Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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

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

brave

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.

img_0171

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.

img_0172

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.

img_0173

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.

img_0175

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.

img_0174

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.

img_0176

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.

img_0177

The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

Standard
The Library  Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

library bus

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…

img_0157

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.

img_0158

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.

img_0159

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.

img_0160

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.

img_0161

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.

img_0162

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.

img_0163

A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Standard
A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

This middle grade, 330 page book is an easy read that touches on concepts of change within friendships and families with the back drop of life in a coastal town, finding courage, and Islamaphobia. While early middle school readers might find the book a bit predictable and cliche’, the characters, lessons, and fluid storytelling would still make the book worth their time.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Izzy spends her summer days in Rhode Island on her skiff mapping out the floor of the pond that runs next to the ocean. Fearful of the open ocean, she is, however, confident and independent in her abilities to navigate the calmer water and understand what is beneath the surface. Her father has recently returned from Afghanistan and with his post traumatic stress disorder making him angry and not the same as before. Izzy is further thrown into turmoil when the family moves out of their house and into the marina, her mother extends her already summer long absence to Block Island and middle school at a new regional school is about to start. As always she hopes to lean on her fellow sea stars, Zelda and Piper, best friends since kindergarten, however, things with them don’t quite seem the same either. Add in that her father’s translator from Afghanistan and his family have just moved in upstairs with their two young boys and 11 year old daughter Sitara, and Izzy has a lot to handle and navigate.

Piper and Zelda decide to take television production class first period to make sure they have at least one class together, Izzy is incredibly shy and while she appreciates that this has all been arranged she isn’t confident that it is a good fit for her. Dragged along, as it seems she often is by her much more confident friends, It is arranged that Sitara will also be in the class. Right away Piper and Zelda decide that they don’t like Sitara and her hijab and her “different-ness” and exclude her and by extension Izzy from their lives. As Sitara and Izzy get closer and start to learn from one another, Piper and Zelda lash out and go from ignoring to being mean to Izzy and Sitara. Sitara explains to people on the announcement show why she covers and helps Izzy to understand that her father was in danger after helping the Americans and that they had to leave Afghanistan. The anniversary of 9/11 however, turns many students into verbally berating Sitara and her having her hijab pulled off in the lunchroom. When Izzy figures out that her former sea stars were involved in the planning she is devastated and must take the lessons from Sitara and her Czech Grandma to have more courage than fear, find her voice, and do something to make things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Izzy has a lot going on in her life and in many ways Sitara has been through a lot, allowing them to encourage each other to keep moving forward. There are some parallels in losing their homes and dealing with change that they comfort each other with, but the two characters combined show readers that strength and bravery occurs when you are afraid, and that most people aren’t truly fearless. I really feel for Izzy, her friends may have been there for her on occasion, but by and large they seem kind of dismissive of her and her fears. I think she sees them as equal, but I don’t get the feeling that they see her that way, they may be protective of her, but they kind of bully her in to doing what they want. Every few chapters is a flashback to a pivotal point in the sea stars friendship and even before Sitara enters the dynamic, I started to question Piper and Zeldas sincerity. Their best friend just moved, her dad came back from serving in Afghanistan, and her mom is not coming home, they should be concerned, not belittling her for liking art and wearing old clothes. The mom is another painful plot point, like lady I get that you have stuff going on in your life, but really you are just going to leave your child? Ya, I wasn’t a fan of hers.

I like that the story addresses Islam and Islamaphobia, and while it is very much in the story, it isn’t really about it. Izzy is front and center, and even she takes a while to warm up to Sitara. I love that it shows what Afghanis that helped fight against the Taliban went through and how painful it is for them to resume life after doing so. I think this point is so lost in mainstream understanding whenever there is a terrorist attack, that this is what the refugees are leaving, that people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are running from, and when they get called terrorist it hurts that much more, because their whole lives and people they care for have suffered from the real terrorists.

