Category Archives: Folktale

Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Kephra Burns illustrated by Leo & Dianne Dillon

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Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Kephra Burns illustrated by Leo & Dianne Dillon

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This beautiful work of historical fiction/folklore is both moving and visually breathtaking.  The 56 page book presents as a picture book, but with an AR 6.4 and the amount of text, it reads like a chapter book.  Thus, I’m going to review it as a chapter book, but keep in mind that it is hard bound, 11 x 9, horizontal and while there are frequent small story breaks, there are no chapter breaks.  

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SYNOPSIS:

There is little historical fact about Mansa Musa as a child, thus this story while rooted in fact about the time, about Mansa Musa as an adult, and about what is known regarding Mali and the Malinke and Tuareg tribes, is a work of imagined fiction.  The story begins with premonitions and dreams from Kankan Musa of the Kaba Kangaba tribe.  Kankan and his two brothers live with their mother, and do not know who their father was, a source of stress and teasing for the young boys.  Having just turned 14, Kankan is treated as an adult, but because he has yet proved himself as a hunter, he may sit with the adults, but not yet join their conversations.  Mali in the years after the great King Sundiata had passed away has begun to fade, but their wealth and hospitality still prospers in the desert. 

One day a desert nomad from the Tuareg tribe dressed in flowing blue robes appears and is welcomed by the village elders.  That night he regales stories about jinns, and the sea, and time spent in the desert, and fears he has for their King, when slave raiders tear through the night and kidnap Kankan.  When Kankan awakens days later, enslaved, the same mysterious man, Tariq al-Aya, again appears and buys him from the raiders.  Tariq vows to accompany Musa on his journey to learn who he is and the two spend seven years together learning about the desert, about the larger world, about themselves, in trial and test and challenges.

When Musa journeys back to his home, and Tariq disappears as mysteriously as he appeared, Musa must make himself known to the new Mansa of Mali and see if his wisdom and knowledge can ensure the success of Mali in the future.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m not from Africa and my heart was cheering Musa on as if, my own families success was rooted in his growth and understanding of the world.  As a Muslim, I was proud to know of the success Mali found in Mansa Musa and the historical significance of his rule throughout time.   I wish there was more Islam in the book, his Hajj is well documented and thus tidbits of Mecca and his understanding of it is sprinkled through the story.  There is no talk about prayer or what Islam is, just that he is Muslim and that most of the villagers “had converted to Islam, but at the same time, they had not given up their traditional religious practices or their belief in the ancestors.”  It mentions at the end that he built mosques wherever he went, but prior to this it never mentions him spending any time in a mosque or worshiping in any way. 

I love that the story is told like all great stories, it makes you want to settle in and drink up the details and imagery and got lost in the pictures.  The author weaves in cultural phrases and descriptions, that hopefully readers can unravel from the context as there is not a glossary.  There is a map at the beginning, and author’s note at the end that reveals what is fact and what is fiction in the story.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book should be in every school library and used in classrooms to learn about West Africa, cultures, 14th Century, Islamic history, culture, you name it.  I think this book would work wonderfully in home school environments, where the child could dictate how much to supplement, how much to cover, and the wisdom shared could really be understood.  This isn’t a book that most kids would pick up and read, they would need prodding and guidance, but be better for it.  

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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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How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameel Taibah illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameel Taibah illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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Whether you know a little bit of Arabic or none at all, this incredibly repetitive counting book will have you able to count to ten in Arabic by the end of its 32 pages.  FullSizeRender (35)Even if you know how already, your little one will enjoy figuring out why the main character Jouha can’t figure out how many camels he has in his caravan.  While Jouha thinks, it has to do with whether one runs off while he is riding, and comes back when he is walking, hopefully by the second or third time, most kids will realize that he isn’t lucky or unlucky, he is just forgetting to count the one he is riding atop of.  Probably good for ages 3-7, the book is silly in its repetition, and the beautiful painted illustrations bring the characters emotions to life.

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There isn’t anything Islamic, but it is definitely cultural as it retells an Middle Eastern folk tale.  The character, a wise fool, is also seen as Goha in Egypt and similar to Nasredeen Hodja in Turkey, all this background is stared at the beginning of the book.  There is also information to hear the story online in a read along program http://www.av2books.com, or to hear the author say the arabic numbers at http://www.margaretreadmacdonald,com.

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The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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A Muslim Afghani Shah tests a poor Jewish man in this “softened” Jewish folktale.  I say softened because the author’s note at the end implies that she is retelling a well-known story in the Jewish tradition that often features mean-spirited characters.  In this version, however, the interaction between the rich Shah and the poor man, the Muslim and the Jew, are framed in contrast to show mutual respect, similar values, and the trust one has in God.  

