Tag Archives: community

Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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This AR 3.6, 89 page early chapter book features three stories set in Lagos, Nigeria.  The main character and her family are Christian, but many of the neighbors are Muslim, and the third story is set in Ramadan with Easter and Eid falling at the same time.  The sense of community throughout the book, the OWN voice detail and charm make this book silly, warm, and delightful for first through third grade readers.

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SYNOPSIS:

In the first story Tola heads to the market with her Grandmommy.  Not the fancy mall, but the muddy market further away.  Her older brother Dapo is too busy playing soccer to help, her older sister Moji is busy with homework, that leaves little Tola to carry the items on her head with her tough as nails little grandmother.  Everyone says she is too small, but Grandmommy knows she can do it.  As they purchase the items, and neighbors call to have them pick up items for them too, the duo have to take lots of breaks on their way home, but Too Small Tola does it and proves to herself and others that she might be small, but she is strong.

The second story once again focuses on life in Lagos and the one bedroom apartment the family shares.  One morning both the power and the water are out and the jerry bottles need to be filled at the pump.  When some bullies trip Tola and the water spills, an elderly neighbor lady patiently waits for the right time to get her revenge on Tola’s behalf, and when the bully challenges the woman, the entire line stands together.  Tola may be small, but she stood for something and made a difference.

The final story involves the neighbor, Mr. Abdul, the tailor who lives downstairs, coming to measure Tola and her family for their new Easter clothes.  He let Tola measure everyone last year and praises her as the best measurer in Lagos, and Tola is eager to take the measurements this year.  When the tailor breaks his leg, he is worried he will not be able to ride his bicycle to his clients and will not be able to prepare the Eid feast and pay rent.  Tola knows they have been fasting all Ramadan and between her, Grandmommy, and Dapo they come up with a plan to help.  Dapo will peddle the bike and take Tola to measure everyone for their orders.  Tola may be small, but she can save the day for the Abdul family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love little Tola and her sassy grandma.  The book would lend itself so wonderfully to be read aloud as it bursts with personality and dialogue.  I love the sense of community in such a day-to-day life that would seem to stark and hard to most western readers.  Tola’s draws on those around her to find her strength, from her Grandmommy, to her neighbors, they may tease her that she is too little, but they also build her back up and stand with her.  I love the diversity in Tola’s world.  She seems so excited that Eid and Easter will be aligned and that after her services they will be joining the Abdul’s feast, such a great lesson of tolerance and respect without being preachy about tolerance and respect.  Young readers will enjoy Tola and the insight into Nigeria.

FLAGS:

Grandmommy lies when a neighbor calls her in the market to ask her to pick up his TV, she pretends the battery dies as she and Tola laugh at how ridiculous them carrying a TV would be in addition to everything else they are carrying.  There is bullying when Tola is tripped and then when Mrs. Shaky-Shaky trips the bully.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This wouldn’t work for a book club, but would be ideal in small groups, or to be read aloud.  There would be a lot to discuss as children would relate to Tola and find themselves cheering her on.

Sadiq and the Ramadan Gift by Siman Nuurali illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

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Sadiq and the Ramadan Gift by Siman Nuurali illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

img_8554This 65 page early chapter book in the Sadiq Series does a great job of introducing Ramadan, giving a glimpse of Somali culture, and conveying a relatable and engaging story about friends with a lesson/reminder about the values of communication.  A group of boys hosting a fundraising iftar to help a school in Somalia have to figure out the logistics, the marketing, the cooking, and the execution, as they become socially aware and active in helping meet the needs of their community, both locally and afar.  This OWN voice tale doesn’t shy away from authentically drawing on religion and culture to make characters and a plot that all readers can enjoy.  The book is not preachy, but the characters know who they are in their manners, dress, speech, and environment.  A great book any time of year for first grade and up.

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SYNOPSIS:

With Ramadan starting in a few days, Sadiq and his friends at the Dugsi are reviewing the importance and values of Ramadan.  This year the masjid is raising money for a school in Somali and the students are encouraged to help, as sadaqah, or charity, is especially important during Ramadan.  The boys decide to host a fundraising iftar at the masjid and with parental help to coordinate with the Imam, the kids have to figure out how to get enough food, get the word out, get set up to take donations and more.  They make flyers, set up a website and shoot a small video.  The once excited Zaza, however, is no longer very enthusiastic in the Money Makers Club and Sadiq can’t figure out why, but with so much to do and little time to get it done, more friends and family are brought in to help, and things continue on.  When Zaza tries to tell Sadiq he wants to do his own fundraiser, Sadiq doesn’t want to listen.  I’m not going to spoil if the two friends work it out and how they handle the two ideas, but it is a good lesson in friendship, communication, and charity, Alhumdulillah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story starts with information about Somalia and words in Somali as well as a picture of the family.  There are activities and questions at the end as well as a glossary of religious, cultural, and English vocabulary words. The book doesn’t assume that the reader knows anything about Islam or Somalia, nor does it assumer that the readers don’t.  It strikes a balance of not talking down to the reader or getting too wordy.  It simply provides the information needed if you are curious, but allows the story and the boys dilemma to take center stage.  The whole series is remarkable in showing diversity and relatability with good quality story telling.  I think this is the only book in the series that has a religious theme, I could be mistaken.  The illustrations show the boys in kufis and the women in hijab.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Every elementary school library and every first through third grade classroom library should have this series.  I know my public library has it, and the copies I get from there seem to be worn and loved.  The age is too young for a book club, but would be great in small groups or for outside reading with the short chapters and engaging illustrations.

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Based on the true story of Alia Muhammed Baker, the Basra librarian who saved 30,000 books in 2003 from the destruction during the Iraq War, this 32 page graphic novel, is an AR 3.9 and while it isn’t a chapter book and isn’t just a picture book, it works well for 2nd through 4th grade readers that will enjoy a bit of history, a lot of excitement, and detailed panels that make the story come to life.  The story, as it is based on fact, is very similar to The Librarian of Basra, but with it’s different presentation style, might appeal to a larger audience to appreciate and celebrate what she did to save such precious books, naturally, I’m a huge fan!

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SYNOPSIS:

Alia is the Chief Librarian of Basra Central Library and has always loved books and learning.  As war draws closer, she tells her husband she is worried that the library could be bombed or set ablaze.  She goes to the government to voice her concerns and ask that the books are relocated, but her request is denied.  So she takes matters in to her own hands, and starts smuggling books under her shawl and in to her car, and stacks them in her home.  Every day she does this for a week, soon closets are over flowing and she starts stacking the books in her guest room.  Worried that she isn’t making fast enough progress, she gets the restaurant owner next door to help her when looters start taking the pencil sharpeners and furniture from the library.  She has a plan to have everyone possible come together to move the books, and many people come to help.

Eventually the library is set on fire, the news gives Alia a stroke.  When she recovers she learns she saved 30,000 books, and up next for this real life super hero? Building a new library, inshaAllah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows the value of libraries and books, the determination of one person, and the support of a community.  People are awful during a war, yet, sometimes they are pretty amazing too.  The illustrations are detailed and varied, with inviting text and clear concise language.  It really is well done.

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FLAGS:

Destruction of property, sneaking, looting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think it would be great to have kids read this story and the librarian of Basra and discuss

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Omar is back, and the nine year old kid with a huge imagination, proves that his heart is even bigger.  Middle graders that loved the first version, The Muslims, and the reboot, Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, will undoubtedly love this book’s adventures and the real, relate-abl, presentation of Islam in a Muslim family.  While it references the first book, it can work as a stand alone book too, and can and will be enjoyed by kids and adults, girls and boys, Muslims and non Muslims.  At 217 pages, the large spaces, doodles, playful fonts, and illustrations, make the book fly by and beg to be read again and again.

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar’s family still has their Science Sundays, but they don’t visit a new mosque every Saturday, as they have found a mosque near their home that gives his parents, “secret smiles” and them all a sense of community.  Omar and his sister still bicker, and his little brother Esa is still lovable, and the former bully, Daniel, is now a great friend to Omar and Charlie.  Life is good, Alhumdulillah, but in the midst of the boys planning how to get laser guided Nerf guns and have an all out battle, Omar learns the mosque’s roof is in need of repair and that the congregation will need to come up with 30,000 pounds to cover the costs, and fast.  In an act of selflessness, Omar abandons his dream of a foam gun and donates to the masjid.  Seeing that is not going to be anywhere close to enough he plots and schemes with his friends, his non Muslim friends, on how to raise the funds.  They bake cookies, make origami birds, and get their school to host a talent show to raise the money.  Their teacher and the head teacher coordinate the hall and judges and winning prizes all to help out Omar and the mosque, in the end though, they raise just under 1,500 pounds.  Not enough by themselves, but a great contribution to what other people hopefully are scrounging up.  The worst part however isn’t that they didn’t make enough, but that what they did make, goes missing.  Omar, Charlie, and Daniel, along with the parents and police and school personnel, try and find the money and who might have taken it before time runs out.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how effortlessly the author adopts a nine-year-old’s voice and persona.  So many of the details, for example, about how the school administration signed off on a fundraiser for a religious building, and how tickets were sold, and the planning took place are left out, as a nine year old, probably wouldn’t know, or be concerned with the logistics of such endeavors.  It seemed like some details should be given, but I doubt readers would feel that way, so I pushed it aside and went along for the ride.

