Category Archives: YA FICTION

A Bedtime Prayer for Peace by Akila Dada & Sukaina Dada illustrated by Michael Wagstaffe

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A Bedtime Prayer for Peace by Akila Dada & Sukaina Dada illustrated by Michael Wagstaffe

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This is a slow, deliberate, thoughtful book, that does a good job or setting a prayerful tone with short rhyming sentences.  Intended for preschool age children, early elementary children also will enjoy this book in rotation at bedtime or nap time.  

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The book thanks the creator and asks for protection for all things small and large, seen and unseen, in a gentle dreamlike manner that really could go on for so much longer than the 32 pages present.  Some items mentioned like the plants and trees a preschooler will know, but some of the concepts introduce little ones to something bigger, “Give shelter to families who need a home, Help all the people who feel alone,” “Guide us with your grace and might, keep us safe from every plight.”  

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The prayer is voiced by a mom to her young boy, Esa, and the illustrations show traditional subcontinent dress as well as western clothes being worn.  The author’s are Muslim but the book is not overtly Islamic.  Sometimes the mom is in hijab, but when in the home she is not.  More distinctly, the word Allah is not used, only God is, and thus the book and prayer, really would work for any monotheistic child as the book does say, “Dear God, protect my beautiful son, You are the Truth. You are the One.”

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The true treasure of this book is that the main character is in a wheelchair.  Showing different abled characters is always such a blessing as it normalizes it and inshaAllah makes us more accepting when out and about.  The illustrations don’t wow me, but their quiet simplicity keeps the pace of the book, and don’t scream for attention.  Some of the smaller details are endearing and help sleepy eyes linger on page without feeling rushed.

With a hard 8×8 cover, the book is a good size for little hands to read over and over again, alhumdulillah. 

 

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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Watched by Marina Budhos

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Watched by Marina Budhos

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This book is so incredibly timely that it feels like it could be real, granted its been timely since 911 and homeland security took to watching people more aggressively and openly.  But, New York police have been in the news about their methods regarding watching muslims and mosques, and this fiction book does a great job of getting inside a boy’s mind as he explores both being watched and being the watcher.  The book is 265 pages and is written on an AR level of fourth grade, but content wise I would not recommend it for anyone younger than high school.  The concepts and themes need to be put in perspective to appreciate the book.  And at the same time, being able to understand how terrorist recruit and how police aren’t always ethical, creates some gray area that require a certain level of maturity to make it resonate.  It isn’t a black and white story with good pitted against bad or legal verse illegal, the nuances in between are where the action takes place.

SYNOPSIS:

Immigrant. Muslim. Teenager. Screw-up. Lots of labels for high school senior Naeem Rahman.  Born in Bangladesh, he moves to Queens in New York, after his mother dies and his father has remarried in America and sends for him.  While there is a gap in his relationship with his father, the story doesn’t focus on issues at home.  He has a very strong relationship with his step mom, and his younger brother, making him very likable and endearing.  He has problems elsewhere, however, that stress his family and get him in to trouble.  His grades are poor and he learns he will not be able to graduate, which further distances Naeem from his small shop owning father.  And his friends have dwindled to a single friend, Ibrahim,  that enjoys weaving tales mixed with truth and fantasy and dreams, that gives Naeem a taste for living on the edge and running fluidly around the city.  When an adventure with Ibrahim goes bad, and Naeem gets stuck holding stolen goods, it is a deal with some cops that comprises the bulk of the story, and forces Naeem to decide if he can go from being watched, to being a watcher, an informant for the police.

With a prior run in with the law, some marijuana in his backpack, a working class family, and not wanting jail time, the police officers know that they can pretty much ask anything from Naeem and he will comply.  Naeem starts spying on his community online and by going to the masjid for prayers, volunteering with MSA’s, helping out with summer schools for Muslim kids, all things he and his family had stopped doing after 9/11 when cameras started going up on poles outside of mosques, and fellow worshippers started eavesdropping on each other to report back to the police.  But, now that Naeem is on the inside, he finds power and strength in what he is doing, a confidence he has never had before.  He starts helping neighbors, helping the family income, fasting in Ramadan, but all with a guilty conscience.  His foundation is deceptive.  When the story comes full circle and Naeem realizes the path he is on, he has to find a way to get out and own up to the choices he has made both to his community and to the police.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The story has moments of action and intensity, but it is also poetic and introspective.  Budhos really gets inside Naeem’s head and shares that with the readers.  Obviously, the book is for Muslims and non Muslims, it is a companion story to her book Ask Me No Questions, but I think the reason it resonated so much with me is because it is something I am familiar with.  So the poetic musings made Naeem more likeable to me, I didn’t see them as speed bumps in a book billed as a thriller.  I was glad that Naeem was charming and fleshed out.  His relationship with his little brother and with his step mom, really show that he has layers and isn’t just one label or another.  There is a lot of diversity in the Muslims presented and their backgrounds that make them who they are.  There are also a lot of cultures presented in this immigrant neighborhood that make the details solid.  There is no doubt that the author knows what she is talking about, that she is perhaps lived it in some capacity, the authenticity is definitely present.