I really wish there was a map, I wanted to visualize better the breachway and had I not lived in Rhode Island for a few years I probably wouldn’t have understood Block Island’s location to to the mainland. Like with so many middle grade novels I wish there was some more depth to the characters, but I truly appreciated that there wasn’t a completely happy ending, and that growth occurred in so many characters, but at different rates. It really made it clear that we all need to continuously work to get to know one another, find our voice, our courage, and be willing to change.

FLAGS:

Clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but I think this would be a great recommendation for those that do. There is a lot to discuss and explore that kids can relate to. The majority of the characters are female, but I think the themes are universal enough that boys will enjoy the book as well. I’m confident all readers will learn something new about sea stars and possibly even television production in this sweet story.

Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman

Standard
Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman

anything but ok.jpg

This 345 page contemporary book is brand new from Scholastic and isn’t yet in the AR database, it is billed as appropriate for ages 12 and up and is probably pretty accurate.  The cover, in my opinion, is rather a disservice for the audience.  The book would appeal to girls and boys, and isn’t really about school drama, which is the vibe I got from the cover.  The story is actually pretty deep and thought provoking, on a wide range of issues facing many young adults today.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from Stella Walker’s perspective, the book opens with her and her friends, Ken and Farida, reviewing old movies.  Farida, an Iraqi immigrant, is constantly pointing out the stereotypes, tropes, and bias they engage in regularly and see depicted around them.  She is constantly nagging her friends to recognize their privilege and check it.  Stella tries to get it, but it’s not that easy. Nor are the obstacles that the book explores. 

Stella’s parents are vets, and her brother, Rob, has just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan and is suffering from PTSD.  Additionally, Rob’s best friend commits suicide and yet, Stella’s family doesn’t involve her in the conversations and concerns, and as a result she doesn’t talk to her best friend Farida.  This tension is amplified when Farida wants to run for class president, but her parents advise her against it, as Islamaphobia is on the rise with the mayor, up for re-election, spouting hate speech, and his son, already in the race to lead the school. 

Stella, as a result, is convinced to run with the help and support of her friends.  All should be going well, but in a desperate attempt to get Rob out of the house, a trip to the mall to watch a movie results in Rob sticking up for a Sikh kid being bullied, and breaking the instigators nose.  The police are called in, and the real drama of the book takes center stage, as social media, a bigoted mayor, and a family’s member friendship with a Muslim paint Rob as a radicalized terrorist.  The Walker’s house is vandalized and Farida’s family’s restaurant is suffering and the mayoral election and class office election will all require some tough decisions and insights into honesty, framing, perseverance and friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t think I was expecting the book to explore so many topics and to do it, in a rather real and raw way.  The arc of concepts covered provides a lot of juice and relevance and the quick pace, makes it a quick read.  Some pages are letters written by Rob, a number of pages are the various police reports taken after the mall assault and the various points of view are great.  It explores how media editing and framing can change a narrative to one side or another. 

I love Farida, bless her, she is annoying and one-dimensional, but yet so relatable.  She is the token minority that ties it all together and is the billboard representation of “other.”  I can so relate to her, being the minority and the one that constantly had to be the gadfly on the masses.  

The school election is a little cheesy and overly elevated in importance, but it is the catalyst, so while I wasn’t really invested in who won, I liked the concepts it brought to the forefront of the characters lives.  The family struggles and retaking the truth and owning it, was the real strength of the book, and introducing kids to the horrors of war, returning from war, mental illness, the blind eye of politicians, the struggles of the VA, the power of the media, friendship, and concepts of patriotism, privilege, pride, suicide, and moving forward.

