Layla Deen and the Case of the Ramadan Rogue by Yahiya Emerick

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layla deen

I remember my 2nd graders reading this many years ago and strongly disliking it.  And I vaguely remember agreeing with them, but perhaps at the time, there weren’t a lot of Islamic fiction options for the age group, so I decided that the pros out weighed the cons and left the book on the classroom bookshelf.  Fast forward to today where mashaAllah there are more options, yet this book is still often a staple on most school and family book shelves.  That being said, I thought a revisit was in order, and yikes I agree with my 2nd graders of so long ago, and I have major issues with this book.  At 42 pages, the clipart illustrations and wide spaced font seems a bit dated, but with the short chapters and Islamic backdrop the book overall would still appeal to 2nd to 4th grade Muslim students. The story is sweet in merit and intention, however, some of the details make me hesitate to recommend this book.

Overall, I feel like the author tries too hard, he is trying unsuccessfully to relate on a students level, trying to sound cool, and ultimately in the process uses unnecessary language in my opinion.  The manner in which siblings Layla and Ahmed speak to one another is incredibly harsh, and while perhaps realistic for some families, there is no reprimand or apologizing.  The name calling and yelling at one another throughout makes their collaboration at the end seem unlikely.  Even how Layla talks to her mom about the homeless man at the store, saying he is dirty and gross and a “stinky bum”, seems jarring to a book that is trying to teach a moral lesson.  Layla’s mom gently reminds Layla that Prophet Muhammad (saw) was kind to those in need, but I feel like the mom doesn’t go far enough in correcting Layla, and Layla dismisses rather arrogantly what her mother has to say.

Later, some bullies taunt Ahmed, and while in her head Layla defends her brother which is nice, out loud she resorts to calling the bullies “idiots” and “freak squad” which seems to be a form of bullying as well, and at the very least don’t empower the students to know how better to deal with bullies.  She then remarks that they smell bad and smoke pot and hopes her brother will “kick their butts.”  If the author wanted to make a comment on the ill effects of recreational drug use ok, but for this reading level to mention it as an insult in passing does little to benefit the story and even less to help the reader grasp what pot is and that children using it (irregardless of how one feels about adults using it) is not a joking matter.  Later when something is stolen Layla assumes it is the bullies who have committed the crime and sets up a sting to catch them.  Needless to say it isn’t them, and I wish the author would have at least had her feel bad that she assumed someone to be guilty when in fact they were innocent. A premise that I feel needed some addressing or reflective growth to benefit the reader.

My next concern, would not have been a concern ten years ago, but with the current situation regarding how police are being treated in response to the actions of a few, I wouldn’t want to perpetuate a stereotype that widens the gap between police and the communities they work for.  In the book when a crime is committed Ahmed dismisses going to the police remarking that the police do little and just sit around eating donuts.

And finally the climax of finding out who stole the food and why is sweet, but I really felt could have been handled so much better.  (SPOILER) The homeless man stole the food to feed it to some kittens he found in a garbage bag.  On the surface that is sweet, but I don’t think that, that justifies theft.  Furthermore he didn’t want to take the cats to the shelter because they would be gassed. Again, like the pot reference, that is a bit heavy to just leave hanging out there without explanation or background for such a young reading audience.  Layla then offers to take the cats to her friends and assures the man they will have good homes.  To me a better option would be to purchase the cats from the man so he can have some income and also assure the cats a good home.  It seemed to me that she took them from him in a rather abrupt fashion as if because he was homeless he didn’t have a right to his property, and getting a meal in exchange didn’t cut it for me as the happy ending I was hoping for.

SUMMARY:

Layla and her family are preparing for Ramadan, which starts in a few days, Layla joins her mom for a trip to the grocery store to stock up and they see a homeless man begging for money.  Disgusted Layla not only can’t stand to be near the man, but it is appalled that her mother stops to talk to him.  When the food set out for the nightly iftaar goes missing from the kitchen window, Layla and her brother take advantage of a night when their parents are out to try and catch the thief or thieves.  They discover the homeless man, and in a change of heart, Layla arranges to meet him at the grocery store the next day with her mom so that they can invite him to dinner.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I appreciate what the book tried to do: blend a fictional story in an Islamic context for a younger elementary aged Muslim child.  I also like that it showed a Muslim family, praying, fasting, and going about their normal life so to speak.

FLAGS:

Pot drug reference, less than ideal handling of bullies, negative unsupported stereotypes.

See beginning of this review for detailed concerns.

 TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

For some reason, despite all my concerns with the book, I have been trying to find a way to still utilize it.  And I think the only way I could comfortably convey this story to kids would be to read it aloud and self edit it while reading.  I think there are too  many issues to let a second or third grader read it independently and then discuss, but I think if I were to edit out some of the random comments that have no bearing on the story, and then paused to discuss some of the bigger issues of bullies, assumptions, treatment of the less fortunate, and a better way to help others and animals the book might still be successful.  I think it could be read aloud in less then an hour and if today’s students are as perceptive as my students years ago, they not only will pick up with what is wrong in the story, but also devise ways to make it so much better.

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