Category Archives: YA FICTION

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

it aint so awful

Islamaphobia is rampant in today’s America, but it isn’t the first time that a minority group has had to face extreme persecution.  Often us Muslims need to look around and be reminded: Blacks are still targeted, Japanese once were interned, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, really every minority group has, and continues to struggle to be accepted as part of American culture, unfortunately.  Today’s middle school students didn’t live through 9//11 and often they think they are the first to be ostracized for their faith or their parent’s countries of origin.  So I picked up this book to see how well the book would serve as a way to discuss prejudice and persecution with Muslim kids, in a way that they could relate to, but be removed enough from that hopefully they could offer their own insights and experiences.   This book takes place in the 1970s and the climax is the Iran hostage situation as the book is told from an 11-year-old Iranian girl’s perspective. 

Similarly, most Persian penned books that I’ve read fight against Islam and the way it was forced upon them by their government, so I also wanted to see how the author would paint the faith in her semi auto-biographical-middle-school tale.  Alhumdulillah, I was happily surprised how Islam was handled in this 378 page, AR 4.7, book, and I think, like the inscription reads, “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason.  This one’s for you.”

SYNOPSIS:

Zomorod has lived in America before.  She was born in Iran, moved to California, moved back to Iran, back to California, and now from Compton, California she is moving to the much wealthier Newport Beach and hoping to start middle school fitting in more with her new Brady Bunch inspired name, Cindy.  Establishing early that she is the translator for her mother, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want to learn, and that she is somewhat embarrassed by her parent’s thick accents, lack of American snacks, Iranian food, and conversation topics, the book will appeal to most middle schooler’s who can relate.  Her parents, however, are pretty chill about letting her go out with friends, and doing whatever she wants, so really its more about the age and being angsty and awkward, then it is about her parents and their lifestyle and culture.  The basic point of the book is a growing-up tale of making friends, finding real ones that care about you, finding the balance between family and the outside world, cultures that conflict, the past and the future, and ultimately finding acceptance and pride in who, and what you are.

The political climate in Iran and in America amplify what it is like when people hate your country, but can’t find it on the map, and manifest in the story with bullying at school, Zomorod’s father losing his job and not finding a new one, and some hateful acts occurring at the Yousefzadeh’s home. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could be heavy and dark, but it’s not.  The voice of Zomorod really stays in the persona of an 11-year-old girl and is poignant, clever and light-hearted, I even laughed out loud a few times.   The 1970’s backdrop isn’t too alienating for today’s readers, as there aren’t a lot of cultural references that would turn them off.  The historical significance, is very likely one they will not have heard of before and the book, through Zomorod’s eyes, will shed light on Iran in the late 70s and early 80s without boring the target audience.  They might even learn something and remember it.  

The stereotypes about Iran are addressed, the concept of a single person having to represent every one of that minority group is felt first had through the main character, and many misconceptions about Iran are clarified.  Yet, the book doesn’t get preachy, it maintains its lightness, and while I read it in a few days, it was just as easy to put down as it was to pick up.  The characters felt real and developed for the most part, so even though it was a tale about life, it was compelling enough to stick around, and you are invested enough to care how the characters are doing. There are a lot of really great supporting characters in the book as well: neighbors, friends, teachers, friend’s families, and a few not so nice characters that surprisingly aren’t painted with a singular condemning evil stroke.  The author is very careful to reserve judgement of all her characters and the sub groups they represent.

Which brings me to how Islam is handled in this book.  Her family doesn’t practice, but her reference for Islam is shia, as evident by her mentioning 12 imams.  I took pictures of most of the pages where Islam is mentioned, less than 10 in all, but where it is mentioned it is handled very politically correct and powerfully.   She talks about how they don’t celebrate Christmas or most holidays as they aren’t Christian or really American, but when the pool key is lost she does pray to a Christian Saint after a suggestion that such an act will help it be found.  It isn’t really presented as a religious act, more of one done in desperation. Here are the most applicable and relevant passages regarding Islam.

