Category Archives: Elementary Fiction

Layla’s Head Scarf by Miriam Cohen illustrated by Ronald Himler

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Layla’s Head Scarf by Miriam Cohen illustrated by Ronald Himler

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It isn’t often that I feel compelled to list all the things I like about a book and all the things I don’t like about a book and count them up to see what I think about a book.  Especially when the book is only 32 pages and an AR 3.2, but this book has me on the fence.

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It is Layla’s first day of school and presumably she is shy.  That’s what the other kids say at least.  The story follows her and the class throughout a typical first grade day, there is no climax or problem, there is just her and her classmates moving from circle time, to the library, to lunch, to recess, to art, and then her joining in at circle time the next day.  

Along the way the kids comment on her scarf, the librarian brings her a book about her country with pictures of sun and sand and veiled women.  The lunch lady looks at her rice and pea pie and says it looks yummy, the kids tell her to take off her hat to play easier, other characters stick up for her and try to correct other classmates that it isn’t a hat, it is a scarf. 

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During art time, she paints her family and the women all wear hijabs, a few kids say they look funny, a few others stick up for her, she ends up crying, but the kids come together to make her feel better and to articulate that in America people can wear what they want.  Some kids talk about family members wearing yarmulkas and others about braiding their hair, but there is no reason given for why Layla wears a hijab.

I don’t think any of the kids are intentionally mean or malicious, they are curious and not given any answers by Layla or any of the adults.  As a result when the book is over, the reader similarly has no answers.  Despite that though, I think readers will get the power of kindness and with some (a lot of) discussion, understand how we can help people feel comfortable and celebrate differences.

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Here is my pro and con list about the book:

PROS:

Book about hijab is included in a mainstream series meant for 1st graders (We Love First Grade!) 

Kindness comes through.

Kids stick up for each other.

Librarian found a book about Layla’s country and read it to the kids.

Kids include Layla while playing.

Illustrations are soft and realistic.

Diversity in the classroom.

CONS:

The book is about hijab, but nothing is learned about hijab.

Lots of stereotypes: girl doesn’t speak englishF from the desert, different food. 

Focus is on differences not similarities.

1st graders aren’t required to wear hijab.

Islam isn’t mentioned, but the Jewish kid mentions his faith.

Don’t learn what her lunch is called or what country she is from.

If she doesn’t speak English how did she label everyone in her picture?

Clearly she understands English, she is just shy, so why does she mess up the song at the end?

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Luckily the book was in the public library, so I don’t feel like I bought something that I am unhappy with.  I don’t know that I would recommend it to anyone, but it is always nice to see a muhajaba in a story, and there isn’t anything “wrong” with the book, it just lacks a lot of detail unfortunately.

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Miss Never Pleased by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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Miss Never Pleased by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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I’ve been accused of being brutal in my reviews.  And while I don’t enjoy being mean, I do take some pride in the attribute, as I am paying for these books myself (unless I get them at the library) and it takes time out of my day to write these reviews.  I don’t get paid, I do it because I love books, I like supporting Muslim authors and those including Muslim characters in their stories.  I take recommending books to others serious, and can’t remember things if I don’t write them down, so here I am.  With this review I don’t want to be rude, or overly critical nor do I want to sound pompous and arrogant and privileged, but at the same time, I ordered the book off of Amazon for $7.99 so a fair review shouldn’t hold punches to spare what the author is trying to do and appreciating that she is writing for a cultural audience. 

