Category Archives: 5th grade and up

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

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Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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I enjoy Hena Khan’s books, I love basketball, and I love that this three book series is written for 3rd-5th graders.  I didn’t love the cover, however, which I attribute to the reason I waited so long to start reading the book, I know, lame.  But luckily the books were in the public library and I had a few hours on my hands and was able to consume the first two books, and look into ways to get the third one ASAP!  Written on an AR 3.8 level the 126 pages fly by, the second book On Point is 130 pages and an AR 4.0, and the third book in the series, Bounce Back comes out in October.

SYNOPSIS:

Zayd Saleem is in 4th grade and is desperately trying to move from the D squad basketball team to the Gold team with his best friend Adam.  The only problem is he is a pretty scrawny kid, and he has committed a lot of his day to practicing violin.  His desperation forces him to be less than honest and the consequences that follow may strip him of the chance to even try out for the team at all.  The basketball story is intertwined with a rich cultural Pakistani-American backdrop and familial characters that are relatable and fairly fleshed out.  Zayd’s mamoo, maternal uncle, has agreed to meet someone to consider marriage, which brings out some humor as the whole family, including grandma and grandpa, have big roles to play.  Zayd also has to figure out why he gets such stomach aches as he makes regular notes in his food diary, and has to balance the universal themes of friends, school, and homework, as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The font and spacing is wonderful for the target demographic, sprinkle in the illustrations and the book is not intimidating in length or size.  The book is very real and relatable, kids of all backgrounds will relate to the basketball storyline and the video games and players mentioned.  I loved the cultural environment.  My kids absolutely loved the mentioning of the Pakistani food that they eat, and customs they participate in, and dynamics they know all too well.  I don’t know that a non Desi (someone from the Indian subcontinent) will get it, love it, and not be turned off by it.  The books are published through Salaam Reads and I would imagine the author and publisher know what they are doing, and the library has numerous copies, so clearly, I’m over thinking it, but I really want to get feedback on the cultural aspect, because it is done really well and I think it would show promise for future books.  

I love that the book is about a boy and basketball, but it isn’t limited to being a boy book or a sports book.  The story moves seamlessly through all facets of the characters life that makes it pretty memorable for what could have just been a sports story with a moral.  The “life lessons” are clear and obvious, but not overly elevated.  The little mistakes that Zayd makes are a part of his life, as are the consequences, but his family helps him through them, and help him learn.

There isn’t anything preachy or blatant about Islam in the book, but the characters are Muslim and it mentions that the parents are heading to the mosque at one point to help with a fundraiser.  

FLAGS:

There is lying, but that is kind of the lesson being worked through.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I recently agreed to help a teacher with her “Lunch Bunch.”  Once a week students can opt to eat lunch in the library and have a book read to them.  They must commit for the duration of the book and I think for a 4th and 5th grade group this book would be a lot of fun.  It would probably only take two sessions to read and with the diverse class I can see if they get the cultural stuff or if it just bogs down the story to them.

Author’s website: https://www.henakhan.com/power-forward/

 

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

 

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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Islamaphobia is rampant in today’s America, but it isn’t the first time that a minority group has had to face extreme persecution.  Often us Muslims need to look around and be reminded: Blacks are still targeted, Japanese once were interned, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, really every minority group has, and continues to struggle to be accepted as part of American culture, unfortunately.  Today’s middle school students didn’t live through 9//11 and often they think they are the first to be ostracized for their faith or their parent’s countries of origin.  So I picked up this book to see how well the book would serve as a way to discuss prejudice and persecution with Muslim kids, in a way that they could relate to, but be removed enough from that hopefully they could offer their own insights and experiences.   This book takes place in the 1970s and the climax is the Iran hostage situation as the book is told from an 11-year-old Iranian girl’s perspective. 

Similarly, most Persian penned books that I’ve read fight against Islam and the way it was forced upon them by their government, so I also wanted to see how the author would paint the faith in her semi auto-biographical-middle-school tale.  Alhumdulillah, I was happily surprised how Islam was handled in this 378 page, AR 4.7, book, and I think, like the inscription reads, “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason.  This one’s for you.”

