Category Archives: 2nd through 4th grade

Alana’s Bananas by Mariam Hussein illustrated by Saima Riaz

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Alana’s Bananas by Mariam Hussein illustrated by Saima Riaz

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A silly, silly book about a girl’s love of bananas and her despair when a storm wipes out the banana crops in Costa Rica.  The moral of the story is to try new foods, and in 36 pages I think the reader will grasp just how over the top Alana’s obsession with bananas truly is and the lesson will be learned.

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My only stumbling block is I’m not sure what age the book is for.  The bright silly pictures work well for ages 3 and up.  The theme works well for ages 4 and up.  The amount of text on the page, however, is more 6 or 7 and up, and the concepts of where banana’s come from, multiple uses for banana peels is about the same.  The character in the book, Alana, is eight and goes to the library and reads cook books and cooks independently, but the way her parents trick her into eating other foods is to hide eggs, peanut butter, rice, avocados and anything else they could find in banana peels, which keeps with the silliness of it all, but seems a bit off for 8 years old. Also talk about very patient parents allowing their 8 year old to only eat bananas for so long, and then not being upset when they have to resort to extreme levels of trickery.

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There is nothing islamic in the text, and the only islamic elements are the author, illustrator, and the family based on the illustrations.  The mom wears hijab, but it is neither mentioned or referenced and no islamic vocabulary or phrases are in the story. In a scene at school, the girl sitting next to Alana is wearing hijab.

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The book is about 10×10 and sturdy in its construction.  The back cover has a recipe for Alana’s Banana Breakfast Muffins. Enjoy!

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

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Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

IMG_4757I was really excited to learn about this book from the author, as it seemed to be a book that would stand out in a very crowded genre and work for both Muslim and non Muslim kids.  When I tore off the package however, the face on the cover seemed a bit off for my taste, the glossary is on the back cover and while the pages are full size and full color, the book starts on the first page and somehow seemed more “home done” than “professional.”  Which isn’t a bad thing, and I’m happy to support local writers, but alas I do often judge books by their covers and format, and my first impression had to be stuffed away so I could give the book a fair chance.

The book is 20 pages with the 20th page being recipes.   I would guess children 5 and up would be considered the target audience.  It basically is a book telling about Ramadan with the author trying to blend in a story, that for me, sometimes worked and sometimes really didn’t.

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It starts with Zachariah, a 12 year-old-boy waiting for his mom to wake him up to fast, a day he has been waiting his whole life for.  Why he had to wait to fast at age 12 is not clear to me or made clear in the story.  His 10 year-old-sister only does half days, but in the illustrations she seems to only look about 3 years old, so I’m not sure where the arbitrary age requirements for fasting come from.  There is also a third sibling in the pictures that is never mentioned, not sure why, my kids and I speculated a lot more on that than we probably should have.  It isn’t told from Zachariah’s point of view but he is the focus as his day gets started.

The characters are undoubtedly desi as the book is very steeped in subcontinent cultural over tones.  Sehri, the pre dawn meal, is described in abundance of detail, “His mom made omelets, fried potatoes, with curry and tomatoes and his favorite parathas: thin leavened dough that is friend in olive oil or butter”  It’s a bit detailed of how the items are prepared for a kid’s book, and that is just page one of two pages dedicated to detailing the food on the table for breakfast.  Iftar the meal to break the fast is also two pages of description and cooking methods, but about double the amount of text.

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Culture is often food, and Ramadan has its own food traditions, but there is a lot of space dedicated to food in this book,  and it kind of takes away from the message of fasting, and moderation, and not going in excess.  Later in the book the mom does pack up some of the food to take to the less fortunate which is great, but she does it while the rest of the family is breaking their fast.  Not sure why she couldn’t have done it before or after and joined them.

After sehri is presented the family talks about Ramadan and what it means and what they like best about it.  There is a bit of dialogue that is actually sweet and funny, and gives some warmth to the story.  It is clear the author is just trying to flesh out the facts about Ramadan, but for a kid’s book, I think getting the facts in and presenting them in a fictionalized setting is a useful tool.

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The story seems a bit lopsided when it shrinks Zachariah’s day at school to one five line paragraph saying it was wonderful and then moves on saying “Later, he helps his mom.”  After spending 10 pages on the predawn meal, I would have liked to know a bit more how school went for him, it is his perfect day after all.  Also, the lapse in time by the narrator seemed a bit off to me in the sequential flow of the story, as it was following him in real time so to speak, and then fast forwards the bulk of the day only touching on lunch time, and

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Alhumdulillah, the family is sweet and excited for Ramadan. They pray together and are seen with smiling faces.  There isn’t much diversity in the pictures, the family has darker skin, the friends at lunch are more fair.  The mom wears hijab and is in the kitchen, dad doesn’t seem to be, but Zachariah helps his mom.

