Category Archives: 5th grade and up

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!

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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Usually when a book leaves me with a lot of questions, it is because the author’s writing was incomplete or flawed, this book however, left me with a lot of questions and I’m certain the author did this deliberately. Hence, I don’t know to be irritated or impressed that I care enough about the characters to want to know more. Considering I’m still emotionally attached to the two alternating voices in the book, I’m going to claim the latter, and just be grateful that I was privy to follow the two girls for 288 pages and let the impression the book left me with overpower the curiosity I have to know everything about their past and their futures. This middle grades read is absolutely wonderful and emotionally gripping. I think all kids will have a hard time forgetting the story and characters, and more importantly I think over time they will recall and re evaluate their own thoughts regarding the personal weight of school shootings, gun ownership, sibling loss, responsibility, and maybe even the possibility of time travel. I know this book will stay with me for a long time. This amazing, half-Middle-Eastern half-American author in her OWN voice book somehow manages to discuss a school shooting without being political or preachy and the result is memorable, heartbreaking, and powerful.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in alternating 12 year old voices: Quinn and Cora are neighbor girls that used to be best friends until Quinn’s brother stole his father’s guns and shot and killed students at his school before committing suicide. One of the classmates he killed was Cora’s older sister Mabel. It has been nearly a year since the incident, and since the girls last spoke, but on Cora’s 12 birthday, Quinn leaves a box on her door.

Cora is whip smart and grieving. She lives with her dad, a professor and immigrant from Lebanon who speaks little about his culture or religion to his kids, even though the kids want to know about their heritage and do identify as Arab American Muslims. She also lives with her grandma, her mom’s mom, despite the fact that her mom has left them. It never tells where she went or what happened, which I desperately wanted to know, but Cora doesn’t miss her, because Cora doesn’t remember her, and the family dynamic seemed to be working until Mabel is gunned down. The loss of Mabel is palpable as Cora recalls that she will one day be older than her older sister, and refuses to pack up or touch anything on her side of the room. Cora is in counseling and seems to have a supportive network of friends in her Junior Quiz bowl team, but she misses Quinn even though she can’t forgive her.

Quinn’s chapters begin with a small letter to her brother Parker: what she wants to say, what she feels, questions, memories, anger, disappointment, despair. They are short, but haunting and heartbreaking. Quinn’s home life is fraught with guilt and blame. Her mother has quit work and her father is always working. Her parents fight, a lot. Her mom blames her dad for owning the guns, her dad wants to move to give them all a fresh start, it isn’t pretty. Quinn often has a hard time getting her words out at the speed she wants, she calls it freezing. As a kid, Cora would help, but without Cora and with no one in the house willing or ready to listen to Quinn, Quinn is often left alone. At school Quinn is largely ignored as no one wants to be around the sister of the mass shooter, so she doesn’t try out for soccer, she has no friends, and no one to talk to get the help she so desperately needs.

Quinn has an idea about how to fix everything, and that is what is in the box. She is convinced that if she can go back in time, she can make everything right. The only problem is, she doesn’t understand all the science and needs Cora’s help. Together the two girls work to figure out a way to find a wormhole and fix the damage that occurred. Along the way the girls realize how much they need each other to heal, and the role forgiving yourself has in the process as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am shocked at how deftly the book talks about a school shooting without talking about a school shooting. It is how the families feel in the day to day acts that follow a year later and how the girls are trying to carry on with the limited tools that exist for individuals dealing with the aftermath of such an act of terror. It doesn’t go in to the 2nd Amendment rights or detail the lack of legislation to curb such acts, it really stays on the two girls. The hope of finding a wormhole is really farfetched and perhaps unrealistic, but they are so desperate to believe, to find a way to make things right, that you hope for their sake that they are successful.

It is amazing to see from the sister of a shooter the isolation and pain she endures. I don’t know that I’ve really ever considered the larger families of the shooter when your heart is so devastated for the families of the victims. Occasionally you hear about the parents, but what about the siblings, cousins, distant relatives?

