Tag Archives: canada

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

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hana khanTechnically this book is adult fiction because the protagonist is 24 years old, but the halal rom-com is so sweet and considering the YA options that exist in the same genre, I think high school juniors and senior would do better to dive in to this light, enjoyable, albeit predictable, read over so many of the other options out there.  I read the 368 page book in two days, I was hooked and impressed with the strength of all the female characters, the step away from all the stereotypical tropes and the smooth writing style.  The book is for everyone and while packaged as a light read, there are some themes of immigration, family, choice, and OWN voice realizations that are presented and explored in a thoughtful and impactful manner.

SYNOPSIS:

Hana Khan’s mother owns and operates Three Sisters Biriyani Poutine in Toronto, there are not three sisters, biriyani poutine is not on the menu and business is bad, really bad.  The 15 year old restaurant that Hana named when she was nine is struggling even though it is the only halal option in the close-knit, diverse, golden crescent community.  When news hits that a new upscale halal restaurant is opening a few doors down, Hana chooses to ignore that the business was struggling and instead blames the new proprietors.  They are wealthy, corporate and insufferable.  Well, the dad is anyway, the son Aydin, he isn’t so easily defined.

Hana balances shifts at the restaurant, her internship at Radio Toronto and her own anonymous brown girl podcast.  Hana, real name Hanaan, comes from a supportive and close family.  Her dad was injured in a serious car accident, her older sister is pregnant, and her cousin from India along with a cousin-aunt have just arrived under suspicious circumstances.

As the new restaurant gets closer to opening, Hana finds herself stooping to all new lows to sabotage their success.  Encouraged by an anonymous podcast listener who she has been chatting with for quite a while, and inspired by her rebel cousin-aunt, Hana is determined to secure a permanent job in radio, save her family restaurant, and destroy the competition.  But, an attack downtown draws attention to growing Islamophobia and forces Aydin and Hana to work together.

In a fictional story where everyone knows everyone both in India and Toronto, crazy family members are endearing and loyal, it is no surprise that the main characters are more connected than they think.  As Hana finds her strength to carry on amidst change, she also figures out what direction to focus her energy, her talents, and voice.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the writing.  I was invested in many of the characters, not just the protagonist, and absolutely cheered as she gave a nod to so many assumptions so that she could move past them: forced marriage, hijab, acceptable professions, inclusion, etc.. The family is all about choice and not getting hung up on stereotypes show the power that OWN voices have in telling stories that resonate with everyone.  The book is full of religion, from waking up for fajr, to listening to the khutbah at jumah, going to the masjid to find peace, and believing in destiny.  It is not a preachy book by any means, but the characters are Muslim inside and out.  The traditional family does not pressure Hana to get married, her sister’s marriage was a love one.  She is often alone with her male cousin or brother in law, or best friend Yusuf.  She knows who she is and her family trusts her.

I love the food, the insight of immigrants and family.  I was particularly moved by her articulation of being told by outsiders what it means to be Muslim in Canada, or an immigrant and then not being listened to when pushed back upon. Her challenging a teacher on what the fourth pillar of Islam is and not being heard, resonated profoundly.

Within the first 100 pages or so the reader figures out who everyone is and how they are connected, save one surprise, but it is like watching a favorite movie, you keep going because it is fun, and enjoyable and the point isn’t to figure it out, but to enjoy the ride.

FLAGS:

There are relationship threads, but nothing more detailed than a hand touch after a funeral.  Her best friend Yusuf marries their best friend Lily an Agnostic, knowing that both families are against it.  There is music and racist talk and vandalism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The high school book club usually tries to include a halal romance novel for the loyal participants that clamor for it in the group and I plan to suggest this one to them.  For as light and straightforward as the book is, there is a lot to discuss when the surface is peeled back.  There would be lot to explore from her podcast, internship experience, and her hate crime experience, that the romance part will be seen as simply a vessel to more profound issues to explore.

A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord illustrated by Shehzil Malik

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A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord illustrated by Shehzil Malik

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This children’s biography of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Pakistan’s world famous squash player, is simplified and suitable for children 2nd grade and up.  At 42 pages with bright illustrations older kids will understand a little bit more about the cultural norms that were being oppressive and the strength and risks Maria took to play a sport she loved and defy the Taliban while disguising herself as a boy. Younger children will probably only get her determination and perseverance, which is impressive in its own right.

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In 1990, Maria was born in the mountains of the Tribal Areas in Pakistan.  Conservative society and strict gender roles amplified by the control of the Taliban in 2001.  Maria’s parents supported rights for their sons and daughters, and allowed Maria to cut her hair, dress like a boy, and play sports.

