Tag Archives: adventure

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

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Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

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It’s been a while since I’ve read such an over the top silly book that has a lot of heart.  It is 352 pages that remind me of the the My Teacher is an Alien book series of my youth smashed up with the Weirder School/Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of today.  Meant for upper elementary with some bad words (hell and damn), the story is Pakistani-British representation with many Muslim named characters, a Muslim author, and a shout out to a KFC in another town that is halal.  Don’t read it if if you want to learn anything, but definitely pick it up if you want to roll your eyes, giggle, and ponder a world where Desi aunties are the perfect disguise for force feeding an entire community delicious food as part of their evil plan to take over the world.

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SYNOPSIS:

Humza Mohammed Khan is an 11 year old Pakistani kid in Britain who thinks of himself as the next big rapper, Little Badman.  He dreams big and talks even bigger as he struts around primary school getting in trouble and trying to film his music video on his friend Umer’s extremely old Nokia flip phone.  With a normal enough mom, a hyper exaggerating father, and a handful of their friends known as Aunties and Uncles, Humza gets in trouble regularly enough, but overall seems to have a good heart.

Things at school slowly start to change after their teacher gets stung by a bee named Mustafa, that Umer brought to school to be his pet.  Weird as that might be, it is even more odd, when their teacher is replaced by a volunteer auntie.  Every day it seems like a teacher goes missing, and is replaced by some asian kids’ aunt.  When the supper ladies are replaced and the food improves, no one is complaining.  When every volunteer starts bringing snacks to school, no problem.  Who doesn’t love gulab jams, and samosas, and butter chicken all day long every day?  Well, as the school puts on the pounds and all the teachers and staff are officially missing, Humza, Umer and their former nemesis Wendy, start to get worried.  Humza’s Uncle who he calls Grandpa, claims his wife Auntie Uzma is not really his wife, and helps Humza investigate.

Secret meetings in supermarkets, teachers and grandpa vanishing, and Humza seeing a giant slug coming out of the substitute librarian, means that Little Badman is going to have to run away from cricket practice, not get sent in a crate to Pakistan, face his stage fright, and save the day from the aliens taking over the aunties.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is cultural rep and own voice in its telling.  Humza is Pakistani and his cultural baggage is hilarious and part of him, and no explanations are needed.  In his world people are from lots of places and they all live and play and learn together and they eat caramel apples and toffee and jilabies.  The diversity is great and not articulated, it just is what it is, and they all have to work together to save the day. I think my favorite character is Grandpa, who Humza has to learn to appreciate and not just see as an old almost dead guy and Humza’s dad who exaggerates everything and takes his cricket very seriously.  At the end Humza has to have a heart to heart with his dad and his uncle, Grandpa and it makes this over the top nutty story really kind of sweet too.

There is no “Islam” in it aside from Muslim names and mention in a rap of a halal KFC.  I kind of like that they are Muslim kids and it appeals to a larger audience, sure something praying or something at some point might have been nice, but it isn’t a book that you’d be expecting spiritual nuggets from, so it is ok.

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FLAGS:

The words damn and hell are used.  There is disrespect of authority, parents, and teachers as well as lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had my ten year old read it and he thought it was ok, but was uncomfortable with the language, which I was glad, but I told him I thought he could handle it, and know what is appropriate to use.  That being said, school libraries should have the book, maybe not classroom libraries though, and I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club.  I will have my other kids read it though, cause like I said, it is silly and fun.

Interview with comedian author Humza Arshad: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2019/march/meet-little-badman/

 

 

The Broken Kingdom by H.G. Hussein

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The Broken Kingdom by H.G. Hussein

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An engaging chapter book that blends adventure, friendship, battles, mystery, and faith over 292 pages of easy reading and rich storytelling.  The book appeals to readers 10 and up with it being completely clean and age appropriate for anyone younger who can handle the storyline.  The characters are not just active and practicing Muslims, but the story too, is Islamic in nature.   The story is unabashedly pro-Islam and slightly dogmatic, but not overly preachy and faith is woven in seamlessly throughout the story.

SYNOPSIS:

The Sultan of the Islamic Empire is having a recurring dream that involves a floating city falling when a flying object hits it, when he asks his guiding Imam what it means he learns that the city will be destroyed unless the Sultan assists.  Not knowing where the city is, what the object is, and trusting the Sheikh explicitly, a retired soldier is brought back in to service to find the city and save it.  Adam, before he leaves the capital is joined by two others to help him on his journey, Ali and Umar.  Ali is a quiet man whose voice when reciting is absolutely beautiful and whose eyesight and archery skills are unparalleled.  Umar is the Muezzin and the Grand Mosque and a seemingly close figure to the Sultan with familial ties to the area.  The trio sets off to Benghazi to talk with some Bedouins who were ambushed by some man-beasts and are too afraid to speak of the encounter.  It is believed that their experience and the dream are linked.

