Author Archives: islamicschoollibrarian

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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Islamaphobia is rampant in today’s America, but it isn’t the first time that a minority group has had to face extreme persecution.  Often us Muslims need to look around and be reminded: Blacks are still targeted, Japanese once were interned, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, really every minority group has, and continues to struggle to be accepted as part of American culture, unfortunately.  Today’s middle school students didn’t live through 9//11 and often they think they are the first to be ostracized for their faith or their parent’s countries of origin.  So I picked up this book to see how well the book would serve as a way to discuss prejudice and persecution with Muslim kids, in a way that they could relate to, but be removed enough from that hopefully they could offer their own insights and experiences.   This book takes place in the 1970s and the climax is the Iran hostage situation as the book is told from an 11-year-old Iranian girl’s perspective. 

Similarly, most Persian penned books that I’ve read fight against Islam and the way it was forced upon them by their government, so I also wanted to see how the author would paint the faith in her semi auto-biographical-middle-school tale.  Alhumdulillah, I was happily surprised how Islam was handled in this 378 page, AR 4.7, book, and I think, like the inscription reads, “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason.  This one’s for you.”

SYNOPSIS:

Zomorod has lived in America before.  She was born in Iran, moved to California, moved back to Iran, back to California, and now from Compton, California she is moving to the much wealthier Newport Beach and hoping to start middle school fitting in more with her new Brady Bunch inspired name, Cindy.  Establishing early that she is the translator for her mother, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want to learn, and that she is somewhat embarrassed by her parent’s thick accents, lack of American snacks, Iranian food, and conversation topics, the book will appeal to most middle schooler’s who can relate.  Her parents, however, are pretty chill about letting her go out with friends, and doing whatever she wants, so really its more about the age and being angsty and awkward, then it is about her parents and their lifestyle and culture.  The basic point of the book is a growing-up tale of making friends, finding real ones that care about you, finding the balance between family and the outside world, cultures that conflict, the past and the future, and ultimately finding acceptance and pride in who, and what you are.

The political climate in Iran and in America amplify what it is like when people hate your country, but can’t find it on the map, and manifest in the story with bullying at school, Zomorod’s father losing his job and not finding a new one, and some hateful acts occurring at the Yousefzadeh’s home. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could be heavy and dark, but it’s not.  The voice of Zomorod really stays in the persona of an 11-year-old girl and is poignant, clever and light-hearted, I even laughed out loud a few times.   The 1970’s backdrop isn’t too alienating for today’s readers, as there aren’t a lot of cultural references that would turn them off.  The historical significance, is very likely one they will not have heard of before and the book, through Zomorod’s eyes, will shed light on Iran in the late 70s and early 80s without boring the target audience.  They might even learn something and remember it.  

The stereotypes about Iran are addressed, the concept of a single person having to represent every one of that minority group is felt first had through the main character, and many misconceptions about Iran are clarified.  Yet, the book doesn’t get preachy, it maintains its lightness, and while I read it in a few days, it was just as easy to put down as it was to pick up.  The characters felt real and developed for the most part, so even though it was a tale about life, it was compelling enough to stick around, and you are invested enough to care how the characters are doing. There are a lot of really great supporting characters in the book as well: neighbors, friends, teachers, friend’s families, and a few not so nice characters that surprisingly aren’t painted with a singular condemning evil stroke.  The author is very careful to reserve judgement of all her characters and the sub groups they represent.

Which brings me to how Islam is handled in this book.  Her family doesn’t practice, but her reference for Islam is shia, as evident by her mentioning 12 imams.  I took pictures of most of the pages where Islam is mentioned, less than 10 in all, but where it is mentioned it is handled very politically correct and powerfully.   She talks about how they don’t celebrate Christmas or most holidays as they aren’t Christian or really American, but when the pool key is lost she does pray to a Christian Saint after a suggestion that such an act will help it be found.  It isn’t really presented as a religious act, more of one done in desperation. Here are the most applicable and relevant passages regarding Islam.

