Tag Archives: culture

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic by Lisa Papademetriou

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For a book about magic, featuring a girl who admittedly knows very little about Islam, a surprising number of tidbits sneak through and work to introduce Islam and Pakistani culture to those unfamiliar, while similarly exciting Muslims readers who can see a major climax point a mile away and get to feel “in” on the unavoidable “aha” moment.  Written on a 4.9 level this 297 page book, is clean and engaging, a rare combination, especially for advanced readers who are having a hard time finding books that are content appropriate.  I’m fairly confident that anyone, of any age, who reads this will learn something, whether it be about lepidopterology, violins, occupation and partition of the subcontinent, Rudyard Kipling, caskets, friendship, Islam, and finding a place to belong.

SYNOPSIS:

There are three main storylines in the book, Leila’s, Kai’s and The Exquisite Corpses’.  Leila is a Pakistani-American girl growing up in America who decides to visit her Pakistani dad’s family in Lahore for the summer.  Unfamiliar with the language and customs, she has a good attitude of learning as much as she can, and absorbing new things.  Her dad’s family speaks English, is not very religious, is wealthy, and pretty modern.  They have servants, and drivers, and while she gets to go to museums and landmarks, the lifestyle is partially simplified for reader understanding, and partially to not take away from the real point of the story: Leila moving out of her sister’s shadow, and finding comfort in her own multi-cultural skin.  

Kai is spending her summer with a great paternal Aunt in Texas that she has never met.  Her father passed away and her mom has recently lost her job, so a change of scene is what she is presented with.  Her Aunt is a character in and of herself, but by and large leaves Kai to her own devices and supports her adventures from a distance.  The real story for Kai is a budding friendship with the neighbor girl, Doodle who is determined to find and save a rare moth no longer found in the area.  Nervous to make friends Kai learns sometimes the value of things isn’t in the winning, or being the best, but in doing something because you enjoy it and it is the right thing to do.

The two girls story is tied together by them finding two parts of a magic book, The Exquisite Corpse.  The old book tells the story of Ralph T. Flabbergast and Edwina Pickle, in bits prompted by the girls’ own writings.  Like the game of writing a few sentences, folding over the page and having the next person add to the story, the book connects the girls and the readers in a tale that is as much about the two long ago sweethearts, as it is about families, overcoming obstacles, and believing in happy endings.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is told from various voices, and as much as the story is plot driven, I truly felt connected to the main characters.  The only magic is the book, so the realism is very critical to gaining the readers interest and thankfully once you read about 70 pages or so I feel like the book does suck you in and take you for a fun ride.  The first few chapters are a bit confusing and I wasn’t sure where the story was going, Finally, at my 11-year-old daughter’s prompting I had to just barrel through without asking and wondering too much.  You don’t find out about Kai’s mom and dad or how Rudyard Kipling and “Kim” tie in to it all, almost until the end.  I like that the author doesn’t talk down to the reader, and as a result I learned a bit about so many things.  The twists and interweaving of stories and characters, and things as random as moths and music and saurkraut, remind me of well written adult novels that often aren’t found in books for fourth graders.  

Their isn’t much religion in a doctrine or even practicing sense, but through culture some is learned and shared, and I like that it isn’t completely washed out or removed.  The main character’s father says that he wasn’t religious in Pakistan so when he came to America he wasn’t about to start.  Leila mentions that her mom wants him to take the girls to the mosque or to see Eid, but again, they don’t, but do celebrate Christmas.  So, when she is in Pakistan and sees masjids, and fakirs, and people feeding birds as a sadaqa it is a nice inclusion.  Especially because the vocabulary is used and explained.  She mentions that her extended family goes for Jummah, yet doesn’t pray five times a day, she also touches on Ramadan as being a time of fasting but doesn’t know that there are two Eids.  As she learns, the reader does too.  It definitely isn’t how any practicing Muslim would want Islam portrayed, but it isn’t disrespectful and it is realistic.  Again, because the author doesn’t seem to talk down through her characters, there doesn’t seem much judgement and thus, hopefully also shows most readers some diveresity to the Pakistani stereotypes in the media.