I desperately wanted to know where Cora and Mabel’s mom went. I was tempted to contact the author since it really was gnawing at me. I also wanted some answers as to why Parker did what he did, what hate he was spewing online, what were the signs, did he single out Mabel for being Muslim, while also appreciating that there is no satisfactory answers for any violence of this magnitude in fiction or real life.

Cora knows nothing of Islam and kind of wants to, I felt like this could have been explored a tiny bit more. Not in that she has to be religious, but I feel like after such a life altering event such as death, religion and what happens when one dies usually comes up and a person decides they are satisfied with an answer or not. The story isn’t in the immediate aftermath of dealing with the shock, but rather is a little after the event to presumably not have to deal with the raw emotion, and can focus on the pain and strength that comes with finding a new normal. I’d like to imagine at some point perhaps Cora and her dad talked about what happens after death, but the text doesn’t suggest that it was an issue of concern. She does wonder if Mabel was killed for being Muslim and asks Quinn about it. Quinn never defends or justifies what her brother does, nor does she pretend to know, she is grieving too. She is irritated that people try and define her religiosity to make themselves feel better and she does say the family occasionally fasts, makes duas, and they always celebrate Eid.

She talks a bit more about wanting to know more Arabic, saying that if you are 50% Arab you should at least know 50 words, and she only knows five. She wants to hear about her father’s life growing up, and know that side of her. It mentions that he wanted her to feel like she belonged in America, but I’d love to know more. Maybe what happened to his family, what brought him to America, why they opted not to give them more cultural names, etc..

I also enjoyed the slight science thread. It seems the author used to teach science and I love that the scientific method and various random facts find their way into the story.

POSSIBLE FLAGS:

The book talks about death, killing, suicide, and gun violence, but doesn’t relive the chain of events or detail what happened exactly. Quinn and another friend have crushes on boys in their class. There is a Fall Festival that the kids dress up for, but it isn’t called Halloween, and there is no mention of it. The book opens with Quinn’s birthday.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely read this as a middle school book club selection. It is engaging and gripping and a great book to have as an introduction to hard conversations with children. The author has a note at the beginning about her own children doing active shooter drills and having to face this real fear, and I think kids talking about it through fiction is a powerful tool to get them thinking and talking.

Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile

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This 310 page, AR 5.4 biography reads like a dream being remembered and flowing with newly awakened images presented in a lyrical way. The changes in point of view and writing style keep the book bouncing like a boxing match, and flesh out the early life of Muhammad Ali for middle grade readers.  Only at the very end does it mention that he changed his name when he converted to The Nation of Islam, it doesn’t detail much about it, and it doesn’t mention his eventual conversion to Islam, even though it does mention him being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and his death.  I understand that the book focuses on his preteen and teen years, but it seems like The Awakening of Malcolm X also intentionally cut that footnote out of the book, and having read that book a few weeks ago, it seems a deliberate exclusion in both cases and that bothers me.  It could be coincidence, as both 2020 published middle grade coming of age books have familial support in the writing and research, admittedly it just might be my timing of reading them makes it seem that something larger is at play.  Ultimately, this book gives insight into who Cassius Clay was, and what his life and friend circle looked like as a boy in Kentucky. The verse and flow of the text make the book an easy and enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

Lucky is Muhammad Ali’s friend growing up and is the narrating voice that sets up each chapter and overall framing of the book.  The bookish friend is a writer and eventually a journalist that moves the story forward.  The verses that follow each intro are the imagined voice of Muhammad Ali.  There is a bibliography at the back, but the story starts with this warning, or disclaimer, or wink of sorts:

