Amira’s Family by Elliot Riley illustrated by Srimalie Bassani

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Amira’s Family by Elliot Riley illustrated by Srimalie Bassani

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This 24 page, AR 1.5 book, is part of a series for emergent readers about different families.  The other books in the series focus on diverse family models, some that include a single parent, or lots of siblings, one in the series has foster kids, another adoption, one has two moms, so I’m not entirely sure why a refugee family is included in the group.  The family had to leave a dangerous home, but mom and dad and Amira, are not a “diverse” family structure, by the same definition used for the other books.  So, on its own it is nice to have a book for independent kindergarten and 1st grade readers, but as part of the collection, I find it a bit of a stretch.

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The book is divided into three chapters, or sections I guess, perhaps so that early readers can gain experience with a Table of Contents at the beginning.  There is also a Picture Glossary at the end along with a page encouraging Family Fun and a bit about the author.

The book starts out introducing Amira, and her parents.  It then explains that they just moved to a new country, America, when a war started in their country.  It notes that Amira was sad to leave her home, and scared to move to a new place.

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When Amira starts at school, the classmates welcome her and help her with the language.  It shows her teaching her language too, but it doesn’t look like more than random squiggles.  It then shows she likes recess and swings and slides, allowing the reader to see similarities with the character.

C2E8EF21-AC7B-4594-AA53-68B9764AB84DWhen the family goes shopping, Amira sees an American flag, buys it, and hangs it outside their home.  Amira loves her family and they love her, and it seems like they love their new home too.

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The illustrations are simple yet expressive, and show Amira and her mom in hijab.  It does not mention religion, or what country they left.

The story is basic, yet introduces young readers to the concept of refuges in a soft way.  It shows how the classmates are kind and the parents supportive of Amira.  I like that it also shows various emotions in the text and illustrations.

It might be making a bit of a political statement with the flag and national identity undertones, but I think it is a good thing to show that refugees can love a new country and be part of society, especially given the current climate toward immigrants.

I think the strength of this book is that it shows a Muslim character, and while meant for all new readers, Muslim children particularly will enjoy seeing themselves in a book they can read.  I’d check the library before buying the 8×8 paperback book, as it isn’t particularly memorable, but for the age group it serves a diverse and an inclusive purpose.

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Yes No Maybe So by Becky Ablertalli and Aisha Saeed

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Yes No Maybe So by Becky Ablertalli and Aisha Saeed

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This new rom com in book form with a Muslim female character written by a Muslim author, sets itself apart by being co-written by a Jewish author and the other half of the love story being told by a Jewish boy’s point of view.  This YA book is very relevant as a special election in Georgia served as the catalyst of the two authors coming together and fictionalizing the effects of white supremacy, Islamaphobia, and antisemitism for the book, while real headlines were urging the two to canvas, get involved, and make a change against the increased showing of hate with the election of Trump.  The presentation of Islam is probably realistic, but definitely not ideal, and with the kissing, multiple LGBTQ+ supporting characters, the profanities, and 436 page length, the book is probably best for 15 year old readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamie Goldberg is 17 and is spending his summer helping his cousin work on a special election campaign for a Democratic candidate in an incredibly red district in Georgia.  A very nervous kid, who hates public speaking and talking to girls in general, he would rather be behind the scenes or hanging out at Target.  His little sister, Sophie’s bat mitzvah is coming and things at home are crazy with pre party planning.  His grandma, an Instagram sensation uses him for tech support and video filming, and his easy going demeanor means he spends a lot of time, being bossed around.

Maya is the 17 year old only child of a lawyer mom and physician dad and has just found out that they are separating.  With her one friend too busy with work and starting at the University of Georgia, US born, Pakistani-American Muslim Maya, is not having a very good Ramadan.  When an interfaith event reunites her with a childhood play-date friend, Jamie, her mom convinces her to help him canvas to keep busy and sweetens the deal by bribing her with a car.

Naturally the two spend a lot of time together vounteering for Jordan Rossum, stuffing envelopes, canvassing, and putting up signs.  Along their way they become good friends, and invested in the election as a House Bill banning head coverings, and antisemitic bumper stickers start getting plastered around town.  The end of Ramadan, the election, the hate the two encounter, and families changing, bring Jamie and Maya together.