My biggest complaint is the awkward and forced romance.  It isn’t even romance really.  After the mall incident, Stella confides in a classmate, Adam,  who comes over to see if she is okay and they hold hands and kiss.  It is so out of left field and so awkward I would imagine for most readers, not just me the conservative muslim mama looking for books for my kids and their school book club.  In all they kiss five times I think, and mentions them holding hands twice.  It isn’t lamented or dwelled on, it just kind of boom, jumps in to the story and then yes, they kind of snuggle after the election results, which is a little more fitting (but still irritating).  Rob meets a girl, and again later on when she comes to celebrate the plea deal its nice that she is there, but they talk like once and he completely falls for her, kind of intense and random.  The discussions about letting someone in to your life and all is good, and more natural and they don’t kiss, but they do have “feelings” for each other.  

There isn’t much about Islam other than that Farida is Muslim and that her mom wears hijab.  Even the Islamaphobia is mentioned more for political and prejudicial purposes than as a segway in to understanding Islam.

FLAGS:

Kissing (see above), suicide, war, violence.  Beer is mentioned at the end when a college veteran gets one out of the fridge.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I really want to do this as a Middle School Book Club choice, yes I’m hosting those again.  I need to talk to the school counselor about the kissing stuff.  I think they can handle it, but I don’t know the kids well enough just yet, to verify this.   Being it isn’t the Muslim characters, I can’t imagine it is any different from what they see on TV or in Disney Movies, but still, I can’t confidently say it will happen.  Twelve and up is the non Muslim age point, I’ll have to think it over and update this once I investigate. 

Author’s website: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/books_2/young-adult/anything-but-okay-coming.html

Reading Guide: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/books_2/young-adult/abo-teaching-reading-guide.pdf

 

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abel-Fattah

Standard

LinesWeCross.jpg

It is kind of remarkable now that I look back on the book, that before reading it, I knew exactly what was going to happen based on the jacket flap synopsis, yet somehow the book held my interest and I finished it easily.  There were no surprises, no plot twists, not even any amazingly poignant passages, yet, I kept reading, so there is some merit, perhaps in ideas, even if the story line wasn’t meticulously crafted.  At 390 pages, this 4.8 level AR book is not for elementary or even middle school readers, it is a high school and up for content understanding and appropriateness.

SYNOPSIS:

The dual storylines are told from the intertwined perspectives of Mina, a Muslim refugee to Australia who fled Afghanistan in a boat, and Michael, an Australian upper middle class high school student whose parents run an anti-immigration group and oppose the arrival of refugees.  The two see each other on opposite sides at a protest, and reunite when Mina earns a scholarship to a prestige posh school, and the family moves so that she can attend.  Naturally the two clash, then fall in love.  Along the way there are slight changes as the characters grow, some side stories about friends and family members, and like the title suggests, crossing of lines, so to speak.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the book in terms of its political plot is actually pretty nuanced.  You could say it is framed as a good vs. bad, but it isn’t that simple, and I think the characters shed light on the gray area in between.  In many ways Michael changes and grows and challenges himself to go out of his comfort zone created by his family.  He forces himself to see where immigrants live, he steps foot in a mosque, he researches the detention centers and what not, to learn that he doesn’t agree with his parents.  I wish, however, that all of these scenarios would have been slightly more memorable, maybe an interaction at the mosque, or follow-up by talking to Mina about it.  The lack of reflection made his journey seem like he was changing his views for a girl, and not because of a deeper understanding.  At the end his mom even asks him about it, and I kind of had to side with her in wondering about his motives.  Mina’s personal growth is more in that she learns to trust new people, and let them in.  Her growth is not as obvious as Michael’s and I think some would put her on the “good” side and see her as a stagnant character.  She is greatly shaped by the death of her father and brother, by the escape and journey to Australia, and then having to move again for school, but in the course of the books timeline, she really doesn’t change much.  Her Islam is really culture, she doesn’t pray, or mention anything about her belief or faith.  Halal is not explained, but is just seen as a political tool to protest and argue about.  Mina never goes to the mosque, and even for religious reasons never questions if she should have a boyfriend, but worries what her mother will say and thus does keep it secret.  For all realistic purposes, she is portrayed as a Muslim as a political identifier that illicits stereotypes and assumptions by others, not as a description of what she believes, behaves, or thinks.  Michael’s parents are where the real meat of the story for me was.  Understanding how they see themselves as “not racists” ordering ethnic foods from all over, but actively working to keep non-assimilating foreigners out.  Their organization claims to promote the idea of upholding Australian values, not of disliking other countries values, and I think this is really what so much of the world is facing right now. The ethnocentric idea of being so great and understanding in words, but not in behavior and policy making.  Michael’s dad goes overseas and feels sad, but doesn’t feel compelled to help, rather than to keep those people from changing, “his” world.  As the book mentions a lot, his parents in other ways are kind, good people.  It really isn’t good against evil in all facets of life.

