Tag Archives: bullying

A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

Clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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This YA Fiction book by a Muslim author filled with many Muslim characters has a lot going for it, and while I didn’t love it, and felt that it was trying to do too much in 304 pages, I think most early high school readers will enjoy the cyber hacking plot, the islamaphobia and white supremacy themes that keep the book fast paced, relatable and timely.  The main character is a Muslim and has a Muslim boyfriend and all family members are fine with it, she also gets a tattoo with her mother’s permission and breaks the law, but usually with worthy motives.

SYNOPSIS:

Salma Bakkioui is the high school aged daughter of a North African father and convert mother.  They go to the mosque a few times a year, but don’t really practice, it is more heritage than actual intentional praying five times a day, yet somehow ayats from the Quran and hadith do float in and out of the story.  It is Ramadan, and the Muslims in the book are fasting except for Salma, who suffers from EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) a connective tissue disorder, her best friend Mariam, who lived next door has just moved away because her father’s chiropractic business was failing due to racism and Islamaphobia.  Salma tried to use her hacker skills to send him more business, but ultimately they moved to the UAE.  Amir, the supportive boyfriend, oud player, and fellow Edward Norton fan is steady and good and constant.  As are her partying friend Vanessa, her physical therapist and her daughter, unfortunately, things are about to get really crazy, really fast.

When Salma and Amir go over to meet the new neighbors that have moved in to Mariam’s old house the blaring TV broadcasts a terrorist bombing nearby in DC.  The neighbors seem nice, but something is off about them, and Salma can’t quite figure it out.  From the dad and son’s matching number tattoos, the mom’s nervous behavior, and snippets of overheard conversations, it becomes apparent that something infact fishy is going on.  Salma and her younger siblings start getting bullied by classmates, and teachers and administrators turn a blind eye, cops interrogate Salma at school, and illegal snooping on the dark web reveal that the neighbors aren’t as innocent as they claim. As more and more is uncovered about the neighbors, Salma learns that she better have a plan to get out, as she is about to be framed for a lot of destruction as the new face of Islamic extremism.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Salma is relevant and relatable, and while I know a lot about her family and friends, and illness, for some reason I don’t feel invested in her, and I am totally willing to conceded that that is on me, and others would really identify with her, but for some reason as much as I wanted to connect with her, I didn’t.  The supporting cast is fairly fleshed out, I’m not entirely sure why Dora and Boots are highlighted so much and I didn’t feel a tug on the emotional heartstrings of Mariam leaving, of Amir leaving, of Salma possibly saying good-bye.  I felt like even Salma and Amir being a couple and being connected through Edward Norton and Fight Club was a bit forced.  I didn’t feel it was organic or natural, it was almost like the author was trying to make a point of Muslim youth having relationships, and finding imams that were ok with tattoos. Rather than it being a plot point it seemed like it was trying to voice the author’s perspective whether it fit smoothly into the storyline or not.

I do like the tech and and the parallels between extremism whether Islamic or Christian, foreign or domestic, that drove the action of the book.  The unraveling of pieces and connections seemed a bit rushed, with unnecessary tangents affecting the pacing overall of the book, but at least there were answers to help it all make sense at the end, and make the story feel complete.

Having never written a book, I don’t know if some of the hiccups are first novel related, but I really hope the author keeps writing and keeps changing up what the mainstream Muslim protagonist lead consists of.  I love that Salma is smart and level headed and aware of her world, while still growing and owning up to her faults.  It isn’t a coming of age story, but she sets a great precedence for continued growth, loving your family and trusting yourself too. I particularly like the nuances in racism.  Some of the kids at school are jerks and bullies, some staff and teachers are bigoted and prejudice, but the right wing conspiracy groups are actively working, and their level of hatred and intelligence to mask it is great to see in a YA book.

FLAGS:

Relationships, kissing, references to marijuana brownies being consumed, violence, cursing, lying, illegal activity.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I can’t use this book as a book club selection since the two main characters are making out in the first chapter, but the book really is more than a relationship story and I would be ok with my young teen reading it.  The illegal hacking is more problematic then helpful in the end, and the language, and other deviant behaviors exhibited aren’t done for shock value alone, I think a discussion after the book would be great: privacy, hate, conspiracy, faith, religion, friendships, etc.