Maya’s parents are pretty chill about boys, and only caution her about unnecessary complications by dating in high school, when Maya throws it back on them, that their relationship is pretty complicated, she seems to not find an Islamic reason not to make-out with Jamie.  The whole book is angsty and the two feign cluelessness, but based on the cover of the book alone you know where it is going.  The true climax is how much the relationship can be used for political gain, and if they can get their candidate elected.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the political setting, it is a different and very relevant slant.  It might be a little alienating to readers outside the United States, because the political process isn’t really detailed, but the characters involvement in their small slice is a major aspect of the book.  The book is definitely pro Democrat, but addresses the gas lighting, hate speech, and views of those on both sides.

I also like that two minority authors came together to share an OWN voice perspective of life today.  For the most part the story telling is smooth with the two characters getting alternating chapters to tell their story from their point of view.  A few times, I felt details were missing, for example what Maya wore for Eid, when space was given to detail that she didn’t wear ethnic clothes to an iftar, and her picking a dress for Sophie’s bat mitzvah.  Similarly, Maya’s parents seemed flat for their trial separation being a major part of Maya’s stress.  Jamie’s grandma was probably my favorite side character, and one of the most fleshed out.

I am fully aware that some Muslims pick and chose what to follow and that not everyone is strict about boy/girl relations, but I felt like for a book that is set in Ramadan, uses religion as a catalyst for civic action, Maya’s mom wearing hijab, and an opening scene being set at the masjid, there is really nothing Islam in the defining aspects of the characters or story.  It is so watered down and almost catering to non Muslims to feel comfortable, that it left me annoyed.  And I think non Muslims too will wonder why Maya’s mom covers and Maya doesn’t and how that works, or why Maya switches to having one reason for not dating and then a religious one.

The book sets out to do a lot in terms of humanizing the effects of laws and policy on average people, but I don’t know that most Muslims hoping to see a mirror to their experience will find that in Maya.  I can’t speak about Jamie, and the Jewish experience, but Maya is rather forgettable in my opinion.

FLAGS:

There is a lot of cursing, and the F word at that.  In the dialogue set in Ramadan, it becomes a joke to substitute it for something else, but once the month is over, the language resumes.  There is kissing, and making-out with the main characters.  There is talk of hooking up, but nothing explicit.  There are is a side character friend that is gay and he and his boyfriend are affectionate.  After the bat mitzvah Sophie comes out to Jamie.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think that I could do this as a middle school selection, the rationale for Jamie and Maya dating, isn’t ok for an Islamic School message.  I really wish just once, a book like this would have the main character, being like, “nope, sorry.”  It is getting predictable and while I know it is countering the oppressed woman view, it is becoming equally one dimensional in its presentation of Muslim women.

 

Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan illustrated by Saffa Khan

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Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan illustrated by Saffa Khan

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This 40 page book of prose begins each stanza with “InshaAllah” and reads as a beautiful prayer from parent to child.  Each two page spread is filled with warm vibrant colors and illustrations that radiate love while complementing the slow pace the book is meant to be read with.D900B288-5527-4519-8EDF-EE830D3A464D

The book is clearly from an Islamic perspective, yet I think any religious family would find beauty in the book.  The author has a note on the title page that defines inshaAllah as meaning God willing in Arabic and explains how it is a common wish/prayer for people of other cultures and faiths as well.  She also explains that that each line is inspired by the Quran, but universal for people everywhere.

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Some of my favorites are:”InshaAllah you seek knowledge, reflect, and read, InshaAllah you speak truth and work for its sake. InshaAllah you have faith that won’t waiver or bend. InshaAllah you are kind to those most in need.”

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The illustrations show a family that at times wears hijab and at others does not.  It shows multiple generations, and diverse characters in terms of skin color and mobility.  The illustrations at first weren’t my favorite, but they definitely grow on you.

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Over all the story reads like a lullaby, and is soft and sweet at bedtime particularly.  The 10 x 10 size would make it work well in groups as well, and I could see it used to lull kids to sleep at nap time with great success for the youngest baby to early elementary.