FLAGS:

None, the book is clean, the love story between Ralph and Edwina, is just that they love each other. Nothing more than a sweet sentiment.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely use this book as a Book Club selection because I think there is so much to connect to and discuss.  It would be fun to do as an interfaith book club with kids for the same reason.  While the main characters are girls, I think boys would enjoy it as well, there is some spying, sleuthing, action, and a whole goat debacle, that I think would be a blast to explore with students.

I don’t see any online reading guides, but there is so much to discuss it won’t be a problem.  Enjoy!

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Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai

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In terms of plot and and believability, this 274 page 6.3 reading level book has moments of unrealistic twists, but the historical flashbacks and context make up for it as it delves into Pakistan, India partition without getting overly bogged down in politics and bitterness.  You can tell that the author writes from a place of love and warmth, as she talks about all sides involved: Pakistan, India, Great Britain.   The stories, fictional and historical, that weave through the novel make it informative and entertaining irregardless of one’s prior knowledge.

SYNOPSIS:

Maya is 12, and a little shy, especially compared to her older sister Zara.  The book starts with her writing a journal entry about her visit to Pakistan in an airplane somewhere over the ocean.  Maya, her older sister Zara, and their mother are heading to Karachi from America because of the death of Maya’s beloved grandfather.  Frequent visitors to Pakistan, Maya is familiar with the sights, traditions, and language.  As other family members arrive, Maya and Zara overhear their elderly grandmother planning to runaway to India to retrieve family heirlooms that were left during partition.  The plan had been in the works for the whole family to go, visas were already obtained, but with the unexpected death, the urgency is amplified.  Grandma wants to find a ring to bury with her husband.  In Islamic custom burials happen very very quickly, often the same day, so the delay and sending the body to America, is something you just have to go with as the reader.  Rather than convince Grandma to stay, the girls threaten to tell their mother if she doesn’t take them along, and the next thing you know the trio are off to India and on a treasure hunt.  There is a map at the beginning of the book, which is very helpful.  However, the adventure isn’t straightforward, not only in the trio’s adventures, but in that grandma ends up in the hospital, Zara and Maya decide to pursue the lost items on their own, and then Zara and Maya get separated.  Twelve-year-old Maya then is forced out of her shell as she is kidnapped, and running for her life, trying to keep her promises, and also in desperately trying to save her family from having to pay a ransom to save her.  A lot happens, and the intensity amplifies as it starts out as a elementary aged family story and turns into a middle school adventure.  A long the way are beautiful passages about the scenery, amazingly simplified, but factually and emotionally accurate explanations about partition and ultimately, through Maya, about finding your voice. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The framing of the fictional story and the historical context is wonderful.  Partition, is such a pivotal moment for those that lived through it, but has less and less relevance to today’s generation that lives abroad.  So, to find a book that makes the gist of the events come through, is why I love using fiction to connect people and ideas.  I am making my daughter read this tomorrow, no question. She needs to know what her own grandmother endured, what decisions her family had to wrestle with, and this book allows us to have those discussions in an informed way.  I’m sure many would disagree and say that the reader should know about partition before reading the book, but I think the tidbits and delicate way the author convey the horrors, the agony, the manipulation, and the struggles in todays time, is far better than I could do to a sixth grader. 

Maya’s abilities seem to grow overnight, so while she was an ok protagonist, she might annoy some.  I actually had to google in the middle of reading how old Maya is, at times she seems like she is eight or nine and at other times like she is 15.  I do like that Maya constantly remarks how alike India and Pakistan are, a reality that today’s generation definitely agrees with, but is often afraid to voice to their parents.  I also like that there are good and bad everywhere, a theme that doesn’t get old, especially in books that deal with cultural and religious elements as presented to a wide audience.

There isn’t much religion in the book, the characters don’t stop and pray or wear hijab, but the setting does allow for mention of masjids, and a kind Imam back in California, the characters identify as Muslim and they discuss Muslims as a minority and political entity regularly.  One of the treasures the grandma is looking to retrieve is an old Qur’an with the family tree drawn within.  The book talks about how intertwined the two countries and many religions of India are, and Maya’s name articulates many of these crossroads.  In the end, perhaps the best lesson from the book, is how much alike we all really are.

