Category Archives: 5th grade and up

Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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This is the second middle grade mystery story for globe trotting sleuth, Ayesha Dean, and much like her first adventure in Istanbul, this Spanish setting is infused with rich history, delicious food, relatable characters and quick paced action.  

SYNOPSIS:

Once again Ayesha and her two friends Jess and Sara are tagging along on a business trip with Uncle Dave, Ayesha’s uncle who has raised her since her parent’s passing.  As they wait in line to board the final flight of their lengthy journey from Australia, a young man drops his contents and Ayesha and him chat, later they are seated next to each other on the plane where he discloses his travels from England to Seville are to help locate his missing grandfather.  Ayesha volunteers herself and her friends to help him and they hit the ground in Spain determined to solve the case.

The boy, Kareem, is staying with the friends his beloved grandfather was staying with when he went missing, so that is where the detectives start their work.  In searching his room, Ayesha uncovers a 400 year old diary written in Arabic, and a pamphlet from the Archeology Museum with a necklace circled, the Collar de Pajaros.  Just enough to get them started and set their adventure in motion.

The group of teens rely on Kareem to translate the Arabic in the diary and Ayesha’s wit to decide what to follow up on and how to incorporate their sightseeing with the task at hand.  As they journey through the city of Seville, learning the history and tasting the food, nefarious characters start to notice the group and things get intense.  From Cathedrals, to cafes, to Museums, and even to an ancient city uncovered in Cordobo, Madina Al-Zahra, the chase is on, not only to find Kareem’s grandpa, but to also avoid being caught themselves and maybe even solving a centuries old mystery about treasure and a necklace along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ayesha in any situation stays true to her self.  She wears hijab, she prays, she is aware of the good looking guy, but doesn’t cross her own line, she is a good friend, an inquisitive person, and confident.  All amazing attributes for a fictitious hero and real ones too.  

Much like Nancy Drew and other middle grade novel series, the books don’t need to be read in order, and while they reference other adventures, they stand alone sufficiently too.  Also, like the aforementioned books there is definitely a formulaic pattern to how the author writes her books.  And while reading it I didn’t notice it intensely, as I write the review I do.  Ayesha travels abroad, she has her sidekicks that are not developed at all and truly have no barring on the story plot wise or as comic relief, they are simply foils to bounce conversation off of, there is a cute boy who could be pursued, but isn’t, someone passes out while she and her friends are sight seeing, and the spouses provide added clues, Ayesha gets locked in a small dark space, there is a twist and a surprise, a trap, and they all live to repeat the adventure in another city another day.  I don’t think I have a problem with it, but maybe because I am not the target audience age, I might get bored with it about book four or so.  As it stands right now, I’m anxiously waiting for book three.

While reading I was a little irked that Sara and Jess weren’t any more developed in Spain than they were in Turkey.  One of them could have been the one to administer CPR or to stumble on the diary in the room, something to give them some plot significance, but alas, the books do not bare their names.  I wish Kareem would have at least said “Salam” on occasion.  I like that the author shows he doesn’t know much about Islam and shows that his grandfather admits its been so long since he has prayed, but the boy is a Morisco and his parents immigrants from Algeria, he translates Arabic, he should say Salam when he meets Ayesha in her hijab wrapped head. 

The author does a much better job in this book staying with the characters and showing the city through their eyes rather than pulling them out of their scenes to convey something.  Only once at the end of a chapter did I feel there was some forced foreshadowing that was not needed, as the book is quick and chapters may end, but the pages still turn until the end is reached.  I had more trouble putting the book down than picking it up, and that is saying something as I read it online and I definitely favor physical books.

I wish there was an afterword or author’s note explaining what was real and what was fiction.  I googled Madinat al-Zahra and found it fascinating, but couldn’t find anything in English about the Collar de Pajaros.  Also a map or two would be great.

FLAGS:

None.  This book is clean and even the fights are not gory or over the top. Yay!