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Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Omar is back, and the nine year old kid with a huge imagination, proves that his heart is even bigger.  Middle graders that loved the first version, The Muslims, and the reboot, Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, will undoubtedly love this book’s adventures and the real, relate-abl, presentation of Islam in a Muslim family.  While it references the first book, it can work as a stand alone book too, and can and will be enjoyed by kids and adults, girls and boys, Muslims and non Muslims.  At 217 pages, the large spaces, doodles, playful fonts, and illustrations, make the book fly by and beg to be read again and again.

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar’s family still has their Science Sundays, but they don’t visit a new mosque every Saturday, as they have found a mosque near their home that gives his parents, “secret smiles” and them all a sense of community.  Omar and his sister still bicker, and his little brother Esa is still lovable, and the former bully, Daniel, is now a great friend to Omar and Charlie.  Life is good, Alhumdulillah, but in the midst of the boys planning how to get laser guided Nerf guns and have an all out battle, Omar learns the mosque’s roof is in need of repair and that the congregation will need to come up with 30,000 pounds to cover the costs, and fast.  In an act of selflessness, Omar abandons his dream of a foam gun and donates to the masjid.  Seeing that is not going to be anywhere close to enough he plots and schemes with his friends, his non Muslim friends, on how to raise the funds.  They bake cookies, make origami birds, and get their school to host a talent show to raise the money.  Their teacher and the head teacher coordinate the hall and judges and winning prizes all to help out Omar and the mosque, in the end though, they raise just under 1,500 pounds.  Not enough by themselves, but a great contribution to what other people hopefully are scrounging up.  The worst part however isn’t that they didn’t make enough, but that what they did make, goes missing.  Omar, Charlie, and Daniel, along with the parents and police and school personnel, try and find the money and who might have taken it before time runs out.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how effortlessly the author adopts a nine-year-old’s voice and persona.  So many of the details, for example, about how the school administration signed off on a fundraiser for a religious building, and how tickets were sold, and the planning took place are left out, as a nine year old, probably wouldn’t know, or be concerned with the logistics of such endeavors.  It seemed like some details should be given, but I doubt readers would feel that way, so I pushed it aside and went along for the ride.

Omar has amazing friends, from the unpredictable old neighbor lady, to his non Muslim friends being so enthusiastic and supportive of saving a mosque.  I love it, and that they are that way because Omar is so unapologetically Muslim first.  They even discuss a hadith about how building a mosque, builds you a house in Jannah, and a mainstream book published this, and it is AMAZING! It isn’t just a kid and his family, who happen to be Muslim, the whole plot of the book is to save a mosque, and the fact that this book exists, seriously is so beautiful, and powerful, and hopeful, Alhumdulillah.

This book has a lot of layers, most kids won’t pick up on the interfaith aspects being so ground breaking, or the beauty of teachers and parents believing and supporting young kids, but will just read it as a funny story with anecdotes and inside jokes that they get as kids, as Muslims, and maybe even as Desis.  It truly is the culmination of an author who can write well, characters that our kids can see themselves in, and an opportunity to tell our OWN stories that make this book work for kids, adults and everyone in between.

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FLAGS:

Omar and his sister are mean at times, but alas love each other and look out for each other too.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but if I did, I would do this book in a heartbeat.  For middle school it would be too quick of a read, but I think all classrooms and all libraries should have the book, up through middle school.

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2020/2/7/planet-omar-pushing-for-muslim-characters-in-childrens-literature

I got my copy here in the US at www.crescentmoonstore.com and as always you cannot beat their customer service and prices.  If you don’t have the first book, you can get it there, too.  Thank you Noura and Crescent Moon Store.

Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time by Saira Mir illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time by Saira Mir illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Women you have heard of, some you are meeting for the first time. Some you like, some you disagree with, women that cover, women that don’t, some young, others older, some athletic, some academic, some a little bit of both.  One fictional, a few political, but in the end, all strong women of today, all Muslim, all unique, from all over the world, all known for paving the way for others to follow.

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In 42 pages, 19 females are highlighted and illustrated to inspire Muslim and non Muslim boys and girls alike, but really Muslim girls will get the most out of it.  Sure a female gets mentioned here or there in other compilations of influential people of our time, but this one, well, this one seems mostly for us.

