Category Archives: 3rd grade and up

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruus Artwork by Nizar Ali Badr

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Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruus Artwork by Nizar Ali Badr

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I usually have a running lists of books to check and see if the library has in their catalogue, and another list for when I have a few extra dollars and/or a reason/excuse to purchase books for my own.  I’ve seen this book recommend by countless critics, educators, refugee resettlement volunteers etc., and was thrilled that I could get it from the local public library.  However, it isn’t enough to have this book and mull over the artwork and prose for three weeks, it deserves a permanent place on the shelf.  Or better yet, open hands to pass the book around to within your home, to reflect on the humanity that binds us all, and the plight of so many in the world.

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The story is fairly simple, Rama and her family have a good life in Syria and the war changes that, forcing her and her family to flee on foot to Europe with what they can carry.  The emotions on the other hand, are not that simple.  The book is illustrated in stone, but the reader would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved.  Written on an AR 3.2 with 28 pages, the book is written in both English and Arabic.  The book is not sensational, but it does discuss the shortage of food, and going hungry, how they are not free, not really, how bombs fall and kill people going to the market,  and it does show that people were lost in crossing the sea.  The family has to walk, there is no going to the airport or cars to take them across borders so easily, this is contrasted to the beginning of the book where Rama was free to play and go to school, things the reader can relate too.

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Ultimately the book is full of hope.  The fictionalized account of a horrific reality still on going, pales only to the story of how the book came to be.  The Foreword is wonderful and gives the book so much more warmth and heart.  How the author saw the artisans work, sought him out, and built the story around his pieces, gives even the youngest reader a sense of reality for an unfathomable situation.  After the story is more information about the author and the illustrator, as well as a list of resources to volunteer, donate and help.  Portions of the book sales go to help resettlement organizations across North America.

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The publishers page gives info and has a youtube book trailer as well: https://steppingstonesthebook.com/

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The book would be great at story time or in a classroom setting followed by an activity with making pictures with stones previously collected.  At bedtime the book is great to read aloud and let the words sweep your listener toward empathy and compassion.  Check your library first, and if it isn’t there, I don’t think you’ll regret your purchase.

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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Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

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Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

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Often children’s stories of refugees fleeing war are hopeful in a forced way that seems to want to protect them from the reality of what is going on in the world.  As adults we often cling to the ones with happy endings for our children and for ourselves, because the tragic ones are too numerous and overwhelming to comprehend.  This book marvelously does a great job for those older children in the middle that are beginning to understand the world around them, while not bombarding them with the severity of how cruel we can be to one another.  This true story instead focuses on a beloved cat and all the humans of different backgrounds, all over the world that help reunite her with her family.  Giving hope, but also showing the difficulty in the world, and the effects even one person can have in making a difference.

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Kunkush’s family goes to great pains to get themselves (all 6 of them) out of Mosul, and away from the war.  That the fact they sneak their beloved cat with them, shows just how much a member of the family he is. They drive through the night, and walk for days over a mountain, they reach a Kurdish village where they sneak the cat on a bus to Turkey, they then have to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, only to land in Lesbos and have Kunkush disappear.  The family searches as long as they can, but alas have to move on to their new home.  From here the story switches from following the family to following the cat and all the people determined to reunite him with his family.  Unfortunately, they don’t know where the family is.  Amy, a volunteer, takes the cat to the vet to get cleaned up, and then creates an internet campaign to try and find his family.  People from all over the world donate to his care, and his travel expenses.  Eventually, Amy takes the cat to Germany, where many refugees have resettled and continues her search.  Finally, word gets to the family in Norway, and Doug, a photographer, arranges to fly the cat to her new home. Alhumdulillah.

img_3838.jpgOne could argue that countless people are misplaced each day due to war, and we overlook it because it is easier than dealing with it, so why care about a cat.  And to that I challenge the skeptic, animal lover or not, to read this book and not have your heart-strings tugged.

