Category Archives: Elementary Fiction

Museum Mysteries by Steve Brezenoff illustrated by Lisa K. Weber

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Museum Mysteries by Steve Brezenoff illustrated by Lisa K. Weber

I’m going to review two of the eight books in the Museum Mysteries Series that have Amal on the cover:  The Case of the Missing Museum Archives and The Case of the Stolen Space Suit.  The series focuses on four characters of diverse backgrounds who have a parent that works in one of four Capital City museums.  Amal Farah is Somali American and her dad works at the Museum of Air and Space, Raining Sam is Native American and loves the American History Museum his mom works at, Clementine Wim’s mom works at the Art Museum, and Wilson Kipper’s favorite is the Museum of Natural History.  The kids solve mysteries and introduce the readers to real facts and tidbits of real information.  The AR level is 4.0 and 4.1 respectively, but I feel like they really are on a 2nd-4th grade level.  When a child is done with Ron Roy (A-Z Mysteries & Capital Mysteries) and Magic Treehouse, they are ready for these.  Much like those series, readers are similarly introduced to new vocabulary, but not overwhelmed with back story, detail, explanation, or much character development.

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SYNOPSIS:

In The Case of the Missing Archives, (the second in the Museum Mysteries Series), eleven-year-old Amal and her friends have to figure out who stole the plans for the German “Bat Wing” Plane, and fast.  If they don’t Amal’s father, Dr. Ahmed Farah, a museum archivist, is going to lose his job.  Luckily in 117 pages the kids suspect and rule out a “friend,” identify a mystery subject, and finally solve the case by piecing together the security guards clues and being perceptive.  Along the way you learn a bit about the characters, but nothing substantial.  You don’t feel a connection to the characters, and are only slightly annoyed when Clementine kind of takes over. 

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The second book where the Museum of Air and Space, and thus Amal are leading the plot is The Case of the Stolen Space Suit (#6 in the series).  I didn’t like this book as much as the earlier one because while yes, I learned about Sally Ride and how women in space are often over looked, I felt like the culprit was let off the hook with little reprimand for stealing Sally Ride’s space suit.  Once again the four kids come together to solve a mystery this time it involves two of the museums: Air and Space and American History Museum.  There is a bit more blatant lying in this book, which is normal in this genre as the kids have to snoop around and not get caught, but they seem a little less apologetic this time around.  The red herrings aren’t as believable, and the real culprit is only spotted by chance, no real sleuthing.  

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WHY I LIKE IT:

Obviously I like that a Muslim girl is included in this very diverse foursome.  She wears hijab, has a muslim name, tucks her phone in her hijab to go hands free, and is of Somali heritage.  Her father is educated and not over bearing or stereotypical, and her background is just detail.  Her group of friends seem to appreciate each other’s cultures and talents as well as their passions and hobbies.  The kids vary in age from 10 to 13 with two girls and two boys.  The only lack of diversity is perhaps that they seem to all be middle class and fully able bodied.  Faith, family structure, culture, all run the gambut.  

There is no religious reference at all.  The book mentions her scarf only as a hands free life saver, and we learn her favorite hijab is blue with little stars on it.

I like that all the books are full color about 120 pages.  There is factual information at the begining and at the end.  There is also a summary on each kid at the begining.  The story concludes with a glossary,  writing prompts, discussion questions, and information about the author and illustrator.

I love the covers.

 

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FLAGS:

There is lying, but the rest is clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection because there isn’t really much to discuss.  I would definitely have this series in the classroom or recommend it to other early chapter book readers.  Like Brezenoff’s other series the book is satisfying in its simplicity and a good book to build interest in a variety of things while feeling accomplished at reading a book.

 

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The Silly Chicken by Idries Shah illustrated by Jeff Jackson

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This story reads wonderfully aloud as it is silly, repetitive, and the message is more clear than in some of Idries Shah’s other Sufi inspired teaching books.  Written on an AR 4.0 level with 32 pages.  Some pages are heavily text laden while others just sprinkle a few words across a beautifully illustrated page.  Like his other books, the illustrations are truly spot on.  The lively faces on the characters, and colorful scenes bring the story to life and keep the audience engaged and giggling.