There is a wonderful Author’s note in the back, along with a glossary.

FLAGS:

The book has some violent images as it discusses trains coming from India to Pakistan with only a few living aboard and vice versa.  The intensity as Maya is robbed, and then kidnapped, and then held hostage, could also be jarring for some younger readers. 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Like all her other books, I would absolutely include this in a Book Club, there is a lot to discuss, lots to understand, and lots to enjoy.

Author’s website: http://www.nhsenzai.com/ticket-to-india/

Reading Group Guide: http://www.nhsenzai.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Ticket-to-India_ReadingGuidePDF.pdf

YouTube book trailer:

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abel-Fattah

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It is kind of remarkable now that I look back on the book, that before reading it, I knew exactly what was going to happen based on the jacket flap synopsis, yet somehow the book held my interest and I finished it easily.  There were no surprises, no plot twists, not even any amazingly poignant passages, yet, I kept reading, so there is some merit, perhaps in ideas, even if the story line wasn’t meticulously crafted.  At 390 pages, this 4.8 level AR book is not for elementary or even middle school readers, it is a high school and up for content understanding and appropriateness.

SYNOPSIS:

The dual storylines are told from the intertwined perspectives of Mina, a Muslim refugee to Australia who fled Afghanistan in a boat, and Michael, an Australian upper middle class high school student whose parents run an anti-immigration group and oppose the arrival of refugees.  The two see each other on opposite sides at a protest, and reunite when Mina earns a scholarship to a prestige posh school, and the family moves so that she can attend.  Naturally the two clash, then fall in love.  Along the way there are slight changes as the characters grow, some side stories about friends and family members, and like the title suggests, crossing of lines, so to speak.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the book in terms of its political plot is actually pretty nuanced.  You could say it is framed as a good vs. bad, but it isn’t that simple, and I think the characters shed light on the gray area in between.  In many ways Michael changes and grows and challenges himself to go out of his comfort zone created by his family.  He forces himself to see where immigrants live, he steps foot in a mosque, he researches the detention centers and what not, to learn that he doesn’t agree with his parents.  I wish, however, that all of these scenarios would have been slightly more memorable, maybe an interaction at the mosque, or follow-up by talking to Mina about it.  The lack of reflection made his journey seem like he was changing his views for a girl, and not because of a deeper understanding.  At the end his mom even asks him about it, and I kind of had to side with her in wondering about his motives.  Mina’s personal growth is more in that she learns to trust new people, and let them in.  Her growth is not as obvious as Michael’s and I think some would put her on the “good” side and see her as a stagnant character.  She is greatly shaped by the death of her father and brother, by the escape and journey to Australia, and then having to move again for school, but in the course of the books timeline, she really doesn’t change much.  Her Islam is really culture, she doesn’t pray, or mention anything about her belief or faith.  Halal is not explained, but is just seen as a political tool to protest and argue about.  Mina never goes to the mosque, and even for religious reasons never questions if she should have a boyfriend, but worries what her mother will say and thus does keep it secret.  For all realistic purposes, she is portrayed as a Muslim as a political identifier that illicits stereotypes and assumptions by others, not as a description of what she believes, behaves, or thinks.  Michael’s parents are where the real meat of the story for me was.  Understanding how they see themselves as “not racists” ordering ethnic foods from all over, but actively working to keep non-assimilating foreigners out.  Their organization claims to promote the idea of upholding Australian values, not of disliking other countries values, and I think this is really what so much of the world is facing right now. The ethnocentric idea of being so great and understanding in words, but not in behavior and policy making.  Michael’s dad goes overseas and feels sad, but doesn’t feel compelled to help, rather than to keep those people from changing, “his” world.  As the book mentions a lot, his parents in other ways are kind, good people.  It really isn’t good against evil in all facets of life.