  • Dr. Klein shakes his head in sympathy.  “Do your wife and Cindy have to wear those cover-ups if you go back?”  “Yes, and I cannot believe this.  When we lived in Iran, my wife, my sisters, all the women I knew wore western clothes.  No tennis clothes like you see here, but regular clothes.  Only religious women chose to wear hijab, it meant something.  Imagine if everybody in America had to wear a cross around their neck or a Star of David-what would those symbols mean? Nothing. If you have to wear it, it means nothing.  If you choose to wear it, it means something” (168).
  • “The Ayatollah is Muslim, right? So is, like Allah, his God?”  “Allah is the Arabic word for God,” I say.  “It’s the same God. (154).”
  • We don’t have Saints in Islam, just a Prophet with twelve imams, and they don’t preach to animals or help find lost items,  My family, like most Iranians, is Muslim, but we never do anything religious.  I’ve never even been in a mosque, which is like a church (40).
  • “Being Muslim means different things to different people,” I say.  “My family doesn’t do anything officially religious.  My dad says religion is kindness and that’s what everyone should practice” ((184-5).
  • “…even though we belong to three different religions. We are alike in so many more ways than we are different.” 

FLAGS:

The book is fine for middle school readers, there is mention of Cindy’s dad trying alcohol at one point in the past and not liking it.  Cindy’s friends tease her once or maybe twice about liking a boy and Halloween is celebrated.  There is a lot of lying in the book, but it is made clear why, even if she doesn’t always feel bad about it: she is embarrassed by her mom’s food and lies that she shared it, she withholds information a lot, she pranks the neighbor lady who left a dead rodent on their porch, etc.  Hopefully the demographic won’t be inspired by Zomorod’s antics and just find them as her way of dealing with life.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun book club book to discuss being new to a country, minorities, how to handle conflicting cultures, and how to be and have good friends.

Educators guide: http://firoozehdumas.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ItAintSoAwfulFalafelguide.pdf

https://www.floridamediaed.org/uploads/6/1/4/2/61420659/ms_-_it_ain%E2%80%99t_so_awful_falafel.pdf

https://www.bookmovement.com/bookDetailView/49051/It-Ain’t-So-Awful,-Falafel-By-Firoozeh-Dumas

Author’s page: http://firoozehdumas.com/books/it-aint-so-awful-falafel/

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Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

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Yes, that is a Rick Riordan book cover you see.  Yes, it is about Norse mythology.  Yes, the whole book is about fake gods and fictional demigods.  Yes, you are on the correct blog. 

Brace yourself, if you haven’t heard about Magnus Chase, son of the god Frey, whose series is now on book three, it is ok, Rick Riordan has brought a lot of mythology back to pop culture in a fairly short amount of time.  But this series stands out because get this, the Norse god Loki, (yeah the one featured in popular Marvel Avengers movies), in this series, has a daughter…named Samirah Al-Abbas…who wears hijab…and is a valkyrie…and is an Iraqi immigrant, and is a main character, and is really awesome.

The book is 497 pages and is also a pretty fun audio book.  It is an AR 4.8.

SYNOPSIS:

So, the basic plot is much like Percy Jackson, in that a young boy, in this case a homeless orphan, Magnus Chase, finds out that he is demigod and has to basically find some friends and save the world while learning about the given mythology that they belong to.  For Magnus, he learns about his father, Frey, the god of spring and summer, when he dies and is taken to Valhalla, a paradise for warriors in the service to Odin.  The whole book is about Magnus, who is now an einherjar, a member of Odin’s eternal army , trying to prevent ragnarok from happening.  Among his group of friends are Jack, the sword, Blitzen, a dwarf, Hearthstone, an alf, and Samirah (Sam).