I think my favorite part in the book are the female relationships.  I love Mina’s friend Paula, who quotes Oscar Wilde and while on the outside has it all together, lets Mina see the real her.  She is smart and feisty and seems to stay genuine throughout.  I like that Mina’s friends from the “old neighborhood” are still in her life and I even like how close she and her mom are.  It’s nice to see females helping each other, there is power in that, that fiction helps remind readers about.

FLAGS:

There is mention of sex, nothing explicit, but side characters hook up, are accused of being sluts, and it is definitely there.  The main characters kiss regularly.  There is some swearing and lots and lots of lying.  Mina can’t go out after library hours because that is where she says she is, when she is elsewhere.  There is fighting, alcohol, clubbing, and smoking mentioned throughout.  None of the aforementioned flags are glorified or even praised, but all are there.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a student book club, but I think it could be done as an adult book club.  The politics need some background and understanding, that I think some discussion would be enlightening in a community or larger society setting.  Sometimes even in the real world, meeting people different than ourselves does wonders for changing preconceived notions and stereotypes.

Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby illustrated by Suana Verelst

Standard
Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby illustrated by Suana Verelst

razia

I usually love books about girls, and education and hope, but for some reason, I didn’t love this book.  I really like the pictures with their mixed media feel and textures, but I found small things annoying in the book, that based on other online reviews really put me in the tiny minority.  Most people seem to drool over this 32 page AR 4.1 picture book, I, however, think there are a lot of inspiring books about girls in Afghanistan dreaming of an education that one needs to do something different, and do it well to win me over.

So the basic premise, in this text heavy, tiny font, book, is that Razia learns they are building a new school close to her home in Afghanistan for girls, and wants to go.  Her grandfather also wants her to go, but one of her older brothers, Aziz, won’t allow it, so she isn’t allowed to go.  No historical lead up explaining why her grandfather talks about days when women were educated, and now it is a rarity.  No summation on the Taliban or the 17 years of war that the grandfather mentions.  So, unless the reader knows some background on Afghanistan, the story may not resonate with them or provide needed context for connection and appreciation.  Even the afterward, about the real founder of the school, offers very little context.  The brother’s decision is final until one day he falls ill and can’t read the medication directions, and Razia can, eventually he relents and she is allowed to go. The story hints that the rocks around the school are from the quarry he works at so he now feels confident she will be safe, and that his initial refusal was a concern for safety.  They hug and seem loving, and once school starts Razia has to learn as much as she can to be able to go home and teach Aziz and her mom.

razia1

I like that when she initially is told no, she doesn’t sit and assume a helpless manner, but rather goes to the school and meets the founder herself.  I find it odd, and irksome that the head of the school is also named Razia and it isn’t even noted. I get that is her real name, but why have the two main characters in a book have the same name and then not even acknowledge it? I didn’t get why the little girl couldn’t have a different name, seems distracting to me, and imply that every girl has the same name in Afghanistan.  I also didn’t get the hierarchy. The grandfather wants her to go, the father and uncles have legit concerns of where she is needed in helping the family farm and orchard, but why did the brother’s opinion trump them all? There is no mention of Islam, but they wear hijabs and burkas, so I think the stereotype is implied.  And that was another thing, they made it seem like she would be corrupted if she went out alone or without the burka on, but then Aziz shakes the headmistress’s hand, as if that isn’t against religious and custom norms. I felt that the kindness of the brother at the end was disjointed too, a bit too forced. The grandpa seemed kind, but the rest of the family seemed cold and rigid and not overtly concerned with Razia’s well being and growth.  Yes, they did have a jerga, to discuss and consider it, but I felt like Razia never had a voice, and while education is important, having a voice is too.  More has to change in society and in literature to give me real hope, and this book sadly fell short.

