Category Archives: Muslim Author

Khadijah: Mother of History’s Greatest Nation by Fatima Barkatulla

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I depart from the Islamic Fiction that I enthusiastically seek out and read, to share and review a work of non-fiction that swept me off my feet.  Perfect for children eight and up, and particularly ideal for girls, this book is absolutely physically beautiful and the content is as well.  This 176 page book flows like a story not a history book, and at times a love story between Khadijah (RA) and our beloved Prophet (SAW).  The font and spacing invites young readers to absorb each word without feeling rushed or overwhelmed.  

SYNOPSIS:

The book is a biography of our mother, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid.  It starts just before she is made aware of Muhammad and ends with her death, followed by a few reflections of RasulAllah missing her.  For the most part the story keeps her at the focus and for the age group the slips into seerah are no problem.  But I wanted more about her.  I learned that she was married twice before she wed Prophet Muhammed, but I wanted to know more of her children with these other men.  I wanted to know if they ever accepted Islam.  I wanted to know of Khadijah’s childhood and her parents, and her tribe.  I wanted to know more about her sister who sounded like her, and if she had any other siblings.  It scratched the surface, and even my 10-year-old daughter wanted more, in a good way.

It covers their marriage, and it reads like a sweet fairy tale that is absolutely full of noor and love.  It shares how she supported the Prophet at every turn and the hardships of the boycott.  It drops names and places, but not in an over burdening way. In many places I actually wanted more detail as to how they all fit together in time and place. As she has children and grows ill and time passes, the story comes to an end.  Almost too quickly, as her day-to-day life as a mother and wife are missing, and I was hoping there would be more.  Yes the  growth of Islam and the plots of the Quraysh are so important, but I wanted more Khadijah, in a book claiming to teach us about our “legendary mother.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

Obviously the story is great, and really the way it is presented is how our kids need to know our history: with love and compassion and enthusiasm.  You feel the love between Khadijah (RA) and Prophet Muhammad (SAW) you see how patient and devoted she is in a very emotional way.  Truly the author has given life to a story many of us know, and filled us with a connection and relationship that is very personal and inspiring in nature.  When you finish the book, you feel like Khadijah is a friend, an amazing friend, but someone you know intimately and proudly, not just as a historical figure.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this for like a 4th -6th grade book club.  I think it should be mandatory reading.  I would probably invite someone well versed in the seerah and Khadijah to answer the children’s questions.  How wonderous it would be to hear the kids discussing her life and offering parallels, lessons, and inspiration to one another from their new found knowledge of Khadijah (RA).

 

 

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The Silly Chicken by Idries Shah illustrated by Jeff Jackson

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This story reads wonderfully aloud as it is silly, repetitive, and the message is more clear than in some of Idries Shah’s other Sufi inspired teaching books.  Written on an AR 4.0 level with 32 pages.  Some pages are heavily text laden while others just sprinkle a few words across a beautifully illustrated page.  Like his other books, the illustrations are truly spot on.  The lively faces on the characters, and colorful scenes bring the story to life and keep the audience engaged and giggling.

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A man decides to learn how to speak “chicken,” when that doesn’t work, he teaches the chicken to speak our kind of language.  Fluent and conversational, the chicken then tells the villagers that, “The earth is going to swallow us up!”.  Everyone runs in all directions, up the mountain, down the mountain, across the meadow, around the world, but they can never get away from the earth.  When they return, they are upset with the chicken and ask how he knows that the earth is going to swallow them up, to which he replies that he doesn’t.  After they recap all the trouble he has put them through he poignantly laughs at them and asks, ” You think a chicken knows something just because he can talk?” Realizing how foolish they have been the chicken begins telling more outlandish things, just to make the people laugh, and isn’t taken seriously again.

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The message is clear, the characters funny, and the illustrations engaging. I finally found an Idries Shah book that I like! Yay, I guess for me they are hit or miss, and this one was definitely a hit!

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The Clever Boy and the Terrible, Dangerous Animal by Idries Shah illustrated by Rose Mary Santiago

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The Clever Boy and the Terrible, Dangerous Animal by Idries Shah illustrated by Rose Mary Santiago

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This book makes me forgive the author for his other books that left me puzzled as to his popularity.  This is wonderful, timeless and so simplistic, yet full of wisdom, lessons, and reflection that I’m thinking of gifting it to many of my teacher friends.  In its 32 pages written on an AR third grade, 2nd month level, the simple and powerful lesson of how ridiculous it can be to be afraid of what you don’t know is driven home.