 

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

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Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

bunchesA book about 5th grade friendships told from the perspective of four different girls in a variety of styles: instant messages, chatroom conversations, video scripts, and traditional text.  The author seems to have a checklist of diverse characters and afflictions that all must make an appearance in the 335 page story.  It is written on an AR 4.4, but with one of the main characters having two moms, details of a suicide mentioned, talk of pole dancing, male anatomy joked about, thongs, crushes, and mental illness, four girls coming together to form friendships and take down a bully, might raise more questions for young readers than they are ready to handle.  Yasaman the Muslim girl in the group, also borders on perpetuating more stereotypes than she breaks, and while I definitely don’t think this book is a good fit for 4th and 5th graders, I don’t really recommend it for readers of any age, there are just better books out there.

SYNOPSIS:

Asian American Katie-Rose doesn’t have friends, unless you count her neighbor Max, but she doesn’t.  She dreams of having blond haired Camilla as a best friend, but the Camilla she went to Pioneer camp with is not the Milla at school who hangs out with Modessa (aka Medussa) and Quin, and is popular.  Katie-Rose also dreams about being a cinematographer or director, she isn’t sure yet, but she loves to imagine scenes and scripts and how things ideally should play out, even when in reality they never quite seem to do so.

Milla, isn’t sure if she wants to stay friends with Modessa and Quin, they aren’t nice and she has a lot more fun with Katie-Rose, but somehow she always ends up going back to the popular crowd.  She also has a lot of anxiety and needs various totems with her at all time to feel secure.  When her little plastic turtle goes missing, she struggles to stay composed, and her and her turtle will end up changing a lot at Rivendell Elementary.

Violet, is the new girl at school and she is not liking her life at home or at school.  Her mom is in a mental hospital and she misses her desperately, her dad brings home fast food every night for dinner and life just isn’t the same since she moved to California.  Immediately able to tell who the popular kids are at school, she hasn’t decided which group of friends is the best fit for her, but when she stumbles on Tally the turtle, and doesn’t immediately return it to Milla, she has to understand what that says about her, and figure out if she is strong enough to make things right.

Yasaman is the quiet computer wiz, she is also Turkish-American, Muslim, and a hijabi.  She designs a platform where kids who are too young to join Facebook can chat, stream videos and send cupcakes.  The only problem is, she has no friends to get to join.  When Katie-Rose and her strike up a friendship, the first seeds of the four flower named girls are planted, but it will take all four of them to put Modessa in her place, rescue Tally, and deal with stereotypes, emotions, and family along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that a Muslim, muhajaba is included in the quartet, and that her religion, her scarf, her culture, and her belief in Allah, actually are sprinkled in.  I don’t love how in the book’s efforts to include such diversity, that it also seems to fall for a lot of the stereotypes that it on the surface seems to be dispelling.  Katie-Rose asks her if she even knows what YouTube is before being made aware of how computer savvy she is.  All this is to subtly show the assumption that Muslims are not aware of technology and whatnot, and set the record straight, but also regularly thrown in are side comments from Yasaman that her father would never let her wear something, or she wouldn’t be allowed to do that because of her dad, definitely reinforcing a male dominated, authoritarian, out-of-touch patriarchal view.  Even her mother, an artist, is shown to demand a lot of Yasaman and be incredibly strict.  A lot of things aren’t spelled out, they are just dropped in and assumed that the reader get’s it.  But only Yasaman’s parents are portrayed this way.  Milla’s two mom’s are caring, Violet and her dad seem close, and Katie-Rose’s parents are rarely highlighted.  So, I felt like it was noticeable, and not in a positive way.

I’m still completely confused as why pole dancing and male anatomy made appearances in the book.  And the pole dancing reference appeared not once, but twice when Yasaman is talking to an older cousin who is talking about a friend who’s aunt is a pole dancer, and then later when Katie-Rose’s babysitter also mentions the same friend.  They also discuss people as being slutty and boy crazy and skanky.  The male anatomy isn’t spelled out it is hidden with a girl with major orthodontia reading a Wikapedia page on the greek satyrs, discussing their physical pleasures and talents.

