Category Archives: middle grades

Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Standard
Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

ruby

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.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

Standard
The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

elephantI have to admit this 240 page middle grade OWN voice book had me invested and glued to the pages.  I was swept away to Sri Lanka and in disbelief at the boldness, cleverness, and spunkiness of the Robin Hood-esque 12-year-old protagonist.  I could not put it down as my head worked over time to figure out how this trio of children, one being a Muslim girl, was going to get out of the heap of trouble they had caused.  Yes, admittedly it wraps up a bit too quickly and simply, the main character Chaya doesn’t learn her lesson and is a terrible friend, and there isn’t a good moral of lying and stealing being bad.  But all that aside, the book is a fun adventure that while written pretty straightforward and clearly, is rich in adventure, culture, and excitement for second to fourth grade readers (and 40 year old moms that love strong girls).

SYNOPSIS:

Chaya is the daughter of a tribal representative, whose mother has passed away.  She goes to school, attends the temple once a week to learn Sanskrit, and at dawn is known to steal things to give to those in need.  At night time, people are on guard, expecting trouble, but dawn seems to be the perfect time to take what she needs from people that won’t even notice.  The book starts out with her stealing jewels from the Queen with the hopes of helping a friend who was bitten by a crocodile get medical help in the next town over.  The people in Sarendib have an unjust king, and stealing from his wife to help take care of people that need assistant is a job Chaya takes seriously.  Her heart is in the right place, but when a guard sees her she stops to visit a friend who works in a wood shop to hide the jewels until the heat dies down.  The box they hide the stolen goods in is purchased by a young Muslim girl, and now Chaya has to steal them back from her to get them to people that are in need.

The chain of events is just getting started, and when the jewels are discovered the wood working Neel takes the blame and is imprisoned, and the new girl in town, Nour, is determined to help free Neel from prison and save the villagers from being tormented by the royal guards.  Chaya devises a plan to free Neel from the palace dungeons, but nothing ever quite goes to plan and all the prisoners are freed.   As she runs to escape her own doom, she steals an elephant to get away, the king’s elephant.

The entire story is a series of follies and at each turn the children have really good intentions, they just keep snowballing into situations beyond their control with the stakes constantly multiplying.  I really don’t want to give it away, but they might just bring down a monarchy as they tromp through the jungle on an elephant, accidentally burn down villages, and find that even though Nour is a wealthy meat eater, they can in fact be friends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is outrageous, yet grounded.  I was sucked in from the first few short chapters and didn’t look back.  Chaya is oh so plucky and her fallibility and flaws make her so endearing.  She is a bit of a mean girl to Nour, but I think she shows growth.  The slight raised eyebrow regarding her, is that she didn’t learn some grand lesson, and in fact is possibly emboldened by her thieving and getting away with it.  There probably should have been some humbling at the end, but she is bold and outspoken, and not one for regrets.  I absolutely love the letter she left her father owning up to her role in the whole hullaballoo, and as an afterthought acknowledging that she skipped two days of school.  She is a cheeky one, but her heart is huge and she has her own sense of integrity that is unwavering.

I like that Nour is acknowledged as being Muslim, eating meat, and going to mosques before she moved.  It doesn’t articulate that Chaya doesn’t like her for her faith, but it isn’t helping the two girls befriend each other either.  I love the elephant, and the plants, and fruits, and animals that bring the story to life.

FLAGS:

Lying and stealing. Some destruction of property.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can’t see me doing this as a book club selection, it is just too young of a target audience, but it would be a blast to read aloud to a second or third grade class, or to assign in a classroom setting.  The chapters are really short that early chapter readers will feel accomplished when they complete the book, and the subject matter will compel them to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

Standard
City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God

The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

Standard
The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

unicorn

This middle grades 208 page book is part of a series, but this particular installment is co-authored by Hena Khan, takes place in Pakistan, and features Muslim side characters in the quest to find and protect the mythical, magical, and illusive unicorns.  The adventure is quick, the cultural and religious references sincere and appreciated, the characters quirky and fun, and the writing smooth and enjoyable.  I can’t speak for the whole series, but I think second to fourth grade readers will enjoy the eccentric teacher, the clever kids, and the knowledge about animals, culture, and geography that is woven in to the story to keep it engaging.  I don’t think you need to read the books in order, but I would encourage it.

img_0785

SYNOPSIS:

Elliot and Uchenna are elementary aged students and also members of the secret, Unicorn Rescue Society.  When a classmate starts a newspaper and interviews local businessman, the kids teacher, Professor Mito Fauna spots what he thinks is a unicorn horn in an accompanying picture and is determined to go and protect, once found, the imaginative creatures.  He enlists the kids and Jersey, a creature with a blue body, red wings, a goat face, clawed front legs and hooved hindlegs, to set off in his single propeller plane for the Himalaya mountains of Pakistan.

