Tag Archives: america

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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As a partially brown person who enjoys camping and does it frequently, I have been anxiously waiting to get my hands on this beautiful 40 page, kindergarten to fourth grade picture book. So, trust me, I’ve read it multiple times to myself, to my children, and even to a Muslim storytime group to try and figure out why I like it, but, unfortunately, really don’t love it. Ultimately, I think it is because there is just too much going on.

Everything about this book is wonderful: the idea to encourage brown people to go camping, to highlight that time in the wilderness is for everyone and doesn’t have to look a certain way, that bullying and micro aggressions are oppressive, that immigrants have diverse and full lives in their home countries and work hard when they come to America, that culture and language and food and music is diverse, yet universal, that learning new skills and trying hard things makes you a super hero, that dad’s can cook and mom’s can be great fire starters and critter catchers, truly it is all so powerful and affirming, it is just a lot for one book.

It could easily be a three book series with just the information and layered themes presented, and I really wish it was spread out. If you are a 4th grade desi kid who has been camping or desperately wants to go camping this book is a great glimpse to mirror your place in the hobby without compromising your unique spin on it, but I think for anyone not in that demographic, many of the little celebrations, messages, themes, and cultural nuggets will simply be lost.

I wanted to hear the campfire stories and jokes, and laugh at the lyrics being belted out, not just told about them. I wanted to feel Fatima’s accomplishment at helping set up the tent and maybe see her struggle and rebound, not just be told she suggested reading the directions. The book has a ton of industry praise and personally came with a lot of expectation for me, so perhaps I’m overly critical, but kids in my storytime were struggling to stay focused when they couldn’t relate to the cultural touchstones being tossed out, they didn’t get the “not being good at math stereotype,” they needed the non text pictures to be explained to grasp their impact on the story, and they wanted to know why of all the Islamic things a Muslim family could do while camping, halal bacon was the only Islamic reference and came with precious little contextual defining.

The story starts with a Fatima and aapa waiting to be picked up after a terrible week of school to go camping for the first time. The Khazi family has immigrated from India and their father has told them that camping is an American pastime. During the week Fatima has been teased for her pronunciation and lunch, had her hair pulled and done poorly on a math test. But when her parent’s pull up with a packed car and the girls jump in to enjoy samosa and Bollywood songs, the weekend holds promise.

When they get to the campsite, Fatima and her dad tackle the setting up of the tent. Dad cannot seem to figure it out, and after the week she has had, Fatima is scared to help, but after a while she suggests looking at the directions and it seems that does the trick. The family enjoys shami kabab and rotis from home for dinner, before the girls climb in the tent.

A spider on the outside of the tent is magnified inside, and has the girls terrified it is a monster. Mom, the ever brave lizard and scorpion disposer in India reassures them that it is nothing and sends them off to brush their teeth before settling in for the night.

The next morning mom shows the girl the small spider keeping the mosquitos out and they all share a laugh while dad is cooking anda and roti on a gas grill. He calls the girls to come out in urdu to attempt a campfire to cook the halal beef bacon on like other American’s do. Dad and Fatima can’t get it to light, so mom, who is from a smaller town in India has to show them how it is done. Along the way Fatima looks at the other campers and is annoyed that they aren’t having trouble and that her family always is so different. The other families it is worth noting are white.

The Khazi family then starts to pack up and then they go for a hike, play in water and when the time to leave comes Fatima is sad. She doesn’t want to go back to the life they live where they are different and teased and her parents have to work two jobs each. But aapa suggests she share her fun at show and tell, and the family reassures her that they will be back.

The book ends with Fatima telling her class she is a superhero because she can build fires and tents and isn’t afraid of spider monsters. There is no glossary to define the urdu words used and spoken, but there is a reference at the end about the author’s @brownpeoplecamping initiative.

