Category Archives: strong women

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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This 44 page fictionalized retelling of Queen Goharshad, a 15th century monarch of the Timurid dynasty in Afghanistan should really be a larger book than 8 x 8 to appreciate the artwork that is detailed and stunning.  The story of Goharshad, wife of Emperor Shah Rukh, and her influence on art, music, culture, higher education, and architecture, is one that we should be more familiar with, but the actual text and manner in which the story is conveyed isn’t consistent for me and I wanted more details about the society she stepped in to to rule,  I know it is fiction, and meant for 2nd to 4th graders, but I would like to think that readers will want to know what obstacles she had and what support she enjoyed and from where.  That they will question if it was a rich kingdom that she could pay musicians to play everywhere, and wonder if families sent their daughters to the University she built, ask why it wasn’t for women to design a  Masjid, and what was the name of the smaller mosque that bore an older woman’s name? The book at times overly summarizes and at other times is haltingly detailed.  It is a good read to reflect a strong woman and her influence on her land, but unless assigned, I don’t know that seven to ten year olds will pick up the book and be inspired by it enough to change their perception of the Afghanistan that they may see on the news.

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Seven centuries ago Goharshad loved beautiful things such as painting and the texts of Rumi.  Her brothers played at being like Genghis Khan and teased her for not being brave.  She vowed to be brave with beauty even though she didn’t know what that even meant.  At age 14 she was given in marriage to the king, Shah Rukh, in Herat.  She ruled with her husband and had resources and time to spread her beauty by speaking up and being brave.

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Her first act of beauty was by filling the kingdom with music.  She wanted music every day in the court and beyond. Music that was playful and pious, music that painted pictures in the listeners minds and brought joy like the laughter of God.  She next sketched and designed a beautiful and enchanting garden to be built.  It doesn’t say where it was, but that people came from all around to enjoy it.

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Feeling braver she turned her sights on building a mosque in the western city of Mashhad.  She designed it and called the court architect, Qavam al-Din Shirazi to discuss.  He doubted if it was right for a woman to design such spaces, but she assured him that she had the talent for it, so construction began.  An elderly woman refused to sell her cottage for the new project unless a mosque with her name was built.  The advisors wanted the old woman put to death or imprisoned, Goharshad disagreed appreciating the woman’s strength and instead agreed.  The big mosque was built with Goharshad’s name and a smaller one on the property with the old lady’s.

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With such an accomplishment complete, the Queen again summoned the architect and expressed her desire to build a great center for learning.  A college for girls, a grand mosque for prayer, and a vast library.  She wanted the structure decorated with paint from precious stones and sold her crown to finance the project.

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After her husband died Goharshad reigned, but sadly after she died, much of her accomplishments died as well.  Over time, harsh weather and war, nearly all her buildings disappeared and those that remain, do so in ruin.  The book ends with hope that memories of her will endure, A guide to some of the words in the story,  an Author’s note, and a Guide for Parents and Educators.

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There is not a lot of Islam in the story, just the building of masajid .  Some may take issue with her stress and celebration of music, and likening it to God laughing, but if you look at it as her story, it should be able to be appreciated even if you disagree.

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

Hannah and the Ramadan Gift by Qasim Rashid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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You may have seen this new 40 page Ramadan book that came out yesterday and thought, “another book about what Ramadan, is and a girl being told she is too young to fast, I’ll pass.”  And I’m here to tell you, please reconsider.  This book is wonderful and it is not the same-old-same-old.  I know the title and cover don’t hint at the heartfelt story within, but it really does an amazing job of showing, not just telling, about the feelings and purpose of Ramadan beyond the restraining of food and drink.  The text is a bit heavy, but the illustrations keep even four and five year olds engaged, and the story works for Muslim and non Muslim children alike.  The OWN voice book has a Desi slant with Urdu words, Pakistani clothing and featuring an immigrant family, but the cultural tinges are defined in the text and it flows smoothly.  This would be a great book to share with your children’s class to show how Ramadan is more than just going without food, or being just one day, or one act of kindness, it is an ongoing effort to show kindness to those near and far.  The book shows an authentic Muslim family and presents universal themes, making Ramadan and Islam more relatable and familiar to all readers, and inspiring Muslim children to find their own ways to save the world.

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The book starts with Hannah being woken up by her paternal grandfather, Dada Jaan, it is the first day of Ramadan, and she is excited.  She hopes that now that she is eight years old, she is old enough to fast.  Her heart sinks when she is told, “Fasting is for grown-ups, not for growing children,” but her spirits rebound when Dada Jaan tells her that she is going to celebrate Ramadan by saving the world.

