Category Archives: YA FICTION

The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman illustrated by Karin Littlewood

Standard
The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman illustrated by Karin Littlewood

color of home

This powerful book about Hassan’s first day at school is a bit graphic, and incredibly important.  While it is a picture book, it is definitely not meant for small children.  The rich water color illustrations and the impactful text match the AR level 3.6 and would really appeal to thoughtful 2nd through 4th grade students.

A refugee from Somalia, Hassan finds it “tiring remembering even a few English words.”  He misses the color of Somalia, his cat, the warmth of the sun, and the freedom of learning out doors.  He doesn’t miss the violence though.

colour3(1)

When it is time to paint, Hassan paints his home and his family, all 9 of them, and his pets, in bright happy hews, much to the delight of his teacher.  But then, Hassan, engulfs his house with the red paint of flames, smudges out his Uncle Ahmed when the black bullets that take him down, and Hassan communicates his sadness to his teacher.

Hassan doesn’t take his picture home, he knows it will upset his mom and little sister, Naima.  The next day, a translator comes to help Hassan.  Fela is Somali and wears a black hijab, like Hassan’s mom, but western clothes, a new concept to the young boy.

color

Through Fela, Hassan opens up to his teacher and explains what it was like when the soldiers came and he had to hide under the bed.  How they had to leave without any of their stuff, including his beloved pet cat Musa.  All they could take was his father’s prayer rug and the Quran, as they set off on foot in the night.  He tells about leaving his grandparents and cousins behind and being scared on the plane.

Being able to share his fears, seems to help as he paints a new picture to share with his mom.  This one filled with his animals, and not with fire and bullets.  There is hope for Hassan as he looks forward to adding color to his new life and reminds himself to learn the english word for “home.”

colour2(1)

The book  is great for seeing the experience through Hassan’s eyes, and taking the reader through some of his adult like fears, and childish stresses.  Older kids should appreciate that what he has lived through is horrific, but his understanding as a child is slightly limited.  It should increase empathy, compassion, and kindness.

While the illustrations are rich and detailed they are very realistic.  This adds to the somberness of the book, and keeps this work of fiction a very real reminder of the world and what trials so many go through.

The characters are visibly Muslim, but there is no mention of religious doctrine, and readers may not know what a prayer rug is or a Quran.  They will be able to use context clues to figure out hijab, but there is not a glossary in the back.

Advertisements

nine, ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Standard
nine, ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

nine, ten.jpg

I still struggle with the fact that 9/11/2001 is taught as history, it seems so current and fresh in my mind, that I really struggle with how works of fiction (and non fiction too) try to tell me about the pulse and the mood and the impact of something that I lived through and recall so clearly.  I suppose this isn’t a unique predicament, but because of the magnitude, one that I still wrestle with.  The author of nine, ten glosses over the big picture and in a lot of ways, the events of 9/11, but instead tries to show the paradigm shift that occurred and the division drawn as life before and life after.  She attempts to do this on an AR 4.8 and in 197 pages.  No easy feat, but one that definitely has some hits, and for me at least,  a few misses too.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from four different perspectives that intersect at the opening and at the close, the reader meets the characters two days leading up to 9/11, spends some of September 11 with them, and then peeks in on them again a year later.  The characters all cross paths at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The first character is Will.  A middle school boy struggling to come to terms with how his father died helping someone on the side of the road.  Often more responsible and mature for his age as he helps his mom with his younger siblings, he lives in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and finds healing with helping those affected by the plane that goes down there.

Next we meet Aimee, who has just moved to California and is starting a new school.  Her daily drama is more missing her mom who travels a lot to New York for business, but is relatable as she tries to make new friends, fit in, and find her place in a new environment.  Her mom is in New York during the duration of the book, and has a meeting in one of the Twin Towers on the 11th.

Sergio lives in Brooklyn, New York and is a math wiz who gets a special award and recognition for his achievements.  He lives with his loving grandma, but it is the stressful encounter with his deadbeat father that sets him on a fateful subway trip that introduces him to Gideon, a New York fire fighter.

Naheed is the fourth character, and is an Iranian American Muslim girl, who is struggling to handle friends, and new questions about the hijab she wears.  Her friend drama consumes her, until 9/11 happens and she has to now prove her love of America at every turn.

