Category Archives: Elementary Fiction

Captain Lilly and the New Girl by Brenda Bellingham illustrated by Clarke MacDonald

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This book is part of First Novels, a collection of books in Canada that focuses on easy to read early chapter books that encourage kids to transition from leveled readers, while getting to know a single character in a realistic contemporary world.  There are a lot of Lilly books, but this one caught my attention because of the hijab wearing girl on the front, presumably the “new girl.”  At an AR 2.8 this 64 page book is great on so many levels, and really does meet the First Novel goal of presenting a simple theme and showing the main character grow.

SYNOPSIS:

Lilly is changing soccer teams, and only finds solace when many of her school friends will also be joining.  While each of the girls has different opinions and levels of enthusiasm about the team, they all are committed to one another as the “Wolves” stick together in a pack.  This loyalty is tested when a new girl is brought in to fill in for an injured wolf.  The foreigner, from America, wears a scarf, and just like with soccer, there are a lot of differing thoughts on the matter.  The reader see what Lilly feels as it is told from her perspective, which makes the issue not so much about the hijab itself, but about how a 9 or 10-year-old thinks and processes new concepts.  Ultimately, the Wolves as individuals and a team, have to decide what to do when an opposing team says that Sara has to take off her hijab if she wants to play.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is real, with strong independent girls.  The side characters aren’t cookie cutters of each other, they all have personalities and quirks, and I love that they don’t all agree, yet they all can make it work.  The book’s catalyst is the hijab, but it isn’t preachy and it is presented and understood through a non-muslim elementary-age character.   I don’t think Islam or Muslim is even mentioned, nor any culture, she is American, and the book takes place in Canada.  It addresses safety regarding the hijab, comfort in wearing sweats and not shorts, and being hot in a long sleeve shirt, issues that any reader can understand and ponder about.  The book isn’t gripping, but for the age group and the intent, it is spot on.  The font, spacing, size of the book, and simple illustrations, urge kids to read a “chapter book” and think about something they may not have ever thought about before.

FLAGS:

Clean, it does say words like “suck,” but it isn’t disrespectful.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this as a Book Club book, because the kids can read it fairly quick, but I would probably read it aloud to kids and have them discuss, or have them somehow read it in groups and discuss.  There are a few websites that can help facilitate the discussion, but kids would definitely have opinions on how the situation was handed, how they might handle it, and what they think of the team’s sponsor.  

https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?a=1&tid=40533

https://www.teachingbooks.net/media/pdf/Lorimer/FirstNovels_Series_ActivityGuide.pdf

http://www.formac.ca/firstnovels

 

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date.  I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her.  The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat.  I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.

SYNOPSIS:

Amal lives in a small Pakistani village.   The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter.  The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong.  The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled.  Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between.  It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position.  As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school.  This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher.  Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market.  Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to.  Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family. 

In  many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.  

Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be.  As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost.  And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own.  At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy.  The mom even apologizes to the dad about this.  The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it.  The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it.  I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden.  This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.  

I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental.  There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture.  Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more.  There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions.   The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture.  Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.  

The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well.  At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note.  I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view.  I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book.  It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed.   A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.

The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer.  For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.

FLAGS:

There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped.  There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study.  There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.

Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html

Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf

Jameelah Gets Dressed by

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Jameelah Gets Dressed by

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These books in the Mini Mu’min Dua Series are a great way to introduce familiar concepts in an Islamic framework to preschoolers and teach them the accompanying duas for them.  I previously reviewed Sajaad is Sick, which pleasantly surprised me, and this book proved that the series has consistency and value.

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The pictures are colorful, but basic, there are no faces or people included.  The text rhymes, yet has a nice cadence that doesn’t seem overly forced throughout the 38 pages.  The book is large, 8×10, with a glossary cover, and decent weight and binding.