I think the book is rather remarkable and ground breaking because of its subject matter. The illustrations are wonderful, and the book a great reminder that camping and being outdoors is for all. I just wish it focused on a theme or two and highlighted them for this Indian American Muslim Family with relate-ability for other types of minority groups. The book set its own standard in what it wanted to achieve and convey, and sadly I think it missed the mark.

Red Shoes by Karen English illustrated by Ebony Glenn

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Red Shoes by Karen English illustrated by Ebony Glenn

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This delightful 32 page picture book links two girls, two ends of the world, two cultures and two stories together with a pair of red shoes.  The short sentences pop with action and the perfectly illustrated two-page spreads convey relatable emotion and joy.  The beloved shoes travel on the feet of one character to a wedding, Christmas dinner, and birthdays, they are then are donated and journey to West Africa to be given as a gift for a little girl who fasted half of Ramadan.   The message I hope children ages three and up will get from the story, is that we are more alike than different, that we should take care of our things (amazingly the shoes weren’t worn out), and that we should donate things of good quality that we ourselves value.  I hope it doesn’t lend itself to perpetuate the stereotype that we can send our castaway items to Africa, being the author comments in her bio on the back flap that her husband is from West Africa and that she frequently visits there, I’m hoping that this is just me being overly cautious in the messaging, and nothing is being implied or negatively taken from a casual reader.

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Malika and her Nana see a pair of dazzling shoes perched in the window, and Malika is enamored. Her grandma later surprises Malika with the shoes.  She quickly tries them on and tests them out.  She keeps them safe from the rain and dances with them on at her Auntie’s wedding.  She kicks her cousin Jamal with them on, under the table at Christmas when he tries to steal her biscuit.

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She stomps away from her best friend in her red shoes, and jumps double Dutch with them on when she makes up with her friend at her birthday party. But at Nana’s birthday, “the shoes don’t let her forget that her feet have grown.” Nana and Malika take the shoes to the thrift store to be resold.  A sad Malika says goodbye to them, they were her favorite shoes ever.

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Inna Ziya sees the shoes in the window and knows just the little girl who will love them.  She squeezes them in to her suitcase and they are off to Africa. They wait under a table selling claypots in a market waiting for the girl who fasted half the month of Ramadan.

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When Amina comes holding her mother’s hand, Auntie Inna Ziya delivers the promised gift.  Amina thinks they are beautiful and lovingly carries them in the box on her lap as they fide the tro-tro home.  Amina’s little sister Halima, can’t wait to see the gift as she too hopes to one day fast in Ramadan.

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Amina lets her try them on and when she outgrows them she plans to pass them on to her.  Meanwhile, Malika is wondering whatever happened to her beautiful red shoes, and if someone else is wearing them.

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There is no mention of Islam nor is Ramadan explained.  There are women in hijab in America and in Africa, even in the books in a shop window there is representation.  I particularly love the shout-out in the illustrations to “Mommy’s Khimar.”

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The front of the book has Malika, and the back, Amira.

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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This is the first book in a new middle grades nonfiction series and is Adama Bah telling her own story about being detained as a 16 year old and falsely accused of being a suicide bomber.  A story that sounds like a movie plot is painfully real and terrifying and hearing it in her own words is powerful and impactful.  The writing is very basic in its linear format and straightforward presentation of the experience through her eyes.  It is not sensationalized or overly explanatory about how this situation came to be, how she got out of it, or what the family had to go to to find lawyers and pay for them, for example.  It is how she felt, what she understood at the time, and how the experience shaped her.  While the writing style is sufficient for middle grades, her story is intense.  A big part of her experience is being strip searched, exposed, and seeking asylum to avoid female circumcision.  The 128 page book is a great way to show the realities of our world.  It took place in the 2000, the recent past, to a New York teenager that enjoyed different colored sneakers, chatting with her friends, and spending time with her family, no different than the readers picking up her story to read.

