Category Archives: 7th grade and up

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

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When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

starsThis graphic novel swept me off my feet and left me in tears, not because of the hard life and sadness that life in a refugee camp entails, I had braced myself for that, but because of the hope and humanity and beauty that is so powerfully expressed and conveyed in this 264 page book.  Meant for 3rd graders and up, I think kids through middle school should be encouraged to read it.  The illustrations and colors are incredibly well done and the story is based on a true story that needs to be told and shared.  It is definitely in the top 10 books I’ve read this year and I keep catching my 11 year old re-reading this book repeatedly (like 5 or 6 times).

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar Mohamed lives in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.  His father was killed in the Somali war and his mother has not been seen after she sent Omar and his younger brother Hassan to run with the neighbors to escape the violence.  Hasan suffers from seizures and doesn’t speak, save one word, Hooyo, mother in Somali.  The two boys have an adopted mom Fatuma, who looks after the boys in the camp as if they were her own.  Unable to go to school, Omar spends his days looking after his brother, playing soccer with plastic bags, and waiting in lines for water, food, and news of a better opportunity.

When Omar gets the chance to go to school (5th grade) he has to make the difficult decision of pursuing his own opportunities, with the hope of helping Hassan later, or living day to day and taking care of his younger brother.  He is finally convinced that education will help them both, and that if the girls can find a way to do their chores and attend class, he can too.

Each transition from primary, to middle to secondary school requires testing, and only the top get to continue.  Determined to stay in school, Omar studies while dealing with life’s many challenges and the daily additional challenges of living with little food and resources.

When Omar and Hassan’s names finally appear on a UN interview lists for resettlement, hope seeps in, but the wait and the uncertainty prove to be yet another test.  Along the way there are side characters from the United Nations that show compassion, other families that show how generous and loving humans can be, female classmates show him how to take advantage of his privilege and friendships that move friends to family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is gripping and has heart.  I don’t know what I expected, but I truly could not put it down.  The character’s stresses are felt and emotions are conveyed so powerfully, that I don’t know that you can read the book and forget it.  The most emotional part for me was his honesty in dealing with his brother, the strength of his friends, particularly female, and the bond to Fatuma.  Truly their living arrangements and loss of family is gut wrenching, but it was the little things that touched me the most.  The honesty of Omar having to decide if he was tempted to not go to school because he was scared. Was he using his brother as an excuse to stay with something he knew.  The emotional tipping point of no return for me was when he realized Fatuma would not be able to go to the second interview with the UN and would not be a part of what came after.  Of course I knew that, but by that point I was so connected to the character, that when Omar realized it, I broke for him.  To feel that connection in a graphic novel was new for me, perhaps a first, and alhumdulillah I am better for it.

The characters are Muslim and behave traditionally with praying and Ramadan and Eid.

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FLAGS:

There is talk of khat, something the men chew on the side of the road to forget things.  There is some violence, bullying, a young girl getting married before 6th grade and having a baby.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Yes! I am hoping if and when we resume school I am starting with this book inshaAllah, for my middle school book club.  There is so much to talk about and understand and empathize with.

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

a lkace at the table

This fabulously fresh and honest book told in alternating OWN voices shows how two seemingly different 6th grade girls discover how much they have in common as they learn about themselves and their families along the way.  Sarah is a Muslim Pakistani-American, and Elizabeth is Jewish and has an English immigrant mom, the two come together over food, family stress, discrimination, and middle school social drama to form a solid friendship.  But fear not, it isn’t easy and the book will keep upper elementary/ early middle school girls hooked.  Not sure if boys will be as drawn to it, but if they can get over the brief mention of having a period, they too will enjoy the story.  The 336 page book shows how much we have in common, and how hard fitting in can be for everyone.

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah is starting a new school, a public one, having been at a small Islamic school prior to 6th grade.  She is not happy about it and to top it off, her mother is teaching an after-school cooking class at the school that she is required to attend.  Hoping to sit in the back drawing and go unnoticed, she finds she can’t sit quiet when her classmates start giving her mom a hard time.  Unaware of why she had to leave her previous school, and tired of her mom needing her help with her catering business, Sara also has to help her mom study for her citizenship test, handle two little brothers, deal with no friends at school and not being able to celebrate Halloween.