Omar has amazing friends, from the unpredictable old neighbor lady, to his non Muslim friends being so enthusiastic and supportive of saving a mosque.  I love it, and that they are that way because Omar is so unapologetically Muslim first.  They even discuss a hadith about how building a mosque, builds you a house in Jannah, and a mainstream book published this, and it is AMAZING! It isn’t just a kid and his family, who happen to be Muslim, the whole plot of the book is to save a mosque, and the fact that this book exists, seriously is so beautiful, and powerful, and hopeful, Alhumdulillah.

This book has a lot of layers, most kids won’t pick up on the interfaith aspects being so ground breaking, or the beauty of teachers and parents believing and supporting young kids, but will just read it as a funny story with anecdotes and inside jokes that they get as kids, as Muslims, and maybe even as Desis.  It truly is the culmination of an author who can write well, characters that our kids can see themselves in, and an opportunity to tell our OWN stories that make this book work for kids, adults and everyone in between.

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FLAGS:

Omar and his sister are mean at times, but alas love each other and look out for each other too.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but if I did, I would do this book in a heartbeat.  For middle school it would be too quick of a read, but I think all classrooms and all libraries should have the book, up through middle school.

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I got my copy here in the US at www.crescentmoonstore.com and as always you cannot beat their customer service and prices.  If you don’t have the first book, you can get it there, too.  Thank you Noura and Crescent Moon Store.

Common Threads: Adam’s Day at the Market by Huda Essa illustrated by Merce’ Tous

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Common Threads: Adam’s Day at the Market by Huda Essa illustrated by Merce’ Tous

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A lot of story is conveyed in this 13 word book for preschoolers about diversity, similarities, and love.  In 32 picture rich pages you meet a little family at an outdoor market, see Adam lose track of his parents as he follows a bird, and meet a lot of kind people as he mistakes them for his parents based on the clothing they are wearing.

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Naturally it has a happy ending, and it appears all the characters come together to get to know one another.  The pictures are beautiful and radiate with light and colors.

The market in general is diverse and the characters Adam meets show clothing similarities.  His mother wears hijab and he mistakes a nun in a habit for her, and then a lady in a kanga.  He thinks he sees his father, but it is a man with a yarmulke and a gentleman in a similar color shalwar kameez looks a lot like his dad’s kurta, but isn’t him either.

This is truly a picture book with sparse words of “Mama?” and “Baba?” being the bulk of the text.  It is visual and conversation sparking in its minimal and simplistic text.  By not having the author fill in the conversation, a preschooler gets to do it themselves, and hopefully broaden their mind in the process.

The beginning of the book has a beautiful Note to Readers urging children and adults to engage in diverse collaborations to increase empathy, innovation, social justice, and understanding to the benefit of us all.

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The book concludes with a challenge to children to become cultural detectives.  It notes that what we wear sends a message about who we are, but it is just what you see on the outside.  It encourages us to ask questions respectfully and kindly to learn about one another.

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Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller illustrated by Jen Hill

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Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller illustrated by Jen Hill

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I usually post chapter books on Fridays, but on this one week anniversary of the horrific Mosque attacks in New Zealand, my fragile heart is being kept together by the pictures and notes shared on social media about the kindness people are bestowing on one another.  Company’s setting up prayer spaces for Muslim employees, communities standing guard outside masjids, friends leaving flowers for their Muslim acquaintances, strangers donning hijabs in solidarity, individuals carrying signs of welcome and unity, truly the list goes on and on.  Muslims and non-Muslims reaching out to one another, Kiwis and the rest of the world coming together.  And yet I know so many people are at a loss at what to do, and how to respond to their feelings in an appropriate manner.  I know I often am.  Thats why books like this one are so important for children to learn how to be kind.  We often tell them to be nice or kind, but what does that mean? What does that look like? How do we know if it worked? As adults we often don’t know, so while this book isn’t written or illustrated by a Muslim, there are Muslims in it, and that is why after seeing another blogger a few weeks ago mention it, I want to share it with all of you.  The illustrations show a little girl saying hi to a desi garbed man named Omar, and two hijab clad girls in her view of the world, amongst so many other diverse faces and characters, because that’s the point right? We are one, each of us responsible to one another to be kind.  