To reach Benghazi they must travel first by boat for about a week, while at sea they come across an abandoned vessel that has but one survivor and a lion aboard.  After the lion is killed and the injured man brought with them, they are able to continue to try and get information from the Bedouins.  Finally, the Bedouins and the trio are off to the place of the attack and the journey moves on.  When a rockslide and attack from these same mysterious beasts separates the group, Adam, Ali, and Umar are on their own to make there way through the mountains and figure out the threat on their own without the Bedouins.  They journey through a river within a mountain for days on end before meeting soldiers that take them back to their unnamed city.  The city is the one from the dream.  And as they must search to understand what plagues the inhabitants, how to defeat it, and how to survive, they suffer loses, confusion and only a few answers.   They do save the city from the immediate threat, but not from a larger looming one.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book reads really smooth, a lot of self published chapter books are all over the place, and this one, sticks to the story pretty well.  There are a few tangents, such as the lion on the ship, that really have very little baring on the story, except to show maybe how good of an archer Ali is, however, most are mildly amusing and thus not terribly frustrating.  There are a few smaller incidents that make the book a little less cohesive, for example a passage about a man named Tarek, who brings the Sultan a message and is rewarded with gold, or such detail about Umar not being allowed to go on the assignment and then the Sultan allowing him to go, perhaps it is to show the Sultan’s generosity and willingness to take other people’s opinions in to consideration, but they aren’t particularly smooth anecdotes to the book and read a bit unpolished.  Often these little dives into side issues with fair amounts of detail made me think they would play a role later in the book, but by-and-large, they don’t. One that particularly stood out was Adam meeting the Chief’s daughter in the forbidden woods. I still really want to know why she and her children were there.  I also wanted more information about the man-beast figures and the man and woman that were so quickly killed, and the markings on the trees and in the caves (trying not to spoil too much), in the climax.

I love that the book is Islamic fiction from top to bottom, there are lots of morals exposed and teachings mentioned in real tangible situations.  The character’s pray and carry themselves at all times as Muslims and it is refreshing to read.  Characters in the book take shahada based on the manners of the Muslim characters and the readers see and understand repeatedly the power actions and values have in defining a person.  One of my favorite exchanges in the book is when Adam tells Ali, “The main reason for failure is manners.  To be specific, lack of manners.”  The details continue, and hopefully reinforce and articulate what parents everywhere are trying to teach their children.

The font and binding and all are adequate, I don’t love the cover though.  It seems this is the second cover, and I wish it was more eye catching, it is really bland, and unfortunately won’t compel readers to pick it up.  I also really wish their was a map.

FLAGS:

There is violence, nothing sensationalized or celebrated and it even mentions how heavy hearted characters should be about going in to battle and taking a life.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a middle school book club book. I’d love to hear how the students take the Sultan being referred to as Allah’s representative on Earth.  I get Leader of the Believers, and even Caliph, but I felt this description to be a bit grandiose.  I actually thought it was perhaps a Shia perspective, nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t something I’d ever heard before and yes I assumed, but the author said, “Of course not.“  He then said, “The Caliph must ensure that the laws of Allah, Most High, are present on Earth.  Every Caliph represented the Creator ensuring Shariah was present, the same as every Prophet and Messenger.” Still not completely clear, I asked a trusted source (not Google) who said it comes from the Ummayads under Muawiyah. So, I’m not sure if anyone else would be hung-up on this, but it is something that stood out to me, although definitely not making the book something to avoid.

I think kids will have strong opinions on the mystery at hand being the book ends on a cliff hanger.  With a lot of questions still up in the air and no real right or wrong answer, I think discussing the book would be a lot of fun.

The book’s website: https://www.thebrokenkingdom.com/

 

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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A mature upper middle school/high school aged fantasy romance, written by a nikabi and filled with ancient Arab imagery and Arabic words.  Story-wise it read to me like a mashup of Hunger Games and Ember in the Ashes, and while the overall story is good, the first 60 pages of world building were utterly confusing to me.  I told myself I would read at least 100 pages and then decide if I wanted to continue, luckily before I hit 100 pages I found a glossary of terms, characters, and places online, and the story moved from world building to character development and I enjoyed the rest of the ride.

SYNOPSIS:

In a world that is slowly being taken over by the dark magic that is the Arz, a deadly forest that surrounds the country of Arawiya, one girl in one of the five Caliphates, Zafira, dares to venture into the darkness to hunt game and prevent her people from starving.  Unfortunately the Caliph of her state looks down upon women and this regular heroic act must be done with her impersonating a man and keeping her efforts as covert as possible.  Life for Zafira is hard as she not only juggles this masquerade, but her father has recently been killed, her mother is mentally absent, her best friend is getting married, the Arz is growing, and the people around her are starving.

In more or less alternating chapters we also learn of Nasir, the ‘Prince of Death’ who is an assassin for the Sultan who has also now taken over as Caliph of Sarasin.  Forced to kill innocent people by his heartless father, Nasir also is mourning the loss of his mother,  as he tries to earn his father’s approval and find some validation for his current life.