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this as an elementary book club selection, and can’t wait to get a copy to my children’s school library and their classrooms.  The book is an easy read and the history and culture is seamlessly interwoven in to the story that kids will enjoy the action and find they learned something about a culture along the way.   I think boys and girls will enjoy it, even if it appeals more to the girls.   The cover, the binding, the font is all spot on for the age group and I eagerly await Ayesha’s next adventure.

 

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Proud: Living My American Dream (Young Readers Edition) by Ibtihaj Muhammad

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Proud: Living My American Dream (Young Readers Edition) by Ibtihaj Muhammad

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I had high expectations for a memoir about such an inspiring figure, so I treaded timidly into the book waiting to be disappointed, but after finishing the book in two days (high praise considering I have four kids), I realized I was holding my breath for nothing, the book and Ibtihaj are amazing! Now three days after I started, my daughter too has read it and I have ordered a handful of copies to offer as my next Middle School Book Club selection.  Inspirational, real, Islamic, hopeful, empowering, check, check, check, check, and well written too.  A great story and a great role model, alhumdulillah.  The Young Reader’s Edition is an AR 6.7 and 304 pages including Acknowledgements, Glossary of Fencing Terms, Ibtihaj’s Advice, and Q and A with Ibithaj.

SYNOPSIS:

Ibtihaj begins her life story establishing her background of who her parents are, how they met, how they came to Islam and how they are raising their children.  She also details how she is different and realizes it from a young age, whether it is substitutes not being able, or willing, to pronounce her first name, or not being able to sleep over at her friends’ houses.  She also sets the stage for the environment of Newark that she was born into and how it differs racially and economically from Maplewood where she spent most of her childhood.  The story then is pretty linear walking through some of the challenges of being highly driven and motivated and determined to succeed and get in college.  How she is first introduced to fencing and why she gives it a second chance after initially not liking it.   Along the way the reader gets to know how Islam influences her point of view as Allah is very central to her decisions and expectations of herself.  The quick pace is not depressing, while others at times do treat her differently she definitely doesn’t paint herself or seem to see herself as a victim or as privileged, she is just herself and this is her story.  It isn’t all rosy and it isn’t harsh, she is putting one foot in front of the other and there is amazing support from her family, and some of her coaches and some of her teammates, but not everyone and that is a very important part of her story too, which I think provides even more for young readers to relate and learn from.  Anyone not familiar with fencing and how the sport and its rankings work will learn so much reading this book, but thankfully not be overwhelmed with it all either.  The book ends shortly after the Olympics and her historic bronze medal win.  The title may reflect her being proud of what she accomplished and continues to pursue and her pride in being a Black American Muslim Woman, but I think anyone who reads the book will just be proud that someone like her exists, and that maybe some small part of ourselves can be great too.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book leaves in some of the naysayers and difficult coaches and teammates.  I really think it is easy to assume that people are great and things should all work out when you are competing on an international level, but alas no, completely not the case, yet differences aside, they still had to win an individual sport as a team. 

 I also love that she is truly what she claims, the way she practices Islam is who she is and she loves her family and her faith.  There are no contradictions she excels and perseveres and finds herself while acknowledging all parts of herself and it is so inspiring.  She portrays Islam as a way of life, she prays and fasts and has days when her iman is low and days her faith is rewarding.  She focuses on what she can control and has to learn to accept what Allah swt has decreed for her.  She has Muslim friends, and non Muslim friends and through it all she is finding her place and is surrounded by love and support from her family.  It really is a feel good story and we should all pray that it continues to be.  She doesn’t portray Islam as limiting, nor as her family an exception to what a Muslim home is, and this level of dawah can really change perceptions.  The book is not preachy or arrogant, it is simply her story and Islam is a part of it.

I like that she went to a prestigious university and it didn’t make all her dreams come true, she still had to work hard and find herself and humble herself to work at a dollar store to scrape by, it shows tenacity and a glimpse of the real world that privileged middle schoolers might not have had to consider before.