Elizabeth loves cooking. Her mother does not.   She is excited to learn Pakistani food at the cooking club even if her best friend thinks they shouldn’t be learning things from “them.” Elizabeth is admittedly nerdy, and struggling with a life-long friend finding others to spend time with, her life at home is difficult too.  Her dad is always traveling for work, and her mom is depressed with the recent passing of her mother in England, to the point of not really functioning.  With Elizabeth doing the cooking at home, and trying to get her mom to study for her citizenship test, Jewish holidays and obligations get neglected, and Elizabeth not knowing how to help her new Muslim friend handle racism,  is spiraling herself.

When the two girls decide to give each other a chance they find they might be able to be more than just cooking partners, but it seems like one of them always does something to mess it up.  Either saying something hurtful, getting defensive, or not sticking up for each other.   The girls get their mom’s together to study for their test, but it isn’t so easy for the girls, who are hesitant to trust one another.

An upcoming cooking competition, offers the girls a chance to make a cross cultural fusion dish that can wow the judges, help Sarah’s family’s financial situation, prove to the school that diversity is a good thing, and hopefully give the two girls a solid friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic it sounds and feels and how it doesn’t focus on boys or crushes, but on friendship between two girls at an awkward point in their lives and the family stresses they are experiencing.  The book is for all readers and does a great job of not going overboard with what the girls face.  I love how tolerant they have to learn to be with one another and that they have to learn to drop their defensive guards.

I read the book in two settings and didn’t want to put it down, it has enough pull that you really want to see where the book is going and are happy to overlook the slight repetitiveness of them stressing about the competition, but doing nothing but talking about the stress. Really the competition doesn’t even seem that important at the end, but considering everything going on, that to me is exactly as it should be.

I love the rich culture of Pakistan, England, Islam, and Judaism that seep in and never get preachy or dogmatic, but get celebrated and experienced.  This is why OWN voice books are so beautiful and powerful.  Admittedly, Elizabeth’s family is not super religious, but a few more similarities would have been nice.  Yes her brothers are eating pepperoni Hot Pockets, but a shout out about halal/kosher marshmallows would have really rung true for so many of us that stock up at Passover.

I also love how the side characters have substance and aren’t just used as a foil to show something about the main characters.  They get a little flesh on their own, and that enhances the richness of the story.  Seeing that they have their own struggles to overcome as well shows how none of us have it all together, and that we are all capable of improving ourselves.

FLAGS:

The girls meet during school hours when Elizabeth lies about her period starting to get out of class.  Sarah mentions that hers has already started.  Elizabeth mentions that her Jewish grandmother is visiting her son and his husband, nothing more is said, just that.  There are some derogatory things said about Sarah and being Muslim and Pakistani, but really mild.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to find a way to do this book for a middle school book club.  I’ve already told my 13 year- old daughter it is required summer reading.  The Muslims have diversity within themselves, some wear hijab, Sarah does not.   The book is so relatable and the personas sound the age for their views and struggles and perspective.  The financial stress, the mental illness, the immigrant experience, the racism, the politics, are all wonderfully woven together, and the food, well, there is a reason I didn’t recommend this book at the beginning of Ramadan, you are welcome.  Happy Reading.

 

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

vine basket

While in the midst of moving from Knoxville to Birmingham nearly 4 years ago, a lady reached out to me telling me that a colleague of hers, also an author, was a follower and fan of my blog and had recently passed away, she asked if she could send me a copy of her friend’s books.  I agreed, not knowing what type of books the lady had written and didn’t think much of it.  In the chaos that is moving, I received the books and boxed them up and then unboxed them and vaguely remembered that they were about Muslims in China.  I put them in the to be read pile and just never got to them.  Then as the plight of the Uyghurs started to be known here in the US, something tickled my brain, but nothing came of it, until recently when I realized, a lady, a non Muslim years ago was trying to tell the Uyghur’s story, and had reached out to me, and I didn’t get it, and still wasn’t getting it.  So alas, I have now read the Vine Basket, and while it might not present Islam the way we are used to seeing it in life and in print, the characters do identify as Muslim and this middle grade book is a simply woven, beautiful story that gives voice to a population that is horrifically being silenced.  The AR 5.0, 252 page book is a quiet book that will stay with me: the drunken father, the threat of being sent to a factory, the loss of tradition;  I am so glad I read the book, and only wish I could reach out to the author to hear more about her knowledge of the region, of the people, of the culture that is being erased.