SYNOPSIS:

Zomorod has lived in America before.  She was born in Iran, moved to California, moved back to Iran, back to California, and now from Compton, California she is moving to the much wealthier Newport Beach and hoping to start middle school fitting in more with her new Brady Bunch inspired name, Cindy.  Establishing early that she is the translator for her mother, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want to learn, and that she is somewhat embarrassed by her parent’s thick accents, lack of American snacks, Iranian food, and conversation topics, the book will appeal to most middle schooler’s who can relate.  Her parents, however, are pretty chill about letting her go out with friends, and doing whatever she wants, so really its more about the age and being angsty and awkward, then it is about her parents and their lifestyle and culture.  The basic point of the book is a growing-up tale of making friends, finding real ones that care about you, finding the balance between family and the outside world, cultures that conflict, the past and the future, and ultimately finding acceptance and pride in who, and what you are.

The political climate in Iran and in America amplify what it is like when people hate your country, but can’t find it on the map, and manifest in the story with bullying at school, Zomorod’s father losing his job and not finding a new one, and some hateful acts occurring at the Yousefzadeh’s home. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could be heavy and dark, but it’s not.  The voice of Zomorod really stays in the persona of an 11-year-old girl and is poignant, clever and light-hearted, I even laughed out loud a few times.   The 1970’s backdrop isn’t too alienating for today’s readers, as there aren’t a lot of cultural references that would turn them off.  The historical significance, is very likely one they will not have heard of before and the book, through Zomorod’s eyes, will shed light on Iran in the late 70s and early 80s without boring the target audience.  They might even learn something and remember it.  

The stereotypes about Iran are addressed, the concept of a single person having to represent every one of that minority group is felt first had through the main character, and many misconceptions about Iran are clarified.  Yet, the book doesn’t get preachy, it maintains its lightness, and while I read it in a few days, it was just as easy to put down as it was to pick up.  The characters felt real and developed for the most part, so even though it was a tale about life, it was compelling enough to stick around, and you are invested enough to care how the characters are doing. There are a lot of really great supporting characters in the book as well: neighbors, friends, teachers, friend’s families, and a few not so nice characters that surprisingly aren’t painted with a singular condemning evil stroke.  The author is very careful to reserve judgement of all her characters and the sub groups they represent.

Which brings me to how Islam is handled in this book.  Her family doesn’t practice, but her reference for Islam is shia, as evident by her mentioning 12 imams.  I took pictures of most of the pages where Islam is mentioned, less than 10 in all, but where it is mentioned it is handled very politically correct and powerfully.   She talks about how they don’t celebrate Christmas or most holidays as they aren’t Christian or really American, but when the pool key is lost she does pray to a Christian Saint after a suggestion that such an act will help it be found.  It isn’t really presented as a religious act, more of one done in desperation. Here are the most applicable and relevant passages regarding Islam.

  • Dr. Klein shakes his head in sympathy.  “Do your wife and Cindy have to wear those cover-ups if you go back?”  “Yes, and I cannot believe this.  When we lived in Iran, my wife, my sisters, all the women I knew wore western clothes.  No tennis clothes like you see here, but regular clothes.  Only religious women chose to wear hijab, it meant something.  Imagine if everybody in America had to wear a cross around their neck or a Star of David-what would those symbols mean? Nothing. If you have to wear it, it means nothing.  If you choose to wear it, it means something” (168).
  • “The Ayatollah is Muslim, right? So is, like Allah, his God?”  “Allah is the Arabic word for God,” I say.  “It’s the same God. (154).”
  • We don’t have Saints in Islam, just a Prophet with twelve imams, and they don’t preach to animals or help find lost items,  My family, like most Iranians, is Muslim, but we never do anything religious.  I’ve never even been in a mosque, which is like a church (40).
  • “Being Muslim means different things to different people,” I say.  “My family doesn’t do anything officially religious.  My dad says religion is kindness and that’s what everyone should practice” ((184-5).
  • “…even though we belong to three different religions. We are alike in so many more ways than we are different.” 