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The book starts off with Tanisha spilling grape juice all over her new dress and a classmate being at a loss as to how to console her.  She makes what she thinks is a reassuring comment to Tanisha, but it isn’t received that way, and the little girl ponders and reevaluates what it will take to be kind to Tanisha and what kindness is in general.

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As she works to unravel what kindness is, she explores also what it can look like.  I love that it is seen in terms of action, giving ideas to stay with the reader.  It discusses that sometimes it is easy like saying hello, or not littering, and how important just using a persons name can make someone feel.

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But, it also talks about how sometimes kindness can be hard, requiring patience and a little bravery. I can only imagine how brave people had to be to enter a mosque for the first time and step out of their comfort zones to offer their support.  

The book then takes an important pause when it acknowledges that maybe all this little girl can do to help Tanisha is to sit by her.  I think Muslims around the world are in awe of the Prime Minister of New Zealand for all she is doing, but also for just showing up and hugging people and listening.  A rare gift in todays wold of soundbites.  

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The little girl then imagines her small acts of kindness joining others and making the world a better place.  My favorite part is actually the end.  Tanisha never smiles and tells the little girl thank you, there is no big praise for being kind.  In fact, I bet the little girl doesn’t even know the power her actions had on the little girl.  We the reader know because we see Tanisha hanging the picture up in her room.  But, that let down is real life.  We can’t be kind because of the reward, we must learn to be kind because it is the right thing to do.  And often when people are kind to us, the effect isn’t instantaneous, its weight manifests in the dark when we are looking for hope and reassurance and for this book to contain all of that, in 32 pages with only few words (AR 2.2) is truly amazing.

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The illustrations are gorgeous and engaging.  The hardback 9×10 format makes this book a great addition to any library and should be read regularly.  It isn’t enough to not be mean, action and intention need to be taught so that we all might be more kind, inshaAllah.

 

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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I enjoyed this book a lot. I had a bag of halal gummy bears, a rainstorm raging outside, and an excuse to snuggle in bed with a book, and I couldn’t put it down, even when I ran out of gummy bears.  I think mature 16 year olds and up could read it, and probably should, it is an important book, but I don’t know that I could recommend it to a young adult Muslim. Maybe, but probably college and up.  Not because high school students don’t read a lot about heavy stuff in English class. I mean Scarlet Letter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or anything by Toni Morrison or Shakespeare are heavy, but they are removed from most Muslim teens.  They are old books, or about people from a different time and place. This book is real, and relevant, and relatable, and in 325 pages you feel connected to the characters as if you know them, or knew them, or more importantly for me, a 36-year-old Muslim American born and raised in America, as if they knew me.

SYNOPSIS:

Jannah Yusuf is 15 and in the opening chapter, less than 5 pages, she has to defend her choice to wear a burkini to her father, who assumes his ex-wife, her mom, has forced it upon her.  In the second chapter, we see that she has gone to visit her father to get away from a monster, her friend’s hafiz cousin Farooq, who attempted to rape her.  From there Jannah pursues a relationship with her crush, Jeremy, with the help of her best friend at school, Tats.  This pursuit involves intentionally having Jeremy see her without her hijab in gym class, and sneaking off to meet him.  Throw in the fact that he too is friends with the monster, Farooq, and the tension, anxiety, guilt, and shame that Jannah feels about her suddenly drama filled life is palpable.  Feeling increasingly isolated from her very amazing friends and family, she finds strength and support from a group of kids she is on an Islamic Quiz competition team with and an elderly Hindu man she helps once a week.  Eventually finding her voice, and reclaiming her strength to face her attacker is like a caterpillar coming out of her cocoon and you hope she soars and flourishes in reaching new heights and happiness.  The message of standing up against such acts and standing by those victimized by sexual predators helps puts the blame and shame where it should be, on the attacker, not the victim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows everyone in shades of gray. No one is good or bad or right or wrong, everyone is somewhere in the middle.  Even the most religious can be scum, and friends can both surprise you for good or for heartache.  At one place, Jannah considers telling her non-Muslim friend Tats about what is going on. “Almost.  The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed up community.  I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.” I think this is kind of where we are right now in real life and in literature. We want to be seen as complex characters, we aren’t a monolith, but we don’t want to celebrate our failures either.  This book does this really well, most of the time.  There is a girl who has memorized the Quran and wears niqab (a face veil) and has a vlog of stirring up stereotypes.  She helps Jannah get her revenge, and it doesn’t work, but at the same time she is never really nice.  Her friend Fizz, Farooq’s cousin, seems almost like family, but when told what has occurred, doesn’t believe her lifelong friend, and becomes rather disappointing and shallow.  Some of the friends, seem pretty stereotypical for the genre, the great non muslim side kick that supports and celebrates the protagonist, the endearing, yet annoying brother, the friend turned romantic interest when the dust settles, the Asian girl good at math, and the elderly neighbor who is wise, etc.. Yet, somehow I really wanted to know what happened to all of them.  I understand that for literary reason’s the book ended where it did, and there isn’t an epilogue, but from a reader point of view, I would like to know if Jannah’s brother got married, if her mom did, what course of action Jannah took against her assailant, what happened between her and Fizz, and if Jeremey and her became friends.

