Category Archives: Elementary Fiction

Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Having Really liked Zaid and the Gigantic Cloud, I convinced myself to spend $15 on a 20 page book by the same author.  I knew it was paperback and 8×8, but I loved the message in Zaid, and the summaries of Nightly News with Safa online all talked about how a little girl creates her own newscast with a positive spin to tell her mom about her day. A lot of positives for me: a creative girl, problem solving, imagination, and journalism.   So I ordered it, and when it came, I thumbed through it, and counted only 10 pages of story, yes that is right, 10 pages.  The rest of the pages tell about the author, the illustrator or are colorful, but blank, before and after the story.

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Price and length aside, the book is really cute and clever.  The target audience is probably first grade to third grade, and the pictures are colorful, detailed and very well done. A girl, Safa, doesn’t like when her mom watches the news as it is sad, serious, and angry, so she builds a tv, puts herself inside and tells her mom about the happy highlights of her day at school in a news format.  Very creative, but that is it, there isn’t a message or really a point, or any story about Safa and her mom.

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With guidance and oversight, however, the book is a great starting point for how kids can be problem solvers, and is a great springboard for encouraging creativity and thinking outside the box to get your way.  The publishing company even has a free “Book Study Package” on their website http://www.myeverydayclassroom.com/2016/02/book-study-freebie-nightly-news-safa/  The package is 13 pages, it is longer than the book.  Which is funny to me, but not surprising, as there is a lot to discuss after reading the book.  My 10 year old enjoyed it and tried to convince my 6 year old who didn’t get any of it, all the lessons it alludes to.  It would work great in a classroom setting where you read the book, divide the class up and have them make their own newscast to talk about their day, or as a social studies or literature activity.

There is no mention of Islam in the book, the characters are not visibly muslim, there are no Islamic words, or references.  The character’s name is Safa, which may or may not signify faith.

Alana’s Bananas by Mariam Hussein illustrated by Saima Riaz

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Alana’s Bananas by Mariam Hussein illustrated by Saima Riaz

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A silly, silly book about a girl’s love of bananas and her despair when a storm wipes out the banana crops in Costa Rica.  The moral of the story is to try new foods, and in 36 pages I think the reader will grasp just how over the top Alana’s obsession with bananas truly is and the lesson will be learned.

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My only stumbling block is I’m not sure what age the book is for.  The bright silly pictures work well for ages 3 and up.  The theme works well for ages 4 and up.  The amount of text on the page, however, is more 6 or 7 and up, and the concepts of where banana’s come from, multiple uses for banana peels is about the same.  The character in the book, Alana, is eight and goes to the library and reads cook books and cooks independently, but the way her parents trick her into eating other foods is to hide eggs, peanut butter, rice, avocados and anything else they could find in banana peels, which keeps with the silliness of it all, but seems a bit off for 8 years old. Also talk about very patient parents allowing their 8 year old to only eat bananas for so long, and then not being upset when they have to resort to extreme levels of trickery.

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There is nothing islamic in the text, and the only islamic elements are the author, illustrator, and the family based on the illustrations.  The mom wears hijab, but it is neither mentioned or referenced and no islamic vocabulary or phrases are in the story. In a scene at school, the girl sitting next to Alana is wearing hijab.

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The book is about 10×10 and sturdy in its construction.  The back cover has a recipe for Alana’s Banana Breakfast Muffins. Enjoy!

My Special Angels: The Two Noble Scribes by Razana Noor illustrated by Omar Burgess

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My Special Angels: The Two Noble Scribes by Razana Noor illustrated by Omar Burgess

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The book starts with a brief introduction to Kiraman Katibin, the two recording angels, and reminds parents that before the age of maturity only the good deeds are recorded. That being established the book then works to develop the conscientiousness of having all of our actions recorded, so that we train ourselves from a young age to be mindful of what we do and say.

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Following a precious little boy with fantastic hair, and a bit of a mischievous smile, the reader learns how we each have an angel on our right and left side.  We learn how sharing makes the angel on the right happy, as does stopping ourselves from getting mad.  We learn that its the little things and the big things, the stuff we do in public and the stuff that we think no one sees that get written down.  The angel on the left notes down all the mistakes too, and these make the angel sad.  But alhumdulillah apologies and forgiveness can rub away good deeds, guiding us on the path to jannah, inshaAllah.