The two characters come together when an immortal witch summons Zafira to retrieve a magic book from a cursed island beyond the Arz and Naisr’s father sends him to intercept her.  The majority of the book takes place on the island of Sharr, an island that is not only a location, but a living consuming character, and involves a variety of other enchanted beings from the various states.  An immortal Safin, Benyamin, one of nine elites, Kafirah, and Altair, a general from Sarasin that weaves them altogether and complicates everything.   This group, the zumra, must work together to save Arawiya, while constantly evaluating how much they can trust one another, as well as themselves.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the detail and was pleasantly surprised with the pacing.  The chapters are short and kept the plot from dragging for 471 pages.  Having read it and enjoyed it, I don’t know that I can properly discuss it though.  There are things that I just accepted and moved on with without pondering over, because I don’t know if I understood it well enough to even ask the question aloud.  That being said, I feel like I got the story and I understood where the characters were coming from and I closed the book feeling satisfied and willing to read the next one in the series.  The characters grow and develop and they have a satisfying arc without being overly cliche or predictable.  I think Nasir grows much more than Zafira and knowing that the next book is more focused on him, intrigues me.  Altair is by far the most fascinating character and I hope to see more of him as well.

There is a map at the beginning of the book that I referenced A LOT, and truly I have no idea why the glossary and character list was not included in the book, as it is desperately needed. There are a lot of Arabic words and I would like to get an Arabic speaker’s perspective on how knowing what the terms meant affected the story comprehension. 

I like that Zafira has to find confidence in shedding her cloak and stepping in to herself, but I felt it told it more than it showed.  Some of the states are governed by women, the founders are women, that I didn’t feel her fear in hiding her gender.  Similarly, I wanted more information on who/what exactly the Lion of the Night was/is and where the affinities come from.  Perhaps minor points, but details that kept me from immersing myself in this fantastical land and kept me feeling like an outsider peering in and trying to connect with events just out of reach.

FLAGS:

There is a lot of killing, and some of it gruesome.  There is abuse and details of branding and a tongue being cut out.  There is alluding of sexual acts but nothing defined, random comments between characters and implications of girls in a room in the morning.  There is kissing and an intense makeout session that is used to achieve a battle goal, but it is detailed and the characters reflect on how it made them feel in terms of desire, longing, wanting, etc.  So, while it is there, it is there for a purpose other than titillation, that is why I think mature middle school could handle it.  There is a scene in a bar, but none of the main characters drink.  There is some language, albeit not in English.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I could do this with 6th graders in my middle school book club, but I will definitely suggest it for the high school one.  I think there are a lot of ways things can be interpreted and because it is a fantasy there is no right or wrong which would make the discussion fascinating.  The romance I think makes the book lean to being more female oriented, but I think there is enough action that boys will also enjoy it overall as well.

Book Website: https://www.wehunttheflame.com/

The book just came out, so I’m sure in the next few weeks and months there will be more tools, more interviews, and more details of what is to come in the series.

 

 

 

 

Nimrullah: The Quest for the Green Dagger by Aaron Spevack

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Nimrullah: The Quest for the Green Dagger by Aaron Spevack

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Oh this one was hard for me to finish.  It was the only thing I took to keep me entertained on a 7 hour plane ride in February as I was determined to read this, and even between the going and return flight, I couldn’t force myself to get through it.  Four months later out of sheer stubbornness I finished this 204 page book and I’m not better for it.  If it was your thing, I’m glad for you, but I didn’t get it, I don’t know what age group I’d even suggest it for, and for all the potential it could have had in being a fantasy series with religious overtones like Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or some grand adventure with moral highlights, for me it was just a simple story made complex by huge religiously vague passages and too many dozens of characters.

SYNOPSIS:

The bare bones of the book is pretty straightforward.  Much like even Lord of the Rings or any basic video game, the main character has to do this, then do this, then do that to succeed and win and reach the end.  In this book it is a ten year old boy named Ahmad who crawls under the mimbar of his Massachusetts mosque and finds himself in a land of talking animals who need him to go on a quest to save their way of life.  His sister Amina also finds her way to this enchanted land and Nimrullah’s garden, but they have little interaction with each other or with Nimrullah, a tiger and head of the Dar al-Ashjar folk.  Along the way Ahmed meets beavers, and snakes and rabbits, and dragons, all with names and random tidbits of information flung in, but no real purpose or back story or attachment.  Ahmad is given a book by a turtle that will guide his internal journey, that quite often Ahmad doesn’t understand and the author doesn’t even share the text so the reader doesn’t understand, and when the author does share the text it is paragraphs and pages long, that what it means is baffling to me as an adult, let alone any elementary aged child.  The point of the journey is to get to a green dagger that is on an island in a crystal sea, but he isn’t going to an island to get it, he is going to a mountain and then a cave.  The villains are the Kadhibun that mine crystal and enslave the animals from Dar al-Ashjar in factories destroying the crystal sea, and thus the environment and animals’ way of life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love what the author tried to do.  Even comparing it to C.S. Lewis’ work gave some hope that Muslim children would find a surface level adventure story to fall in love with, and be compelled to understand the symbolic undertones of religion, morality and faith.  However, it not just fell short, it never really gave itself a chance.  There is too much telling and not enough showing.  All the characters and animals and references to things are not explained and lose the reader, and even when I would go back I wouldn’t find concrete points to fall back on.  There are too many characters that are just name dropped and become more words to skim over.  Major battle scenes are never detailed, and the narrator resorts to saying, “it would be hard to explain.”  Characters are trusted, but no reason to trust or mistrust them is provided. Litany’s are to be recited, but aren’t shared. “Ahmed opened his book again, and started reading the commentary, which contained the litanies.  Their details cannot be mentioned here, as such a sword cannot be handed to anyone.” There is a litany of the mountain, litany of the cave and a litany of the crystal sea.  But, apparently the litany of the sea is the same as the cave one, huh? It really is a mess, I’m sad to say.  It builds up to something and then just lets it drop.  On top of that, and now I’m just ranting, there are no page numbers!  