The book is colorful, and busy.  I’m not sure if the pictures are meant to be a stylized reality or look computer generated, but they seem a little blurry in places.  The font and backgrounds are nice.  There is a verse from the Quran in English and Arabic, as well as the athan and some Islamic calligraphy.

Overall, there is nothing “wrong” with the book, it just isn’t memorable.  There are some really good Ramadan books out there, and this one does it’s job of explaining Ramadan, but lacks the characters to leave an impression.  I definitely don’t regret buying it, but I don’t know that my kids or I will read it again this Ramadan, it doesn’t create that reaction.  It will probably stay on the shelf until next year, when we can’t recall many of the details and give it another go.

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Zaid and the Gigantic Cloud by Helal Musleh illustrated by Sabrina Pichardo

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Zaid and the Gigantic Cloud by Helal Musleh illustrated by Sabrina Pichardo

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We all experience disappointment and frustration and feeling like a gray cloud is weighing us down, and for Zaid, it really is!  In 36 bright colorful pages, children ages 5 and up can see that bad days happen to everyone, and that sometimes it seems like nothing is going right.

Zaid has been waiting for months for a weekend camping trip with his uncle and cousin, but when Ahmed comes down with the chicken pox, the trip is cancelled.  That night Zaid barely sleeps he is so upset, and in the morning notices a small grey cloud hovering above him.  As he waits for the bus, the autumn leaves remind him that it will soon be too cold to play soccer outside, then he has to sit at the back of the bus, and needless to say its just the beginning of many disappointments in his day, that make the cloud above him grow.  But then, a little something out of the ordinary, in the form of a small bird needing help, presents Zaid with a change of pace and a chance to turn his day around.  Slowly but surely the cloud starts to shrink and Zaid copes with the rest of the day with a bit of perspective and a growing smile.

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The book is a much needed one in showing children coping with emotions in a somewhat autonomous manner.  The book doesn’t judge his feelings, but shows how he finds a way to see the silver lining and make do with a string of frustrations.  The adults don’t lecture him or solve his problems for him, but are definitely supportive and caring should he need them.  The story does a good job of flowing and not getting preachy.  I can’t wait to read it to my 6-year-old who has a gray cloud pop up at the slightest disappointment, but currently my 10-year-old has been sent to her room with the book to see if she can relate Zaid’s predicament with her own.  The handy discussion questions at the end also can help talk about feelings through Zaid, and hopefully making the child’s connection from a fictional character to their own experiences more poignant.

This book really cemented in my head the growing subcategories of Islamic fiction picture books.  Naturally there are books that are geared for Muslim kids only and ones that work for Muslim and non Muslim kids alike.  But this book, along with a few of the new releases like it, cover universal themes with Muslim characters (at least by name) and have diversity in their pictures.  They show a few characters in hijab but do not mention or explain it, in this book the marshmallow package says halal, again with no explanation.  However, there is no specific ayat or hadith that the book stems from or an Islamic pearl that is meant to get through.  The characters do not greet each other with salam, or say alhumdulillah and mashaAllah, making it more appealing to a wider audience, but words I hope when the story is being read aloud to Muslim kids, can be sprinkled in.  I think it is a great addition to the literary world when Muslims are seen in a larger community and is not jarring.  I hope parents of non Muslim children also appreciate this diversity in literature and I pray that it leads to more acceptance in the “real” world, ameen.

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Drummer Girl by Hiba Masood illustrated by Hoda Hadadi

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Drummer Girl by Hiba Masood illustrated by Hoda Hadadi

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Before she was Grandma Najma, she was just Najma.  A girl in Turkey with a secret dream of being a musaharati, the person who walks the streets waking up the neighbors for suhoor in Ramadan.  But, a girl had never done this and thus the dream stayed hidden until she was 12 and the neighborhood musaharati was feeling ill.  Confiding in her baba, his love and support makes her dream come true against cultural norms and naysayers.  The line from her Baba, “Girls can be anything they like,” is so clear that her one girl revolution grabs the hearts of the reader and turns readers into cheerleaders.  The added beauty is her father’s support is not limited to his words, he accompanies her out every night almost challenging anyone to say she can’t do it.  Overtime she becomes the pride of the area, and her brothers accompany her if she doesn’t want to go alone, and then eventually her husband and her children.

drumemrgirl2The book warms the soul and uplifts the spirit.  The text seems geared to 7 year olds and up, as there is a lot of it, and at 26 pages does require some ability to focus. But with minor tweaks and condenscing the story appeals to children 4 and up and the pictures help hold their attention as they create a mood of wonder and whimsy.