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The beautiful full color pictures are beyond adorable, and the rhyming couplets work perfect for preschoolers.  The font, the playfulness of the text on each of the 24 pages, the hardbound book and the 10 x 10 size make this book absolutely perfect for books shelves and for story time.  There is a glossary at the back that defines not just the Arabic words, but also some of the english vocabulary words that might need some explaining:  glee, deeds, angels.  My only complaint is that there isn’t a whole series of books by this author and illustrator coaching and guiding our little muslims in manners and basic belief.

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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Faatimah & Ahmed: We’re Little Muslims by Razeena Gutta illustrated by Abira Das

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Faatimah & Ahmed: We’re Little Muslims by Razeena Gutta illustrated by Abira Das

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I found this book at the library and immediately loved that it talked about who we are as Muslims on a preschool level.  It is one of the few books that I have found on this age level or any age level that discusses Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and it seems like there should be more, a lot more,books that do.  That being said, while the content is valuable, the story and presentation is a little jumbled to me.

The book starts out with Faatimah introducing herself and her brother Ahmed as little Muslims, which is adorable.

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The bright playful pictures, the font, the number of words on the page all seem perfect for a four year old like Faatimah, but then you turn the page.

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Woah! That’s a lot of text, and its all very stream of thought for a 4 year old.  Which after multiple reading I still can’t decide if I like or find annoying.  This story style returns later as she goes off for four pages about camels.  Here though it details what she likes, what she loves, that her brother is six, that he likes spaghetti, that spaghetti is messy. You get the point it is a lot of information for no real reason.  I see that the book is one of a series, so I’m hoping maybe if you read them all, these numerous little facts might connect you to Faatimah, but in a stand alone book it comes across as filler and an over bearing attempt to add character to a factual based story.

Flip the page again and the text slightly reduces as the stage is set to actually start the purpose of the book.  Ahmed comes home and is about to tell her about what he learned at school, mainly the story of Rasulullah.

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Sitting on the rug, Ahmed tells Faatimah who Aaminah and Abdullah and Abdul Muttalib are.  Faatimah can’t say Abdul Muttalib, which is cute and believable, but then she turns from being the day dreamy child, back to being the narrator and asks the reader, “can you say it?”

Ahmed tells where Arabia is and that he was born on a Monday in Rabiul-Awwal in the year 570. The kids simultaneously review Islamic months and days of the week in the illustrations.  They then finish with talking about the specialness of the name Muhammad itself, and how kind, truthful, and helpful he was.  Both kids decide they want to be like Muhammad (peace be upon him), alhumdulillah.

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Once the actual “story” starts, the amount of text on the page evens out and is appropriate.  I think the awkwardness of Faatimah rambling is a bit excessive, but the concept would work in moderation.  I want to read the other books in the series, and I want to test the book out to some three and four-year olds and come back and update this post, inshaAllah.

The book is 34 pages, hardbound 8.5 by 8.5.  There is a glossary in the back and works well for teaching Muslim and non-Muslim kids about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and getting a glimpse of what Islam is, in a non preachy positive way.

Hassan and Aneesa Love Ramadan by Yasmeen Rahim illustrated Omar Burgess

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Hassan and Aneesa Love Ramadan by Yasmeen Rahim illustrated Omar Burgess

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Another factual Ramadan book, with a fictional storyline that utilizes the banter between children and their parents to teach the reader about the blessed month.  Not a unique or original storyline, but somehow it still manages to be cute.  The book has very little doctrine discussed, and more hands on action of charity, visiting other families for iftar, and taking treats to non muslim neighbors as the focus of the book.

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Hassan and Aneesa are young, and the book is similarly written for young kids.  The back of the book says 2 and up, and the short declarative sentences definitely work for younger children.  The pictures are warm as the characters are smily and detailed, but not overwhelmingly so.  At home the mom does not cover, but does when she is out, as does the little girl.  The family is depicted as warm and affectionate to one another and I love that they visit a non-muslim-sounding-named neighbor and are rewarded with a non “ethnic” treat of chocolate cake.  I also like that the kids are encouraged to fast for parts of the day, even if it is the second half of the day.  The book appeals to today’s children who may at times chose “ethnic” food and clothes and sometimes not.  The book is small in size at 6.5 by 7.5 inches and is 24 pages with a glossary in the back.  It is for pre-school kids and while it might work for non-muslims, I think for the age group, if a child didn’t know a Muslim at least, the book would be a bit hard to grasp.