The overall moral of Ahmad learning self contron and slaying his ego and trusting Allah and being patient is all there, but it is so hidden and muddled that I don’t think the average reader will find it inspiring or triumphant.  It is almost like the author tried to put a ton of Sufi knowledge into a children’s book, but forgot to simplify it for children.  Just having the framework of a ten year old boy surrounded by talking animals isn’t enough to deliver the message, the message itself has to be palatable for kids too.  And basic writing and story telling are critical as well.

FLAGS:

The book is clean

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a basic book club, I couldn’t even get my 9 year old son who reads over 300 pages a day to get past the first third.  If I am missing major Sufi tenants, which I definitely could be as I know very little about Sufism, and this book is a foil for much bigger and more critical concepts then perhaps someone with Sufi knowledge teaching children in a clever way, will find this book useful, unfortunately I’m not that person, so I think I’ll have to pass on suggesting the book to others.

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan illustrated by Ben Hibon

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Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan illustrated by Ben Hibon

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This book is fun and enchanting, whether you read all 321 pages and fall in to the occasional illustrations and pour over the map, or listen to the audio and get swept away.  It is an AR 4.1, and the first in the three part series.  Told by the point of view of two characters, the book’s short chapters and high action speed are expertly crafted to keep suspense and interest high, while maintaining solid world building events and making the character’s history come alive.  There isn’t anything Islamic in the books, save some critical and cleverly named characters and ideas, but the author in interviews has said he is Muslim, and that is enough for me to share a book I thoroughly enjoyed on this blog!

SYNOPSIS:

Thorn is a fugitive kid, on the run from something left intentional vague and possibly the son of an outlaw.  Raised on the edge of Herne forest (earth), he is good with animals, feels comfortable in nature, has a soft heart for doing what is right, and isn’t afraid of hard work.  He finds himself being sold as a slave to the executioner of Gehenna, Tyburn, and is off to Castle Gloom where he will meet and befriend the new ruler of House Shadow (death/darkness), Lily.

Lillith Shadow’s parents and brother have been murdered and she is now the ruler of Gehenna.  She is also still a child and events around her require her to grow up fast.  To end hostilities with House Solar she is to wed Prince Gabriel, a pompous idiot, who she despises in principle and in person.  

When an attempt is made on Lily’s life, Thorn and an unexpected ally, K’leef a Prince from the Sultanate of Fire, must work together to figure out who is trying to kill Lily, possibly who killed her parents, where Thorn’s father is, who is raising an army of zombies, and now how to get out of this wedding without causing continued war.

The history of the six founding houses that make up this world, and their elemental magical rules and limitations as magic dies out with each passing generation, come together and a tale is told that contrasts easy everyday language in a mystical proper world of royalty and dukes, colored by the dark of death and necromancy and shadows, while somehow remaining light, and funny, and completely relatable as the kids come of age and learn who they are and what they are capable of doing and accomplishing.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is clean and that it has both Thorn and Lily’s perspectives to move the story along and give insight into the characters.  I love the world building and how the history of each of the houses is so well thought out and clear.  

“The whole idea of House Shadow is based on the Middle-East. Lily’s dad’s name is Arabic for the devil. Her mother’s the great villainess of the Old Testament and Lily is Lilith, a Hebrew demoness. The view people have of House Shadow mimics the fear the West has of East, and specifically Islam. For that reason all of House Solar is named after archangels. . . Some houses were easier to establish than others. House Djinn was fire as djinns are (out of Arabic lore) beings of smokeless fire. Herne’s an ancient English forest deity, so again a pretty easy fix” (http://www.cybils.com/2017/03/interview-with-joshua-khan.html).

A big plot point is that Lily is magical, and it is against ancient laws, meaning all six houses agree, that women cannot practice magic.  The irony is great, in that even kids can pick up on the fact that the six brothers and founders of the magical houses acknowledge that the source of their magic comes from their mother, a woman, and the hypocrisy of it all is frustrating.  I love that three very different characters have to work together, and pick their battles, it really is a testament to the strength of friendships even with people so very different than yourself.

