Tag Archives: afghan

The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

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This 295 page middle grades AR 4.8 book is a fast passed romp through New York City as two 12-year-old kids explore freedom and fear in a new city while grappling with their own sense of identity and what it means.  The OWN Voice story features immigration, chronic disease, family, bravery, and friendship.  There is lying and avoiding police, sneaking and “borrowing” a horse, but it is all for a good cause, and third grade and up will enjoy this read.  There is very little religion in it, but the main character does say salam, notice the similarities between amen and ameen, and reference eid as his holiday. 

SYNOPSIS:

Jason D, known only to his mom and aunt as Shah, was named by a nurse when his mom wanted to make sure he had an American sounding name, and his middle initial D is for December, which comes from her staring at a calendar when asked if she wanted her son to have a middle name.  Life is fairly simple, he enjoys sneaking on to the roof of his apartment building to imagine training pigeons, his mom works at a dry cleaners, they walk where they need to go, money is tight, but they do ok, and his dad passed away before he was born.  His mom is from Afghanistan, but he doesn’t speak much Dari and his mom speaks English, but not confidently.  On her birthday as they are about to enjoy a cupcake he saved up for, the news in the background is covering protestors chanting for illegal immigrants to go home, and Jason’s mom starts to tell him about how she ended up overstaying her visa and  is living in the US illegally.  

Jason’s dad worked with the US military in Afghanistan and with his work came the promise of visas to America for him and for his wife to study.  Many of the locals though didn’t like that he was cooperating and vowed to take their revenge.  With the family in the US and Jason’s mom starting to study medicine, Jason’s dad had one more job in Afghanistan and sadly was killed by anti American Afghans.  Fearful to return, she chose to stay, but with a new baby, few resources, no family and friend support, eventually she was forced to drop out of school and remain undocumented knowing that to return would be at great peril to her and her son.  At some point she befriends an Indian lady, Seema and to Jason, she is Aunt Seema, the only family other than his mother that he knows.  

When a few weeks later Jason sees his mother being taken away by two officers, he knows that this is what she warned him about when she told him the truth about her legal standing.  Terrified and alone, Jason only knows that somehow he has to get to New York to Aunt Seema so that they can figure out how to save his mom.  He grabs a few pictures of his father, whatever money he can find a broken address and heads to the big apple from New Jersey.

Having never been to NYC or really out of his hometown, he loses his backpack to a dog, and struggles to figure out how to get a ticket to get in to the city.  When he arrives at Penn Station he is overwhelmed and exhausted and passes out, hitting his head, and landing himself in the hospital.  

When he awakens he is met by doctors making sure he is ok, and police trying to locate his parents, he opts to pretend he has amnesia and can’t remember anything.  This buys him time, and also acquaints him with Max, a girl with wires coming out of her head and who claims they are running tests on her to understand her level of genius.

The two hit it off and hitch a plan to escape the locked hospital floor, have a day of adventure in the city, and get Jason D to his aunts house.  Naturally this plan is going to have all sorts of obstacles, but thats the story and that is where the fun and discovery unfolds.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was impressed at how emotionally cathartic the conclusion was.  I hadn’t realized how invested I had become in these two kids and their run through the city.  It was touching, and heartfelt, and a big sigh of relief when it all wrapped up.  I like that both kids are so very different, yet dealing with similar thematic issues from different perspectives.  Max is an epileptic and is kept on a short chain to ensure her safety. She is trying to find and define who she is outside of the medical diagnosis.  Jason is trying to understand if he can be American and Afghan and what that means about where he belongs, and where home is.  There is a lot that they ponder over as they run through central park and the zoo, duck into subways, and get all sorts of turned around on the streets.  Through it all though the kids show just how clever and smart they both are with the quick thinking, riddle solving abilities, and perpetual optimism.  It is at times far fetched, stealing a horse and bumping in to your doctor in the New York City Marathon, and at other times completely plausible, sneaking in to a zoo with a field trip group and ducking through turnstiles to get on the subway.

FLAGS:

Lying, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This is a bit young for even early middle school readers, but would make a great addition to a summer reading list.  I think kids will marvel at the riddles and determination of the two protagonists and imagine a world where kids could maybe get away with such a bold adventure.

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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This 44 page fictionalized retelling of Queen Goharshad, a 15th century monarch of the Timurid dynasty in Afghanistan should really be a larger book than 8 x 8 to appreciate the artwork that is detailed and stunning.  The story of Goharshad, wife of Emperor Shah Rukh, and her influence on art, music, culture, higher education, and architecture, is one that we should be more familiar with, but the actual text and manner in which the story is conveyed isn’t consistent for me and I wanted more details about the society she stepped in to to rule,  I know it is fiction, and meant for 2nd to 4th graders, but I would like to think that readers will want to know what obstacles she had and what support she enjoyed and from where.  That they will question if it was a rich kingdom that she could pay musicians to play everywhere, and wonder if families sent their daughters to the University she built, ask why it wasn’t for women to design a  Masjid, and what was the name of the smaller mosque that bore an older woman’s name? The book at times overly summarizes and at other times is haltingly detailed.  It is a good read to reflect a strong woman and her influence on her land, but unless assigned, I don’t know that seven to ten year olds will pick up the book and be inspired by it enough to change their perception of the Afghanistan that they may see on the news.

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Seven centuries ago Goharshad loved beautiful things such as painting and the texts of Rumi.  Her brothers played at being like Genghis Khan and teased her for not being brave.  She vowed to be brave with beauty even though she didn’t know what that even meant.  At age 14 she was given in marriage to the king, Shah Rukh, in Herat.  She ruled with her husband and had resources and time to spread her beauty by speaking up and being brave.

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Her first act of beauty was by filling the kingdom with music.  She wanted music every day in the court and beyond. Music that was playful and pious, music that painted pictures in the listeners minds and brought joy like the laughter of God.  She next sketched and designed a beautiful and enchanting garden to be built.  It doesn’t say where it was, but that people came from all around to enjoy it.

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Feeling braver she turned her sights on building a mosque in the western city of Mashhad.  She designed it and called the court architect, Qavam al-Din Shirazi to discuss.  He doubted if it was right for a woman to design such spaces, but she assured him that she had the talent for it, so construction began.  An elderly woman refused to sell her cottage for the new project unless a mosque with her name was built.  The advisors wanted the old woman put to death or imprisoned, Goharshad disagreed appreciating the woman’s strength and instead agreed.  The big mosque was built with Goharshad’s name and a smaller one on the property with the old lady’s.

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With such an accomplishment complete, the Queen again summoned the architect and expressed her desire to build a great center for learning.  A college for girls, a grand mosque for prayer, and a vast library.  She wanted the structure decorated with paint from precious stones and sold her crown to finance the project.

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After her husband died Goharshad reigned, but sadly after she died, much of her accomplishments died as well.  Over time, harsh weather and war, nearly all her buildings disappeared and those that remain, do so in ruin.  The book ends with hope that memories of her will endure, A guide to some of the words in the story,  an Author’s note, and a Guide for Parents and Educators.

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There is not a lot of Islam in the story, just the building of masajid .  Some may take issue with her stress and celebration of music, and likening it to God laughing, but if you look at it as her story, it should be able to be appreciated even if you disagree.

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The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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The Library  Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/