Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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This book is not a quick read, it begs to be read aloud and the pictures poured over.  The 48 heavily text filled pages are a trip back in time before the tale twists in on itself and becomes a story that gets more outrageous with each upgrade.  It claims to be for grades first through fourth, but I think it would need a lot of hand holding and attention to get any children to read it.  The story would really come to life at bedtime with a loved one, or in a classroom with discussion, but I don’t know that most children in that demographic would willingly pick up the book, read it, enjoy it and reflect on it, without some guidance.  The illustrations show characters in hijab and thumbing tasbeehs, the text mentions Allah swt and in phrases calling on Him in exasperation.  There is a “kiss”, it is a love story after all, and some demons and sorcery, but I think it is clean enough and silly enough that kids of all ages will enjoy it and not find it offensive or scary.

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Many years ago an old man in the old city of Damascus, would walk around carrying a large chest and tell stories.  Four lucky kids for only one piaster each could look into the chest and see the images of the story, the other children could listen to the story for free.  He didn’t come often, but when he would come the children would rush to meet him and listen to the stories, their favorite the one of Sami and Leyla.

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Sami was a shepherd boy, he was beautiful, but poor.  Leyla was the daughter of the richest farmer in the village and after their “accidental” kiss Leyla and Sami met every evening despite Leyla’s father forbidding it.  The whole village is in a buzz over the two lovebirds.  When Leyla is kidnapped, her father reluctantly tells Sami that if he can bring her back then they can marry.  When Sami returns with her, Leyla’s father pretends to be ill and in need of milk from a lioness.  Once again he promises that if Sami can obtain the milk than the two can marry.  Sami not only gets the milk, but returns riding a lion.  Leyla’s dad says that he is brave indeed, but that his daughter can only marry a rich man and needs to pay 300 camels as dowry.  Sami heads to Damascus to steal the camels from the king, but gets caught and put in prison.  Lucky for Sami, a dove comes to visit him and after he saves her life, she grants him one wish.  Yes, the animals can talk.  The camels and freedom are granted, but still Leyla’s father is not willing to allow the marriage.  He summons a sorcerer to send demons to turn his daughter in to a lizard.  When night after night the demons fail and beat the sorcerer, it is revealed that the father hired him.  The next day the two are married.

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Over time the pictures in the chest began to fade and new pictures from modern advertisements are used to replace the traditional images.  Leyla becomes Colgate, yes, from a toothpaste advertisement.  She has a glorious smile and is now the daughter of a car dealer who drinks only Fresh Mountain mineral water.  She gets kidnapped and Sami hears about it on his Filix portable radio that she is being held in a club and is forced to serve ice-cold Coca-Cola.  The story continues like this, but at some point the children in the story become bored with the new version, and sing the jingles for the items mentioned instead, until the story teller packs up and leaves.

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Two years pass and no one has heard from the story teller, some say he went mad, others that he died.  Then one day he comes back to town and the children all run to listen to his stories.  There is a chest to peer in, but there is nothing inside, like magic however, when the old man starts to tell his story, the images appear in the minds of the children.

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The illustrations are wonderful and detailed, and radiate warmth and richness.  The conversation I had after with my own kids, about what was valued and the power of stories is so powerful to see dawning on the listeners.  They get it, they do, and they realize how ridiculous the “updates” were.  When they realize it is the story teller and the magic of being together and sharing a story, they too become one of the children in the book and it is wondrous to observe.

Is That a Teapot by the Toilet: A Muslim Child’s Potty Training Story by Rabia Bashir illustrated by Basma Hosam

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Is That a Teapot by the Toilet: A Muslim Child’s Potty Training Story by Rabia Bashir illustrated by Basma Hosam

I think I’ve loved every Bismillah/Precious Bees book I’ve ever read, and this book is no exception.  It is only the second children’s book I’ve ever seen on the subject of Islamic bathroom etiquette and I think combined with My First Muslim Potty Book, our little Muslims and their potty trainer adults are in a great position to explain, teach, laugh, and be successful in getting our little ones out of diapers and adopting Islamic Sunnahs and hygiene.   I love that this book is inspired by the author’s real life experiences, that it starts with a few WHO facts about the lack of access people have worldwide to a proper toilet with a portion of the book sales going to help those who lack hygienic facilities, and that the book is approved by a Sheikh.  Additionally, I love that there is a song that goes along with it (it isn’t posted yet, but will be shortly inshaAllah), that there are questions and games at the end with informative pages about istinja and the duas to be said, it is silly, the illustrations adorable and expressive, and overall just oh so relatable.  The book is perfect for ages three and up, and a great reminder resource for older kids that may need a nudge to stay on top of their bathroom behavior and feel normalized by seeing themselves in the pages.

It is a big day for mom and dad and Rayyan and Ridhwan.  Rayyan is going to start using the potty.  They have practiced entering the bathroom, but now they are going to do it for real: saying Bismillah and entering with the left foot first.  Only he uses his right, so they do it again, and it happens once more, and now mom and Rayyan are laughing and dancing.  The third time is the charm and in they go.

He sits on his little potty, and he goes, hurray, but when he starts to stand up, Mama explains that he must clean himself, all Muslims do.  Rayyan asks if that is a teapot when Mama lifts up what she calls in Bengali a bodna and his Urdu speaking father calls a lota.

Lota sticks and Rayyan is washed and ready to clean his hands before heading out the door with his right foot and saying Ghufranaka. So far so good, but it isn’t a one time thing.  There are a lot of days of accidents, but over time it gets better so the family decides to head out.  When all of a sudden Rayyan has to go, the family runs to a halal restaurant to borrow their restroom.

Phew they made it just in time, and instead of a teapot looking lota they have a watering can which makes his dad have to stand really far away to help him wash. Rayyan notices different places have lotas that look different than his does at home.  At a wedding they had to use a plastic cup, the mosque has a mini shower, at the park Mama pulls out a plastic bottle from her purse.  Rayyan decides he wants his own little bottle too, so they pick one out that he can keep in his backpack.  

One year later it is a big day for Ridhwan, he is about to start potty training, like kids all over the world. There is then a two page spread about many words different languages use to call the vessel that they use to wash themselves in the bathroom. There are questions to talk about regarding the story, a maze to get to the restroom in time, the Muslim Potty Training Song to the tune of the Hokey Gokey, which I’m assuming in America is the Hokey Pokey, a page answering What is Istinja?, Duas when using the toilet, the story behind the story, information about the illustrator and about the author.  All-in-all 48 pages.  

I purchased mine on Amazon, I think the local stockists will have it shortly and I would assume the bismillahbees.com website will as well.  I know the author recently had her father pass away, inna lillahi wa inna illayhi rajioon, so please make duas for her and her family, and be patient on the QR code and song which inshaAllah are forthcoming.

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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The Library  Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sadiq Wants to Stitch by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Niloufer Wadia

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Sadiq Wants to Stitch by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Niloufer Wadia

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This 40 page AR 4.5 book touches on gender norms and breaking cultural expectations, as well as a mother’s love and a child’s determination.  The beautifully illustrated pages show Kashmir’s landscapes and culture.  The message is for third graders and up with its longer passages and understanding of gender roles, but younger children will enjoy the story just as well.  My only concern is the timeline of the story, the mother has a week to make two embroidered rugs and worries when she awakens with a fever on the day the rugs are expected, exclaiming that she hasn’t even started the second rug.  How was she going to meet the deadline even if she wasn’t ill? Even with the extension, she asks for a few days, not a few hours.  That aside, the book is a lovely glimpse into a nomadic culture and people.  There is no glossary at the end explaining namaz or Chacha or Bhai, but there is a bit of information about the Bakarwals of Kashmir at the end that provides context and enhances appreciation.

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Sadiq wakes up to the sounds of the river Lidder, he prays and drinks his cha and heads to the meadow to milk the sheep and take them out to pasture.  His father died two years ago, and now the responsibility of the flock is his. After his chores are done he sits and watches his mother embroider.  He sometimes stitches his own patterns on the edges, but his mother does not like him sewing.

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When an order from the city comes in for two rugs by the end of the week, Sadiq offers to help.  His mother refuses his assistances claiming that the women stitch and the men tend to the sheep in their community. Sadiq dreams of the designs and colors he would like to sew and decides he will do so in secret.

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On the day when the rugs are to be picked up, Sadiq’s mother has a fever and cannot stitch.  When the man comes, Sadiq’s mother starts to explain that they are not ready, but Sadiq surprises them both with his completed rug.  The man likes it, but notes it is not what was ordered. Ammi wants to keep Sadiq’s rug and asks for a few more days to complete the second one, now that she has her son to help her.

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Abdul agrees to a few more days, and the next morning Sadiq’s mom has hung Sadiq’s rug for everyone to see, and is proudly crediting her son’s work.  She hugs him, just like she did in his dream, and chides him that she still expects him to do all his other chores before he sews.