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Her father called her Ghenghis Khan after the great warrior and when the family moved to the city of Peshawar he even introduced her as his son to people.  As Ghenghis, Maria was always picking fights and encouraged instead to play sports to channel her wildness.

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She fell in love with the game of squash, and when she went to join the Squash Club she had to submit her birth certificate which revealed that she was a girl.  The director let her join the club, as the only girl among 400 boys.  But now her secret was out.

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She was bullied and her family ridiculed, but she kept playing and kept winning.  The President of Pakistan awarded her honors for her outstanding achievements, but that infuriated the Taliban and they threatened her family.

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As a result Maria had to hide, and would practice at night, in secret, and for 3 years she played against the wall in her bedroom.  Appealing to squash clubs around the world for help, she finally heard from Jonathon Power in Canada, willing to help her get away from the Taliban and be able to play.

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She left behind everything she knew at 20 years old to train in Toronto.  She still represented Pakistan in tournaments.  She studied, she prayed, she succeeded.  She now is back in Pakistan establishing health clinics, sports clubs, and schools for girls and boys.

The story is inspirational, and well told, it shows how culture limited her, not religion, and that in a larger city, culture was a little less conservative.  Muslim and non Muslim children will be inspired by her efforts, her willingness to look like a boy and her determination to excel.  Muslim kids will enjoy that it shows her praying, but might be surprised to see her in shorts and tank tops.  The book would be a great conversation starter about women’s rights and how it isn’t just in Pakistan that women struggle to have equal opportunity and respect.  It also might many children’s first exposure to the sport of squash.

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There is an afterward at the end with more information.  A list of additional reading about other inspirational women, a selected bibliography and a highlight timeline of female firsts in sports.

 

Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan illustrated by Anna Bron

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Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan illustrated by Anna Bron

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This 40 page picture book meant for 4-7 year old children is full of diversity, community and love.  The only thing missing, is a recipe for the dish, foul shami, that Salma recruits everyone at the refugee Welcome Center to help her make to cheer up her mom. Possible flag is there is a gay couple featured in the text and illustrations.

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Salma and her mom are refugees from Syria living in Vancouver, and desperately missing Salma’s dad who still has not been able to join them.  When Salma shares her sadness with Nancy at the Welcome Center, she is encouraged to draw her good memories.  And then Salma has the idea to cook a dish from home for her mom. The other kids at the center mention foods they miss, Ayman from Egypt, Riya from India, Evan from Venezuela.   Then the translator, Jad, from Jordan helps her find a recipe online.

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Convincing herself that she can do this, Salma  draws a picture for each of the ingredients since she doesn’t know the names in English.  She then heads to the market with Ayesha from Somalia, an older girl that helps her cross the street, and get the needed groceries.

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Back at the Welcome Center to cook. Malek and Amir, a gay couple from Lebanon help her chop the vegetables and kiss away each others onion tears.  The spices make Salma sneeze, but she can’t find the sumac.

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Granny Donya from Iran has the missing spice and reassures Salma that she can do this.  That is until the olive oil bottle slips and falls and shatters.  With no more money and feeling discouraged, it takes Nancy and everyone else to convince Salma not to give up as the dish is made with love and Mama will love it.

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Everything is set up to surprise Mama with the dish, but once mama comes home and the door bell rings, it is Salma who is surprised with all her friends coming over to bring her olive oil.

Mama laughs and tells Salma her smile is home, and Salma dreams of riding her bike around the Vancouver seawall laughing with her friends and Mama.

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I love the sense of community that it takes to make the dish and that she finds love and support from so many.  I also like her determination to make her mother smile along with her willingness to accept help when she needs it.

I’m assuming the family is Muslim, the mom appears to remove a scarf when she returns home, Ayesha and Granny Donya also wear hijab.

 

 

Secret Recipe Box by Helal Musleh illustrated by Nalan Alaca

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Secret Recipe Box by Helal Musleh illustrated by Nalan Alaca

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The publisher suggests this book for ages 4 and up, but I think it’s a bit long (30 pages) and detailed for that age group, and first grade and up will benefit more from this heartfelt story.

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Maha is excited her Teta is moving from Palestine to live with her, her brother Sami, and parents in Canada.  Maha dreams of being a chef on a famous cooking show, and her Tata and her secret recipes will be a great way to practice.

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Her little brother Sami is always in the way though.  Whether it is wanting to hold a sign Maha has made, or is wanting to cook with her, she is annoyed by him at every turn.