SYNOPSIS:

Adama was born in Conakry, Guinea in 1988 and moved to America as a child.  She attended public school until high school when she was then sent to an Islamic boarding School in Buffalo, New York.  Her family was not particularly religious, but Adama become more visibly Muslim returning home after the attacks on September 11, wearing niqab and wondering why she was being treated with such hostility at the airport.  As she resumes her education in public school, she slowly makes the choice to take off her niqab, while maintaining her hijab and modest clothing.  In 2005 she and her father are taken in to custody early in the morning from their home and detained.  During the questioning at 16 years old, Adama learns that she is not a legal US citizen.  Her father is separated from her, to be deported, and she is moved to Pennsylvania as the youngest person swept up in a terrorist roundup.  She is being accused of being a potential suicide bomber and is detained for six weeks before a plea deal is brokered.  She will wear an ankle monitor for three years and have a nightly curfew.  During this time she is responsible to care for her family as her father has been returned to Guinea, her mother speaks very little english and she has four younger siblings.  Even after the bracelet is removed she finds herself still on no-fly lists and finally after one more time being denied and detained at the airport, she sues the Attorney General, FBI Director, and the Director of the Terrorist Screening Center. When they learn of this they offer to remove her from the no-fly list if she withdraws her case. She is granted asylum and while she had to drop out of school, she dreams of going back.  She has since married, her dad has been able to return to America, and she continues to study Islam and believe that things could have been worse.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is her story, from her eyes and perspective, but I worry that some of the details are misplaced.  She details enjoying talking bad about the government with a friend after she is released knowing that they are listening in, but maintains that she is constantly in fear of being returned to jail and that she considers America her home.  I’m not saying all of those things can’t be true and co exist, but some additional context would help the choppiness in this example and others.  I appreciated that the genital mutilation was clearly attributed to culture and not religion, I think when others tell stories about cultural and religious practices they often conflate the two.  I wish there was more information about where this mysterious list came from, what happened to the Bengali girl that was taken, how the Islamic community reacted.  The story is powerful and moving, and readers will be drawn in as they see themselves in her.  There are also questions at the end that help connect readers to her situation, and the reality that this is the unjust world we live in and can easily be consumed by as she nearly was.

FLAGS:

Detailing a strip search, detailing taking off her clothes, having orifices checked, and using the bathroom in the open.  There is talk of female circumcision although it doesn’t define it explicitly.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think in a high school Social Studies class or current events discussion this book would be a great topic to explore and voice to highlight.  The book is short and can be read very quickly.  It is an important story to know, to learn from, to sympathize with, and be acutely aware of for people of all ages.

The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

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The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

img_8312This historical fiction piece about Malcolm X follows him through incarceration with flashbacks to his childhood and teenage years.  Written by his daughter it is hard to know where this 336 page book is factual and where it takes artistic freedom with filling in the blanks. A few creative liberties are mentioned in the author’s note at the end, but some sources in the back would help clarify, as she was a toddler when her father was killed. The time frame of Malcolm X’s life and a large portion of the book covers his introduction and conversion to The Nation of Islam, but it never mentions even in the timeline at the end that he left it, or that they were responsible for his assassination.  The book is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, it is also so very humbling and empowering. I just don’t know that younger middle school readers (the stated intended audience is 12-18), will really grasp the content, his condition, and his searching, while trying to keep all the characters, time frame references, and slang straight.  With the mention of his girlfriend who he is/was sleeping with, as well as the drugs, the alcohol, and the abuses occurring in prison, older teens might be able to handle the book better, and be tempted after to dig deeper to learn about him going for Hajj, becoming Sunni, changing some of his views, and ultimately being gunned down in front of his family.

SYNOPSIS:

Malcolm Little is living between Roxbury and Harlem and going by the nickname Detroit Red.  When the story opens, Malcolm and his friend Shorty are about to tried for stealing a watch, a crime that he acknowledges he committed, but undoubtedly doesn’t deserve 8-10  years in prison for at age 20.  Nearly every chapter starts with a flashback to an earlier time and then concludes with the atrocities of prison life at hand.  As the narrative flips back and forth Malcolm’s story and awakening emerges.