WHY I LIKE IT:

By and large, Sam is pretty well developed as a practicing Muslima.  She is being raised by her grandparents and feels bad sneaking out to perform her valkyrie duties.  She is not at all comfortable being alone with males one-on-one, nor being seen with males as she has an arranged marriage to Amir Fadlan, her second cousin, when she gets older.  She wears a green hijab that doubles as a camouflage cloak, and she mentions going to the mosque with her grandma.  (In later books, according to my daughter, she also talks about fasting, how she is a practicing Muslimah and the daughter of Loki who handles all that Norse mythology throws at her.)  She is proud and strong, and really the only thing that makes no sense to me is why she takes off her hijab so freely when not in life threatening scenarios, I get when she uses the camouflage to hide in emergencies.  She apparently explains later that she considers the einherjar her extended family, but that wouldn’t make them her mehram, so it is still a bit sketchy.

Here is an interview question from Entertainment Weekly to Author Rick Riordan about Sam, and his answer: (http://ew.com/article/2015/10/14/rick-riordan-magnus-chase-interview/)

Speaking of Loki, one of my favorite characters in the book is Sam, or Samirah Al-Abbas. I think she’s a great example of a diverse character — not a white man, not a woman who’s there to be a love interest. She’s also seamlessly woven into the history of this myth. Can you talk about the conception of her character?

The idea for her started with the primary sources. The story that Sam tells in The Sword of Summer about an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad visiting the Vikings in Russia – that’s true. It really is one of our best sources because the Arabs of the time were reading and writing when nobody else was. That connection back then – that the world was a whole lot more connected even back then than we think of, that these cultures did not exist in these hermetically-sealed little bags, they were blending together all the time – that fascinated me. I thought, what would it be like to have a modern Muslim-American character who still had that connection to the Viking world like the Caliph of Baghdad did all those years ago?

And then again I started pulling on stories from students I’ve had in the past. One very powerful memory I have was being in my American history classroom on 9/11 and one of my students was a Muslim-American girl. She burst into tears when she heard the news, because she knew that her world, her life, had just changed, and had been defined for her in a way that she did not want and could only do so much to control. That really was powerful for me, and it inspired me to learn a lot about Islam and what the tradition actually was, as compared to what we hear about in the media and how it’s often distorted, and to honor her experience. Samirah kind of came out of that confluence of things.

FLAGS:

Obviously the whole story features multiple fake gods.  I don’t think it is celebrated though, they are beyond ridiculous, but if your kids can’t understand the idea of mythology or you think it is beyond the scope of fiction, that is your call. 

There is a ton of violence, as they prepare for ragnarok and just killing in general, some is gruesome. The book is not dark at all, however, it is in fact laugh out loud funny.  

There are some giants that get drunk, mention of mead, some jokes about Hel in reference to Helheim and the goddess of Helheim, Hel.  There are some “damns” scattered in as well. 

The stories of some of the gods is a bit scandalous, but for the most part the book doesn’t give much detail.  It does discuss Freya marrying dwarves for a day for their jewels and having kids with them.  There is flirting and mention of kissing.  There is also some mention of males being moms and animals and monsters being born of human parents, it is all very confusing.  But it is there. Also, my source, my 11 year old daughter, mentions that the rest of the series does have a gender fluid character named Alex.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I doubt I’d do this as a book club book, but as any teacher or librarian knows, Rick Riordan fans are committed and enthusiastic.  I still keep in touch with many kids that weren’t big readers until the read Percy Jackson, and once they read the series multiple times, they then jumped to his other series.  So, while I wouldn’t use this as a book club book, there is a ton of kids that would love to discuss it with you, so read it, the bonding as a result will be well worth it.

Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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N.H. Senzai’s newest book (published in January 2018), gives a face and a voice to the grave situation in Syria.  Like Senzai’s other books, she uses the rich culture and history of a country to inform the reader, and a compelling front story to keep middle school readers entertained.  This 336 page book is not in the AR data base yet, but fourth grade and up should be able to follow the story and be able to handle the violence and destruction presented.  The story is unique in the genre, in that it doesn’t focus on getting to a safe country, but rather on the heroine’s journey to simply get out of a dangerous one, Syria.  The storyline is fairly linear with flashbacks of life before the war making the story informative, but not necessarily gripping.  I wanted to love it, but found myself forgetting about it when I stopped reading.  