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A man decides to learn how to speak “chicken,” when that doesn’t work, he teaches the chicken to speak our kind of language.  Fluent and conversational, the chicken then tells the villagers that, “The earth is going to swallow us up!”.  Everyone runs in all directions, up the mountain, down the mountain, across the meadow, around the world, but they can never get away from the earth.  When they return, they are upset with the chicken and ask how he knows that the earth is going to swallow them up, to which he replies that he doesn’t.  After they recap all the trouble he has put them through he poignantly laughs at them and asks, ” You think a chicken knows something just because he can talk?” Realizing how foolish they have been the chicken begins telling more outlandish things, just to make the people laugh, and isn’t taken seriously again.

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The message is clear, the characters funny, and the illustrations engaging. I finally found an Idries Shah book that I like! Yay, I guess for me they are hit or miss, and this one was definitely a hit!

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nine, ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

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nine, ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

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I still struggle with the fact that 9/11/2001 is taught as history, it seems so current and fresh in my mind, that I really struggle with how works of fiction (and non fiction too) try to tell me about the pulse and the mood and the impact of something that I lived through and recall so clearly.  I suppose this isn’t a unique predicament, but because of the magnitude, one that I still wrestle with.  The author of nine, ten glosses over the big picture and in a lot of ways, the events of 9/11, but instead tries to show the paradigm shift that occurred and the division drawn as life before and life after.  She attempts to do this on an AR 4.8 and in 197 pages.  No easy feat, but one that definitely has some hits, and for me at least,  a few misses too.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from four different perspectives that intersect at the opening and at the close, the reader meets the characters two days leading up to 9/11, spends some of September 11 with them, and then peeks in on them again a year later.  The characters all cross paths at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The first character is Will.  A middle school boy struggling to come to terms with how his father died helping someone on the side of the road.  Often more responsible and mature for his age as he helps his mom with his younger siblings, he lives in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and finds healing with helping those affected by the plane that goes down there.

Next we meet Aimee, who has just moved to California and is starting a new school.  Her daily drama is more missing her mom who travels a lot to New York for business, but is relatable as she tries to make new friends, fit in, and find her place in a new environment.  Her mom is in New York during the duration of the book, and has a meeting in one of the Twin Towers on the 11th.

Sergio lives in Brooklyn, New York and is a math wiz who gets a special award and recognition for his achievements.  He lives with his loving grandma, but it is the stressful encounter with his deadbeat father that sets him on a fateful subway trip that introduces him to Gideon, a New York fire fighter.

Naheed is the fourth character, and is an Iranian American Muslim girl, who is struggling to handle friends, and new questions about the hijab she wears.  Her friend drama consumes her, until 9/11 happens and she has to now prove her love of America at every turn.

The characters each take chapters divided by dates and while short, they do form a connection in their snapshots.  You feel like you get to know the characters and you do feel a tinge of stress knowing how they are all related geographical to what will transpire on the 11th. But in the afterward, the author explains why she intentionally keeps the carnage at bay to show how connected we all are, especially children, at the forefront of her fictionally retelling, and to show how much we all were affected that day.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that breaking up of the story, it adds some dimension to the book.  I know some reviews feel it is over done, but I think it is deliberate, and highlights how we all are inter connected and for late elementary, early middle school readers, I think the choppiness it allows, keeps the book on their level.  I like that each character has their own struggles, it isn’t that life was rosy and then 9/11 ruined everything, these kids have their own issues and stresses and realistic personalities before and after.  I also like that the Muslim character is not from the Middle East, it further shows how groups get lumped together for different reasons giving the book a bit more for readers to consider.