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There are famous females in science, activism, fashion, film, sport, education, media influencers, make-up artists, you name it, and Muslim’s participate, so finally a book shining a light on the best of the best.  With each person getting a full two page spread, a few tidbits about who they are and what they are “famous” for are detailed in easy to read sentences that inspire, and if you haven’t heard of them before, enough general knowledge to get acquainted.  A few felt a little generic, but once you have a name, Googling them or researching them, is obviously, not difficult.

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I wish there was a bit more information detailing who was chosen and why.  At first I thought it was  US or “western” movers and shakers, but then you have Maria Toorpakai Wazir, the tennis player in Pakistan, and Shirin Ebadi from Iran.  So then I thought ok, they are all contemporary, but Maryam Mirzakhani passed away in 2017.  Needless to say, one could argue that the list is arbitrary, and I think I would agree.

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One could also argue, that these women may make history for notable things, but that they might say or do things that you might take issue with, and again, I agree.  They are people, they are fallible, and diverse, and have different perspectives and life experiences, but that’s ok, infact I think that might even be the point.  We all have different passions, and paths, and views and yet at the end of the day we should be able to lift each other up and inspire.  I think every person who reads this book will find someone that sounds or feels or looks like them, and that is a good thing, no, a great thing!

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My favorite was the Kamala Khan entry, because I didn’t realize the G. Willow Wilson was Muslim.  I erroneously assumed the other co-creator, Sana Amanat gave Kamala’s back story and home life its sense of OWN Voice, and I love that I learned I was wrong from a book.

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The illustrations are right on and do an amazing job of conveying the character and the inspiration of the collection.  The book is much needed and I hope they do a similar style book for Muslim women in other time periods.

Special gratitude and appreciation to Gayartri Sethi (IG @desibookaunty) for gifting me this book for no other reason than to share the power and strength of women, and being a leader in that, by sending me a beautiful book.  May I learn from your generosity and pay it forward! Thank you.

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

light at the bottom

At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/

 

Zainab is Different by Irfana Khan illustrated by Josh Wise

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This 24 page picture book for kindergarten children and up, is sweet in its handling of being labled “different,” without getting overly negative or caught up in the manifestation of discrimination.  Unfortunately, with so much emphasis on different religions: the places of worship, the holidays celebrated, the manner of dress, etc., faith becomes inadvertantly highlighted as the root cause for the division and discrimination.  Perhaps I am reading too much in to it, and the book just needs a few more examples to make the author’s point that we are all different and unique, but as it is, I didn’t love it, my kids all thought it was cute though, especially my daughter named Zainab.

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Zainab walks to school every morning with her mom.  She says hi to the neighbor and can’t wait to get to school to her best friend Melissa and her amazing teacher Mrs. Sperber.

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One day Melissa and Zainab want to play hide-and-seek and ask Matt if he wants to play too.  He responds, “Eww, I don’t want to play with Zainab! My dad said she’s weird and different from us.”

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Having never been called that, Zainab is bothered by the words and tells her teacher.  The teacher points out that they have different colored hair, but can see that Zainab is still hurt and tells her not to worry, she has an idea.

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At circle time the teacher starts of by highlighting differences with the kids identifying their favorite color, and her writting their names on the ones they like best.  She then asks about places of worship they visit: churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and again writes their names on the ones they have been to or frequent.

IMG_0559 Next she moves on to holidays celebrated, and then special clothing, only hijab is mentioned though.  The teacher then discusses feelings and how things about us might be different but our feelings are the same.  We like it when we are all nice to each other, and are sad when someone is mean.

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Zainab sees her name with different people’s names on the pictures now hanging up and Matt comes and apologizes for being mean earlier. The teacher also mentions that maybe some haven’t visited any of the buildings discussed.

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The pictures appear to be done in colored pencil and are colorful and detailed with the pictures of the places of worship bein actual images.  The 8.5 by 11 pages are large and would work well at story time or bedtime.

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The fact that Matt’s words are assumed to be about religion seems presumptious to me.  Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, I feel like there needed to be more there.  A few pages about things other than faith, in my opinion, would make the message of us all being different in some things and the same in other things a bit more powerful.   The pacing too is a bit off. It is a big jump from what is your favorite color to do you go to a church?  The resolution is really quick too, as it is tied into feelings, a little bit more of showing the reader, rather than just telling them, would amplify the process and the message.