Author Archives: islamicschoollibrarian

Freeze-Land: A New Begininng

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Let me start off by saying that the fact alone that this book (and series) was written by a 9 year old is amazing.  As a former 4th grade teacher, if I saw this type of writing come across my desk, I would have probably pushed her to keep writing and publish one day too.  But, for all the support and love I wanted to give the book and the author, I really didn’t like the story.  So much so, that even with the second book, Good or Evil, in my hands, I couldn’t justify spending less than an hour to read the 124 pages, which is heartbreaking to say, but honest, none-the-less. 

The series is published by Archway Publishing which is a self publishing company through Simon and Schuster, so I have no idea if they have editors, or what the publishing process was for this book.  But, while you might forgive a few plot holes, and story gaps because of the author’s age, there are sentences that simply don’t make sense, words that are missing, and passages, that seem to be arbitrarily made-up on the spot.  So often the book reads like a child telling a bed time story and realizing they hadn’t explained something earlier and have to wiggle out of a tight spot, “and then, and then” become mechanisms to move the story along, when no other logical connection can suffice.

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At 93 pages the books is written for 2nd – 4th graders, and while they might inspire others to write, I don’t know that they will get enough out of the story to read the four book series.  The covers depict a girl that looks like Disney’s Belle and the title might excite fans of Disney’s Frozen.  I would like to think the writing improves as the author develops and grows, and I’m fairly confident that I’ll check out one of her future books, however, I think I’ll sit the rest of this series out.

SYNOPSIS:

Fourth grader Samantha Ringle loves snow, and can’t wait for the next storm to arrive on Christmas day.  After opening presents and celebrating the holiday, she meets Rebecca, a snow flake fairy from Freeze-land.  Six children have gone missing in Samantha’s area, six children that were chosen by Santa and infused with his saliva.  The children have gone to a distant planet to try and save it from the evil Lord Ninstagger, and return it to the snowy wonderland the Freezians once knew.  

Lord Ninstragger has a wand and a creates rhyming spells to make it work, he also has some other weapon an any-weapon-a-tor that I never really understood, and he can only be defeated if a word is said, but the word will also kill all the inhabitants of the planet.  To save the planet and free the other six children that have gone missing, she must defeat Ninstragger and his ninsting minions or Earth too will be destroyed.

Needless to say, she succeeds by having the good little cloud fairies cover their ears so she can say the word that will destroy the evil.  She then has to get all six of her friends and her annoying brother who got caught in the wind that brought her to Freeze-land, home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this author can articulate a creative imaginative story in her head and that her family supported her endeavors and got the book published.  I love that the author is Muslim and feels confident writing and sharing her words with the world.  Outside of that, I’m not sure the story would have the same appeal if it was written by a 19 year old, or anyone older than a teenager. 

There are huge plot holes.  The book says that all the children are taken to the dungeon, but when Ninstragger is defeated it says that only Jake is in the dungeon, the rest are in jail.  When freed all six show up instantly but the walk to the exact same place to free Jake is long and arduous and the climbing over the mountain is unbearable.  Samantha seems to be surprised that Jake is there, but early had overheard a ninsting talking about Jake by name, to Ninstragger.  Samantha doesn’t recognize the freed children or them her, even though some were her friends and they have been gone a year or less.  Some things also don’t seem to make sense, such as how are their rain cloud fairies in a frozen wonderland? Why does the word kill the inhabitants, what does it mean, how did they learn it? Why are their ghosts that come out of the letters and give the wrong advice? How did Rebecca get all six to Freeze-land, but claim she hadn’t thought how to get Samantha there?  Really the story is all over the place, and I could go on for many many paragraphs, but I think you get the point.  

There is nothing Islamic about the book, and I understand that there doesn’t need to be, but I don’t understand why all the Christmas and Santa stuff is needed.  I understand that the author may have used winter to set the stage for the story, but it seemed awkward to me that Santa randomly died going down a chimney into a lit fire, but yet sensed his time was coming and made a ton of arrangements for a future he would not have known would occur.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not use this book as a book club selection, but if a child read it, I’d like to know there thoughts.  To see if the wholes and inconsistencies are noticed by the target reader.  My 11-year-old daughter struggled to make sense of the book, and while I tried so hard to force her to read the second one, after I read the first one I realized her hesitance and apologized.