There is also a lot of mental health issues that I’m glad are present, but I’m not sure if they are handled seriously enough.  I’m glad they are addressed, because awareness is a good thing, but discussing how someone swallowed pills to commit suicide and even though she changed her mind still died, and not giving any context seems to make the concept come across as a bit trivial to me in its presentation.  Same goes for Camilla’s anxiety and Violet’s mom being in a mental hospital.  These girls have some major stuff going on that their preoccupation with a snotty group of girls, and the obsession of mud being consumed in an ice cream shake, seems a bit off.

Overall, the girls seem incredible perceptive and articulate in their self reflection and understanding of social personas, that I found their banter completely disjointed.  I don’t think the author’s voice is consistent, and the heavy stuff is too much coming from 5th graders in my opinion.

FLAGS:

Stereotypes, and discrimination against Yasaman and her younger sister Nigar.  Possible triggers with talk of suicide.  Milla has two moms, it is never labeled or made an issue, she just refers to them as Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce. Talk of boy private parts and erections, crushes, pole dancing, words such as skanky, and slutty and dingleberry (poop hanging on) used.  There is lying and bullying and retaliation and poetic justice.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a book club or even have it in the classroom.  I think it gets a bit crass unnecessarily and the cute flowery cover and inside flap, makes it all the more surprising.  You might expect some potty humor in other books, but knowing it is there allows the reader to make a decision to read it or not, I would imagine most Muslim parents would see four diverse girls on the cover, one wearing hijab, get excited and hand the book to their 3rd or 4th or 5th grade daughter and have no idea what the book also includes in passing, with no relevance to the story lines highlighted on the inside flaps and back of the book.

Piece by Afshan Malik

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Piece by Afshan Malik

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This 168 page young adult book from Daybreak Press focuses on a small Muslim family in Texas, that has their own stresses and interpersonal relationships, but are thrown in to a whirlwind when the father of the family returns home from a medical mission to Syria and finds himself in the psych ward broken and troubled.  The effects each of the character’s struggles have on them as well as those they care about, makes for a haunting yet relatable read for fourteen year olds and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The Jamal family is made up of Hannah and her older high school aged sister Noreen and their physician parents Dahlia and Adam.  Hannah runs track and is more introverted in handling friends and her father’s life altering condition.  Noreen on the other hand is ultra organized and rational in her approach to life, much more like her OB mother.  To cope with the stress of her father’s return she commits herself to more clubs at school and staring at her phone.

Hannah doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and when the track team understands that Hannah’s dad is dead and Hannah doesn’t correct them until later, her comfortable acquaintances turn on her and she will have to learn to stand up for herself and use her voice in the course of the book.  Noreen’s character arc is a bit more dramatic as her involvement in yearbook club brings new people in to her life, mainly a boy, who might not be as a genuine in his goals as she is, and thus their climax results in a trip to the police station.  Dahlia has a close friend, and Adam has a few as well, but the story really stays pretty streamline in exploring the relationships of the family and how little things and big things affect them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book takes on a serious issue like PTSD and is framed in such reality.  The scene where the dad blurs his past memories with the current real happenings, is done very well.  It conveys how fractured his brain is while showing the stress his situation lends to the mood of the home is powerful. There is also a very real situation of attempted physical and sexual assault that occurs when Noreen finds herself in a position with a male classmate who attempts to take advantage of her.  The book holds back in details, and she is able to defend herself, keeping the book clean, while still implying what his intent was, and how fortunate she is to get away.

More superficially, but also more relatable is the girls bickering and fighting and pushing each other’s buttons, and the mom trying to help, but is alas is frequently at a loss at what to do with them.  The situations the girls face at school are probable and relatable that I think a lot of middle school and high school readers will see themselves trying to balance extra curricular activities, friends, finding a quite place to pray and keeping their hijabs coordinating.  The family is Muslim and they dress the part, talk the talk, and pray together regularly.  Islam is very present, but not preachy, it is just what the characters believe and what they use to shape their view of many of the tests they are facing.

There are a few hiccups that are worth noting, but don’t overly deter for my appreciation of the story.  I struggled with the writing style in the first few chapters.  It took a bit to feel a connection to the characters and get what was going on sorted out.  It is written in 3rd person omniscient (I believe, it’s been a while) with each chapter more or less focusing on one of the four main characters.  As a result a handful of times the narrative gets awkward in explaining what one of the characters is doing or thinking, because the focus is on someone else, or the timeline overlaps a bit.  It doesn’t happen an awful lot, but the book is under 200 pages, so it is annoying that it happens at all, let alone more than once.