FLAGS:

The book is clean.  It talks about how uncomfortable she was at her first fencing lesson with her coach having to reposition her stances and thus touch her, and it discusses how she felt listening to music was ok in Islam even though her parents disagreed.  A few sentences at most, collectively, but kids will have thoughts on it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

My 12 year old daughter read the book in a few hours and discussed it with me for even longer.  It was as if some tidbit from the book would blossom inside her and she would consider it, and want to discuss it, from why she would not talk to the kids she was substituting about fencing, to why her coach made her switch to saber, I don’t think there is a shortage of things to discuss, or more importantly listen to from the young readers.

There is a ton about her online as she became the first American Muslim to medal and the first to compete in hijab.  I highly recommend this book for book club, and will  hopefully add how our meeting went in a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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At 254 pages this boarding school story beautifully blends Islamic information, mystery, and compelling characters embarking on a new stage of their lives.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and engaging this book for upper elementary aged children reads and would strongly recommend it for grades 3-5.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Yusif is about to begin his first year at the prestigious Dar Al Ilm Academy a few hours away from his family, friends, and home.  Nervous to be on his own, he is excited to be giving his dream of memorizing the Quran the chance to become a reality.  When he arrives at the old mansion turned beautiful campus, he is paired up with Reda, a student to help him get situated and before you know it the two are fast friends.  When they get put in the same house, Ibn Kathir, with Warsoma and Daud, the four friends embark on a year of adventure and bonding as well as growth and learning.  Along the way they learn some Islamic history, they understand important hadith and Quranic Ayats and are challenged to live according to the sunnah even when tempers and frustrations abound.  When items start to go missing the boys and their house will have to keep their cool, not accuse anyone, but figure out what is going on all at the same time.  When the culprits are uncovered, they will be further tested to hold a grudge, offer forgiveness, or even extend an invitation to friendship. 

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WHY I LIKE IT:

This idyllic story and predictable mystery will appeal to impressionable readers that can’t see what is coming and can still be inspired by the beauty of such a protected environment.  The window might be small for such readers, but well worth the attempt as the book is well written and the characters well developed.  The boys are diverse and kind and helpful and all the things we want our children to be, especially when they are away from us.  Each character has their strengths and weaknesses and the friends accept them and celebrate one another rather than try and force them to change. The four houses and the characters vying for year captain and having fun along the way reminds me of a Harry Potter spinoff, but alas I think that is just my ignorance of the British school system.  I love that the four houses and their namesakes are detailed at the end as well as there being a glossary of terms.  There are illustrations every chapter or so that are appealing and offer a nice visual of the boys’ world.  The text, line spacing, chapter breaks and all are perfect for the demographic and while the fictional story is solid, I am happy to report I learned a number of things as well. 

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FLAGS:

None, alhumduillah

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: 

I can’t find much on the author or even on any future books, which is unfortunate because I think it would be great for an elementary book club selection, and I may read it to my 4th and 5th grade Lunch Bunch group after we finish The Great Race to Sycamore Street.  I think it should be in Islamic School Libraries and classrooms as its cover will hold its own and compel kids to pick it up off the shelf.

Book trailer: http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/trailerfullhd.html

Book website:http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/index.html

 

 

Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Kephra Burns illustrated by Leo & Dianne Dillon

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Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Kephra Burns illustrated by Leo & Dianne Dillon

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This beautiful work of historical fiction/folklore is both moving and visually breathtaking.  The 56 page book presents as a picture book, but with an AR 6.4 and the amount of text, it reads like a chapter book.  Thus, I’m going to review it as a chapter book, but keep in mind that it is hard bound, 11 x 9, horizontal and while there are frequent small story breaks, there are no chapter breaks.  

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SYNOPSIS:

There is little historical fact about Mansa Musa as a child, thus this story while rooted in fact about the time, about Mansa Musa as an adult, and about what is known regarding Mali and the Malinke and Tuareg tribes, is a work of imagined fiction.  The story begins with premonitions and dreams from Kankan Musa of the Kaba Kangaba tribe.  Kankan and his two brothers live with their mother, and do not know who their father was, a source of stress and teasing for the young boys.  Having just turned 14, Kankan is treated as an adult, but because he has yet proved himself as a hunter, he may sit with the adults, but not yet join their conversations.  Mali in the years after the great King Sundiata had passed away has begun to fade, but their wealth and hospitality still prospers in the desert. 