Authors website: https://www.ayazsisters.com/

FLAGS:

The girl lies a lot and acknowledges that she lied to save Freeze-land, but then says that the book is completely true and not a lie.  Obviously there is Christmas and Santa mentioned and celebrated as well.

The word “stupid” is used a lot, and when Samantha and Jake are interacting they are pretty rude to one another.  While at the end, Samantha gains confidence and stands up a bit to a class bully, there is no reconciliation of her and her brother’s relationship.  She shows no concern other than consenting to take him back to Earth, and doesn’t seem to have been worried or relieved to see him in any of the situations presented.

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Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

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Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

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This 40 page book caught my attention because I have a son named Mustafa, and the illustrations looked endearing and fun.  The author/illustrator was inspired to write the story when she visited Croatia and saw the resilience of the children.  She also remarks on her website, that children in new places can all relate to the nuanced uneasiness and gradual fitting in process that takes place universally (http://marielouisegay.com/blog/).

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The text is prose-like as young Mustafa ventures from his apartment each day to the park nearby.  He notices things he has never seen before and compares them to the destruction he recalls of his homeland.  He also finds things that remind him of home and things that look familiar. From little ladybugs and a heart-shaped leaf, to the changing leaf colors and kids dressed up in costumes, there is so much to take in and understand.

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As the days go on, he begins to wonder if he is invisible.  Finally, a little girl with a cat makes a small beckoning gesture to him that doesn’t need language to be understood, and just like that, the world gets a little more welcoming.  This gentle story shows what being new can feel like, and reminds us that sometimes all it takes is a simple act of kindness to change so much.

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The book mentions that Mustafa came on a long journey, but does not specify where he has come from.  He draws his house being bombed in the dirt with a stick and mentions loud noises and fire.  The mother wears hijab, and obviously his name would identify them as Muslims, but other than that there is no reference or mention of religion.

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Overall, the book would be great for ages 4-8.  The passages are a little long, but with the illustrations and relatable concepts, I think children will reflect on what the author is trying to convey, and be able to process what Mustafa has been through, and how hard even the littlest things can be in a new place.

The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Amazon & The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Mars by Hena Khan and David Borgenicht

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The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Amazon & The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Mars by Hena Khan and David Borgenicht

There is nothing Islamic or religious, with either of these books, but I wanted to review them, as the author Hena Khan, who has brought such lovely picture books to our book shelves (Night of the Moon, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets), inspiring elementary books to the mainstream (Amina’s Voice, On Point, Power Forward), and who showed Curious George what Ramadan is all about, is Muslim.  She has done a tremendous job of blending culture and religion with everyday life making her stories relatable and found on bookshelves across America.  She also has written books that are just good books void of any religion and culture, that hopefully they remind our youth that you can write books about anything, appeal to everyone, and be successful as well.

Both books are like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I remember from the 1980s except these are much better written, and I think I might have learned facts about Mars, space travel, and the Amazon from them, without even realizing it.  Aimed at 3rd to 5th graders, these two books were checked out from the library and read countless times by my kids and myself alike.  They are entertaining and not easy to predict.  It is worth noting that while I did make it the entire length of the Amazon, after four tries I gave up trying to survive the journey to Mars and back.

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SYNOPSIS:

In both books the cast of teammates is given at the beginning and shows a good diversity of men and women from all over the world with a variety of skills and backgrounds to be on the expedition.  The books then give the set up of where you are going, and how you got chosen.  You then are advised to flip to the back of the book to look through the files and notes that will give you knowledge about what you will encounter.  These pages are in full color and are in diary, note style.  The adventure then begins and you make choices that lead you down different paths to success, or demise, it is up to you to decide how to survive.  

WHY I LIKE THEM:

I love that you learn while making decisions and attempting to make the story continue.  The books are fun and most of the choices aren’t obvious, naturally a few are, but they are well done.  There are comic book style pictures sprinkled throughout and regular black and white illustrations on many of the pages.  I particularly liked that the kids read them more than once and learned a bit about space travel, mars, what would be needed to set up a colony, the Amazon, various animals, and survival skills in the rain forest.