FLAGS:

The book is fine for middle school readers, there is mention of Cindy’s dad trying alcohol at one point in the past and not liking it.  Cindy’s friends tease her once or maybe twice about liking a boy and Halloween is celebrated.  There is a lot of lying in the book, but it is made clear why, even if she doesn’t always feel bad about it: she is embarrassed by her mom’s food and lies that she shared it, she withholds information a lot, she pranks the neighbor lady who left a dead rodent on their porch, etc.  Hopefully the demographic won’t be inspired by Zomorod’s antics and just find them as her way of dealing with life.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun book club book to discuss being new to a country, minorities, how to handle conflicting cultures, and how to be and have good friends.

Educators guide: http://firoozehdumas.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ItAintSoAwfulFalafelguide.pdf

https://www.floridamediaed.org/uploads/6/1/4/2/61420659/ms_-_it_ain%E2%80%99t_so_awful_falafel.pdf

https://www.bookmovement.com/bookDetailView/49051/It-Ain’t-So-Awful,-Falafel-By-Firoozeh-Dumas

Author’s page: http://firoozehdumas.com/books/it-aint-so-awful-falafel/

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

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Yes, that is a Rick Riordan book cover you see.  Yes, it is about Norse mythology.  Yes, the whole book is about fake gods and fictional demigods.  Yes, you are on the correct blog. 

Brace yourself, if you haven’t heard about Magnus Chase, son of the god Frey, whose series is now on book three, it is ok, Rick Riordan has brought a lot of mythology back to pop culture in a fairly short amount of time.  But this series stands out because get this, the Norse god Loki, (yeah the one featured in popular Marvel Avengers movies), in this series, has a daughter…named Samirah Al-Abbas…who wears hijab…and is a valkyrie…and is an Iraqi immigrant, and is a main character, and is really awesome.

The book is 497 pages and is also a pretty fun audio book.  It is an AR 4.8.

SYNOPSIS:

So, the basic plot is much like Percy Jackson, in that a young boy, in this case a homeless orphan, Magnus Chase, finds out that he is demigod and has to basically find some friends and save the world while learning about the given mythology that they belong to.  For Magnus, he learns about his father, Frey, the god of spring and summer, when he dies and is taken to Valhalla, a paradise for warriors in the service to Odin.  The whole book is about Magnus, who is now an einherjar, a member of Odin’s eternal army , trying to prevent ragnarok from happening.  Among his group of friends are Jack, the sword, Blitzen, a dwarf, Hearthstone, an alf, and Samirah (Sam).

WHY I LIKE IT:

By and large, Sam is pretty well developed as a practicing Muslima.  She is being raised by her grandparents and feels bad sneaking out to perform her valkyrie duties.  She is not at all comfortable being alone with males one-on-one, nor being seen with males as she has an arranged marriage to Amir Fadlan, her second cousin, when she gets older.  She wears a green hijab that doubles as a camouflage cloak, and she mentions going to the mosque with her grandma.  (In later books, according to my daughter, she also talks about fasting, how she is a practicing Muslimah and the daughter of Loki who handles all that Norse mythology throws at her.)  She is proud and strong, and really the only thing that makes no sense to me is why she takes off her hijab so freely when not in life threatening scenarios, I get when she uses the camouflage to hide in emergencies.  She apparently explains later that she considers the einherjar her extended family, but that wouldn’t make them her mehram, so it is still a bit sketchy.

Here is an interview question from Entertainment Weekly to Author Rick Riordan about Sam, and his answer: (http://ew.com/article/2015/10/14/rick-riordan-magnus-chase-interview/)

Speaking of Loki, one of my favorite characters in the book is Sam, or Samirah Al-Abbas. I think she’s a great example of a diverse character — not a white man, not a woman who’s there to be a love interest. She’s also seamlessly woven into the history of this myth. Can you talk about the conception of her character?

The idea for her started with the primary sources. The story that Sam tells in The Sword of Summer about an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad visiting the Vikings in Russia – that’s true. It really is one of our best sources because the Arabs of the time were reading and writing when nobody else was. That connection back then – that the world was a whole lot more connected even back then than we think of, that these cultures did not exist in these hermetically-sealed little bags, they were blending together all the time – that fascinated me. I thought, what would it be like to have a modern Muslim-American character who still had that connection to the Viking world like the Caliph of Baghdad did all those years ago?

