Tag Archives: culture

Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Yes! Yes! Yes! A strong and relatable 2nd grade, Pakistani-American Muslim girl, with stories written on a AR 2.4 -2.5 level, learns lessons and grows in everyday scenarios.  Seriously, this book is overdue and so well done, I can’t wait for the author, illustrator, and publisher, to team up to do more.  The book I have, Meet Yasmin! contains all four stories: Yasmin the Explorer, Yasmin the Painter, Yasmin the Builder, and Yasmin the Fashionista. You can buy each of the books separately in a larger format, and possibly a longer story.  The version I have is 5.5 x 7 and 96 pages long which includes a Think About It, Talk About It section at the back as well as a glossary of Urdu words, some facts about Pakistan and a recipe for Mango and instructions to make a bookmark craft .  The individual stories are 6 x 9 and 32 pages, and whether you buy the collection or the individual stories, they are under $6. Fabulous all the way around.

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SYNOPSIS:

Yasmin the Explorer:  The book starts out with Yasmin’s dad telling her about explorers and maps.  Inspired, Yasmin decides to make her own map of the neighborhood, which gets really exciting when her mom asks her if she wants to join her on a shopping trip to the farmer’s market.  While they stop at different stalls and Yasmin adds to her map, the temptation of a playground draws Yasmin away from her mom, but luckily her map can guide her back.

Yasmin the Painter:  Yasmin’s school is having an art competition and Yasmin is nervous because she doesn’t consider herself a very good artist.  Her parents show her videos and gift her supplies.  Unhappy with how her attempts are turning out, she decides to find her own style and with the support of her parents she enters her painting and waits nervously to see who wins and what the mystery prize is.

Yasmin the Builder:  I think this story is my favorite because she really had to rely on herself when the class is building a city and Yasmin can’t figure out what to build.  She perseveres and works hard, and ends up connecting the dots and making the city come to life by finding a way to make her favorite part of the city, going for walks, a part of the class project.

Yasmin the Fashionista:  Mama and Baba have gone out for the evening, so Yasmin is hanging out with her grandparents.  When Nani and Yasmin play dress-up and Mama’s shirt gets ripped, Yasmin and Nani have to solve the problem!  Not only that, they get inspired to transform Yasmin’s pajamas, and when Mama and Baba come home they are treated to a fashion show!

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WHY I LIKE IT: 

There is a lot to love about these stories.  Yasmin is not great at everything, and things don’t necessarily come easy for her.  But she is bright and surrounded by people that love her, and she is allowed and encouraged to shine in her own way.  I like that her painting wasn’t great, and that she stayed in from recess to figure out what to build.  I love that her dad is involved in her projects and ideas as much as her mom, if not more.  I love all the little nuances that accurately show a Pakistani-American family and a Muslim one; not an exaggerated version, or a dumbed down one either.  Yasmin has to wait for her mom to put on her hijab, it doesn’t explain that she isn’t wearing a hijab in the home, but it is shown.  It shows the characters in ethnic clothes and in western clothes.  It shows Yasmin’s classmate building a church, and one building a castle.  Yasmin is spunky, she makes mistakes, she works hard, and she is a breath of fresh air, that I think kids of any and all backgrounds will relate to her and enjoy the stories.

The pictures are bright and colorful and detailed. They are age appropriate and make the chapters within the stories really come to life and keep new readers engaged.  The font and binding and layout is well done.

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FLAGS:

None.  

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TIPS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I honestly think little kids could read this and discuss it and might actually enjoy having a discussion about Yasmin: what they like about her, what things they have in common, what she does that makes them laugh.  It might come across as a girl book, but really, it isn’t she is relatable for everyone. 

There is nothing Islamic mentioned, just depicted in her mother’s and grandmothers hijabs.

 

 

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Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby and Rebecca Green

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Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby and Rebecca Green

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It is a bit odd that this story is fiction, when it reads so much like a piece of nonfiction.  It is a picture book, but has an AR level of 4th grade 4th month.  So, while the story is great and highlights a country and culture, Bangladesh, not often seen, I don’t know that this book would appeal to many kids.  The kids that it does appeal to though and that can find it in a library or bookstore (not sure where it would be shelved), I think will not just like it, but possibly find it both inspiring and worth reading again and again.

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It is monsoon season in Bangladesh and the rains make Iqbal’s mom have to cook indoors.  As a result, she and the baby, Rupa are constantly coughing from breathing all the smoke from the woodburning stove.  Iqbal’s father mentions a propane stove he saw in the market, but the family cannot afford it, despite wishing that they could. 

Iqbal’s school has just announced the School Science Fair and the winners get cash prizes, if Iqbal can win, maybe he can buy his family the new stove.  His little sister Sadia offers her services to help him win and be his assistant.

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After a lot of thinking, pondering, and dreaming, Iqbal decides on the perfect project: a stove that didn’t produce smoke.

With the help of his teacher at school to find ideas and articles and plans on the internet, Iqbal and his sister build a solar cooker with foil and an old umbrella. 

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The science fair is a success, Iqbal wins, the family buys the stove and propane with the winnings, and when it isn’t raining, the family is able to use the solar stove Iqbal and Sadia built.

The book draws on ideas of sustainability, pollution, economic viability, problem solving, and education.  The culture provides the backdrop making all of these issues relevant and real, and mentioning Ramadan, Eid, and prayer provides some depth to the characters and adds to their culture.

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A lot of reviews online criticize that the mom is cooking and that the kids test an egg on the solar cooker and call her to eat it if it is supposed to be Ramadan, but I personally promise you, during Ramadan, we are always cooking.  And if she is nursing the baby, the mom wouldn’t be required to fast, there’s a lot of other reason she couldn’t/wouldn’t be fasting, but really, it is such a small portion mentioned in passing, no detail needs to be given, and it didn’t bother me at all.

