Tag Archives: Bullies

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Sasquatch in the Paint by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

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My tween boys read the first two books in the Streetball Crew Series and recommended I read book one because there is a Muslim character and I’m a fan of the basketball all-star author who draws on his own life and experiences growing up in the story.  It is 265 pages, an AR 4.5, and while the story is decent, and I enjoyed the majority of it, I didn’t love it.  I was not thrilled at the choppiness of the story telling and ultimately the way Islam was presented.  Obviously there are plenty of Muslims that will occasionally eat pork and who get violent as they get more religious, but I don’t think it is the norm and definitely isn’t a message most middle grade Muslim readers would identify with, nor want non Muslims assuming about Muslims as a whole.  The book randomly has a sudden Muslim chapter toward the end and attributes some threats on the main character as being from Muslims becoming more devout.  The main character is not Muslim, this is a side character and her family, and you don’t find out til the book is nearly over that she is Muslim. I worry how younger readers will be affected by the negativity toward Islam, as it really isn’t explored or even part of the story.  There is enough going on in 8th grade Theo’s life with out the insertion of religion.  I was glad I read it so that I could discuss it with my boys, but I would encourage the book for more middle school aged kids, if at all.  The book involves basketball as a subplot, but has larger life lessons and developments away from the game.  Do be aware one of the young characters smokes cigarettes, there is female objectification talk among the male characters, racism is discussed, there is some physical assault, and beer, R-rated movies, tattoos, branding, and dating are mentioned in this coming of age book.

SYNOPSIS:

Theo is 13, in 8th grade, and over the summer has grown six inches.  He identifies as a science nerd and a geek and is on the Academic Olympic team at his school.  He now, however, finds himself on the school basketball team, and has no idea what he is doing.  Towering over everyone, he is assumed to be good, but his lanky body and new found size brings him ridicule and teasing. His life long best friend, a fellow geek, can’t figure out why he won’t just quit the basketball team, but Theo is oddly enough,  enjoying the concept of team, and suddenly being recognized in the halls.  When he joins a pickup game to improve his skills however, he gets in a fight with another kid, get’s threatened by some guys on motorcycles, and teased by a weird girl named Rain.

Outside of school it is just Theo and his police officer dad. Theo’s mom has recently passed away and the two are creating a new normal, that is until Theo finds out his father is giving online dating a try.   After the first abysmal basketball game, Theo is forced to go visit his cousin in LA who is a tiny bit older than him, but much rougher.  He constantly teases Theo and puts him down.  He claims to be a great musician, but no one has ever heard his music, and suddenly on this visit, he seems a bit more insightful, which has Theo confused. 

With Theo being pulled in multiple directions, he risks being kicked off the basketball team, moved down to alternate on the Brain Game Team, killed on Friday by the motorcycle gang and to top it all off, a CD of his cousins music has been stolen from Theo’s backpack and band has gone viral with one of the songs.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is a coming of age book for boys.  I feel like there are a lot of girl books out there, but this one really does get into a young males head.  It isn’t always pretty, and while women/girls are at times objectified in his thoughts and while chatting with his friends, I think he realizes it and doesn’t treat or talk to women in a negative way.  I like that race is discussed as he is one of 14 black kids in his school of 600.  There are times when he or his family are treated different for their skin color, but his mom never allowed him to accept it to be a reason for not being the best ‘you’ and she would make them put money in a jar any time they blamed race for something bad happening, a tradition they continue even though she has passed.  I like the pop cultural references, a lot of books overdo it, this book makes it pretty smooth and relatable.

*Spoiler Warning* So Rain, turns out to be Matar, Arabic for Rain, she has convinced her aunt and uncle to let her change schools while her parents are in Iraq (her mom is Iraqi, her father a Quaker from Pennsylvania) and call her by her American name and let her wear American clothes (no hijab).  The motorcycle villains, are her cousins, who were trying to find her and were threatening  Theo to try and find out where she was.  Their frustration with her behavior and dress is what prompted them to hit Rain which made her run.  Rain and Theo discuss why after September 11, she was tired of being accused of being a terrorist and so she wanted a fresh start.  Her uncle and aunt are noted as being nice, but clearly the devout Muslim cousins are what will be remembered.  She also discusses sometimes eating pork, that hijab is modesty in the Quran, not a requirement to cover your hair, and that she is Muslim, but doesn’t know if she will be when she is older.