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The book opens with Lucky and the Clay family waiting for the phone to ring in 1958 to find out if Cassius has won in Chicago.  He is there fighting for the National Golden Gloves.  He eventually loses the tournament, but he doesn’t stay down.  The book then rewinds and starts back before Cassius ever enters the ring.  The reader gets to know about Granddaddy Herman and the bond that the two share.  He is Cassius’s church and source of pride.  We also learn about how Cassius sees the world and the racism that exists in it. His humbleness and frustration with seeing how hard his mom has to work for so little reward.  We see how his friends shape him, but more importantly how he shapes them, and we see how although he struggles in school how he is articulate and respectful and beloved by so many.  His younger brother is a constant in the story, as is the narrator Lucky.  The book gets inside the character Cassius and if you didn’t know it was a biography, you would think it was a fictional coming of age book.  The ups and downs, the setbacks, the frustrations, the dreams, it all flows and makes you feel for this determined kid, who despite all his bravado, is really a down to earth human being.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t think I learned anything ground breakingly new reading this book, but I felt like I got to know the material in a more fleshed-out way.  It isn’t a list of facts or hight lights, it is the nuanced day-to-day that lift him off the page and out of the headlines.  I like the change of voice and style of writing, it made sense to me, and allowed the book to resonate differently than a traditional biography would.   I think it will also appeal to a wider audience because of the verse and easy flow.  I similarly enjoyed the illustrations that pepper the book.  I appreciate that the story is told from a friend looking in on someone that he knows well, but I almost would have preferred his brother being the voice and bringing the reader even closer to the boxer. Ultimately I want to know more about his parents and his brother and how they felt about his success.  The book didn’t answer a lot of question, but hopefully it will spark the curiosity of readers to go and learn more.

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FLAGS:

He slightly mentions crushes and dating, that his dad is out galavanting Friday nights until Saturday.  There is mention of a side character having part of his face damaged in an explosion, there is reference to the N word.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider the book as a book club selection if it served a larger purpose or the group had a preexisting interest.  I think if I were to meet with a group of kids more than just once a month for an hour or so for a book club discussion, this book would have a lot of potential for introducing the athlete, writing styles, historical implications and so on.  I just don’t know that we could get to all that in such a limited time. If they had already learned about his boxing accomplishment,  his protesting of the war, his conversion for example, this book would be a great discussion extender to supplement basic knowledge of him.

 

 

Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Incredible People by Burhana Islam illustrated by Reya Ahmed, Deema Alawa, Nabi H. Ali, Saffa Khan, Aaliya Jaleel and Aghnia Mardiyah

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Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Incredible People by Burhana Islam illustrated by Reya Ahmed, Deema Alawa, Nabi H. Ali, Saffa Khan, Aaliya Jaleel and Aghnia Mardiyah

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The 30 stories presented over 197 pages are inspiring, and this compilation so desperately overdue. The book is not chronological it is completely random, and at first I was confused, but as I made my way through the book, I actually grew to love not knowing who I would be reading about next.  Yes, there is a table of contents, but the point being that you don’t have to be born into royalty, or be a warrior, or have lived a long time ago to be amazing, you just have to follow your passion.  I learned so much about people I thought I knew about, and was tickled to learn about people I have never heard of: bakers, athletes, actors, educated slaves, architects, spies, singers, scientists and politicians.

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At the end of each six page illustrated blurb is an “Interesting Fact” and at the end of the entire book are some activities in the “Amazing Extras” section.  Readers can crack a code like Noor Inayat Khan who helped the Allies decode and send secret messages from France to Britain or write a poem like Rumi, a song like Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), draw a superhero like G. Willow Wilson, make a camera following the science of Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham, or color a picture of Muhammad Al-Idrisi.

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My favorite biographies were those that I knew little or nothing about before hand.  If I had to pick two favorite among all of those sections, I’d pick Khawlah bint Al-Azwar and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo.

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In 600 CE Arabia, Khawah, the masked knight, learned how to fight along side her brother and eventually served with Khalid ibn Waleed in battle.  It is said that she killed the Byzantine leader that captured her and then asked for her hand in marriage.