One day a desert nomad from the Tuareg tribe dressed in flowing blue robes appears and is welcomed by the village elders.  That night he regales stories about jinns, and the sea, and time spent in the desert, and fears he has for their King, when slave raiders tear through the night and kidnap Kankan.  When Kankan awakens days later, enslaved, the same mysterious man, Tariq al-Aya, again appears and buys him from the raiders.  Tariq vows to accompany Musa on his journey to learn who he is and the two spend seven years together learning about the desert, about the larger world, about themselves, in trial and test and challenges.

When Musa journeys back to his home, and Tariq disappears as mysteriously as he appeared, Musa must make himself known to the new Mansa of Mali and see if his wisdom and knowledge can ensure the success of Mali in the future.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m not from Africa and my heart was cheering Musa on as if, my own families success was rooted in his growth and understanding of the world.  As a Muslim, I was proud to know of the success Mali found in Mansa Musa and the historical significance of his rule throughout time.   I wish there was more Islam in the book, his Hajj is well documented and thus tidbits of Mecca and his understanding of it is sprinkled through the story.  There is no talk about prayer or what Islam is, just that he is Muslim and that most of the villagers “had converted to Islam, but at the same time, they had not given up their traditional religious practices or their belief in the ancestors.”  It mentions at the end that he built mosques wherever he went, but prior to this it never mentions him spending any time in a mosque or worshiping in any way. 

I love that the story is told like all great stories, it makes you want to settle in and drink up the details and imagery and got lost in the pictures.  The author weaves in cultural phrases and descriptions, that hopefully readers can unravel from the context as there is not a glossary.  There is a map at the beginning, and author’s note at the end that reveals what is fact and what is fiction in the story.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book should be in every school library and used in classrooms to learn about West Africa, cultures, 14th Century, Islamic history, culture, you name it.  I think this book would work wonderfully in home school environments, where the child could dictate how much to supplement, how much to cover, and the wisdom shared could really be understood.  This isn’t a book that most kids would pick up and read, they would need prodding and guidance, but be better for it.  

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The Young Muslim’s Mindful Book of Wellbeing by Zanib Mian

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The Young Muslim’s Mindful Book of Wellbeing by Zanib Mian

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This tiny book (5.5 inches square) is non fiction and I’m reviewing it, because I think it has a lot of value and will appeal to the parents that check out this site for book suggestions for their middle grade children.  The flower on the cover and the topic, might naturally turn away boys, but the depicted character that presents the information is a boy and while it is a token gesture, it is a nice one, to try and make the book and it’s contents appeal to all children.  Irregardless of if you have teens, or tweens, or toddlers, girls or boys, I think parents should read the book and use the concepts and framing presented when talking with their children.  At least that is what I hope to do.  One doesn’t need to wait until their child comes home crying from friend drama, or losing out on something they desperately wanted, to implement the lessons and reassuring bits of mindfulness, it should be the established foundation of how to handle emotions in a healthy way, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is broken into 14 chapters based on topics covered, and the directions encourage the reader to read them all in order the first time through, then going back to certain sections as needed.  The headings include: How to be happy, A Way Out of Every Problem, How to Feel OK If You Wanted Something, but Didn’t Get It, Friends, Feeling Sad, and Talking to Allah.  The information is presented in a positive reassuring manner that helps the reader to feel like others have felt this way too, and to try some of the suggestions.  It doesn’t belittle or talk down to the feelings one might be having which is great, as the concept of Allah (swt) is incorporated onto every page.  Strengthening ones relationship with Allah as a way to cope with stresses and know that He is always there, is the central theme throughout.

The book offers advice on dealing with negative people, negative thoughts, and finding your own positivity and strength with the help of Allah no matter what.  The book isn’t dry though, it engages the reader and uses examples children can relate to and comparisons that are tangible.  At one point the book talks about shields that reflect back whatever you are giving off.  So when you are shining from the inside, you feel better, and so do others around you.  When talking about seeing the bigger picture, the book urges the reader to consider seeing an entire room through a key hole and likening it to how we see our own lives seeing only what is happening right now.