Please believe me it isn’t personal, I am reviewing it based on my same criteria I review all the books through, my own personal bias.  That being said, if the reader is living in Pakistan, or has recently lived in Pakistan and English is a second or fifth language the 70 page story with games and activities at the end is decent.  Meant for ages 7-12 in that situation, that are intrigued by the moral lesson presented, I think the plot holes can be forgiven.  For those without ties to Pakistan, or with loose ties like me (I’m half Pakistani and grew up spending my summers visiting family) the book will be choppy, culturally specific, confusing and lacking.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Habiba being distraught over her world crashing down on her and the pain she has caused her relatives consuming her.  She then opens her diary that she has kept for six years, starting back when she was seven recounting how she as Miss Perfect justified her self in incident after incident.  Thirty-one incidents to be exact, detailing how she would rat out her cousins, or critique elders food, or her tell her friends how to dress and what to study because it was the honest thing to do.   How she would decide who should be friends with who, if her family should go on picnics and how she didn’t want gifts but didn’t want to not get gifts either.  All-in-all Habiba is a self righteous awful, awful girl, I don’t think it is her trying to be perfect, I think she is just awful.  At the beginning she attributes it to praise she received as a child from her mom and grandma, but for this behavior to have gone on for so many years, I don’t think it was their praise, it was their lack of discipline that leads up to her catastrophic moment.  She fails her exams and then learns what her family really thinks about her in a poem, with a way too forced rhyme scheme, left lying around.  The story then returns to her undoing and a faqeer coming to cure her and her parents taking the blame for her poor upbringing.  She crosses out the title on her journal from Miss Perfect to Miss Never Pleased, to presumably denote how nothing could satisfy her.  The story then skips forward to her returning after University as the best international psychologist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the concept of the book, that a girl thinking she was so perfect could realize in fact she is not.  The idea is great.  I think it is a bit sad that her parents and involved extended family took so little interest in correcting her behavior, but at the same time I didn’t think it believable that she was absolved of all responsibility either. 

I feel like this book was a great first draft.  It needs some fleshing out, and some continuity corrections.  Incident #3 makes no sense, it starts with a party, then her ruining the mood of everyone at the party, and then her crushing her cousin’s dream of being in a play for her own twisted reasons.  But the jump from one idea to another seems like something got edited out and the rest of the four-and-a-half-page story didn’t get altered to reflect the missing details.  I have no idea what the party was for, what a wish gift is, and why anyone in their right mind would take a child’s opinion regarding someone else’s life so strongly. 

There are also contradictions, for example on page 14 she makes a big huff about her cousin wanting to study to be a teacher saying she wouldn’t be good at it, then on page 49 saying she would be marvelous, and this is before her climactic change of heart.  There are some awkward passages as well, that I had to read a few times, which could have been do to a different style of English, but sometimes I think it was confusing on its own.  Page 24 was all over the place with her not wanting to thank people for giving her a gift because she deserved the gift, but then telling them she appreciated it, along with her saying the gift, a dress, appealed to her, but that they should not have gotten it because it was an inferior quality.  Inferior to what we don’t know. So she didn’t say thank you, but said she appreciated it, isn’t that the same thing?  She didn’t like the dress, but it had appealed to her? Very confusing and just one example.

I say it is for Pakistani’s because I don’t know that anyone outside the subcontinent would know what a faqeer is, yes there is a glossary at the back, but it seems assumed in the story as a religious practice, which I find some issue with.  When Habiba was trying to dress everyone she says that a fishtail would look nice on her cousins and she gets a blue one.  I have no idea what a fishtail is.  It is not really explained, an illustration would have been helpful, but is not provided. She also once refers to her cousin as “dark” in a negative connotation, and that seemed very out of place and inappropriate to me.  And ultimately, if you don’t know the Pakistani school system I’m not sure you would understand how important the exam she failed is, nor why the scores are in the newspaper,  or that they have to pick their fields of study so early.  That being said, how did she get to University and do so well? If at 13 they had to choose their college and she didn’t pass wouldn’t she not be allowed to continue? I am so confused. And then she comes back after University, but is already being written about in the papers as if she has had a long and successful career.

The book doesn’t tell how she makes things right with all those she wronged either, after so many incidents, I think a little self reflection and humbling should have occurred to those that felt her wrath for so many years.  There isn’t really even a solution, her dad comes and talks to her, she reads what people think about her and then boom, happily ever after.

The illustrations are sporadic, but not consistent in the book.  The style seems to be different in each sketch.