FLAGS:

You might get burned up, or bitten by a snake, but nothing too graphic, as you are the reader and obviously know it isn’t real.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

These books wouldn’t work as book club selections, but I think 3rd and 4th grade classrooms and school libraries would benefit from having these fun books on hand.  Struggling readers will enjoy the fast pace and the number of pages (about 200 each), irregardless of if they are read or not, and advanced readers will enjoy trying again and again to reach the successful end.

 

 

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman

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All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman

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This is the perfect book for back to school.  It can set a beautiful tone of letting all children know that they are welcome, that they are accepted, that they are safe, that they are wanted and that they have value in your classroom.  It could also work to allay children’s fears heading in to a new environment, assuming of course that the environment is as fabulous as the one presented in the book.  

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The large, hardback 44 page book with a poster and large pullout concluding page, is fantastic for ages preschool and up, but would have value as part of any grades back to school message.  

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While the rhyming couplets are sweet and sincere, the real beauty of the book are the illustrations.  Bringing all that diversity to life in smiling kids faces, children with hijabs, and yarmulkes, patkas, baseball caps, glasses, curly hair, straight hair, every color of the rainbow, various physical abilities, all show what a day of inclusion can look like.  No one culture or background is articulated or placed higher than another and the coming together of the kids and then their parents and community is inspiring.

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I love that their is a little muhajaba on the the cover and included in the cultural acceptance of the book.  It shows her praying in one picture and then joining in and smiling with the rest of the diverse group of characters in the other pictures.  Feeling included and accepted whether in a classroom, or in a children’s book, feels good, at any age, alhumdulillah. 

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A special shout-out to all the educators and people in positions of power who go the extra mile to create a safe and accepting space, thank you.

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The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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There is a lot to be grateful for in this 145 page AR 5.2 book before you even begin reading it.  The fact that Katherine Paterson, of Bridge to Teribithia fame, would write a middle school book about the horrors that took place in Kosovo in the late 90s and conclude with the events of 9/11 is both bold, and daring.  There isn’t a lot of mainstream YA literature about the events that happened in the Western Balkans and this book is much needed in shedding light on a history that cannot and should not be forgotten.  While the book doesn’t compel the reader to pick it up, I think as a novel study in school, or as suggested reading, kids 4-8th grade will benefit from the story and retain the humanity presented in the characters.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows 13-year-old Meli Lleshi, an ethnic Albanian, and how her world changes as Serbian atrocities escalate. The story opens showing how while there is tension in the air, a lot of the Lleshi family’s life is relatable to today’s western readers.  The children go to school, they have a big family and help out at home.  The dad owns a grocery store under the house and the neighborhood is made up of Albanians and Serbs, Muslims and Christians.  Quickly, however, bad news of the Serbs kidnapping people and destroying homes becomes reality as Meli’s 14-year-old brother Mehmet, goes missing.  The police refuse to help and with no other recourse the family is left to wait and see if he returns.   Luckily he does, but as fears continue to grow the family leaves home to go live at the familial farm in the country.  This stop is temporary and the first of many as the family moves from one refugee camp to another.  Fighting to stay together and look forward, as that their homes, livelihood, and material goods have all been destroyed, the Lleshi’s end up in America, only to be faced with the discrimination following 9/11.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I had the priviledge of helping with a lot of Bosnian and later Albanian refugee families that came through Salt Lake City, Utah in 1998-2001.  Not in any official capacity but as outreach to help get them settled, enrolled in school, a friendly face to call on for help, and eventually a friend.  Later, I even interviewed many of them in a series I did for my journalism classes at the University of Utah.  This story rings incredibly true to what I recall hearing them speak about.  What they saw, what they had to sacrifice, what they hoped to achieve in America.  So I was almost giddy to learn about this book knowing that it wouldn’t be a “fun” read, but an important one bringing a fictionalized account of a historical horror to children that probably have never even heard about it.  I only wish so desperately that the book had a map in it.  There is a great historical note, but a map would have made it so much more impactful. 