SYNOPSIS:

Mehrigul is 14, and since her older brother left, she has been forced to leave school to help her father sell goods in the marketplace.  More often than not though, it is solely Mehrigul’s responsibility as her father drinks and gambles away the meager earnings the family makes. Her mother, ashamed of the poverty the family endures along with some presumed mental illness and headaches, seeps further and further away from the reality of life and the chores that need to be done to ensure food and survival of the family.  Her younger sister is the only spark in a dreary and difficult life, and Mehrigul is determined that she should stay in school and be shielded from the darkness hanging over the family.

One day while in the market, an American woman approaches Mehrigul and asks to purchase a frivolous grape vine basket Mehrigul had made and hung to decorate the cart.  She offers her 100 yuan, more money than Mehrigul has ever seen, and asks her to make more baskets, and that she will be back in a month to purchase them. The basket serves no purpose like the willow baskets her grandfather weaves and despite the money, Mehrigul’s father is not happy.

Mehrigul is forbidden from making the baskets for the American, and the fact that she will even return is dismissed.  Her father grows increasingly cruel toward Mehrigul and keeps her busy to prevent her from making more.  Mehrigul seeks solace in her elderly infirm grandfather who tries to help her find inspiration and time to make her baskets as he sees in her a gift that has value in their old culture.  At one point as her father steals her baskets to take on a “religious” pilgrimage to the mountains.  And her planting crops in the fields leaves her hands cut and swollen, unable to make more with just days left before the American lady is due to return.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I was really uncomfortable with the idea of a white American savior coming to a dying oppressed culture to offer hope, until I read the afterwards and understood that much of the story was inspired by the author’s own experience and that she worked with Uyghur’s to get the story right.  The book reads like historical fiction which makes the day to day life of this modern book all the more heart breaking, it isn’t about the past it is the present, and life in East Turkestan is bleak.  I like the character of the father, he is an abusive mess, yet somehow it isn’t that easy to write him off, he has his own struggles and the depth of character I found in him, in a middle grades book, is haunting.  I also really like how Mehrigul’s story is so foreign to us here in America, yet her emotions and insights are universal and thus relatable.  She wants to find her place, and excel, and help her family, and she is scared, doesn’t know who to trust, and takes on more than most children any where should, but often are forced to do.

The characters identify as Muslim and as a people the Uyghurs are Muslim.  They say salam in the story, but only to the grandfather, and the girls all cover their hair with scarves.  The father obviously drinks and gambles, two practices, not permitted in Islam.  Mehrigul fastens a talisman and connects her prayers to it as a form of worship which I would imagine is cultural perhaps, and when things go awry she remarks she should have prayed to Allah swt.  The father goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, which again seems off from traditional Islam, but is presented in the book instead as odd because the father is not normally religious.  Islam is not a big part of the book, so it is hard to know if the representation of it are isolated to who the author met, or a larger norm of the community.  Considering how isolated and oppressed the Uyghurs are, I tried really hard to suspend judgement, or offer my privileged limited critique of the people.

FLAGS:

Drinking, gambling, abusive father, anger, lying, deception.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle grades or even middle school book club, there is so much going on in China and in the erasing of Islam there that this book would supplement the news and few stories we are hearing.  It opens up the culture and gives it a face that is not political, but personal.  The faults of the father are not glorified at all, and the discussion about his desire to hold on to culture and fear about his daughter surpassing him would be fascinating to hear from people the protagonists age.

The Story of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him): Ramadan Classics: 30 Stories for 30 Nights by Humera Malik

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The Story of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him): Ramadan Classics: 30 Stories for 30 Nights by Humera Malik