SYNOPSIS:

Fourteen-year-old Nadia, has a fun full life in Syria: a large extended family, she stars in a commercial, has good friends, and a lot of opportunity and perhaps privilege.  All that, however, slowly disappears as civil unrest and ultimately war consume the country.  As a child she gets glimpses of the changes coming, but is able to still hide in her ignorance and focus on things like her nail polish and Arab Idol.  As food gets short however, she sneaks out to get bread with some cousins, and is hit by shrapnel.  While, her leg is able to heal, her anxiety of going out alters her life and makes her family’s attempt to get to the Turkish border later, a hard mental obstacle she must face.  Her inability to move quickly with the family on their covert escape route, and the bomb that hits their home, separates her from her family and leads to her getting left behind.  As she tries to remember how to get to the designated meeting location, she must navigate Syrian soldiers, rebel factions, ISIS, secret police, violence, hunger, and being lost.  With her cat, Mishmish, for companionship, Nadia reaches the location only to find that her family has left for Turkey and will wait on the border for her.  Luckily for Nadia, amidst this devastating news, she meets an old man, Ammo Mazen, and his Donkey, Jamilah, willing to help her reach the border.  Along the way the two face long odds of surviving, not only from the war around them, but also the weather, the old man’s illness and lack of food and water.  As they journey through Aleppo, snippets of history and culture are shared, two more children join their journey and mysteries as to who Ammo Mazen really is come to light. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book’s premise is simple, allowing the reader to focus on Nadia and her companions and not get bogged down in the political factions and names and alliances.  The book is not about all of the aggressors, it is about a girl trying to reach her family, and the growth and ability to choose kindness that she learns along the way.  The girl is not religious, but culturally it is a part of her environment.  Her companion Tarek, is religious and he spouts Islamic tidbits as they journey, adding some knowledge to be conveyed about Islam which is sometimes informative and sometimes comical as his character is often a bit awkward. 

I love the cultural beauty that is conveyed, and the heaviness in Syrian’s heart that “What had taken five thousand years to build had taken less than two to ravage.” The saving of historical artifacts, the showing of cooperation between people of different faiths as the characters meet in mosques and churches and meet people of all backgrounds, makes the loss of humanity and history so palpable. 

I also love that there is an Author’s Note at the end.  The whole book I kept having to shush my mind as I felt like this was the story of Mariam in Senzai’s book Shooting Kabul.  Yes that takes place in Afghanistan, but it was so similar in that it was a girl getting separated from her family in an escape attempt during a war, and sure enough she mentions that, that is where Nadia’s story grew from.  

FLAGS:

There is a lot of violence and death, but nothing gruesome or sensationalized.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great Book Club choice, because it would encourage readers to keep at it and finish the book.  While reading it, the book is wonderful, but for some reason, I had to urge myself to pick it up and start it again.  Perhaps it is because I have read all of Senzai’s books and I was pretty confident all would end well, or because I’ve read quite a few books now about war and refugees and Syria, but while it reads quick it did take me longer than it should to finish it.  I think parts of the book that detail a lot of the skirmishes and fighting might be hard to visualize in the mind’s eye so as an assignment or Book Club selection would benefit the readers to allow them to discuss all the mini climaxes, understand the terrain and architecture, and to really put themselves in Nadia’s shoes.  The transformation in Nadia from a brat, more or less, to a compassionate, strong, determined young woman is a journey that I would love to hear feedback from other kids about.  I think they would definitely have thoughts and opinions that would really bring the humanity of us all out, and make us connect with the plight of those trying to get out of such horrific circumstances.