razia2

The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler illustrated by Carol Liddiment

Standard
The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler illustrated by Carol Liddiment

wooden sword

A Muslim Afghani Shah tests a poor Jewish man in this “softened” Jewish folktale.  I say softened because the author’s note at the end implies that she is retelling a well-known story in the Jewish tradition that often features mean-spirited characters.  In this version, however, the interaction between the rich Shah and the poor man, the Muslim and the Jew, are framed in contrast to show mutual respect, similar values, and the trust one has in God.  

sword3

This 32 page, AR 4.6 picture book, is beautifully illustrated and would work fabulous in interfaith settings, as well as in any lesson teaching how we should trust God in all things.  For children not of Islamic, or Jewish, or Afghani backgrounds, there is very little preaching and would still work very well as a moral narrative or even as a culture lesson, as it is a folktale.  From a current events standpoint, it would also do well with older children, as it shows that Muslim and Jews co-existed quite nicely once upon a time in Afghanistan as well.  

sword

The plot is warm, although the Shah is clearly abusing his power as he meets a poor shoemaker and passes royal decree after royal decree to test the man’s faith that “everything turns out just as it should” and that God will provide.  The Shah decrees no one can repair shoes in the street, followed by banning the selling of water in the streets, and so on, until finally the poor man finds him self in the Shah’s Royal Guard without a sword, ordered to kill someone.  Not wanting to spoil how he handled the prediciment, I’ll suffice to say, in the end the poor man is made the shah’s advisor and presumably all is well. 

sword1

Throughout the tests, we also meet the poor man’s wife, who is supportive and very hospitable as they feed the Shah dressed as a peasant and offer him what little they have.  Her clothing is incredibly similar to what Muslims in Afghanistan wear, and makes me want to research this aspect for accuracy and to satisfy my own curiosity.    

Overall, a sweet interfaith folktale that I hope to share at our next interfaith storytime.

The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan by Atia Abawi

Standard

The Secret Sky A novel of Forbidden love in Afghanistan

This was another book I stumbled upon in the Scholastic Teen Book Flyers, and I wanted to read it to see, once again, how Muslims are being portrayed in books presented and widely distributed in the school markets.    I didn’t figure given the “romantic element” it would be a candidate for our Book Club, but none-the-less wanted to know if it should at least be on our library shelves in the Middle School section.  The book is not in the Accelerated Reader data base, bur for content I would think 11th or 12th grade.  The book is written by a woman whose family left Afghanistan right before she was born and later returned as a television correspondent.  Her story is included as the introduction of the book and a glossary at the end make the total length 292 pages.

SYNOPSIS:

A boy from a landowning family, Samiullah, and a girl whose family works the land, Fatima, have known and played together their whole lives.  When Sami comes home, however, after realizing that the madrassa, religious school, he was sent to is a sham, he  finds he is still in love with his childhood friend.  Knowing that their families would never allow their union, Sami is in the midst of working up the courage to share his feelings with Fatima and try to convince her family, when Rashid, a cousin discovers them talking in the woods alone and rats them out.  The role of culture and religion make this turn of events a dire one for the couple.  As shame has been brought to Fatima’s family, her father arranges to have her married to a good friend of his, as a second wife.  Fatima’s mother, responds very harshly by beating her and pouring boiling water on her arms.  Sami is beaten as well, but not to Rashid’s satisfaction and thus he decides to go “tattle” to the local Taliban leader.  As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Mullah Latif is not religious in the least and that he has no conscious.  Latif and his gang leave a path of murder and suffering as they set out to make an example of the couple in the name of religion and culture.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The author actually does a pretty good job of making in clear that Latif and Rashid are one extreme of bad; manipulating religion to justify their acts.  As Rashid realized how little Latif even knows about Islam he sets to distance himself from the gang.  Latif at one point doesn’t even want to enter a mosque.  The opposite of the Latif character is Mullah Sarwar who is good, and kind, and gentle, and loving.  Overall the author doesn’t paint one group with a broad stroke, there are good and bad land owners, workers.  There is even a grandma who supports women being educated and marrying for love, contrasted with a mother who wants to see her daughter killed for her actions.  The story is also pretty universal and has some Romeo and Juliet similarities, simply set in Afghanistan.  Some of the culture shines through to add context and understanding outside of the story alone, and that is nice.  Fatima logically works through why she can’t marry her fathers friend.  And in some ways you see why the country struggles as it does in real life, and why there isn’t an easy fix.  Each chapter is told from a different perspective, either Fatima’s, Samiullah’s, or Rashid’s which does give a more rounded view of the events.  But in some cases, not quite enough.  One thing I didn’t find believable was how purely evil Rashid was one minute, and then his quick change (SPOILER).  The reader is not given much insight into him and yet he has such a huge influence on every aspect of the story that it seemed a little abrupt and unrealistic.

FLAGS:

The love story aspect is actually pretty clean and sweet in many ways.  The unexpected violence, however, is a huge flag to me. (SPOILER ALERT) It mentions in some detail that Sami left the madrassa when he caught the head of the school sodomizing a young village boy.  It isn’t graphic, but it is detailed enough to be noted.  Fatima’s younger sister is also killed when Latif breaks her neck with his bare hands, again incredibly brutal, horrific and sad.  Mullah Sarwar is murdered and hanged in the village.  All reasons why the book in my opinion is for older and mature audiences.

A small religious point, that I think most would be fine with, but just in case should be mentioned, is that Sami goes to pray at a shrine.  The author explains how it evolved as a place to pray to Allah for matters regarding love, but it could be construed as being inappropriate.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t teach this book to the ages I currently work with, but here is a little insight from the author about what she wanted the readers to take away from her novel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2rMD16g23E

 

 

Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai

Standard

kabul corner

For all of us waiting to see what happened to the characters from Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai answers that question in Saving Kabul Corner, while maintaining a stand alone story of mystery and family.  It is not necessary to read Shooting Kabul first, and if you have not recently read Shooting Kabul you may not even realize that some of the characters cross over into this book.  The books are drastically different in tone and style and purpose.

SYNOPSIS:

Saving Kabul Corner takes a while to get going, nearly 100 pages.  There are so many characters that I started reading this book months ago, put it down and forgot about it.  I picked it up two nights ago and resolving to just read it and not worry about who all the characters were, I finished it in two sittings and enjoyed it.  The buildup is important to set the stage, but young readers might have to be encouraged to get through all the pettiness of the characters, the numerous back stories and sub plots to get into the flow of the novel and the who-done-it aspect of the book.