There are however, some real issues in how they present Naheed, which seems odd, since the book is so politically correct, and given the topic, you’d think the author and editors would work overtime to get the islamic parts correct.  But alas at one point Naheed’s visiting Uncle wants to know why Naheed doesn’t pray the mid day prayer, thuhr, at school, to which the mom replies, “she makes up her prayers at third prayer.” What? Yes I laughed out loud, no one calls the prayers by their numbers! I have never used numbers to describe our prayers, they have names, and we use their timings to describe them to others, not numbers. At one point, Naheed is making wudu, ablution, and the author gets it wrong. “And lastly, feet.  Right foot with right hand. Left foot with left.  Toes to ankles.” Left hand for both feet.  I also take some issue with Naheed having to wear hijab at age nine.  Hijab becomes required at puberty, so yes it could have been when it became required of her, but it seems a little young for her, and it seemed a bit forced.

In terms of plot, I would have liked a day or two after 9/11 to juxtapose the differences in priorities and the lens of how we got to a year later, or two years later, or 15.  Also, how they all went to New York on the anniversary to tie the story together made for a nice ending, but why they all went was a bit of a stretch, ok a big stretch.

FLAGS:

For a book about 9/11 there is relatively no violence.  The only death is in talking about Will’s father and the only blood is when Sergio helps a man on the subway.  There is some hate speech at the end, but even that is minimal.  Will does kiss a girl he likes. And both Will and Sergio skip school.  Aimee worries if her mom is having an affair (implied) and if her parents are getting divorced, but it isn’t explicit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a good book for a younger book club.  With its overt commitment to political correctness and breaking down stereotypes, it reinforces how similar we all are through strengthening bonds of humanity, rather than being divided by our skin color, or religion.  I think it would also lead so easily into faccilitating discussion of today’s kids putting themselves in the story.  What in their lives wouldn’t matter any more or what would matter more. There is a Reading Group Guide at the end of the book, along with an Author’s Note and Acknowledgement, that easily lend themselves to more discussion ideas.

Curriculum Guide: http://www.norabaskin.com/nine-ten-curriculum-guide/

 

Salam Alaikum: A Message of Peace by Harris J illustrated by Ward Jenkins

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Harris J’s song by the same name gets stuck in my head because it seems like “Salam Alaikum,” is the only words in the song, so when I heard that he had written a book based on the lyrics, I was a little skeptical. But, total credit to the illustrator, the book is adorable, and the lyrics aren’t too bad either.

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Thirty big pages, that radiate with light and happy faces and a big clear font that celebrates peace, love, and coming together.  The words “Salam Alaikum”  is a Muslim greeting, but there is nothing overtly religious. There is one muhajaba that appears on a few pages, but with the content matter, there is a lot of diversity in the book.  A variety of skin tones, ages, clothing, genders, sizes, all come together to hold hands and work for peace.

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The content isn’t ground breaking, but the number of words on the page are good for 3-6 year olds.  And it does introduce that the world is more fun when we all work together and are kind.  Kids will like the illustrations and return for them undoubtedly.  It is hard to know if the books these days are truly better, or are just done better.  But, while I checked this one out from the library, I think I just might want a copy of my own.

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The Magic Horse by Idries Shah illustrated by Julie Freeman

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I didn’t get it.  I read it to my kids they did’t get it. I know it is written on an AR 5.8, but even with that, we didn’t get it.  I had to google it to see what the deeper meaning of the story was and all I found is that it is a teaching tale of two princes and how one found his heart’s desire in a fish and the other in a horse.  Which, I did get, but didn’t really get more than that.  The details in the story seem to wander and meander around to no point and not in an entertaining way. I never felt a connection to the characters, so their side stories didn’t appeal to me.  It is possible that I would have viewed it more favorably as a short story rather than as a really long picture book, but its hard to say.  I guess I feel like if forced, I could write an essay explaining all the small lessons, and moral guidance, but as a children’s book, I don’t want to dig so deep or spend hours at bed time trying to convince my children that the story made sense.  Ideally the book should have been shorter and more streamlined, or longer and fleshed out.