The book didn’t find its flow for me until nearly half way through, maybe about page 100 or so.  It seemed to struggle to get all the characters introduced, flesh them out, and then decide what the book should be about.  Once it got through all that it flowed better, but still left me confused as to why there was a spontaneous breakfast party, why a lawyer would so quickly get involved in the music case, why Theo was withdrawing from his friends, why Rain wouldn’t just talk to Theo, how Rain had friends she could stay with after just starting at the school, how Rain could switch schools without her parents there. Really the Rain character in general seemed really forced.

FLAGS:

I listed most of the potential concerns in the opening paragraph so that anyone, like me that would think, ‘oh fabulous a middle grade sports book by a Muslim author’ would be aware that there are a few potentially concerning elements.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club selection, it is a little all over the place, my 11 year old disagrees and thinks it would be a great book club read, so I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Video interviews with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about the book:

https://video.disney.com/watch/sasquatch-in-the-paint-with-kareem-abdul-jabbar-4e8f920a40dec5fcc9be6a5d

 

Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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There is such a shortage of male Muslim protagonist middle grades books that I have been waiting quite impatiently to get my hands on this one, and alhumdulillah, it didn’t disappoint.  I’m not sure if it qualifies as OWN voice, being it has a female author, but the authenticity in the little religious and cultural details would suggest that it should.  The 320 page book is meant for ages 8-12, but the weight of Aziz’s father’s illness, the plot pivoting around three classic books (Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and the clever reflections of Ahmed along with his quick wit and thoughtful choices, might make the book’s sweet spot be 5th to 7th grade readers (as well as us moms who are suckers for elementary literary references, teachers who are heroes, and kids realizing their potential).  The book has a bully, but is clean and wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Ahmed is leaving the only home he has known in Hawaii to move to Minnesota.  His dad has Cirrhosis, a result from a rare genotype of hepatitis C, and Minnesota is one of the top options for treatment.  The family is nervous to move in general, but more so to move to Minnesota.  It is where Ahmed’s dad Bilal grew up, and where his dad’s younger brother passed away at age 12. Ahmed’s younger sister, Sara, is perhaps the only one excited for the new adventure.

The family arrives and is greeted by Bilal’s old friends, and when school starts he realizes one of his dad’s best friends, is his English teacher, and somewhat of a legend at the school in getting kids to try and beat her at an end of the year quiz show like competition.  The school is also where Bilal and his brother Muhammed went to school and a picture of Muhammed hangs right above Ahmed’s locker.  The biggest stress at school is Jack. Jack who lives a few houses over, Jack who rides the same bus, Jack who is in Ahmed’s English group, and Jack who has a lot of followers at school.  Jack is a bully.  One who makes Ahmed’s life miserable at every turn, not just socially, but even the police.

Ahmed is a laid back kid that doesn’t like to read, but loves words, who wants to blend in yet is the only brown kid in a sea of white, who enjoys attending  Jummah salat, but ultimately hates going because of the shoe chaos afterwards.  Ahmed has no intention to read the books assigned in class, but some how the three classic books assigned do get read, and  Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tie together and weave in and out of Ahmed’s epic year.

I don’t want to spoil much, but Ahmed’s dad is in the hospital a lot, there is a lot of plotting to survive being bullied, as well as getting revenge on the bully in Ahmed’s own way without involving parents.  Ahmed slowly grows to love Minnesota, his small circle of friends, and his school while learning about his uncle and the kind of person he wants to be as he grows up.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Ahmed is Muslim and while his mom prays five times a day and his dad is an occasional prayer it doesn’t specify how often Ahmed prays or how he feels about religion, other than going for Jummah.  At first Ahmed thinks he is being bullied by Jack because he is brown, his mom is an immigrant from India, his father the son of immigrants from India, but learns that Jack picks on anyone new.  I like that for as much as Ahmed hates stereotypes and assumptions, he acknowledges that he makes them too.  I like that Ahmed doesn’t like to read, but is smart, and eventually comes around to reading.  He is tech smart and very mature in how he views the world and himself in it, cares for his sister and parents, handles things on his own, and builds others up.  Ahmed is a good kid, not in that he doesn’t make errors or is a teacher’s pet, but in that he has a really good heart and a good head, and I think would make anyone better for knowing him.  I love that the book is smart too.  If you have read the three books mentioned you will love the discussions and questions about the books, if you haven’t read them, you will be tempted to after you finish this book.  I wish there was a tad more religion, there is a sprinkling of culture, primarily the mom’s tragic cooking, but a bit more religion in a book that has illness and death would seem natural to me.  The storytelling is superb, I was so curious where the father’s parents were, but alas it did answer that, I would have liked it sooner, but I was glad it made it in none-the-less.  I would have liked a bit more from the parents about why they wanted Ahmed at his dad’s old school, or how they were comfortable constantly leaving the two kids home alone at night, but Ahmed like I said is pretty mature.  I particularly love the brother sister relationship.  Ahmed is a good older brother and it reminded me in some ways of my older brother, which made my heart warm, good siblings are a blessing.