the story of prophet muhammad

I debated posting about this book for so long that Ramadan is more than half over.  But as a reference for years to come, I thought I should go ahead and throw my late support toward this Ramadan tradition and a book deserving of space on your shelf for children 4th grade and up.  I’ve seen people praising it for a few years, and finally I ordered it this year, however, I wanted to not only read it, but also test it out first: reading a story a day, discussing and asking the correlating questions with my own children, before reporting back.  I cannot and thus won’t comment on the accuracy of authenticity of the book, nothing stood out as erroneous to me and there is a bibliography at the back, but there is a reason I try and steer clear of non fiction, I’m just not qualified to comment.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with the birth of Prophet Muhammad (saw) and ends with the selection of Abu Bakr (ra) as the first Khalifah.  Each chapter is between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half pages and the 30 chapters plus one Eid day chapter (so a total of 31), covers 103 pages in all.  There are a few pictures of where the Battle of Badr took place, the Cave of Hira, not many.  There are three questions at the back of the book for each of the chapters, but no answers.  The book is pretty linear, just the second chapter bounces back to Prophet Abraham (as) and Hagar and the story of Zamzam and then the rebuilding of the Ka’bah.  It is a glorified timeline, which in this case is a good thing.  It doesn’t go off on tangents or provide a ton of outside references, it is concise and general, but hits the key parts: marriage to Khadijah, first revelation, migration to Abyssinia, Taif, Hijrah, treatment of slaves, year of sorrow, Battle of Badr, Battle of Uhud, Treaty of Hudaibiyah, it talks of tensions with various tribes, coming to an agreement about the Khalifah, and more.

I think younger children might possibly be able to have the short chapters read to them and then explained, but really, it would be a lot to process.  The words are simplified and the gist of situations are conveyed, but topics aren’t necessarily shied away from.  It discusses that Prophet Muhammad (saw) had more than one wife, and that there were slaves, and there were tensions with the Jews, and Bilal was tortured, all things that picture books might skip over.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that even my young teen could read and involve herself without feeling like the exercise was childish.  Many of the answers are open ended in nature and require more than just a one word answer.  It allows for children to add other facts that they know about RasulAllah to the dialogue and make connections to our history with our current life very easily.  Even children that know the story of Prophet Muhammad (saw) will find the book engaging and smooth enough to read through again (and hopefully again each Ramadan) and learn new tidbits, understand concepts more clearly and be reminded about the beauty of our Prophet.

FLAGS:

Nothing

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If I was a teacher, I would definitely start each morning reading a chapter and doing the Q and A, whether it was Ramadan or not.  I think we need to be more connected to our Prophet and grow our love and appreciation for him, so books like this are such a great tool in accomplishing that goal.

 

Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed

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Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed

once upon an eid

I’ve never been a huge fan of short stories, but this book has me reconsidering such an arrogant approach, as every single story in this collection has me feeling the warmth of Eid, the joy of authenticity, and the beauty of being a part of a faith with such strong female writers.  Fifteen entries for middle graders in mind: short stories, poetry, and even a graphic novel, spread over 304 pages that shine light on Eid in today’s world,  Eid al Fitr and Ramadan make up the bulk of the focus, but Eid al Adha and Hajj are in there too.  And the best part of the book is that you will see yourself in it, possibly all through out it, but reading such diverse OWN Voice stories are sure to make a Muslim reader feel represented and right at home, and give non Muslim’s a peek at us from the inside, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

I don’t know how to review the book as a whole since there really are 15 different stories, that are each heartfelt and strong in their own right and yet somehow made better by the company around them.  There were no weak links.  There are stories with bickering siblings, annoying cousins, different cultures, mixed background familes, divorced families, converts’ stories, stories of families where money is tight, stories with illness, stories of loss, a story from the perspective of a refugee, and stories of reaching out of your comfort zone.  There is one story about Eid al Adha and a story starring a Shi’a muslimah feeling different within Islam.  There are stories told from boys voices and girls voices and every single story has a take home message, some more subtle than others, but all there and all real.  I feel like even a summary of a story would prove a spoiler and take away from one just falling in to the collection and receiving the warm hug that awaits.   I’ll leave the summaries to their titles and well known authors to spark your curiousity.

Perfect: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake:  Aisha Saeed

Kareem Means Generous: Asmaa Hussein

Don’ut Break Tradition: S.K. Ali

Just Like Chest Armor: Candice Montgomery

Gifts: Rukhsana Khan

The Feast of Sacrifice: Hena Khan

Seraj Captures the Moon: G. Willow Wilson and Sara Alfageeh

Searching for Blue: N.H. Senzai

Creative Fixes: Ashley Franklin

Taste: Hanna Alkaf

Eid Pictures: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Not Only an Only: Huda Al-Marashi

Maya Madinah Chooses Joy: Ayesha Mattu

Eid and Pink Bubble Gum, Insha’Allah: Randa Abdel-Fattah

WHY I LIKE IT:

I recieved this book as an Advanced Reader (digital) copy and I am thinking I want a hard copy too, (I wasn’t able to view the artwork).  A lot of people ask me and I see postings in various social media groups asking for suggestions of books to read each night as a family in Ramadan, and I think this one would work for grades 3 and up.  Have each kid read the story throughout the day and then discuss in the evening.  Every story will have something that is familiar, probably something new, and each has a teachable moment.  I think different kids will identify with different aspects of the story and to articulate them in Ramadan will really bring the already memorable characters to life.