IMG_3839The book is done beautifully.  The pictures are warm and endearing and are the only proof that the family is Muslim, by their hijabs.  The love the family has for their pet is expressed in the illustrations, and even more so by the real photographs at the end of the book following the Note from Doug and Amy.  At 48 pages the book works really well for 3rd grade and up (it isn’t AR) who can marvel at the cat’s journey.  I particularly think this book is a great way to show children another aspect of refugees.  There are a fair amount of books that talk about the refugee experience or show refugees getting adjusted to a new home.  But, this is a great way to show that refugees are not just defined by a word.  They are vibrant individual people just like everyone else.  By focusing on the cat and his journey, the reader sees what a refugee goes through, particularly this family, and hopefully will stop and think about it.   But it doesn’t just show the family in that capacity, it shows them as a vibrant family who loves and desperately misses their cat- something more children may be able to relate to.

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The Most Magnificent Mosque by Ann Jungman illustrated by Shelley Fowles

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The Most Magnificent Mosque by Ann Jungman illustrated by Shelley Fowles

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Three very naughty boys harass visitors to Cordoba’s Great Mosque in Spain.  Rashid, a Muslim, Samuel, a Jew, and Miguel, a Christian, run through the fountains, destroy the flowerbeds and throw oranges at people leaving their prayers.  Most days the boys can out run the gardeners, but one day they pelt the Caliph himself with a rotten orange.  The punishment from the Caliph is three months of hard labor working with the gardeners everyday on the mosque grounds.  On their breaks the boys explore the mosque and marvel at its beauty.  By the end of their sentence, the boys have such a love for the mosque and one another that they are forever bound.  As the boys grow and make their way in the world, they don’t keep in touch much.  However, when Cordoba is defeated in battle by the Christian king Fernando, it will be up to these three boys to convince the new king, that the Mosque shouldn’t be torn down.  And that the it is the pride of all people in Cordoba, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian alike.

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The book is 32 pages and an AR 4.0.  It does a good job of showing the three faith communities coming together to save something they all value.  It also shows a kind, yet purposeful punishment from the Caliph to the three boys.  While younger kids in story time will enjoy the concept of people working together, the book really finds its strength with students learning or familiar with Spain, particularly prior to the Inquisition.  There isn’t a lot of detail regarding the structure of the mosque, or the doctrine of each faith, that knowledge would have to come from outside the book, in order for it to be appreciated. There are some plot holes in the story and the book itself doesn’t make it clear what parts of the story are historically accurate and which are fiction.

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The illustrations are charming in their own way.  The watercolors do a good job bringing to life the mosque and gardens, and battle, but for me fall a little flat in depicting the three boys.  I don’t know if the text or illustrations are at fault for me not connecting to the story or finding an emotional resonance to what should be a very inspiring story. Perhaps it is a combination of the two.  I feel it is desperately in need of an author’s note detailing the factual origins of the tale,  Something to uplift and give hope to people of different faiths coming together in a peaceful way, that can be put into real world actions.

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Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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This book really marked a shift in Islamic fiction for me and the genre.  First of all I was waiting for the book to come out.  I didn’t stumble upon it or hear about it from someone else.  I knew when it was going to be released, and I knew I wanted to read it. Additionally it was the first books published by Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Which according to their website was “founded in 2016, Salaam Reads is an imprint that aims to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families, and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.”  This is big, huge in fact.  The bar has been raised, and a platform has been given, no more excuses.

Alhumdulillah, Amina’s Voice is a beautiful 197 page book for children ages 8-12.  The book is not AR, but probably will be in a few weeks.  I think it is spot on for 3rd through 5th grade in terms of content, message, and appeal.  The book caters to females and Muslims, but naturally is not limited to those two demographics exclusively.  There are characters of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds in the novel that play significant roles in saving the day and keeping the book powerfully optimistic and inspiring.