This book includes a few footnotes: defining hijab, giving the ayats for the commandment to draw your veil over your bodies, the hadith about starting with your right, etc.  There are four duas included, the one for getting dressed, the one for wearing something new, the dua for when someone else wears something new, and the dua for getting undressed.

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Raihanna’s First Time Fasting by Qamaer Hassan illustrated by Yasushi Matsuoka

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Raihanna’s First Time Fasting by Qamaer Hassan illustrated by Yasushi Matsuoka

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By this time in Ramadan I’ve read a lot of very similar books that all seem to have slightly different takes on presenting the basics with various degrees of turning them into a fictionalized story.  Each have their own flavor and approach and this story in many ways is for mature little kids and works to bring a slightly deeper understanding to Ramadan and helping the less fortunate.  At 36 pages long, most of the pages are heavy on text, but not overly preachy or dense.  Dialogue and emotion fill the paragraphs, and the book works to establish Raihanna as an actual character, not just a foil to move from one Ramadan fact to another. This is also apparent, as a new Riahanna book has just come out, Raihanna’a Jennah, in making her the lead in a series.

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Raihanna is excited to be fasting this year, after establishing that the crescent must be sighted and that suhoor is the meal to start the fast, Raihanna puts on her hijab to pray.  She asks for forgiveness for being deceitful to get another cookie and asks Allah to make her and her friend able to go ice skating.  At bedtime it also mentions that she says her three kuls before going to sleep.  

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All her excitement starts to falter at school, however, when the teacher hands out chocolate chip cookies for snack and Raihanna has to explain she is fasting.  By the time she gets home from school she is not sure she even knows why she is fasting as her stomach rumbles and her mood is pretty sour.  Mom jumps in to action and takes her to a soup kitchen where the two of them, along with others, serve food to the homeless. 

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At iftaar time Raihanna understands how blessed she is to be surrounded by family and food, and makes a more heartfelt dua.  The book ends with letting the reader know that Raihanna spends the next 29 days loving Ramadan and being appreciative.

I love that it really picks one specific aspect of Ramadan and focuses on it in a tangible way, the poor and hungry.  Yes, she prays and recites Quran and all, but establishes that she probably does that every day out side of Ramadan as well.  I like that the author also shows that it is ok that Ramadan is hard.  There is a bit more insight and understanding in this book than just the typical list of facts.  I think ages kindergarten through 2nd grade, kids that are starting to fast will get the most of it, and relate the most to Raihanna.  It could work for non Muslims, with a bit of context of belief or just read a different Ramadan book first, but the target audience is Muslim kids.

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The beautiful cartoonish pictures are bright and engaging.  I have no idea why it bothered me that the characters wore the same clothes everyday, or at least the two days that the story covers, but it kind of did. I like that the dad sets the table and helps in the food prep and parenting.  The list of family members and all the dishes seems unnecessary, but with the glossary at the back it does offer a bit of culture to be conveyed.  There is also a little reader response at the end.   

Ramadan Around The World by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Azra Momin

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Ramadan Around The World by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Azra Momin

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I started this blog because I know the value fiction can have in empowering and exciting people when they see themselves reflected in story lines.  As Muslims, it is a needed tool both for our own children and for teaching other children about us.  So, imagine my surprise when I felt my back straighten up and a smile stain my face for a long while after I finished reading this beautiful book about Ramadan traditions all over the world.  Not because it showed so many beautiful Muslims from rich colorful backgrounds sharing the common bond of loving Allah in Ramadan, that was expected.  Nor was it for the diversity of skin tones, and cultures, and ages, and head coverings, throughout.  No, it was because there are characters with autism, and one that is hearing impaired, one in a wheel chair, and a little girl with diabetes who cannot eat all the candy, just a few.  I didn’t realize how strong that notion hit me.  Me, an adult, a type 1 diabetic since I was 11, there in print, in a book about Muslims.  Yes, I may have had tears, I might still as I write this review.  It is powerful people, to see yourself in a fictional character, at any age.  May Allah swt reward all the authors out there writing books for our children to feel proud of who they are, one beautiful page at a time. You are making a difference.