And just think. It all happened because a clever boy was not afraid when a lot of silly people thought something was dangerous just because they had never seen it before.

A boy goes to a neighboring village and finds the villagers afraid of, wait for it, a watermelon.  The boy laughs and laughs, and pulls out a knife to cut it and enjoy its sweet juices.  The villagers then fear the boy, until experience and knowledge about what it is and how to grow it, change everyone’s opinion and the village renames itself Watermelon Village. Oh, the power of knowledge.

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I can see this book being so great to introduce kids to how a little knowledge, asking questions, trying something can do everything from finding something you like, to breaking down stereotypes, to shifting your paradigm.  I feel like Islamaphobia, among so many other things, could be done away with by and large if people would just get to know us!

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The villagers depicted wear kufis and hijabs and kurtas, and the author writes to share his stories from his oral Sufi tradition, but there isn’t anything overtly Islamic in the text.  The kids as young as preschool will enjoy this at storytime.  They will find being afraid of a watermelon preposterous and silly, making the point that much stronger.

I like that the cover doesn’t given much away, and most children will take the title at its word and think that it is an animal.  Getting student’s ideas of what the terrible animal will be adds to the creative thinking and discussing after as well.  The pictures are wonderful and endearing and many editions come in two language formats.

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Salam Alaikum: A Message of Peace by Harris J illustrated by Ward Jenkins

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Harris J’s song by the same name gets stuck in my head because it seems like “Salam Alaikum,” is the only words in the song, so when I heard that he had written a book based on the lyrics, I was a little skeptical. But, total credit to the illustrator, the book is adorable, and the lyrics aren’t too bad either.

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Thirty big pages, that radiate with light and happy faces and a big clear font that celebrates peace, love, and coming together.  The words “Salam Alaikum”  is a Muslim greeting, but there is nothing overtly religious. There is one muhajaba that appears on a few pages, but with the content matter, there is a lot of diversity in the book.  A variety of skin tones, ages, clothing, genders, sizes, all come together to hold hands and work for peace.

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The content isn’t ground breaking, but the number of words on the page are good for 3-6 year olds.  And it does introduce that the world is more fun when we all work together and are kind.  Kids will like the illustrations and return for them undoubtedly.  It is hard to know if the books these days are truly better, or are just done better.  But, while I checked this one out from the library, I think I just might want a copy of my own.

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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I enjoyed this book a lot. I had a bag of halal gummy bears, a rainstorm raging outside, and an excuse to snuggle in bed with a book, and I couldn’t put it down, even when I ran out of gummy bears.  I think mature 16 year olds and up could read it, and probably should, it is an important book, but I don’t know that I could recommend it to a young adult Muslim. Maybe, but probably college and up.  Not because high school students don’t read a lot about heavy stuff in English class. I mean Scarlet Letter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or anything by Toni Morrison or Shakespeare are heavy, but they are removed from most Muslim teens.  They are old books, or about people from a different time and place. This book is real, and relevant, and relatable, and in 325 pages you feel connected to the characters as if you know them, or knew them, or more importantly for me, a 36-year-old Muslim American born and raised in America, as if they knew me.

SYNOPSIS:

Jannah Yusuf is 15 and in the opening chapter, less than 5 pages, she has to defend her choice to wear a burkini to her father, who assumes his ex-wife, her mom, has forced it upon her.  In the second chapter, we see that she has gone to visit her father to get away from a monster, her friend’s hafiz cousin Farooq, who attempted to rape her.  From there Jannah pursues a relationship with her crush, Jeremy, with the help of her best friend at school, Tats.  This pursuit involves intentionally having Jeremy see her without her hijab in gym class, and sneaking off to meet him.  Throw in the fact that he too is friends with the monster, Farooq, and the tension, anxiety, guilt, and shame that Jannah feels about her suddenly drama filled life is palpable.  Feeling increasingly isolated from her very amazing friends and family, she finds strength and support from a group of kids she is on an Islamic Quiz competition team with and an elderly Hindu man she helps once a week.  Eventually finding her voice, and reclaiming her strength to face her attacker is like a caterpillar coming out of her cocoon and you hope she soars and flourishes in reaching new heights and happiness.  The message of standing up against such acts and standing by those victimized by sexual predators helps puts the blame and shame where it should be, on the attacker, not the victim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows everyone in shades of gray. No one is good or bad or right or wrong, everyone is somewhere in the middle.  Even the most religious can be scum, and friends can both surprise you for good or for heartache.  At one place, Jannah considers telling her non-Muslim friend Tats about what is going on. “Almost.  The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed up community.  I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.” I think this is kind of where we are right now in real life and in literature. We want to be seen as complex characters, we aren’t a monolith, but we don’t want to celebrate our failures either.  This book does this really well, most of the time.  There is a girl who has memorized the Quran and wears niqab (a face veil) and has a vlog of stirring up stereotypes.  She helps Jannah get her revenge, and it doesn’t work, but at the same time she is never really nice.  Her friend Fizz, Farooq’s cousin, seems almost like family, but when told what has occurred, doesn’t believe her lifelong friend, and becomes rather disappointing and shallow.  Some of the friends, seem pretty stereotypical for the genre, the great non muslim side kick that supports and celebrates the protagonist, the endearing, yet annoying brother, the friend turned romantic interest when the dust settles, the Asian girl good at math, and the elderly neighbor who is wise, etc.. Yet, somehow I really wanted to know what happened to all of them.  I understand that for literary reason’s the book ended where it did, and there isn’t an epilogue, but from a reader point of view, I would like to know if Jannah’s brother got married, if her mom did, what course of action Jannah took against her assailant, what happened between her and Fizz, and if Jeremey and her became friends.

I think it is important to note, that Jeremy was awesome, like really a great respectful guy who knows about Islam and even that the hotdogs should be halal.  Jannah is figuring out who she is, and what direction to go in, which reinforces the female empowerment, but I think his attitude also deserves some credit in not taking her story and control away from her. The story doesn’t wrap up in a nice and tidy way, but I’d like to think they remain friends.  The reason the book gives that they can’t be more than that, is that he isn’t Muslim. It is echoed throughout that if he were Muslim, it would somehow magically be ok.  So, when at the end she realizes her feelings for the funny supportive friend Nuh, everyone seems ok with it.  Well, I’m not, yes I get that in real life people date and marry on their own and often people of different faith backgrounds. But, she is a Sophomore, who obviously isn’t looking to get married. She prays and covers, and seems to be an active and intentional Muslim. So, again, I get that it is more the norm than not, in the real world, but this is where I feel nervous about suggesting a teen to read it.  Muslims still are not regularly represented in print, and when you see an active and engaged Muslim doing so much, I feel like that does subconsciously form a connection to a reader and the line between right and wrong is blurred as a result.  Yes, I realize this contradicts the whole, we are not a singular entity, but I don’t know that many Muslim parents would encourage dating to their high school daughters as long as the boy is Muslim, despite it happening often.  I think we still want to see good idealistic messages from fictional Muslim characters in books that we suggest our children read.  And while we would want them to be inspired by Jannah’s strength to speak out against the crime commited against her, we may not want to give the message that we would also want them to be doing some of the other things she does.  Yes she is fictional, yes, most YA novels don’t have a moral theme, but like Jannah, I still want to keep the hamper lid on it all, even though I know that isn’t realistic.

There are a few plot inconsistancies, like how Jannah’s dad cuts the funding for her brother’s education, but when they are in Chicago visiting, their doesn’t seem to be any tension.  Saint Sarah’s background and motivation for change seemed a little choppy to me and the mom could have been fleshed out a bit more.  Overall though, even the visitors to the Mosque’s Open House ring relatable and comically true.  You can tell the author knows what she is writing about because it is familiar and funny, yet not judgemental.  I love that her characters are flawed and that it doesn’t define them wholey.  I love the way the author sneaks bits of practical Islam into the website updates Jannah does for her uncle and I love how the friends at school don’t read like an after school special.  Some attempts at getting people to change work, and others don’t, furthering the relatabilty of the book and keeping the preachiness at bay.

