Tag Archives: adventure

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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A perfect introduction to the refugee crisis for upper elementary aged kids.  The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed 9 and 3/4 year old narrator about her friends and how the filling of an empty chair in the back of the room changed their lives.  Ages 7 through 12 will enjoy the plotting and planning of the friends, the awesome climax and the gentle opening of their eyes to the atrocities and bigotry around them.  At 297 pages, with a few pictures and some engaging notes and tidbits at the end, the book is both big, yet completely non intimidating at the same time.  

SYNOPSIS:

Right near the end we learn that the narrator’s name is Alexa, and not too much before that, I learned that she is a girl.  I kind of like that vagueness of it, especially as we also learn that she is half Indonesian and half Austrian.  You realize that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t change anything, and that we all bring our own assumptions to the story and learn a bit about our selves as the narrator’s identity is revealed.  But really, thats a tiny bit of the book, the book is really about a group of diverse friends battling bullies, bully teachers, and trying to help the new kid in their class Ahmet.

Ahmet is a refugee from Syria, but the information isn’t easy to establish, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he disappears at lunch and recess, so Alexa, Josie, Tom, and Michael, first have to figure out who he is, and how they can be his friends.  Along the way we learn the Tom is from America, the book takes place in England.  Josie is the best football player and her parents are nervous to have her interacting with Ahmet, Michael is incredibly wealthy and his parents are Nigerian and French, and Alexa lives with her mom a librarian who works really long hours, her dad passed away and money is incredibly tight.

Once friendships are established, Alexa learns that Ahmet’s mom and dad are missing and that his sister and cat died while fleeing Syria.  When she learns that the government is planning to close the borders to immigrants and refugees, the group of kids come up with plans to keep the gates open until Ahmet’s parents can be found and they can come to the United Kingdom.  The kids come up with a variety of plans, but “The Greatest Idea in the World,” is the one they decide to go with.  It involves a lot of danger, but the general gist is to get a message to the Queen of England, who will keep the gates open, find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.  

Naturally, there are a lot of moving parts to the plan, and a lot of naivety on the part of the 9 year olds, but they do get the Queen’s attention, and they do have a wonderful support system of parents and teachers and while their are bullies around every corner, they do come together to make the world a bit better for Ahmet and for us all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is realistic, with the plotting, and understanding of war, alike.  The war and Ahmet’s journey is very very simplified, but the tone, introduces kids to the intensity without overwhelming them.  Just like the plot to get the Queen’s attention is not celebrated, but appreciated.  What the kids did was wrong and dangerous and they lied, and the kids don’t ever know after if they are in trouble or being praised.  I like that the integrity of both situations is upheld and the book doesn’t get too far fetched.  Similarly, the book is fun and adventurous, and in many ways Ahmet is just a catalyst for the kids to come together to solve a problem and save the day. 

There aren’t a lot of details about his life in Syria, because he doesn’t speak English, there isn’t anything about Islam, except he draws his mom with a scarf on her head.  But there is a lot of learning to accept each other, and stick up for whats right and to not give up on people.  I love the diversity of the friends and how they don’t expect each other to change, they accept each other and move along.  

There is a slight typo on page 3, “…could be half as useful as a Tintin’s dog, Snowy,” that had me afraid that this book was going to be unrefined, but alhumdulillah I was wrong.  The book reads easily and wonderfully, and my children loved it as much as I did.  The author is a first time writer, and I hope she has a bunch more stories in her, because I look forward to reading them.  

FLAGS:

The book is clean and reads believably from a 9 year old’s perspective.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would do this in an elementary book club in a heartbeat. I’ve suggested it to many and I hope to read it aloud to my 4th and 5th grade lunch bunch crew. It is well written, timely, and memorable.

Teacher’s Notes: https://www.hachetteschools.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Boy-at-the-Back-of-the-Class-Teachers-Notes.pdf

A bit about the author: http://beingthestory.org.uk/speakers/onjali-q-rauf

 

 

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Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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I don’t read a lot of sci-fi books, ok so maybe I haven’t really ever read one…or maybe a few have snuck through and then been forgotten.  So, I was excited to read this book by a Muslim author with Arabic poetry and Moroccan inspired backdrop sprinkled in, if nothing else it had me intrigued.  The book is a 308 page YA book that came out two months ago and was available in both hardback and on audio at my public library.  I was thinking to listen to the audio version with my kids, but the book was ready first, and the reviews on the back cover by other authors, all mentioned that the book was “romantic” and “sexy,” huh? The synopsis online and even on the inside flap, hinted much more at rebellions and body doubles, and life on a small moon in a distant fictional galaxy.  Needless to say I didn’t check out the audio book and decided I should proof it for my self first.  I started the book, no less than five times.  Like I said, it isn’t a familiar genre and I was a little confused.  I decided to just keep plugging through the fifth time, and sure enough when my eyes started to get sleepy I realized I was more than half way done with the book.  I guess when you are building worlds and culture you have to start somewhere and the confusion worked itself out after that.  I’d say the book is for teens.  The romance isn’t explicit, save some kissing, but a lot is implied and better for kids a little older than middle school.