The book also takes into account that somethings may take work to feel better, and that it isn’t an easy fix to feel good, but inshaAllah worth the effort.  The end summarizes in two points what the previous 36 pages articulate and explore, concluding how to make you shine and be your best self.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that we are talking to and with children, not just toddlers, about their feelings.  We aren’t telling them to just cheer up or be happy or get over it.  We are giving them tools that they can carry throughout their lives, inshaAllah.  The pages are text heavy, granted the book is small, but the book is thick and the amount of words on the pages could intimidate some, but like I said earlier, even if the child won’t read it, parents will benefit from it and implementing it in the home.  Also just having the book sitting around will urge kids to pick it up and thumb through it, I would almost guarantee it.

My critiques are the presentation.  I am no expert on the content and what I read seemed logical, and I liked it.  Vague I know, hence I don’t review non fiction often, because what do I know?  As for the physical annoyances of the book, it is too small.  It doesn’t need to be huge, but for the topics covered, it is trivialized by the size, in my opinion. 

I don’t mind the font, I mind that it changes size so often and for no other reason it seems than to fit everything on the page.  Nearly every chapter is a different size font, but sometimes its even within the same chapter.  A few times for example the page on the left appears to be a size 14 font and the text in the same chapter on the right is like an 11, making it seem inconsistent and jarring..  If the idea needed to be bolded, or shouted or whispered, I support playing with font size, but this is not the case, it is so that the picture and text can all fit without having to turn the page, and its not the best solution I feel, its too distracting. 

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The other inconsistency that I found a bit odd, are the illustrations.  The little boy on the cover with his yellow flower and yellow shirt take you through maybe 80% of the book, but on occasion other characters pop up, which is fine, when they are drawn in the same manner, like the frog.  But the random appearance of the full color super hero, reminiscent of My Dad’s Beard book, and the full color Migo and Ali looking bears, there’s also a one time appearance of a girl in full color, seems bizarre.  I don’t see the cameos as adding a shoutout to the content and author, but more like the books from the 90s that used free clipart to illustrate the pages that otherwise would be text only. 

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a great book for a school counselor to use as a guideline for group discussions.  I think it could be done from the library, but a counselor and students would really benefit from the book and the manner in which the material speaks and empowers youth to shine.

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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I put off reading this book (I read the companion, Whichwood, first) because I had heard that the audio book was great and I wanted to listen to it with my kids.  Read by Bronson Pinchot, Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, the audio book takes 8 hours to cover the 401 page book, and it is delightful.  While Mafi’s circular repetitive world building, takes some slowing down to get used to, listening to it made the story move along when a physical book may have been abandoned.  An AR 5.5 the book is clean, but not gripping until about two-thirds of the way through.  As the main character grows in maturity, the story gets better and better, a mix between Alice and Wonderland and A Wrinkle in Time.  The book will require some determination to get through, but the journey will be worth it in the end.

SYNOPSIS:

Alice Alexis Queensmeadow is missing her father who left 3 years ago with only a ruler in his pocket, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Her life is a bit messy as she is being homeschooled by a mother who she doesn’t really think likes her and thus spends most of her days outside eating flowers and trying to avoid wearing clothes.  Alice lives in a world of magic and color, but Alice has no color, at least not externally, her magic, which she must learn to accept is to add and manipulate color to the world, to anything and everything, except herself.  As a 12-year-old she must surrender her magic and be given a task to prove her place in her world.  She thinks her best gift is dance and her surrender goes terribly wrong.  With no where to go after her humiliating performance, she decides to take Oliver Newbanks up on his offer to go with him to help him on his task, he is 13 years old, and find her father.  Their unlikely assistance to one another is fraught with mistrust and bickering as they journey to a world Alice didn’t even know existed, Furthermore.