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Structurally the book is hardback and dust jacket free, yay! the cover is printed on and thus easier to maintain.  The book is longer horizontally with most illustrations on the left side making it great for story time where the kids can see the pictures and the reader can hold and easily see the text without blocking the children’s line of sight.  There is a glossary, an author’s note telling where the story comes from, and a little biography of the author and illustrator and publisher in the back.

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A beautiful, beautiful book to share with children this Ramadan and all year long, alhumdulillah.

Rafiq & Friends’ The Ramadan Date Palm by Fatemeh Mashouf illustrated by Vera Pavlova

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Rafiq & Friends’ The Ramadan Date Palm by Fatemeh Mashouf illustrated by Vera Pavlova

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It is nearly Ramadan, inshaAllah, the most blessed time of year.  I don’t normally do product endorsements and thus I didn’t review this book that comes with a whole Ramadan kit last year when my cousin gifted it my children.  However, as I look for Ramadan Story Time books, I reread this and while it references the activity cards, it really offers a lot as a stand alone book too.  So, yes I am going to review it and plug the kit as something your kids up to age 9 or so will really enjoy, at least mine did and even went searching last week for all the components….without being asked! That’s a pretty strong endorsement right there.

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Rafiq is a date palm tree that is so excited for Ramadan and is going to get you excited too.  He starts off by mentioning the fun you will have with the daily activity cards, and the role you will play in serving iftar dates on the special plate. The reader is then introduced to the cast of characters, Najjah the sheep, and later Asal the bee.

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The middle of this 36 page book are my favorite, the illustrations are so sweet and welcoming you want to hang them up in your children’s rooms.  This is where the “story” begins, it talks about Ramadan and how the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (saw), and fasting, and praying and patience and having fun with friends and playing too.  It then moves on to Eid and all the different yummy foods that are eaten all over the world.  It ends on a note of community and how we all pray the same with our families and use the word salam.

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The book is visually beautiful from one hard back cover to the next.  It is written in rhyme and most of it flows without feeling ridiculously over forced, but there are definite sentences that are awkward, and the rhythm seems to vary a bit that you have to stay alert when reading it out loud or you will get tongue tied.  I think if you just skip the lines that reference the cards at the beginning and end, the book can work without the kit and accessories.  Kids might be confused, but I think the bulk of the book is engaging and the pictures are stunning, that kids will be able to grasp on to the overall message of the book and forget about the “product placement” so to speak.  There is a glossary at the back, and it works for ages 3-10.

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(I wasn’t paid or asked to do this review, I wish I was, but it really is fun for multiple aged children, and gives a bit of daily Ramadan connection for those of us that want to make every day in Ramadan a craft and spiritual extravaganza, but know realistically we just won’t be able to do it all https://www.rafiqandfriends.com/)

Stairs Series: Trouble with Babysitting, Allergy Attack, Yusuf’s Robot & Time Travel by Nur Kose illustrated by Shaista Asad and Ayesha Khatib

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Stairs Series: Trouble with Babysitting, Allergy Attack, Yusuf’s Robot & Time Travel by Nur Kose illustrated by Shaista Asad and Ayesha Khatib

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This set of books claim to be for children ages 8 to 12, but I think they work better for 7 to 10 year olds.  They look like leveled readers, and resemble them in their simple linear story lines.  They are broken up in to chapters, that really are not necessary, but because of the volume of text on each page, allows for a young reader to take a break.  All four books in the series are connected chronologically and contain the same characters.  They more or less present a problem, bring over their friends, have one of the friends offer some advice tied to a hadith or ayat from the Quran, and the advice is tested, and then shared once more.  They are about 20 pages and have activities at the end that range from solving clues to writing paragraphs.  The sentences and vocabulary are about a second grade level, with translations of Arabic and Turkish words, along with references to the Quran and Hadith appearing in the footnotes on the page they are mentioned on.

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The best part of the books is that they are written by an 8th Grader, mashaAllah.  I think they teach a lesson in a simple way, and while not terribly suspenseful or comical, they do succeed in showing Islamic lessons in relatable situations for kids.  Some of the details seem excesses or meandering, but again, the fact that it is written by a kid, will inspire readers to listen differently to lessons about patience, accepting Allah’s will, recognizing one’s own limitations, and putting Allah (swt) above all else.

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The pictures are colorful and simple.  They appear every few pages in the book and provide a nice break from the text.  They are sweet and not detailed, but sufficient for the story and level.

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