FLAGS:

Aside from the arcing themes that raise flags for the younger, more sheltered readers. There are a lot of things mentioned, although not explicit or celebrated, they are presented in passing to create understanding of an environment.  There is drug use, kissing, violence and some profanity.  In a story like this there is obviously a lot of lying, stealing, talk of homegrown terrorism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The author’s website: http://www.marinabudhos.com/books/watched

Author interview with NBC news: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/immigrant-teen-gets-swept-nypd-surveillance-marina-budhos-watched-n661171

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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This book really marked a shift in Islamic fiction for me and the genre.  First of all I was waiting for the book to come out.  I didn’t stumble upon it or hear about it from someone else.  I knew when it was going to be released, and I knew I wanted to read it. Additionally it was the first books published by Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Which according to their website was “founded in 2016, Salaam Reads is an imprint that aims to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families, and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.”  This is big, huge in fact.  The bar has been raised, and a platform has been given, no more excuses.

Alhumdulillah, Amina’s Voice is a beautiful 197 page book for children ages 8-12.  The book is not AR, but probably will be in a few weeks.  I think it is spot on for 3rd through 5th grade in terms of content, message, and appeal.  The book caters to females and Muslims, but naturally is not limited to those two demographics exclusively.  There are characters of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds in the novel that play significant roles in saving the day and keeping the book powerfully optimistic and inspiring.

SYNOPSIS:

Amina is starting middle school and everything is changing for Amina. Her friends are acting different, her older brother is skirting with trouble and her religious uncle is coming to visit from Pakistan.  Internally, she doesn’t like the spotlight but desperately wants to get out from behind the piano to sing.  All of this combines in a climax that pivots around the destruction of the mosque she attends and her having to find her voice, and use it to take center stage in her own life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

There is a lot going on in the book, but it doesn’t get over whelming with Amina’s voice keeping the reader focused on her and her view of the events around her.  The author does a good job of getting inside a 12 year-old girls head without being condescending or heartless.  The reader feels her stress that she is losing her best friend, Soojin to Emily, a girl who used to torment the two “ethnic” girls, without belittling her concerns.  You also feel her love of Islam and struggle to understand if music and singing is permissible within Islamic rules.  The book is realistic fiction with school, friendships, and family guiding the story.  Everything from the ups and downs of group projects, inside jokes between siblings, and trying to pronounce the big HAA in Arabic.  The macro of middle elementary years combined with the micro facets of culture, religion, and current events, and you speak to a section of readers that will connect with Amina and what she goes through in a very authentic, relatable story.

The only points that gave me pause is the premise and music in the book.  It is a point of disagreement amongst nearly every group of Muslims, so to have the Imam sitting and listening to her play the piano, is a bit hard for me to accept as the norm, no matter how cool Imam Malik is.  Additionally, I wish that Amina’s mom had some depth, and the relationship between Amina and her uncle, Thaya Jaan, was fleshed out just a tad more.  In both cases I felt something was lacking, and I wanted more.

FLAGS:

Nothing major, but a few minor issues, that a parent may want to be aware of for younger readers.  Mustafa, Amina’s brother, is seeing skipping Sunday school class and reeking of cigarette smoke.  He denies it, and the issue is definitely not glorified.  There is also crushes discussed amongst Amina’s friends and when Amina spills a secret, she has to own up to it and work it out to maintain her friendships.  The destruction of the mosque could also be upsetting to younger readers.  It isn’t graphic, but her emotional response and the intensity of it, is the climax, and a very real part of our world sadly. For parents, this fictional vandalization could possibly be a great place to start a discussion from if your children are somehow unaware of the current status of Islam in the west.  It also shows that people are good, as the whole larger community, comes together to show unity, love, and respect are values to us all, alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a 3rd through 5th book club.  If I was starting a new book club I would start with this book.  It has it all. It has real issues, religious issues, universal issues, and heart.  All while staying on age level and all in a realistic fiction safe space to have an opinion about objectively.  The discussions after the book is read will flow naturally, but just in case:

Reading Group Guide:  http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Aminas-Voice/Hena-Khan/9781481492065/reading_group_guide

Author’s Page: https://www.henakhan.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Storyteller by Evan Turk

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The Storyteller by Evan Turk

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Set in Morocco a long, long time ago near the edge of the great Sahara, a young boy goes in search of water.  But just as the city grew and grew and people forgot about the threat of the desert, people forgot about storytellers too.

