Category Archives: Non Fiction

Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

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Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

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Often children’s stories of refugees fleeing war are hopeful in a forced way that seems to want to protect them from the reality of what is going on in the world.  As adults we often cling to the ones with happy endings for our children and for ourselves, because the tragic ones are too numerous and overwhelming to comprehend.  This book marvelously does a great job for those older children in the middle that are beginning to understand the world around them, while not bombarding them with the severity of how cruel we can be to one another.  This true story instead focuses on a beloved cat and all the humans of different backgrounds, all over the world that help reunite her with her family.  Giving hope, but also showing the difficulty in the world, and the effects even one person can have in making a difference.

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Kunkush’s family goes to great pains to get themselves (all 6 of them) out of Mosul, and away from the war.  That the fact they sneak their beloved cat with them, shows just how much a member of the family he is. They drive through the night, and walk for days over a mountain, they reach a Kurdish village where they sneak the cat on a bus to Turkey, they then have to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, only to land in Lesbos and have Kunkush disappear.  The family searches as long as they can, but alas have to move on to their new home.  From here the story switches from following the family to following the cat and all the people determined to reunite him with his family.  Unfortunately, they don’t know where the family is.  Amy, a volunteer, takes the cat to the vet to get cleaned up, and then creates an internet campaign to try and find his family.  People from all over the world donate to his care, and his travel expenses.  Eventually, Amy takes the cat to Germany, where many refugees have resettled and continues her search.  Finally, word gets to the family in Norway, and Doug, a photographer, arranges to fly the cat to her new home. Alhumdulillah.

img_3838.jpgOne could argue that countless people are misplaced each day due to war, and we overlook it because it is easier than dealing with it, so why care about a cat.  And to that I challenge the skeptic, animal lover or not, to read this book and not have your heart-strings tugged.

IMG_3839The book is done beautifully.  The pictures are warm and endearing and are the only proof that the family is Muslim, by their hijabs.  The love the family has for their pet is expressed in the illustrations, and even more so by the real photographs at the end of the book following the Note from Doug and Amy.  At 48 pages the book works really well for 3rd grade and up (it isn’t AR) who can marvel at the cat’s journey.  I particularly think this book is a great way to show children another aspect of refugees.  There are a fair amount of books that talk about the refugee experience or show refugees getting adjusted to a new home.  But, this is a great way to show that refugees are not just defined by a word.  They are vibrant individual people just like everyone else.  By focusing on the cat and his journey, the reader sees what a refugee goes through, particularly this family, and hopefully will stop and think about it.   But it doesn’t just show the family in that capacity, it shows them as a vibrant family who loves and desperately misses their cat- something more children may be able to relate to.

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What Does a Muslim Look Like? by Mohamed Abdel-Kader illustrated by Abdullah Badawy

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What Does a Muslim Look Like? by Mohamed Abdel-Kader illustrated by Abdullah Badawy

what does a muslim look like.jpeg This 22 page, simplistic book written in rhyming couplets, is such a timely and necessary book.  Much like Owl and Cat: What Islam Is… this book has value that extends far beyond its audience level (not AR but, I’d say three years and up), as the content breaks down stereotypes while being framed in a positive, non condescending way.

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A brother and sister pair, Jack and Jane, go about their day when at dinner Jack remarks that he learned that two of his classmates are Muslim and they look like them.  Thus arises the question, what do Muslims look like?  The book then goes on to break down stereotypes and broaden views in the same rhyming manner that keeps the book light and child friendly.  The conclusion is that like people of other faiths, everyone is different, and that no one should be judged on what is on the outside.

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The book appears to have been started on Kickstarter in 2012 and Alhumdulillah it got the needed funding to get published.  I got my copy through the public library system, and I am beyond thrilled that I found it where hopefully a lot of people can get their hands on it.  Reading the author’s campaign on where the concept came from, he would have had no idea how much more timely the book is now, then when it was first published.  I get asked quite regularly from old school friends, how they can introduce Islam or get the ball rolling  to talk to their kids about Muslims, and this book would be a great start.  Told from non Muslim kids perspectives, with very hip parents, the book does not discuss any tenants of faith or belief, it just identifies the many shapes and sizes and colors that Muslims come in.  It would work well to show that Muslims are everywhere not just in the news, without overwhelming even the youngest of readers.

