Tag Archives: Arabic

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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This memoir may qualify as non fiction, but the majority of this 176 page book is told from the perspective of the author when she was three years old, so much of it reads to me as somewhere between historical fiction and autobiography.  No matter how you categorize it though, this AR 5.8 book is better suited for middle school and up. I love that this is is a Palestinian perspective of the Six-Day War and the immediate aftermath, but after reading it, I’m not haunted by the atrocities of the Israeli occupation so much as, some of the choices her family made.  I got my copy through Scholastic and in excitement, purchased multiple copies that I sadly think will sit in a box as I doubt I’ll find many students that will enjoy this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is divided into three parts with the first and third being short letters written in 1981, and the second part being the majority of the story taking place between 1967-1971.

The first part is a high school Ibtisam getting detained at a checkpoint after heading out to check a PO Box that she uses to keep in touch with her pen pals from around the world.  She reveals what life is like and shares the joy of learning about the outside world from her correspondence, but that she rarely talks about her childhood and her life during the war.  Part two is her sharing that.

The Barakat family lives removed from neighbors and a city, but Ibtisam loves her two older brothers and younger sister and at three years old is happy.  When war comes, the family decides to run, in the process Ibtisam doesn’t have time to find a shoe, and then she gets separated from her family and swept up with the people running for the caves to escape the bombings.  Once reunited with her family, they along with numerous other Palestinians make their way to Jordan and some safety.  Safety comes at a cost though and the family is separated as her father leaves to find work.  When the war ends, the family moves from the shelter and finds a small room to rent until they can return home.

Once the family returns home, things do not return to normal as the Israeli army begins training near their house causing Ibtisam’s mom to worry constantly in her attempts to keep the children inside and away from the windows.  Eventually, the mom takes the children and herself to an orphanage in Jerusalem saying that their father cannot keep them safe.  Ibtisam is close to her father and this dramatic change does not sit well with her.

In the orphanage, the boys get separated from the girls and eventually their father promises the mother to build a wall and make repairs to the home and purchase a goat if they come home.  They do, and the kids are grateful to be together again.  The boys then start school and the goat has a baby and life carries on.   Ibtisam grows close to the baby goat and their father promises that he will remain the children’s pet and will not be slaughtered.  But, when the boys are 8 and 9 they get circumcised and the feast involves the goat.

The next major event in young Ibtisam’s life is when she finally gets to go to school.  Incredibly smart, her mother essentially equates her love for her daughter with her success in school and with that motivation and predisposition to learn and excel, she does very well.  One day on the way home, she is sexually assaulted by an older boy, and makes arrangements to always have her brothers with her when walking.  Her parents are not made aware of the offense, and don’t seem to investigate Ibtisam’s change in attitude toward school.  When an Israeli soldier attempts to assault her mother, the family moves once again and part three is a teenage Ibtisam quarreling with her parents and once again excelling at school.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that tidbits of memories are woven together to give an overall impression of the author’s childhood.  The book is a quick read and is compelling enough to hold one’s attention.  The family is culturally religious, but the book makes a point that the father prays, not indicating that the rest of them do or even know how.  I love how the freedom and hope that Ibtisam has comes from learning the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alef.  The love of language and the power found in reading and writing, is celebrated in its reverence to the learning of the letters.

I don’t get the mother, and while I get that war is a horrific time, and she is 24 when Ibtisam is 3 and has like four kids, so her life is definitely not easy, I still find it disturbing to me that she would lose a one shoe-ed daughter, take her kids to an orphanage to live while both parents are alive and well, and be so cold to her daughter.  The father seems to be loving to the kids, but he still slaughtered their pet, and I’m guessing culturally circumcisions are done at that age, because that seems incredibly cruel.

FLAGS:

War, loss, sexual assault, details about the circumcisions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I won’t do the book as a book club selection and while I know the book is in many libraries and classrooms I doubt many kids would be compelled to pick it up and read it based on the cover and synopsis on the back.  I have a few Palestinian friends that I will ask to read the book to see if they find it an accurate representative of life during the six-day war and even today as it could definitely be used to teach about the region, the conflict, and writing a biography about life for others to learn from.