SYNOPSIS:

Amani is turning 18 and about to attend her majority ceremony, where her cultural daan, facial tattoos will be marked on her face.  Surrounded by her loving family of parents and two older brothers, and close friends, drones from the main planet attack the festivities and kidnap Amani to the palace that the Vathek empire has taken over after conquering the planet and two moons.  The storyline is pretty straightforward, the confusion for me was the world building of establishing the culture, the religion, the symbols and characters all intertwined at the start.  The understanding of what life was like before the occupation and now under Vath rule, about the tribes, the birds, and how so much has changed.  

Once Amani is enslaved in the palace and had her near identical features to the princess, surgically made to match the ruthless half Vathek, half Andalaan ruler, the setting is developed through stories and flashbacks that clear up the confusion and make the book a fast and fairly easy read.  As the princess’ body double Amani must learn to act and carry herself as Princess Maram so as to not be discovered when sent in to complete tasks that would put the real princess in danger.  The job of Amani, however, also develops in to her filling in for Maram, whenever the spoiled princess, doesn’t want to do things.  In the process of these engagements, Amani spends a lot of time with Maram’s fiance, Idris, who is Kushaila and as part of the war truce betrothed to Maram.  Maram and Idris are friends, who understand their roles, but when Idris figures out Amani is playing a role as well, the two of them fall in love, complicating matters considerably.  Throw in some Andalaan cousins, forced to the outskirts under the new rulers, a royal half-sister vying for the crown, and a rebel who looks like a beloved Prophetess recruiting Amani to join them as a spy, and you have a protagonist trying to stay alive while following her conscious as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the world created seems plausible and real.  I love that I was engaged and intrigued and able to finish the book (yay!), but ultimately the book reads more like a romance book, than a sci-fi one.  Aside from the planet, droids, holograms, and modes of transport, it could be any culture and religion even here on Earth being fleshed out and established as the back drop for the story.  I love that Amani holds to her culture and the love she feels for her people, their language, poetry, and their history is palpable and descriptive. 

I love that society is focused so much on the strength of women.  Yes Maram’s dad is the evil overlord, but she is the future.  Amani is the protagonist, it is her mom’s strength that she calls on so often in her trials and torture.  The Prophetess that delivers hope is a female, that the poetry comes from women, and is gifted by women.  I love that the leaders of the rebellion are women, that the cousin that has not given up on the true bloodline of rulers is female and that the Dowager is such a strong, yet loving beacon that deserves the truth about Amani’s identity.  At one point, when presenting herself as Maram to Idris’s aunt, the two have a conversation:

“You must eat more,” she says in heavily accented Vathekaar.  “If you are to be any good at bearing daughters.”

“Why daughters?”

“Only your daughters will have the stomach for the future,”  she said.  “It is why your mother had you.”

 

I don’t really like the love story between Amani and Idris, it seems too easy, even though obviously it is plagued with impossibility, there should have been more tension.  Maybe it isn’t even the relationship, but more that Idris isn’t nearly as developed as Amani and Maram, and it shows.  I’m hoping there will be more books in the series and that he will be given some depth, because a lot is told about him, but the authenticity seems lacking.  The disjointedness of the romance could also be the pacing of the book.  I felt like somethings dragged and climaxes seemed rushed. Again, I’m hoping this is more setting the stage for further adventures, and that the next book will delve more in to the political-warring-rebel story line that the author definitely can delve in to and capitalize on along with Amani and Maram’s relationship.