The characters each take chapters divided by dates and while short, they do form a connection in their snapshots.  You feel like you get to know the characters and you do feel a tinge of stress knowing how they are all related geographical to what will transpire on the 11th. But in the afterward, the author explains why she intentionally keeps the carnage at bay to show how connected we all are, especially children, at the forefront of her fictionally retelling, and to show how much we all were affected that day.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that breaking up of the story, it adds some dimension to the book.  I know some reviews feel it is over done, but I think it is deliberate, and highlights how we all are inter connected and for late elementary, early middle school readers, I think the choppiness it allows, keeps the book on their level.  I like that each character has their own struggles, it isn’t that life was rosy and then 9/11 ruined everything, these kids have their own issues and stresses and realistic personalities before and after.  I also like that the Muslim character is not from the Middle East, it further shows how groups get lumped together for different reasons giving the book a bit more for readers to consider.

There are however, some real issues in how they present Naheed, which seems odd, since the book is so politically correct, and given the topic, you’d think the author and editors would work overtime to get the islamic parts correct.  But alas at one point Naheed’s visiting Uncle wants to know why Naheed doesn’t pray the mid day prayer, thuhr, at school, to which the mom replies, “she makes up her prayers at third prayer.” What? Yes I laughed out loud, no one calls the prayers by their numbers! I have never used numbers to describe our prayers, they have names, and we use their timings to describe them to others, not numbers. At one point, Naheed is making wudu, ablution, and the author gets it wrong. “And lastly, feet.  Right foot with right hand. Left foot with left.  Toes to ankles.” Left hand for both feet.  I also take some issue with Naheed having to wear hijab at age nine.  Hijab becomes required at puberty, so yes it could have been when it became required of her, but it seems a little young for her, and it seemed a bit forced.

In terms of plot, I would have liked a day or two after 9/11 to juxtapose the differences in priorities and the lens of how we got to a year later, or two years later, or 15.  Also, how they all went to New York on the anniversary to tie the story together made for a nice ending, but why they all went was a bit of a stretch, ok a big stretch.

FLAGS:

For a book about 9/11 there is relatively no violence.  The only death is in talking about Will’s father and the only blood is when Sergio helps a man on the subway.  There is some hate speech at the end, but even that is minimal.  Will does kiss a girl he likes. And both Will and Sergio skip school.  Aimee worries if her mom is having an affair (implied) and if her parents are getting divorced, but it isn’t explicit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a good book for a younger book club.  With its overt commitment to political correctness and breaking down stereotypes, it reinforces how similar we all are through strengthening bonds of humanity, rather than being divided by our skin color, or religion.  I think it would also lead so easily into faccilitating discussion of today’s kids putting themselves in the story.  What in their lives wouldn’t matter any more or what would matter more. There is a Reading Group Guide at the end of the book, along with an Author’s Note and Acknowledgement, that easily lend themselves to more discussion ideas.

Curriculum Guide: http://www.norabaskin.com/nine-ten-curriculum-guide/

 

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

Standard
Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

bravecover.jpg

Often these days, minority groups are feeling more and more marginalized in a blaring world that is increasingly divisive and polarized.  So to see a book in my child’s Scholastic Magazine with a muhajaba on the cover, and not a main character, in a book about bullying, where she isn’t the instigator or recipient, made my minority heart swell with hope.  This 238 page graphic novel (AR 2.8) is a quick, quick read for middle schoolers, and one with a good message, that is more self empowering than preachy.  A companion book to Awkward (which I haven’t read, but hope to soon), the author takes us into Middle School through the eyes of Jensen, a kid who is struggling to find his place and escapes into his daydreams to conquer every day stresses.

 

SYNOPSIS:

Jensen wants to be a NASA scientist, but he isn’t good at math.  He loves to draw, but the Art Club is consumed with an upcoming event he knows nothing about, he is harassed by two bullies every chance they get, and occasionally he is asked by the newspaper staff to do menial work.  Yet, somehow despite having no friends, and a constant barrage of things going against him, he doesn’t see himself as a victim or as the recipient of bullying.  Rather, he falls into regular day dreams where he is the main character in a video game and all these battles have to be overcome to reach the end.  The surrounding characters have their own little stories, and you get to know a bit about them through Jensen, but the author doesn’t let any of them be painted with a singular stroke.  You see the athletes, being kind and sticking up for kids getting picked on, one being a math wiz.  The journalism staff of Jenny, Akila, and Felipe, run the school, but have their own stresses and internal struggles.  The circle of activity comes to a head when a student is expelled over the dress code, and all the various groups in Jensen’s world have to come together to make change.  In the process he realizes that he is being bullied, and that something needs to be done.  He also realizes nobody has it all together and he has a part to do to help others as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

First I like it because there are Muslims in the book, that are just characters in the book.  They don’t represent all Muslims, they aren’t “different” or “other.”  Akila wants to be a journalist and she is smart, and she is kind, but she fights with her best friend, the bossy Jenny, and it is Jensen that has to help them see their errors.  I also like that the P.E. teacher, Mrs. Rashad, is a hijab wearing Muslim, that beats the social studies teacher in push-ups. I mean what an amazing way to break a hundred stereotypes, by not mentioning them, and just showing them as normal. A muslim woman, working, being physical fabulous, and being modest, ya we need more of this. There is no mention of their religion, their clothing, their hijabs, nothing.

