norm of the community.  Considering how isolated and oppressed the Uyghurs are, I tried really hard to suspend judgement, or offer my privileged limited critique of the people.

FLAGS:

Drinking, gambling, abusive father, anger, lying, deception.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle grades or even middle school book club, there is so much going on in China and in the erasing of Islam there that this book would supplement the news and few stories we are hearing.  It opens up the culture and gives it a face that is not political, but personal.  The faults of the father are not glorified at all, and the discussion about his desire to hold on to culture and fear about his daughter surpassing him would be fascinating to hear from people the protagonists age.

Go On, Zap Shaytan: Seeking Shelter with Allah by Razana Noor illustrated by Omar Burgess

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Go On, Zap Shaytan: Seeking Shelter with Allah by Razana Noor illustrated by Omar Burgess

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In rhyming couplets spread out over 32 pages with adorable illustrations, this book is a great introduction to the whispers of shaytan that encourage us to be naughty, and how to counter them without frightnening young listeners.  Meant for preschool age children and up, this is the second book by the author discussing an important religious concept in an easy to understand manner (the first book was about Kiraman Katibinthat empowers children to make great choices and find strength in doing so, even when mistakes are made.4CB95EFD-0B5A-4725-B110-4361E48CD9A4

The “Note to Parents” at the beginning provides great framework for the takeaway message of the book.  That yes, shaytan whispers to us and we will make mistakes, but the power is ours to overcome such temptations and inshaAllah do good.

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The book starts out a bit shakey for me as the rhyming is a bit off on one page, and the blame for the little boy with the great hair’s naughtiness is blamed solely on shaytan.  As a former teacher, this is always a tricky concept when trying to teach children to take responsibility for their actions, but then knowing full well that shayateen are real too.

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Once the flip side, of how to protect yourself from shaytan, starts: by saying aoudhu-billahi minashaytanir rajeem, bismillah, salam, reading Quran, calling athan, etc.. the book flows really well.

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I love how much information is conveyed about the jinn and their purpose and how they cower and put their fingers in their ears to not hear the praise of Allah swt.

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There is a glossary for the Arabic words and Islamic references, some kids might need some additional understanding about jin and responsibiltiy, but a solid book that I have read over 20 times to my 4 year old in the last week, alhumdulillah.

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Thank you again to Crescent Moon Storefor their incredibly quick fullfillment of the order.

The Story of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him): Ramadan Classics: 30 Stories for 30 Nights by Humera Malik

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The Story of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him): Ramadan Classics: 30 Stories for 30 Nights by Humera Malik

the story of prophet muhammad

I debated posting about this book for so long that Ramadan is more than half over.  But as a reference for years to come, I thought I should go ahead and throw my late support toward this Ramadan tradition and a book deserving of space on your shelf for children 4th grade and up.  I’ve seen people praising it for a few years, and finally I ordered it this year, however, I wanted to not only read it, but also test it out first: reading a story a day, discussing and asking the correlating questions with my own children, before reporting back.  I cannot and thus won’t comment on the accuracy of authenticity of the book, nothing stood out as erroneous to me and there is a bibliography at the back, but there is a reason I try and steer clear of non fiction, I’m just not qualified to comment.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with the birth of Prophet Muhammad (saw) and ends with the selection of Abu Bakr (ra) as the first Khalifah.  Each chapter is between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half pages and the 30 chapters plus one Eid day chapter (so a total of 31), covers 103 pages in all.  There are a few pictures of where the Battle of Badr took place, the Cave of Hira, not many.  There are three questions at the back of the book for each of the chapters, but no answers.  The book is pretty linear, just the second chapter bounces back to Prophet Abraham (as) and Hagar and the story of Zamzam and then the rebuilding of the Ka’bah.  It is a glorified timeline, which in this case is a good thing.  It doesn’t go off on tangents or provide a ton of outside references, it is concise and general, but hits the key parts: marriage to Khadijah, first revelation, migration to Abyssinia, Taif, Hijrah, treatment of slaves, year of sorrow, Battle of Badr, Battle of Uhud, Treaty of Hudaibiyah, it talks of tensions with various tribes, coming to an agreement about the Khalifah, and more.

I think younger children might possibly be able to have the short chapters read to them and then explained, but really, it would be a lot to process.  The words are simplified and the gist of situations are conveyed, but topics aren’t necessarily shied away from.  It discusses that Prophet Muhammad (saw) had more than one wife, and that there were slaves, and there were tensions with the Jews, and Bilal was tortured, all things that picture books might skip over.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that even my young teen could read and involve herself without feeling like the exercise was childish.  Many of the answers are open ended in nature and require more than just a one word answer.  It allows for children to add other facts that they know about RasulAllah to the dialogue and make connections to our history with our current life very easily.  Even children that know the story of Prophet Muhammad (saw) will find the book engaging and smooth enough to read through again (and hopefully again each Ramadan) and learn new tidbits, understand concepts more clearly and be reminded about the beauty of our Prophet.