  • Dr. Klein shakes his head in sympathy.  “Do your wife and Cindy have to wear those cover-ups if you go back?”  “Yes, and I cannot believe this.  When we lived in Iran, my wife, my sisters, all the women I knew wore western clothes.  No tennis clothes like you see here, but regular clothes.  Only religious women chose to wear hijab, it meant something.  Imagine if everybody in America had to wear a cross around their neck or a Star of David-what would those symbols mean? Nothing. If you have to wear it, it means nothing.  If you choose to wear it, it means something” (168).
  • “The Ayatollah is Muslim, right? So is, like Allah, his God?”  “Allah is the Arabic word for God,” I say.  “It’s the same God. (154).”
  • We don’t have Saints in Islam, just a Prophet with twelve imams, and they don’t preach to animals or help find lost items,  My family, like most Iranians, is Muslim, but we never do anything religious.  I’ve never even been in a mosque, which is like a church (40).
  • “Being Muslim means different things to different people,” I say.  “My family doesn’t do anything officially religious.  My dad says religion is kindness and that’s what everyone should practice” ((184-5).
  • “…even though we belong to three different religions. We are alike in so many more ways than we are different.” 

FLAGS:

The book is fine for middle school readers, there is mention of Cindy’s dad trying alcohol at one point in the past and not liking it.  Cindy’s friends tease her once or maybe twice about liking a boy and Halloween is celebrated.  There is a lot of lying in the book, but it is made clear why, even if she doesn’t always feel bad about it: she is embarrassed by her mom’s food and lies that she shared it, she withholds information a lot, she pranks the neighbor lady who left a dead rodent on their porch, etc.  Hopefully the demographic won’t be inspired by Zomorod’s antics and just find them as her way of dealing with life.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun book club book to discuss being new to a country, minorities, how to handle conflicting cultures, and how to be and have good friends.

Educators guide: http://firoozehdumas.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ItAintSoAwfulFalafelguide.pdf

https://www.floridamediaed.org/uploads/6/1/4/2/61420659/ms_-_it_ain%E2%80%99t_so_awful_falafel.pdf

https://www.bookmovement.com/bookDetailView/49051/It-Ain’t-So-Awful,-Falafel-By-Firoozeh-Dumas

Author’s page: http://firoozehdumas.com/books/it-aint-so-awful-falafel/

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Controlling Your Anger by Saaliha & Ali

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Controlling Your Anger by Saaliha & Ali

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I love little picture books for toddlers and early elementary kids that introduce children to Akhlaaq, good manners and characters.  The book’s tone, however, seemed a bit off to me, so I put it away a month ago and pulled it out again today to read it, knowing I would have forgotten most of my initial thoughts, but somehow, they resurfaced with a vengeance, unfortunately.  And while the pictures and binding and theme are all absolutely wonderful in this 23 page book, I didn’t like the main character at all, and being it is based on a real person, a child, I feel awful saying that.

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Saaliha starts the book keeping her anger just under the surface as her friend Hannah has borrowed and lost her pencil.  Hannah says she’ll look for it after lunch, and Saaliha controls her anger and basically says that it needs to be found now because it is the right thing to do.  All of that is fine, but for some reason she seems bossy and controlling and I really don’t know why.  Maybe because once they look for the pencil and then find it, Saaliha gives her peer (and thus the reader) a teaching moment by saying that she knew she didn’t lose it on purpose.  Hannah’s response is more believable when she feels embarrassed and admits she should be more careful, but I found Saaliha’s reaction smug because she was so close to getting mad, and then to be self-righteous about it, seemed a little passive aggressive to me.  

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As the book continues, Saaliha recounts that accidents can happen at any time and to not get mad, which is great, it gives the example of when her younger brother Ali, accidentally knocked her ice cream out of her hand with his basketball or when he broke her pencil.   She seems to have a thing with pencils, there should have been a different example.