Story wise the characters seem oddly isolated.  The book tells us how small the town is, and shows us how everyone knows the parents regularly, the girls seem to be pretty lonely.  There isn’t any warmth from the schools or neighbors in helping them deal with their dad coming home so wounded.  In a town they have lived in for so long, this seems off to me.  Also if the town is so small, and the family so religious, there is an imam who visits once, you’d think there would be more of an Islamic community presence for the mom and girls to find support from.

FLAGS:

There is violence in the remembering of what happened in Syria.  There is some Islamaphobic talk as Hannah endures some verbal bullying and the attempted physical and sexual assault on Noreen.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this as a possible middle school book club choice.   It tackless some big things, and uses Islamic boundaries to talk about mental illness and sexual violence which is a huge plus when addressing our youth.  Noreen isn’t in a relationship or even overtly infatuated with the guy who puts her in a compromising situation.  But even if she was doing something “wrong” what he did is not ok, and the fact that the authorities believe her, and she plans to discuss it with her mom, and she is not further victimized by speaking out, is something our kids need to see and understand.

There are discussion questions at the end and I think males and females will benefit from reading and discussing this book.  Unfortunately, and possibly the only other disappointment in the book is the price.  Nearly twenty bucks for a short YA paperback book makes it hard to buy classroom sets for such activities, and I’m sure will even keep the avid reader debating whether they should purchase it or not.

 

Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red by Rosemary McCarney illustrated by Yvonne Cathcart

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Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red by Rosemary McCarney illustrated by Yvonne Cathcart

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This book is nearly the mirror of Nanni’s Hijab, just told from a different perspective and swapping out the heroine.  Written in 2015 this book definitely came out first, and while the 24 page book is targeted for  4-8 year olds, if your teaching point of view, this book and Nanni’s hijab could be used for older kids to make for a great lesson.  

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I love that this book is written by a non Muslim and the main character is non Muslim.  The binding the pictures, the size, all make this a wonderful addition to any library in showing that differences can and should be celebrated.

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Rosie loves wearing her red cape, and she loves looking at things from all angles and perspectives.  One day at school she arrives at school to see kids making fun of the new girl, Fadimata and her hijab.  

Unable to stop the kids she reaches out to Fadimata, and transforms her cape into a hijab in solidarity.  After the teacher also talks to the class about being kind, the next day is a surprise for Rosie, when many of the girls are wearing scarves and hijabs in a variety of manners to show acceptance and celebrate differences.

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This is the first book in a Rosie the Red Series, and I kinda really love that in the second book, Being Me, about volunteering at a food pantry and helping a friend, Fadimata is minor character.  She is now one of Rosie’s best friends and is both mentioned by name and illustrated.  This is awesome to me, because while books about Muslims are great, having us be in books as supporting characters solving other problems, learning lessons, and going on adventures, makes us more mainstream and inshaAllah part of the accepted landscape.

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*Side note, if you look at this book on Amazon, and read the comments you can see how truly upset many people are by this book calling it “indoctrination” and criticizing it for not encouraging assimilation.  If you read the book and like it, and like the tone and message it promotes, maybe write a review, and make the world a little warmer.

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Often these days, minority groups are feeling more and more marginalized in a blaring world that is increasingly divisive and polarized.  So to see a book in my child’s Scholastic Magazine with a muhajaba on the cover, and not a main character, in a book about bullying, where she isn’t the instigator or recipient, made my minority heart swell with hope.  This 238 page graphic novel (AR 2.8) is a quick, quick read for middle schoolers, and one with a good message, that is more self empowering than preachy.  A companion book to Awkward (which I haven’t read, but hope to soon), the author takes us into Middle School through the eyes of Jensen, a kid who is struggling to find his place and escapes into his daydreams to conquer every day stresses.