The first thing Hannah and Dada Jaan do is collect cans from the pantry to take to the soup kitchen.  Dada Jaan explains what a soup kitchen is, and why it is important to help those that don’t have enough food.  Hannah is worried they won’t be able to help everyone in the whole world, but Dada Jaan encourages her to start with her neighbors.

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Later in the day, Hannah’s friend loses a beloved family necklace, and when the bell rings she doesn’t want to be late for class, but she remembers that she is supposed to help, so she does.  Hannah finds the necklace, but her teacher is not happy when she comes to class late, and Hannah isn’t even given a chance to explain.

On the 11th day of Ramadan, Hannah and Dada Jaan decide to save the world again before they head off to the science fair.  They are packing up clothes to take to the shelter.  Hannah is worried that the people at the shelter won’t know that they are the ones that donated the clothes.  Dada Jaan says that it is enough to help people out of love and adds that the best superheroes work in secret.

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At the science fair Hannah sets up her model replica of Abbas ibn Firnas’s flying machine next to her friend Dani.  When Dani runs off to see a robot, his globe rolls off the table and Hannah saves it. Dani ends up winning and she is happy for him, but she is sad that no one knows she saved his project.

Twenty days in to Ramadan, Hannah has a play date with a girl she has never met before and Hannah does not want to go.  Sarah is new to the neighborhood and Hannah’s mom insists she goes.  Luckily Dada Jaan strikes up a deal that he will take her and they can leave when ever she wants.  Hannah and Sarah have so much fun together, Hannah doesn’t want to leave.

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When they get home, Dada Jaan shows Hannah old photographs of when he and Dadi Jaan had first come and didn’t even know the language.  They talk about how the kindness of others helped them, that and Dadi’s butter chicken.  The night before Eid, Dada Jaan asks Hannah if she helped make the world a better place, she doesn’t think she did, but he seems to think otherwise.

On Eid day they go to the mosque, then to the cemetery to pay respect to Dadi Jaan, and when they return home they find Hannah’s whole world there to celebrate with her.  Cousins, friends Maria and Dani from the church across the street and the synagog by the mosque, as well as the Sikh family that runs the soup kitchen.  Dada Jaan and Hannah enjoy gulab jamun, kheer, and jalebis as they discuss if Hannah really did help the world this Ramadan.

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It is hard in my heart to go wrong with a story that focuses on an amazing grandfather/granddaughter relationship that ends with them racing to get the last gulab jamun, so I might be a little bias.  But I was genuinely surprised and delighted by the direction the book took and the way it presented Ramadan in everyday situations that children can relate to and imitate. I was a little disappointed that the book wasn’t larger considering the phenomenal illustrations.  It is just 8.5 x 11.  I love that the characters pray and read Quran, and the mom covers and the neighbors are diverse.

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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The Library  Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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It seems this polarizing 32 page picture book has instagram reviewers torn, perhaps along racial/cultural lines, as to whether the book is wonderful or simply victim to perpetuating the same old tropes and stereotypes.  Maybe being half brown, I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself in the middle.  I think if you are tired of feeling like the only strong Muslim female from the subcontinent acknowledged by the West is Malala Yousafzai, and seeing her single narrative and experience being repackaged in a new book every other week, then yes, this book is going to grate on a similar nerve and OWN voice or not, you will write it off as Afghanistan being close enough to Pakistan and the story of a girl and education being unoriginal.  I think the flip side is that if you find a female lead taking education in the form of a library bus to the places where formal education is not available and you love the empowerment that women educating women can have in changing a society, then you are going to probably love a female driving a bus, a female teaching, a girl planning to go to school, a grandfather making sure in a previous generation when women couldn’t be educated, that he taught his daughter, and being thankful that it is a person from the society and not a “white savior” coming to help the people in Afghanistan.  Both as far as I can tell have merit.  I think that you see in the book what your paradigm and perspective is before you even start.  I have read it and re read it and then read it again over the span of many weeks. I was alerted to it by @muslimkidsbooknook who sensed that we might disagree before she even posted her review (haha it’s like she knows me!), so my review is going to try really hard to focus on the text, and what it says, not on the 30 books before it that had a similar message or on my views on publishers only accepting manuscripts with reassuring easily palatable narratives, there is enough of that already about this book out there.  I’m going to try and offer my perspective on what the book contains and while it has problems for me, I definitely liked it more than I disliked it. Oh and one more thing: the illustrations, swoon, are gorgeous, like really, really beautiful. Bismillah…

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Pari and her mother are getting ready to set off in their library on wheels.  It is Pari’s first day as her mother’s helper and she is a little nervous. It is dark when Pari’s mom drives the bus to their first stop- a small village tucked in a valley between two gray mountains.  There are a group of girls waiting for the bus and call it over to return books and pick new ones.  This reminds me of my time in New England and hearing about the Book Mobiles and Mobile Book Fairs that would visit the small seaside towns that didn’t have proper libraries.  Even my mom used to tell me stories about waiting for the Book Mobile to stop on her street in Davis County, Utah to get books once a month.  The concept is universal and that it takes place in Afghanistan and is driven by a woman who is educated and independent, is intentional with the hopes of being inspiring.