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It then moves on to an incident with a friend, Jalal, who took a donut without asking, but it was an accident for not asking as he normally asks.  The repetition of the word accident here, I get is to carry the concept, but that doesn’t seem like an accident, it seems like he forgot, and an apology should have been in order, not Saaliha having to justify it solely.  Being it is a book about Akhlaaq I feel like the illustration of Jalal winking and eating the donut, seemed off.  

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I like that Saaliha reminds her friends not to get angry as anger comes from Shaitan, but then when the book says she always says A’uthu Billahi Mina Shaitan Nir Rajeem to keep her anger in check, one wonders why in the opening scenario she didn’t say it.

I can’t pinpoint why I didn’t love this book, or maybe I just didn’t like the main character and I would probably give the series another try, but I’d like to hear your thoughts if you have read the book, and more importantly what your children thought of it.

 

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

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Yes, that is a Rick Riordan book cover you see.  Yes, it is about Norse mythology.  Yes, the whole book is about fake gods and fictional demigods.  Yes, you are on the correct blog. 

Brace yourself, if you haven’t heard about Magnus Chase, son of the god Frey, whose series is now on book three, it is ok, Rick Riordan has brought a lot of mythology back to pop culture in a fairly short amount of time.  But this series stands out because get this, the Norse god Loki, (yeah the one featured in popular Marvel Avengers movies), in this series, has a daughter…named Samirah Al-Abbas…who wears hijab…and is a valkyrie…and is an Iraqi immigrant, and is a main character, and is really awesome.

The book is 497 pages and is also a pretty fun audio book.  It is an AR 4.8.

SYNOPSIS:

So, the basic plot is much like Percy Jackson, in that a young boy, in this case a homeless orphan, Magnus Chase, finds out that he is demigod and has to basically find some friends and save the world while learning about the given mythology that they belong to.  For Magnus, he learns about his father, Frey, the god of spring and summer, when he dies and is taken to Valhalla, a paradise for warriors in the service to Odin.  The whole book is about Magnus, who is now an einherjar, a member of Odin’s eternal army , trying to prevent ragnarok from happening.  Among his group of friends are Jack, the sword, Blitzen, a dwarf, Hearthstone, an alf, and Samirah (Sam).

WHY I LIKE IT:

By and large, Sam is pretty well developed as a practicing Muslima.  She is being raised by her grandparents and feels bad sneaking out to perform her valkyrie duties.  She is not at all comfortable being alone with males one-on-one, nor being seen with males as she has an arranged marriage to Amir Fadlan, her second cousin, when she gets older.  She wears a green hijab that doubles as a camouflage cloak, and she mentions going to the mosque with her grandma.  (In later books, according to my daughter, she also talks about fasting, how she is a practicing Muslimah and the daughter of Loki who handles all that Norse mythology throws at her.)  She is proud and strong, and really the only thing that makes no sense to me is why she takes off her hijab so freely when not in life threatening scenarios, I get when she uses the camouflage to hide in emergencies.  She apparently explains later that she considers the einherjar her extended family, but that wouldn’t make them her mehram, so it is still a bit sketchy.

Here is an interview question from Entertainment Weekly to Author Rick Riordan about Sam, and his answer: (http://ew.com/article/2015/10/14/rick-riordan-magnus-chase-interview/)

Speaking of Loki, one of my favorite characters in the book is Sam, or Samirah Al-Abbas. I think she’s a great example of a diverse character — not a white man, not a woman who’s there to be a love interest. She’s also seamlessly woven into the history of this myth. Can you talk about the conception of her character?

The idea for her started with the primary sources. The story that Sam tells in The Sword of Summer about an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad visiting the Vikings in Russia – that’s true. It really is one of our best sources because the Arabs of the time were reading and writing when nobody else was. That connection back then – that the world was a whole lot more connected even back then than we think of, that these cultures did not exist in these hermetically-sealed little bags, they were blending together all the time – that fascinated me. I thought, what would it be like to have a modern Muslim-American character who still had that connection to the Viking world like the Caliph of Baghdad did all those years ago?