Born in Omaha the Little family’s home is burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, they move a few times as the growing family grows closer together and establish themselves as followers of Marcus Garvey in advocating for Blacks.  Malcolm’s preacher father is killed when Malcolm is six years old and his mother institutionalized when he is 13, for refusing to feed her children pork amongst other things, and thus leaving the family grasping as they know she isn’t crazy, yet cannot get her released.  Malcolm is incredibly bright and attends a nearly all white prep school, but even after being class president, a teacher discourages him from pursuing his dreams of being a lawyer, and Malcolm drops out of school and ends up being a hustler.  His white girlfriend, a married woman in Boston and her friends convince him to rob some wealthy white neighborhoods and when he later takes a stolen watch to be fixed he is arrested and found guilty of grand larceny, breaking and entering, possession and more.  He is sentenced to Charlestown State Prison and day-to-day life is rough.

The guards at the overcrowded prison are aggressive, the food un consumable, and being put in the hole as punishment is beyond inhuman.  Malcolm is filled with anger and rage and is still trying to hustle people.  He learns his family has become followers of The Nation of Islam and he doesn’t want to hear it, he doesn’t want to hear about his prison mates preaching the Bible and he doesn’t want to hear about God.  He feels betrayed by God and feels guilty for not being a man his father would be proud of, the refrain: up, up, you mighty race! echoes throughout.

Throughout it all his family’s love is felt in visits, letters, and warm memories of life before his incarceration.  His flashbacks to events in his childhood that defined him, inspired him, molded him, show what a beautiful family he had and how racism in large part destroyed it.  His parents valued education and discipline and his elder siblings carry that torch and pass it on to the younger children, they are a large family and their love is palpable for each other and for the liberation of Blacks in America.

Little’s sisters write letters and eventually get Malcolm transferred to a much nicer prison, Norfolk, where he really channels his rage into reform, determined not to leave the same man he entered as.  He has access to a full library, he joins the debate team, he takes classes, converts to The Nation of Islam and then refuses to get a polio shot and is sent back to Charleston for the remainder of his sentence.

The book concludes with his release, and teases that members of his family are becoming uneasy with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  At the very very end, he meets Betty, the lady who will be his wife.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this chunk of Malcolm X’s life shows the transformation of his thinking, how outside influences forced him to dig in to himself and reflect in such a profound way.  The book is as timely as ever as the systemic racism that is determined to see people of color fail is still running and growing.  There is a little mention of how veterans are treated better in other countries on the front lines than they are at home when they return that I wish was explored more, but there are so many characters that flit in and out of Malcolm’s prison world, it is hard to tell them apart as it is Malcolm’s story and his development that is being told.

Not surprisingly, I wish there was more about him converting to Sunni and going for Hajj.  The book stops before then and I am sure that most readers, will not understand the difference between The Nation, the Ahmadis mentioned, and Sunni Muslims.  This concerns me as the acceptance of Elijah Muhammad as a Prophet is hard to read.  I think some conversation with readers would be necessary as the book offers little if any to differentiate.

I like that each chapter starts with a direct quote of Malcolm X and the the fact that the relevance of his words in today’s world don’t need any explanations or context is devastatingly powerful.  I also appreciate how engaging and smooth the writing is.  You really feel the layers of Malcolm X the character, being pealed back and him coming into the proud confident leader that he is known to be.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, mention of him sleeping around, memories of kissing his girlfriend, alcohol consumption, cigarettes, drug use, violence, beatings, abuse.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this as a book club for middle school.  Possibly if I was a high school teacher I would offer it as outside reading or extra credit when reading about the Civil Rights Era, or if I was teaching the Alex Haley, Auto Biography of Malcolm X.

Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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This book is a great OWN voice, middle grade coming of age book that rings with truth and hope in its poetic lines that sweep you up and keep you cheering.  Over 352 pages the author’s semi-autobiographic story of coming to Peachtree City, Georgia from Karachi, Pakistan beautifully unfolds.  I absolutely loved this book and the way it is told, in verse.  The details, often small, ring with such sincerity that even those that have never moved to a new country, or been to a new school will feel for young Nurah Haqq and be inspired by her success, touched by her hardships, and disappointed in her mistakes.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nurah’s best day is spent on the beach with her best friend Asna, playing in the warm waves and riding camels.  However it ends up also being her worst day, when she returns home to her father’s news that they are moving to America.  Strong, confident Nurah who spends time with her grandparents, swimming with her older brother Owais, and excelling at math in school is reluctantly leaving it all behind to start anew.

When they arrive in Georgia the family of four settles in a hotel until they find a house.  Everything is different and new, and the transition with no friends and family difficult for the entire family.  The way words are pronounced, the way the air feels and the birds chirp all make Nurah long for home.  When they find a swimming pool at the rec center, things start to slowly change.  Owais was a medal winner in Karachi, and will be one here too, people start admiring him, and Nurah tries to bask in his light.

School starts and math is a relief, but people are white, so white, and a boy reaches out to shake her hand.  She feels betrayed that she has been told the schools in America are better, and lunchtime, with no one to sit by is a huge stress.  She questions her clothing, her appearance, and the weather.

Her and Owais try out for the swim team and make it, and Nurah makes her first friend, Stahr. Stahr lives a few houses down from their new house and when Nurah’s mom has a miscarriage, it is Stahr’s mom who comes to show support and give comfort.  The support is reciprocated when Stahr and her mom need help escaping from her abusive father.

As Nurah works to win swimming races and be more like her brother, she works to find her voice and use it to defend others and herself.  A terrorist attack committed by someone claiming to be Muslim sets the family up to be targets.  In a moment of jealousy, Nurah doesn’t intervene to help her brother and the consequences are huge.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the details and how they are articulated.  I related to so much of Nurah’s feeling and impressions, that I reached out to the author and found her to be just as endearing as her character.  The feeling of being different when swimming because of your decision to be modest, the role of food to comfort you and make you feel at home, the older brother that you so desperately want to resemble and be like: All of it hit close to home for me.  I love how religion and culture are so much a part of the story and about the character’s identity, not to be made preachy, just to understand her and her experiences.  She goes to the masjid, she prays, she starts to wear hijab. I love how she finds her voice and defends those that can’t, but that her path is not easy.  She makes mistakes and she has to challenge herself to do what is right.  The backdrop is always trying to “settle” in a new place, but the story has it’s own plot points that are interesting and simply made more impactful by Nurah’s unique perspective.

There are lots of little climaxes and victories for Nurah that show her to be well-rounded and relatable.  You cheer for her early on and enjoy the journey.  The only slight hiccup I felt was the name confusion of her Nana and Nani (Nana), it is explained, but it was a little rocky for me, it might be based on a real thing in her family, but once that is resolved, the book flows beautifully and smoothly.

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FLAGS:

Nothing a 3rd/4th grader would find alarming, but none-the-less:

Crushes: Nurah has a crush on a boy at school when he shakes her hand and picks her for a lab partner, but she moves on from him while still maintaining a crush on her brother’s friend Junaid.  Nothing happens, she just thinks they are cute.

Miscarriage: Her mother has a miscarriage and it details a blighted ovum and the mental strain on the mom and family in the aftermath.

Abuse: Stahr’s father is abusive

Hate: There are bullies, discrimination, physical violence.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is a little below level for my middle school book club, but I think it it was on a bookshelf and a middle schooler picked it up, they wouldn’t set it down until they were done reading it.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

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When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

starsThis graphic novel swept me off my feet and left me in tears, not because of the hard life and sadness that life in a refugee camp entails, I had braced myself for that, but because of the hope and humanity and beauty that is so powerfully expressed and conveyed in this 264 page book.  Meant for 3rd graders and up, I think kids through middle school should be encouraged to read it.  The illustrations and colors are incredibly well done and the story is based on a true story that needs to be told and shared.  It is definitely in the top 10 books I’ve read this year and I keep catching my 11 year old re-reading this book repeatedly (like 5 or 6 times).