FLAGS:

Nothing

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If I was a teacher, I would definitely start each morning reading a chapter and doing the Q and A, whether it was Ramadan or not.  I think we need to be more connected to our Prophet and grow our love and appreciation for him, so books like this are such a great tool in accomplishing that goal.

 

Mikaeel and Malaika: The Power of Dua by Kazima Wajahat illustrated by Gustavo Gutierrez

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Mikaeel and Malaika: The Power of Dua by Kazima Wajahat illustrated by Gustavo Gutierrez

power of duaMikaeel and Malaika are back in this 32 page hardback book that explores why duas sometime seem not to come true.  Done in a hilarious manner that brings in riddles and problem solving elements, it is perfect for 6-8 year olds.  Younger children will enjoy the beautiful illustrations and silliness, and older children (and parents) will thoroughly enjoy Big Boss’s play on words and the illustrations showing his parenting style.  I’ve read the book multiple times to myself, my toddler, and even my older kids; each time surpressing a smile and enjoying the message lovingly and entertainingly conveyed: “rewards are best when the time is right.”

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The book starts out with a problem to be solved, a mystery: who took the shoes from the masjid.  I know such a real world problem in a picture book, but fear not, super hero siblings Mikaeel and Malaika are on it.  There is just one problem, their super powers are gone.

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They head to Big Boss, aka their father, to find out what happened to their powers, only to learn they were part of a “14 day free trial” and their superjet? It was sold on Spamazon. At a loss of what to do, Big Boss reminds them that they have one super power left, the power of dua.

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The kids run to pray and then they wait.  When they can wait no longer, they go to see if the shoes have been returned, but…they haven’t. Big Boss gives them some sage rhyming explanaition that they don’t understand, but try to unravel in an apple orchard.  When that doesn’t work, he gives them more advice and they follow it up in a butterfly garden. With no answer insight, Mikaeel gets frusterated and wants to know why his dua won’t come true.

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Finally understanding that Allah (swt) does things at the perfect time and only at the perfect time, the children change their dua and the shoes are found, and the lesson learned and shared.

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I love Big Boss, and this book makes it much more clear than in Mikaeel and Malaika: The Quest for Love, that his advice and riddles are in rhyme, but that the rest of the text is not.  I love that he is a hands on parent changing diapers, cooking, and guiding his kids. His steralizing of an infintile waste unit, and skimming a superhero manual are awesome and silly.

The book is about Muslim children, for Muslim children, but I think any child would enjoy the story to learn what Muslims believe, and any religious child who believes that there is one creator would be able to relate to the story as well.

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The book ends with an ayat from the Qur’an in English promising that Allah swt answers the prayers of the supplicants.  InshaAllah there will be more Mikaeel and Malaika adventures, and more of Big Boss and Super Agent M.O.M., too.

 

 

The Most Powerful Night: A Ramadan Story by Nada Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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The Most Powerful Night: A Ramadan Story by Nada Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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This beautiful poetic book about Laylat Al-Qadr explains in detail and wonder the importance of the most blessed night in the blessed month of Ramadan.  The soft purples and pinks of Laila’s room, and the repetitive refrains set the mood and tone of an informative bedtime story that will convey the awe and mercy of the night to seven and eight year olds.

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The book is 40 pages, and pretty text heavy, but it flows smooth enough, and the details in the pictures are enough to keep little ones engaged. Younger and older children will also enjoy the story as both an introduction to the night the Quran first came down, and as a reminder of the gifts to be had.

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Laila is sad that Ramadan is leaving as she peers out the window and sees the moon resmembling a crescent again.  Her mother takes the opportunity to tell her about the blessings of the last ten nights, and Laylat Al-Qadr specifically.

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“The Night of Power and Miracles,” Laila’s mother explains is a night like no other, that comes only once a year.  Thousands of angels come down until there isn’t a speck of space that they do not fill.

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The night that is better than a thousand months and all our deeds are multiplied 70 times, the night the Holy Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (saw).

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Laila wants to make sure she pronounces it correctly and practices saying Laylat Al-Qadr.  Excited to make sure she is praying and reading Quran that night, she is desperate to know what day it is.  Her mother explains to her that we do not know.  Laila uses this to her advantage to get to stay up past bedtime for each of the last 10 days.

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The book begins with Surah Al Qadr in Arabic and with the meaning of the translation in English.  It ends with a glossary, more information about Ramadan, and a glimpse of the author’s first book: Ramadan Around the World.

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The 9 x 11 hardback binding and font are beautifully done and with there no other books for children that I can think of that discuss Laylat Al-Qadr, I foresee this one being read at least once a year, if not more, for many years to come, alhumduillah.