 

FLAGS:

The girl lies and is incredibly mean but there isn’t anything inappropriate in terms of language or violence.  Islam is mentioned at the end when she thanks Allah swt for His help.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club because it is so short, and I don’t know that kids would be compelled to read past the first few pages if it was in a classroom library.  

Book Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWoCiEnvg5U

If this book would have been written 20 years ago or so, I think readers everywhere would have given it a try as there was so little to choose from in Islamic Fiction, but there are options now, and much better ones.  I feel awful that I didn’t love the book, but I can’t suggest it either.  I plan to read one more book of the author’s to see if this one just didn’t work for me, and I’ll let you know what I think.

The Blessede Bananas: A Muslim Fable by Tayyaba Syed illustrated by Melani Putri

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The Blessede Bananas: A Muslim Fable by Tayyaba Syed illustrated by Melani Putri

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 A fable with lessons of kindness centered around the Salawat, definitely is a great premise and for the most part I really enjoyed the book. 

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The 8.5 by 8.5 hardcover, 50 page book feels great in your hands and the illustrations are sweet and expressive.  The book is long, and is text heavy so I’d say the target audience is maybe 6 to 10 years old.   The font is incredibly small and irritating.   It should have been larger and more inviting to children in my opinion.  It doesn’t match the size, binding, and illustrations, and actually becomes a distraction if trying to read it in a group setting.  

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The story itself is smooth and intentional.  Rico, a blessed, yet ungrateful monkey, lives atop an ever abundant banana tree.  However, he attributes his blessings to his own hands and does not thank Allah swt.  He is mean and greedy toward people and animals alike.  Yet, something is missing in his life and he doesn’t know what. 

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When a little mouse, Chico, comes to him to ask for a banana and gets scolded at instead.  Chico makes dua for Rico asking Allah to guide the monkey to goodness.

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Tucana, a toucan, then stops in Rico’s banana tree after a long flight to be rebuffed by a foul tempered monkey who wants to be left alone.  When Tucana  leaves she forgives Rico for his rudeness and asks Allah to be merciful to him as well.

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Rico then makes signs to keep people and animals away.  Which works for a while, but along comes Simon, an elephant, one afternoon to ask the monkey to climb his tree and help direct him back to his herd.  Rico of course refuses, and Simon reminds him that they are brothers in Islam and to please help. He begins shouting at the elephant to leave, and as Simon is pacing back and forth, he slips on the banana peels, grabs the tree to support himself and shakes the tree back and forth in the process.

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Rico begins hollering for help and sure enough the animals he had turned away previously, return to help him.  They had forgiven him as they hope Allah will forgive us all.  To calm the monkey, chico shouts, “Salawaat’alan Nabi!” in Simon’s ear and when he recites “Allahuma sali’ala Sayyidina Muhammad,” peace and calmness is restored.

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With all the bananas on the floor, many mushy and trampled, Rico has to decide if he learned a lesson, and how he will put his new knowledge into action, or if he will resume his life of ungratefulness.

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The book ends with each animals favorite banana recipe, information about the author and illustrator and benefits of reciting Salawat and an ayat from the Quran.

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The story and how it weaves Islam into the lessons is beautifully done, my only hiccup is the constant refrain of Rico counting his bananas.  I realize it is a fable, and maybe with talking animals interacting with humans, reality is notably suspended.  But, it seems misplaced to me.  How do you constantly count a perishable item? Does Rico only eat a certain amount a day? How many new ones grow a day? What is the number that he is adamant to have at all times? So, many questions, that I didn’t get why he was counting them, why he was irritated when he lost count, and why this detail was in the story and a big part of the story none-the-less.  Like the font, its a minor detail, but a distracting one for me unfortunately.  Clearly, however, I’m in the minority as the book has won the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and the Islamic Writer’s Alliance Creative Story, so give it a read, and let me know your thoughts, jazakhAllah kher.