In the land of Furthermore, magic is used very differently then in Ferenwood, and on their journey where up is down and paper foxes rip limbs off, and Time is actually a person.  The two companions will have to learn to be honest with one another as well as themselves in order to survive, let alone to find Alice’s dad.  With the threat of death and being eaten constantly plaguing them, they journey from village to village where the rules are different and the laws of logic ever changing, with the hopes of completing the task and reuniting a family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The details in the story are luscious and beautiful, and once you fall into it, you really do want to stay and look around a while.  There were times when listening to it, that the kids would get bored, yet now that we have finished it, all have mentioned that maybe we should get the book so they can reread parts again.  Mafi’s writing style is very thick that you don’t feel like you are making any progress, yet when you start to digest what you know, you realize in fact you have.  

At the beginning Alice is very annoying, and she stays that way for a while.  Her whiney nature isn’t sympathy evoking, but rather gets you irritated with Oliver as well, that he doesn’t just tell her stuff.  Both combined need to be bopped on the head.  Seriously, a bit of communication would really have taken out a lot of the unnecessary frustration the readers feel for the characters, and let the personal stuff they were hesitant to share with each other have more value.  It is a middle grades book, the empathy of understanding Alice and Oliver’s own fears and reticent in opening themselves up is a great lesson to explore through fictional characters, but because the kids have such poor communication skills about anything, their own fears lose potency.  The pacing of the story, is just as random as the villages they pass through as well, while they always seem in a rush, some of the places they stop they could chat at, rather than while they are running to save their lives, or while they are walking they could talk to give description through their eyes, to build up the characters, not just the world they are in.

Like in Whichwood, the narrator talks to the reader which is fun, and provides information that otherwise couldn’t be shared.  The characters names in each of the villages are clever and while the story could be mapped pretty straightforward, girl journeys to a new world to find her father with the help of a boy, who will become her friend, the twists and details, make the book memorable and worth the strain to get to the climax. 

I know this review sounds back and forth, and I think a lot of it stems from what you expect from the story before you begin.  I had tried to read the book and got a little discouraged, but I had a good feeling the audio book wouldn’t disappoint, so I plugged through and found myself enjoying and loving the story.  If you are expecting an action packed fully fleshed out rational story, you will be let down.  If you can just enjoy the whimsy on the surface and let the little tidbits of the larger story come at different times to complete the larger puzzle, you will love Alice and Oliver’s magical world and the fantastic journey that they go on.

FLAGS:

The book is clean.  A bit disturbing is that the people of Furthermore want to eat Alice and Oliver to absorb their magic.  It isn’t vulger, but it is silly that Alice doesn’t like wearing clothes.  While one could be nervous that Alice and Oliver develop a romantic relationship, rest assured they do not, they become friends and are 13 and 12 years old, so phew.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can see me doing this as a book club selection, although I’d probably lean more to Whichwood, in an Islamic School environment because of the names. I think young Either one though, I’m positive Muslim kids will enjoy seeing a hijab wearing Muslimah pictured on the back flap and seeing that she can write a mainstream engaging fantasy novel about whatever she likes.

Author’s website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/book/furthermore/

Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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I have read a fair amount of fictionalized accounts of the war in Syria, the journey of refugees, and their resettling in various countries, but this was the first graphic novel on the subject that I have seen, and I was excited to wait my turn behind my kids to read it.  My 7th and 4th graders read it in about 20 minutes and said they really liked it, knowing that it was a quick read, I wanted to take it in slowly and examine each picture to grasp the full message that the author, a Lebanese journalist, was conveying.  Definitely meant, for ages 5th grade and up because of the content, I appreciated the book more than I loved it.  It seemed rather choppy and the fictionalized parts come across just as a front to convey facts.  The book definitely is a great introduction to the conflict, and the format will appeal to a broad range of individuals.  

SYNOPSIS:

Told from the voice of Amina, a bright young girl who rushes home to show off her latest A grade paper to her family, is met instead by a bomb striking the beautiful peaceful neighborhood.  The images on the first page are destroyed as her younger brother Youssef must be located in the rubble and debris.  Now in Canada, Amina tells the story of their journey from Aleppo.  The bouncing around of time, provides some context to how life became under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, how checkpoints and emergency rule changed everything about Amina’s life.  As war creeps in it isn’t just inconveniences and fear, but also death, as further shown through Amina’s uncle who has joined the rebel army.  The family decides they need to flee to Lebanon and truly believe it will be just for a little while. 