Publisher’s Page: http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Escape-from-Aleppo/N-H-Senzai/9781481472173

Teaching Guide: https://www.teachervision.com/teacher-discussion-guide/escape-aleppo-reading-guide

Author’s Page: http://www.nhsenzai.com/escape-from-allepo/

 

Captain Lilly and the New Girl by Brenda Bellingham illustrated by Clarke MacDonald

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This book is part of First Novels, a collection of books in Canada that focuses on easy to read early chapter books that encourage kids to transition from leveled readers, while getting to know a single character in a realistic contemporary world.  There are a lot of Lilly books, but this one caught my attention because of the hijab wearing girl on the front, presumably the “new girl.”  At an AR 2.8 this 64 page book is great on so many levels, and really does meet the First Novel goal of presenting a simple theme and showing the main character grow.

SYNOPSIS:

Lilly is changing soccer teams, and only finds solace when many of her school friends will also be joining.  While each of the girls has different opinions and levels of enthusiasm about the team, they all are committed to one another as the “Wolves” stick together in a pack.  This loyalty is tested when a new girl is brought in to fill in for an injured wolf.  The foreigner, from America, wears a scarf, and just like with soccer, there are a lot of differing thoughts on the matter.  The reader see what Lilly feels as it is told from her perspective, which makes the issue not so much about the hijab itself, but about how a 9 or 10-year-old thinks and processes new concepts.  Ultimately, the Wolves as individuals and a team, have to decide what to do when an opposing team says that Sara has to take off her hijab if she wants to play.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is real, with strong independent girls.  The side characters aren’t cookie cutters of each other, they all have personalities and quirks, and I love that they don’t all agree, yet they all can make it work.  The book’s catalyst is the hijab, but it isn’t preachy and it is presented and understood through a non-muslim elementary-age character.   I don’t think Islam or Muslim is even mentioned, nor any culture, she is American, and the book takes place in Canada.  It addresses safety regarding the hijab, comfort in wearing sweats and not shorts, and being hot in a long sleeve shirt, issues that any reader can understand and ponder about.  The book isn’t gripping, but for the age group and the intent, it is spot on.  The font, spacing, size of the book, and simple illustrations, urge kids to read a “chapter book” and think about something they may not have ever thought about before.

FLAGS:

Clean, it does say words like “suck,” but it isn’t disrespectful.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this as a Book Club book, because the kids can read it fairly quick, but I would probably read it aloud to kids and have them discuss, or have them somehow read it in groups and discuss.  There are a few websites that can help facilitate the discussion, but kids would definitely have opinions on how the situation was handed, how they might handle it, and what they think of the team’s sponsor.  

https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?a=1&tid=40533

https://www.teachingbooks.net/media/pdf/Lorimer/FirstNovels_Series_ActivityGuide.pdf

http://www.formac.ca/firstnovels

 

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date.  I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her.  The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat.  I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.

SYNOPSIS:

Amal lives in a small Pakistani village.   The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter.  The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong.  The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled.  Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between.  It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position.  As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school.  This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher.  Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market.  Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to.  Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family. 

In  many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.  

Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be.  As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost.  And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own.  At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy.  The mom even apologizes to the dad about this.  The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it.  The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it.  I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden.  This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.  

I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental.  There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture.  Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more.  There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions.   The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture.  Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.  

The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well.  At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note.  I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view.  I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book.  It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed.   A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.

The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer.  For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.

FLAGS:

There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped.  There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study.  There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.

Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html

Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf

An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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A young adult Islamic fiction romance novel, yes its a genre, albeit small one. I braced myself for stereotypes, cheesiness, over simplifications, sweeping condemnation, and preachy reprimands.  They never came.  I think this book is different, because from what I felt while reading it, and from what I’ve read the author say, this book is written for us: Muslim females, raised in the west, devout, strong, involved, and vulnerable.  It isn’t trying to convince anyone of Islam, or prove our place in America.  It isn’t trying to justify relationships or make us hide in our houses, rather it is taking us up to the line, showing us our strengths and weaknesses, and leaving us there to think.  In 282 pages, I saw myself crystal clear in the protagonist, the vilifying community, the determined best friend, and the steady parent.  It is easy to judge, but this book gets the nuances, the temptation, the justification, the internal battles, and it does it all without resorting to extremes that would make it inappropriate for upper middle and high schoolers. Yay!