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The pictures in the book are absolutely perfect in complimenting the story. They are not only silly, but also diverse as the book’s text would require.  Interestingly there are ladies with hijab and those without, and scarves are not mentioned in the text, and also noteworthy is there are no bearded men in the pictures.  Overall, a wonderful book that I would love to have on my shelf with extras to hand out.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story From Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter

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It is widely written about, even amongst children’s literature, that in parts of the world, girls are not allowed to go to school, but that many find ways to do so anyway.  What sets this book apart is that it is based on a true story, and while there is some hope for Nasreen, overall it is a really melancholy tale without a happy ending.  At 40 pages, author Jeanette Winter once again conveys a story that shows compassion instead of judgement and undeniable admiration for her characters.  Written on a 4.2 level, the story packs a lot into small, simple sentences, and her illustrations do not shy away from the realities of Afghanistan.  While I was surprised to see that twice the book was challenged, in 2014 and 2016, for showing Muslims praying and for violence, I was glad that it was never banned.   The strength and determination of Afghani women should not be silenced, it should be shared and celebrated.

 

The story is told from the point of view of Nasreen’s grandmother.  She is heartbroken that her granddaughter is not allowed to attend school and practice the arts as she was, and even her daughter-in-law, were able to do as children.  Since the Taliban has come things are dark.  Things get worse when one night soldiers come and take Nasreen’s father with no explanation.  When he doesn’t return, Nasreen’s mother leaves to find him, displaying her own strength to independently take on a society that doesn’t permit her to go out alone.  Unfortunately she does not return either, and Nasreen stops speaking.  Grandma learns of a secret school for girls.  Determined that Nasreen should know of the outside world, great risks are taken for many girls to learn in a private home a few doors down.  Dodging Taliban soldiers and neighborhood boys helping keep their school a distraction starts to pay off as Nasreen finds a friend and starts to open her heart.  The book ends with mom and dad still missing, but hope for Nasreen to see through the window education has opened for her, inshaAllah.

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Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz illustrated by AG Ford

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Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz illustrated by AG Ford

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I had hoped to have a handful of selections to review for Black History Month, but alas I started too late in collecting titles, inshaAllah next year I will be better organized.  I did want to share this beautiful book though, as a great story of hope and love, that I don’t think is often included when we study Malcolm X or talk about him today.  This is the story of his parents and the philosophy of equality they tried to raise him in before hatred and bigotry destroyed his family, before he went to prison, before he became “Detroit Red,” a member of the Nation of Islam, before he became a civil rights leader, a Muslim, before he became Malcolm X.  This is a story, based on love, written by his daughter to give children of all ages something to think about.

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The story of Malcolm Little, is a story that I feel cannot be rushed, it is very heavy in text and at 48 pages, the warm beautiful pictures make it accessible in pieces to younger children, but it is written on an AR 6.5 level (sixth grade fifth month).  The book tells about how his mother and father met, believed in universal equality and justice, and started a family where these values took center stage.  The family suffered for their beliefs and their home was burnt down, but they rebuilt and the family continued to find strength and see the power of possibility.  The books shows the lessons taught in everyday activities such as raising a garden, doing laundry, reading books, doing homework, and even fishing.

When Malcolm’s father was killed, however, and his mother taken away, the family was forced to separate and Malcolm to deal with an unwelcoming world, more or less alone.  The book ends with Malcolm in 7th grade so, to young readers who have maybe only heard his name in passing the book is full of hope and roots for the man he would become.  It is almost a fairytale start to a man who would be cut down in his prime years later.  They will understand how unfair society treated his family, how warm and educated and strong his mother, Louise was, and how inspiring his father as a preacher was. The takeaway will be how Malcolm’s upbringing and personality allowed for him to rise up and refuse to stay down during horrific events in his life.