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They rent an apartment for a year, but when they cannot afford rent they relocate to a refugee camp, where they stay for two years.  Amina’s father is determined that Amina stays in school but as work remains scarce and Youssef’s health continues to deteriorate.  Amina is forced to take a break from school to try and find work.  Eventually her father arranges to go by raft to Europe to try and start a new life and bring his family there once he is settled.  The terms of the loan to pay the smugglers is steep and when the raft doesn’t make it too far before tossing its passengers, Amina’s father Walid is forced to return to Lebanon unsuccessful. 

It isn’t until Amina’s family considers, like many other families in the camp, to get her married to keep her safe.  That Amina upon picking up some aid at a UN reception center, spills everything to a worker there, and a week later the UNHCR contacts the family to help move them to Canada.  The readers at this point I would assume are relieved the family will be safe, and are surprised when the family isn’t sure if they want to leave.  Syria is there home, and before the mom will agree to anything, she wants to go back to Syria to see her newborn niece.  Once in Syria, she sees that her home is no more as she remembered it, and agrees to be resettled anywhere.  Through the same flashbacks and flash-forwards in time, we also see that life in Canada is not easy.  The family is welcomed and helped and grateful, but it isn’t yet home, and the ghosts of Syria are still present.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I kind of like how choppy it is upon further reflection.  At first it annoyed me, but as I thought about it more and more, I have decided I like that it isn’t easy and smooth and fleshed out, the tone of the unknown comes through by not over narrating the emotions and circumstances.  I also like that everything that happens to Amina and her family is anchored in reality and the footnotes, references, and facts are all in the Endnotes.  Having said that, I wish their was a little more character development, it reads like a bunch of facts strung together and connected by this fictional family.  There isn’t anything wrong with it, but a little more warmth for the characters would have added a beautiful level and would not have been hard to come by at all.  There are so many stories from this conflict out there, and the reason they resonate with so many isn’t from all the facts and numbers, but often from the individuals that make the numbers real and haunting.  I felt like this book fell short on the human element unfortunately.  The only character I really felt had some heart, was the dad, he was awesome, and his love for his family and determination for his daughter’s education was definitely felt.

The book does drop some acronyms and political alliances to add context but not overwhelm the reader.  It definitely hints that there are a lot of groups vying for power, and control: Assad, Russia, ISIS, US, rebels.

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I love that the flashbacks to pre-war Syria are so relatable.  Kids need to really understand that we are all so much more alike than different.  Not just in our hopes and dreams, but even in our daily lives.  The characters in the book are the same as us, their lives look great,  maybe even better.  They have friends, and families and jobs, and cell phones, they also unfortunately, have war.

There were a few surprises for me, for example that buses between Lebanon and ISIS held Syria took/take people back and forth.  Similarly,  I was surprised to see that the punishment of smuggling cigarettes was being beheaded, but maybe more surprised that the book included it.

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It is reassuring for readers to know that the family survives, but the harrowing journey of seeing body bags, cutting costs to survive, risking it all to trust smugglers with fake life jackets, paint pictures of a journey that will stay with the reader.  The book doesn’t talk down to anyone, if something seems too simplistic, it almost encourages the reader to go research more about it.  

There isn’t any mention of Islam or religion, the females wear hijab, that is the only indication along with their names that they are a Muslim family.

FLAGS:

The violence, is pretty haunting and while the images and text aren’t graphic, the splatter of blood and guns and death are very present.  There is also mention of cigarettes.  While not explicit and possibly over the heads of some readers, the book does show that the loan sharks would be willing to take Amina, “Something nice and sweet…like you,” to help pay off the family’s debts.  A former classmate of Amina also invites the family to her wedding.  At 13 Amina’s family is also considering getting her married as a way to help keep her safe.  

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be better in Social Studies class more than in a Language Arts one. It would be a great supplement to share even, when discussing current events.  Its a quick read, a factual account and a powerful one at that.  

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsZZwxM7YyQ

Publisher’s Synopsis: https://www.fireflybooks.com/index.php/catalogue/product/11566-escape-from-syria