SYNOPSIS:

Amina is starting middle school and everything is changing for Amina. Her friends are acting different, her older brother is skirting with trouble and her religious uncle is coming to visit from Pakistan.  Internally, she doesn’t like the spotlight but desperately wants to get out from behind the piano to sing.  All of this combines in a climax that pivots around the destruction of the mosque she attends and her having to find her voice, and use it to take center stage in her own life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

There is a lot going on in the book, but it doesn’t get over whelming with Amina’s voice keeping the reader focused on her and her view of the events around her.  The author does a good job of getting inside a 12 year-old girls head without being condescending or heartless.  The reader feels her stress that she is losing her best friend, Soojin to Emily, a girl who used to torment the two “ethnic” girls, without belittling her concerns.  You also feel her love of Islam and struggle to understand if music and singing is permissible within Islamic rules.  The book is realistic fiction with school, friendships, and family guiding the story.  Everything from the ups and downs of group projects, inside jokes between siblings, and trying to pronounce the big HAA in Arabic.  The macro of middle elementary years combined with the micro facets of culture, religion, and current events, and you speak to a section of readers that will connect with Amina and what she goes through in a very authentic, relatable story.

The only points that gave me pause is the premise and music in the book.  It is a point of disagreement amongst nearly every group of Muslims, so to have the Imam sitting and listening to her play the piano, is a bit hard for me to accept as the norm, no matter how cool Imam Malik is.  Additionally, I wish that Amina’s mom had some depth, and the relationship between Amina and her uncle, Thaya Jaan, was fleshed out just a tad more.  In both cases I felt something was lacking, and I wanted more.

FLAGS:

Nothing major, but a few minor issues, that a parent may want to be aware of for younger readers.  Mustafa, Amina’s brother, is seeing skipping Sunday school class and reeking of cigarette smoke.  He denies it, and the issue is definitely not glorified.  There is also crushes discussed amongst Amina’s friends and when Amina spills a secret, she has to own up to it and work it out to maintain her friendships.  The destruction of the mosque could also be upsetting to younger readers.  It isn’t graphic, but her emotional response and the intensity of it, is the climax, and a very real part of our world sadly. For parents, this fictional vandalization could possibly be a great place to start a discussion from if your children are somehow unaware of the current status of Islam in the west.  It also shows that people are good, as the whole larger community, comes together to show unity, love, and respect are values to us all, alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a 3rd through 5th book club.  If I was starting a new book club I would start with this book.  It has it all. It has real issues, religious issues, universal issues, and heart.  All while staying on age level and all in a realistic fiction safe space to have an opinion about objectively.  The discussions after the book is read will flow naturally, but just in case:

Reading Group Guide:  http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Aminas-Voice/Hena-Khan/9781481492065/reading_group_guide

Author’s Page: https://www.henakhan.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story From Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter

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It is widely written about, even amongst children’s literature, that in parts of the world, girls are not allowed to go to school, but that many find ways to do so anyway.  What sets this book apart is that it is based on a true story, and while there is some hope for Nasreen, overall it is a really melancholy tale without a happy ending.  At 40 pages, author Jeanette Winter once again conveys a story that shows compassion instead of judgement and undeniable admiration for her characters.  Written on a 4.2 level, the story packs a lot into small, simple sentences, and her illustrations do not shy away from the realities of Afghanistan.  While I was surprised to see that twice the book was challenged, in 2014 and 2016, for showing Muslims praying and for violence, I was glad that it was never banned.   The strength and determination of Afghani women should not be silenced, it should be shared and celebrated.

 

The story is told from the point of view of Nasreen’s grandmother.  She is heartbroken that her granddaughter is not allowed to attend school and practice the arts as she was, and even her daughter-in-law, were able to do as children.  Since the Taliban has come things are dark.  Things get worse when one night soldiers come and take Nasreen’s father with no explanation.  When he doesn’t return, Nasreen’s mother leaves to find him, displaying her own strength to independently take on a society that doesn’t permit her to go out alone.  Unfortunately she does not return either, and Nasreen stops speaking.  Grandma learns of a secret school for girls.  Determined that Nasreen should know of the outside world, great risks are taken for many girls to learn in a private home a few doors down.  Dodging Taliban soldiers and neighborhood boys helping keep their school a distraction starts to pay off as Nasreen finds a friend and starts to open her heart.  The book ends with mom and dad still missing, but hope for Nasreen to see through the window education has opened for her, inshaAllah.

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