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The girls then gather for a lesson, it is hard to know how impromptu it is or if it is a regular organized class.  It is also not made clear if they always practice English or it is something unique to the day, but they sing the alphabet song and count to ten.  After class a girl tries to chat with Pari and see how much she knows.  Pari lies and says she can print, but in reality can’t even read or write in Farsi yet. This shows a gap in the story as earlier Pari said she could barely count all the books in the library, and in the pictures there are a lot of books, but she is trying to keep up as the girls count to ten.  As the mom and daughter team pack up to head to their next location they discuss how Pari’s mama learned.

Pari’s grandpa taught her mom a long time ago, at a time when girls were not allowed to go to school and she had to hide in the basement to learn.  Pari wonders if her mom was afraid of the basement.  It is always dark down there.  It is really one paragraph on one page that mentions that girls could not learn.  It is presented in the past tense, and as the story progresses we learn that next year when Pari is older she will be going to school.

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There is a two page spread about the mom seemingly going off on her mantra that learning makes you free.  And I’m ok with it.  It says when you go to school study hard, period, then the next line says, “Never stop learning. Then you will be free.” Yes! I agree, how many of us pursued a skill or a hobby during this pandemic to feel free from the confines of staying at home.  Learning in any capacity is liberating.  It may not keep you safe in a war, but the freedom of the mind to find peace and pursue passions is critical to mental health and survival.  Am I reading too much in to these basic lines? Absolutely, well probably anyway.

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When the bus gets to a refugee camp with tents everywhere, Pari and her mom start handing out pencils and notebooks before settling in to what seems an organized English lesson of ABC.  I am torn on my thoughts about them stressing English over their own language.  A sense of pride in who they are by learning Farsi or Dari or Pashtu would show readers that Afghan culture is rich and worth learning and valuing.  I worry that by stressing the English, it presents the culture and language erroneously as the opposite.  At the same time, as a child and teen, I went to Pakistan over a dozen times and would beg my (middle class) cousins to teach me Urdu.  I’d make them take me to Urdu Bazaar for dictionaries and text books, and preschool grammar books so that I could learn my father’s language.  And it never happened.  I’d beg in letters before I got there, and they would agree, but when I arrived they all wanted to work on their English.  They wanted to practice it in conversation, they wanted me to read over their assignments, they would introduce me to their coaching center teachers, their principals, the tutors, and I’d find myself teaching them colloquialisms and explaining idioms, and I’d watch my “textbooks” gather dust.  This was before social media, and YouTube and Netflix and I was their link from their studies to the larger world that rewarded knowledge of the English language.  Is it correct or even logical? No.  But it was my experience that they desperately wanted to learn English over Urdu or the required provincial language Sindhi.  Would readers of this book know that? No.  Do critics of them learning English wish that it wasn’t the case more than wishing that the book simply didn’t highlight it? I don’t know.

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As they leave the camp, Pari reads the letters of the refugee organizations off the tents.  I find it off that earlier she called it ACDs instead of ABCs and yet now she knows the alphabet.  Again I’ve read the critiques questioning why the refugee camps are named and have over thought it.  In some ways I think it is a reminder that the country has been at war and that individual organizations are helping care for those displaced by countries that tore the country apart.  The text says that, “there are no schools for the girls in the village or the camps.” If anything I took this to show that while we stereotype Afghan society as not making education of females important, that international relief groups don’t either.  The great saviors aren’t teaching the girls in the camps, a mom and her daughter come once a week.  There is a subtle yet powerful critique of foreign policy there, if you want to really be honest, I think this should be made more clear.  At the end of the day the strong Afghan people are putting their country back together after a never ending illegal conflict has ravaged them further.

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The author says in his note at the end that this book is based on real people he met in refugee camps when he returned to his homeland and that this book is a tribute to the strong Afghan people, particularly the women.  Imagine where any war torn nation would be without the bravery and determination of mothers and teachers, and women who will risk it all for their children and ultimately an entire generation, when politics and power have found other things to value.