The book is very well done, and reads very smooth and cohesive, it really has a unified tempo and mood which is remarkable because so many different author’s and voices are included.  The book stays focused on the feeling rather than getting too weighted down by doctrine.  There are stories that feature hijab prominantly, and a bit of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and some slight mention of islamaphobia, but it focuses on the friends and the love that support us, both Muslim and non, that make Eid and life hopeful.

FLAGS:

Clean

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this as a book club book to be hosted just as I hope to do this Ramadan with my own children in my home (see above).  I think really I just want to buy a bunch of copies to give as gifts to the fabulous elementary aged children I know, alhumdulillah.

You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

layla

This OWN story, upper middle grades book, is heavy on the pop culture, relatable on the Islamic family presentation and honest in its portrayal of Islamaphobia, yet somehow the tidiness in which everything wrapped up seemed too forced and a bit flat.  At 293 pages, including a three page glossary, the book is a quick read meant mainly for girls.  It involves robotics, academic achievement, and invention, while also discussing crushes, a character coming out to his family and friends, and mention of girls not praying at certain times of the month.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla lives in Australia and goes to the Islamic School of Brisbane. Her Sudanese family: older brother, younger twin brothers, and parents, her Doctor mom and medical machine tech dad, are active Muslims and proud of their culture.  They assimilate to Australian norms in varying degrees, but with all the kids at ISB, Layla doesn’t feel all that different in her school and social life.  Unfortunately she wants more, she wants to be an adventurer, and when she meets Adam over the break and learns about the various opportunities he has it his school, Layla decides she wants to prove herself on a larger stage.  Going in to “shut down” mode Layla has tunnel vision to ace the scholarship and entrance exam and go to a new school.

She gets in to Mary Maxmillion Grammar School and when she goes to meet the board they let her know that the decision to accept a girl like her was not unanimous.  Layla is an immigrant, she is black, she wears hijab, she is loud and proud, and apparently very smart, but as one trustee asks, is she brave?  On the first day of school she arrives late to first period, insults the teacher repeatedly and also makes friends with a group of slightly diverse boys.  At the end of the day however, Peter, a boy who had insulted her earlier, reinforces his disapproval of her being allowed at their school and pushes her.  Standing her ground, she verbal attacks and then head butts the boy in front of a large portion of the school at dismissal.  No one offers any help, nor speaks up when she is suspended for a week, her scholarship and admission put on probation, no one even asks for her side of the story, Peter, is let off completely free, as he is also the son of the Board Chairman.

Layla decides to prove she belongs at the school she is going to win a prestigious robotics competition and since everyone already is on a team, she decides to go for it solo.  The only problem, is she doesn’t know what to invent.  When she returns to school, her friend that she is crushing hard on is acting weird, and she gets caught up in a lie of sorts that serves as both the idea and silliness turned cleverness of the book.  While choking on gummy worms, she says she is working on an edible actuator for her robot, and somehow has to make that come to fruition.

The rest of the book is Layla making a lot of silly errors of judgement: missing classes being in SD mode in the workshop, forgetting to file the paperwork and registration to actually compete in the competition, and leads up to the resolution between her and Peter, learning her crush is gay, and deciding to be herself and proud of it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually like the majority of the book, I really like how Islam is presented and lived.  They pray and say salam and cover, and recite tasbeeha to reflect, and quote hadith very naturally, even how others attack them, and the anger that Layla’s brother Ozzie feels at his inability to get a part time job reads and feels very authentic.  I also like how one of the teacher’s own experience as being a descendant of the forgotten generation and being a first nations ethnicity is woven in.  I felt the side character being gay was added and forced in as an after thought and I don’t know why, as it didn’t show Layla to be a particularly good friend.  She handled his coming out well, but when he was miserable she was wrapped up in her own stuff and didn’t reach out very well, even though he ended up being the spark for her invention.  Her friend at ISB is also an under developed character, that while I get is used to show another side of Layla, in many ways also showed her to be a rather poor friend.