Maram is my favorite character, how delicious that the antagonist is not one, or even two dimensional.  She is cruel, and scared, and vulnerable and everything in between.  I loved the interactions between the two young women.  I wanted to know more from Maram, how she felt about, well, everything, and I’m really hoping holding back on those insights was intentional for a purpose.  While she evokes both hatred and pity from Amani, she evokes so much curiosity and exasperation from the reader it is refreshing.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, the characters have their own fictionalized religion, and religious texts.  The names are familiar to the Muslim world, and arabic words sprinkled in with no definition, definitely will make Arabic aware children feel a connection to the characters and setting of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think one could do this as a book club book for high school aged students.  And while I dislike labeling books for one gender or another and all the stereotypical tropes that that implies, I feel like because of all the romance and the amount of time spent on Amani and Idris the book might appeal more to girls.  The book spends a lot of time on these two as it is their talking that creates understanding of their world for the reader.  It is more telling than showing, and these two snuggled up or caressing each others faces is the manner in which the information seems to be expressed.  I’m holding out hope that the rest of the series will break away from this set up.

author’s website:  http://www.somaiyabooks.com/

article with excerpts: https://ew.com/books/2018/02/19/mirage-somaiya-daud-preview/

FLAGS:

There is kissing and affection.  There is also some violences broadly as the Andalaan’s are tortured and attacked and specifically, as Amani has a bird sent to attack her, and she is regularly hit and beaten. Nothing too extreme for high schoolers.

 

 

The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Amazon & The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Mars by Hena Khan and David Borgenicht

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The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Amazon & The Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure Novel: Mars by Hena Khan and David Borgenicht

There is nothing Islamic or religious, with either of these books, but I wanted to review them, as the author Hena Khan, who has brought such lovely picture books to our book shelves (Night of the Moon, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets), inspiring elementary books to the mainstream (Amina’s Voice, On Point, Power Forward), and who showed Curious George what Ramadan is all about, is Muslim.  She has done a tremendous job of blending culture and religion with everyday life making her stories relatable and found on bookshelves across America.  She also has written books that are just good books void of any religion and culture, that hopefully they remind our youth that you can write books about anything, appeal to everyone, and be successful as well.

Both books are like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I remember from the 1980s except these are much better written, and I think I might have learned facts about Mars, space travel, and the Amazon from them, without even realizing it.  Aimed at 3rd to 5th graders, these two books were checked out from the library and read countless times by my kids and myself alike.  They are entertaining and not easy to predict.  It is worth noting that while I did make it the entire length of the Amazon, after four tries I gave up trying to survive the journey to Mars and back.

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SYNOPSIS:

In both books the cast of teammates is given at the beginning and shows a good diversity of men and women from all over the world with a variety of skills and backgrounds to be on the expedition.  The books then give the set up of where you are going, and how you got chosen.  You then are advised to flip to the back of the book to look through the files and notes that will give you knowledge about what you will encounter.  These pages are in full color and are in diary, note style.  The adventure then begins and you make choices that lead you down different paths to success, or demise, it is up to you to decide how to survive.  

WHY I LIKE THEM:

I love that you learn while making decisions and attempting to make the story continue.  The books are fun and most of the choices aren’t obvious, naturally a few are, but they are well done.  There are comic book style pictures sprinkled throughout and regular black and white illustrations on many of the pages.  I particularly liked that the kids read them more than once and learned a bit about space travel, mars, what would be needed to set up a colony, the Amazon, various animals, and survival skills in the rain forest.

FLAGS:

You might get burned up, or bitten by a snake, but nothing too graphic, as you are the reader and obviously know it isn’t real.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

These books wouldn’t work as book club selections, but I think 3rd and 4th grade classrooms and school libraries would benefit from having these fun books on hand.  Struggling readers will enjoy the fast pace and the number of pages (about 200 each), irregardless of if they are read or not, and advanced readers will enjoy trying again and again to reach the successful end.

 

 

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

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

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

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

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Mikaeel and Malaika: The Quest for Love

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Mikaeel and Malaika: The Quest for Love

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The beautiful hardback book is pricey, but fun.  I didn’t have any expectations when I read it, but now that I’ve read it three times and had my children read it, and my mom a reading specialist/teacher of 45 years read it, I feel pretty confident in saying, its a well-done book.  I think it can get a bit cumbersome when reading aloud, because some lines rhyme and some don’t, but on the third read through I read it to six kids ages two to nine and all throughly enjoyed it.

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The sibling superhero duo are on a quest to find out how to have a pure heart.  They try praying aloud, praying quietly, then they go and talk to the Big Boss, their dad, who speaks in rhyming clues.  The play on words might make the book utterly confusing to children younger than five, or kids of all ages if full attention isn’t being given when read aloud.  For independent readers, they will delight in the words that sound the same yet have completely independent meanings.

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Eventually their quest also takes them to Agent M.O.M who loves them more than anyone else they can imagine, but the big reveal is that Allah (swt) loves us even more.  I don’t know that it is crystal clear that getting a pure heart involves loving the one who loves us most. But, I think by the end, the readers are just entertained that they figured out Allah loves them more than anyone else in the world and is the creator of us all.  The last page has an ayat from Surah Rehman, ” So which of the favors of your Lord would you deny?” Which again adds one more thing to the story about being grateful for all that Allah has given us, keeping it from being a completely streamlined story, but adding to the overall love and appreciation for Allah.