They arrive in Torghar, Pakistan and make a rough landing that nearly kills a local boy.  Alhumdulillah, Waleed is fine, and in true Pakistani and Islamic tradition the boy takes the visitors to his grandmothers home to be fed and welcomed.  Waleed agrees to help the Americans find a man known only as the “Watcher,” to see what he knows about unicorns and the hunters that come to poach for sport.

Hiking the mountains and getting short of breath makes each act that much more difficult, but alas the kids find the Watcher, aka Asim Sahib, but sadly *SPOILER* don’t find unicorns.  Rather a species of mountain goats, markhors, that have two long twisted magical looking horns. The wealthy businessman brothers also show up in their helicopter to capture, not kill the markhors.

The rescue society follows them and learn that the sinister brother are testing out the magical properties of a bezoar on pit viper bites.  Needless to say it doesn’t work and the rescue society must rescue the dying butler, and captured markhors.  All is not lost, even if they didn’t find any unicorns, at least they made new friends, and know that if they haven’t found the unicorns yet, hopefully no one else has either.

img_0778

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that there is praying, and thikr, and ayats from the Quran quoted and explained in the book regarding saving animals, caring for each other and trusting Allah swt.  There is culture regarding taking gifts, welcoming guests, drinking tea and even breaking stereotypes of what a boy from Lahore visiting his family in the mountains knows and doesn’t know.  It isn’t preachy on any accounts, but the messages relayed in their silly way are very well woven in and leave a wonderfully represented impression of Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan.

The diversity featured in the book is nice, even within the main characters: one is an African American girl, one a Jewish boy, and the teacher is Hispanic.  The story at the end, A History of The Secret Order of the Unicorns, takes place during the reign of Charlemagne at a monastery, and features a boy named Khaled and his little sister Lubna. It is clearly intentional and a reflection of the author and illustrator.

img_0776

FLAGS:

There are some possibly gross moments featuring the goats licking urine, tea being made from the markhors’ saliva and the near death of a man requiring venom to be sucked from his leg.

img_0777

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is definitely below a middle school book club level, but I think younger elementary teachers and parents would see students get hooked on the series and would benefit from having the books around.

img_0780

Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

Standard
Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

rumaysa

This middle grades retelling of the classic fairytales: Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, replaces white characters with diverse Desi characters, reclaims female characters’ empowerment, and weaves the stories together with Rumaysa first freeing herself, and then using a magic necklace that takes her to those in need  (Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara) in her quest to find her long lost parents.  After a few chapters, I started writing a list of gaping-huge-ginormous plot holes, they are frequent and laughable, then I took a deep breath and recalled the similar eye-rolling inconsistencies that plague perhaps all fairy tales, but specifically Disney-esque ones. Once I let go of trying to understand why Rumaysa is wearing hijab while locked in an isolated tower, or how the witch can’t remember her name, but Rumaysa knows the name her parents gave her when she was kidnapped on the day of her birth, or that she knows she was kidnapped and her whole backstory, just to name a few, the book was much more enjoyable.  I still have major issues with some of the forced Islamization and cultural tweaks, but not because they existed, but rather because they weren’t strong enough.  Why have an Eid ball for all the fair maidens in the land.  It was awkward to read all the young people showing up to pair off, and then people asking the prince to dance, and him saying he didn’t know if he could.  Why not just make it an over the top Desi wedding with families, where dancing and moms working to pair their kids off is the norm. Having it be a ball for the maidens in the land, just seemed like it was afraid to commit to the premise of twisting the fairytales completely.  There are a few inconsistencies, however, that I cannot overlook.  This is a mainstream published books and there is at least one spelling error and grammar mistake.  I could be wrong, as it is British, and I am by no means competent in even American English, but I expect better.  Even content wise, Prince Harun for example, is wearing a mask, but the text comments on his blushing cheeks, eyes, eyelashes, and smile, not a typical mask perhaps? And don’t get me started on the  illustrations, the same awkward ball has Ayla leaving, and in the picture not wearing a mask concealing her face as the text states.  Overall, the inside illustrations are not well done.  The cover, by artist Areeba Siddique is beautiful with the shimmery leafing on the edges, that would have brought the inside pages a lot more depth and intrigue than the ones it contains.  Despite all the aforementioned glimpses of my critiques to follow, I didn’t hate the book and quite enjoyed the light handed morals and feminism that was interwoven with clever remarks and snark. The first story has Rumaysa wearing hijab, finding a book about salat and praying.  The second story takes place on Eid and Ayla eats samosas, discusses Layla and Majnun, and has a duputta. The third story I don’t recall any culture or religious tidbits other than keeping with the consistency of cultural names.  There is mention of romance between an owl who has a crush on a Raven, but the heroines themselves are learning to be self sufficient from errors of their parents/guardians and are not looking for any males to save them.  Other than that the book really needs an editor and new illustrations, I can see fairytale loving middle grade kids reading the book and finding it enjoyable, or even younger children having it read aloud to them a few chapters at a time, and being drawn in to the stories and eager to see what happens next. It would work for that demographic, but perhaps no one else.

