Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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The author of this wonderful middle grades novel reached out to me after I reviewed her book A Galaxy of Sea Stars, to let me know that this book too has a Muslim character.  As we exchanged emails back and fourth I learned more about her work with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven Connecticut (IRIS), and the impact the people she has met there have on her and her writing (the new paperback version of Galaxy has bonus content that reflects this).  Allies and advocates are gifts for Muslims and for our fictional representation.  The details and warmth of her Muslim character, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, is seamless and accurate, and while this is not his story, his support of the main character helps normalize Muslims as friends and in daily life.  He takes time out for his five daily prayers, he refuses to shake a female’s hand, and he uses the word inshaAllah.  The story is Ruby’s though, and her journey pulls you in from the first chapter and leaves you cheering for her long after you close the book.  Over 295 pages (AR 4.1) you witness Ruby find her voice, dare to not be invisible, accept friendship, and help others.   

SYNOPSIS:

Ruby has just moved to frozen Vermont from their last “forever home” in Florida.  Originally from D.C., Ruby and her mom have been moving to places they have vacationed to try and find joy.  Since Ruby’s father, a police officer, died, the two of them have been broken and barely surviving.  The only constant is a cousin, Cecy, who helps them out and convinces Ruby’s mom to come back to her childhood town of Fortin, and to be closer to her.  The winter is bitter, the house is freezing, and even with Cecy arranging for Ruby’s mom to have a job, it only takes a day for Ruby’s mom to be arrested, fired, and for Ruby to be on her own.  With only a garbage bag full of belongings, and some thrift store finds for warmth, Ruby’s plan is the same as it has been in every other town they have landed in: keep her head down and be invisible.  Ruby’s dog, Bob, though has other plans, and when he takes off into a neighbor’s yard filled with ‘No Trespassing’ signs a meeting with Abigail takes place that will change Ruby.

Abigail Jacobs is known in Fortin as the “Bird Lady.”  She has a home, but lives in a shed on her property, dresses in layers of scraps and scarves, feeds the birds, and keeps to herself.  The rumor is that she killed her husband and daughter, everyone knows it, it could just never be proven.  There are also stories that she has a moon rock.  When Ruby meets her she is angry and cold, but the way she interacts with the animals and her knowledge of the moon, keeps her intrigued and even though Ruby’s mom forbids her from visiting Abigail, Ruby and her develop a friendship of sorts.

At school Ruby’s plan to go unnoticed is challenged by Ahmad Saleem, a refugee who lives with his uncle a grocery store owner and is teased by a few classmates for his accent and disappearances at lunch time when he goes to pray.  He is kind and and determined to help Ruby and immediately declares her his friend.  Ruby tries to avoid him, but eventually he starts to win her over.  With the upcoming wax museum, a Fortin favorite, drawing near, Ruby tries to explain to her teacher that they will be leaving back to D.C. before the final presentation, but Mr. Andrews isn’t letting her off and somehow she finds herself researching Michael Collins, the astronaut that stayed on the space shuttle alone to circle the dark side of the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic walk. 

With the mayor singling out Abigail with his new ordinances, Ruby’s mom deciding not to take the plea deal and fight her case at trail, the short cold days, the desire to return to D.C., the wax museum approaching, and Ruby needing answers, Ruby at some point will have to stand up and speak out.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story unfolds in layers.  You don’t know where it is going, but the slow peeling away shows the complexity of people and situations.  The book doesn’t shy away from confronting stereotypes and looking beyond appearances.  I like that there is some discussion of Islamophobia, when Ahmad is overheard speaking Arabic for example, but the character that needs the most standing-up for is an elderly white woman.  The small pivot allows the book to avoid a familiar theme and shows the reader a Muslim shop owner helping the tattered woman that the town fears and resents. I enjoyed the strong reminder of how women and science and their careers have not been widely accepted until recently.  I think many readers will be surprised that much of Abigail’s rumors stem from her being a brilliant educated woman that society struggled to respect then and now.  I absolutely love the science and space aspects that bring Ruby Moon, her neighbor, and her class project together.

I wish there was a little bit more about her mom and her relationship at the end.  The disconnect in their relationship warranted the sparse information in the majority of the story, but I needed some hope for the two of them.  Same for the relationship with Cecy.  I get that Ruby doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom’s cousin, but as Ruby grew in so many ways, I wish that her appreciation of what Cecy has done for her and her mom would have also been realized in some capacity.

FLAGS:

Ruby being dishonest. Death, injury of a pet, physical assault, bullying, teasing, Islamophobia.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t focus an entire book club on this book, but I think it would be a great addition to a summer reading list.  The insight into a character trying to find herself within her own family and experiences with connections to history and science would be a benefit to any child to read and reflect upon.

The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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Set in Lebanon, this 32 page book for kindergarten to second graders uses the ever important olive tree as a point of contention between two neighbors. Muna’s family moved away during the conflict because they were not like the others in the village, and while they were gone, Sameer’s family cared for the olive tree on their neighbor’s property, and collected the olives that fell on their side of the wall. But now that the neighbors have returned, Sameer is not only disappointed that they don’t have a boy his age to play with, but also clashes with Muna when she says that he shouldn’t take their olives. By the end of the book, olive branches of peace will be referenced and hope hinted at in this brightly illustrated book with a lesson.

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I like that why Muna’s family left is not abundantly clear, saying that “For many years the house next to Sameer’s had stood empty. . . that the family who lived there had gone away during the troubles because they were different from most of the people int he village.”  Lebanon is a diverse place and the illustrations seem to show both Mom’s wearing head scarves, the text does not detail if they are unlike each other because of religion, or culture, or some other reason, and I kind of like that it is left vague so that children learn in the end perhaps, it doesn’t matter.  

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When the family moves back home, Sameer watches them and recalls the ways his mom prepares the best olives in Lebanon.  The neighbors are polite, but not friendly.  They don’t ever say much and they don’t return visits.  One day when the ripe olives have fallen on the ground, Sameer heads out with his basket to collect them.   Muna, who has never looked over at Sameer, watches him and tells him that they are her olives, and that the tree has been in her family for a hundred years.

The two bicker about who has rights to the olives on Sameer’s side of the wall and in anger, Sameer dumps his basket of olives on Muna’s side and walks off.  After that, no one on Sameer’s side collects the olives on the ground.  One night there is a storm and the olive tree and part of the stone wall are destroyed.  The adults gather to survey the damage, but walk off without saying anything.  The two children are left to decide what to do next about their beloved tree, and their relationship with one another.

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I like that the resolution is subtle, but thought provoking and that the adults don’t seem to interfere too much.  I can’t imagine that they don’t have opinions about their neighbors and the olives, but the book stays on the children and the assumptions, stubbornness, and unsaid words that have created such a divide, and must ultimately be resolved as a result.

 

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Never Give Up: A Story about Self-Esteem by Kathryn Cole illustrated by Qin Leng

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Never Give Up: A Story about Self-Esteem by Kathryn Cole illustrated by Qin Leng

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This first through third grade teaching series highlights different life lessons and concepts and features diverse characters. I reviewed a book in the series earlier with a Muslim character, not realizing that there was also one with Nadia in the lead. The 24 pages show her in hijab both at the park and at home although she wears short sleeves and is much younger than puberty, when covering becomes required. Neither the author, nor the illustrator seem to be Muslim, and religion is not present in the book, other than Nadia’s scarf. It is worth mentioning that Nadia crosses her fingers and makes a wish that her plan works, something most Muslims would say inshaAllah for and possibly want to be made aware of in a book like this. Overall the message is strong, and would be a great book to read and discuss with a child, Nadia and her friend Shaun have noteworthy traits that we can all learn from.

Nadia is heading to the park to practice jumping with her new rope. She stops when she sees her friend Shaun riding his bike with training wheels. She has been riding on two wheels for a while, and even on training wheels Shaun is struggling. Kamal, Joseph, Lin, and William start teasing Shaun, and Nadia is upset, but not brave enough to do anything about it.

After crashing a few times, the crowd grows tired of laughing at Shaun and Nadia goes down the hill to check on him. She apologizes that the other kids were teasing him, he takes it in stride and thanks her for not joining in. He also lists off things he is good at. He is determined, and Nadia has an idea. The two agree to meet back at the park the next day.

Nadia is upset when she gets home. She tells her dad the whole story and how she wishes she was a better friend. She then talks to her dad about her plan, and gets him to agree to help, her dad checks it off with Shaun’s parents and the next day they all meet at the park to take off the training wheels and teach Shaun how to ride with two wheels.

After multiple attempts and lots of cheering, Shaun is riding his two wheeler. He didn’t give up! Now it is Nadia and her dad’s turn to try jump roping, and after some struggles, it is the kids cheering on Nadia’s dad and encouraging him to try again.

The end of the book has Tips for Grown-Ups about how to develop and support children’s self-esteem.

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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I really thought this book was a middle school book when I picked it up: the cover illustration, the length (265 pages), the larger font and generous spacing, but then I started reading it and the first two chapters alone have cursing, underage drinking, mention of sex and making out, straight and lesbian couples, and bullying.  The main character’s voice was enjoyable enough and the writing smooth, so I kept reading, but ultimately, I don’t know that high schoolers will find the climax that griping, and it definitely isn’t for middle schoolers, so I’m not sure who the target audience is.  The character never identifies as Muslim, nor does he correct or clarify to the many people around him that assume he is Muslim.  His deceased father was Arab Christian and his mother, Iranian Muslim that doesn’t “speak to God much since (his) dad died,” yet he is the victim of Islamaphobia and bullied as being a terrorist.  Pork is put in his locker, a doctored image of him dressed as an extremist is emailed out to the entire school, but he never says I am Muslim or I am not Muslim.  Perhaps when dealing with ridiculous bullies it doesn’t matter, but even commenting on that would, for me, have given the book more purpose.  The book was a quick easy read, and I enjoyed the basketball aspects and a few of the characters, but the constant drinking, predictability, and lack of intensity renders the book rather forgettable.  I’m only reviewing it so that if other’s see it and assume it is a middle school sports book that they will be aware that it is for older readers, has a decent amount of gay and straight non graphic romance, a lot of alcohol use, and crude talk.

SYNOPSIS:

Bijan is on loan to the Varsity basketball team from JV and when the star player gets in foul trouble, he is put in.  Bijan is a decent player, and when his intensity brings the team within range of a win and his winning shot seals the victory, Bijan is no longer just another face in the crowd at his private school, he is getting a lot of attention.  Most of the attention is initially appreciated, parties, a chance to talk to his crush Elle, leniency in turning in assignments, but things quickly change when a manipulated image is sent out to the entire school community- students, teachers, faculty, alumni, board- showing Bijan as a terrorist.  Was he targeted because of his brown skin, his instant popularity, his volunteering with a committee to change the school mascot from the Gunners to something less violent? The school says they will try and find the culprit, but it doesn’t look hopeful and Bijan just wants it to all go away. 

Bijan’s new stardom has him hanging out with the Varsity team after games and suddenly interfering with their social life. Bijan gets in a fight with a teammate, breaks up a fight between a teammate and his girlfriend, and finds himself being teased for being Muslim and brown.  The school is predominately white and Bijan stands out.  He notes who says his name, and who conveniently avoids it.  Physical altercations elevate whenever alcohol is present, which is often, but no clear motive is established.   The students’ parents are involved in trying to force the school to be more proactive against bullying and the board, staff and students squabble over the mascot. When Drew’s girlfriend breaks up for him in favor of a girl, another email is sent out shaming the girls’ relationship. Bijan and friends figure out who is responsible and everyone concludes that the two emails were sent by the same person, but Bijan has his doubts. 

The school basketball team makes it into the New England tournament and with the team on the road, the alcohol and physical assaults on and off the court escalate. When the opposing team’s fans dress up in turbans and beards and chant USA, Bijan has had enough and refuses to play.  He confronts his coach about never saying his name, and when they return to school the culprit of the email and of the pork in the locker is identified.  Bijan gives a speech about not being a terrorist while internally thinking of parts of the Quran and stats that he could be sharing, but isn’t.  Spoiler: he also gets the girl.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it isn’t a nerd to hero story that it so easily could have been.  Bijan is smart and clever and grounded.  He is a solid basketball player and has his flaws as well as his strengths.  It doesn’t seem that popularity has changed him, people are just now noticing him.  I enjoyed his wit and humor and friendship with Sean.  The commentary in Bijan’s head, voiced by NBA commentators, reflects what he feels and what he thinks, it is critical and entertaining and gives a great vehicle into conveying his thoughts.  

I felt a fair amount of the plot was predictable and obvious.  It was clear pretty quickly that Erin and Stephanie were in to each other, that Noah was jealous and capable of sabotage.  Drew had his own financial concerns, but seemed to obviously be the red herring to Jessica’s privilege.  Even the email and the taunting seemed fairly tame, Bijan himself didn’t seem that bothered by the email. Not saying it is ok, but in a book where the characters are drinking and filling lockers with meat, the severity wasn’t that gravitating.  And about the meat, I think it warranted more discussion.  Whether the pork offended him on a religious level or not, meat or food or anything of that magnitude stuffed into a gym locker is worthy of freaking out over.  

Bijan never says he is Muslim, he does remark that he doesn’t read Arabic or Farsi.  He doesn’t drink at the first few parties because he is terrified his mom will freak out.  He drinks at a later party.  At one party someone remarks that “Allah won’t mind,” and he doesn’t really respond.  His mom, it is hinted at, has been hung over before and may have drunk in high school and consumes wine at her book club.  When Bijan and Elle are figuring things out between them, she wonders if it is ok because of…and it kind of trails off to imply perhaps his religion, to which there really isn’t a response.

FLAGS:

Drinking alcohol, language, relationships (straight and lesbian), crude jokes and references.  There is kissing between a boy and a girl and two girls that is overheard by the main character.  Sex and making out are referenced but not detailed.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a middle school book club or suggest it for the high schoolers.

Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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This 36 page toddler to kindergarten book features a little lion that doesn’t like to sleep.  One night he wishes for friends to play with and his crib starts shaking and moving and a magical adventure begins to unfold. The story highlights and celebrates Palestine, as that is where the crib takes him, but the story is also about not wanting to go to sleep, not wanting to miss anything fun, and seeing nighttime and daytime routines.  I love that it shows tatreez (embroidery), and mentions olives, and the friends he makes on the beach playing soccer are so welcoming, even gifting him a keffiyeh to keep warm with, but I really wanted more sites of Palestine, and more childish adventure and wonder about the beloved country.  The book mentions wishing and uses the word “hate” in describing how Laith feels about bedtime.  The taytas wear hijab, but there is no mention of religion.  The book is a great introduction to Palestine or a mirror for Palestinian children to see themselves in a fun animal led universal story.

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Laith is a lion, his mom is a giraffe and his father a bird (perhaps a hawk or falcon), he loves bath time and story time, but not bedtime, he doesn’t want to miss anything.  So when he makes a wish and finds himself flying outside in his crib, he is disappointed to see mama and baba asleep. his taytas asleep, and all of his friends sleeping too.  He wishes for someone to play with, and roar he is off to Palestine, where his night is their daytime. 

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In his world every character is an animal, but in his adventure, the characters are human.  He sees a grandma and eats an olive before asking some kids playing soccer on the beach if he can join.  As they play and cheer he gets cold and wants to go home.  He invites his friends, but they have to stay.  They gift him a keffiyah, and he leaves. 

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On his way back to his room, he looks in on his friends. Daliyah is getting dressed for school.  Zain and Idris are brushing their teeth, and his taytas are making breakfast. When he wakes up he tells his parents he wants to go back to Palestine, and they remark on him having a beautiful dream. 

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I love that there are diverse kids depicted in Palestine, that Laith’s grandmas are involved in his daily life, that the concept of day and night on different sides of the world is accounted for.  I don’t know how I feel about the voyeurism, sure it is innocent enough, but maybe Daliyah could have been getting ready for school, rather than getting dressed.  I like that the keffiyah came back with him and the illustrations show the Dome of the Rock.  

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I bought this as an ebook, because I was impatient and didn’t want to wait for shipping to show support to Palestinian books and authors.  It came with a coloring sheet as well, and is $2.99 on the website https://www.laiththelion.com/ it is also available as a hardback book on the website (heavily discounted) or on Amazon at its regular price.

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.

Sitti’s Olive Tree by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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Sitti’s Olive Tree by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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This lovely 27 page book is a story infused with love, culture, and olive oil.  The hardbound, large thick pages are richly illustrated as the text, perfect for ages preschool to second grade, tell of the olive harvesting season in Palestine.  The story is framed between a young girl learning about the past from her grandma’s memories and enjoying the olive oil sent by her uncles from their homeland.  The story is warm and informative and does not discuss politics or conflict. There is a key hanging on a map of Palestine in the illustrations, but nothing in the text.