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As Maha listens to Teta’s stories and learns about her life in Palestine, she starts to change in her approach to Sami and realizes that family has to take care of each other.

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After a day of cooking together, Maha, Sami, and Teta have made too much food and decide to go and share it with those in need at the soup kitchen.

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The book addresses kindness, changing, compassion, immigration, taking care of one another, multi generational lessons and love, stories, life lessons, and some highlights of Palestinian culture, food, clothing, and tradition.

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The book is warm and well done, with the exception of a few of the pictures which seem a bit off to me.  Overall, it is a sweet story that presents with a lot of lessons, but doesn’t force them upon the reader.  The character growth is gentle and subtle and will resonate with readers.

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The characters mention Halal food, and the grandma wears hijab even in the house, where the mother is shown wearing it at the airport, but not in the home.  The book would work for Muslim and non Muslim readers.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

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Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

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This is not a YA book.  The back of the book and about 75% of the story could really make it seem ok for mature middle school and early high school readers, but I’m reviewing it as a “public service announcement,” that it really isn’t appropriate for a young adult demographic.  No where does the book claim to be YA, I’ve just seen a lot of people online ask if their 13-16 year old (ish) daughters would like it.  That being said, the 351 pages of halal romantic comedy a’ la Pride and Prejudice inspiration, really is a fun light summer read that I enjoyed and feel young college age girls and up will too.

SYNOPSIS:

Set in Canada, Ayesha is 27 and still sorting out what she wants in life while considering expectation, obligation, and passion.  Born in India, she came to Canada after her father died in secretive circumstances, and with a workaholic mom against marriage, a Nani who once studied to be a police officer, a Nana who quotes Shakespeare at all times, Clara, a best friend, and a flighty beautiful younger richer cousin, this cast of characters cheer her on, gently nudge her, and support her, giving a diverse and nuanced view of what a Muslim family looks like and how they interact.  Then throw in Khalid.  A very black and white character in his views on Islam, and culture and pretty much everything, and you have a storyline with a lot of potential, twists, and interconnections.  

Khalid works with Clara, lives across the street from Ayesha, and has an incredibly controlling mom who has just sent a marriage proposal to Ayesha’s flighty cousin Hafsa.  When a conference at the masjid forces Ayesha and Khalid to work together after meeting earlier, tension and sparks fly, and to top it all off Ayesha is pretending to be Hafsa. 

Khalid has his own team of supporting characters, Amir an alcoholic- womanizing-homeless colleague who for some reason is considered a friend, a sister who was banished to India and forced into an arranged marriage 12 years earlier, an Islamaphobe boss, and his own baggage regarding his father’s sudden death. 

Bring in the Wickham character of Tarek and the cast of characters is complete for all the action to go down at the mosque and give the Aunty Brigade a whole lot of gossip to process and spread.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is fairly predictable in the major story arcs, but there are a lot of twists that keep you hooked, and the author’s writing is smooth and fluid.  Being it is a loose retelling of a classic, I wasn’t expecting much and was pleasantly surprised how well the story would stand alone as an OWN voice piece about growing, maturing, changing and willing to challenge oneself. 

I love that every Muslim and desi character in the book is different and unique and not a cookie cutter of stereotypes and tropes.  Most of the females cover, but they are nuanced in how they do it, what it means, how they carry themselves etc., some shake hands with males some don’t, some are comfortable in bars, some are more reserved, some have never had a boyfriend, some have, and they really show the reader that Islam is a deeply personal conviction and the rules are interpreted and challenged differently for each person.  It also shows different male approaches and the internal struggles of doing what you want to do and what you know you should or shouldn’t do in a very realistic non preachy way.

My favorite relationship by far is that of Ayesha and Clara, I love that Ayesha’s non Muslim friend knows that Khadijah (RA) proposed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and jokes about rishtas and frequently asks “What would Nana do.”  Seriously, as someone of  Paki background, who started covering in high school, who is half American and proud to be Muslim, this is friendship goals!

The book is perfect for the beach, or a day at the pool, it is light and silly and really you just go with the outrageousness of some of the details.  There are a few thought provoking themes, but really it is just fun and sweet.

FLAGS:

I was really impressed how halal the main story romance remained, however a few of the side stories are a little intense for younger readers and don’t really appear until about 2/3rds of the way into the book.  Yes, Clara has a live in boyfriend and there are a few jokes and situations involving  hooking up, virginity and porn, along with some characters smoking and drinking and being around alcohol, but then the climax really puts more mature situations on center stage. 