FLAGS:

Pretty clean, not recalling anything cringeworthy as we listened to it in the car (kids ages 3, 8, 9, 12).  The book is dark in that it takes place in Gehenna and there is talk of the undead and bringing the dead back to life and they really celebrate Halloween in their own dark way.  There is murder and death and assassinations, but it isn’t overly morbid or gory or violent.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’ve already 90% decided to start next years middle school book club off with this book.  It is fun and engaging and the discussions would connect this fantasy story to so much in the kid’s lives and greater world that I get giddy just thinking about how fun a discussion it will be.  Sadly the school year is wrapping up and I’ll have to wait until fall.  Here are some of my favorite interviews online with the author:

http://www.cybils.com/2017/03/interview-with-joshua-khan.html

https://www.greenhouseliterary.com/authors/joshua-khan/

Author’s Website: http://www.joshuakhan.com/

 

 

Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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This is the second middle grade mystery story for globe trotting sleuth, Ayesha Dean, and much like her first adventure in Istanbul, this Spanish setting is infused with rich history, delicious food, relatable characters and quick paced action.  

SYNOPSIS:

Once again Ayesha and her two friends Jess and Sara are tagging along on a business trip with Uncle Dave, Ayesha’s uncle who has raised her since her parent’s passing.  As they wait in line to board the final flight of their lengthy journey from Australia, a young man drops his contents and Ayesha and him chat, later they are seated next to each other on the plane where he discloses his travels from England to Seville are to help locate his missing grandfather.  Ayesha volunteers herself and her friends to help him and they hit the ground in Spain determined to solve the case.

The boy, Kareem, is staying with the friends his beloved grandfather was staying with when he went missing, so that is where the detectives start their work.  In searching his room, Ayesha uncovers a 400 year old diary written in Arabic, and a pamphlet from the Archeology Museum with a necklace circled, the Collar de Pajaros.  Just enough to get them started and set their adventure in motion.

The group of teens rely on Kareem to translate the Arabic in the diary and Ayesha’s wit to decide what to follow up on and how to incorporate their sightseeing with the task at hand.  As they journey through the city of Seville, learning the history and tasting the food, nefarious characters start to notice the group and things get intense.  From Cathedrals, to cafes, to Museums, and even to an ancient city uncovered in Cordobo, Madina Al-Zahra, the chase is on, not only to find Kareem’s grandpa, but to also avoid being caught themselves and maybe even solving a centuries old mystery about treasure and a necklace along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ayesha in any situation stays true to her self.  She wears hijab, she prays, she is aware of the good looking guy, but doesn’t cross her own line, she is a good friend, an inquisitive person, and confident.  All amazing attributes for a fictitious hero and real ones too.  

Much like Nancy Drew and other middle grade novel series, the books don’t need to be read in order, and while they reference other adventures, they stand alone sufficiently too.  Also, like the aforementioned books there is definitely a formulaic pattern to how the author writes her books.  And while reading it I didn’t notice it intensely, as I write the review I do.  Ayesha travels abroad, she has her sidekicks that are not developed at all and truly have no barring on the story plot wise or as comic relief, they are simply foils to bounce conversation off of, there is a cute boy who could be pursued, but isn’t, someone passes out while she and her friends are sight seeing, and the spouses provide added clues, Ayesha gets locked in a small dark space, there is a twist and a surprise, a trap, and they all live to repeat the adventure in another city another day.  I don’t think I have a problem with it, but maybe because I am not the target audience age, I might get bored with it about book four or so.  As it stands right now, I’m anxiously waiting for book three.

While reading I was a little irked that Sara and Jess weren’t any more developed in Spain than they were in Turkey.  One of them could have been the one to administer CPR or to stumble on the diary in the room, something to give them some plot significance, but alas, the books do not bare their names.  I wish Kareem would have at least said “Salam” on occasion.  I like that the author shows he doesn’t know much about Islam and shows that his grandfather admits its been so long since he has prayed, but the boy is a Morisco and his parents immigrants from Algeria, he translates Arabic, he should say Salam when he meets Ayesha in her hijab wrapped head. 

The author does a much better job in this book staying with the characters and showing the city through their eyes rather than pulling them out of their scenes to convey something.  Only once at the end of a chapter did I feel there was some forced foreshadowing that was not needed, as the book is quick and chapters may end, but the pages still turn until the end is reached.  I had more trouble putting the book down than picking it up, and that is saying something as I read it online and I definitely favor physical books.

I wish there was an afterword or author’s note explaining what was real and what was fiction.  I googled Madinat al-Zahra and found it fascinating, but couldn’t find anything in English about the Collar de Pajaros.  Also a map or two would be great.

FLAGS:

None.  This book is clean and even the fights are not gory or over the top. Yay!