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This 32 page, AR 4.6 picture book, is beautifully illustrated and would work fabulous in interfaith settings, as well as in any lesson teaching how we should trust God in all things.  For children not of Islamic, or Jewish, or Afghani backgrounds, there is very little preaching and would still work very well as a moral narrative or even as a culture lesson, as it is a folktale.  From a current events standpoint, it would also do well with older children, as it shows that Muslim and Jews co-existed quite nicely once upon a time in Afghanistan as well.  

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The plot is warm, although the Shah is clearly abusing his power as he meets a poor shoemaker and passes royal decree after royal decree to test the man’s faith that “everything turns out just as it should” and that God will provide.  The Shah decrees no one can repair shoes in the street, followed by banning the selling of water in the streets, and so on, until finally the poor man finds him self in the Shah’s Royal Guard without a sword, ordered to kill someone.  Not wanting to spoil how he handled the prediciment, I’ll suffice to say, in the end the poor man is made the shah’s advisor and presumably all is well. 

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Throughout the tests, we also meet the poor man’s wife, who is supportive and very hospitable as they feed the Shah dressed as a peasant and offer him what little they have.  Her clothing is incredibly similar to what Muslims in Afghanistan wear, and makes me want to research this aspect for accuracy and to satisfy my own curiosity.    

Overall, a sweet interfaith folktale that I hope to share at our next interfaith storytime.

The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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This 32 page book written on an AR 4.2 is very text heavy and poorly illustrated, in my opinion, but if you have a patient audience, the story is really sweet and flows pretty well.  Plus, the moral and introduction to 4th through 6th graders about hunger and food scarcity in a gentle non condescending manner, makes the book stay with the reader in a humbling way.

On Saturdays, Mama works and its just Nora and her baba hanging out.  And every Saturday night, Nora’s baba makes couscous, but tonight Nora is starving and the couscous is taking too long.  As they wait Baba tells her a story about the butter man.

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Growing up in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, how much food the family had depended on the rain and the crops.  Once during a drought, Nora’s grandfather had to leave his family to try and find work, so the family could eat.  As the portions of bread Nora’s baba was given decreased in size and the butter disappeared completely, his mother would urge him to go outside and wait for the butter man, to ask him to spare a little.  As he would sit and wait he would nibble and the bread and would finish it still waiting for the butter man.  This daily ritual passed the time as his stomach rumbled, and finally after a while his father returned with flour, couscous, vegetables, and meat.  Baba tells Nora that while the butter man never came, the rains did.  And just as Nora hopefully appreciates true hunger, so does the reader, Mama then comes home, the couscous is ready, they say Bismillah and dive in.

butter.jpgThe only real Islamic reference is Bismillah, being said before they eat.  The story is followed by an Author’s note and a much needed Glossary.  A bit of Moroccan culture comes through as the baba waits for the butter man, and with all the talk of food, but it isn’t done well for me in the illustrations.  The characters’ closeups are distracting, and while the Author’s note explains their clothing and what not, I feel like they didn’t help the story come to life.

Here is a book trailer:

 

The Man with Bad Manners by Idries Shah illustrated by Rose Mary Santiago

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The Man with Bad Manners by Idries Shah illustrated by Rose Mary Santiago

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This story has a good moral, but the path there is a little twisted.  A village is annoyed by a man with awful manners and when he leaves for vacation, a clever boy convinces everyone to teach him a lesson and get him to change his ways when he returns.  They replant his field, paint his house, and rearrange his furniture to convince him upon his return that this is not his village or home or fields.  

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When he does come back, he is confused and sad that he doesn’t know where he comes from, at which time the village tells him what they did, and agree to put everything back if he promises to change.  

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The 32 page brightly illustrated book tells an Afghani tale in a western setting.  The chunky cartoonish illustrations show great imagination and encourage the reader to look at the effects of bad manners in a different way.  The clever boy, also goes about things in an extreme manner, which hopefully gets the reader to question if it was successful and perhaps how they would have handled the situation.  Another book that urges, thinking outside the box, with some discussion and reflection.  There is some lying, breaking and entering and other questionable actions, but I think most kids will realize it to be a silly story to teach a lesson, and all is forgiven because in the end they did live happily ever after.

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The book is not AR but easily works for Kindergarten to 3rd grade.  There is nothing in the text or illustrations that suggests the book has any religious or cultural ties.

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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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