I found the pop culture references annoying, not in and of themselves, but in knowing that they will date and make the book irrelevant in a few short years.  There is a lot of repetition of phrases and ideas that a few times when I put the book down I struggled to re-find my place (I know bookmarks, right?) but certain refrains and paragraphs seem so very similar.  I

There is a lot of good information about Sudan and their food and culture and traditions.  There is also a decent amount about Muslims in Australia.  I like that even within her family there are different views on how much to assimilate, and how much to fight back against perceptions, the fact that there is a lot of gray makes non Muslims and non immigrants reading the book hopefully realize how diverse all people are and to not assume anyone is only one way.  I would have liked more about Layla’s mom and being recruited to come to Australia, and how she was perceived at work, by patients and colleagues.  I also would have liked some sort of resolution about Ozzie and his job search.  Really though my biggest complaint is Layla, herself.  What does it even mean to want to be an adventurer? I like that she is fallible and human and in some ways she does grow, but I felt like her being smart and a go-getter is the foundation of the story, but that she didn’t seem to have much common sense seems a bit off.  Yes she is loud and funny and puts in hard work, but the way she talks to teachers, and misses classes and deadlines, and behaves seems like a disconnect from the pages constantly telling me how smart she is.  To me, part of being smart is knowing when to lash out and when to listen, I don’t feel like her growth arc was all that great, in a nut shell, she changed schools and confronted a bully, that is the story, while not a bad story, it could have been so much more.

FLAGS:

There is crushing, violence, a gay character, mention of alcohol at a party Layla didn’t attend, talk of hooking up in passing and some language.  There is lying but it is acknowledged guiltily, and not familiar with Australian slang, regular use of the phrase, Janey Mack, which according to google is a replacement for Jesus Christ.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know why I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection.  It just didn’t strike me as something they would benefit from.  I wouldn’t be opposed to someone picking it up and reading it in my house, but I doubt I’ll recommend it to my daughter and she is the ideal reader: she wears hijab, is in 8th grade at an Islamic school, and loves to read.  The book is really not memorable as good or bad, it just fell flat and I doubt I’ll read it again, luckily it only took two sittings to read, so I don’t feel like it was a waste of time, but seeing as I had to pay cover price and international shipping, I kind of regret rushing to buy it.

Teacher guide: https://www.penguin.com.au/content/resources/TR_YouMustBeLayla.pdf

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

tasting the sky

This memoir may qualify as non fiction, but the majority of this 176 page book is told from the perspective of the author when she was three years old, so much of it reads to me as somewhere between historical fiction and autobiography.  No matter how you categorize it though, this AR 5.8 book is better suited for middle school and up. I love that this is is a Palestinian perspective of the Six-Day War and the immediate aftermath, but after reading it, I’m not haunted by the atrocities of the Israeli occupation so much as, some of the choices her family made.  I got my copy through Scholastic and in excitement, purchased multiple copies that I sadly think will sit in a box as I doubt I’ll find many students that will enjoy this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is divided into three parts with the first and third being short letters written in 1981, and the second part being the majority of the story taking place between 1967-1971.

The first part is a high school Ibtisam getting detained at a checkpoint after heading out to check a PO Box that she uses to keep in touch with her pen pals from around the world.  She reveals what life is like and shares the joy of learning about the outside world from her correspondence, but that she rarely talks about her childhood and her life during the war.  Part two is her sharing that.

The Barakat family lives removed from neighbors and a city, but Ibtisam loves her two older brothers and younger sister and at three years old is happy.  When war comes, the family decides to run, in the process Ibtisam doesn’t have time to find a shoe, and then she gets separated from her family and swept up with the people running for the caves to escape the bombings.  Once reunited with her family, they along with numerous other Palestinians make their way to Jordan and some safety.  Safety comes at a cost though and the family is separated as her father leaves to find work.  When the war ends, the family moves from the shelter and finds a small room to rent until they can return home.

Once the family returns home, things do not return to normal as the Israeli army begins training near their house causing Ibtisam’s mom to worry constantly in her attempts to keep the children inside and away from the windows.  Eventually, the mom takes the children and herself to an orphanage in Jerusalem saying that their father cannot keep them safe.  Ibtisam is close to her father and this dramatic change does not sit well with her.