 

My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd by Cristina Kessler illustrated by Walter Lyon Krudop

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My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd by Cristina Kessler illustrated by Walter Lyon Krudop

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A beautiful story based on a true event in Sudan, this 32 page AR 4.2 book contains lessons about tradition, new technology, village life, culture, family, love, and community.  Unfortunately it is one of those books that I doubt any child would pick up and want to read.  Meant for fourth graders, there is a lot of text on each page, and the story is not quick and light, it is thoughtful and memorable. The book is a powerful one in opening one’s eyes to a different culture, environmental challenges, and innovations making it an important one for parents and teachers to share with younger children and encourage older ones to spend some time with.

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Fatima’s Sudanese village has just installed a new pump, and to show how easy it is to use, Fatima is chosen to try it out first.  With all the excitement over new technology, life for the village is about to get easier.  No more hauling the water with camels and filling the baobab trees to store the water in for the dry season.

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Easier for everyone except Fatima’s grandmother.  She refuses to abandon the methods of the past so easily, and independently begins to prepare her tree, her great-grandmother’s gourd.  Fatima tries to talk her out of it, and the other villagers mock her refusal to accept technology.

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When Fatima hears the neighbor louder than the call to prayer calling her grandmother a fool and laughing at her, Fatima boldly and defiantly joins her grandmother in preparing the tree for when the rains come.

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The two dig a circle, a necklace, around the old tree to catch the water in the hard red clay, when the rains come, it catches the water, and when it stops, the two move the water to the inside of the tree with buckets. All the while, the villagers shake their heads at the two hard at work.

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When, in the middle of the dry season, the pump breaks and it will be days before it can be repaired, the chief, Ibrahim, declares they must resort back to the old ways and Fatima and her grandma offer to share their water to hold everyone over.  “Maybe it’s wise to mix old with the new,” Grandma poignantly notes.  The following year the village works together to prepare the trees, just in case the pump breaks.

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There is a glossary of Arabic Words at the beginning of the book and an Author’s note about the “Thirst Triangle” and the use of the baobabs or tabaldi trees used to store water.

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There is nothing overtly religious in this culturally rich story.  The women cover their head, they say “inshaAllah,” the call to prayer is mentioned and they have Islamic names: Fatima, Ibrahim, Musa, Ahmed, Ali, Osman etc..

The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan

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The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan

 

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This 36 page picture book tells a beautifully presented story that incorporates events from the author’s real life that convey a story of loving your culture, finding similarities and giving people a second chance.  Ideal for students between 2nd and 4th grade, younger children will enjoy having the story read to them, and older kids will benefit from the message as well.

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Kanzi is about to start her first day of 3rd grade in a new school.  It doesn’t specify if she has just come from Egypt, but being she seems to speak English well, knows that she’d rather have peanut butter and jelly instead of a kofta sandwich and mentions that she got a quilt when she visited her grandmother, in Egypt, she possibly is just starting a new school, not her first in America, but it is considered an immigrant story, so I’m not certain. E403D261-438B-4263-A2FB-C3F8693C9D3E

When she arrives in class and introduces herself she bravely says that she is Egyptian-American, but on the way to school she turns down the Arabic music in the car, so the reader sees that she is a little nervous about being seen as “different.”  When her hijab wearing mom brings her forgotten kofta sandwich and calls Kanzi ‘Habibti,’ classmate Molly teases her that she is being called a hobbit.

A crying Kanzi tells her teacher and Mrs. Haugen reassures her that “being bilingual is beautiful.”  That night Kanzi asks her mom to send her a turkey sandwich for lunch the next day, and before beds she writes a poem as she snuggles in her beloved quilt.

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At school Molly apologizes to her and says that it just sounded funny.  Kanzi tells Molly it is because she doesn’t speak Arabic and that her mom says that “learning different languages makes a person smarter and kinder.”  Molly dismisses the comment and smugly walks off.

Mrs. Haugen sees Kanzi’s poem about her quilt from her grandma in Egypt and asks her to bring her quilt to school. The kids love it, and Friday Kanzi’s mom shows up to help with a special project: an Arabic quilt with the kids names.

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Molly is not enthusiastic and Mrs. Haugen writes English words that come from Arabic on the board: coffee, lemon, sugar, algebra.  Telling the kids that “we can speak non-English languages and still be American.”

Kanzi and her mom write the kids names down and the children copy them.  The teacher cuts them out and makes a quilt to hang in the hall.  On Monday when everyone sees the quilt, they love the beautiful letters and colors.  Even Molly sincerely apologizes and asks Kanzi to write her mom’s name in Arabic as a gift.  The two hug and seemingly will become friends.

