Another standout in a crowded field of Ramadan picture books, mashaAllah, Lailah’s Lunchbox works well even outside of Ramadan for Muslim and Muslim children alike. In 32 pages, the reader gets to know Lailah and understand how hard it has been for her to move to America from Abu Dhabi, make new friends, how nerovus she is to be identified as different, as well as how excited she is that her mother has finally agreed to let her fast this Ramadan.
Lailah is excited to wake up and have sehri with her family before heading to her new school, fasting for the first time. Her mother has written a note for her teacher, but on the bus, Lailah reads the note and suddenly worries if her teacher will even know what Ramadan is ,and decides not to give it to her teacher. Lunchtime arrives, and when the teacher asks Lailah if she forgot her lunch, her voice fails her, and her classmates offer to share their lunch with her. Lailah decides to leave the cafeteria and finds herself in the library spilling all her worries and stresses and fears to a kind librarian. (Yes the librarian is the hero, and really no one should be surprised, right!?) With the librarian’s urging and Lailah’s determination, she writes a note to the teacher explaining that she is Muslim, and fasting, and even includes a poem. She leaves the note on her teacher’s desk at the end of the day. The following day, the teacher has written her back and the reader, along with Lailah, know that having courage and staying true to one’s self can often be scary, but also wonderful too.
While the story is billed a Ramadan Story, it really just is the back drop for a lot of really good messages. I think 2nd and 3rd graders to early middle schoolers could really benefit from the book. It is semi autobiographical and I think the authenticity of the emotion woven in, makes the book very relatable and powerful. I plan to discuss it with my daughter going in to 5th grade, who is also a bit shy on occasion: the way Lailah worked out the problem, the way she found someone to trust and talk to that was patient with her, to point out to her that the kids in her class were very kind and that most of her fear and anxiety was with herself, not them. I also really like the message that she was so excited to fast, and how her nerves took that excitement away, but having the courage to face her fear, brought back her happiness and enthusiasm.
The end of the book has an Author’s note, telling how the story came about and a bit more about Ramadan. It also tells the definition of Sehri and Iftar, the only two “foreign” words in the book. I found it interesting that the word Sehri, an Urdu word, was used instead of Suhoor, if they are coming from Abu Dhabi, but perhaps the author is of subcontinent heritage. The illustrations are colorful and realistic, complementing the story and tying in the range of emotions and events Lailah is experiencing.
I was pleasantly surprised at the book, and even more excited to see that it is available in the public library system. Here is the link to the author’s blog I hope she plans to write more, as her style and message resonate with Muslim American kids, and their parents, alhumdulillah.