There are multiple climaxes, but while I expected the dad’s health to be a big one and Jack getting what was due to be a close second along with the outcome of the literary contest, I was not prepared for the level of Jack’s torture to climb to, and was pleasantly surprised by the unresolved thread of Jack and Ahmed’s future relationship.  Things in life don’t magically resolve and I love when middle grade novels keep that in mind.

FLAGS:

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this in a heartbeat for a middle school book club selection.  Even if the book is more middle grades, I think the students will enjoy it and be surprised by the emotional investment the dad character extracts.  I think they will also benefit from the literary references, relatable characters, and the overall great storytelling.

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.

Spell it Like S-A-M-A-R by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Saliha Caliskan

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Spell it Like S-A-M-A-R by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Saliha Caliskan

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This 36 page book for kindergarten and up shows the role perseverance, confidence, and believing in yourself can play in conquering bullies, carving out a space for yourself and finding success.  While the book is a little predictable on the surface, older kids will understand that by winning the spelling bee, Samar didn’t just benefit by standing up to the bully, but in proving to herself what she is capable of and ultimately being more confident of her place in a new country.  The book is presented on large 8.5 by 11 full color glossy pages and features discussion questions at the end.

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Samar is in 3rd grade after recently moving to America from Syria, where she was the best student in her class.  ESL wasn’t difficult, but mainstream class is proving to be a challenge, mostly because of Jenna, the class bully.

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Jenna, snickers when it is Samar’s turn to spell words in front of the class, she teased her about her jump rope songs not being in English, and she makes fun of her for her accent.  With the help of a kind friend, Angela, the two girls decide the school spelling bee will be the best chance to prove how smart Samar is, by winning.

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The first step Samar must do is convince her teacher, Ms. Bryan to help her study.  To  show her commitment she offers to give up her recess to study.  The teacher agrees, but on the way home Jenna teases her saying she’ll never win when she can’t even speak English properly.  Deflated, when Samar gets home, she doesn’t study the flashcards and opts to watch cartoons instead.

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When later in the week her teacher quizzes her, Samar admits she didn’t study.  Ms. Bryan encourages her by sharing her own story of coming to America and having to learn English.  When Samar gets home she sees her mother, a former dentist in Syria, studying for the exams to be a dentist in America. This is the spark she needs and she studies hard, everywhere, and with anyone who will help.

On the day of the bee, Samar spells word after words correctly and after saying bismillah before spelling the final word, wins the competition and beats Jenna. The audience cheers and the next day Samar and Angela are jumping rope and Samar is singing in Arabic.

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I love that Samar and her mom wear hijab while out, but not at home, that they speaks Arabic, and Samar says bismillah.   Samar’s mom is clearly highly educated and determined and mom and dad are supportive.  I love that Samar’s drive, however, comes from her own determination, no one forces her or guilts her, it is her leading the way and understanding what her mother is going through and her teacher has gone through, and using that as inspiration.  I love that at the end she doesn’t rub it in Jenna’s face that she won, and the symbolism of Jenna just disappearing from the story makes this clear as Samar steps in to her own.  I truly love that for every Jenna in the wold there is also an Angela.  Be kind, be supportive, be a good friend!

I got this book from http://www.Ruqayasbookshelf.com and it can also be found at my favorite book store http://www.crescentmoonstore.com as well.  Happy Reading!

My Friend the Alien by Zanib Mian illustrated by Sernur Isik

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My Friend the Alien by Zanib Mian illustrated by Sernur Isik

This adorable 96 page book is a great early reader for second graders and up. The play on the concept of being an “alien” is filled with a lot of heart, humor, and thought provoking concepts on what it means to be human, have feelings, and be a good friend. There is nothing religious in this book by a Muslim author meant for all children, but with the name Jibreel and him being a refugee (“alien”) many Muslim children might assume and relate to his plight a little stronger.

SYNOPSIS:

Maxx the alien has come to Earth to understand human feelings. His trip was ok and landing successful, but he hasn’t heard from home and the Filandoo Sperk is broken. Told in diary form, the fart jokes start rights away as he lands in a cow pasture. He heads to a city disguised as a human and discovers chocolate. He also discovers Google and uses it to help him understand human emotions.