I like that the family is Muslim, they do not practice, but they identify as Muslim and are thus tortured both in Kosovo and harassed in America.  They are served a ham at one point in America, and they eat it, noting that culturally they don’t eat it, but don’t really see the big deal in doing it.  I remember the first time my family went to meet a Bosnian family and there were no men in the house, all had been killed at the children’s elementary school at dismissal for being Muslim, and they served us beer.  The ham incident reminded me of that, that these are so often the religious rules we tell others and children about what it means to be Muslim, but in the grand scheme how important are they compared to belief in the oneness of God?  I don’t want to turn this literary blog into my theological thoughts, but its hard over the years to forget that these people died for being Muslim, but yet really didn’t know a lot about Islam.  In my safe sheltered world, I know a lot of people that know a lot about Islam, but would we be willing to die for being Muslim?  The Lleshi family don’t pray or go to the mosque, but they do sprinkle their talk with Arabic words like inshaAllah (God willing), and their names are Islamic in nature: Mehmet, Adil, Isuf, etc., they are forced to relocate because of both their nationality and their religion, where the line is between one identity and the other isn’t clear in the book, nor is it in real life.  

FLAGS:

There is a bit of articulated violence, but the book is clean for 4th grade and up.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this for a Book Club selection, and if I was a upper elementary or middle school teacher for a novel study.  The book balances character narrative and historical context to the point that the book is not boring, sensationalized or easily dismissed.  I think kids will need the school environment and structure to compel them to pick up the book and finish it, but will not fight the actual reading of it.

A guide for book discussion: https://media.btsb.com/TitleLessonPlans/454.pdfTeacher’s Lesson Plan: http://mrscarafiello.weebly.com/day-of-the-pelican.html

 

Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red by Rosemary McCarney illustrated by Yvonne Cathcart

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Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red by Rosemary McCarney illustrated by Yvonne Cathcart

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This book is nearly the mirror of Nanni’s Hijab, just told from a different perspective and swapping out the heroine.  Written in 2015 this book definitely came out first, and while the 24 page book is targeted for  4-8 year olds, if your teaching point of view, this book and Nanni’s hijab could be used for older kids to make for a great lesson.  

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I love that this book is written by a non Muslim and the main character is non Muslim.  The binding the pictures, the size, all make this a wonderful addition to any library in showing that differences can and should be celebrated.

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Rosie loves wearing her red cape, and she loves looking at things from all angles and perspectives.  One day at school she arrives at school to see kids making fun of the new girl, Fadimata and her hijab.  

Unable to stop the kids she reaches out to Fadimata, and transforms her cape into a hijab in solidarity.  After the teacher also talks to the class about being kind, the next day is a surprise for Rosie, when many of the girls are wearing scarves and hijabs in a variety of manners to show acceptance and celebrate differences.

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This is the first book in a Rosie the Red Series, and I kinda really love that in the second book, Being Me, about volunteering at a food pantry and helping a friend, Fadimata is minor character.  She is now one of Rosie’s best friends and is both mentioned by name and illustrated.  This is awesome to me, because while books about Muslims are great, having us be in books as supporting characters solving other problems, learning lessons, and going on adventures, makes us more mainstream and inshaAllah part of the accepted landscape.

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*Side note, if you look at this book on Amazon, and read the comments you can see how truly upset many people are by this book calling it “indoctrination” and criticizing it for not encouraging assimilation.  If you read the book and like it, and like the tone and message it promotes, maybe write a review, and make the world a little warmer.

She Wore Red Trainers by Nai’ma B. Robert

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She Wore Red Trainers by Nai’ma B. Robert

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After having fairly good luck with the Muslim YA Romance Novel Genre in An Acquaintance and Saints and Misfits, I was willing to give She Wore Red Trainers a try.  Na’ima B. Robert has written a lot of books and this 261 page book was an easy and entertaining read.  There are no plot twists, deep thoughts, or intense drama, its a light read that infuses religion and environment into a story that will be great for 14-16 year olds that have slim pickings of relevant, Islamic, “halal” fiction options.

SYNOPSIS:

The story is told from two 18-year-olds’ perspectives, Ali and Amirah. It goes back and forth and while the perspective is obvious, the bottom of the page identifies the character so there is no chance for confusion.