 

SYNOPSIS:

Jensen wants to be a NASA scientist, but he isn’t good at math.  He loves to draw, but the Art Club is consumed with an upcoming event he knows nothing about, he is harassed by two bullies every chance they get, and occasionally he is asked by the newspaper staff to do menial work.  Yet, somehow despite having no friends, and a constant barrage of things going against him, he doesn’t see himself as a victim or as the recipient of bullying.  Rather, he falls into regular day dreams where he is the main character in a video game and all these battles have to be overcome to reach the end.  The surrounding characters have their own little stories, and you get to know a bit about them through Jensen, but the author doesn’t let any of them be painted with a singular stroke.  You see the athletes, being kind and sticking up for kids getting picked on, one being a math wiz.  The journalism staff of Jenny, Akila, and Felipe, run the school, but have their own stresses and internal struggles.  The circle of activity comes to a head when a student is expelled over the dress code, and all the various groups in Jensen’s world have to come together to make change.  In the process he realizes that he is being bullied, and that something needs to be done.  He also realizes nobody has it all together and he has a part to do to help others as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

First I like it because there are Muslims in the book, that are just characters in the book.  They don’t represent all Muslims, they aren’t “different” or “other.”  Akila wants to be a journalist and she is smart, and she is kind, but she fights with her best friend, the bossy Jenny, and it is Jensen that has to help them see their errors.  I also like that the P.E. teacher, Mrs. Rashad, is a hijab wearing Muslim, that beats the social studies teacher in push-ups. I mean what an amazing way to break a hundred stereotypes, by not mentioning them, and just showing them as normal. A muslim woman, working, being physical fabulous, and being modest, ya we need more of this. There is no mention of their religion, their clothing, their hijabs, nothing.

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I also like that the students in some cases didn’t realize that they were bullying.  I think this happens a lot, where maybe someone won’t let you sit by them because they are saving a seat for someone else, but the second or third time it happens, the recipient feels alienated, where the aggressor may not even be aware.  The book explores lots of ways of bullying, but because it is filtered through the character, it leaves a lot of room for discussion about how people treat us, and how we treat others, and where a lot of pain can come from the misinterpretation on both ends.

There is a lot of diversity in the book, boys, girls, skin tones, body sizes, physical abilities, handicaps, intelligence, etc. that come up to varying degrees, but do at least offer the readers real ways to see themselves in the pages.  The book has a very tidy, happily ever after feel, which is ok I think for middle school. The book has a specific audience. Elementary will just find everyone mean, high schoolers will find it childish, but as social relationships get more challenging in middle school, I think this demographic will often have to find the courage to be brave to get through unscathed.

FLAGS:

None. One character has a boyfriend, maybe. But it is clean with pretty much everything, it even says for All Ages ont he back.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a book club book.  I don’t think it would need any prompting or guides. My 6th grade daughter said it was “ok” yet has brought it up at least ten times since she read it, and has come and sat by me to watch me read it.  I think, she has had some similar issues and to be able to talk about them through the characters, has been liberating for her, and furthered my conviction that fiction has power.

The Author’s website: https://svetlania.com/

 

 

Nusaiba and the 5th Grade Bullies by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Zul Lee

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As someone who deals a lot with reading and comprehension, I really misread the description of this book and assumed erroneously that it was a chapter book targeting 5th graders.  Oops, alhumdulillah, my confusion and slight disappointment didn’t last long as I got swept up in Nusaiba’s spunky imagination and endearing personality.  The message of the book is powerful.  Not only does Nusaiba have to deal with bullies, but she has to wrangle with accepting herself, even if that means being different.