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

fatima's great outdoors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi

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This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi

 

img_8116I wanted to give the author another chance to win me over after really disliking her first book’s writing style and characters and while this book is an easier read, I was shocked when the Empire Records inspired story really crossed over to me to being almost plagiarism.  I was a huge fan of Empire Records as a teen in the 90s, and can quote the movie, recall with little effort when Rex Manning Day is (it was yesterday), and know what is going to  happen at 1:37 exactly, so I was really excited to see what this Muslim author did with her spin of turning a music store in to an idie bookstore and focusing the story on three high school females. I wasn’t expecting the spin to be so minor though, and to still find an AJ and a Warren in the character list, a girl shaving her head, an employee dance party on the roof, a scummy celebrity, a celebrity assistant hinted at romance, a character deciding that today is the day to tell her crush how she feels, you get the point, it is remarkably similar.  If you haven’t seen the PG 13 movie, the book isn’t terrible, but it is very scattered with three voices, a lot of side characters- often random, and unresolved story threads, the book takes place in one day after all, I don’t know that it is really worth the time to read it.  There is straight and LGBTQ+ romance and break ups mentioned, a kiss, alcohol, vape pens, marijuana, sexual assault, some violence (slapping), a theft, language and one character has Arab parents and mentions Middle Eastern poets as well as likens the book store connecting people to the concept of an Ummah in Islam.  I can’t think of a demographic that I’d really recommend the book to, nor do I think that I’d ever read it again, the author’s writing style for me improved slightly but the characters are forgettable and the story un original. In terms of appropriateness probably high school readers, 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Eli is closing up Wild Nights Bookstore and Emporium and accidentally opens the manager’s computer and accidentally logs in to her accounts and accidentally learns from her emails that the book store is closing in less than two weeks.  He then sees that the bank account is still logged in and finds a petty-cash account that has $9,000 and decides that he for once in his life is going to try and help out the store and invest in something to grow the money and hopefully delay the closing.  Unfortunately he buys nine grand worth of Air Jordan knock-off shoes, and is unable to return them.  The next day when the entire staff rolls in to work, bits of the story come out, some know the store is closing, others are sensing something is amiss when boxes are being unloaded that don’t contain books, and to top it all off a famous author is doing a book signing later in the day.  

Each of the characters has something going on as well on this particular day, Rinn is going to tell AJ she loves him and use her influencer status to try and rally support for Wild Night,  Daniella is going to lift the veil on her secret poetry writing and share it, and Imogen is going to break up with her girlfriend of nine months and shave her head.  None of the girls like each other, and go out of their way to be down right nasty to one another, but eventually they come around, they support one another in the face of them losing their beloved store, and helping each other when one is sexually assaulted by the famous author.  Along the way the reader meets the quirky characters that come to the bookstore regularly, some that never leave, a manager who never seems to be there, and an owner with weird rules about technology in the store.  

The climax is the girls stepping in to their own and becoming vulnerable to who they are to one another, the world, and ultimately themselves.  The book store isn’t saved in it’s entirety, but it isn’t lost either and the direction forward looks infinitely more unified than the crazy day the they all just had.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the wave of nostalgia that hit me as I recalled the regular watching and quoting of Empire Records from my younger days, but that really was about all the book gave me.  I wanted to love the girls coming together to save the day, but they were really crass and rough and while I’m glad they did get to a place of tolerance, the transition wasn’t cathartic because their original irritations with one another didn’t seem justified.  The lack of character connection made it hard to cheer for them when they broke free from what they perceived was holding them back as well.  For example, I wanted to be giddy with nerves when Daniella stepped on that stage, but the emotion just wasn’t there.  There was a lot of telling, not showing, and with three perspectives, it was just stretched too thin.

I kind of like that Islam and the concept of Ummah was referenced at the end, but really only someone like me looking for it and piecing together the poets she mentioned, her one parent being from Lebanon and the other coming to America after the six day war would even take that conversation as being in sync with the character.  She might not be Muslim, she is a lesbian has/had a girlfriend, and it is a non issue.  Religion is otherwise not mentioned in relation to her or any other character.  A French Tunisian customer calls her habibti and says ‘Handulullah.”  I probably am reading to much in to it, old habits die hard and even after writing over 500 reviews, I still get so excited to see someone in literature possibly identifying as Muslim.

One thing that really stood out to me as a hole in the story was that it never said what Danny’s plan was,  just kept hearing that it was a terrible, awful plan.  That bothered me. The pacing is also off, to have all this happen in one day you would think it was all happening so quick, but then there are really long winded tangents about cell phone cases and grape soda.  At times it is such a time crunch and at other times everyone is chilling on the roof or in the alleyway it is no surprise there is not enough business.

FLAGS:

Copied from above: There is straight and LGBTQ+ romance and break ups mentioned, kissing, alcohol consumption, a massive hangover, vape pens, marijuana, sexual assault, some violence (slapping), a theft, language. Nothing is really sensationalized though, the 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Not even tempted to use this as a book club, or recommend others to do so.  There is no real literary or representation value, in my opinion.

 

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

 

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