Category Archives: 5th grade and up

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published.  The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away.  This book unfortunately really fell flat.  I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps.  This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why.  The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me.  It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.

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SYNOPSIS:

Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh.  Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors.  Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way.  Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts.  Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist.  Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening.  Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer.  When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income.  At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves.  Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English.  A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength.  It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should.  The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab.  Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned.  The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected.  I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.

I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like.  I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira.  How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t.  I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings.  I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing.  It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading.   I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either.  If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.

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FLAGS:

Fairly clean.  There is bullying and mention of death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club.  It is a solid middle grade read.  Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya.  Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.

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World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

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I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well.  The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA.  The book is personable, relatable, and informative.  I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone.  The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect.  The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture.  Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters.  While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion.  But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies.  Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans.  The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity.  They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp.  Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning.  Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion.  The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace.  They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity.  Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten.  The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions.  The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.  The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.  

I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid.  It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood.  Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.

I love that sports and art are universal.  Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math.  He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability.  Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan.  He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper.  Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.

I love the diversity of everyone in each country.  Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a .  There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone.  I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims.   We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family.  That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.

FLAGS:

Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war.  It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that.  Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club.  It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect.  The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan.  He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed.  Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly.  The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.  

Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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The author of this wonderful middle grades novel reached out to me after I reviewed her book A Galaxy of Sea Stars, to let me know that this book too has a Muslim character.  As we exchanged emails back and fourth I learned more about her work with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven Connecticut (IRIS), and the impact the people she has met there have on her and her writing (the new paperback version of Galaxy has bonus content that reflects this).  Allies and advocates are gifts for Muslims and for our fictional representation.  The details and warmth of her Muslim character, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, is seamless and accurate, and while this is not his story, his support of the main character helps normalize Muslims as friends and in daily life.  He takes time out for his five daily prayers, he refuses to shake a female’s hand, and he uses the word inshaAllah.  The story is Ruby’s though, and her journey pulls you in from the first chapter and leaves you cheering for her long after you close the book.  Over 295 pages (AR 4.1) you witness Ruby find her voice, dare to not be invisible, accept friendship, and help others.   

SYNOPSIS:

Ruby has just moved to frozen Vermont from their last “forever home” in Florida.  Originally from D.C., Ruby and her mom have been moving to places they have vacationed to try and find joy.  Since Ruby’s father, a police officer, died, the two of them have been broken and barely surviving.  The only constant is a cousin, Cecy, who helps them out and convinces Ruby’s mom to come back to her childhood town of Fortin, and to be closer to her.  The winter is bitter, the house is freezing, and even with Cecy arranging for Ruby’s mom to have a job, it only takes a day for Ruby’s mom to be arrested, fired, and for Ruby to be on her own.  With only a garbage bag full of belongings, and some thrift store finds for warmth, Ruby’s plan is the same as it has been in every other town they have landed in: keep her head down and be invisible.  Ruby’s dog, Bob, though has other plans, and when he takes off into a neighbor’s yard filled with ‘No Trespassing’ signs a meeting with Abigail takes place that will change Ruby.

Abigail Jacobs is known in Fortin as the “Bird Lady.”  She has a home, but lives in a shed on her property, dresses in layers of scraps and scarves, feeds the birds, and keeps to herself.  The rumor is that she killed her husband and daughter, everyone knows it, it could just never be proven.  There are also stories that she has a moon rock.  When Ruby meets her she is angry and cold, but the way she interacts with the animals and her knowledge of the moon, keeps her intrigued and even though Ruby’s mom forbids her from visiting Abigail, Ruby and her develop a friendship of sorts.

At school Ruby’s plan to go unnoticed is challenged by Ahmad Saleem, a refugee who lives with his uncle a grocery store owner and is teased by a few classmates for his accent and disappearances at lunch time when he goes to pray.  He is kind and and determined to help Ruby and immediately declares her his friend.  Ruby tries to avoid him, but eventually he starts to win her over.  With the upcoming wax museum, a Fortin favorite, drawing near, Ruby tries to explain to her teacher that they will be leaving back to D.C. before the final presentation, but Mr. Andrews isn’t letting her off and somehow she finds herself researching Michael Collins, the astronaut that stayed on the space shuttle alone to circle the dark side of the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic walk. 