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It starts out with an enlightened king encouraging his subjects to make new discoveries to promote quality of life, wealth and knowledge. He has two sons, one is an expert in strange devises and one is a dreamer.  The king puts out a call to have something new made, and an ironsmith makes a fish out of metal than can fly and swim and carry things.  A woodworker makes a magic horse that interprets the desire of the rider and carries the rider toward it.  The king suddenly becomes cruel and finding this a waste of time has the woodworker tied up.

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The dreaming Prince Tambal rides the horse on many adventures, which kind of disjoints the story and makes it like a fairy tale about Tambal falling in love and trying to persuade a king to let him marry his daughter, and in turn having to trick the intended suitor instead. Along the way there are poisonous fruits, turning into a beast, and eventually returning home to prove that, “Those who want fish can achieve much through fish, and those who do not know their heart’s desire may first have to hear the story of the wooden horse.” Huh? Exactly.

The Boy Without A Name by Idries Shah illustrated by Mona Caron

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The Boy Without A Name by Idries Shah illustrated by Mona Caron

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It is hard to know what a child would get out of this 32 page 3.2 AR level, but even if they just get lost in the pictures, and swept away by the idea of a boy searching for his name and a dream, I suppose there is value.  Some, ok most of Idries Shah’s, Sufi teaching stories are beyond my comprehension, but they are lyrical and often silly just the same. He has written over 30 and the libraries have quite a few, and people online seem to love so many of them, so perhaps I’m just not clever enough or philosophical enough to grasp them.  Which is neither here nor there, but maybe don’t buy one until you read one and see what you get out of them.  I keep checking them out and hoping I too will fall in love with one, I’ll keep you posted.

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Before they can name their son an old man comes and tells the parents to not name him and to wait.  The boy grows up searching for a name, hoping someone has one he can have.  At one point he is made aware that he has nothing, even to trade for a name.  He responds that he has an old dream he no longer wants.  He and his friend Anwar then go to the wise man and he receives his name and a new dream.

The synopsis claims that patience and determination is learned, but I couldn’t get over the fact that the parents just didn’t name their child, and I never felt like I learned why he was such an important boy.

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The pictures are wonderful with the scenic village’s tall minarets and colorful hijab clad women in the market place.  I particularly like the magic spilling out of the boxes in the old man’s house when the boys are finding names and dreams.  There is nothing overtly Islamic in the text, I’m not aware of how strong the Sufi origin is, not being Sufi, or having studied it.  But the illustrations definitely place the book in an Islamic cultural environment and the names reinforce this.

 

I Will Not Clean My Room by Saharish Arshad illustrated by Elsa Estrada

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I Will Not Clean My Room by Saharish Arshad illustrated by Elsa Estrada

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What a great premise for a children’s book, a little boy, Musa,  does not want to clean his room, and imagines all the better things he will get to do in Jannah (heaven) instead. Luckily for his room, his sister comes to help him tidy it up, as well as his mom and dad.  FullSizeRender (25)

The rhyme scheme and the kids’ imaginations at how wonderful Jannah will be, go hand in hand and make the book silly and fun.  The cartoonish illustrations also help sneak in messages of listening to your parents, cleaning your room, being kind to your siblings, helping each other, and ultimately doing things even if they are hard or boring to please Allah swt.  

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The book is a 28 page, 8×8, paperback.  The price is a little steep, $12, for its structure, in my opinion and is meant for Muslim readers.  The only real issue I had is when the mom threatens to flounce Musa. “Stop jumping and bouncing, or you’ll get a flouncing,”  seems excessive to me, and not consistent with how loving the family is throughout the rest of the book. It was probably included to maintain the rhyme scheme, but I took it to be a threat of violence, which I’m not ok with.

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The pictures show the mom in hijab, the word Jannah instead of heaven is used, the characters’ names are Islamic and Allah is mentioned throughout.  Musa’s thoughts on the last page are particularly sweet (see picture below).  I plan to read this to a group of kids at story time and will just omit the flouncing line, as it does well in appealing to ages 4 and up.  Three year olds may not understand it, but because of the rhyming, I think they will be equally entertained.

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