Category Archives: History

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.

The Colours of My Eid: Memories of Hajj and Eid al-Adha by Suzanne Muir illustrated by Azra Momin

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The Colours of My Eid: Memories of Hajj and Eid al-Adha by Suzanne Muir illustrated by Azra Momin

 

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At 18 pages, this 8 x 8 book focused around colors contains a lot more information than what initially meets your eyes.  The warm beautiful, full page pictures fall opposite a highlighted color and a description of that color in the child’s world that reminds the characters of their time at Hajj or celebrating Eid al-Adha.  On each of the fun text pages is a light green text box at the bottom with factual information that older children or adults will benefit from and be able to share with younger listeners.  The main text is ideal for toddlers and up, and older kids up to 3rd grade will benefit from the nonfiction highlights that can educate or remind Muslims and non Muslims alike, about the importance of Hajj and Eid al-Adha.  

The book starts with an introduction about the Islamic language and perspective used, and clarifies that the colours emphasized are to help visualize the point being made, it also gives information about Eid al-Adha.

The colors highlighted are: white, black, brown, green, grey, yellow, and purple.  The large simple text takes something relatable such as the monkey bars, or balloons, or the sky and corresponds it to a memory of Arafat, or ihram, or the hills of Safa and Marwa.

The nonfiction text gives specific dimensions of the Ka’aba, the story of Hajar and baby Ismail, the requirement of Hajj and some of the steps.  There is a lot of information conveyed which at times is incredibly detailed, and sometimes, rather vague and generic, i.e. Tawaf is when Muslim pilgrims circle the Ka’aba as part of the Hajj rituals. Overall, this little book packs a punch, and I was equally impressed at how it held my five year old’s attention with the colors, and my interest with the facts detailed below.

 

 

 

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

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I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well.  The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA.  The book is personable, relatable, and informative.  I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone.  The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect.  The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture.  Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters.  While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion.  But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies.  Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans.  The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity.  They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp.  Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning.  Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion.  The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace.  They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity.  Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten.  The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions.  The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.  The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.  

I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid.  It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood.  Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.

I love that sports and art are universal.  Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math.  He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability.  Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan.  He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper.  Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.

I love the diversity of everyone in each country.  Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a .  There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone.  I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims.   We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family.  That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.

FLAGS:

Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war.  It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that.  Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club.  It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect.  The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan.  He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed.  Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly.  The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.  

Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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The author of this wonderful middle grades novel reached out to me after I reviewed her book A Galaxy of Sea Stars, to let me know that this book too has a Muslim character.  As we exchanged emails back and fourth I learned more about her work with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven Connecticut (IRIS), and the impact the people she has met there have on her and her writing (the new paperback version of Galaxy has bonus content that reflects this).  Allies and advocates are gifts for Muslims and for our fictional representation.  The details and warmth of her Muslim character, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, is seamless and accurate, and while this is not his story, his support of the main character helps normalize Muslims as friends and in daily life.  He takes time out for his five daily prayers, he refuses to shake a female’s hand, and he uses the word inshaAllah.  The story is Ruby’s though, and her journey pulls you in from the first chapter and leaves you cheering for her long after you close the book.  Over 295 pages (AR 4.1) you witness Ruby find her voice, dare to not be invisible, accept friendship, and help others.   

SYNOPSIS:

Ruby has just moved to frozen Vermont from their last “forever home” in Florida.  Originally from D.C., Ruby and her mom have been moving to places they have vacationed to try and find joy.  Since Ruby’s father, a police officer, died, the two of them have been broken and barely surviving.  The only constant is a cousin, Cecy, who helps them out and convinces Ruby’s mom to come back to her childhood town of Fortin, and to be closer to her.  The winter is bitter, the house is freezing, and even with Cecy arranging for Ruby’s mom to have a job, it only takes a day for Ruby’s mom to be arrested, fired, and for Ruby to be on her own.  With only a garbage bag full of belongings, and some thrift store finds for warmth, Ruby’s plan is the same as it has been in every other town they have landed in: keep her head down and be invisible.  Ruby’s dog, Bob, though has other plans, and when he takes off into a neighbor’s yard filled with ‘No Trespassing’ signs a meeting with Abigail takes place that will change Ruby.

Abigail Jacobs is known in Fortin as the “Bird Lady.”  She has a home, but lives in a shed on her property, dresses in layers of scraps and scarves, feeds the birds, and keeps to herself.  The rumor is that she killed her husband and daughter, everyone knows it, it could just never be proven.  There are also stories that she has a moon rock.  When Ruby meets her she is angry and cold, but the way she interacts with the animals and her knowledge of the moon, keeps her intrigued and even though Ruby’s mom forbids her from visiting Abigail, Ruby and her develop a friendship of sorts.