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Across the hall another quilt is hung with names in Japanese, as another student and teacher were inspired by Kanzi and her quilt.  The last page of the story is a letter Kanzi has written to her parents telling them how grateful she is that she has two languages and that she will speak them without guilt.

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The story is beautifully told and exquisitely illustrated on well-sized 9.5 x 10.5 pages in a hardback binding.  The mom wears hijab and it mentions it, but there is nothing religious about the text.  It is a universal story of coming to be proud of your roots and inviting those around you to learn and grow.  There is a Glossary of Arabic Words at the end and a bit about the author and illustrator.

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My kids favorite page by far was reading the names written in Arabic and they all enjoyed the story (ages 13, 10, 9, 4).  I actually had an issue when Molly apologized the first time, feeling that Kanzi’s response was a bit pretentious to what seemed like an 8 year old being told to go say she was sorry, but my older three unanimously and fervently disagreed with me, saying that she was obviously insincere and Kanzi knew it.  I’d love to hear from other readers if they felt like Molly was sufficient in saying sorry and admitting that it sounded funny and that Kanzi was arrogant in saying that people that know two languages are smarter and kinder, or if Molly was being rude and racist and Kanzi was sticking up for herself.

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Irregardless, the book is well done, enjoyable, and will get repeated reads by a large range of readers.  My children keep pulling it off the book shelf, and for that I need to thank Gayatri Sethi (@desibookaunty) who generously sent me the book the same day I checked it out from the public library.  Her generosity once again is a gift that I hope to pay forward in the future.  This book also highlights how amazing teachers can be and often are in facilitating inclusion, understanding, and respect.

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All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

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All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

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The power of own voice books is that while you may not agree with everything presented, you appreciate that it is being presented.  This 417 page high school young adult book is authentic and relatable and regardless of if you agree with the characters’ approaches, decisions, and understanding, you see and learn something about fictional characters that feels so real that you hopefully will find yourself in “real” life being a bit more understanding, kind, and accepting.

SYNOPSIS:

Allie is 16 and with her red hair and fair skin, she can pass for an all-American teen.  The only child of a college history professor and child development psychologist her family moves around a lot, but her dad’s extended family congregates in Dallas, and that is the anchor of family and love that warms the book.  Allie’s father Muhammad aka Mo is Circassian and his family speaks Arabic, including Allie’s grandma, Teta, who doesn’t speak any English.  Allie’s mom is a convert, but neither practice religion, and while Allie’s mom appreciates it, it is an incredibly hands off topic for Mo.  And Allie, well, she doesn’t speak Circassian or Arabic and knows nothing of Islam, and reinvents herself in each new school and city she finds her self in.

With Islamaphobia on the rise and Allie using her white privilege to neutralize a situation on an airplane, the reader sees as soon as they start the book, that Allie has a lot of skills to read people and understand how to handle complex situations, but that she hasn’t yet found her self.  As someone who can blend in and transform, the book is her journey to understand her heritage, her beliefs, what she wants in life and move toward finding her voice.  Much like Randa Abdel Fattah’s books which often turn the narrative from a Muslim girl rebelling against her faith and parents, this book has a young protagonist rebelling and turning to her faith.  The book seems to stem from a auto biographical place and the journey of learning about yourself, accepting yourself, and growing is universal.

Desperate to learn about Islam, Allie starts reading the Quran and hanging out with Muslims. While she knows Islam is not a monolith as she has family who cover, some that don’t, some that pray, some that don’t, some that fast, parents who drink, she still feels on the outside when she begins meeting with some Muslim girls at their weekly Quran study group.  As she gets to know the girls, she realizes how truly different Islam is for all of them, and how their experiences shape their views as well.  There is a convert, a black Muslim, a lesbian, some girls that cover, some that can’t read Arabic, some that find praying behind men misogynistic, some that feel unmosqued, they listen to music and read horoscopes, and Allie has a boyfriend.