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Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in the 1700s in modern day Senegal was a highly educated man who was captured and forced in to slavery in Maryland, USA, interacted with James Oglethorpe, found himself being sent to England and with the help of a Thomas Bluett was able to be freed and eventually return home a free man. SubhanAllah!

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This book has it all: famous Muslim men, famous Muslim women, Black Muslims, Arab Muslims, European Muslims, American Muslims, Asian Muslims, African Muslims, Muslims who lived a long time ago, Muslims who are still alive all jumbled up and beautifully presented by a Muslim author and a handful of Muslim illustrators. This book is wonderful for 3rd graders to adults and would be a benefit on any book shelf.  It is worth noting there are no sources given, and doesn’t explain how the people were chosen to be included in the book.

Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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There is such a shortage of male Muslim protagonist middle grades books that I have been waiting quite impatiently to get my hands on this one, and alhumdulillah, it didn’t disappoint.  I’m not sure if it qualifies as OWN voice, being it has a female author, but the authenticity in the little religious and cultural details would suggest that it should.  The 320 page book is meant for ages 8-12, but the weight of Aziz’s father’s illness, the plot pivoting around three classic books (Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and the clever reflections of Ahmed along with his quick wit and thoughtful choices, might make the book’s sweet spot be 5th to 7th grade readers (as well as us moms who are suckers for elementary literary references, teachers who are heroes, and kids realizing their potential).  The book has a bully, but is clean and wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Ahmed is leaving the only home he has known in Hawaii to move to Minnesota.  His dad has Cirrhosis, a result from a rare genotype of hepatitis C, and Minnesota is one of the top options for treatment.  The family is nervous to move in general, but more so to move to Minnesota.  It is where Ahmed’s dad Bilal grew up, and where his dad’s younger brother passed away at age 12. Ahmed’s younger sister, Sara, is perhaps the only one excited for the new adventure.

The family arrives and is greeted by Bilal’s old friends, and when school starts he realizes one of his dad’s best friends, is his English teacher, and somewhat of a legend at the school in getting kids to try and beat her at an end of the year quiz show like competition.  The school is also where Bilal and his brother Muhammed went to school and a picture of Muhammed hangs right above Ahmed’s locker.  The biggest stress at school is Jack. Jack who lives a few houses over, Jack who rides the same bus, Jack who is in Ahmed’s English group, and Jack who has a lot of followers at school.  Jack is a bully.  One who makes Ahmed’s life miserable at every turn, not just socially, but even the police.

Ahmed is a laid back kid that doesn’t like to read, but loves words, who wants to blend in yet is the only brown kid in a sea of white, who enjoys attending  Jummah salat, but ultimately hates going because of the shoe chaos afterwards.  Ahmed has no intention to read the books assigned in class, but some how the three classic books assigned do get read, and  Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tie together and weave in and out of Ahmed’s epic year.

I don’t want to spoil much, but Ahmed’s dad is in the hospital a lot, there is a lot of plotting to survive being bullied, as well as getting revenge on the bully in Ahmed’s own way without involving parents.  Ahmed slowly grows to love Minnesota, his small circle of friends, and his school while learning about his uncle and the kind of person he wants to be as he grows up.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Ahmed is Muslim and while his mom prays five times a day and his dad is an occasional prayer it doesn’t specify how often Ahmed prays or how he feels about religion, other than going for Jummah.  At first Ahmed thinks he is being bullied by Jack because he is brown, his mom is an immigrant from India, his father the son of immigrants from India, but learns that Jack picks on anyone new.  I like that for as much as Ahmed hates stereotypes and assumptions, he acknowledges that he makes them too.  I like that Ahmed doesn’t like to read, but is smart, and eventually comes around to reading.  He is tech smart and very mature in how he views the world and himself in it, cares for his sister and parents, handles things on his own, and builds others up.  Ahmed is a good kid, not in that he doesn’t make errors or is a teacher’s pet, but in that he has a really good heart and a good head, and I think would make anyone better for knowing him.  I love that the book is smart too.  If you have read the three books mentioned you will love the discussions and questions about the books, if you haven’t read them, you will be tempted to after you finish this book.  I wish there was a tad more religion, there is a sprinkling of culture, primarily the mom’s tragic cooking, but a bit more religion in a book that has illness and death would seem natural to me.  The storytelling is superb, I was so curious where the father’s parents were, but alas it did answer that, I would have liked it sooner, but I was glad it made it in none-the-less.  I would have liked a bit more from the parents about why they wanted Ahmed at his dad’s old school, or how they were comfortable constantly leaving the two kids home alone at night, but Ahmed like I said is pretty mature.  I particularly love the brother sister relationship.  Ahmed is a good older brother and it reminded me in some ways of my older brother, which made my heart warm, good siblings are a blessing.