The book on its own I think is fine, allbeit written plainly for western readers.  Do I wish stories about life in this part of the world didn’t feature war and refugees and education, absolutely.  We can argue my experience compared to your experience, to the author’s purpose and intent, to the publisher’s vision. That is the beauty of books, we don’t have to agree and we can discuss and we can all be better for it.  There is nothing Islamic in the book other than some of the characters wearing a scarf or chador or hijab.

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

fatima's great outdoors

As a partially brown person who enjoys camping and does it frequently, I have been anxiously waiting to get my hands on this beautiful 40 page, kindergarten to fourth grade picture book. So, trust me, I’ve read it multiple times to myself, to my children, and even to a Muslim storytime group to try and figure out why I like it, but, unfortunately, really don’t love it. Ultimately, I think it is because there is just too much going on.

Everything about this book is wonderful: the idea to encourage brown people to go camping, to highlight that time in the wilderness is for everyone and doesn’t have to look a certain way, that bullying and micro aggressions are oppressive, that immigrants have diverse and full lives in their home countries and work hard when they come to America, that culture and language and food and music is diverse, yet universal, that learning new skills and trying hard things makes you a super hero, that dad’s can cook and mom’s can be great fire starters and critter catchers, truly it is all so powerful and affirming, it is just a lot for one book.

It could easily be a three book series with just the information and layered themes presented, and I really wish it was spread out. If you are a 4th grade desi kid who has been camping or desperately wants to go camping this book is a great glimpse to mirror your place in the hobby without compromising your unique spin on it, but I think for anyone not in that demographic, many of the little celebrations, messages, themes, and cultural nuggets will simply be lost.

I wanted to hear the campfire stories and jokes, and laugh at the lyrics being belted out, not just told about them. I wanted to feel Fatima’s accomplishment at helping set up the tent and maybe see her struggle and rebound, not just be told she suggested reading the directions. The book has a ton of industry praise and personally came with a lot of expectation for me, so perhaps I’m overly critical, but kids in my storytime were struggling to stay focused when they couldn’t relate to the cultural touchstones being tossed out, they didn’t get the “not being good at math stereotype,” they needed the non text pictures to be explained to grasp their impact on the story, and they wanted to know why of all the Islamic things a Muslim family could do while camping, halal bacon was the only Islamic reference and came with precious little contextual defining.

The story starts with a Fatima and aapa waiting to be picked up after a terrible week of school to go camping for the first time. The Khazi family has immigrated from India and their father has told them that camping is an American pastime. During the week Fatima has been teased for her pronunciation and lunch, had her hair pulled and done poorly on a math test. But when her parent’s pull up with a packed car and the girls jump in to enjoy samosa and Bollywood songs, the weekend holds promise.

When they get to the campsite, Fatima and her dad tackle the setting up of the tent. Dad cannot seem to figure it out, and after the week she has had, Fatima is scared to help, but after a while she suggests looking at the directions and it seems that does the trick. The family enjoys shami kabab and rotis from home for dinner, before the girls climb in the tent.

A spider on the outside of the tent is magnified inside, and has the girls terrified it is a monster. Mom, the ever brave lizard and scorpion disposer in India reassures them that it is nothing and sends them off to brush their teeth before settling in for the night.

The next morning mom shows the girl the small spider keeping the mosquitos out and they all share a laugh while dad is cooking anda and roti on a gas grill. He calls the girls to come out in urdu to attempt a campfire to cook the halal beef bacon on like other American’s do. Dad and Fatima can’t get it to light, so mom, who is from a smaller town in India has to show them how it is done. Along the way Fatima looks at the other campers and is annoyed that they aren’t having trouble and that her family always is so different. The other families it is worth noting are white.

The Khazi family then starts to pack up and then they go for a hike, play in water and when the time to leave comes Fatima is sad. She doesn’t want to go back to the life they live where they are different and teased and her parents have to work two jobs each. But aapa suggests she share her fun at show and tell, and the family reassures her that they will be back.

The book ends with Fatima telling her class she is a superhero because she can build fires and tents and isn’t afraid of spider monsters. There is no glossary to define the urdu words used and spoken, but there is a reference at the end about the author’s @brownpeoplecamping initiative.

I think the book is rather remarkable and ground breaking because of its subject matter. The illustrations are wonderful, and the book a great reminder that camping and being outdoors is for all. I just wish it focused on a theme or two and highlighted them for this Indian American Muslim Family with relate-ability for other types of minority groups. The book set its own standard in what it wanted to achieve and convey, and sadly I think it missed the mark.

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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