At school Ruby’s plan to go unnoticed is challenged by Ahmad Saleem, a refugee who lives with his uncle a grocery store owner and is teased by a few classmates for his accent and disappearances at lunch time when he goes to pray.  He is kind and and determined to help Ruby and immediately declares her his friend.  Ruby tries to avoid him, but eventually he starts to win her over.  With the upcoming wax museum, a Fortin favorite, drawing near, Ruby tries to explain to her teacher that they will be leaving back to D.C. before the final presentation, but Mr. Andrews isn’t letting her off and somehow she finds herself researching Michael Collins, the astronaut that stayed on the space shuttle alone to circle the dark side of the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic walk. 

With the mayor singling out Abigail with his new ordinances, Ruby’s mom deciding not to take the plea deal and fight her case at trail, the short cold days, the desire to return to D.C., the wax museum approaching, and Ruby needing answers, Ruby at some point will have to stand up and speak out.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story unfolds in layers.  You don’t know where it is going, but the slow peeling away shows the complexity of people and situations.  The book doesn’t shy away from confronting stereotypes and looking beyond appearances.  I like that there is some discussion of Islamophobia, when Ahmad is overheard speaking Arabic for example, but the character that needs the most standing-up for is an elderly white woman.  The small pivot allows the book to avoid a familiar theme and shows the reader a Muslim shop owner helping the tattered woman that the town fears and resents. I enjoyed the strong reminder of how women and science and their careers have not been widely accepted until recently.  I think many readers will be surprised that much of Abigail’s rumors stem from her being a brilliant educated woman that society struggled to respect then and now.  I absolutely love the science and space aspects that bring Ruby Moon, her neighbor, and her class project together.

I wish there was a little bit more about her mom and her relationship at the end.  The disconnect in their relationship warranted the sparse information in the majority of the story, but I needed some hope for the two of them.  Same for the relationship with Cecy.  I get that Ruby doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom’s cousin, but as Ruby grew in so many ways, I wish that her appreciation of what Cecy has done for her and her mom would have also been realized in some capacity.

FLAGS:

Ruby being dishonest. Death, injury of a pet, physical assault, bullying, teasing, Islamophobia.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t focus an entire book club on this book, but I think it would be a great addition to a summer reading list.  The insight into a character trying to find herself within her own family and experiences with connections to history and science would be a benefit to any child to read and reflect upon.

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk, introduction by Omar Al Akkad, illustrated by Gerardo Alba, Kasia Babis, Alex Beguez, Tracy Chahwan, Nomi Kane, Omar Khouri, Kane Lynch, Maki Naro, Hazel Newlewant, Jeremy Nguyen, Chelsea Saunders, and Abu Zubaydah

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This 208 page graphic novel, is indeed graphic.  The unbelievable horrors detailed in the stories shared are all sourced and referenced in the nonfiction anthology. The intent isn’t shock and awe like the war that created such abysmal breaches of justice to be done in our name (Americans’), but is definitely a painful reminder of how fear and mismanagement allows the US treatment of individuals to grow and continue outside of the rule of law, and all that the US claims to represent.  The careful use of words such as “detainees” instead of “prisoners,” “enemy combatants” instead of “terrorists” or “criminals,” have allowed Muslim men to be held since 2002 without charges, legal representation, habeas corpus, or basic human rights.  When the prison was being filled, you’d hear about it in the news, when the government released heavily redacted reports on torture, you’d catch a headline or two, but there are still people being held, and for the most part, we, the world, have perhaps forgotten.  This book is a reminder, it is insight, it is so important that high school and college aged children are aware of what we are capable of, that adults are not allowed to forget what we are doing.  As it says in the intro, “To indict the people who did this is to indict the country that allowed it to happen.” We are all guilty, and this book is not an easy to read as it will make you angry, and devastated, and exasperated.  Don’t let the graphic novel format and simple text fool you, this is a difficult read, emotionally, and you should force yourself to sit with it- sit with the outrage and frustration, and see if it can spur you to action.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book is broken up to provide an introduction, map, facts, and a timeline, it then starts with the author arriving for a media tour to Cuba.  Some background stories about key individuals in understanding the effects of torture and better and more accurate ways to interrogate, and then the fateful day September, 11, that changed everything.  From here the stories are individual accounts of prisoners, lawyers, politicians, etc., each depicted by a different illustrator, to show a very rounded view of the effects of the prison, and thoughts by different people in a  variety of associations. 