Khalid’s sister had an abortion resulting from a pre-marriage relationship and thus was sent to India.  Amir shows Khalid a porn website where hijabi and niqabis strip and pose, a website that is discovered Tarek runs and Hafsa is featured on. The website and the pregnancy/abortion really are the crux of the book and it becomes a big portion of the last third of the book.  It isn’t that the content is overly detailed, it just what the concept presents.  It isn’t salacious or pornographic or titillating in presenting the information to the reader, but the mere presence of it in the story would make it inappropriate for a YA book or younger readers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way the book could be taught in an Islamic school book club setting, however, if the teachers wanted to start a book club, this one would be a great candidate.

 

 

 

Badir and the Beaver by Shannon Stewart illustrated by Sabrina Gendron

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Badir and the Beaver by Shannon Stewart illustrated by Sabrina Gendron

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This 92 page early chapter book is a great linear story for 1st through 3rd graders.  The size, font, spacing, illustrations, chapter length, and content make it a fun read that incorporates diversity, environmental action, teamwork, information about beavers and acceptance all through the efforts of young Badir, a recent immigrant from Tunisia during the blessed month of Ramadan.

SYNOPSIS:

Badir is new to Canada and while he misses Tunisia, he is joyful and upbeat as we meet his older brother Anis, young twin siblings and classmates.  Out one night before iftar, he sees what he thinks is a giant rat swimming in a lake, but no one believes him.  When he sees it a second time, a lady at the park explains to him that it is a beaver, not a rat, and pulls out a Canadian coin to show him there is a connection between beavers and Canada.  With new knowledge about the difference between a lake and a pond, a rat and a beaver, Badir is fascinated with how beavers build homes, mate for life, and benefit the environment.  He even likens the beaver eating at sunset to his families own Ramadan schedule.

But all is not well for the beaver, as a petition is being circulated to relocate the rodent and save the trees in the park from his sharp teeth.  With new friends, a supportive teacher and classmates, Badir is determined to prevent the beaver from having to leave his home as Badir and his family had to do.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this book is subtle in highlighting the welcoming of immigrants into a community, about having the main character be Muslim and it being Ramadan, and showing that diverse people can come together for a bigger cause and even become friends.  The main story line is naturally to save the beaver and the trees in the park, so the information and facts about beavers is appreciated and well presented.  I think most everyone of every age will learn something new about the common rodent.  But, by the main character being genuinely like-able and infectious, the reader will also realize that any negative stereotypes about Muslims or immigrants really aren’t a factor.  Badir’s family is really nice, the parents prepare food together, they feed their kids’ friends, and invite them over. The author does a good job at accurately making them seem like any other family.

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There isn’t much stress on Badir being Muslim or what that means outside of it being Ramadan, praying, and going to the mosque as a family at night.  The illustrations show the mom in hijab. The book tells a tiny bit about Tunisia, but not why they left, and definitely makes the foods they eat sound delicious.  Overall, it really does a good job of keeping the book about the beaver and finding a solution.

The book is for both non Muslims and Muslims and seems to be written by a non Muslim, and while set in Ramadan it is definitely not limited to being a “Ramadan story.”  There are small pictures on many pages and a full page picture in each of the 12 chapters.

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FLAGS:

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book should be in classrooms and school libraries.  It really is well written, informative, and fun.  I don’t do a story time for the target audience of this book, but I think it would be a candidate for my “Lunch Bunch” meetings, when I read aloud to 4th and 5th graders once a week while they eat lunch.  Even if it is slightly below a 5th grade level, I think even older kids who pick it up and read it, or listen to it being read, will find it interesting, entertaining, and worth their time.

Publisher’s page: https://www.orcabook.com/Badir-and-the-Beaver-P3992.aspx

 

 

 

 

Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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I have read a fair amount of fictionalized accounts of the war in Syria, the journey of refugees, and their resettling in various countries, but this was the first graphic novel on the subject that I have seen, and I was excited to wait my turn behind my kids to read it.  My 7th and 4th graders read it in about 20 minutes and said they really liked it, knowing that it was a quick read, I wanted to take it in slowly and examine each picture to grasp the full message that the author, a Lebanese journalist, was conveying.  Definitely meant, for ages 5th grade and up because of the content, I appreciated the book more than I loved it.  It seemed rather choppy and the fictionalized parts come across just as a front to convey facts.  The book definitely is a great introduction to the conflict, and the format will appeal to a broad range of individuals.  