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The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and engaging, the amount of text and the font is perfect for ages 6-8 and the messages is fun and educational.  I hope that there are more in the series, alhumdulillah.

 

Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai

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In terms of plot and and believability, this 274 page 6.3 reading level book has moments of unrealistic twists, but the historical flashbacks and context make up for it as it delves into Pakistan, India partition without getting overly bogged down in politics and bitterness.  You can tell that the author writes from a place of love and warmth, as she talks about all sides involved: Pakistan, India, Great Britain.   The stories, fictional and historical, that weave through the novel make it informative and entertaining irregardless of one’s prior knowledge.

SYNOPSIS:

Maya is 12, and a little shy, especially compared to her older sister Zara.  The book starts with her writing a journal entry about her visit to Pakistan in an airplane somewhere over the ocean.  Maya, her older sister Zara, and their mother are heading to Karachi from America because of the death of Maya’s beloved grandfather.  Frequent visitors to Pakistan, Maya is familiar with the sights, traditions, and language.  As other family members arrive, Maya and Zara overhear their elderly grandmother planning to runaway to India to retrieve family heirlooms that were left during partition.  The plan had been in the works for the whole family to go, visas were already obtained, but with the unexpected death, the urgency is amplified.  Grandma wants to find a ring to bury with her husband.  In Islamic custom burials happen very very quickly, often the same day, so the delay and sending the body to America, is something you just have to go with as the reader.  Rather than convince Grandma to stay, the girls threaten to tell their mother if she doesn’t take them along, and the next thing you know the trio are off to India and on a treasure hunt.  There is a map at the beginning of the book, which is very helpful.  However, the adventure isn’t straightforward, not only in the trio’s adventures, but in that grandma ends up in the hospital, Zara and Maya decide to pursue the lost items on their own, and then Zara and Maya get separated.  Twelve-year-old Maya then is forced out of her shell as she is kidnapped, and running for her life, trying to keep her promises, and also in desperately trying to save her family from having to pay a ransom to save her.  A lot happens, and the intensity amplifies as it starts out as a elementary aged family story and turns into a middle school adventure.  A long the way are beautiful passages about the scenery, amazingly simplified, but factually and emotionally accurate explanations about partition and ultimately, through Maya, about finding your voice. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The framing of the fictional story and the historical context is wonderful.  Partition, is such a pivotal moment for those that lived through it, but has less and less relevance to today’s generation that lives abroad.  So, to find a book that makes the gist of the events come through, is why I love using fiction to connect people and ideas.  I am making my daughter read this tomorrow, no question. She needs to know what her own grandmother endured, what decisions her family had to wrestle with, and this book allows us to have those discussions in an informed way.  I’m sure many would disagree and say that the reader should know about partition before reading the book, but I think the tidbits and delicate way the author convey the horrors, the agony, the manipulation, and the struggles in todays time, is far better than I could do to a sixth grader. 

Maya’s abilities seem to grow overnight, so while she was an ok protagonist, she might annoy some.  I actually had to google in the middle of reading how old Maya is, at times she seems like she is eight or nine and at other times like she is 15.  I do like that Maya constantly remarks how alike India and Pakistan are, a reality that today’s generation definitely agrees with, but is often afraid to voice to their parents.  I also like that there are good and bad everywhere, a theme that doesn’t get old, especially in books that deal with cultural and religious elements as presented to a wide audience.

There isn’t much religion in the book, the characters don’t stop and pray or wear hijab, but the setting does allow for mention of masjids, and a kind Imam back in California, the characters identify as Muslim and they discuss Muslims as a minority and political entity regularly.  One of the treasures the grandma is looking to retrieve is an old Qur’an with the family tree drawn within.  The book talks about how intertwined the two countries and many religions of India are, and Maya’s name articulates many of these crossroads.  In the end, perhaps the best lesson from the book, is how much alike we all really are.

There is a wonderful Author’s note in the back, along with a glossary.

FLAGS:

The book has some violent images as it discusses trains coming from India to Pakistan with only a few living aboard and vice versa.  The intensity as Maya is robbed, and then kidnapped, and then held hostage, could also be jarring for some younger readers. 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Like all her other books, I would absolutely include this in a Book Club, there is a lot to discuss, lots to understand, and lots to enjoy.