As he gets on public transportation he finds that humans smell different, and some are not so nice. At the park he finds how humans talk about baby dogs, he forgets the name for those, very odd, and love very gross. On Day 4 he makes a friend, Jibreel, who is looking at books and magazines about Aliens. He knows he isn’t supposed to talk to humans, but since no one from home is talking to him, he figures it might be ok. When the boys head outside they see two grown men fighting about a parking space and turning red, they punch each other and don’t stop until an old lady whacks them with her purse. Emotions are flying around everywhere and Maxx hopes Jibreel can help him understand it all.

Maxx and Jibreel head to the library the next day for the “All Things Alien Exhibit” and boy do we have it all wrong. As Maxx tries to correct the exhibit and explain the truth about aliens, Jibreel just finds him funnier and funnier, not believing that Maxx is from outer space.

The two boys become good friends and when bullies from Jibreel school start giving Jibreel a hard time, Maxx learns about hugs, and helping a friend out. Maxx starts having feelings. When the boys get called aliens and Maxx makes them both go invisible, Jibreel realizes Maxx is an alien from another planet and Maxx learns that Jibreel is a refugee. He also learns that Jibreel’s misses his mom who wasn’t able to escape with Jibreel and his brother, and is still back in their country.

Maxx makes the bullies look foolish to help Jibreel, but Jibreel is not happy and Maxx has to learn about being kind even when you really want to be mean. Now that Maxx is having all sorts of feelings, he too confides in Jibreel that he is worried about not hearing from home and Jibreel offers to help him fix the Filandoo Sperk.

The only problem is the spaceship after the initial tour, goes missing. And so are the bullies. I won’t completely spoil the ending, but there is a surprise and happy ending for everyone.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Oh I love how the story weaves feelings and emotions in with bullies and friendship in such a smart way. The book is silly with the fart humor and assumptions about aliens, but it really is clever. The vocabulary doesn’t talk down to the reader with words such as abomination and the observations of someone new to Earth offer the reader a chance to add their own silly persepective to the fictional set up. American children might need a bit of help with the British jokes, like the name of the chocolate bars, but it really is such a universal story that will stick with adults and kids alike.

The end has some questions and activities to do with the book, and with the exception of Jibreel’s name being spelled wrong on one these last pages, they do a good job of helping make sure kids grasp the story.

FLAGS:

There are fart jokes, and mention and illustrations of kissing on the cheek as being gross. Bullying, being mean, and two men fighting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is great for 2nd and third graders to read and discuss. I don’t do a book club for that age, but I did have my 2nd grade nephew read it to start a conversation about feelings and emotions with him and it worked great. We talked about how things make us feel, understanding when we see other people acting a certain way how they might be feeling. We discussed how even if we think someone deserves something, our own integrity needs to come first. We talked about being a good friend and how being away from our mom and family would make us feel. From top to bottom this little chapter book, packs a lot of discussion options under its silly superficial layer.

You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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This OWN story, upper middle grades book, is heavy on the pop culture, relatable on the Islamic family presentation and honest in its portrayal of Islamaphobia, yet somehow the tidiness in which everything wrapped up seemed too forced and a bit flat.  At 293 pages, including a three page glossary, the book is a quick read meant mainly for girls.  It involves robotics, academic achievement, and invention, while also discussing crushes, a character coming out to his family and friends, and mention of girls not praying at certain times of the month.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla lives in Australia and goes to the Islamic School of Brisbane. Her Sudanese family: older brother, younger twin brothers, and parents, her Doctor mom and medical machine tech dad, are active Muslims and proud of their culture.  They assimilate to Australian norms in varying degrees, but with all the kids at ISB, Layla doesn’t feel all that different in her school and social life.  Unfortunately she wants more, she wants to be an adventurer, and when she meets Adam over the break and learns about the various opportunities he has it his school, Layla decides she wants to prove herself on a larger stage.  Going in to “shut down” mode Layla has tunnel vision to ace the scholarship and entrance exam and go to a new school.

She gets in to Mary Maxmillion Grammar School and when she goes to meet the board they let her know that the decision to accept a girl like her was not unanimous.  Layla is an immigrant, she is black, she wears hijab, she is loud and proud, and apparently very smart, but as one trustee asks, is she brave?  On the first day of school she arrives late to first period, insults the teacher repeatedly and also makes friends with a group of slightly diverse boys.  At the end of the day however, Peter, a boy who had insulted her earlier, reinforces his disapproval of her being allowed at their school and pushes her.  Standing her ground, she verbal attacks and then head butts the boy in front of a large portion of the school at dismissal.  No one offers any help, nor speaks up when she is suspended for a week, her scholarship and admission put on probation, no one even asks for her side of the story, Peter, is let off completely free, as he is also the son of the Board Chairman.