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar Mohamed lives in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.  His father was killed in the Somali war and his mother has not been seen after she sent Omar and his younger brother Hassan to run with the neighbors to escape the violence.  Hasan suffers from seizures and doesn’t speak, save one word, Hooyo, mother in Somali.  The two boys have an adopted mom Fatuma, who looks after the boys in the camp as if they were her own.  Unable to go to school, Omar spends his days looking after his brother, playing soccer with plastic bags, and waiting in lines for water, food, and news of a better opportunity.

When Omar gets the chance to go to school (5th grade) he has to make the difficult decision of pursuing his own opportunities, with the hope of helping Hassan later, or living day to day and taking care of his younger brother.  He is finally convinced that education will help them both, and that if the girls can find a way to do their chores and attend class, he can too.

Each transition from primary, to middle to secondary school requires testing, and only the top get to continue.  Determined to stay in school, Omar studies while dealing with life’s many challenges and the daily additional challenges of living with little food and resources.

When Omar and Hassan’s names finally appear on a UN interview lists for resettlement, hope seeps in, but the wait and the uncertainty prove to be yet another test.  Along the way there are side characters from the United Nations that show compassion, other families that show how generous and loving humans can be, female classmates show him how to take advantage of his privilege and friendships that move friends to family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is gripping and has heart.  I don’t know what I expected, but I truly could not put it down.  The character’s stresses are felt and emotions are conveyed so powerfully, that I don’t know that you can read the book and forget it.  The most emotional part for me was his honesty in dealing with his brother, the strength of his friends, particularly female, and the bond to Fatuma.  Truly their living arrangements and loss of family is gut wrenching, but it was the little things that touched me the most.  The honesty of Omar having to decide if he was tempted to not go to school because he was scared. Was he using his brother as an excuse to stay with something he knew.  The emotional tipping point of no return for me was when he realized Fatuma would not be able to go to the second interview with the UN and would not be a part of what came after.  Of course I knew that, but by that point I was so connected to the character, that when Omar realized it, I broke for him.  To feel that connection in a graphic novel was new for me, perhaps a first, and alhumdulillah I am better for it.

The characters are Muslim and behave traditionally with praying and Ramadan and Eid.

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FLAGS:

There is talk of khat, something the men chew on the side of the road to forget things.  There is some violence, bullying, a young girl getting married before 6th grade and having a baby.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Yes! I am hoping if and when we resume school I am starting with this book inshaAllah, for my middle school book club.  There is so much to talk about and understand and empathize with.

Eid Breakfast at Abuela’s by Mariam Saad illustrated by Chaymaa Sobhy

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Eid Breakfast at Abuela’s by Mariam Saad illustrated by Chaymaa Sobhy

breakfastThis book is the first in a series (hopefully) called Trilingual Sofia, where English is the predominant language, and Spanish and Arabic are interwoven to tell the story.  Focusing on Eid and spending the holiday in Mexico with her non Muslim grandmother, the story with bright illustrations is a celebration of diversity, acceptance, family, and Eid.

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Sofia has had a special Ramadan.  She tried fasting for the first time and now that the month is over, they are breaking their fast and then getting on a plane to Mexico to have Eid breakfast with her Abuela.

On the plane she keeps her pretzel bag to add to her scrapbook and then they get changed into their Eid clothes before they land.  Once in Mexico they go straight to the mosque to meet their friends and then to Abuela’s house.

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Abuela’s house is decorated for Eid and all the family is there.  They eat breakfast together and the kids play games and sing songs and take pictures.

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The 32 page 8.5 by 8.5 inch hardback book claims to be for toddles and preschoolers, but I think it is more for kids in early elementary with the small and ample text.  The Spanish words are highlighted in green and Sofia teaches some Arabic to her Mexican cousins.  There is a glossary of all three languages at the end.  