Allie’s boyfriend, Wells, isn’t just incredibly cute and sweet, and accepting as he learns about Allie’s faith and her journey to understand it, but he is also the son of a cable shock jock toting that refugees should be stopped, and Muslims banned, yeah it is complicated.  As Allie learns more about who she is, she finds her self lying to everyone, and as she finds the courage to speak her truth, she must accept the consequences it has on those around her that she cares about.  Interwoven is a beautiful story line about her and her Teta’s relationship that is heartfelt and genuine and emotionally taxing when tragedy strikes.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this book exists, and that it is written for Muslims and non Muslims alike. I think non Muslims will see that there are all types of Muslims, and we should be reminded that everyone has their own tests and is on their own path.  Paradoxically I love that it isn’t preachy, but desperately wish there was more emotional connection to Allah swt and RasulAllah, because honestly its a gaping void that makes some of the story fall flat for me.  I get that Islam is different for everyone, but while the book pushes so much that Allie wants to know about it to connect and fit in with her family, I feel like there isn’t much “spirituality” to her approach which kind of makes someone accepting religion seem lacking.  Her approach to prayer and fasting is almost robotic, and yes she says she likes it, but there isn’t any emotional resonance in her perhaps having an internal dialogue with God, or crying out to Him when her grandmother is in the hospital, instead it is read this passage from the Quran, or say this prescribed supplication, which makes her conundrum about her boyfriend, seem arbitrary.  Allie’s non believing, non practicing parents seem to have a softer spot for God, as Allie’s mom says something to the effect of it is hard to stop believing once you start, and Allie’s mom asserting multiple times that while she doesn’t practice she converted for herself, no one else.

I also kind of struggle with the attempt of getting every type of Muslim in the book to show that there isn’t a good Muslim bad Muslim dichotomy to the larger audience, but as a result seems to make the point that Islam can be changed to fit today’s world and that line makes me a bit nervous.  It is fiction, it is quite possibly the author’s own experience,  but I felt like the part of continued growth and working to follow the tenants of Islam got left out.  We all have our tests, and we all sin, but to just say ok, this is me and this is my Islam and stop there, halts the journey and character’s arc rather abruptly.

I love that the book really does a good job of laying out that there are problems, misogyny, racism, stereotypes, everywhere, not just Islam or religion, but in societal structures too, it is really shown across platforms and very seamlessly.  I like that a fair amount of side characters are fleshed out, and compassion extended even when opinions differ.  There is a lot of acceptance consistently shown from the characters and those that don’t show it are called out on it as well.

I wanted more on Allie’s dad though, to know what exactly his religious complexity entailed, I felt like I missed something, maybe I did, but just to say his relationship with religion is complicated or complex, left me wondering and wanting for details.

As it seems with so many of these YA books with female Muslim protagonists, the non Muslim boyfriends are absolutely amazing with their understanding, and patience (think A Very Large Expanse of Sea, The Lines We Cross, The Acquaintance), truly fictionalized high school boys, high five.

FLAGS:

There is Islamaphobia, kissing, drinking, death, racism, sexism, LGBTQ characters and discussions.  There is lying and talk of sex.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is a bit advanced for middle school, the concepts and the acceptance of those concepts might not be conducive to Islamic School book clubs of high school level either.  That isn’t too say that kids can’t handle it or shouldn’t read it, but I think when presented from a school, it is assumed that you are endorsing an interpretation or practice of Islam, and this book might push that for some.

There aren’t a lot of author interviews or teaching guides, online, but if you do choice to read and discuss, you will be fine, there are a lot of layers, a lot to celebrate, and a lot to relate to in Allie’s story.

 

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

I Love Ramadan by Taymaa Salhah

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I Love Ramadan by Taymaa Salhah

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There is nothing wrong with this dual language book, but there it isn’t anything to get excited about based on the story alone, either.  If you are looking for a basic book with both English and Arabic telling what a little boy does in Ramadan, not elaborating on any reasons why he does them, then this book will adequately suffice.

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The book is just linear facts, I wouldn’t even say that it is information driven, as there isn’t really even a story, it is just a few simple sentences on each of the 20 pages of a boy telling in first person what he is doing.   “I finish my meal before athan alfajr and fast until sunset” it says on one page.   “When I hear athan almaghreb, I recite dua and break my fast with my family” it reads two pages later.  It does not define athan or almaghreb nor does it specify the dua.

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The book is on the dry side, but I would image the simplicity in the Arabic, might be what would appeal to parents looking for their kids to read and understand both languages independently.  I don’t speak Arabic so I’m unable to comment on the grammar complexities or smoothness.

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The illustrations are sufficient, again nothing super exciting or noticeably off about them.  The book is short, hardbound (8.5 x 8.5) and honestly, rather unremarkable or memorable, unfortunately.