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Nusaiba is almost to school when she overhears some 5th grade boys making fun of her mom and what she is wearing.  Nusaiba’s mom is wearing a hijab, and the story is set up to imply that that is what they find “weird.”  This morning encounter bothers Nusaiba all day, and while she doesn’t talk to her teacher about it when asked, she does spill the beans to her best friend Emily.  The next day Nusaiba distances herself from her mom and asks to walk to the school gate alone.  The bullies don’t say anything, but Nusaiba feels guilty about leaving her mom like that. Later that day when Mom picks Nusaiba and Emily up from soccer they swing by a local hijab shop for some clothes shopping.  I don’t know why, but I found the premise for taking the girls clothes shopping a little forced.  It seemed too words of a setup, and I couldn’t help but wonder why Emily would be dragged along.  As mom tries on skirts for work, the girls in their boredom get swept up in using the scarves as costumes and transforming themselves from queens, to underwater divers, to fisherwomen, to mountain climbers, to fantastic cleaners ready to clean up all the scarves on the display.  Her mom lets her pick one to buy, and she decides to wear it to school the next day.  It is noteworthy that Emily doesn’t try on any of the scarves.  She is an amazingly supportive friend, and even in make-believe is right there with Nusaiba, but she doesn’t put one on, and I kind of want to know the author’s reasoning or purpose as to why.  So the next day at school, Nusaiba asks her mom to again walk with her, and when the 5th grade boys call her mom an “odd-ball.” Nusaiba finds her courage to confront them.  Nusaiba and the reader discover the boys are making fun of Nusaiba’s mom, but it isn’t for her hijab.  Nusaiba and her mom set the boys straight and giggle in the process, as Nusaiba realizes she can be anything she dreams.

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The book is 44 pages and probably about a second grade mid year reading level.  The pictures are big and bold and beautiful making it a great option for story time to ages 4 and up.  The pictures do an amazing job complementing the story and going back through to look at them after the “twist” at the end was even more delightful.  The illustrator draws you into Nusaiba’s world and you really do cheer her on when she stands up for herself. The book easily lends itself to discussion, and there is also a question guide at the end, incase you get stumped. It reads more like a school assignment, but it could obviously be re-worded to engage a child at bedtime or in a read-a-loud environment.  The font is a nice size, however, I found it distracting. On some pages it is white on others black, on some it has a shadow and on others it does not.  I’m certain most people would not notice, but for some reason it was jarring to me.  Alhumdulillah, alhumdulillah, if that is the only negative in a book, I think everyone who reads it will be glad to have a copy of their own to read again and again and again and again and….

 

Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra

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Thankfully the adult in me won out as I resolved to read a book whose cover and title did nothing to tempt me.  I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, but seriously a kid running on the American flag with major Muslim characters, written by a non-Muslim about September 11th? I was hesitant and nervous to know what messages would be spread in the 304 pages to children on an AR 4.0 grade level.  But alas, I was  nervous for nothing.  The book is wonderful, and I want to read it again with my 5th grade daughter so we can discuss it.  It is hard to believe 9/11 is now taught as history, but as someone who lived through the tragedy as a college student, this book hit on so many of the defining moments of that horrific morning and the days that followed.  The book isn’t overly political, or judgemental, or preachy, and in retrospect, most people on September 11th and the days immediately following, weren’t either.  We were confused, scared, and unsure, a tone the book reflects and magically presents on an elementary level without getting  overwhelming with the enormity of it all .   The book was published two years ago, and I’m very tempted to contact the author or editor and urge them to reconsider a cover and title change because truly the story deserves it.

SYNOPSIS:

Jake and Sam have been friends their whole lives.  They bonded in the sandbox with their little green army men and have been planning battles and missions together ever since.  Told from Jake’s perspective the reader sees what life is like for these two 8th grade boys.  They push each other in cross-country, their parent’s come together for Jake’s 13th birthday, neighborhood boys swing by for pizza and front yard football games.  But there are stresses too: siblings, busy parents, not getting named captain of the team, friends that play dirty.  Then September 11th happens and worlds are shattered.  The boys learn that one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was from their town, and although Sam has only been to the Mosque a few times with his grandparents, and his parents are culturally American not Saudi, the school bully Bobby is determined to get rid of Sam.  Jake makes it his mission to defend his friend with his fists and his words, but when his parents urge him to stay away from Sam, the stakes are raised.  President Bush says, you are either with us or against us.  But what is Jake to do?  Secrets about Sam’s dad come out and the FBI takes him away for questioning.  The town is gripped in fear and 8th grade boys on both side are determined to change the world, to be the drop of water creating ripples of change.  As Sam and Jake pull away from each other, Sam starts going to the mosque to learn about what he is being accused of being and begins to identify as Muslim.  Jake’s frustration with his parents continues to grow as does his impatience with Sam, but when Jake overhears Bobby plotting something serious, Jake will have to decide where he stands and how strong he is.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the author crafts a story that is complex, but not overwhelming.  She sticks to focusing on getting inside Jake’s head and succeeds.  He is frustrated and confused and determined, but alas he is only a kid and can’t foresee his actions or articulate them the way an adult can.  He is likeable and fallible and she doesn’t belittle him, thus making his plight tangible and relatable.  I was a little disheartened when about a quarter of the way in it was made clear that Sam knows nothing of Islam or his culture, but it works so well in the story to show that he was pushed to go learn about his roots, since others were treating him as if he represented Arabs and Muslims.  This is so real, I knew so many non practicing Muslims that suddenly started coming to the mosque or reading books on Islam because they realized they should know where they come from.  Many resumed a secular life over time, but many also became more practicing, a phenomenon, the US media and politicians have seemingly failed to acknowledge as Islamaphobia is rampant and so many people pick up a Quran to see how a religion painted so negatively, can simultaneously be one of the fastest growing religions in the world.  The author doesn’t even touch on what Muslim’s believe, but she does include that they abhor violence and disavow the attacks.  The Sheikh is presented as nice enough and there is no negative judgement or tone from the author, aside from the xenophobic characters.