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah Ali has grown up in small town Wickley, Pennsylvania, her whole life.  Her dad owns the local hangout, she is well known and well liked ,and very involved at school and in the masjid that her father helped start.  She has a best friend who is Muslim and although her mother has passed away, her home life with her dad and older brother is solid and supportive.  Senior year, however, is where the book takes place, and with Islamaphobes protesting and a new boy, Jason, in town coming to her rescue, the stage is set for her to have to decide how much their “friendship” crosses her internal boundaries of right and wrong, and when feelings are on the table, what choices she will make.

Throughout the book, there are numerous supporting characters that have their own roles in shining light on the situation from the outside and adding context to the world that Sarah lives in.  But this is ultimately Sarah’s story, told from her perspective, and the internal conflicts are believable because they are hers, the reader can see a mile a way what is going on and what will happen, but to see it unfold within her is at times a little naive, but considering her age, plausible.  It is her denial and acceptance of the situation at hand and what her role and hopes are that make the story very hard to put down.

The book in many ways is subtle, I don’t want to give to much of the plot away because it is obvious, it is a love story between two teenagers that can’t have a future based on the fact that she is Muslim and not willing to compromise that.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real feelings involved and real consequences to the choices that are made.  Throw in the gossip mongers at the masjid, an older brother who is concerned, an ever patient father, and a handful of others and the book feels incredibly real. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

Things are never black and white in real life, nor does reality prevent emotions and desires from breaking out.  There is no shaming in their tale (other than by the judgemental aunties), but there are consequences that are also given their time and spotlight.  From a parenting perspective it shows how a few questionable decisions can really get you in a heap of trouble and heartache, even if on the outside you can argue you did nothing wrong.  Even in the book Sarah remarks that they didn’t do anything, but yet, they did so much, this understanding is really powerful, and so needed for the teenage demographic. The book does not celebrate Sarah and Jason’s relationship, although I must admit I did kind of cheer for them at some points (I know, haram).  It shows that they are good people, but that there is a bigger picture.  It also shows there is life and hope, and forgiveness after, in the healing.

I love that Sarah’s dad is awesome and that his ultimate weapon is dua.  Not the stereotypical immigrant father trope, he is awesome.  I also love that Sarah’s best friend, Jasmine, is a person of color, so diversity gets a bit of a shout out.  The masjid politics is spot on, and the hypocritical aunties are as annoying in the book as they are in real life.  Yes, there are times where the dialogue is a little syrupy and long-winded, but overall, this book is calm and reflective and so, so important for high school and college girls to read.

Islam is the religion practiced, from praying, to how they talk, to how they dress, the subtlties there are brilliant as well.  You can tell the author is Muslim because it is natural and real, not researched and blotched.  The message is ultimately that Allah knows all, and that we do things for His sake alone.

FLAGS:

Truly the most Jason and Sarah do is hold hands, but the masjid ladies constrew that they do a lot more, and that Sarah ends up pregnant and gets an abortion. All untrue, but this revelation, that this is the gossip going around, is explored at the end of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh how great would this book be as a book club for high school or even college age girls.  But, alas I’m not involved in anything like that so I will have to just recommend this book to anyone that meets that criteria looking for a good book. 

Having said that, part of me really thinks this book doesn’t need to be discussed.  Saints and Misfits was a book that needs to be read and discussed with our youth, this book, I kind of like it to stir and fester within each reader.  The lessons are there, and are clear, and some days I could see a girl really feeling one way and switching another.  Like the father in the book, our kids, inshaAllah, have been taught right and wrong, we have to see what they do when tested.  And this book can really speak to them, and offer them a bit of conciousness when faced with a seemingly small decision that could have big consequences.  This book will stay with a reader, and that’s a good thing.  I just don’t know if it will manifest the same with everyone, and I think that is a great thing.