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The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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A perfect introduction to the refugee crisis for upper elementary aged kids.  The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed 9 and 3/4 year old narrator about her friends and how the filling of an empty chair in the back of the room changed their lives.  Ages 7 through 12 will enjoy the plotting and planning of the friends, the awesome climax and the gentle opening of their eyes to the atrocities and bigotry around them.  At 297 pages, with a few pictures and some engaging notes and tidbits at the end, the book is both big, yet completely non intimidating at the same time.  

SYNOPSIS:

Right near the end we learn that the narrator’s name is Alexa, and not too much before that, I learned that she is a girl.  I kind of like that vagueness of it, especially as we also learn that she is half Indonesian and half Austrian.  You realize that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t change anything, and that we all bring our own assumptions to the story and learn a bit about our selves as the narrator’s identity is revealed.  But really, thats a tiny bit of the book, the book is really about a group of diverse friends battling bullies, bully teachers, and trying to help the new kid in their class Ahmet.

Ahmet is a refugee from Syria, but the information isn’t easy to establish, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he disappears at lunch and recess, so Alexa, Josie, Tom, and Michael, first have to figure out who he is, and how they can be his friends.  Along the way we learn the Tom is from America, the book takes place in England.  Josie is the best football player and her parents are nervous to have her interacting with Ahmet, Michael is incredibly wealthy and his parents are Nigerian and French, and Alexa lives with her mom a librarian who works really long hours, her dad passed away and money is incredibly tight.

Once friendships are established, Alexa learns that Ahmet’s mom and dad are missing and that his sister and cat died while fleeing Syria.  When she learns that the government is planning to close the borders to immigrants and refugees, the group of kids come up with plans to keep the gates open until Ahmet’s parents can be found and they can come to the United Kingdom.  The kids come up with a variety of plans, but “The Greatest Idea in the World,” is the one they decide to go with.  It involves a lot of danger, but the general gist is to get a message to the Queen of England, who will keep the gates open, find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.  

Naturally, there are a lot of moving parts to the plan, and a lot of naivety on the part of the 9 year olds, but they do get the Queen’s attention, and they do have a wonderful support system of parents and teachers and while their are bullies around every corner, they do come together to make the world a bit better for Ahmet and for us all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is realistic, with the plotting, and understanding of war, alike.  The war and Ahmet’s journey is very very simplified, but the tone, introduces kids to the intensity without overwhelming them.  Just like the plot to get the Queen’s attention is not celebrated, but appreciated.  What the kids did was wrong and dangerous and they lied, and the kids don’t ever know after if they are in trouble or being praised.  I like that the integrity of both situations is upheld and the book doesn’t get too far fetched.  Similarly, the book is fun and adventurous, and in many ways Ahmet is just a catalyst for the kids to come together to solve a problem and save the day. 

There aren’t a lot of details about his life in Syria, because he doesn’t speak English, there isn’t anything about Islam, except he draws his mom with a scarf on her head.  But there is a lot of learning to accept each other, and stick up for whats right and to not give up on people.  I love the diversity of the friends and how they don’t expect each other to change, they accept each other and move along.  

There is a slight typo on page 3, “…could be half as useful as a Tintin’s dog, Snowy,” that had me afraid that this book was going to be unrefined, but alhumdulillah I was wrong.  The book reads easily and wonderfully, and my children loved it as much as I did.  The author is a first time writer, and I hope she has a bunch more stories in her, because I look forward to reading them.  

FLAGS:

The book is clean and reads believably from a 9 year old’s perspective.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would do this in an elementary book club in a heartbeat. I’ve suggested it to many and I hope to read it aloud to my 4th and 5th grade lunch bunch crew. It is well written, timely, and memorable.

Teacher’s Notes: https://www.hachetteschools.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Boy-at-the-Back-of-the-Class-Teachers-Notes.pdf

A bit about the author: http://beingthestory.org.uk/speakers/onjali-q-rauf

 

 

Raihanna’s Jennah by Qamaer Hassan illustrated by Yasushi Matsuoka

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Raihanna’s Jennah by Qamaer Hassan illustrated by Yasushi Matsuoka

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Raihanna is back and learning about Jennah with her two best friends, Safiya and her cousin Maryam.  In this beautiful 8×10 book, the character who last fasted her first Ramadan fast is now having a sleep over and learning just how wondrous and worth the wait heaven will be.