Layla decides to prove she belongs at the school she is going to win a prestigious robotics competition and since everyone already is on a team, she decides to go for it solo.  The only problem, is she doesn’t know what to invent.  When she returns to school, her friend that she is crushing hard on is acting weird, and she gets caught up in a lie of sorts that serves as both the idea and silliness turned cleverness of the book.  While choking on gummy worms, she says she is working on an edible actuator for her robot, and somehow has to make that come to fruition.

The rest of the book is Layla making a lot of silly errors of judgement: missing classes being in SD mode in the workshop, forgetting to file the paperwork and registration to actually compete in the competition, and leads up to the resolution between her and Peter, learning her crush is gay, and deciding to be herself and proud of it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually like the majority of the book, I really like how Islam is presented and lived.  They pray and say salam and cover, and recite tasbeeha to reflect, and quote hadith very naturally, even how others attack them, and the anger that Layla’s brother Ozzie feels at his inability to get a part time job reads and feels very authentic.  I also like how one of the teacher’s own experience as being a descendant of the forgotten generation and being a first nations ethnicity is woven in.  I felt the side character being gay was added and forced in as an after thought and I don’t know why, as it didn’t show Layla to be a particularly good friend.  She handled his coming out well, but when he was miserable she was wrapped up in her own stuff and didn’t reach out very well, even though he ended up being the spark for her invention.  Her friend at ISB is also an under developed character, that while I get is used to show another side of Layla, in many ways also showed her to be a rather poor friend.

I found the pop culture references annoying, not in and of themselves, but in knowing that they will date and make the book irrelevant in a few short years.  There is a lot of repetition of phrases and ideas that a few times when I put the book down I struggled to re-find my place (I know bookmarks, right?) but certain refrains and paragraphs seem so very similar.  I

There is a lot of good information about Sudan and their food and culture and traditions.  There is also a decent amount about Muslims in Australia.  I like that even within her family there are different views on how much to assimilate, and how much to fight back against perceptions, the fact that there is a lot of gray makes non Muslims and non immigrants reading the book hopefully realize how diverse all people are and to not assume anyone is only one way.  I would have liked more about Layla’s mom and being recruited to come to Australia, and how she was perceived at work, by patients and colleagues.  I also would have liked some sort of resolution about Ozzie and his job search.  Really though my biggest complaint is Layla, herself.  What does it even mean to want to be an adventurer? I like that she is fallible and human and in some ways she does grow, but I felt like her being smart and a go-getter is the foundation of the story, but that she didn’t seem to have much common sense seems a bit off.  Yes she is loud and funny and puts in hard work, but the way she talks to teachers, and misses classes and deadlines, and behaves seems like a disconnect from the pages constantly telling me how smart she is.  To me, part of being smart is knowing when to lash out and when to listen, I don’t feel like her growth arc was all that great, in a nut shell, she changed schools and confronted a bully, that is the story, while not a bad story, it could have been so much more.

FLAGS:

There is crushing, violence, a gay character, mention of alcohol at a party Layla didn’t attend, talk of hooking up in passing and some language.  There is lying but it is acknowledged guiltily, and not familiar with Australian slang, regular use of the phrase, Janey Mack, which according to google is a replacement for Jesus Christ.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know why I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection.  It just didn’t strike me as something they would benefit from.  I wouldn’t be opposed to someone picking it up and reading it in my house, but I doubt I’ll recommend it to my daughter and she is the ideal reader: she wears hijab, is in 8th grade at an Islamic school, and loves to read.  The book is really not memorable as good or bad, it just fell flat and I doubt I’ll read it again, luckily it only took two sittings to read, so I don’t feel like it was a waste of time, but seeing as I had to pay cover price and international shipping, I kind of regret rushing to buy it.

Teacher guide: https://www.penguin.com.au/content/resources/TR_YouMustBeLayla.pdf

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Nanni’s Hijab by Khadijah Abdul-Haqq illustrated by Vitchapol Taerattanachai

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Nanni’s Hijab by Khadijah Abdul-Haqq illustrated by Vitchapol Taerattanachai

Nanni's Hijab

MashaAllah, there are so many things to like about this 36 page, brightly illustrated, elementary aged story.  Nanni, the main character, is spunky.  Not only is she strong enough to wear hijab to school, but she also is brave enough to confidently handle a bully on her own.  Surrounded by a supportive teacher, friends, classmates, and her mom, Nanni’s creativity and understanding that Allah swt will help her find a way to handle her predicament results in a happy ending, and many empowering messages.