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this as an elementary book club selection, and can’t wait to get a copy to my children’s school library and their classrooms.  The book is an easy read and the history and culture is seamlessly interwoven in to the story that kids will enjoy the action and find they learned something about a culture along the way.   I think boys and girls will enjoy it, even if it appeals more to the girls.   The cover, the binding, the font is all spot on for the age group and I eagerly await Ayesha’s next adventure.

 

Lulu and the Very Big Meanies by Mac McGooshie illustrated by Alexis Hogwood

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Lulu and the Very Big Meanies by Mac McGooshie illustrated by Alexis Hogwood

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I don’t know what is more frustrating: quality books that are poorly packaged (binding, illustrations, font, spacing, etc.) or beautiful books that miss the mark in storytelling and basic writing skills.  Both are equally annoying, and while yes, a good story should be the basis, this book is really well written that the presentation of it just makes me sad.  At 116 pages, the book is perfect for 3rd graders.  My daughter and son read it a few years ago when I first picked it up.  I made them read it.  And last week when I pulled it out to read myself, both remarked that it was a good story.  The fact that they remembered it and remembered liking it are huge pluses, and made the fact that I had to make them read it all the more disheartening.  I’m certain if you can get your kids to read eight maybe 10 pages they will zoom through the rest of the book.  It is the getting them to pick it up and start, that is the tricky part.  The book is paperback, thick and glossy, but the cover looks homemade almost.  If you thumb through it the font is too small, spaced too tight and the illustrations mean well, but don’t deliver.  Unfortunate, because like my children, I too think the story is fun and I’m disappointed that the book was published in 2013 as #1 in the Lulubug’s Week in the Life Series, and no further books have come out.

SYNOPSIS:

Laila (Lulu), and her family are American Muslims living in Southern Virginia.  Lulu’s mom is a lawyer and a convert, her dad is from Egypt and owns an Italian restaurant, and her older twin brothers are 12 and keep an eye on her.  Being incredibly bright Lulu has skipped third grade and is having trouble with some bullies in her new fourth grade class: Veronica B. and Veronica C.  aka the Veries.  Using help from her brothers, her neighbor and friend Toni, and some friends in class, a trap is set to get the bullies to confess to their evil mischief, but that unfortunately isn’t the only thing Lulu is going through this week.  Throw in her parent’s sudden decision to move closer to the masjid in another city, a litter of kittens abandoned on the side of the road, and some weird noises coming from the woods behind their house, and Lulu has a lot to deal with.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows the day-to-day of a typical Muslim family in a normal presentation.  They pray together, they watch what they eat, they know their neighbors and worry about each other.  It doesn’t idolize the family, making them better than anyone or preachy, but makes them very relatable and likable in a realistic way.  When bees are discovered or the kittens need carrying for, sunnahs and ayats are identified, but very seamlessly, that non Muslim kids will learn a bit about Islam and Muslim kids will be excited to see themselves.  My favorite scene regarding this is when the mom finds out there will be a middle-school dance, and even though the boys are not planning to go, know that it isn’t for them, and don’t even seem tempted by it, they still have a family meeting about it, to discuss.  I also like that at one point Lulu meets another Muslim girl and they don’t hit it off right away, the girls work through it, but it is nice to see some diversity in even the way Muslims are presented and possibly misunderstood even amongst one another.

There is a lot going on in the book in terms of action items, but there still is a lot of character development and dimensions to Lulu.  Lulu has to navigate relationships with her family and friends that ring true and aren’t over simplified.  Her friend and neighbor, Toni, expects Lulu to act different at school now that they are in the same class, but returns to her silly self once they are home.  Lulu clashes a lot with her mom, but can smile and get her way super easy with her dad and manipulates that a lot.  She has to balance her sassiness with her teacher and principal, pick her battles with the Veries, and abide by other adults’ rules and expectations.  The book reads in a similar vein as Junie B. Jones, or Clementine, just maybe a more mature and less obnoxious reincarnation.

I wish the adventure involving the backyard noises, was a bit more dramatic, and maybe even the unveiling of the trap involving the dye was more resolved.  At times the book seemed rushed to wrap up all the stories introduced and I think they deserved a little more time to be explored and enjoyed.  If the font and spacing and pictures could be tweaked I think the book would really speak to kids in a fun way.  Third and fourth graders can easily handle a 150-160 page book that has good pacing and is packaged in a tempting, non intimidating way.  I’m holding out hope that maybe the author will write some more, tweak this one, and give it the chance at reaching an audience that would benefit from the smart, fun, grounded life of Lulu.