The book would work for Muslims and non Muslims and is a good entertaining read. There isn’t a religious or moral agenda that the author is trying to convince the reader of, but rather it is about reclaiming your voice when someone has tried to take it.  A message that never gets old.

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There is profanity, sexual assault, boy girl relationships, lying, mention of drugs and alcolhol, and bullying.  Its got it all.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do it as a book club read, not a youth one any way, adult one possibly.  But if a teen read it and wanted to discuss it, I would jump at the opportunity.  I think the book speaks pretty well for itself, but I’d love to speak to a teen to know it through their eyes.  To see what they found believable or far fetched, what they could relate to, how they process the crime and the recourse, what they would have done in a similar situation, what kind of friend they would have been, and ultimately what stereotypes the book forced them to confront.

I read something the other day that the way Muslims judge other Muslims on hijab is so inconsistent with our thoughts on praying or fasting or any other act of worship. If someone messes up we encourage them to try again, or ask for forgiveness or say it is none of our business and we will pray for them, but why with hijab do we feel justified in criticizing if they “try it out” or change their mind? For me, this book really drove the point home.  She is 15 and she lets a boy see her hair, I was bothered, and had to realize that, that really said more about me, than the fictional character I was reading about.  I like books that challenge my thoughts.  Like I said, I’d reserve suggesting someone read it, but I hope they find it and read it none-the-less, and then contact me so we can tear open a bag of gummy bears and discuss.

The Magic Horse by Idries Shah illustrated by Julie Freeman

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I didn’t get it.  I read it to my kids they did’t get it. I know it is written on an AR 5.8, but even with that, we didn’t get it.  I had to google it to see what the deeper meaning of the story was and all I found is that it is a teaching tale of two princes and how one found his heart’s desire in a fish and the other in a horse.  Which, I did get, but didn’t really get more than that.  The details in the story seem to wander and meander around to no point and not in an entertaining way. I never felt a connection to the characters, so their side stories didn’t appeal to me.  It is possible that I would have viewed it more favorably as a short story rather than as a really long picture book, but its hard to say.  I guess I feel like if forced, I could write an essay explaining all the small lessons, and moral guidance, but as a children’s book, I don’t want to dig so deep or spend hours at bed time trying to convince my children that the story made sense.  Ideally the book should have been shorter and more streamlined, or longer and fleshed out.

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It starts out with an enlightened king encouraging his subjects to make new discoveries to promote quality of life, wealth and knowledge. He has two sons, one is an expert in strange devises and one is a dreamer.  The king puts out a call to have something new made, and an ironsmith makes a fish out of metal than can fly and swim and carry things.  A woodworker makes a magic horse that interprets the desire of the rider and carries the rider toward it.  The king suddenly becomes cruel and finding this a waste of time has the woodworker tied up.

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The dreaming Prince Tambal rides the horse on many adventures, which kind of disjoints the story and makes it like a fairy tale about Tambal falling in love and trying to persuade a king to let him marry his daughter, and in turn having to trick the intended suitor instead. Along the way there are poisonous fruits, turning into a beast, and eventually returning home to prove that, “Those who want fish can achieve much through fish, and those who do not know their heart’s desire may first have to hear the story of the wooden horse.” Huh? Exactly.

The One: A Children’s Storybook about Allah by Manaal Jafrey-Razaque illustrated by Tanya Emelyanova

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The One: A Children’s Storybook about Allah by Manaal Jafrey-Razaque illustrated by Tanya Emelyanova

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This book is beautifully done, with its hard back binding and happy little illustrations.  Everything has a happy face drawn on.  The topic is Allah, and one can predict what the content is, there is nothing surprising in the rhyming pages that stress how Allah created everything and Allah is the one, singular.

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What I found nice, and in many ways expanded the audience from just being for small toddlers, but to elementary age Muslim children as well, is the reassuring tone in the second half of the book that Allah is always there for you, no matter what.

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The names of Allah in English are used and highlighted in a different colored text with a list of the Arabic and English meaning in the back.

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The book is 32 pages and meanders around in a light lilting manner.  Its simple illustrations and warmth make it fun at both story time and bedtime, and offer plenty of places to organically pause and get your child’s feedback, thoughts, and understanding.