In the orphanage, the boys get separated from the girls and eventually their father promises the mother to build a wall and make repairs to the home and purchase a goat if they come home.  They do, and the kids are grateful to be together again.  The boys then start school and the goat has a baby and life carries on.   Ibtisam grows close to the baby goat and their father promises that he will remain the children’s pet and will not be slaughtered.  But, when the boys are 8 and 9 they get circumcised and the feast involves the goat.

The next major event in young Ibtisam’s life is when she finally gets to go to school.  Incredibly smart, her mother essentially equates her love for her daughter with her success in school and with that motivation and predisposition to learn and excel, she does very well.  One day on the way home, she is sexually assaulted by an older boy, and makes arrangements to always have her brothers with her when walking.  Her parents are not made aware of the offense, and don’t seem to investigate Ibtisam’s change in attitude toward school.  When an Israeli soldier attempts to assault her mother, the family moves once again and part three is a teenage Ibtisam quarreling with her parents and once again excelling at school.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that tidbits of memories are woven together to give an overall impression of the author’s childhood.  The book is a quick read and is compelling enough to hold one’s attention.  The family is culturally religious, but the book makes a point that the father prays, not indicating that the rest of them do or even know how.  I love how the freedom and hope that Ibtisam has comes from learning the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alef.  The love of language and the power found in reading and writing, is celebrated in its reverence to the learning of the letters.

I don’t get the mother, and while I get that war is a horrific time, and she is 24 when Ibtisam is 3 and has like four kids, so her life is definitely not easy, I still find it disturbing to me that she would lose a one shoe-ed daughter, take her kids to an orphanage to live while both parents are alive and well, and be so cold to her daughter.  The father seems to be loving to the kids, but he still slaughtered their pet, and I’m guessing culturally circumcisions are done at that age, because that seems incredibly cruel.

FLAGS:

War, loss, sexual assault, details about the circumcisions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I won’t do the book as a book club selection and while I know the book is in many libraries and classrooms I doubt many kids would be compelled to pick it up and read it based on the cover and synopsis on the back.  I have a few Palestinian friends that I will ask to read the book to see if they find it an accurate representative of life during the six-day war and even today as it could definitely be used to teach about the region, the conflict, and writing a biography about life for others to learn from.

 

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

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The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

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It takes about 124 pages to be swept away to the city of Noor, but once it happens, it is hard to come back.  The 391 page fantasy story takes a while to get going, but the character driven plot filled with amazingly strong and diverse women is worth the slow start.  Middle school readers and up (AR 5.8) will enjoy the blend of Islamic imagery, sub-continent Asian culture, fire, Ifrits, Djinn, family, relate-ablity and good quality story telling.  The fact that it is a main stream book, with so much religion and culture makes it all the more remarkable in its universal appeal.

SYNOPSIS:

Fatima is a Muslim girl adopted by a Hindu family, only everyone in the entire city was killed eight years ago except for Fatima, her adopted sister, and an elderly lady, when the Shayateen attacked.  The orderly Ifrit were asked to defeat the Shayateen and protect the city, and when they did, the wealthy returned along with people from other cities.  Thus Noor is now a vibrant city of different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and languages repopulated and ruled in halves by the Maharaja, Aarush and Ifrit Emir, Zulfikar.

Fatima works as a messenger and her favorite place to deliver packages to is an old book shop owned by Firdaus, an Ifrit she regards as a fatherly figure.  He has taught her languages and provides her a place to learn and grow.  When he dies in front of Fatima, she is forever changed, literally, he transfers his powers to her, and she is now not only part human, part Ifrit, but also the Name Giver, an incredibly powerful and important being in bringing the smokeless Djinn from their wold to her hers.

With rebel forces threatening the Maharaja’s rule, Ghul and Shayateen entering the city, a taint threatening the leader of the Ifrit, a traitor in each palace, and a budding romance between Fatima and Zulfiqar, the characters pull you in and create an enjoyable story that is vivid, fantastic, and hard to put down.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The story doesn’t have a neat and tidy plot culminating in a climax, but the character arcs and vivid world building pull you in and keep you interested.  I love that the characters are different and complex and unique, and that women are so so strong and celebrated for their strength in all spheres, not at the expense of the males, but solidly in their own right.  It is refreshing and glorious to see the matriarchal Ifrit world contrasted with the human world, and the strong females that emerge in both.