The title of the book comes from a song that Jake’s grandma likes and she often tells Jake, “just a drop of water.” Jake takes it to mean that something is insignificant, but she has him listen to the song and explains that it makes ripples that grow.  The imagery is great, and the line becomes powerful, I guess I just felt it wasn’t devolved or woven in enough to make a strong, clear statement to be the title of the book.  I’m sure many would disagree with me, but as I stated earlier the title along with the cover photo didn’t pull me in.  The book appeals to both girls and boys as both are presented very positively.  There are a handful of side stories that add depth to the characters and narrative that I haven’t touched on, but they are all charming in their own way.  There is a Boo Radley type character, there is a whole tangent about Jake’s grandfather and the details surrounding his grandfather’s death, and the overall messages about friendship, and doing what’s right that make the book relevant to a wide spectrum of readers of all ages.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean considering it is about an act of terror followed by bigotry.  There is some hate speech and violence, and some lying and cheating, and mention of getting pantsed.  But, overall clean and no concerns for 4th grade and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There are a lot of resources online and it doesn’t surprise me.  This book would do great as a novel study, as it is historical fiction.  It would also work well as a book club selection for any elementary or middle schoolers, not just those in an Islamic school.

Core Connections: achievethecore.org/file/1602

 

King For A Day by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Christiane Krome

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Its time for Basant, the Lahore, Pakistan kite flying festival, and Malik and his siblings are ready.  Ready to launch Falcon into the sky, ready to set other kites free, and ready to put the bully next door in his place.  While some kids have huge kites, and some have many, Malik has just Falcon, a speedy little kite that Malik prays can get the job done.

King for a day inside

Once again Rukhsana Khan does a remarkable job of taking a universal theme, adding some culture, and finding artists to empower minorities without making it an issue, all in a 32 page children’s book.  Written on an AR level of third grade ninth month, readers see characters handling a bully by beating him “on the court” so to speak, a character having confidence in his abilities, yet still asking Allah swt for help, and a boy in a wheel chair celebrating a fun spring time festival with his family.

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The illustrations are rich with texture and angles, which contrasts the font and text presentation.  Little kids probably won’t be tempted to pick this book up, but as a read-a-loud first and second graders will enjoy the story and the kite flying action.  Third and fourth graders will enjoy reading the book independently, and find themselves cheering for Malik, appreciating his kindness, and wanting to pick up a kite and head out themselves.  The author includes a note at the back which provides more information about Basant and how it is celebrated.  Although it takes place in Pakistan and is a festival not celebrated in America, there isn’t a “foreign” feeling to the book, as kids can relate to bullies, wanting to be the best and the satisfaction of succeeding and feeling like a “king for a day.”