And then again I started pulling on stories from students I’ve had in the past. One very powerful memory I have was being in my American history classroom on 9/11 and one of my students was a Muslim-American girl. She burst into tears when she heard the news, because she knew that her world, her life, had just changed, and had been defined for her in a way that she did not want and could only do so much to control. That really was powerful for me, and it inspired me to learn a lot about Islam and what the tradition actually was, as compared to what we hear about in the media and how it’s often distorted, and to honor her experience. Samirah kind of came out of that confluence of things.

FLAGS:

Obviously the whole story features multiple fake gods.  I don’t think it is celebrated though, they are beyond ridiculous, but if your kids can’t understand the idea of mythology or you think it is beyond the scope of fiction, that is your call. 

There is a ton of violence, as they prepare for ragnarok and just killing in general, some is gruesome. The book is not dark at all, however, it is in fact laugh out loud funny.  

There are some giants that get drunk, mention of mead, some jokes about Hel in reference to Helheim and the goddess of Helheim, Hel.  There are some “damns” scattered in as well. 

The stories of some of the gods is a bit scandalous, but for the most part the book doesn’t give much detail.  It does discuss Freya marrying dwarves for a day for their jewels and having kids with them.  There is flirting and mention of kissing.  There is also some mention of males being moms and animals and monsters being born of human parents, it is all very confusing.  But it is there. Also, my source, my 11 year old daughter, mentions that the rest of the series does have a gender fluid character named Alex.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I doubt I’d do this as a book club book, but as any teacher or librarian knows, Rick Riordan fans are committed and enthusiastic.  I still keep in touch with many kids that weren’t big readers until the read Percy Jackson, and once they read the series multiple times, they then jumped to his other series.  So, while I wouldn’t use this as a book club book, there is a ton of kids that would love to discuss it with you, so read it, the bonding as a result will be well worth it.

Mikaeel and Malaika: The Quest for Love

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Mikaeel and Malaika: The Quest for Love

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The beautiful hardback book is pricey, but fun.  I didn’t have any expectations when I read it, but now that I’ve read it three times and had my children read it, and my mom a reading specialist/teacher of 45 years read it, I feel pretty confident in saying, its a well-done book.  I think it can get a bit cumbersome when reading aloud, because some lines rhyme and some don’t, but on the third read through I read it to six kids ages two to nine and all throughly enjoyed it.

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The sibling superhero duo are on a quest to find out how to have a pure heart.  They try praying aloud, praying quietly, then they go and talk to the Big Boss, their dad, who speaks in rhyming clues.  The play on words might make the book utterly confusing to children younger than five, or kids of all ages if full attention isn’t being given when read aloud.  For independent readers, they will delight in the words that sound the same yet have completely independent meanings.

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Eventually their quest also takes them to Agent M.O.M who loves them more than anyone else they can imagine, but the big reveal is that Allah (swt) loves us even more.  I don’t know that it is crystal clear that getting a pure heart involves loving the one who loves us most. But, I think by the end, the readers are just entertained that they figured out Allah loves them more than anyone else in the world and is the creator of us all.  The last page has an ayat from Surah Rehman, ” So which of the favors of your Lord would you deny?” Which again adds one more thing to the story about being grateful for all that Allah has given us, keeping it from being a completely streamlined story, but adding to the overall love and appreciation for Allah.

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The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and engaging, the amount of text and the font is perfect for ages 6-8 and the messages is fun and educational.  I hope that there are more in the series, alhumdulillah.

 

Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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N.H. Senzai’s newest book (published in January 2018), gives a face and a voice to the grave situation in Syria.  Like Senzai’s other books, she uses the rich culture and history of a country to inform the reader, and a compelling front story to keep middle school readers entertained.  This 336 page book is not in the AR data base yet, but fourth grade and up should be able to follow the story and be able to handle the violence and destruction presented.  The story is unique in the genre, in that it doesn’t focus on getting to a safe country, but rather on the heroine’s journey to simply get out of a dangerous one, Syria.  The storyline is fairly linear with flashbacks of life before the war making the story informative, but not necessarily gripping.  I wanted to love it, but found myself forgetting about it when I stopped reading.  

SYNOPSIS:

Fourteen-year-old Nadia, has a fun full life in Syria: a large extended family, she stars in a commercial, has good friends, and a lot of opportunity and perhaps privilege.  All that, however, slowly disappears as civil unrest and ultimately war consume the country.  As a child she gets glimpses of the changes coming, but is able to still hide in her ignorance and focus on things like her nail polish and Arab Idol.  As food gets short however, she sneaks out to get bread with some cousins, and is hit by shrapnel.  While, her leg is able to heal, her anxiety of going out alters her life and makes her family’s attempt to get to the Turkish border later, a hard mental obstacle she must face.  Her inability to move quickly with the family on their covert escape route, and the bomb that hits their home, separates her from her family and leads to her getting left behind.  As she tries to remember how to get to the designated meeting location, she must navigate Syrian soldiers, rebel factions, ISIS, secret police, violence, hunger, and being lost.  With her cat, Mishmish, for companionship, Nadia reaches the location only to find that her family has left for Turkey and will wait on the border for her.  Luckily for Nadia, amidst this devastating news, she meets an old man, Ammo Mazen, and his Donkey, Jamilah, willing to help her reach the border.  Along the way the two face long odds of surviving, not only from the war around them, but also the weather, the old man’s illness and lack of food and water.  As they journey through Aleppo, snippets of history and culture are shared, two more children join their journey and mysteries as to who Ammo Mazen really is come to light. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book’s premise is simple, allowing the reader to focus on Nadia and her companions and not get bogged down in the political factions and names and alliances.  The book is not about all of the aggressors, it is about a girl trying to reach her family, and the growth and ability to choose kindness that she learns along the way.  The girl is not religious, but culturally it is a part of her environment.  Her companion Tarek, is religious and he spouts Islamic tidbits as they journey, adding some knowledge to be conveyed about Islam which is sometimes informative and sometimes comical as his character is often a bit awkward. 

I love the cultural beauty that is conveyed, and the heaviness in Syrian’s heart that “What had taken five thousand years to build had taken less than two to ravage.” The saving of historical artifacts, the showing of cooperation between people of different faiths as the characters meet in mosques and churches and meet people of all backgrounds, makes the loss of humanity and history so palpable. 

I also love that there is an Author’s Note at the end.  The whole book I kept having to shush my mind as I felt like this was the story of Mariam in Senzai’s book Shooting Kabul.  Yes that takes place in Afghanistan, but it was so similar in that it was a girl getting separated from her family in an escape attempt during a war, and sure enough she mentions that, that is where Nadia’s story grew from.  

FLAGS:

There is a lot of violence and death, but nothing gruesome or sensationalized.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great Book Club choice, because it would encourage readers to keep at it and finish the book.  While reading it, the book is wonderful, but for some reason, I had to urge myself to pick it up and start it again.  Perhaps it is because I have read all of Senzai’s books and I was pretty confident all would end well, or because I’ve read quite a few books now about war and refugees and Syria, but while it reads quick it did take me longer than it should to finish it.  I think parts of the book that detail a lot of the skirmishes and fighting might be hard to visualize in the mind’s eye so as an assignment or Book Club selection would benefit the readers to allow them to discuss all the mini climaxes, understand the terrain and architecture, and to really put themselves in Nadia’s shoes.  The transformation in Nadia from a brat, more or less, to a compassionate, strong, determined young woman is a journey that I would love to hear feedback from other kids about.  I think they would definitely have thoughts and opinions that would really bring the humanity of us all out, and make us connect with the plight of those trying to get out of such horrific circumstances.