FullSizeRender (27)FullSizeRender (28)

I also like that the students in some cases didn’t realize that they were bullying.  I think this happens a lot, where maybe someone won’t let you sit by them because they are saving a seat for someone else, but the second or third time it happens, the recipient feels alienated, where the aggressor may not even be aware.  The book explores lots of ways of bullying, but because it is filtered through the character, it leaves a lot of room for discussion about how people treat us, and how we treat others, and where a lot of pain can come from the misinterpretation on both ends.

There is a lot of diversity in the book, boys, girls, skin tones, body sizes, physical abilities, handicaps, intelligence, etc. that come up to varying degrees, but do at least offer the readers real ways to see themselves in the pages.  The book has a very tidy, happily ever after feel, which is ok I think for middle school. The book has a specific audience. Elementary will just find everyone mean, high schoolers will find it childish, but as social relationships get more challenging in middle school, I think this demographic will often have to find the courage to be brave to get through unscathed.

FLAGS:

None. One character has a boyfriend, maybe. But it is clean with pretty much everything, it even says for All Ages ont he back.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a book club book.  I don’t think it would need any prompting or guides. My 6th grade daughter said it was “ok” yet has brought it up at least ten times since she read it, and has come and sat by me to watch me read it.  I think, she has had some similar issues and to be able to talk about them through the characters, has been liberating for her, and furthered my conviction that fiction has power.

The Author’s website: https://svetlania.com/

 

 

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

Standard
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

saints-and-misfits-9781481499248_hr.jpg

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

The Magic Horse by Idries Shah illustrated by Julie Freeman

Standard

the magic horse

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

horse1

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

horse

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

The Hajj Adventures of Jamila and Fasfoose by Ediba Kezzeiz illustrated by Abd al-Hayy Moore

Standard
The Hajj Adventures of Jamila and Fasfoose by Ediba Kezzeiz illustrated by Abd al-Hayy Moore

FullSizeRender (13)

The book isn’t much to look at with its black and white, with yellow thrown in cover, and its 40 pages bound with a staple, but for independent readers between 2nd and 4th grade or so, the book is good.  In many ways it is an older kids version of Zaahir and Jamel, adding a fictional story to the learning about the steps of Hajj.  

SYNOPSIS:

The setting is Hajj and all of its different rituals, but the story is that Jamila and her pet mouse Fasfoose get lost in Mecca.  Along the way to finding Jamila’s parents and performing the requirements of Tawaf, Sai, Arafah, Mina, Muzdalifa, Jamrah, and Eid, a few duaas are thrown in, friendship with people of different nationalities and lessons in patience, speaking with your heart and finding your internal compass of wrong and right all come to light.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the target audience, and how it doesn’t ever feel preachy or like a How-to-perform-Hajj manual.  If a child is familiar with the rituals of Hajj the story gently reminds them of what they already know and the story takes center stage.  If they are unfamiliar, the book doesn’t talk down to them, and may prompt them to want to learn more.  Strong lessons of being kind and not hurting anyone or anything while in ihram are strong, as are the  beauty of multiple cultures speaking from their heart to find common threads.  There are illustrations to break up the text and not overwhelm the young reader, and the story is divided into seven chapters.  The font and size are all age inviting and even older middle school kids would probably pick it up if they saw it, read it in about 20 minutes and be glad that they did.

FullSizeRender (14)

FLAGS:

None, alhumdulillah

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is fun, probably not long enough for a book club selection, but a great read -a-loud. The length of the chapters make it a short read that ideally could be read the week before Hajj or Eid.  My 3rd grader read it and is enjoying listening to me read it to my 2nd grader.

FullSizeRender (15)

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

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

MKPLC308-Bedtime-Front-Cover_frontzoom

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.  

FullSizeRender (9)

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.”  

FullSizeRender (8)

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.”

FullSizeRender (10)

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.