There are multiple climaxes, but while I expected the dad’s health to be a big one and Jack getting what was due to be a close second along with the outcome of the literary contest, I was not prepared for the level of Jack’s torture to climb to, and was pleasantly surprised by the unresolved thread of Jack and Ahmed’s future relationship.  Things in life don’t magically resolve and I love when middle grade novels keep that in mind.

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this in a heartbeat for a middle school book club selection.  Even if the book is more middle grades, I think the students will enjoy it and be surprised by the emotional investment the dad character extracts.  I think they will also benefit from the literary references, relatable characters, and the overall great storytelling.

Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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This book is a great OWN voice, middle grade coming of age book that rings with truth and hope in its poetic lines that sweep you up and keep you cheering.  Over 352 pages the author’s semi-autobiographic story of coming to Peachtree City, Georgia from Karachi, Pakistan beautifully unfolds.  I absolutely loved this book and the way it is told, in verse.  The details, often small, ring with such sincerity that even those that have never moved to a new country, or been to a new school will feel for young Nurah Haqq and be inspired by her success, touched by her hardships, and disappointed in her mistakes.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nurah’s best day is spent on the beach with her best friend Asna, playing in the warm waves and riding camels.  However it ends up also being her worst day, when she returns home to her father’s news that they are moving to America.  Strong, confident Nurah who spends time with her grandparents, swimming with her older brother Owais, and excelling at math in school is reluctantly leaving it all behind to start anew.

When they arrive in Georgia the family of four settles in a hotel until they find a house.  Everything is different and new, and the transition with no friends and family difficult for the entire family.  The way words are pronounced, the way the air feels and the birds chirp all make Nurah long for home.  When they find a swimming pool at the rec center, things start to slowly change.  Owais was a medal winner in Karachi, and will be one here too, people start admiring him, and Nurah tries to bask in his light.

School starts and math is a relief, but people are white, so white, and a boy reaches out to shake her hand.  She feels betrayed that she has been told the schools in America are better, and lunchtime, with no one to sit by is a huge stress.  She questions her clothing, her appearance, and the weather.

Her and Owais try out for the swim team and make it, and Nurah makes her first friend, Stahr. Stahr lives a few houses down from their new house and when Nurah’s mom has a miscarriage, it is Stahr’s mom who comes to show support and give comfort.  The support is reciprocated when Stahr and her mom need help escaping from her abusive father.

As Nurah works to win swimming races and be more like her brother, she works to find her voice and use it to defend others and herself.  A terrorist attack committed by someone claiming to be Muslim sets the family up to be targets.  In a moment of jealousy, Nurah doesn’t intervene to help her brother and the consequences are huge.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the details and how they are articulated.  I related to so much of Nurah’s feeling and impressions, that I reached out to the author and found her to be just as endearing as her character.  The feeling of being different when swimming because of your decision to be modest, the role of food to comfort you and make you feel at home, the older brother that you so desperately want to resemble and be like: All of it hit close to home for me.  I love how religion and culture are so much a part of the story and about the character’s identity, not to be made preachy, just to understand her and her experiences.  She goes to the masjid, she prays, she starts to wear hijab. I love how she finds her voice and defends those that can’t, but that her path is not easy.  She makes mistakes and she has to challenge herself to do what is right.  The backdrop is always trying to “settle” in a new place, but the story has it’s own plot points that are interesting and simply made more impactful by Nurah’s unique perspective.