With the mayor singling out Abigail with his new ordinances, Ruby’s mom deciding not to take the plea deal and fight her case at trail, the short cold days, the desire to return to D.C., the wax museum approaching, and Ruby needing answers, Ruby at some point will have to stand up and speak out.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story unfolds in layers.  You don’t know where it is going, but the slow peeling away shows the complexity of people and situations.  The book doesn’t shy away from confronting stereotypes and looking beyond appearances.  I like that there is some discussion of Islamophobia, when Ahmad is overheard speaking Arabic for example, but the character that needs the most standing-up for is an elderly white woman.  The small pivot allows the book to avoid a familiar theme and shows the reader a Muslim shop owner helping the tattered woman that the town fears and resents. I enjoyed the strong reminder of how women and science and their careers have not been widely accepted until recently.  I think many readers will be surprised that much of Abigail’s rumors stem from her being a brilliant educated woman that society struggled to respect then and now.  I absolutely love the science and space aspects that bring Ruby Moon, her neighbor, and her class project together.

I wish there was a little bit more about her mom and her relationship at the end.  The disconnect in their relationship warranted the sparse information in the majority of the story, but I needed some hope for the two of them.  Same for the relationship with Cecy.  I get that Ruby doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom’s cousin, but as Ruby grew in so many ways, I wish that her appreciation of what Cecy has done for her and her mom would have also been realized in some capacity.

FLAGS:

Ruby being dishonest. Death, injury of a pet, physical assault, bullying, teasing, Islamophobia.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t focus an entire book club on this book, but I think it would be a great addition to a summer reading list.  The insight into a character trying to find herself within her own family and experiences with connections to history and science would be a benefit to any child to read and reflect upon.

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

img_8794There is a reason that this 93 page graphic novel is labeled as “Teens.”  There may only be 300 or so words in the entire book, and the pictures at times are very basic, but oh subhanAllah is it devastating. Real, unfortunately, but I was not expecting my heart to be shredded and for me to be haunted by the framing and perspective of the story.  I read a fair amount of books both fiction and nonfiction regarding Syrian refugees and I try not to ever become numb to the plight of so many, but this book was such a reminder that things don’t always turn out well, that sometimes no matter how inspired your life is to follow in the footsteps of a warrior queen, there isn’t always hope.  That no matter how brave you are, horrible things will still happen, and that sometimes there is no one to hear your cries and pleas, and for so many in this cruel world, there is only silence.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Amina on a crowded makeshift book in the ocean, the boat capsizes and we are thrust back in to her memories of playing hide-and-seek with her mother.  The juxtaposition of her little body playing a game hoping not to be found with her limp body in the ocean begging to be found is stark.  The memories then take us back to her mom preparing dolmas with only rice and salt, since that is all that is left.  Her father jokes that they are too salty.  The ocean is salty as well, and the memories continue to flow.  Her parents go to the market and she is not able to go with them.  It doesn’t tell why, but her mother reminds her to be strong and brave like Zenobia. Her mother often reminds her of the Syrian warrior queen who was the most beautiful woman in the whole world, who ruled, fought, and rode like a man.

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Her parents don’t return.  She waits and waits.  There are attacks, an uncle comes to take her away.  They pass destruction and rubble and sleep in the road.  Her body starts to sink in the water.  Her uncle finds some fisherman, he gives them all his money, but it is only enough for one to go on the boat.  He sends her. A kind lady on the boat shares a bit of food, before the boat flips over.  Her body is lost in the ocean, hoping to be found, voiced only as a whisper inside her head.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I really don’t like it.  That isn’t to say it isn’t well done and powerful.  It is hard to finish though.  You really hope she will be plucked out of the water even though a part of you know she won’t.  I made me kids read it.  It rocked them.  In a good way I think, I hope.  We can never forget how privileged we are, although we do all the time.  Books like this remind us how quickly it can all change and how we at the bare minimum need to be acutely aware of what others go through.  If it is hard to read, imagine living it.