FLAGS:

Clean, it does mention that Toni likes a boy, but Lulu thinks that boys are trouble.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If I still did an elementary book club, I think this book would work.  I think kids need a nudge to give it a try, but once the book gets going, girls and boys alike will enjoy it.  I may read it for a Lunch Bunch choice (I read once a week to 4th and 5th graders while they eat their lunch).  Kids will love seeing themselves, their stresses, their families, and their faith presented well.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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Our local library automatically renews books, so I’ve had this 446 page AR 5.0 novel sitting on my night stand since October.  I got the online version when I went overseas, and I even downloaded the audio book.  Needless to say, I never opened it, in any form.  And then four days ago, I did.  I read the first page and then the second, and soon enough I knew that I would quickly be annoyed by my children needing food, and clean clothes and rides to school because, I was no longer present in the day-to-day functions of my life, I was in Serra hoping for happy endings and being really angry, like ready to contact the Muslim author during certain scenes, as I felt tears reminiscent of when Cedric Diggory was killed in book 4 of Harry Potter brimming.  The book was amazing, and yes, my kids are fairly well cared for, but there are two more books in the series out, and the fourth one apparently in the works.  I hope to read the series, but I have a feeling, this epic fantasy series will not be a happy read, it is dark, and violent, and definitely more suited for high school readers because of content then the AR level would suggest.  

SYNOPSIS:

Told from two different characters ‘perspectives: Laia and Elias, the world of Serra has tastes of the Roman Empire, current political headlines, Middle Eastern names, subcontinent ideas and lots of action.  Laia is a Scholar, an oppressed people who a half a millennium ago crumbled beneath the Martial invasion.  Her parents led a resistance and were killed a long with a sister.  She and her brother, Darin, are now raised by the grandparents: gentle people who heal others, keep their heads down, and don’t make waves.  The story quickly advances with Martials raiding the family home and Masks, the elite warriors of the Martials, killing Laia’s grandparents and imprisoning Darin.  Laia escapes by running, but hates herself for not staying and fighting for her brother, the only family she has left.

Elias on the other hand is a Martial soldier about to graduate as a Mask from Blackcliff Academy, a brutal (that’s putting it mildly) nearly all boy’s military school.  Abandoned by his mother as a baby, Elias is contemplating running away from the school, as his soul and conscience can no longer be pushed aside to complete the acts he is expected to do.  The complications abound, however, as the Commandant, is his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him dead, the penalty for desertion is death, but the penalty for most every infraction is a severe beating, and if death happens in the process, so be it.

The two characters come together as Laia reaches out to the Resistance to find help in rescuing her brother and in exchange is assigned to be the Commandant’s personal slave.  As the Empire is on the cusp of change, a new emperor is to be selected from the top four of the current graduating class, Elias, is the top of his class.  The four trials will leave one triumphant and the new leader, second place will be the Blood Shrike, the emperors blood bonded butcher, the others will be killed. 

The trails are named: Courage, Cunning, Strength and Loyalty and are administered by immortal, mind reading, cave dwelling Augurs.  The trails are vicious and cruel and evoke not only putting friends against friends, and test one’s fears, but they are amplified by creatures such as jinns, efrits, ghuls and wraiths.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is incredibly well written.  The way the author builds her characters’ worlds is seamless and smooth.  I didn’t get lost or confused, I never once felt bored by explanations or felt that something didn’t make sense, a feeling that makes fantasy stories cumbersome and daunting to me, and what I feared all those months looking at the book, too afraid to open it and dive in. 

The action and characters are well developed.  While the book is fast paced, I felt every character was given some nuance and depth.  It really isn’t a good vs. evil story.  Each character has more than one trait at any given time, and it makes them delightful to interact with and mull over.  There are strong females and sprinkled in ethnic names like Sana, Illyas, Tariq, Afya Ara-Nur, Mazen, Zain, Zara.  The subcontinent concept of Izzat, honor, is prominent among the Resistance and Scholars which is a nice bit of resonance in this fictional world as well.  And the concept of jinns, and the stories about their role in the book, reads like Arab folklore.

FLAGS:

The book has profanity, not a lot, but it is there, especially when talking about women.  The violence is incredibly graphic, killings, beatings, brutality, whippings, suffering, and death are on nearly every page.  The Martials are ruthless not only with those they occupy, but even amongst themselves: the students fight to their death, they lock their own children in cages without food so that only the strong of their society survive.  But even worse is that many of the people outside of the ruling elite are taken as slaves, and thus women are seen as property and rape abounds.  Rape by name is mentioned a lot, but it isn’t graphic, save one or two climactic points, if anything it is more disturbing because it is the norm and is accepted.  Prostitutes are mentioned, again, nothing detailed, but mentioned that the boys at the academy visit the docks to see prostitutes.  As Laia is being sold to a slave master, he considers placing her in the brothels rather than at the school.  Laia is nearly raped by a student, and a simmulated rape saves her at another time, in both instances the higher ups dismiss that there is anything wrong with raping a slave and the winner of the third trial is even given a slave for the night.  When the Masks kill Laia’s grandparents, one says he will rape Laia before he kills her.  So it is very much a part of the culture of the book, but it isn’t defined, just the words are used, which means I think high school kids could handle it, because it is not celebrated or graphic, but younger than that will have too many questions that can’t be swept away easily given the environment of the book.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book could work for a high school book club, because there is so much to talk about.  It won’t work for middle school, and I will keep my daughter from reading it until she is in 9th or 10th grade probably, even though she has read Hunger Games and the Divergent series.  Just want her a little older to handle all the rape references, in more mature way.