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The book would work for most children, but I think second grade and up would get the most out of it.  The girl might be young to be wearing hijab, but it seems like she wears it because she wants too.  I like that the illustrations have her and her mom uncovered at home, and that there is a glossary at the back, opening up the book to muslim and non muslim kids alike.

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I also really like the larger messages of acceptance, trying new things, and doing better when you know better.  The supporting cast in the book resonates with muslims who go to schools where they are the minority, but have support and encouragement to practice their faith none-the-less.  Nanni’s teacher remarks that her “hijabs are as regal as a princess’s crown,” and the other students like seeing what color or design she is wearing each day.  Although a children’s book, the author does very clearly explain that the hijab is part of Nanni’s faith, although not mentioned by name, and that it is an act of worship. Nanni wants to handle the problem on her own, and for as bad as she wants to punch Leslie, she knows it isn’t the right thing to do.  As she wrestles with what is the best approach, she puts her trust in Allah, swt, which perhaps is the greatest lesson for us all in the book, alhumdulillah.

Umar and the Bully by Shabana Mir illustrated by Asiya Clarke

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With it being October and Bullying Prevention Month, I thought to review a book that has been on my bookshelf for a long, long time.  It won the Islamic Foundation Story Writing Competition in 1996 and is just as relevant today.  At 44 pages, the story, the layout, and writing style appeal to children on a second or third grade level.

SYNOPSIS:

Umar stumbles across some older kids plotting something covertly in the school yard and some money being exchanged.  He then encounters a younger student upset.  Being a kind person, Umar gets Asad to confide in him what the bullies, Harith and David, are up to, and vows to keep Asad safe.  While all that seems simple enough, the true battle begins within Umar,  as he has to figure out what is he going to do, and how is he going to stop the bullying.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the length and the target audience.  My six-year-old son summed it up perfectly when he finished.  “Woah, that was a good book, I didn’t expect it would give me so much to think about.”  The author follows the bullying strategy of telling an adult, or a teacher, but gives some depth when that teacher doesn’t care or take the time to help.  It also shows a variety of people that you can go to for help and characteristics you should look for when deciding who a good person to talk to would be.  Umar decides to talk to a good friend of his about what is happening to Asad and devise a plan to help.  Mohammad is kind and trustworthy.  He also gets some advice and encouragement to be brave from Mohammad’s older sister and brother.  All this is done within an Islamic context of asking Allah swt for help, of finding inspiration from stories of his namesake Syedina Umar Al-Farooq. It also, as we get in Umar’s head, reveals how he himself is scared of facing the bully.  This is great because it shows that it can be scary to confront someone even if you are not the victim.  Umar feels he shouldn’t be scared because he is a Muslim, which I really don’t understand, but he turns to Allah swt asking for bravery to do what is right and to be strong.  And beautifully, after it undoubtedly raps up in a happily ever after children’s story way, he does remember to thank Allah (swt) for being there for him and gives credit to Allah for giving him strength.  The book shows the responsibility we have to do what is right even if it isn’t being done directly to us.  It also shows one or two children can make a difference.  I really like that the point of view is from Umar, not the one doing the bullying or receiving it.  Allowing the reader to see how empathetic he is to another person is a wonderful lesson in and of itself.

The book also has mostly Muslim characters, but a few names sprinkled through out as victims and perpetrators could suggest non muslims as well. This is great in showing that bullies are everywhere and that perhaps being in an Islamic school or in a majority Muslim school does not mean bullying doesn’t exist.  Similarly it is good to see that bullying isn’t just non Muslims disliking Muslims, as often time books about bullying for Muslims would suggest.  I think the book could be for Muslims and non Muslims alike, but with the religious reliance, it is geared more for Muslim readers.

FLAGS:

The book is clean, it mentions that the bullies are violent, and possibly smoking.  The children being bullied obviously are lying but it is clear that it is done out of fear, not because they are deceitful by nature.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There aren’t any reading guides or activities to accompany the book that I could find online, but I think the natural discussion that would follow make it a great option to read as a book club book, or in small groups.  There are a lot of very easy places to ask children what they would do, if Umar made a good decision, and how they would feel as the story unfolds.