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Emotions aside, this book is wonderful in and of itself.  It starts with the moon telling a bit about how Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset, doing good deeds, being kind, and how it is celebrated all over the world.  The moon then takes us on a journey to twelve countries: The US, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Scotland, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Madinah, Palestine, and Senegal.  Each location gets a two-page spread of text and gorgeous illustrations that tell about a Ramadan celebration, or tradition, and stress something about the month in general such as iftar, or sadaqah, going to the mosque, helping orphans, the adhaan, saying salaam.  The book concludes with Ramadan ending and the moon signing off.  There is a glossary followed by more information about Ramadan. 

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In all the book is 40 pages, hardbound, and large enough to make it perfect for story time and bedtime alike.  In small bursts the book would work for 4 year olds and up and first graders and up will understand how universal Islam is and relish at the diversity in celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.”

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My hope is to read this book at a Masjid Ramadan Storytime and to have a few of the countries set up as “stations” for the children to visit.  I can’t wait to try it out and see if we can remind ourselves how blessed we are to be united all around the world as Muslims, alhumdulillah.  For non Muslims this book is not preachy, it shows how a holiday is celebrated in different places, and would do a great job of showing the joy Ramadan contains for Muslims with universal core principals, but how culture and traditions of celebration make it a diverse experience.  

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Owl & Cat Ramadan Is. . . by Emma Apple

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Seventy-four pages, with about that many words, conveying what Ramadan is, and how it is practiced to the youngest of listeners. Emma Apple once again in her simple, yet colorful drawings of Owl and Cat holds toddlers’ interest as she effectively conveys the feeling of what Ramadan is like to muslim and non muslim children.  With so many factual based books about Ramadan and how it is practiced, this nice change of pace shows a lot of the feels and activities in an incredibly streamlined way.

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The book starts with an opening page that tells about Ramadan before establishing the rhythm of each page starting with “Ramadan is…” and then concluding the sentence with one, two or four words to describe the blessed month.

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The illustrations show the two characters doing the things mentioned with their little owl and cat friends, praying, eating, learning, taking naps, etc.. The book is heartfelt, funny, and informative with its sparse wording and simplicity.

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I was thrilled to find it in the public library, and glad to know that there are now more books in the series, alhumdulillah, as well as a workbook to accompany this one.

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Mr. Gamal’s Gratitude Glasses by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Nuria Tomas Mayolas

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Mr. Gamal’s Gratitude Glasses by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Nuria Tomas Mayolas

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Asmaa Hussein over at Ruqaya’s Bookshelf has put out two new books, and this gem of a book is one of them.  Mr. Gamal’s class is angry, about lots of little things getting out at dodge ball, the wrong color grapes, having to wait their turn, and it is making for restless, grumpy students.  On a trip to the dollar store, the teacher is struck by inspiration when he sees some oversized pink lensed glasses.  With a pair for each student, the kids have a week  to try out there “gratitude glasses” and report back on their success.

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In 36 pages readers ages 5-8 will get to know some of the stresses felt by kids they can relate to, and ways to find “good things, even in tough situations.”  They will also learn that the real secret isn’t the glasses, but their own brains discovering “new ways to think about stuff!”

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While the kids learn a lesson, Mr. Gamal does too, and so do the readers, alhumdulillah.

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The book would be great fun to read in a group accompanied by glasses to hand out and test Mr. Gamal’s idea with.  I also think it is great to have on the bookshelf to remind kids that they need to find the positive and break out of their slump.

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The kids all have “islamic” names and a few wear hijab (some do not), but there is nothing religious in the book.  It would work well in any environment and does a good job of showing diverse characters.  The pictures are adequate, I don’t love them, but they compliment the story and set the tone fairly well.  The book is a great size for story time (8.5 x 11) and with a thick cover and shiny pages, should hold up to repetitive use.