As for teaching or presenting this book, this series has a HUGE fandom, you can find everything on the book online and with little effort (maps, character lists, chat groups etc.).

The Author’s website: https://www.sabaatahir.com/

Teaching Books: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?a=1&tid=42018&s=n

One of many book trailers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbvyCrkVT7M

Enjoy! Happy Reading!

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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I put off reading this book (I read the companion, Whichwood, first) because I had heard that the audio book was great and I wanted to listen to it with my kids.  Read by Bronson Pinchot, Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, the audio book takes 8 hours to cover the 401 page book, and it is delightful.  While Mafi’s circular repetitive world building, takes some slowing down to get used to, listening to it made the story move along when a physical book may have been abandoned.  An AR 5.5 the book is clean, but not gripping until about two-thirds of the way through.  As the main character grows in maturity, the story gets better and better, a mix between Alice and Wonderland and A Wrinkle in Time.  The book will require some determination to get through, but the journey will be worth it in the end.

SYNOPSIS:

Alice Alexis Queensmeadow is missing her father who left 3 years ago with only a ruler in his pocket, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Her life is a bit messy as she is being homeschooled by a mother who she doesn’t really think likes her and thus spends most of her days outside eating flowers and trying to avoid wearing clothes.  Alice lives in a world of magic and color, but Alice has no color, at least not externally, her magic, which she must learn to accept is to add and manipulate color to the world, to anything and everything, except herself.  As a 12-year-old she must surrender her magic and be given a task to prove her place in her world.  She thinks her best gift is dance and her surrender goes terribly wrong.  With no where to go after her humiliating performance, she decides to take Oliver Newbanks up on his offer to go with him to help him on his task, he is 13 years old, and find her father.  Their unlikely assistance to one another is fraught with mistrust and bickering as they journey to a world Alice didn’t even know existed, Furthermore.

In the land of Furthermore, magic is used very differently then in Ferenwood, and on their journey where up is down and paper foxes rip limbs off, and Time is actually a person.  The two companions will have to learn to be honest with one another as well as themselves in order to survive, let alone to find Alice’s dad.  With the threat of death and being eaten constantly plaguing them, they journey from village to village where the rules are different and the laws of logic ever changing, with the hopes of completing the task and reuniting a family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The details in the story are luscious and beautiful, and once you fall into it, you really do want to stay and look around a while.  There were times when listening to it, that the kids would get bored, yet now that we have finished it, all have mentioned that maybe we should get the book so they can reread parts again.  Mafi’s writing style is very thick that you don’t feel like you are making any progress, yet when you start to digest what you know, you realize in fact you have.  

At the beginning Alice is very annoying, and she stays that way for a while.  Her whiney nature isn’t sympathy evoking, but rather gets you irritated with Oliver as well, that he doesn’t just tell her stuff.  Both combined need to be bopped on the head.  Seriously, a bit of communication would really have taken out a lot of the unnecessary frustration the readers feel for the characters, and let the personal stuff they were hesitant to share with each other have more value.  It is a middle grades book, the empathy of understanding Alice and Oliver’s own fears and reticent in opening themselves up is a great lesson to explore through fictional characters, but because the kids have such poor communication skills about anything, their own fears lose potency.  The pacing of the story, is just as random as the villages they pass through as well, while they always seem in a rush, some of the places they stop they could chat at, rather than while they are running to save their lives, or while they are walking they could talk to give description through their eyes, to build up the characters, not just the world they are in.

Like in Whichwood, the narrator talks to the reader which is fun, and provides information that otherwise couldn’t be shared.  The characters names in each of the villages are clever and while the story could be mapped pretty straightforward, girl journeys to a new world to find her father with the help of a boy, who will become her friend, the twists and details, make the book memorable and worth the strain to get to the climax. 

I know this review sounds back and forth, and I think a lot of it stems from what you expect from the story before you begin.  I had tried to read the book and got a little discouraged, but I had a good feeling the audio book wouldn’t disappoint, so I plugged through and found myself enjoying and loving the story.  If you are expecting an action packed fully fleshed out rational story, you will be let down.  If you can just enjoy the whimsy on the surface and let the little tidbits of the larger story come at different times to complete the larger puzzle, you will love Alice and Oliver’s magical world and the fantastic journey that they go on.

FLAGS:

The book is clean.  A bit disturbing is that the people of Furthermore want to eat Alice and Oliver to absorb their magic.  It isn’t vulger, but it is silly that Alice doesn’t like wearing clothes.  While one could be nervous that Alice and Oliver develop a romantic relationship, rest assured they do not, they become friends and are 13 and 12 years old, so phew.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can see me doing this as a book club selection, although I’d probably lean more to Whichwood, in an Islamic School environment because of the names. I think young Either one though, I’m positive Muslim kids will enjoy seeing a hijab wearing Muslimah pictured on the back flap and seeing that she can write a mainstream engaging fantasy novel about whatever she likes.

Author’s website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/book/furthermore/

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