The book is Danish, I don’t know if it is translated or originally in English.  It says that it won the Danish National Illustration Award in 2017, so I’m not sure how much to critique phrasing, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how Zenobia was presented as riding, leading, and ruling like a man.  I’m pretty sure she did those things better than MOST men.  Having her stature be glorified as being that equal to a man weakened her and her accomplishments.  Yes, doing what she did at a time when many women were not allowed to do it is impressive, but she was great in her own right, not just in comparison to the male gender.

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FLAGS:

For teens nothing. For younger kids, under 10, it is subtle, but too devastating in my opinion.  Tweens should read it with some discussion, they should know it isn’t always happy and hopeful, but use your discretion if they can handle a drowning, loss of parents, and destruction.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short for a book club, but I think families should consider it and talk about it.  Syria and many other nations may not be headline news at the moment in America, but that doesn’t mean wars and their far reaching implications have stopped.  It just means we have grown weary and changed the channel.

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Islamaphobia deal with it in the name of peace by Safia Saleh illustrated by Hana Shafi

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Islamaphobia deal with it in the name of peace by Safia Saleh illustrated by Hana Shafi

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This nonfiction book has given me pause.  The information, the approach, the presentation, the importance, is all really well done, I just can’t really grasp how to use the book.  It is broken up in to four sections:  Islamophobia 101, The Believer, The Intolerant, and The Bystander. In each sections it has scenarios, comic strips, quizzes, infographics, advice columns and so much more spread out over 32 pages.  After it explains what Islamophobia is, it offers believers (Muslims) ways to see if what they are facing is classified as Islamophobia.  It has quizzes and questions and advice for people that are intolerant, and then if you are just around Muslims and intolerant folk what you can and should be aware of and do.  I think in a classroom all sections could be gone over, but I’m not sure in which grade and in what context.  In an Islamic youth group I think it could be really thought provoking to look at different sides and encourage the members to share their personal experiences, but I don’t know.  If you are a bully, would some quizzes and graphics be enough for you to recognize your own bias, could it make you change your attitude? I’d love to hear from others that have read this book, I checked mine out from the library.  It says it is for ages nine and up and other books in the series cover topics such as: consent, homophobia, transphobia, anxiey, racism, and freedom of expression.

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The first section: Islamophobia 101 starts off with a scenario of a girls first day of school after the summer and her first day wearing hijab.  No one really says anything, but there are whispers, her best friend asks if everything is ok at home.  It defines Islamophobia as “a kind of intolerance, or a refusal to accept and respect ideas and views that are different from your own.  It is the belief that Muslims, or people who follow the religion of Islam, are a group to be fearful of.”  It goes on to explain in examples what Islamophobia is while giving facts about Islam and things to think about. There are graphic comic type scenarios showing what Islamophobia can look like based on ignorance, stereotypes, then assumptions, and finally fear.  The section then offers a 10 question quiz, followed by questions and answers to a fictitious counselor in an advice column format. Finally there are myths and a Did You Know Section.

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The next section: The Believer, starts with a scenario of a Muslim holding their breath while watching the news.  Of being proud of your family and faith, but being tired of convincing people you are a Muslim and a good person.  An advice column about handling halal food, terrorism, hijab and sports is next followed by tips to not feel alone and an infographic on dos and don’ts to not be overwhelmed by your experiences.

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The third section is The Intolerant which asks if other people’s religions bother you, or if you question why religion has to be part of daily life and not kept personal.  There is a a 30 question true and false quiz, then a challenge to be part of the problem or part of the solution, with information on what you can do.  There is a sidebar about the role of social media as well as some highlights of current Muslim sports figures.

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The Bystander section asks if you’ve seen someone bullied or harassed for being Muslim, if it bothers you to hear people talk about immigrants and refugees as a threat, and what you can do to speak up. There are dos and don’ts a 10 question quiz, some more Islam facts and some direction to get more information.

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Overall the book is well done, and I had my kids look through it to see a way to facilitate anything they experience and how to articulate how they are treated and might treat others.  

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!