img_0394

SYNOPSIS: (spoilers)

Rumaysa’s parents steal vegetables from a magical garden when there is no food or work to be found, as a result when Rumaysa is born, the owner of the garden, an evil witch, takes Rumaysa and places her in a tower protected by an enchanted forest and a poisonous river.  No one can get in, and Rumaysa cannot get out.  In the tower Rumaysa reads, no idea how she learned, and spins straw in to gold as she sings a song that channels the magic she consumed in utero from the stolen garden.  With only rations of oats to eat, a friendly owl named Zabina frequents Rumays daily and brings her berries and news .  When he brings her a new hijab, Rumaysa has the idea to lengthen the hijab with bits of gold over time, so that she might escape.  When she finally gets her chance, she is met by a boy on a magic carpet named Suleiman, and is both shocked and annoyed that someone got close to the tower, and only after she saved herself.  The two however, and Zabina, are caught by the witch and must escape her as well.  When that is all said and done, Suleiman gives Zabina a necklace that takes one to someone in need of help.  His parents want him to save a princess, he wants to study in his room, so he hands off the necklace hoping it will help Rumaysa find her parents, and he heads off on his flying carpet.

The necklace doesn’t transport Rumaysa to her parents, however, it takes her to a street where a girl is throwing rocks in desperation having been denied attending an Eid ball after her dress was torn to shreds.  The story starts with Ayla’s back story before Rumaysa arrives, but the two girls befriend each other, Rumaysa uses her magic gold weaving abilities to conjure up a new and beautiful dress and golden shoes and the girls head to the ball.  When Ayla heads off to get samosas she meets the prince, but doesn’t know he is the prince.  They argue about the play Layla and Majnun and when her stepmother asks about the dress, Rumaysa and Ayla make a run for it.  A shoe is lost, the stepmother comes to know, the guards search for the missing girl, and all is well.  Except Harun is incredibly shallow and superficial and only interested in Ayla’s clothes and status, so she rejects him and points out that she is much too young for marriage.  She instead reclaims her home, fixes her relationship with her stepsisters and begs Rumaysa to stay.  Rumaysa makes her excuses and is whisked away to a land that is being ruled by a man and his dragons.

Originally the land of Farisia is ruled by King Emad and Queen Shiva, but they have become unjust and disconnected from their people.  When Azra gets a chance to steal Princess Sara and take the kingdom, he does.  Rumaysa arrives to free a sleeping Sara from the dragon and restore apologetic and reformed leaders to the thrown.

img_0397

WHY I LIKE IT:

I do like the spinning of familiar stories and either updating them, or twisting them, or fracturing them, so I am glad to see an Islamic cultural tinge available.  I feel like the first story was the strongest conceptually even if the details and morals weren’t well established.  The second story was strong in the messaging that Ayla, and any girl, is more than just a pretty dress, but the premise was a little shaky and not that different from the original.  The third story was a little lacking developmentally for me and all three I felt could have gone stronger in to the religion and culture without alienating readers or becoming heavy.  There are characters illustrated in hijab, some in saris, some in flowing robes. Princess Sara is noted to be a larger body type and I appreciated that in elevating the heroines, other’s weren’t put down.  Even within the book, there is diversity which is wonderful.  

img_0398

FLAGS:

There is lying and stealing with consequences.  “Shut up” is said.  There is magic, death, destruction, and a brief mention of an avian crush.

img_0395

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could see this being used in a classroom for a writing assignment to urge students to write their own tales.  I think it is fourth or fifth grade that children read fairytales from different points of view: think the three little pigs from the wolf’s perspective or the Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, and this book would lend itself easily to that lesson as well.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

Standard
Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

boy

In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

Standard
Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

img_8735

In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!

Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr: Traditions and Celebrations by Melissa Ferguson

Standard
Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr: Traditions and Celebrations by Melissa Ferguson

This 2021 nonfiction middle grade book about Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr breaks sections down by key concepts and the use of stock image photographs. The information is fairly accurate, no major flags, just a few awkward stresses: that kids look for the moon, that meat is so important at iftar, but most of the information is conveyed well. There is a glossary, more books to check out, internet sites to visit, an index, and pronunciation guide. The Capstone published, 32 page book, shows diversity in the pictures- some women with hijab and some without, different skin tones as well, and while it might not be the most tempting book to pick up, the text is inviting for non Muslims to understand Ramadan and Eid, how to join their Muslim friends in being kind and forgiving, and answers a lot of questions in a straightforward manner. Muslim children will also enjoy seeing their beliefs explained in a positive manner to readers in a book that stays religion focused and doesn’t get distracted by culture.