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The book is not meant only for Muslim children, but it doesn’t explain Ramadan or Eid, so while Muslim’s might be able to connect the dots of why she only fasted the last two hours of a day or why they went to the mosque before they went to Abuela’s, I wish the book explained it.

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I love that their are subtle connections between the three languages, like Angel Gabriel/Jibreel and the name Yusuf/Joseph.  The book is a great example of Islam outside of the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent and I truly hope there are more books in this series and more books like it to show the diversity of Islam and the commonalities we all share.

Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

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Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

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This 251 page novel reads like a biography that has no climax or real conflict in its linear retelling of the protagonist from 3rd grade to a junior in college.  If you are part or all Desi, raised in America in the ’80s and ’90s and have fond memories of NBC’s Must See TV, rolling your pants up, your family packing Corning Ware sets to take to the homeland, and the joys of TJ Maxx, you might enjoy the nostalgic similarities you too experienced, but even at that, with no plot or character arcs, the book is easily forgettable and you might forget to finish it.  For all my critiques of Muslim stories that don’t read authentic, this one definitely does, she doesn’t rebel, she doesn’t ever go against Islam, but because she is similarly not ever tempted to, I think most readers won’t relate to this fictional girl, who’s biggest worry is smelling like her mother’s cooking.  The book seems to just want to tell her life story, and getting through it is the point of the book, not making emotional connections, giving the reader something to think about or even inspiring others, which is ultimately a missed opportunity that this book could and should have capitalized on.

SYNOPSIS:

It is the first day of school for Fatima Husein the eldest of many daughters in her Indian American suburban home.  With a mother who doesn’t speak much English and parents that don’t seem to understand Fatima’s desire to fit in, the stage is set that will carry through the entire book of Fatima loving to study and separating herself as the girl at school pretending to be more American than she really is, and the girl at home pretending to be more Indian than she feels.  As the book follows the character through college, along the way Fatima and her family have extended maternal family move to America from India and then move back, they take a trip to India which is not enjoyed at all, her dad’s family then moves from India and settles near them, they move to be closer to the masjid, and they go for Hajj.  Characters bounce in and out: school friends, community friends, cousins, etc.. The only real constant is Fatima’s love of school and her paternal grandmother grumbling about her getting married. There are the ups and downs of life that are shared, most very specific to a ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) living in the ’90s.  Fatima is religious and Islam is important to her and she never waivers in her black and white view of things.  It does take her a little while to wear hijab, but there is no real self reflection and catharsis, it is just states she wants to fit in and isn’t ready.  The conclusion is she finally accepts a proposal from the son of an old family friend who lives in Chicago.  Not so much because she likes him, but more because she has no reason not to say yes and her parents are in favor it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

If this were a biography and it was someone famous, the minutia of day to day living might be compelling, but as it is fiction and you have no idea where the story is going, it just seems to tell a story about a typical girl doing typical things.  It has value in that it shows how normal and boring even, a normal Muslim family is, but it gets really preachy at times and really dry.  None of the side characters are memorable.  I have no idea how many sisters Fatima has, when her grandfather passed away I felt nothing, when two who families died in a car accident Eid morning on their way to prayers, I had to flip back to see if the characters had ever been mentioned before.  It seems like the whole point is to get to the end, and more heart and less tedium would have made this book an amazing example of American Muslims in America.  The first page mentions friends and there is no follow up to where they are or what happened to them, and this happens all through out the book, there are no emotional connections, nor attachments among the characters to include the reader into their plight as well.  The protagonist one must assume gains her voice from the author’s experiences herself, but it just lacks internal dialogue and conviction.

Fatima lives through the Gulf War and makes big changes and has to find her place, yet the book just tells us all this, it doesn’t show us how she internalizes and processes and emerges from the experiences shared, it just gives an example and then comments on it.  The font and layout visually looks like a text book, and at times, the internal structure reads like an essay, sharing an anecdote, backing it up, and moving on to the next event on the time line.