I think it is important to note, that Jeremy was awesome, like really a great respectful guy who knows about Islam and even that the hotdogs should be halal.  Jannah is figuring out who she is, and what direction to go in, which reinforces the female empowerment, but I think his attitude also deserves some credit in not taking her story and control away from her. The story doesn’t wrap up in a nice and tidy way, but I’d like to think they remain friends.  The reason the book gives that they can’t be more than that, is that he isn’t Muslim. It is echoed throughout that if he were Muslim, it would somehow magically be ok.  So, when at the end she realizes her feelings for the funny supportive friend Nuh, everyone seems ok with it.  Well, I’m not, yes I get that in real life people date and marry on their own and often people of different faith backgrounds. But, she is a Sophomore, who obviously isn’t looking to get married. She prays and covers, and seems to be an active and intentional Muslim. So, again, I get that it is more the norm than not, in the real world, but this is where I feel nervous about suggesting a teen to read it.  Muslims still are not regularly represented in print, and when you see an active and engaged Muslim doing so much, I feel like that does subconsciously form a connection to a reader and the line between right and wrong is blurred as a result.  Yes, I realize this contradicts the whole, we are not a singular entity, but I don’t know that many Muslim parents would encourage dating to their high school daughters as long as the boy is Muslim, despite it happening often.  I think we still want to see good idealistic messages from fictional Muslim characters in books that we suggest our children read.  And while we would want them to be inspired by Jannah’s strength to speak out against the crime commited against her, we may not want to give the message that we would also want them to be doing some of the other things she does.  Yes she is fictional, yes, most YA novels don’t have a moral theme, but like Jannah, I still want to keep the hamper lid on it all, even though I know that isn’t realistic.

There are a few plot inconsistancies, like how Jannah’s dad cuts the funding for her brother’s education, but when they are in Chicago visiting, their doesn’t seem to be any tension.  Saint Sarah’s background and motivation for change seemed a little choppy to me and the mom could have been fleshed out a bit more.  Overall though, even the visitors to the Mosque’s Open House ring relatable and comically true.  You can tell the author knows what she is writing about because it is familiar and funny, yet not judgemental.  I love that her characters are flawed and that it doesn’t define them wholey.  I love the way the author sneaks bits of practical Islam into the website updates Jannah does for her uncle and I love how the friends at school don’t read like an after school special.  Some attempts at getting people to change work, and others don’t, furthering the relatabilty of the book and keeping the preachiness at bay.

The book would work for Muslims and non Muslims and is a good entertaining read. There isn’t a religious or moral agenda that the author is trying to convince the reader of, but rather it is about reclaiming your voice when someone has tried to take it.  A message that never gets old.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, sexual assault, boy girl relationships, lying, mention of drugs and alcolhol, and bullying.  Its got it all.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do it as a book club read, not a youth one any way, adult one possibly.  But if a teen read it and wanted to discuss it, I would jump at the opportunity.  I think the book speaks pretty well for itself, but I’d love to speak to a teen to know it through their eyes.  To see what they found believable or far fetched, what they could relate to, how they process the crime and the recourse, what they would have done in a similar situation, what kind of friend they would have been, and ultimately what stereotypes the book forced them to confront.

I read something the other day that the way Muslims judge other Muslims on hijab is so inconsistent with our thoughts on praying or fasting or any other act of worship. If someone messes up we encourage them to try again, or ask for forgiveness or say it is none of our business and we will pray for them, but why with hijab do we feel justified in criticizing if they “try it out” or change their mind? For me, this book really drove the point home.  She is 15 and she lets a boy see her hair, I was bothered, and had to realize that, that really said more about me, than the fictional character I was reading about.  I like books that challenge my thoughts.  Like I said, I’d reserve suggesting someone read it, but I hope they find it and read it none-the-less, and then contact me so we can tear open a bag of gummy bears and discuss.

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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