The book sections are: What is Ramadan?, When is Ramadan?, What does Fasting Mean?, Suhoor, Iftar, The Qur’an and Prayer, Acts of Kindness, Ramadan at School, and Eid Al-Fitr. It starts by introducing a fictional character named Ayesha reading the Quran with her family. It is the start of Ramadan, a month of praying, fasting, spending time with loved ones, and trying to be better people.

It then explains the lunar calendar before discussing that fasting is a choice to not eat or drink from dawn until sunset. It also notes that children and the sick and elderly are not required to fast.

It talks about eating healthy foods early in the morning before praying the first prayer of the day. It details iftar being dates and water, followed by the sunset prayer and then a large meal after that.

It is very clear in explaining that Muslims believe it was during Ramadan that God began to teach Prophet Muhammad the Quran more than 1,400 years ago. It identifies our five prayers and that people can pray at home or in mosques and that children learn to pray with their parents as they grow up.

The book then becomes a little more unique as it gives time to the aspect of kindness in Ramadan. It gives examples of what Muslims do, from raising money and hosting large dinners, to buying and donating a toy. It even dedicates a whole page to children doing kind acts with little to no money: setting the table, making a card, smiling. It encourages non Muslims to join a Muslim friend in doing an act of kindness too.

The next section, is similarly unique in talking about Ramadan at school and how often at school we learn about different religions in our neighborhood. It gives bulleted suggestions on how to learn about Ramadan in school and how to say Ramadan greetings. The book concludes with Eid Al-Fitr and coming back to Ayesha and her family celebrating.

Eid al-Fitr: Festivals Around the World by Grace Jones

Standard
Eid al-Fitr: Festivals Around the World by Grace Jones

img_8875-1

NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! Seriously, astagfiraAllah! This 24 page middle grades non fiction book about Islam and Eid published in 2018 with smart-board connections and QR scan media enhancements on its surface would seem to be a great classroom all-in-one to learn about the basics of celebrations, Islam, Ramadan, and Eid.  BUT, NO! The information is all sorts of off, and there is an illustration depicting Prophet Muhammad (saw).  How is this sort of ignorance even possible? This isn’t even a Karen Katz My First Ramadan depiction where you can possibly argue and stretch that it isn’t a depiction of the Prophet, but just of the people.  Every picture in the book is a photograph, except on the page talking about the first revelation, it is an illustration and there are no other people on the page, just a picture of the Quran.  I encourage you all to see if your public library shelves the book and ask them to pull it. ****UPDATE: My library pulled it, and the publisher has halted sales of it. Alhumdulillah! We must remember we can use our voices to make a differences, that people are receptive and willing, not always, but we won’t know unless we try.  ****

img_8873-1

The book covers nine topics on two page spreads ranging from the generic what is a festival, to what is Islam to prayer and worship and festival food.  The book has a little girl Noor that pops up on pages to tell you how to say a word and has a glossary with her definitions at the end.  Even the definitions at the end about the foods are wrong, they seem to have switched ma’amoul and sheer khurma.  To it’s credit the book has a photographs of a lot of diverse Muslims celebrating Ramadan and Eid, unfortunately so much is wrong, from little things saying that “Sheer Khurma is traditionally eaten for breakfast during Eid,” to “Muhammad spread Allah’s words to other people by writing them down in a holy book…”.  

img_8869-1

It has in quotes that a voice from the sky called to Muahmmad, “You have been chosen to hear Allah’s words.”  This quote and its source are nor footnoted or referenced, clearly they are not from surah Al Alaq.  I’m not sure where they are getting this from.  There are no salutaions after Rasulallah’s name nor is Prophet before it.

img_8872-1

Other informative sentences are vague and suggest misinformation.  It says that we believe in Allah and pray to him in a mosque, which yes is fine, but we also pray to him in other places five times a day and the way it is worded, I don’t think that would be understood.  I feel like the role of the imam is also overly elevated in the book.  The takeaway I assume would be that only an Imam can lead a prayer and we must always pray in a mosque.  

img_8870-1

Ultimately the biggest problem I have in the book is the depiction of our beloved Prophet.  I can forgive that they assume eating a random dish for Eid is religious and not just cultural, but I can’t forgive such basic ignorance in a book that presumably is trying to teach about a faith to reduce ignorance and misunderstandings.

 

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

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

adama

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.