There are lots of little climaxes and victories for Nurah that show her to be well-rounded and relatable.  You cheer for her early on and enjoy the journey.  The only slight hiccup I felt was the name confusion of her Nana and Nani (Nana), it is explained, but it was a little rocky for me, it might be based on a real thing in her family, but once that is resolved, the book flows beautifully and smoothly.

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FLAGS:

Nothing a 3rd/4th grader would find alarming, but none-the-less:

Crushes: Nurah has a crush on a boy at school when he shakes her hand and picks her for a lab partner, but she moves on from him while still maintaining a crush on her brother’s friend Junaid.  Nothing happens, she just thinks they are cute.

Miscarriage: Her mother has a miscarriage and it details a blighted ovum and the mental strain on the mom and family in the aftermath.

Abuse: Stahr’s father is abusive

Hate: There are bullies, discrimination, physical violence.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is a little below level for my middle school book club, but I think it it was on a bookshelf and a middle schooler picked it up, they wouldn’t set it down until they were done reading it.

Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

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Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

This middle grades, upper elementary book is a character driven contemporary story of two friends with their own fears coming together: one a native of Tampa, the other one a refugee from Syria arriving in the US on the day Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ goes in to effect. In 272 pages of alternating narratives, two 12 year old girls find strength and kindness in themselves, in each other, and in many around them. Islamaphobia is focused on in the story, but the inclusion of diversity, Black Lives Matter, anti semitism, mental health, social justice, and US immigration makes the book relatable to everyone and interesting to explore. The book is remarkably similar to another book published this year, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and I wish I had not read them so close together. Both are well done, and I honestly don’t know if one is better than the other, but space them out so you don’t find yourself comparing them. I got my copy from Scholastic, and I’m always happy when the school market shows accurate strong Muslims, so if you see this in the book order forms that come home or book fairs and are wondering if you should get it, do it, it is worth your time and your child’s, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

Noura’s family has escaped Syria and had been living in Turkey when they learn they have been granted assylum in Tampa, Florida, USA. When the book opens Noura is practicing controlling her fear of water as the plane flies over the ocean. Her twin brother, Ammar, her parents and baby brother Ismail are greeted with protesters when they land. Whisked away by a church group and local Muslims, the family is given support and assistance in a new country.

One of the members in the church group that have volunteered to help the Alwan family, is Jordyn and her mother. Jordyn is going to be Noura and Ammar’s Student Ambassador at Bayshore Middle School and Jordyn’s mom has offered to help Noura’s mom learn English. Jordyn is the state title holder in swimming, but while she was swimming her fastest race, her mom was having a miscarriage, and both have a lot to work through to function as they once did.

The two girls immediately hit it off, and the families follow. Noura’s love of birds is mirrored in Jordyn’s love of water and fish, and both have their fears and mental health coping skills to bond and confide in with one another about. The girls and Ammar are assigned a Social Studies assignment and Jordyn getting close to the Alwans is not well received by Jordyn’s close friend Bailey who’s brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Other classmates also show bigotry and with the real incidents of 2017 incorporated in to the story of a mosque being burned, Jewish cemeteries being ransacked, pedestrians being run-over in France, and more, the Alwans are questioning their new country, and their friends are wondering how America has gotten this way.