I think my favorite part in the book are the female relationships.  I love Mina’s friend Paula, who quotes Oscar Wilde and while on the outside has it all together, lets Mina see the real her.  She is smart and feisty and seems to stay genuine throughout.  I like that Mina’s friends from the “old neighborhood” are still in her life and I even like how close she and her mom are.  It’s nice to see females helping each other, there is power in that, that fiction helps remind readers about.

FLAGS:

There is mention of sex, nothing explicit, but side characters hook up, are accused of being sluts, and it is definitely there.  The main characters kiss regularly.  There is some swearing and lots and lots of lying.  Mina can’t go out after library hours because that is where she says she is, when she is elsewhere.  There is fighting, alcohol, clubbing, and smoking mentioned throughout.  None of the aforementioned flags are glorified or even praised, but all are there.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a student book club, but I think it could be done as an adult book club.  The politics need some background and understanding, that I think some discussion would be enlightening in a community or larger society setting.  Sometimes even in the real world, meeting people different than ourselves does wonders for changing preconceived notions and stereotypes.

Muktar and the Camels by Janet Graber illustrated by Scott Mack

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Muktar and the Camels by Janet Graber illustrated by Scott Mack

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On the border of Somalia and Kenya, there isn’t a library, or a book mobile, there is a traveling camel library! While the main character is more excited about the camels, at least his friend is excited about the books in this AR 3.2 story.

Muktar is an orphan who dreams of his life before his parents were killed as a nomad tending to their camels.  Their teacher, Mr. Hassan calls him lazy as he dreams of the camels he misses, but one day, a librarian from Garissa comes on camel to bring books to the orphanage, and while Ismail and the other kids are excited for the books, Muktar is drawn to the desert beasts.  Muktar notices that one of the three camels is injured and recalling the root to help sooth the ailment, he tears his shirt, treats the wound, and covers it.  When seeing his abilities, the librarian, Mr. Mohamed asks him to come with him to tend the camels as they travel with books through the desert.

muktar insideThe story definitely makes readers appreciate the life they have, and realize how simple and harsh others’ lives can be.  I like the mention of the foods, giving insight into the culture, but I didn’t like the harshness of the adults.  The calling the boys lazy, not taking Muktar food as he tends the camels, not being concerned about the injured camel until Muktar insists he notices, all made me a bit sad.  Yes I was glad that Muktar was able to resume a nomadic life with camels, but he wasn’t given a say in it.  And sure I’m glad that his friend Ismail will get books and be able to work toward being a teacher, but somehow it wasn’t a warm book, and I can’t quite identify why.

The pictures, however, are warm and detailed in the present, with Muktar’s memories being more hazy and muted.  There isn’t any mention of religion, but being the characters are Somali and their names being what they are you can assume they are Muslim. There is a short author’s note at the end that tells about the war causing the nomads to become orphans and the library service that works to share books.

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The Muslims by Zanib Mian

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The Muslims by Zanib Mian

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After reading this book, I really, really want to meet (and be friends with) the author, she writes from the point of view of Omar, a nine year old boy, and his perspective and voice are so authentic and relevant that while the book targets 3rd through 5th grade, I am certain kids and adults, Muslims and non-muslims, boys and girls, and everyone else, will all thoroughly enjoy this laugh-out-loud 164 page book.  

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar is starting at a new school, we don’t know why, and while he is nervous, he has a good attitude about it.  His parents are supportive scientists and he has an older sister, Maryam who can be a bit mean in a big sister way, and a little brother Esa, who he secretly loves.  All are practicing muslims who remind me a lot of the people I know.  We say our duaas, we pray, we laugh at the funny stereotypes and just try and be good neighbors and people.  Omar’s neighbor is hilarious, Mrs. Rogers, doesn’t like Omar’s family, or “the Muslims” as she calls them, but they just keep being themselves and when she falls and gets hurt, she starts to realize they are good people who care about her.  She even starts showing up for iftar every night in Ramadan and counts down like a space ship launch until it is time to eat. 