This 44 page book weaves a tale of story within a story within a story, and combines different times in the past to illustrate how vital stories are to our existence.  Much like the thirst that only water can quench, the human soul needs connections.  With a Djinn threatening to cover the town in a sandstorm and the mysteries of the blue water bird, can a well told story really restore water and safety?  Written on a 4.9 level this book could get a bit confusing to a struggling reader, or a child trying to keep everything straight.  I found this book works best with kids that can get caught up in the story and the imagination of it all, without over thinking all the layers. It, like the story within the story suggests, works best to be listened too.  There is a lot of text, but it is very soothing and engaging.  The pictures are splendid, but in a dream like manner.  The book works well with sleepy children listening to your voice and getting lost in the pictures, making a storyteller out of the reader, and proving the engaging power of a story.  Second graders and up will enjoy listening to the story, and learning about desert life, and oral storytelling in lyrical way.  There is no Islamic element other than the hijab wearing women in the pictures, and the mention of a djinn.  There is is an author’s note at the end telling of the resurgent efforts of public storytelling in Morocco.

When a storyteller dies, a library burns-old Moroccan saying

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.

The Treasure at Bayan Bluffs by Farah Zaman illustrated by Kim Zaman

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The Treasure at Bayan Bluffs by Farah Zaman illustrated by Kim Zaman

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At 231 pages this book claims to be for ages 9 to 18 and that’s a pretty large spread for a mystery, yet alone an Islamic fiction one by a first time author.   In a tone reminiscent of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys,  it should really should just say 9 and up, I was hooked!

SYNOPSIS:

Adam and Layla along with their younger twin brothers Hassan and Hakeem from America are visiting their family home of Bayan Bluffs in Midan for the summer.  Their grandfather and great aunt and a few long time servants aren’t much entertainment for the children, so their parents arrange for their college friends kids’ Zaid and Zahra from Crescent City, a few hours away, on the other side of Midan to join them.  The children get along right away and decide to try and solve a mystery of a hidden treasure that they have heard bits and pieces of over the years.  Their search for the Moon of Masarrah starts innocently enough, but quickly escalates as they learn they aren’t the only ones searching for the missing gem.  As they learn more about the jewel and the circumstances of its disappearance the gem and the murder of Adam and Layla’s great grandfather get further entwined.  With a few of the suspects still alive and many of their family members still in the city, the children soon find they themselves in danger as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The biggest reason I like it, is it is well written.  There aren’t confusing passages, or too many characters or boring preachy paragraphs.  The plot is good, the dialogue believable and the fact that they are Muslim children, just depth to the story.  They plan to meet after asr or before Jummah, and they say inshaAllah and mashaAllah, and its just a really good balance of who they are, but not all they are.  In retrospect, maybe they all get a long a little too well, but it isn’t syrupy and they have some minor annoyances, so it doesn’t hinder the story.  The only thing I caught myself looking back on was the age of the twins.  At times they seem like toddlers and at other times much, much older.  Even the author says they are “about six years old,” and having a six year old myself, I do believed that they can vacillate to both extremes in any given moment and thus I accepted their antics and let it go.  Additionally I wish she included a map.  It isn’t confusing, but it would have been great to look back upon as the action speeds up, and would definitely help younger readers visualize the details.  The terrain vocabulary for anyone younger than nine might need some explanation.  There is a glossary at the end for some of the Arabic words, and for some of the specific ships and weapons mentioned.  Their are a few illustrations that I think help the younger readers, they aren’t needed for the story, but they don’t impede it either.  I wasn’t crazy about them within the story, but I did appreciate that they show the girls in hijab and the illustrator clearly put a lot of work in to them.

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I wish that the cover was more appealing, for a story that was so good, I wish it begged to be picked up.  InshaAllah word of mouth will carry the book, so that more like it are written and published.

FLAGS:

None, mashaAllah it is clean and wholesome.  There are good and bad Muslims and no judgement is put in a religious context.  There is some violence, but it is nothing even a seven year old would find offensive.  Alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a Book Club book for 5th through 8th grade.  The writing quality and the different characters the students would be able to identify with, would make it a lot of fun.  There isn’t any deep or though provoking discussion points to accompany the book, but I think the genre is hard to come by and Muslim kids seeing Muslim kids solving a crime and going on a treasure hunt, is just exciting.  I couldn’t find any study guides or even much information on the book or author, but none is needed to enjoy the story.  Farah Zaman if somehow you see this review, know that I hope you keep writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed your book!  Happy Reading Everyone!