Ariana is a 12-year-old Afghani-American girl with siblings, cousins, aunts, all living in their cramped townhouse.  The family owns Kabul Corner an Afghan grocery story in Freemont, California.  Things are going along fairly well, despite the recent arrival of Ariana’s cousin Laila who couldn’t be more different than Ariana, resulting in jealousy and disdain.  When a new Afghan store opens in the same plaza as Kabul Corner, tempers and old country feuds resurface.  Tribal concepts of badal, revenge, and honor start to make their way into their American lives.  When the feuding escalates to vandalism, theft, and arson, the kids of both families are convinced that a third party is pitting the stores against each other and set out to find the real culprit.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the characters are American, but cultural too.  They are Muslim and mention going to the mosque, but their actions unfortunately don’t depict Islam in a consistent manner.  Most notably they do celebrate Halloween, and they lie a lot.  Because the book is a A.R. level 6.1 I haven’t completely ruled out using it as a book club book.  I think it might be a way to discuss with the students the purpose of literature.  How some books leave the reader with a moral, or something to ponder, while some are just entertainment.  The lying in this book is quite extensive and yet, both the kids and the adults have to lie to get the truth.  The author makes note of it, so at least it is identified as an anomaly, but still I’ve not yet resolved if I can explain to the kids that the ends don’t justify the means in real life.  I like that the book is a mystery, so many books with cultural twinges focus on all the “cultural” obstacles and injustices and hardships, it was nice to read a book where the characters and the store just happened to be ethnic in nature.  I think the characters’ culture adds depth, but won’t turn readers away as it is clearly written for the typical American young adult reader.  There is a glossary in the back, but it isn’t as daunting as other novels out there.  The book is 273 pages and also has an Author’s Note and a Further Reading Section.

FLAGS:

The lying for sure, and the theft.  There are no concerns with relationships, language, violence, or disrespect.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Click to access 365.pdf

The Breadwinner By Deborah Ellis

Standard

breadwinner

The Breadwinner is the first book in Deborah Ellis’ four book series about 11 year-old-Parvana, her friends, and her family in Taliban controlled Afghanistan.  The remarkable thing about this book is that it is a compelling story, that has moments of intensity and reality, yet never falters from being on about a 4th grade reading and comprehension level.  The AR level is 4.5 and as a teacher I taught the book as a novel study to 4th graders, and now as a librarian I presented the book for my Jr. Book Club.  In both cases, after completion, the children are arguing and fighting for the next books in the series, Parvana’s Journey, and then Mud City, and finally My Name is Parvana.  It is not a tempting book on the shelf necessarily, but once you start, it is hard to put down.

SYNOPSIS:

The book gives readers a glimpse of how the Taliban changed the day-to-day lives of the Afghani people.  Young Parvana starts out helping her father, a  former History teacher, earn a meager living by reading and writing for the illiterate in the marketplace, and selling odds-and-ends that the family is willing to do without in order to survive.  As a young girl she is allowed to accompany her father into the marketplace, her older sister and mother, however, have not left their home in a year and a half.  When Parvana’s father is dragged off to prison, the family is in need of a provider, a breadwinner, and with some of her deceased brother’s clothes, a haircut and some courage, young Parvana becomes Kaseem.  She carries on her father’s work, digs up bones to earn more, and sells items from a tray to keep her family afloat.  In the process she meets an old classmate, Shauzia, who is also disguised as a boy, an old gym teacher, Mrs. Weera, determined to fight back through disseminating journals and magazines, and other characters that bring the horrors and hope of the Afghan people to life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it doesn’t get too political, which would bog down the story and turn off young readers, and while it presents unfair imprisonment, stadium style punishments, death and pain, it does so in a way that evokes empathy not fear.  It even at times finds a way to stay light-hearted and offer up hope as the reader sees the resilience and determination of these people.

“I’ve been thinking about starting up a little school here,” Mrs. Weera said to Parvana’s surprise.  “A secret school, for a small number of girls, a few hours a week.  you must attend.  Parvana will let you know when.””What about the Taliban?” “The Taliban will not be invited.”

FLAGS:

The book is intense at some moments, such as when the father is taken by the police, the girl’s nearly see prisoners having their hands chopped off, and the characters discuss landmines.  But it is on a child’s level, too much description is not offered and for most 3rd graders and up, I think the book is a great dialogue starter about what some people have to endure in the world.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: (There are a lot of resources for this book)

Author’s website and study guide:   http://deborahellis.com/teacher-resources/

Unit study:  http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/FREE-The-Breadwinner-Unit-Guide-for-Students-365169

Lesson plan:  http://coolkidlit-4-socialstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/27715927/The%20Breadwinner%20Lesson%20Plan