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Hassan and Aneesa are excited as mom and dad tell them Ramadan starts tomorrow, but a confused Aneesa sneaks downstairs and suhoor time wondering why her parents are eating breakfast in the middle of the night.  The next day they read Quran and gather up toys to take to the thrift store.  While there Aneesa donates some money too.  As they leave they are invited to an Aunt’s house for iftar.  After iftar they have to rush to Tarawih at the masjid.  That night Aneesa and her mom discuss why Muslim’s fast in an age appropriate manner, and the two kids decide they want to try, even though they don’t have to yet.

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The next day the fasting kids cook enough dinner to share with their neighbor Mrs. Smith.  Aneesa breaks her fast early, but Hassan hangs in there, and all are rewarded with a surprise chocolate cake from dad!

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Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

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Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

IMG_4757I was really excited to learn about this book from the author, as it seemed to be a book that would stand out in a very crowded genre and work for both Muslim and non Muslim kids.  When I tore off the package however, the face on the cover seemed a bit off for my taste, the glossary is on the back cover and while the pages are full size and full color, the book starts on the first page and somehow seemed more “home done” than “professional.”  Which isn’t a bad thing, and I’m happy to support local writers, but alas I do often judge books by their covers and format, and my first impression had to be stuffed away so I could give the book a fair chance.

The book is 20 pages with the 20th page being recipes.   I would guess children 5 and up would be considered the target audience.  It basically is a book telling about Ramadan with the author trying to blend in a story, that for me, sometimes worked and sometimes really didn’t.

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It starts with Zachariah, a 12 year-old-boy waiting for his mom to wake him up to fast, a day he has been waiting his whole life for.  Why he had to wait to fast at age 12 is not clear to me or made clear in the story.  His 10 year-old-sister only does half days, but in the illustrations she seems to only look about 3 years old, so I’m not sure where the arbitrary age requirements for fasting come from.  There is also a third sibling in the pictures that is never mentioned, not sure why, my kids and I speculated a lot more on that than we probably should have.  It isn’t told from Zachariah’s point of view but he is the focus as his day gets started.

The characters are undoubtedly desi as the book is very steeped in subcontinent cultural over tones.  Sehri, the pre dawn meal, is described in abundance of detail, “His mom made omelets, fried potatoes, with curry and tomatoes and his favorite parathas: thin leavened dough that is friend in olive oil or butter”  It’s a bit detailed of how the items are prepared for a kid’s book, and that is just page one of two pages dedicated to detailing the food on the table for breakfast.  Iftar the meal to break the fast is also two pages of description and cooking methods, but about double the amount of text.

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Culture is often food, and Ramadan has its own food traditions, but there is a lot of space dedicated to food in this book,  and it kind of takes away from the message of fasting, and moderation, and not going in excess.  Later in the book the mom does pack up some of the food to take to the less fortunate which is great, but she does it while the rest of the family is breaking their fast.  Not sure why she couldn’t have done it before or after and joined them.

After sehri is presented the family talks about Ramadan and what it means and what they like best about it.  There is a bit of dialogue that is actually sweet and funny, and gives some warmth to the story.  It is clear the author is just trying to flesh out the facts about Ramadan, but for a kid’s book, I think getting the facts in and presenting them in a fictionalized setting is a useful tool.

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The story seems a bit lopsided when it shrinks Zachariah’s day at school to one five line paragraph saying it was wonderful and then moves on saying “Later, he helps his mom.”  After spending 10 pages on the predawn meal, I would have liked to know a bit more how school went for him, it is his perfect day after all.  Also, the lapse in time by the narrator seemed a bit off to me in the sequential flow of the story, as it was following him in real time so to speak, and then fast forwards the bulk of the day only touching on lunch time, and

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Alhumdulillah, the family is sweet and excited for Ramadan. They pray together and are seen with smiling faces.  There isn’t much diversity in the pictures, the family has darker skin, the friends at lunch are more fair.  The mom wears hijab and is in the kitchen, dad doesn’t seem to be, but Zachariah helps his mom.

The book is colorful, and busy.  I’m not sure if the pictures are meant to be a stylized reality or look computer generated, but they seem a little blurry in places.  The font and backgrounds are nice.  There is a verse from the Quran in English and Arabic, as well as the athan and some Islamic calligraphy.

Overall, there is nothing “wrong” with the book, it just isn’t memorable.  There are some really good Ramadan books out there, and this one does it’s job of explaining Ramadan, but lacks the characters to leave an impression.  I definitely don’t regret buying it, but I don’t know that my kids or I will read it again this Ramadan, it doesn’t create that reaction.  It will probably stay on the shelf until next year, when we can’t recall many of the details and give it another go.

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