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Some of the prisoners were swept up by neighbors responding to leaflets promising wealth for turning people in.  Some were taken from their homes for no reason, a few were taken from the battle field, but every single one has never had charges against them, nor a day in court, the few that have been able to be represented have been released without being accused of anything, hence, found to be innocent.  The doubling down on the concept of Guantanamo being the worst of the worst, administration after administration has made it so prisoners have to be released to countries they have never been to, with unknown rights or a way forward.  Those that are still detained have been there for nearly 20 years. 

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WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE BOOK:

I like that the book is personal, it is harder to dismiss or forget, or be unaffected when you are looking at images and surrounding yourself with guards and lawyers that are saying over and over, that these prisoners are innocent.  I like that it challenges Americans to demand more of America, it isn’t just putting the USA down nor does it read like the narrative has it out for the USA, it is very much an personal calling out, that we have made errors and continue to make errors out of arrogance.    

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FLAGS:

The images and language are at times graphic and one should be aware of the potential triggers of torture, and abuse. There are curse words spoken, and violence detailed.  High school and up.

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

img_8794There is a reason that this 93 page graphic novel is labeled as “Teens.”  There may only be 300 or so words in the entire book, and the pictures at times are very basic, but oh subhanAllah is it devastating. Real, unfortunately, but I was not expecting my heart to be shredded and for me to be haunted by the framing and perspective of the story.  I read a fair amount of books both fiction and nonfiction regarding Syrian refugees and I try not to ever become numb to the plight of so many, but this book was such a reminder that things don’t always turn out well, that sometimes no matter how inspired your life is to follow in the footsteps of a warrior queen, there isn’t always hope.  That no matter how brave you are, horrible things will still happen, and that sometimes there is no one to hear your cries and pleas, and for so many in this cruel world, there is only silence.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Amina on a crowded makeshift book in the ocean, the boat capsizes and we are thrust back in to her memories of playing hide-and-seek with her mother.  The juxtaposition of her little body playing a game hoping not to be found with her limp body in the ocean begging to be found is stark.  The memories then take us back to her mom preparing dolmas with only rice and salt, since that is all that is left.  Her father jokes that they are too salty.  The ocean is salty as well, and the memories continue to flow.  Her parents go to the market and she is not able to go with them.  It doesn’t tell why, but her mother reminds her to be strong and brave like Zenobia. Her mother often reminds her of the Syrian warrior queen who was the most beautiful woman in the whole world, who ruled, fought, and rode like a man.

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Her parents don’t return.  She waits and waits.  There are attacks, an uncle comes to take her away.  They pass destruction and rubble and sleep in the road.  Her body starts to sink in the water.  Her uncle finds some fisherman, he gives them all his money, but it is only enough for one to go on the boat.  He sends her. A kind lady on the boat shares a bit of food, before the boat flips over.  Her body is lost in the ocean, hoping to be found, voiced only as a whisper inside her head.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I really don’t like it.  That isn’t to say it isn’t well done and powerful.  It is hard to finish though.  You really hope she will be plucked out of the water even though a part of you know she won’t.  I made me kids read it.  It rocked them.  In a good way I think, I hope.  We can never forget how privileged we are, although we do all the time.  Books like this remind us how quickly it can all change and how we at the bare minimum need to be acutely aware of what others go through.  If it is hard to read, imagine living it.

The book is Danish, I don’t know if it is translated or originally in English.  It says that it won the Danish National Illustration Award in 2017, so I’m not sure how much to critique phrasing, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how Zenobia was presented as riding, leading, and ruling like a man.  I’m pretty sure she did those things better than MOST men.  Having her stature be glorified as being that equal to a man weakened her and her accomplishments.  Yes, doing what she did at a time when many women were not allowed to do it is impressive, but she was great in her own right, not just in comparison to the male gender.

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FLAGS:

For teens nothing. For younger kids, under 10, it is subtle, but too devastating in my opinion.  Tweens should read it with some discussion, they should know it isn’t always happy and hopeful, but use your discretion if they can handle a drowning, loss of parents, and destruction.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short for a book club, but I think families should consider it and talk about it.  Syria and many other nations may not be headline news at the moment in America, but that doesn’t mean wars and their far reaching implications have stopped.  It just means we have grown weary and changed the channel.

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The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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This 40 page nonfiction biography is beautifully illustrated and informative.  I had never heard of Maryam Mirzakhani the Iranian born, first female winner of the Fields Medal.  Her life from loving stories and not liking math, to becoming a student and later a professor in the United States is remarkable and inspiring.  Second through fourth grade readers that both love and struggle with math will be drawn in to her unique way of looking at the world, and the math she found to serve as her magic wand in explaining it.  I don’t know if she identified as Muslim, while in Iran she was forced to cover, but when she left, she no longer did.  The illustrator is Muslim and religion aside, I am thrilled that a book like this exists, and that such a brilliant woman and her accomplishments can be presented to young readers.