 

Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fraVJZI1xNU

From the Author: https://muslimmatters.org/2017/11/10/an-acquaintance-a-young-adult-novel/

 

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz

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I debated whether I should read this book, or listen to it as an audio book with my children, ages 2,7,8,11.  The AR level is 5.3 and Common Sense Media suggests 10 and up because of the intensity, but knowing my kids are aware of some of the heartbreak the book discusses from other fictional works and the news, I decided to share this emotionally powerful book with them.  Tears were shed, discussion occurred, and the stories I pray will haunt and bother my children for years to come, inshaAllah resulting in compassion and action.  

The book is 338 pages with maps, references, ways to help, and acknowledgements at the end.  The audio book is just over seven and a half hours.

SYNOPSIS:

Three kids stories are told in pieces as they occur in different time periods, in different parts of the world, and for different reasons, but the heart of the stories are not the differences, but the similarities that all three share.  The real life parallels of each horrific event, and how small the world suddenly seems, is amplified by the ties that connect these fictional stories to one another.

Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930 Nazi Germany.  When his father is released from a concentration camp; he, his mom, and younger sister Ruthie board the MS St. Louis headed for Cuba to try to find a new life.  However, Cuba refuses to let them in, and Josef’s father cannot escape the ghosts from his time in a concentration camp.  Returned to war in Europe, the family is once again on the run from Nazis and not all survive.

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. Unrest is growing in Havana and when Fidel Castro says people can leave, her family: Grandfather, dad, and pregnant mom, join their neighbors in their makeshift boat to try to reach El Norte.  The shark filled waters, tankers, getting blown off course, and a temperamental boat engine, all pose as obstacles for the family trying to get on dry land to avoid being sent back to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.  

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015 who’s life has been altered by the civil war, but when their home is destroyed by explosians, they must leave right then.  His parents, younger brother Waleed, and baby sister Hana,  begin walking, their journey will travel through many countries as they seek the promised land of Germany.  Along the way they will be held at gun point, be forced into detention centers, walk for days and put their lives at the mercy of the Mediterreanean Sea in a flimsy rubber dinghy. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this book takes huge pivitol historic events in our life time and gives them a face.  Numbers are often numbing as they are difficult to grasp, and political motivations are often so hard to understand in their complexities, that this book does a marvelous job of making it about the person, about the humanity at stake.  I challange any one, especially those opposed to letting refugees in, to not cheer these three on, to not get irrated by those that willingly can help and chose not to, and those being relieved when people finally do see them and do help.  Its amazing how far a little kindness can go, and seeing it in tangible terms is powerful.  Yes, taking into your home a refugee is a huge kind step, but so was the giving of water and asprin to Isabel and her family, or giving of clean clothes and a ride to Mahmoud and his family, or removing the protrait of Hitler from the Social Hall during Josef’s Bar Mitzvah, all little kindnesses that hopefully we can rememember.

I love that the author got Mahmoud’s religion right.  They stop and pray, they make duas, their cell phone apps for salat times all ring at once, they are Muslim and their religion is mentioned as they practice it, not as a storyline.

Overall, I was impressed at the book.  Many reviews online found issue with the structure of the stories being broken up and seperated, but listening to it, atleast, made them feel incredibly connected.  I absolutely enjoyed seeing the parallels of each story and the humanity of each chacter shine through.

FLAGS:

The book has a lot death, and violence, and it is intense, but, it is not glorified and it isn’t too graphic.  It is done tastefully to make a point and keep it real, but not to overwhelm the audience or sensationalize the events, although I don’t know that any fiction, could be worse than the reality endured during these time periods.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

A map, would be awesome, a big one.  I like that the author gives some tips to help, but I think more on hand would be beneficial as the urge to help others is pretty intense after listening to/reading the book.  Especially ways to get involved in Syria, as the struggle is still ongoing.  

There are lots of tools online as the book is published through Scholastic. 

https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/lesson-plans/17-18/refugee-discussion-guide/

Book Unit Ideas: http://bookunitsteacher.com/wp/?p=5858

Author’s page: https://www.alangratz.com/writing/refugee/refugee-discussion-guide/