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Ten Things I hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah

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I’ve read and reviewed a few Randa Abdel-Fattah books and read and reviewed even more cheesy West-meets-East-and-my-parents-are-so-strict-so-I-will-rebel books, that with such a flimsy title referencing a movie which references Shakespeare, I didn’t expect much.  With such minimal standards, the book didn’t disappoint and the surprising warmth of many of the characters actually left a pleasant smile on my face.  I’ve had this book on my to-read list since it came out in 2006, and for some reason it is a bit hard to find now a days.  There seems to be a few covers out there, and I don’t know if they differ, but the one pictured above is the one I read, and it is 297 pages and written on an AR 4.8 level, but probably would appeal and be more content appropriate as a light read to 9th through 12 graders.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamilah Towfeek leads a double life.  At home she is a proud Lebanese Australian that goes to Madrassa, plays the darbuka drums in an Arab band, and identifies as Muslim.  She has recently dyed her hair blond and wears contacts to hide her Arab heritage and doesn’t allow her sister who wears hijab to pick her up from school where she is known as an all Australian girl, Jamie.  Her mother has passed away and her father is pretty strict about who she goes out with and her curfew.  They even have a contract posted on the fridge. Despite this, Jamilah and her dad seem to have an ok relationship and it is definitely something they both are fighting to improve.  Jamilah’s older brother is a bit of a rebel and goes out with girls to bars and the book definitely discusses the double standard.  He however, isn’t painted as “bad” or as presented as an outcast, he just does things differently, and must wage his own path to build a relationship with their father.  At school Jamilah has acquaintances more than friends, as she is constantly pushing people away.  The stage is set that she has to keep lying to her friends, but it is more in her head than in reality.  She doesn’t open up to her friends, nor they to her.  As a result the Jamie at school amongst her peers are presented as incredibly shallow, which is partially intentional I think, and partially, under developed.  She makes up excuses to not attend parties and it isn’t a big deal until the most popular guy at school starts to take an interest in her.  In frustration she starts opening up to someone who has started e-mailing her.  Her user name is Ten_Things_I_Hate_About_Me and the dialogues between her and Rage_Against_The_Machine reveal a lot about how she sees the world.  There is some tension with immigrants in Australian and Jamilah starts to realize that her silence is consent to the bigotry and bullying around her, and that there is no way to stay neutral.  There really aren’t any major plot twists, you can see a mile away who the mystery email boy is, and that he likes her, you can see that her friend Amy will come through, and that she will have to reconcile her two identities.  There are a few minor ones with her dad getting remarried and thankfully with her opting to not “hookup” with anyone in the end despite a climatic kiss in order to stay honest with her father.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m obviously older than the target audience and the characters, as is the author, but compared to a lot of the other books of similar content, I feel like this book stays the most grounded.  There are some pop cultural references, and obviously the kids are naive, but there are some universal truths and experiences brushed upon that I think a lot of high schoolers can relate to, not just immigrant Muslim ones.  The idea of having to be two different people at home and at school, family relationships, cultural identity, being true to yourself, dealing with the loss of a parent, taking a stand when you see something wrong, etc.. All that being said there is a huge gaping plot hole.  How her friends that have known her from elementary school when her mom brought Arab food suddenly don’t know she is Arab, or don’t pick up on her ethnic last name is beyond even a 5th grader to over look.  If you can tune out your internal sense of logic for the premise, the book is much more enjoyable, but it really is a stumbling point.

I wish that Jamilah was a bit religious.  She identifies as Muslim and clearly her sister is, but pretty much all of her actions and gripes come more from her culture than from her faith.  Many of her father’s friends drink, as they are either not religious, or Christian, which is fine, but part of me really wanted her to live up to the picture on the cover of the book and discover her religious stance alongside her owning up to her cultural one.  I love that at it’s core it is a book about a girl’s relationship with her dad and being true to her self, but somewhere her religion fizzled out of the narrative and I wish it hadn’t.  I Would have loved that she turned down the prospect of a boyfriend because it wasn’t Islamically permissible, in addition to her wanting to be honest with her father.  But, alas the author didn’t pursue that.  She did however, do a good job of not making it a judgement of culture or faith, just as attributes of her characters.

FLAGS:

There are racial slurs, drinking, dating, and kissing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Surprisingly I wouldn’t completely disregard this book for a Book Club selection.  It would be for older kids, ideally upper High School.  But I think especially in an Islamic School setting the discussion would be so much better than the book.  Many send their children to Islamic Schools to reduce the need for dual identities and I would love to see how the kids view the effectiveness of it.  I would also enjoy hearing students’ perspectives on going to formal dances with siblings or a group of girls, the double standards of boys in girls, and dealing with Uncle’s and Aunty’s constant opinions.

Author’s Website