I love that there is so much diversity and tolerance and the book doesn’t shy away from presenting faith practices and acceptance in such an honest manner.  There is a four page glossary and it is needed, yet not overwhelming at the same time.  The most read page in the book for me however, was the Dramatis Personae page listing the characters.  Until that 124 page mark, I was constantly flipping back trying to keep everyone straight, not so much because the characters are confusing, but “what” they are took a little while to stick.

I got sucked in by this book truly, I ignored my children during our Corona virus quarantine one day to read the second half, and I don’t regret it one bit.  The romance, was a bit cheesy at the end, but it was clean, and sweet and presented as a way forward, not as a settling or sacrificing choice for either character which was greatly appreciated.

FLAGS:

There are a few kisses once the two main characters are married.  There is stalking and attempted sexual assault by a character, but Fatima more than took care of that with the support of many strong females.  There is mention of a homosexual relationship, but not dwelled on, and I think one could argue that there is  possibly something more going on between two of the females, but it isn’t explored.  There is death and killing and violence, but nothing extreme.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had hoped to sneak this in for book club next month, but with school closed indefinitely, it might have to wait until next year. I think girls will gravitate more to it than boys, but I think that is ok, because often girls need more of a nudge, in my experience, to give fantasy a try.  I am trying to convince my daughter to read it, but the first 100 pages are pretty slow, so if I can’t force her through it, I don’t know what chance I’ll have, here’s hoping.

NPR Review: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/18/724120066/language-has-magic-in-the-candle-and-the-flame

Interview with Nafiza Azad and Hafsah Faizal (We Hunt the Flame) https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=hafsah-faizal-and-nafiza-azad-interview

Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time by Saira Mir illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time by Saira Mir illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Women you have heard of, some you are meeting for the first time. Some you like, some you disagree with, women that cover, women that don’t, some young, others older, some athletic, some academic, some a little bit of both.  One fictional, a few political, but in the end, all strong women of today, all Muslim, all unique, from all over the world, all known for paving the way for others to follow.

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In 42 pages, 19 females are highlighted and illustrated to inspire Muslim and non Muslim boys and girls alike, but really Muslim girls will get the most out of it.  Sure a female gets mentioned here or there in other compilations of influential people of our time, but this one, well, this one seems mostly for us.

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There are famous females in science, activism, fashion, film, sport, education, media influencers, make-up artists, you name it, and Muslim’s participate, so finally a book shining a light on the best of the best.  With each person getting a full two page spread, a few tidbits about who they are and what they are “famous” for are detailed in easy to read sentences that inspire, and if you haven’t heard of them before, enough general knowledge to get acquainted.  A few felt a little generic, but once you have a name, Googling them or researching them, is obviously, not difficult.

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I wish there was a bit more information detailing who was chosen and why.  At first I thought it was  US or “western” movers and shakers, but then you have Maria Toorpakai Wazir, the tennis player in Pakistan, and Shirin Ebadi from Iran.  So then I thought ok, they are all contemporary, but Maryam Mirzakhani passed away in 2017.  Needless to say, one could argue that the list is arbitrary, and I think I would agree.

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One could also argue, that these women may make history for notable things, but that they might say or do things that you might take issue with, and again, I agree.  They are people, they are fallible, and diverse, and have different perspectives and life experiences, but that’s ok, infact I think that might even be the point.  We all have different passions, and paths, and views and yet at the end of the day we should be able to lift each other up and inspire.  I think every person who reads this book will find someone that sounds or feels or looks like them, and that is a good thing, no, a great thing!

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My favorite was the Kamala Khan entry, because I didn’t realize the G. Willow Wilson was Muslim.  I erroneously assumed the other co-creator, Sana Amanat gave Kamala’s back story and home life its sense of OWN Voice, and I love that I learned I was wrong from a book.

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The illustrations are right on and do an amazing job of conveying the character and the inspiration of the collection.  The book is much needed and I hope they do a similar style book for Muslim women in other time periods.

Special gratitude and appreciation to Gayartri Sethi (IG @desibookaunty) for gifting me this book for no other reason than to share the power and strength of women, and being a leader in that, by sending me a beautiful book.  May I learn from your generosity and pay it forward! Thank you.

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/