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R is for Ramadan by Greg Paprocki

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R is for Ramadan by Greg Paprocki

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This book is fabulously fun, but incredibly puzzling.  The book without a glossary is presumably meant for Muslim children, with words like U is for Umrah and T is for Tasbeeh, and N is for Night of Power.  Which is interesting, because it seems to be written by a non Muslim, who writes and illustrates a lot of various alphabet books, and published by a mainstream company.  I’m sure this adorable book will appeal  to many non Muslims but after reading it, I’m fairly certain they will be 80% clueless as to what most of the letters are about.   Maybe they would be able to make a guess based on the pictures, but with the pronunciation for Arabic words being given underneath, it sure makes for an odd juxtaposition in a toddler board book.

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Additionally, if you are Muslim reading the book and can describe the Arabic to your 3-5 year old, you will possibly have to explain some of the “big” English words too.  H is for Hospitality, G is for Generous, O is for Obligation.

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Thrown in are also some completely silly, random letter prompts.  W is for Watermelon and Y is for Yay.  So, I probably shouldn’t like this book, but it is an absolute delight to look at and read through if you can account for all the aforementioned things.

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The illustrations are engaging and detailed and oh so happy and fun.  The book feels good in your hands reading it with a little one snuggled up beside you at 8.5 x 6.5 and 32 thick pages long. 

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I guess I can’t offer a finalized opinion on the book, just know what it includes (or doesn’t include) before you buy.  I was able to check it out at my public library, and online it is just under $10, so hopefully people won’t be disappointed with the purchase, if nothing else for the pictures alone.  But maybe don’t get excited to send it off to non Muslim friends and family this Ramadan, as it might not offer much in terms of understanding what the blessed month is all about.

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Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret by Melati Lum

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

 

The Jinni on the Roof: A Ramadan Story by Natasha Rafi illustrated by Abdul Malik Channa

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The Jinni on the Roof: A Ramadan Story by Natasha Rafi illustrated by Abdul Malik Channa

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This 37 page culturally Pakistani Ramadan story is super sweet and fun.  There is so much I feel like my critical self should not like about the story, but by about page 15 each time I read it, I find my self full on smiling and thoroughly enjoying little Raza’s antics and his endearing grandma’s method for dealing with him.

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Raza is too young to fast, but with a house full of relatives gathered for Ramadan, Raza awakens to the sound of his uncle snoring before the siren to signal the start of fasting and the azan calling the worshippers to pray echo through Lahore.  Before he can go back to sleep, however, he hears the cook heading up the stairs to wake up grandma and then the smell of the food hits him and he wants a paratha more than anything.

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Raza embarks on a mission that involves him sneaking up to the roof, pretending to be a jinni and scaring Amina the cook through the chimney to convince her to send up food and a blanket.  

Scared out of her wits, Amina gets the grandma, culturally wards off evil, and delivers the goods to the jinni on the roof.  But the joke is on Raza who is out-witted by his grandma and gets the punishment of washing dishes for the rest of Ramadan, and learning that fasting a whole day will take a lot of will power, if he couldn’t even wait a few hours to get his beloved parathas.

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The book informs the reader that the following year Raza is able to successfully fast, that he is rewarded with gifts and that all is well and forgiven.  There is a glossary, information about Ramadan and a recipe at the end of the story as well.

I love that the plan just happens, it isn’t premeditated or considered, so it takes the reader along for the ride as it is unfolding.  It isn’t a deep story, but there is room for discussion as to whether Raza was naughty, or just caught up in the moment.

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The book is illustrated well and with big 8.5 x 11 pages, the book is engaging for first and second grade readers and listeners, as there is a lot of text on the pages.  The book takes a bit to find its stride as the author tries to use Urdu words, show their Arabic counterparts and then describe them in English. 

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There is a lot of cultural stage setting with everyone in grandmas house, the traditions of the family, of Ramadan, etc.  I think Desi familiar kids will get the most out of the book, but theoretically Muslim kids and non Muslims too could learn and enjoy it too.  I wish jinn and jinni were explained just a bit in the text, not just in the glossary, along with why an 8 year old wouldn’t be fasting or be required to do so. 

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My own kids, aged 8, 9, and 12, struggled on the first two pages, but when I told them to keep reading they zoomed through the rest smiling and ended saying it was good while giggling and shaking their heads.  We are Pakistani American and I think they enjoyed seeing familiar words and phrases in the book and sympathizing with Raza as well, and his sneaky plan that almost nearly worked.

 

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

“Why daughters?”

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

 

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

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

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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