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For older elementary and middle schoolers it is a story of possibility, of how quickly things can change, and the effect of hate.  They should also see how institutionalized and normative the oppression of African Americans was and how it really wasn’t that long ago.  When Malcolm’s English teacher Mr. Ostrowski tells Malcolm that he as an African American should not have such high expectations, readers should realize that the acts of the Ku Klux Klan may be viewed as “extreme” but society as a whole was systematically enabling such bigoted acts.  The lessons passed on to Malcolm by his parents are universal themes of hope and love and equality that still have to be stood up for today, and even young listeners can grasp that, and also grasp that because of their skin color alone they were seen as second class citizens.

The book shows depth to a historical character that gives some insight to what made him so dynamic.  Many young readers will be surprised at how quickly Malcolm’s world unraveled, and some of the reasons why, while empathizing with the injustice of it.  The Author’s Note at the end is also fascinating as it details the family members and their stories about the characters in the book.   I liked the softness of the book and the smaller lessons for children that it presented.  It didn’t shy away from the violence and prejudice that the Little family faced, but presented it through a lens of optimism to hopefully inspire children to carry on with the social activism that still needs to be done.

 

 

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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The Complete Persepolis is both Satrapi’s volume one and two of her memoir about growing up in Iran during the revolution.  At 341 pages of black and white graphic novel intense story telling I was fascinated by its 3.3 AR level for volume 1 and 3.9 for volume 2. Clearly this is once again a loophole in the AR system rating a book for word and sentence difficulty and not content.  The book is for high school and above, despite the simplistic style it is presented in.  The content of multiple wars and coming of age,  provides detailed political commentary not tempting to many elementary and middle school children, and her coming of age narrative is no way appropriate for third or fourth graders.

SYNOPSIS:

Marjane is an only child in Iran growing up with a loving liberal family in a time of change.  She comes across as being very entitled, very financially well off, and very deeply engaged even as a child.  As her society changes and becomes more religious with the revolution, she shows the contradiction in people and their attitudes as they use religion as a power and political tool.  Her retelling of the torture and horrors family and friends go through, is kept light by her universal coming of age musings and struggles.  She is encouraged to be vocal and outspoken about social issues, with her parents boundless support for whatever consequences her actions bring on.  In the second volume Marjane has gone to Austria for school to get away from the confinements of Iran.  Here she finds different struggles as she finds it hard to fit in, hard to conform, and hard to be away from home.  She experiments with drugs, and boys, and ideologies, but alas returns home after she finds herself homeless, friendless, and in poor health.  Back in Iran she finds she has now joined the contradictory world she left behind, and being back in school and married to a man she doesn’t love forces her once again to leave her homeland, and take all her life lessons to rebuild herself as someone she wants to be.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is a graphic novel. In many ways it makes the political influence of her country on her life easier to understand.  Iran’s political history is complex and to take a reader unfamiliar with it and use it as a narrative in shaping her and her thought process, it works surprisingly well.

I primarily wanted to read the book to see how Islam is presented.  Obviously it would be a major factor in the book, and obviously the author is not a practicing Muslim in favor of the revolution.  So, I was equal parts nervous and curious to see how such a popular book would show such a religious society.  And to be honest, I feel like she handled it in a very secular way.  She never seemed to attack the doctrine of the faith, but more its presentation as a tool to oppress or control Iranians.  Her rebellion in clothing and alcohol and drugs and promiscuity is presented as a rebellion against a society that is using Islam and the contradictions people have with it in public as opposed as to behind closed doors. For example she doesn’t support the veil or hijab, but it didn’t seem that she was opposed to someone wanting to wear it, she was opposed to it being forced upon women, and she pointed out the hypocrisy of people not wearing it one day then wearing it and policing other woman’s manner of wearing it the next.  I felt this was made a bit clear when she meets a religious man, who passes her on her ideology test.  She refers to him as a “true religious man” who respects her honesty.  In my mind I saw this as her not being a religious person and not being surrounded by people who were religious for the sake of belief, but rather for their own personal gain and agenda.  When she critiques her country’s laws about boys and girls being together, or consumption of alcohol she doesn’t go into the verses in the Quran or hadith, but rather how she is able to skirt the law with a fine or deceit.  She doesn’t pray, but also makes clear she doesn’t know how to pray, she doesn’t know how to read Arabic, etc.. Thus the idea of being Muslim is foreign to her, she simply lives in a country that claims to enforce Islamic rules.  By her then going to Austria and having “freedom” but not finding happiness I also found it made the nuances of what is religion and what is culture and what is politics a little bit easier to see.  Ultimately it is a girl finding her self and defining her self irregardless of what country she is in and what religion that culture follows.  Whether people learning of Iran of Islam for the first time would see the shades of gray within the novel I don’t know, but I truly don’t believe Satrapi based on this book hates Islam or is trying to get others to view the faith as a whole negatively.  And even despite her feeling confined in Iran I think she has a deep love of her country and her people.