Using his Islamic upbringing, and seeing how is family handles problems, gives Omar a lot of tools for starting at a new school.  But Omar is the protagonist, the hero, so he also has a super imagination that involves H2O, his dragon, that shows up to help him out when things get rough.  And unfortunately, a bully by the name of Daniel makes things rough for Omar.  He tells Omar that all Muslims and all Asians are going to be kicked out of the country, and this really sticks with Omar.  He verifies it with a cousin, and learns it could be a possibility.  So, the underlying anxiety is there, but most of the book that focuses on the bullying aspects involve the day-to-day comments, physical pushing, and efforts of Omar to avoid Daniel.  When they do meet up, however, the result is often comical, as Omar and H20 confidently navigate the situation at hand.  Between visiting a different mosque in London each week, learning to read the Quran, celebrating Ramadan, and just being a kid with new friends and a fun family, Omar eventually does win Daniel over after the two of them get lost in the London Underground.  And all of us that came along for the ride are better for it, alhumdulillah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

There is so much to love about this book.  Seriously.  The accuracy of family life depicted is spot on and the Islamic elements are so interwoven that non Muslims would truly learn about Islam through learning about Omar, but not in a preachy way, and Muslims will see themselves on every. single. page.  I love that Omar doesn’t ever seem embarrassed to be who he is.  He is a cool kid for his confidence alone, and being able to laugh at a bully and not have it shake your core belief and self image is so powerful.  The characters are well developed, from little Esa to Omar’s teacher, by viewing them through his eyes, you see enough of their personality to remember them, and appreciate them.  The only exception to this was Maryam, I really didn’t feel like I got much on her, but I have a feeling there will be more books, and she will develop too.  The book reads like a diary, until a tinge of foreshadowing of the changing relationship between Omar and Daniel pops up to setup the climax.  The chapters are short, the fonts and doodles endearing and engaging, and the size of the book, really makes it fun for elementary aged children.  The only possible gripe for American children, is that it is a British book, and you might have to google or ask what a few things are, yeah we are selfish like that, but its good for us to learn what pains au chocolate are, or crumpets, or nappies.  

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FLAGS:

The book is clean. 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh this should be required reading for every kid.  I know I will be trying to implement this every where I go.  This would be awesome for a elementary book club, and especially great in Islamic schools for struggling readers.  In much the same way that teachers use humor to engage students, this book has heart and humor and a surprising amount of information, that I can see it being connected to a lot character building supplements in various curriculums, at least I hope it is, we need voices like this, both within our community and to serve as a representative of us to the larger society.

Book Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIKtoxt3InM

Author’s website: http://www.muslimchildrensbooks.co.uk/

 

Ayesha Dean: The Istanbul Intrigue by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean: The Istanbul Intrigue by Melati Lum

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I’ve tried numerous times to get my preteen daughter to read a Nancy Drew book with little success, yet she devoured this mystery and is eagerly waiting for more.  The protagonist is relevant, resourceful, fun, and a practicing Muslimah too.  At 240 pages, the spacing and large font make the book easily accessible, and tempting to dive in to.  The pacing is pretty good, and while there are a few hiccups with storytelling style, the book overall is worth adding to yours and your child’s reading list.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha’s parents are deceased, but her Uncle Dave has raised her as a Muslim following her parent’s wishes.  Having graduated high school she is off on a celebratory trip with her two closes friends: Jess and Sara, her uncle and her friend’s dad to Istanbul, Turkey.  The adults have a business conference and the girls are hoping to explore and enjoy all the sights of the Turkish Bazar, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and more.  While looking for a book to gift Uncle Dave, Ayesha and her friends discover a secret message sewn into an old book of maps and set off to collect clues and solve a 100-year-old ibn-Arabi mystery.  Obviously, I don’t want to give too much away but there are villains, and shady characters, and dear friends, and lots of yummy food.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the heroine is a hijab wearing, salat praying, Tae Kwon Do trained, fashionable, kind, young lady.  She has integrity and resourcefulness, that make the reader want to cheer her on.  Her friends are significantly less developed, I really couldn’t tell you much about them, and honestly had to look back to recall their names.  I understand why they are in the story for Ayesha to play off of, but I’m hoping that they will have a bit more substance in future novels.  Other side characters had more depth than Sara and Jess did, and even getting them out of the way for the climax seemed to further diminish their roles and importance.