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Maryam loves stories.  She reads them to her sister, her best friend Roya and her browse bookstores and dream themselves into plots of their favorite stories.  On the weekends she spreads long rolls of paper on the floor to draw and color her imaginary worlds.  She wanted to be an author when she grew up and knew how lucky her generation was to attend school after the war that tore her country apart.

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Math made her head spin, she would rather be doodling, but when she was 12 her teacher introduced her class to geometry.  It was different, the numbers held stories and the shapes were pictures. She made stories about the problems and wondered about them as if they were characters.

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In high school, Maryam and Roya entered the International Mathematical Olympiad.  The first year they received participation medals, but the next year, Maryam won the grand prize with a perfect score. She finished her schooling in Iran devoting her life to the stories that numbers told and left Iran to start graduate school at Harvard in the United States.

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When she had a hard time solving problems she would spread large rolls of paper on the floor and solve them.  Her daughter would tell people she was a painter.  She wanted to stretch the mind and how people went about solving equations.  She became a professor and a lecturer and one of her discoveries became known as “the magic wand theorem.”

In 2017 she passed away from breast cancer and the world lost a remarkable storyteller, mathematician and human.  The book concludes with an author’s note, important dates, and books to reference to learn more about Maryam Mirzakhani.

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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This is the first book in a new middle grades nonfiction series and is Adama Bah telling her own story about being detained as a 16 year old and falsely accused of being a suicide bomber.  A story that sounds like a movie plot is painfully real and terrifying and hearing it in her own words is powerful and impactful.  The writing is very basic in its linear format and straightforward presentation of the experience through her eyes.  It is not sensationalized or overly explanatory about how this situation came to be, how she got out of it, or what the family had to go to to find lawyers and pay for them, for example.  It is how she felt, what she understood at the time, and how the experience shaped her.  While the writing style is sufficient for middle grades, her story is intense.  A big part of her experience is being strip searched, exposed, and seeking asylum to avoid female circumcision.  The 128 page book is a great way to show the realities of our world.  It took place in the 2000, the recent past, to a New York teenager that enjoyed different colored sneakers, chatting with her friends, and spending time with her family, no different than the readers picking up her story to read.

SYNOPSIS:

Adama was born in Conakry, Guinea in 1988 and moved to America as a child.  She attended public school until high school when she was then sent to an Islamic boarding School in Buffalo, New York.  Her family was not particularly religious, but Adama become more visibly Muslim returning home after the attacks on September 11, wearing niqab and wondering why she was being treated with such hostility at the airport.  As she resumes her education in public school, she slowly makes the choice to take off her niqab, while maintaining her hijab and modest clothing.  In 2005 she and her father are taken in to custody early in the morning from their home and detained.  During the questioning at 16 years old, Adama learns that she is not a legal US citizen.  Her father is separated from her, to be deported, and she is moved to Pennsylvania as the youngest person swept up in a terrorist roundup.  She is being accused of being a potential suicide bomber and is detained for six weeks before a plea deal is brokered.  She will wear an ankle monitor for three years and have a nightly curfew.  During this time she is responsible to care for her family as her father has been returned to Guinea, her mother speaks very little english and she has four younger siblings.  Even after the bracelet is removed she finds herself still on no-fly lists and finally after one more time being denied and detained at the airport, she sues the Attorney General, FBI Director, and the Director of the Terrorist Screening Center. When they learn of this they offer to remove her from the no-fly list if she withdraws her case. She is granted asylum and while she had to drop out of school, she dreams of going back.  She has since married, her dad has been able to return to America, and she continues to study Islam and believe that things could have been worse.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is her story, from her eyes and perspective, but I worry that some of the details are misplaced.  She details enjoying talking bad about the government with a friend after she is released knowing that they are listening in, but maintains that she is constantly in fear of being returned to jail and that she considers America her home.  I’m not saying all of those things can’t be true and co exist, but some additional context would help the choppiness in this example and others.  I appreciated that the genital mutilation was clearly attributed to culture and not religion, I think when others tell stories about cultural and religious practices they often conflate the two.  I wish there was more information about where this mysterious list came from, what happened to the Bengali girl that was taken, how the Islamic community reacted.  The story is powerful and moving, and readers will be drawn in as they see themselves in her.  There are also questions at the end that help connect readers to her situation, and the reality that this is the unjust world we live in and can easily be consumed by as she nearly was.

FLAGS:

Detailing a strip search, detailing taking off her clothes, having orifices checked, and using the bathroom in the open.  There is talk of female circumcision although it doesn’t define it explicitly.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think in a high school Social Studies class or current events discussion this book would be a great topic to explore and voice to highlight.  The book is short and can be read very quickly.  It is an important story to know, to learn from, to sympathize with, and be acutely aware of for people of all ages.