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FLAGS:

Violence, language (lots), sex, drugs, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would never use this book as a book club book at an Islamic school.  The themes are just too mature to justify the coming of age story aspect of it, or even as a historical supplement to Iranian culture.  That being said, I personally as an adult would love to be in a book club with this book.  I know a lot of Iranian and Iranian Americans who are religious, but I have never inquired as to their personal political views, and vice versa. I know even more secular Persians, many with disdain for Islam, but again not for practicing Muslims, and never have dared ask how their political and socio-economic status may have influenced them and their views.  I think it would be fascinating, both to hear their stories and to solidify my own views on such a contentious issue.

Owl & Cat Islam is… by Emma Apple

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Owl & Cat Islam is… by Emma Apple

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The book’s charm is its simplicity.  The text is minimal and the illustrations a small portion of the page.  But at 59 pages the book finds power in showing what Islam is to muslim and non muslim children alike.

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To say that I liked the book is an understatement, I loved it! It is perfect for bedtime and story time for kids 1 to 4.  Ages 5 and up can read it themselves in mere minutes.  The pictures not only are the story, but add a wonderful sprinkling of humor.  I mean really lets eat a mouse, better yet lets share it! EEEW! Oh wait animals and cats do eat mice!

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But why I really like the book, is because while it reminds Muslim children of all the subtle things that make up what Islam is.  It also builds bridges for children who know Muslims, or whose parents want them to widen their knowledge, as it lends it self so effortlessly to seeing how we are all the same.  Yes it mentions the names of Islamic Prayers and that Muslims read the Quran, and tells the five pillars in a non preachy way, but it also says, “Islam is Family,” and “Islam is Respecting our parents” and “Islam is Telling the truth.”  Much more alike than different.  A lesson even the littlest reader can understand and hopefully remember.

Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winters

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Again I break from my fiction preference to review another book about these two remarkable individuals: Malala and Iqbal.  In this beautiful book linking two brave children from Pakistan, Jeanette Winter’s brings their stories to a young audience in a powerfully simplistic way.  Written on an AR 3.6 level, each story is 20 pages and presented in a flip book format.  Before each story there is a brief Author’s Note about each character in a broader view, for context to be given as needed to the adults to share with the children listening to the book, or for older children to read and deepen their understanding and appreciation.  The sentences are short and the font and presentation is inviting to even early readers.  The pictures are wonderful and do a tremendous job showing the intensity of the environment Malala and Iqbal face, while not frightening the reader.

The Malala portion of the book starts with the Taliban asking for her on the bus and like her biography, then takes the reader to the threats and deterrents they made to girls in school, but on an audience appropriate level.  It tells how they stopped wearing uniforms so that they could be harder to identify and how even burning the girls school didn’t stop them. It then returns to her being shot and going from the hospital in Swat to one in England.  It concludes with her speaking to the U.N. on her 16th birthday.

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The story of Iqbal is a bit harder I think for children to understand as they may not know what a loom is or have ever thought about who makes carpets.  Also the words bondage, Peshgi, outlawed, and mourners are not in their vocabulary .  They should understand that he is sold for an unpaid $12 debt, but that too may need to be stressed and explained. If the kids can grasp this, I really think children as young as kindergarten can appreciate his story.  I love that the author didn’t shy away from the fact that he was shot and killed.   Even if they do not understand all the facets that make Iqbal’s work so incredible.  They will feel inspired that someone so young was so brave.  Iqbal