Author’s website: http://www.nhsenzai.com/ticket-to-india/

Reading Group Guide: http://www.nhsenzai.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Ticket-to-India_ReadingGuidePDF.pdf

YouTube book trailer:

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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Take Jumanji, turn it into a chapter book, flavor it with steam punk, set it in a Middle Eastern inspired marketplace, and have the protagonist be a Bengali-American, hijab wearing Muslim on a quest to save her little brother with her two BFFs from New York. Bam, you now have a 298 page AR 5.4 reading level booked called The Gauntlet.  

Published by Salaam Reads (Amina’s Voice) this book is written for all kids, the main character’s religion and culture just add depth and a connection to the game they have fallen in to.  I found this book on Scholastic, and when I got it, I handed it to my daughter to screen for me.  I asked her once she finished if it had any Muslims in it and how were they presented, to which she gaped at me and said, “umm mom the whole thing is about a Muslim girl and it is awesome!” So naturally I moved it higher up in the “to be read pile” and while I agree with her assessment, the book is more plot than character driven, and there isn’t a lot of theology in it, just a race against time to get out of the game alive.

SYNOPSIS:

It is Farah Mirza’s 12th birthday and while she should be downstairs visiting with her guests from her new school, she is holed up in her bedroom with her little brother Ahmad and her best friends from the old neighborhood, Essie and Alex, playing board games, the Mirza family’s favorite pastime .  When Aunt Zohra tries to coax them from the room she mentions a gift for the birthday girl is in her room, and the kids sneak off to get it.  Only it isn’t the book she brought to give Farah that they find, it is a bewitched game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand that lures kids in, and keeps them if they cannot out play the Architect.  When Ahmed falls in, the trio has no choice but to follow him in to try and rescue him and escape, before time runs out.

Once inside the game, they are in a city called Paheli. It resembles an old Middle Eastern city with large souks, market places, even a small masjid, surrounded by sand and levels absolutely breathtaking in both their beauty and in their threat to the children.  The inhabitants are those that played the game and lost. The challenges the kids must face range from a life size game of mancala to a taste test of Bengali/Indian sweets.  As they rush from challenge to challenge they meet a kind tea shop owner, giant lizards, spies and police of the architect and see fairly detailed descriptions of different parts of Paheli. The gamemaker/designer known only as the Architect senses that the kids will win, so he starts to cheat, and then feels bad and arranges to meet the players.  When the children meet him, and hear his story, they feel some sympathy for him, but not for the Jinn that holds the ultimate power over the game.  Obviously they do escape, but I won’t spoil the fun the process is, nor the sweet surprise of the reunion.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that at the core, the story is driven by love for a sibling and requires the teamwork and cooperation of friends.  The rest is just frills from this central and clear message that is woven throughout the book.  While it is idealistic, there are hints that it isn’t overly so.  Yes Ahmad with his ADHD is a lot to handle at times, and the friends do have their squabbles, but ultimately both friends and family are worth risking it all.  I love that Farah is Bengali, many of the foods are Indian, and they are set in the Middle East, but yet somehow it seems interchangeable, this made me laugh, and while in other instances might have annoyed me, I liked how connected it made everyone seem, more alike than different.  Essie and Alex know some of the foods and cultural lexicon from growing up in New York.  They don’t find things different, they had lots of kids in school that wore hijab. Readers unfamiliar with some of the words and names found in the subcontinent and Islamic history might be put off a bit by the regular use of these words and the lacking glossary, but if you identify with any of it, you will celebrate seeing yourself in this book, just as Farah relished in seeing something of familiarity in Paheli.  

The book is fast paced and the detail given to the setting and cultural aspects are fun, but I really don’t feel like I connected much with the characters as a result.  There is very little character development and I actually had to look back in the book for some of the names to write this review.  There also isn’t much religion in terms of belief or practice.  The buildings and the food and the tone all hint at Islam, but I would have loved to hear an athan, or even her pausing to pray.  Not even that is there.  She wears hijab and that is about it in terms of religion.  

Ultimately I love that it is a mainstream book, with a strong storyline that is action packed and fun for older elementary and early middle schoolers that is clean and familiarizes and thus normalizes a culture not often seen in young adult fiction.  

FLAGS:

None, it is clean, at times possibly a bit scary with human bones, but not anything overly haunting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be an amazing book for a book club, and I would play the games that they play in the gauntlet at the meeting.  There isn’t a ton to discuss in terms of introspection and growth, but there is enough, and it is fun.  Plus, there aren’t a lot of books like this for Muslim kids to see themselves in, that I think it would be a blast for them to read, and enjoyable for the adults to watch them get swept away.

Interview with the Author: http://ew.com/books/2017/03/27/karuna-riazi-gauntlet-jumanji/