SYNOPSIS:

Told from the voice of Amina, a bright young girl who rushes home to show off her latest A grade paper to her family, is met instead by a bomb striking the beautiful peaceful neighborhood.  The images on the first page are destroyed as her younger brother Youssef must be located in the rubble and debris.  Now in Canada, Amina tells the story of their journey from Aleppo.  The bouncing around of time, provides some context to how life became under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, how checkpoints and emergency rule changed everything about Amina’s life.  As war creeps in it isn’t just inconveniences and fear, but also death, as further shown through Amina’s uncle who has joined the rebel army.  The family decides they need to flee to Lebanon and truly believe it will be just for a little while. 

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They rent an apartment for a year, but when they cannot afford rent they relocate to a refugee camp, where they stay for two years.  Amina’s father is determined that Amina stays in school but as work remains scarce and Youssef’s health continues to deteriorate.  Amina is forced to take a break from school to try and find work.  Eventually her father arranges to go by raft to Europe to try and start a new life and bring his family there once he is settled.  The terms of the loan to pay the smugglers is steep and when the raft doesn’t make it too far before tossing its passengers, Amina’s father Walid is forced to return to Lebanon unsuccessful. 

It isn’t until Amina’s family considers, like many other families in the camp, to get her married to keep her safe.  That Amina upon picking up some aid at a UN reception center, spills everything to a worker there, and a week later the UNHCR contacts the family to help move them to Canada.  The readers at this point I would assume are relieved the family will be safe, and are surprised when the family isn’t sure if they want to leave.  Syria is there home, and before the mom will agree to anything, she wants to go back to Syria to see her newborn niece.  Once in Syria, she sees that her home is no more as she remembered it, and agrees to be resettled anywhere.  Through the same flashbacks and flash-forwards in time, we also see that life in Canada is not easy.  The family is welcomed and helped and grateful, but it isn’t yet home, and the ghosts of Syria are still present.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I kind of like how choppy it is upon further reflection.  At first it annoyed me, but as I thought about it more and more, I have decided I like that it isn’t easy and smooth and fleshed out, the tone of the unknown comes through by not over narrating the emotions and circumstances.  I also like that everything that happens to Amina and her family is anchored in reality and the footnotes, references, and facts are all in the Endnotes.  Having said that, I wish their was a little more character development, it reads like a bunch of facts strung together and connected by this fictional family.  There isn’t anything wrong with it, but a little more warmth for the characters would have added a beautiful level and would not have been hard to come by at all.  There are so many stories from this conflict out there, and the reason they resonate with so many isn’t from all the facts and numbers, but often from the individuals that make the numbers real and haunting.  I felt like this book fell short on the human element unfortunately.  The only character I really felt had some heart, was the dad, he was awesome, and his love for his family and determination for his daughter’s education was definitely felt.

The book does drop some acronyms and political alliances to add context but not overwhelm the reader.  It definitely hints that there are a lot of groups vying for power, and control: Assad, Russia, ISIS, US, rebels.

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I love that the flashbacks to pre-war Syria are so relatable.  Kids need to really understand that we are all so much more alike than different.  Not just in our hopes and dreams, but even in our daily lives.  The characters in the book are the same as us, their lives look great,  maybe even better.  They have friends, and families and jobs, and cell phones, they also unfortunately, have war.

There were a few surprises for me, for example that buses between Lebanon and ISIS held Syria took/take people back and forth.  Similarly,  I was surprised to see that the punishment of smuggling cigarettes was being beheaded, but maybe more surprised that the book included it.

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It is reassuring for readers to know that the family survives, but the harrowing journey of seeing body bags, cutting costs to survive, risking it all to trust smugglers with fake life jackets, paint pictures of a journey that will stay with the reader.  The book doesn’t talk down to anyone, if something seems too simplistic, it almost encourages the reader to go research more about it.  

There isn’t any mention of Islam or religion, the females wear hijab, that is the only indication along with their names that they are a Muslim family.

FLAGS:

The violence, is pretty haunting and while the images and text aren’t graphic, the splatter of blood and guns and death are very present.  There is also mention of cigarettes.  While not explicit and possibly over the heads of some readers, the book does show that the loan sharks would be willing to take Amina, “Something nice and sweet…like you,” to help pay off the family’s debts.  A former classmate of Amina also invites the family to her wedding.  At 13 Amina’s family is also considering getting her married as a way to help keep her safe.  

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be better in Social Studies class more than in a Language Arts one. It would be a great supplement to share even, when discussing current events.  Its a quick read, a factual account and a powerful one at that.  

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsZZwxM7YyQ

Publisher’s Synopsis: https://www.fireflybooks.com/index.php/catalogue/product/11566-escape-from-syria

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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