I feel like I know the character, it definitely comes from a place of shared experience and credibility, but you have no idea where it is going, and just like I doubt anyone would want to read my life story, the book needs a little direction and editing.  In the author interview posted below in the “Tools to Lead the Discussion” she mentions that mainstream publishers wanted more rebelling and she wouldn’t compromise.  I agree with her, we need books that don’t follow that assumed track, I think that the presentation of the story, however, as it is, is lacking.  The integrity is there, but the character is really flat, and there are plenty of literary tools that could enhance the story without compromising Fatima’s character to drugs and alcohol and boys.  The book was self published in 2010 and I really hope at some point the author will re-edit it, to make it relevant to preteens and teens today and more personable.  Ultimately making it so that the successes Fatima has are cheered on by the reader, who are also inspired by her accomplishments while staying true to her beliefs.

FLAGS:

Considering how many pages are dedicated to how she and her sister are to behave in India as to not seem naughty or as arrogant Americans, the curse words flow pretty regularly in the book, and the way she speaks to her elders and in front of her elders is not always kind.  There are side comments about hooking up, STDs, and drinking, nothing any of the characters engage in, but judgments regarding these topics for those that do is present. She also talks about her mom’s failure to discuss menstruation before hand, to exemplify how things are only discussed once they need to be dealt with.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that as a book club selection today’s youth would voluntarily pick up and read this book.  There might be some ability for a teacher to assign it and then turn around and make the students write something similar about their experiences in a fictionalized form.  I think students would struggle to relate to Fatima with the outdated references and the lack of conflicts and climaxes in the narrative.

 

Amira’s Family by Elliot Riley illustrated by Srimalie Bassani

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Amira’s Family by Elliot Riley illustrated by Srimalie Bassani

amira family

This 24 page, AR 1.5 book, is part of a series for emergent readers about different families.  The other books in the series focus on diverse family models, some that include a single parent, or lots of siblings, one in the series has foster kids, another adoption, one has two moms, so I’m not entirely sure why a refugee family is included in the group.  The family had to leave a dangerous home, but mom and dad and Amira, are not a “diverse” family structure, by the same definition used for the other books.  So, on its own it is nice to have a book for independent kindergarten and 1st grade readers, but as part of the collection, I find it a bit of a stretch.

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The book is divided into three chapters, or sections I guess, perhaps so that early readers can gain experience with a Table of Contents at the beginning.  There is also a Picture Glossary at the end along with a page encouraging Family Fun and a bit about the author.

The book starts out introducing Amira, and her parents.  It then explains that they just moved to a new country, America, when a war started in their country.  It notes that Amira was sad to leave her home, and scared to move to a new place.

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When Amira starts at school, the classmates welcome her and help her with the language.  It shows her teaching her language too, but it doesn’t look like more than random squiggles.  It then shows she likes recess and swings and slides, allowing the reader to see similarities with the character.

C2E8EF21-AC7B-4594-AA53-68B9764AB84DWhen the family goes shopping, Amira sees an American flag, buys it, and hangs it outside their home.  Amira loves her family and they love her, and it seems like they love their new home too.

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The illustrations are simple yet expressive, and show Amira and her mom in hijab.  It does not mention religion, or what country they left.

The story is basic, yet introduces young readers to the concept of refuges in a soft way.  It shows how the classmates are kind and the parents supportive of Amira.  I like that it also shows various emotions in the text and illustrations.

It might be making a bit of a political statement with the flag and national identity undertones, but I think it is a good thing to show that refugees can love a new country and be part of society, especially given the current climate toward immigrants.

I think the strength of this book is that it shows a Muslim character, and while meant for all new readers, Muslim children particularly will enjoy seeing themselves in a book they can read.  I’d check the library before buying the 8×8 paperback book, as it isn’t particularly memorable, but for the age group it serves a diverse and an inclusive purpose.

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