While praying at school Ammar and Noura are constantly harassed no matter where they relocate to, and finally ask the administration if there is a safe place they can worship. Florida law says a space can be set aside for all faiths to have the same access as clubs do (I’m overly simplifying), and many different and diverse students come together to turn an old closet into a place of peace, worship, freedom, reflection, and meditation. As expected, the space is destroyed, the culprits never caught and complaints to the school board mount. The ultimate climax involves the kids speaking up about what the space means to them, and waiting to see what the final school board vote is. Along the way there are smaller victories, such as Jordyn teaching Noura to swim, Ammar speaking about the white helmets saving him, and Jordyn and her mother working together to heal.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Muslim Ban is discussed in a way that it is personal, not political. By highlighting a fictional manifestation of refugees affected by such policy, even people that don’t know anyone affected, I’m certain would feel a connection to a concept and its affects in a very real way. I love that N.H. Senzai was brought on to make the story’s Islamic elements ring true and that the prayer room, a very American Muslim construct ends up being at the center of the story. Noura and her family eat halal, wear hijab, and pray. I enjoyed that other diversity and acceptance issues were carried in to the story by the supporting cast including a Jewish boy, a Cuban girl, a Hindu and more. Overall the book is well written and solid, the mental health and coping skills are so beautifully normalized. Both girls have sought help and found success with it, and both are brave in addressing their fears and opening up about them to those around them. It really is empowering.

The end of the book features more information about the real Syrian children heroes mentioned in the book: the ten year old model builder Muhammad Qutaish, the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, and education activist Muzoon Almellehan. There is also information about the two authors and how their collaboration came to be.

I would love to not compare this book to A Galaxy of Sea Stars, but just to highlight a few of the near exact similarities would prove my point that had these two books not been published the same year, one would definitely be accused of copying the other. Both feature middle school girls, both have a refugee arriving to a coastal town with their families (one Afghan one Syrian), both have the American born protagonist loving water, being an only child, and have mothers going through their own life changing crisis. Both have two side kick friends, one that is very anti Muslim and one that is on the fence. Neither have a completely resolving happy ending with the three girls’ friendship and there is doubt in both books of friend’s possible involvement of hate motivated actions. Both feature a side character’s brother being killed in conflict in a Muslim majority country. Both feature an amazing teacher that is very involved in opening minds and facilitating growth regarding prejudice. Both feature PTSD issues, and fear of water issues as well as a major hobby being destroyed by an angry classmate character. The ‘ethnic mom’ in both stories is rather one dimensional but loves to cook and feed everyone. Sure they also have their differences, one alternates point of view and is tied closely to current real events, but both have remarkably similar themes of friendship, overcoming fear, and finding similarities over differences.

FLAGS:

Some mention of violence as the Alwans recall the destruction and fear of war in Syria. Mention of a cartoon drawn by a classmate mocking Jordyn getting her first bra, but it isn’t detailed. The swimming coach is a lesbian and she mentions her wife at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely encourage elementary teachers to have this book on their shelves and encourage students to read it and respond. I think it would be too predictable for middle schoolers to read in a critical manner, however, they would probably enjoy it as a light read. With Covid 19 still keeping me from starting up book clubs again, I have been asked to consider helping put together some side reading lists/suggestions, and this book would definitely find its way on that.

Happy Reading!

A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

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A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

This 320 page middle grade novel with alternating point of view chapters engulfs you like a warm genuine hug. It does not have a clear climax, it is predictable, and some characters and cultural touch points could have used more detail, but honestly, I couldn’t put it down. As a half American kid who spent my summers in Karachi, so much of the author’s love of her homeland flows so effortlessly from the pages and took me back to my childhood and how the transformation of comparing the two countries moves to seeing the best in both causes growth within your heart and makes leaving so devastatingly hard. Readers of all backgrounds will seamlessly fall in to the story and enjoy the growth of the main characters, while learning a bit about a culture and the similarities of people.

SYNOPSIS:

The back drop is the sweltering heat of a Karachi summer in the middle of elections. Mimi, Maryam, is visiting Pakistan for the first time in her life. It is her mother’s home land, but her grandparents, and her mom aren’t close. They didn’t approve of Mimi’s dad and mom getting married, and even though they have been divorced for years and he has left, Mimi’s mom hasn’t been home in 12 years.