I loved learning about Turkey through the characters, the history, architecture, the food.  The author really shined when talking about Islamic history as well.  When Ayesha and Emre explore the Sultan’s Privy Chambers at the Topkapi Palace, and look at Prophet Muhamad’s (saw) sword and bow, the excitement and reflection is palpable.  In other places however, I felt like the narrator’s voice was completely jarring and distracting to the engaging story at hand.  In the midst of pursuing a lead, the story comes to an almost standstill to say, “the friends chatted amiably as they walked, admiring the city as they went (69).”  The majority of the descriptions are so vivid that the few places where they cease are noticeable and awkward.

I also loved the diversity of the friends, even Ayesha’s own personal makeup adds some depth and appreciation that she has chosen to practice Islam.  Ayesha prays and tries to make sure she is not alone with a boy, she is conscious of her hijab and notes the Islamic elements in her own life and in her environment.  Obviously the book takes place in Turkey and she is unraveling an Islamic mystery of sorts, but I think the book works well for Muslim and non Muslim middle schoolers alike.  The book is not preachy, and the translations of prayers and poetry are framed in a historical or inspiring, not doctrine manner.  Similarily, I think you might be able to get boys to read it too.  It inspires girls who perhaps can identify with the main character, but I think even boys will be impressed with what Ayesha can accomplish.

FLAGS:

The book is fairly clean, there is some intense moments with kidnapping and having guns drawn, but nothing too haunting.  Ayesha obviously makes a good “friend” but nothing happens or is even detailed as wanting to happen between her and Emre.  Just Emre’s dad regularly teasing them as he looks for a wife for his son.  The only real flag for me was the exploring of the harem at the palace and the mention of concubines, and eunuchs.  A lot of detail is not given just that the women must have felt trapped, but it is a heads up if your child asks you about it, to be ready to answer.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a fun book club book to explore deeper some of the sites and history of Turkey.  I would have to explain the harem before hand I think, but I think it can be done factually to avoid to much over thinking for the young readers.  I think to track the clues and “map” out the trail in a group completely with pictures of the real places would really bring the story to reality.

Interview with the author: http://mvslim.com/meet-melati-lum-criminal-lawyer-who-also-has-a-passion-for-writing/

Why we need more heroines like Ayesha Dean: http://www.muslimkidsguide.com/why-do-we-need-more-muslim-heroines-like-ayesha-dean/

 

The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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This 32 page book written on an AR 4.2 is very text heavy and poorly illustrated, in my opinion, but if you have a patient audience, the story is really sweet and flows pretty well.  Plus, the moral and introduction to 4th through 6th graders about hunger and food scarcity in a gentle non condescending manner, makes the book stay with the reader in a humbling way.

On Saturdays, Mama works and its just Nora and her baba hanging out.  And every Saturday night, Nora’s baba makes couscous, but tonight Nora is starving and the couscous is taking too long.  As they wait Baba tells her a story about the butter man.

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Growing up in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, how much food the family had depended on the rain and the crops.  Once during a drought, Nora’s grandfather had to leave his family to try and find work, so the family could eat.  As the portions of bread Nora’s baba was given decreased in size and the butter disappeared completely, his mother would urge him to go outside and wait for the butter man, to ask him to spare a little.  As he would sit and wait he would nibble and the bread and would finish it still waiting for the butter man.  This daily ritual passed the time as his stomach rumbled, and finally after a while his father returned with flour, couscous, vegetables, and meat.  Baba tells Nora that while the butter man never came, the rains did.  And just as Nora hopefully appreciates true hunger, so does the reader, Mama then comes home, the couscous is ready, they say Bismillah and dive in.

butter.jpgThe only real Islamic reference is Bismillah, being said before they eat.  The story is followed by an Author’s note and a much needed Glossary.  A bit of Moroccan culture comes through as the baba waits for the butter man, and with all the talk of food, but it isn’t done well for me in the illustrations.  The characters’ closeups are distracting, and while the Author’s note explains their clothing and what not, I feel like they didn’t help the story come to life.

Here is a book trailer: