Tag Archives: 2021

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published.  The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away.  This book unfortunately really fell flat.  I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps.  This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why.  The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me.  It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.

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SYNOPSIS:

Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh.  Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors.  Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way.  Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts.  Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist.  Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening.  Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer.  When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income.  At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves.  Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English.  A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength.  It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should.  The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab.  Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned.  The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected.  I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.

I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like.  I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira.  How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t.  I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings.  I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing.  It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading.   I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either.  If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.

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FLAGS:

Fairly clean.  There is bullying and mention of death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club.  It is a solid middle grade read.  Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya.  Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

I Can Help by Reem Faruqi illustrated by Mikela Prevost

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This 44 page early elementary book is absolutely beautiful: the message, the relatability, the representation, the heartfelt author note.  Reem Faruqi is brilliant.  Once again she takes something so personal to her and allows the readers to see pieces of themselves in her OWN voice narrative.  This book at it’s core is about peer pressure, but the way it stays with the reader will resonates deeply and powerfully.  Readers will remember the choice Zahra made and the way it changed not only her relationship with Kyle, but also her own view of herself, while forgetting the names of the classmates that teased her and made her question herself.  It is not the outside reprimanding that gives this book it’s strength, but the guilty conscious that such a young character has to come to terms with as she moves forward.

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There are 18 kids in Zahra’s class in early fall, when the leaves are about to be the color of Nana’s spices.  One of the kids is Kyle.  Kyle often needs a helper, and Zahra is happy to help him with his cutting and gluing and writing.  The two have become friends.  Kyle is funny and nice and shares his cookies.

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Zahra also likes the praise she gets for being such a good helper.  One day when the leaves have darkened, Zahra is climbing a tree and hears some of the girls making fun of Kyle.  She doesn’t want to listen, but her ears want to hear.  When she comes down, they ask her why she helps him.  She doesn’t really know.

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When she is helping him later, she sees the girls staring at her, and she snaps at Kyle.  The next day Ahmed helps Kyle instead.  Zahra misses being around Kyle, but he says that she is mean and he doesn’t know her any more.  Zahra doesn’t know herself any more either.

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The next year finds Zahra at a new school, and when the opportunity presents itself for her to help someone, she jumps to offer herself as a helper remembering Kyle and finding her voice, one that she recognizes.

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The book is inspired by the author’s own experience, and the rawness and relatability shines through.  The illustrator also relates to the book and needing help with physical limitations.  There is nothing overtly religious or cultural other than the mention of the spices, Zahra’s and Ahmed’s names, and the term for Zahra’s grandfather.  The diverse kids in the classroom and the universal messaging make this book a must read for every kid and big person.  Be kind, always be kind.

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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At 304 pages this middle grades fantasy OWN voice book attempts to weave together a granddaughters love for her Teta, with her adventures in a mythical world that only she can save.  In much the same way of Narnia, or Gregor the Overlander, or even Alice in Wonderland, the book takes a realistic character and pushes them, in this case Samara aka Sami, just beyond, into a world filled with mystery, adventure, and lessons.  The Lebanese flavor sprinkled in adds a little depth and uniqueness to the story, and aids a bit in the world building, but it isn’t a strong presence outside of ifrits and character’s names.  Teta is a Beduin that has a prayer rug and tarot cards and a painting of the Virgin Mary that she calls Fatima, and Sami’s deceased dad was American and the house has Christmas lights.  At one point the book remarks that Teta “likes to pick and choose her beliefs.”  The premise starts with Teta showing signs of dementia: speaking in a language no one but Sami can understand, and not eating and seeming present, the resolution as a result could give children the wrong idea about treatments for such real conditions, and adults might want to make sure their middle graders wont be triggered by the decline of a loved one.  The book is written well and holds reader’s interest, the world building is decent and the character’s relatable, I don’t know that it is overly memorable, but it is a fun light magical read with culture and family and friendship at its core that readers will enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami and her brother Tony, along with their attorney mom Alia and maternal grandmother, Serafina, have just moved to Florida from Ithaca, New York.  The children’s father was killed and the family has moved a few blocks away from his sister to start anew.  Sami is not settling in, and to make matters worse, Teta has stopped talking coherently, and Aunt Ivory and Alia are looking for a nursing home to place her in.  For some reason though, when it is just Sami and her grandma, she can communicate just fine, and Teta tells stories of her adventures with her flicker Ashrafieh in Silverworld.  Sami doesn’t necessarily believe the stories are true, but she gets the idea to use her Teta’s fairy stories to try and save her grandma, but when she finds her Teta’s spell book and peers into an old beloved mirror, Sami is taken to Silverworld and realizes that it is not just her grandmother’s future at risk.

In a world of flickers and shadows, Sami finds two balancers that taker her in and guide her: Dorsom and Natala.  The world is a reflection of the Actual world, but the Shadow Nixie is consuming the land and taking prisoners.  The balance is off, and Sami is convinced that this darkness is what is also harming Teta.  Between shadow spies and giant rotifers, magic and prophesied destinies, Sami must push her fear away and accept that she can be the one to set things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Sami has to step in to her own and fight for what she wants, even when she is afraid.  I love the relationship she has with her Teta it is very warm and palpable.  I feel like the “saving Silverworld will save her Teta thread,” however, is lost in the middle of the book, it might be the catalyst and might have worked out that way in the end, but I don’t know that the middle makes the case that the two efforts are one and the same.  I appreciate that there are glimpses of Lebanon in the story with the athan in the background and spinning dervishes, but outside of Teta and a bit of the food, the cultural elements seemed a bit forced and deliberate instead of stemming from a natural flowing place.  A bit odd since it is an OWN voice novel, but maybe I was just wanting more. I would have liked more information about how Teta settled in America, learned English etc., or about her tattoos and Beduin upbringing. Another thing that seemed off to me was the close relationship of Dorsom and Sami at the end.  I hadn’t over nearly 300 pages realized that they were that much closer than Sami and Natala.  I even went back to see if I had missed something, but I couldn’t find that I had.  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were going to see Nixie either, I mean yes it was logical for they type of book it is, but I don’t know that Sami really had a plan for Silverworld or her Teta, she was just going to Nixie’s castle to get there.  There were also a few inconsistencies such as Sami wishing her and Tony could go fishing or surfing, when the book has made it clear that Sami is afraid of the water, particularly the ocean.

FLAGS:

There is magic, killing, death. There is talk of goddesses, there is a female character, a shadow, that has two flicker husbands and children with them both.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would appeal to middle school readers, it is a solid middle grade book.  I do think fourth and fifth grade shelves would benefit from having this book available to be picked up and enjoyed.

The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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This middle grades AR 4.5 OWN voice book by Muslim author/comedian/surgeon/activists Bassem Youssef mixes text, comic strips, and illustrations over 166 pages to tell a story about ancient Egypt, friendship, leadership, xenophobia, and life sprinkled with magic.  It has a lot of potential, and I liked the lessons that Egyptian-American Nadia learns, but it just seemed lacking to me.  It seems to be book one in a series, and in many ways it reads like an introduction.  The magical element is underdeveloped to me and often just annoying.  The micro aggressions,  racism, and character’s ages would suggest upper middle grader readers would gravitate toward the book, but the overall writing style and length would more appeal to younger readers.  This disconnect makes the book hard to pin down and hard to connect with.  I’ll definitely check out future books in the series even though no religion is mentioned, because this brown girl has a lot of potential to break down Arab-American stereotypes and empower readers to be proud of where they and their families are from as universal obstacles are worked through.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nadia has just come back from a summer vacation visiting family and friends in Egypt and can’t wait to get ice cream with her best friend Adam.  She picked up an Egyptian comic book for him and is anxious to see if he likes it.  Except the comic book seems to have disappeared and when she asks her many bobble heads to help her find it, her necklace with a hippo amulet starts to glow and an ancient Egyptian teacher, Titi, starts talking to her from the now found comic book pages.  As Nadia figures out how to control this ancient man who lives around her neck and in papers around her, she also has to deal with a new kid that acts like a bully and has the admiration of her best friend Adam.  Nadia loves facts and her and her friends call themselves the Nerd Patrol.  Nadia can be a bit bossy though, and while usually her friends let it go, she seems to be stepping on toes lately, especially with Adam.  When a competition at school is announced that will result in an exhibit at the Museum of American History, Nadia will have to use her “genie” to get help coming up with ideas for her display, coping with a bully, restoring friendships, and learning how to be a leader before her friendships fall apart.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nadia is so proud of her culture and doesn’t feel like she has to pick one of her hyphens over another.  She brings Egyptian food for lunch, wears Egyptian inspired clothing, and is still very “American” as well.  Ancient Egyptian tidbits as well as modern day Egyptian information seeps through and weaves into the story smoothly.  The  diverse side characters are also a plus.  I think her trying to handle the bully in multiple ways makes the story resonate with other kids and gives readers something to ponder over.  I worry that most readers, however, won’t know who Elvis Presley is, or get if Titi is really helping or not and how it all comes together for him.  I am curious to see if he is a major character in future books, because I still have a lot of questions about his knowledge and understanding of the world after being trapped in an amulet for so long. Really, she could have learned so much from him, she just scratched the surface.

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FLAGS:

There is teasing and bullying and racism, subtle and overt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short and superficial for a middle school book club selection, but it could be a fun read aloud in a 3rd or 4th grade class.

Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an  Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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At 40 pages, this biography about Pakistani born artist Shahzia Sikander is filled with culture and experiences.  The story shows the influences of her family, the city of Lahore, her love of math, and her art education have in shaping her in to the artist she is today.  The book features photographs of her work at the end, but I found it odd that she didn’t illustrate the book herself.  The playful blocky pictures and text would appeal to first or second graders with some assistance, but would be better suited for readers a bit older if they are unfamiliar with some of the cultural and artistic vocabulary.  There is no mention of Islam in the book, when researching, it says her family is Muslim.  It seems she went to Catholic school, and a road trip was taken that included visiting the Sistine Chapel.  A few illustrations show people in hijab and it mentions the athan ringing out five times a day.  The book was interesting, but I wish I could have found it at the library, rather than purchasing it.  I don’t know that it will be read more than once, but that speaks more to personal preference, rather than the quality of the book. If you enjoy fine art, are from Lahore, are a fan of Shahzia Sikander’s work, you will definitely enjoy this book.

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The story starts with a girl stepping in to a painting with many rooms, filled with many people in a joint family.  It is her (Shahzia’s) home, and her family.  The rooms are filled with ancient fables, Russian fairy tales, poetry, English, Urdu, Bollywood songs, and American Westerns.

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Outside is the city of Lahore, in Pakistan, streets rich in smell and color and sound exist: orange jalebi and strings of jasmine, sounds of Qawwalis and pop music, the melodic call to prayer from the minarets.  As a child she plays cricket and climbs trees and flies kites.  Up on the roof she trains pigeons and looks out at the horizon.  

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When it gets hot, her family heads north.  They once traveled all the way to Rome.  She visited the Sistine chapel, her and Michelangelo share a birthday.

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At school she is shy. She loves math, as it is a tool to understand the world.  She finds she is also good at drawing birds, and people.  She studies miniatures with a magnifying glass.  Eventually training in miniature painting with a master.  Art becomes her ticket to new worlds.

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She heads off for America, taking her roots with her, but once she arrives she cannot leave.  Her passport is the wrong, color.  She lives in New York and cannot return to Pakistan for nine years.  Now she can travel and soar and share her work with the world.

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There is a glossary at the end and more information about Shahzia and her paintings.

 

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

olive trees

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.

City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God