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Young Reema watches her Sitti make hummus. When a drop of olive oil slips down the side of the bottle and Sitti wipes it up and rubs it in Reema’s hair.  Reema wants to know how olive oil, zeit zaytoun, can be used in such different ways. As Reema is reminded of how far the oil has traveled and recalls that her Sitti never buys olive oil at the store, the two settle in for Sitti to tell Reema some of her memories about the harvest on her ancestral land.

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Olive harvesting season comes at the end of the year and the families gather to pick the olives and fill the buckets before climbing ladders and catch the falling olives on blankets.  The elders sort them, and at the end of the day they eat and drink tea and coffee and laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

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They tell stories to pass on to the next generation just like Sitti is doing to Reema, because the olives keep the families together.  Sitti hopes one day Reema will go to Palestine and play among her family’s trees.

I wish there was a bit more detail about the hummus, it seems to imply that the garbanzo beans are whole and not smooshed or blended, also when it lists the other things Sitti’s grandparents would do with the olives, the list is olive oil, olive soap and olives for eating.  I would imagine there are more things to do with the olives, even perhaps detailing the way the olives for eating are pickled, or preserved, or prepared would have been nice.

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There is a glossary of a few terms at the end.  There is nothing religious in the text, but many of the women wear hijab in the illustrations.

Overall this book is well done and serves an important point in showing a culture that is rich and full, aside from conflict and politics.  It is a sweet story between a grandmother and her granddaughter and shows how stories, traditions, and food help pass on culture and heritage.

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The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

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The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

elephantI have to admit this 240 page middle grade OWN voice book had me invested and glued to the pages.  I was swept away to Sri Lanka and in disbelief at the boldness, cleverness, and spunkiness of the Robin Hood-esque 12-year-old protagonist.  I could not put it down as my head worked over time to figure out how this trio of children, one being a Muslim girl, was going to get out of the heap of trouble they had caused.  Yes, admittedly it wraps up a bit too quickly and simply, the main character Chaya doesn’t learn her lesson and is a terrible friend, and there isn’t a good moral of lying and stealing being bad.  But all that aside, the book is a fun adventure that while written pretty straightforward and clearly, is rich in adventure, culture, and excitement for second to fourth grade readers (and 40 year old moms that love strong girls).

SYNOPSIS:

Chaya is the daughter of a tribal representative, whose mother has passed away.  She goes to school, attends the temple once a week to learn Sanskrit, and at dawn is known to steal things to give to those in need.  At night time, people are on guard, expecting trouble, but dawn seems to be the perfect time to take what she needs from people that won’t even notice.  The book starts out with her stealing jewels from the Queen with the hopes of helping a friend who was bitten by a crocodile get medical help in the next town over.  The people in Sarendib have an unjust king, and stealing from his wife to help take care of people that need assistant is a job Chaya takes seriously.  Her heart is in the right place, but when a guard sees her she stops to visit a friend who works in a wood shop to hide the jewels until the heat dies down.  The box they hide the stolen goods in is purchased by a young Muslim girl, and now Chaya has to steal them back from her to get them to people that are in need.

The chain of events is just getting started, and when the jewels are discovered the wood working Neel takes the blame and is imprisoned, and the new girl in town, Nour, is determined to help free Neel from prison and save the villagers from being tormented by the royal guards.  Chaya devises a plan to free Neel from the palace dungeons, but nothing ever quite goes to plan and all the prisoners are freed.   As she runs to escape her own doom, she steals an elephant to get away, the king’s elephant.

The entire story is a series of follies and at each turn the children have really good intentions, they just keep snowballing into situations beyond their control with the stakes constantly multiplying.  I really don’t want to give it away, but they might just bring down a monarchy as they tromp through the jungle on an elephant, accidentally burn down villages, and find that even though Nour is a wealthy meat eater, they can in fact be friends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is outrageous, yet grounded.  I was sucked in from the first few short chapters and didn’t look back.  Chaya is oh so plucky and her fallibility and flaws make her so endearing.  She is a bit of a mean girl to Nour, but I think she shows growth.  The slight raised eyebrow regarding her, is that she didn’t learn some grand lesson, and in fact is possibly emboldened by her thieving and getting away with it.  There probably should have been some humbling at the end, but she is bold and outspoken, and not one for regrets.  I absolutely love the letter she left her father owning up to her role in the whole hullaballoo, and as an afterthought acknowledging that she skipped two days of school.  She is a cheeky one, but her heart is huge and she has her own sense of integrity that is unwavering.

I like that Nour is acknowledged as being Muslim, eating meat, and going to mosques before she moved.  It doesn’t articulate that Chaya doesn’t like her for her faith, but it isn’t helping the two girls befriend each other either.  I love the elephant, and the plants, and fruits, and animals that bring the story to life.

FLAGS:

Lying and stealing. Some destruction of property.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can’t see me doing this as a book club selection, it is just too young of a target audience, but it would be a blast to read aloud to a second or third grade class, or to assign in a classroom setting.  The chapters are really short that early chapter readers will feel accomplished when they complete the book, and the subject matter will compel them to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk, introduction by Omar Al Akkad, illustrated by Gerardo Alba, Kasia Babis, Alex Beguez, Tracy Chahwan, Nomi Kane, Omar Khouri, Kane Lynch, Maki Naro, Hazel Newlewant, Jeremy Nguyen, Chelsea Saunders, and Abu Zubaydah

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guantanamo voices

This 208 page graphic novel, is indeed graphic.  The unbelievable horrors detailed in the stories shared are all sourced and referenced in the nonfiction anthology. The intent isn’t shock and awe like the war that created such abysmal breaches of justice to be done in our name (Americans’), but is definitely a painful reminder of how fear and mismanagement allows the US treatment of individuals to grow and continue outside of the rule of law, and all that the US claims to represent.  The careful use of words such as “detainees” instead of “prisoners,” “enemy combatants” instead of “terrorists” or “criminals,” have allowed Muslim men to be held since 2002 without charges, legal representation, habeas corpus, or basic human rights.  When the prison was being filled, you’d hear about it in the news, when the government released heavily redacted reports on torture, you’d catch a headline or two, but there are still people being held, and for the most part, we, the world, have perhaps forgotten.  This book is a reminder, it is insight, it is so important that high school and college aged children are aware of what we are capable of, that adults are not allowed to forget what we are doing.  As it says in the intro, “To indict the people who did this is to indict the country that allowed it to happen.” We are all guilty, and this book is not an easy to read as it will make you angry, and devastated, and exasperated.  Don’t let the graphic novel format and simple text fool you, this is a difficult read, emotionally, and you should force yourself to sit with it- sit with the outrage and frustration, and see if it can spur you to action.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book is broken up to provide an introduction, map, facts, and a timeline, it then starts with the author arriving for a media tour to Cuba.  Some background stories about key individuals in understanding the effects of torture and better and more accurate ways to interrogate, and then the fateful day September, 11, that changed everything.  From here the stories are individual accounts of prisoners, lawyers, politicians, etc., each depicted by a different illustrator, to show a very rounded view of the effects of the prison, and thoughts by different people in a  variety of associations. 

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Some of the prisoners were swept up by neighbors responding to leaflets promising wealth for turning people in.  Some were taken from their homes for no reason, a few were taken from the battle field, but every single one has never had charges against them, nor a day in court, the few that have been able to be represented have been released without being accused of anything, hence, found to be innocent.  The doubling down on the concept of Guantanamo being the worst of the worst, administration after administration has made it so prisoners have to be released to countries they have never been to, with unknown rights or a way forward.  Those that are still detained have been there for nearly 20 years. 

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WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE BOOK:

I like that the book is personal, it is harder to dismiss or forget, or be unaffected when you are looking at images and surrounding yourself with guards and lawyers that are saying over and over, that these prisoners are innocent.  I like that it challenges Americans to demand more of America, it isn’t just putting the USA down nor does it read like the narrative has it out for the USA, it is very much an personal calling out, that we have made errors and continue to make errors out of arrogance.    

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FLAGS:

The images and language are at times graphic and one should be aware of the potential triggers of torture, and abuse. There are curse words spoken, and violence detailed.  High school and up.

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