Ali has begrudgingly moved to London with his brothers and father.  Not very religious before his mother’s death, he and his father and younger brother have made a new start and commitment to Islam since losing her to cancer.  The middle brother, resists this, but isn’t too critical in the story, other than to add a voice to the concept that people have to come to Islam on their own, that the relationship between a person and Allah is not cookie cutter or often simple. 

Amira too has a past and a lot on her plate as she strives to balance her chaotic family life and moving past decisions of her rebellious self.  The two meet and in the brief second before gazes are lowered, they fall in love.  Ok, so it isn’t that cliche’ but it is close.

The two, as the dedication of the book states, “are striving to keep it halal.”  They have a few encounters and the sparks are there, but they both have their own stories and supporting cast of friends as well. It isn’t until the very end, SPOILER, they get married.

Yup. impromptu wedding of 18 year olds.  It isn’t out of left field though, there are passages that contemplate the Islamic merits of a young marriage, and perhaps that is the depth of the book, as far as giving the reader something to think about. That and choosing Islam and actively living it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The stuff that makes the book interesting, isn’t really even the two love birds, it is the context.  The struggle of Amirah’s complex family situation with a mom that has had multiple husbands, and is suffering from depression.  Amirah also has a creepy stepdad (makes her uncomfortable and seems to make sexual advances toward her) and a sketchy past that isn’t really articulated but is hinted at enough to know that she did rebel briefly by running away and experimented with drugs and alcohol before realizing it wasn’t the life she wanted.  She takes tremendous care of her younger siblings, one who is deaf, and respects her older brother tremendously.  Her friends are not overly developed but provide enough diversity that the reader will see themselves in someone even if just fleetingly.

Similarly Ali is fleshed out by the company he keeps.  He has very religiously devout friends, a few rebellious ones and countless opportunities to define who he is.  His home life is a little chaotic, but they’ve gone through the destruction and are in the rebuilding phase. 

I like that the characters are fallible and represent a wide spectrum of religiosity.  The book isn’t political, nor does it discuss culture really, but it is meant for Muslim readers.  The characters throw in Arabic terms and while there is a glossary at the back, the religious rules, the contemplation of hadith and ayats, understanding Islamic divorce and the stress to be well established before marriage make it a book for those that can relate.  I love that part of keeping it halal is that they don’t talk and text.  I know that makes it a bit unbelievable, but I like that the line is drawn and established.

I wish that the past of many of the characters was clearer.  Not overly sensationalized, but a tiny bit more.  I wanted more information on what Ali’s dad’s new job was, and how far away they would be moving.  I wanted to know how Amira’s family would manage without her and the creepy stepdad, would the mom be able to step up and care for her kids.  I wanted more details about Amira’s family in general and why her older brother had to leave his studies permanently in Saudi Arabia, and wasn’t able to just delay graduation.  

I can’t criticize the writing too much because I did read the book in one sitting and it kept my interest.  I didn’t expect it to be deep or thought provoking, so for a light summer read, it was good enough.  I felt like the ending was a bit rushed, and yes there are some far fetched ideas, but I think it’s a romance novel, halal or not, so yeah, there are going to be some places that forgiveness is needed.

FLAGS:

There is mention of hooking up, drug and alcohol use, virginity, and a creepy sexual predator in the stepdad. It isn’t appropriate for middle school, but not so vulgar that one would need to be 18 to read.  I think high schoolers won’t find it too cheesy, and not be shocked by the content either.  Granted it depends on the reader. but I think it is better to be safe than sorry.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider the book for a high school book club. Might have to get parental permission, but I think it works well to consider how to have it all so to speak.  How to live within Islam and be smart about your choices.  The book doesn’t offer a lot to think about and mull over, but if you were a teenager, I would imagine that the book presents a lot of what you are feeling.  There is a lot to relate to in the friends, the deen, the emotions, and the temptations.  It also shows that just because families are Muslim, doesn’t mean that they are not complicated and troubled, a scenario that many would find reassuring at least superficially in the book.

Interview with the Author: http://www.kubepublishing.com/an-interview-with-naima-b-robert-about-her-forthcoming-book-she-wore-red-trainers/