Publisher’s Page: http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Escape-from-Aleppo/N-H-Senzai/9781481472173

Teaching Guide: https://www.teachervision.com/teacher-discussion-guide/escape-aleppo-reading-guide

Author’s Page: http://www.nhsenzai.com/escape-from-allepo/

 

Hats of Faith by Medeia Cohan illustrated by Sarah Walsh

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How fun to find similarities between groups that on the surface might seem so very different.  This 7×7, 14 page board book, keeps it simple and perfect for toddlers starting to notice people all the way through to early elementary children making connections around them.

Each page shows a portrait style illustration with a warm smiling face and the repetitive text of identifying what the name of the “hat” is followed by who wears it.

The opening page states that ” Many religious people share the custom of covering their heads to show their love for God.” And concludes by saying that “Learning about each other makes it easy to be more understanding.  Being understanding helps us spread love and peace.”

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Muslims are mentioned and depicted on the hijab page, the topi page, and on the head wrap page.  The book shows Muslims, Sikhs, Rastafarian, Jewish, and African Christians, it shows both men and women and offers phonetical pronunciations when necessary.

 

My Own Special Way by Mithaa Alkhayyat retold by Vivian French translation by Fatimah Sharafeddini illustrated by Maya Fidawi

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A mainstream Early Reader book with a cute little muhajaba on the cover and a premise that she’ll be a big girl when she wears hijab seemed like a book I should adore.  And while it isn’t bad, and I’m glad it was in the library,  really I’m not sure how I feel about it.

In someways, I’m just confused.  Why would you pick one of the characters to be named Hind, in a book urging readers away from picture books and into chapter books, it isn’t going to be pronounced with a short i sound, it is going to be pronounced like a “be-hind,” umm not so good for the age demographic you are trying to show another culture to, there will just be giggles and jokes.  Also, many of the illustrations are cute, but what is wrong with the dad and with Jamila’s sleepy eyes, they kind of border on creepy. And not the creepy, in a cool way, more like creepy in an awkward way.  And finally, with an author, a retold by, and a translator, and presumably a ton of editors and proofers at Orion Children’s Books, I found veil to be a very formal word to use throughout.  It does say it is a scarf at one point, but the word of choice throughout is veil, and I think to be culturally accurate, hijab would have been a better choice.  Even for English readers, scarf would have been a better fit.

The book is 62 pages, there is no glossary and it is not AR, but is a transition early reader book for kindergartener and first graders.

SYNOPSIS:

Little Hamda wants to spend time with her four big sisters, but they all say she is little and have other plans.  When her mom reminds her that they were small at one time too, she realizes that when they were small they didn’t wear hijab, or in this book, a veil, and now they are big and where one when they go out.  So, in her mind, once she starts wearing one, she too will be big, and thus the challenge of finding a way to wear it comfortably begins.  She is helped and supported by all her family and finally she finds her own special way to wear her veil.

I like that it is a mainstream book trying to include some diversity.  The family is relatable and the themes universal even if portrayed in a minority muslim framework.

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WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT:

I love the premise of the book and that it is very clearly Hamda’s idea to wear a veil, no one is forcing her.  The text and illustrations align to show the girls cover when they go out, not in the home.  The dad needs help at one point finding his shoes to go to the mosque.  However, it doesn’t tell what a mosque is, or explain that the family is Muslim and wearing hijab is an Islamic act, which might be a comprehension block for young readers.

I really go back and forth on the illustrations.  On the first reading I thought they were creepy, when I went back to write the review they were kind of cute.  When I asked my kids, two said they were fine, and one said they were ugly and was positive I am the only one to have ever checked out the book.  Yeah.

FLAGS:

Fine, and Islamically nothing erroneous.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Obviously not a book club level book, but I would be very interested to have some first and maybe even second graders read it and give me feedback, like I said I’m on the fence with this one.  Check to see if your library has it, read it, have your kids read it, and let me know.

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