And then again I started pulling on stories from students I’ve had in the past. One very powerful memory I have was being in my American history classroom on 9/11 and one of my students was a Muslim-American girl. She burst into tears when she heard the news, because she knew that her world, her life, had just changed, and had been defined for her in a way that she did not want and could only do so much to control. That really was powerful for me, and it inspired me to learn a lot about Islam and what the tradition actually was, as compared to what we hear about in the media and how it’s often distorted, and to honor her experience. Samirah kind of came out of that confluence of things.

FLAGS:

Obviously the whole story features multiple fake gods.  I don’t think it is celebrated though, they are beyond ridiculous, but if your kids can’t understand the idea of mythology or you think it is beyond the scope of fiction, that is your call. 

There is a ton of violence, as they prepare for ragnarok and just killing in general, some is gruesome. The book is not dark at all, however, it is in fact laugh out loud funny.  

There are some giants that get drunk, mention of mead, some jokes about Hel in reference to Helheim and the goddess of Helheim, Hel.  There are some “damns” scattered in as well. 

The stories of some of the gods is a bit scandalous, but for the most part the book doesn’t give much detail.  It does discuss Freya marrying dwarves for a day for their jewels and having kids with them.  There is flirting and mention of kissing.  There is also some mention of males being moms and animals and monsters being born of human parents, it is all very confusing.  But it is there. Also, my source, my 11 year old daughter, mentions that the rest of the series does have a gender fluid character named Alex.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I doubt I’d do this as a book club book, but as any teacher or librarian knows, Rick Riordan fans are committed and enthusiastic.  I still keep in touch with many kids that weren’t big readers until the read Percy Jackson, and once they read the series multiple times, they then jumped to his other series.  So, while I wouldn’t use this as a book club book, there is a ton of kids that would love to discuss it with you, so read it, the bonding as a result will be well worth it.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date.  I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her.  The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat.  I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.

SYNOPSIS:

Amal lives in a small Pakistani village.   The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter.  The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong.  The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled.  Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between.  It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position.  As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school.  This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher.  Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market.  Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to.  Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family. 

In  many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.  

Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be.  As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost.  And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own.  At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy.  The mom even apologizes to the dad about this.  The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it.  The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it.  I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden.  This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.  

I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental.  There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture.  Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more.  There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions.   The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture.  Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.  

The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well.  At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note.  I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view.  I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book.  It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed.   A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.

The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer.  For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.

FLAGS:

There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped.  There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study.  There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.

Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html

Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf

The House of Wisdom by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland illustrated by Mary Grandpre’

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The House of Wisdom by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland illustrated by Mary Grandpre’

house of wisdom

This 37 page, non fiction book written on a AR 5.1 is a beautiful telling of 9th century Baghdad and the quest, collection, and love of knowledge.  It follows the true story of Ishaq, a young boy who’s father translates books and documents in the House of Wisdom, the intellectual center of everything.

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Ishaq has a lot to learn from his father and the books in this majestic place, before he can lead one of the Caliph’s expeditions to search for books.  However, while he acquires his knowledge or Aristotle, Galen, Plato, and Hippocrates, and more, he doesn’t feel the fire, so to speak, of a powerful burning to seek knowledge.

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He finally gets his chance to lead an expedition and he travels the wold for three years, learning, collecting, and experiencing things.  Walking the streets of the great teachers of long ago and readying himself to be a scholar upon his return to Baghdad.

Upon his return, Ishaq’s father presents him with a book by Aristotle and when he opens it he finds the flame consume him.  Ultimately, history will credit Ishaq with translating the entire known works of Aristotle and he and his father Hunayn, and the Caliph al-Ma’mum, with carrying the torch of civilization to the rest of the world.

The book does not mention religion or Islam, but Muslim children at least should recognize names, and words like caliph, and geography enough to know that this is indeed their history.  Non-Muslim children probably will not make the connection, and in some ways, possibly selfish ones, I find that unfortunate.

The illustrations are beautiful and rich in both texture and detail.  They compliment the text wonderfully and really bring the grandness of the story to life.