Sakina narrates the other chapters. She is the daughter of Mimi’s grandparent’s cook. She dreams of going to school, but needs help with her English to pass the admissions test. And even if she passes her family needs her income to survive, and her father’s failing health means that she has to take over his job too.

When Mimi arrives at her grandparents home, it is awkward at best. She doesn’t really know her grandparents, she has never had servants before, and her mother is rarely around. That leaves her to get to know Sakina. Sakina finds this odd as the owners of the home rarely “chat” with her and here this American girl wants to get to know her and is fine with helping in the kitchen. The two strike a tentative friendship as Mimi agrees to help Sakina with her english, and Sakina with the permission of Mimi’s grandmother and with the use of the driver, agrees to show her some of the city.

As Mimi takes in the traditional tourists sites she gives Sakina her first taste of ice cream and soda and other “luxuries” she has never experienced. Sakina introduces her to bun kabobs and other local foods. The budding friendship isn’t smooth, mostly because Mimi constantly compares Pakistan to America and Sakina doesn’t understand why Mimi doesn’t have a father. When the girls find out that Mimi’s dad, a journalist, is in Karachi covering the elections, the girls work together to try and find him.

Throughout all of this, Mimi keeps a journal and the entries are letters to her father.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the girls have to navigate their friendship without and often despite interference from adults. I also like that while societal wise one girl is seen as economically privileged and one is not, the book gives enough for even elementary aged children to see that in America Mimi and her mom are financial struggling, but in Pakistan they are not and how that disparity is arbitrary. They also see that family and safety and security are also a part of life’s quality and not country specific. Things that one girl takes for granted are envied by the other, and it goes both ways.

Even for a middle grades book, there were some plot holes. If Mimi had been late night googling and plotting on a secret map all the places her dad had been writing articles from, she should have had a heads up about Pakistan. She knows so little about Islam and has like one shelwar kamees, so it seems a bit of a stretch that she speaks urdu pretty proficiently. I feel like some stumbling with the language or some back story on that would have been great.

Religion is handled as a cultural touch point, neither girl prays, but both find solace in visiting a masjid. Various characters are in sleeveless tops, the athan is heard in the back ground. I wish there would have been a bit more finding of Islam as Mimi found her culture too, but alas it isn’t there.

The majority of the book takes place within the grandparent’s home with the elections being a big part of why they can’t go out, yet the mom goes out a lot, which really rubbed me the wrong way. She took her daughter shopping once to meet an old friend and that is it. Who travels across the world to spend zero time with her kid. I didn’t like the mom at all, and wish there was some background or even some growth on her part. A lot of the minor characters seemed to fizzle as well in terms of having some depth.

There are some cultural and country facts at the end of the book, but within the text I was surprised that more wasn’t shared. I like that it mentioned Karachi was the original capital, but it should have also in the same sentence mentioned that Islamabad is the current, I think readers would assume that Karachi is still the capital of Pakistan.

The book is an OWN voice through and through and the value of that is felt in every sentence. It isn’t all positive and rosy, but it is genuine. The author loves what she is writing about and it shines through leaving the reader with a favorable sense of Pakistan: the country, the culture and the people.

FLAGS:

The book is clean, possibly some tense moments when Sakina’s family is robbed. There is also discussion of marrying someone your parents don’t approve of, divorce, and Mimi’s mom possibly having a boyfriend. Mimi’s mom is an artist and paints pictures of people. There is lying and scheming.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think the book would be a fine choice for an elementary book club, I think any one older will find the book a tad bit predictable. I plan to have my children read it so we can discuss points of view, experiences, universal traits and social economic classes. There are a lot of wonderful lessons wrapped up in a heartfelt story that I can see 4th and 5th grade children benefiting from over and over again.