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The story starts with the three girls parallel playing as a veterinarian, firefighter and world class chef.  When hunger strikes and the cookie jar only has one cookie, Raihanna has to decide to eat it or divide it into thirds.  

With mom looking on as Raihanna decides to share, a teachable moment about jennah presents itself.  The mom, in her consistent purple uniform, tells Raihanna she will be rewarded in jennah for her good deed.  Which leads Raihanna to ask why she can’t be rewarded now.  The explanation is a bit text heavy, but using ice cream to explain a reward in this world, and having whatever you want in the next, sets up the format and story line for the rest of the book.

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The girls start off asking for pretty simple things like kittens and bikes.  But mom encourages them to think of something beyond their imagination.  The girls come up with castles and world’s made of candy, and flying like birds, and golden kitchens. 

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The mom responds virtually the same after each girl expresses what she would want.  She says, “…beyond your wildest dreams,”  then, “…beyond your imagination,” then “beyond belief,” then “beyond description,” then back to, “…beyond your imagination.”   It gets a bit repetitive, but not necessarily in a good way because it doesn’t function as a refrain that the little ones will pick up on.  It just gets annoying I think for the reader if the book is requested too often.  I wish she would have maybe picked one, giving the book a comforting pattern, and something that the young ones could remember and benefit more from.  The book is for preschool to early elementary kids, but because of the amount of text on the page, it will be read to that age group, not read independently.

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As with the first book, I love the warm colorful cartoonish illustrations, they both attract and engage children as young as two or three.  The hard back binding and glossy pages also make it sturdy and a wonderful gift.  This is a book for Muslim children that I think little girls especially will enjoy. I sincerely hope there will be more books in the Raihanna series.

A Race to Prayer: Sulaiman’s Rewarding Day by Aliya Vaughan

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A Race to Prayer: Sulaiman’s Rewarding Day by Aliya Vaughan

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This 56 page (only 38 pages of story) early chapter book is a simple book with a lesson.  For kindergarten to 2nd grade readers the book could be a short story, but the added minuscule details (how he got in the car, slid over, and buckled up) and the illustrations, flesh the book out in to seven chapters with a note for parents/educators at the beginning, and sections of: evidence from the Quran and Sunnah, comprehension questions, inspiration behind the story, glossary and information on the author at the end.  The book isn’t bad, just kind of dry and bare bones.  Satisfactory for young readers that enjoy quad races, and ideal for those that whine whenever it is salat time.

SYNOPSIS:

Sulaiman loves watching quad races and playing football (soccer, the book is British), but feels like, “Every time I want to do something exciting, it either rains or it is time to pray.” one afternoon when he is feeling particularly grumpy, his dad offers to take him to watch the quad races at a nearby stadium.  Grandpa joins them and grandma sends them off with lunches and duas.  First the car won’t start, then they take a bus and wait in line.  Once they are inside the day looks up, the races are fun and then it is Thuhr time.  Sulaiman wants to wait until a break, but it is winter and the days are short meaning Asr will be approaching fast.  They go find a place to pray and when they return their seating section is closed.  Part of the roof fell in due to the rain.  Feeling fortunate that they had left to pray, Sulaiman sees the value of praying on time in this duniya.  They later are given better seats and Sulaiman feels blessed that they had gone to pray.

The story was inspired by a real event, according to the “Inspiration Behind the Story” at the end, where the author says that her husband was at a football match in Algeria when an earthquake struck.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the character is relate-able to most of our young Muslim children.  He is a good kid, but has a hard time stopping what he is doing to pray.  He has to be reminded to make wudu and brush his teeth.  I like that grandpa gets to come along, but I wish he would get to tell some of his stories, rather than just have Sulaiman shush him and be annoyed.  Similarly, I like that the dad is a “fixer” but some character development would have been really great.  I understand the reading age isn’t tempted by back story, but a little investment in the characters would make the climax that much more intense.  I was surprised by the roof falling in, but it snuck up so quick and was resolved equally fast, that I didn’t really feel it.

Also, I am not entirely sure what quad racing is. I mean I get that they are 4 wheelers racing on a stadium track.  But, I didn’t realize it was such a thing to be watching it on tv and then heading to watch it live nearby.  I’m glad I learned that kids dig it in Britain, but I’m thinking that it might be a little foreign .  A soccer match or another race, might have made the story a bit more appealing.

The book is for Muslims by a Muslim despite the glossary at the back. The pictures aren’t great, but they make the page breaks appeal to the younger kids.  The font, binding, and presentation makes for a nice looking and feeling book.

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FLAGS:

None, alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be really great in small groups.  I can see it being used in Sunday schools or in Islamic schools, where Language Arts teachers and Islamic Studies teachers crossover to drive the importance of salat home.  I think this would easily inspire this age group to then write their own copy-cat stories of why salat is important.  The questions at the end could even make it like an extra credit novel study or a read aloud story with the questions used to verify comprehension.

Burcu: No One Wants to Play with Me! by Nursen Sirin illustrated by Nese Inan

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Burcu: No One Wants to Play with Me! by Nursen Sirin illustrated by Nese Inan

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This 32 page, 9×12 story book, for ages five and up, focuses on character education and is meant to be a relatable story with clear lessons about how to behave and deal with situations in life.  The opening page bullets all the lessons readers should learn from the story and the end of the book offers directions to make a balloon craft.  

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I don’t mind books with lessons and morals so clearly delineated, and I like that the morals come from such an adorable character with a whole cast of supporters, and a number of books to her series.  

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My problem is more the story itself, for a lesson on how to make new friends, and dealing with the universal struggle of moving and feeling like ‘no one wants to play with me.”  The book spends nearly seven pages on Burcu making a surprise breakfast for her family before hearing the news that she is moving because the landlord says they should.

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They pack and move seemingly the same day, and then the point of the book gets going.  Burcu has to say goodbye to her friends and doesn’t feel like even going out at the new house to make new ones.

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Her brother, Alper, has no problem making new friends, and finally Burcu gives it a try.  Only a little girl attempts to get to know her and Burcu dismisses her because she is so young.  She tries to be included with the other children, but they don’t know her and aren’t willing to let her play.

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Burcu finally confides in her dad, that she can’t get anyone except the little girl to play with her.  Her dad encourages her to give the little girl a chance.  Burcu does and finds out they are the same age, she just looks really young, and then all the kids are friends and happy.

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The real hero to me is the little girl, Katherine, who didn’t give up on an ageist Burcu that didn’t want to play with her.  Seems odd that Burcu wanted a friend, and then was arrogant to complain about the one she got.  Plus, I would imagine kids who have moved and don’t have friends, would turn to a book like this for tips and hints, and ways to feel less alone.  The book offers none of that.  It doesn’t tell how finally Burcu makes friends, or gets included, other than it took time.  Which is great, but not exactly helpful if you are five and crying everyday because no one will play with you.

The writing is very dry.  I think it has been translated from Turkish, many of the sentences are passive voice, and the sentences choppy.  The book doesn’t have any glaring errors, it just seems like it would work as a story time, or as part of a lesson, and  maybe once as a bedtime story, but not a book that kids will clamor to hear over and over again.

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There is nothing Islamic in the story, but most of the major online Islamic bookshops carry the Burcu series, so I would imagine the authors, and publishers are Muslim.

Overall, the book sets off to teach a great lesson, but falls a bit short.  The illustrations are adorable and the large size and playful font are very well done, the diction, not so much.  The books are reasonably priced and if you see a title that works for a lesson, or theme you are discussing, I think you can make the books work.  If you are looking for a book to read over and over to your kids, you might, however, be disappointed.