Another complaint about the book is that if money is so tight the kids wouldn’t be at a school where they can just make copies, and buy eggs on their own.  I think there is some truth to this, but maybe a wealthy doner funds the school.  I think you could argue it either way.  I don’t know that the family is poor, it is the overall society, so kids could have pocket money, a propane stove is probably imported at least from a larger city so the expense would be more, similarily the infustruction of electricity and gas lines could hint more at why they cook the way they do.  Needless to say the family is smiling in the pictures, they have food, and they seem to be doing ok.  So the fact that the school printed a few articles and the kids bought some eggs without asking permission, didn’t bother me greatly.

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The illustrations are expressive and show the family connections and emotions.  I like that they bring to life a country many wouldn’t know, even if I wish it weren’t a work of fiction, but based on some child actually there.  

The end of the book has information about clean cookstoves, how to build one yourself, and a glossary.  The large 9×12 hardbound book would hold up well to multiple readings, and the amount of text on the pages would work well as a read-a-loud to younger kids who would find the subject matter interesting.  

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Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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I enjoy Hena Khan’s books, I love basketball, and I love that this three book series is written for 3rd-5th graders.  I didn’t love the cover, however, which I attribute to the reason I waited so long to start reading the book, I know, lame.  But luckily the books were in the public library and I had a few hours on my hands and was able to consume the first two books, and look into ways to get the third one ASAP!  Written on an AR 3.8 level the 126 pages fly by, the second book On Point is 130 pages and an AR 4.0, and the third book in the series, Bounce Back comes out in October.

SYNOPSIS:

Zayd Saleem is in 4th grade and is desperately trying to move from the D squad basketball team to the Gold team with his best friend Adam.  The only problem is he is a pretty scrawny kid, and he has committed a lot of his day to practicing violin.  His desperation forces him to be less than honest and the consequences that follow may strip him of the chance to even try out for the team at all.  The basketball story is intertwined with a rich cultural Pakistani-American backdrop and familial characters that are relatable and fairly fleshed out.  Zayd’s mamoo, maternal uncle, has agreed to meet someone to consider marriage, which brings out some humor as the whole family, including grandma and grandpa, have big roles to play.  Zayd also has to figure out why he gets such stomach aches as he makes regular notes in his food diary, and has to balance the universal themes of friends, school, and homework, as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The font and spacing is wonderful for the target demographic, sprinkle in the illustrations and the book is not intimidating in length or size.  The book is very real and relatable, kids of all backgrounds will relate to the basketball storyline and the video games and players mentioned.  I loved the cultural environment.  My kids absolutely loved the mentioning of the Pakistani food that they eat, and customs they participate in, and dynamics they know all too well.  I don’t know that a non Desi (someone from the Indian subcontinent) will get it, love it, and not be turned off by it.  The books are published through Salaam Reads and I would imagine the author and publisher know what they are doing, and the library has numerous copies, so clearly, I’m over thinking it, but I really want to get feedback on the cultural aspect, because it is done really well and I think it would show promise for future books.  

I love that the book is about a boy and basketball, but it isn’t limited to being a boy book or a sports book.  The story moves seamlessly through all facets of the characters life that makes it pretty memorable for what could have just been a sports story with a moral.  The “life lessons” are clear and obvious, but not overly elevated.  The little mistakes that Zayd makes are a part of his life, as are the consequences, but his family helps him through them, and help him learn.

There isn’t anything preachy or blatant about Islam in the book, but the characters are Muslim and it mentions that the parents are heading to the mosque at one point to help with a fundraiser.  

FLAGS:

There is lying, but that is kind of the lesson being worked through.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I recently agreed to help a teacher with her “Lunch Bunch.”  Once a week students can opt to eat lunch in the library and have a book read to them.  They must commit for the duration of the book and I think for a 4th and 5th grade group this book would be a lot of fun.  It would probably only take two sessions to read and with the diverse class I can see if they get the cultural stuff or if it just bogs down the story to them.

Author’s website: https://www.henakhan.com/power-forward/

 

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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I don’t read a lot of sci-fi books, ok so maybe I haven’t really ever read one…or maybe a few have snuck through and then been forgotten.  So, I was excited to read this book by a Muslim author with Arabic poetry and Moroccan inspired backdrop sprinkled in, if nothing else it had me intrigued.  The book is a 308 page YA book that came out two months ago and was available in both hardback and on audio at my public library.  I was thinking to listen to the audio version with my kids, but the book was ready first, and the reviews on the back cover by other authors, all mentioned that the book was “romantic” and “sexy,” huh? The synopsis online and even on the inside flap, hinted much more at rebellions and body doubles, and life on a small moon in a distant fictional galaxy.  Needless to say I didn’t check out the audio book and decided I should proof it for my self first.  I started the book, no less than five times.  Like I said, it isn’t a familiar genre and I was a little confused.  I decided to just keep plugging through the fifth time, and sure enough when my eyes started to get sleepy I realized I was more than half way done with the book.  I guess when you are building worlds and culture you have to start somewhere and the confusion worked itself out after that.  I’d say the book is for teens.  The romance isn’t explicit, save some kissing, but a lot is implied and better for kids a little older than middle school.

SYNOPSIS:

Amani is turning 18 and about to attend her majority ceremony, where her cultural daan, facial tattoos will be marked on her face.  Surrounded by her loving family of parents and two older brothers, and close friends, drones from the main planet attack the festivities and kidnap Amani to the palace that the Vathek empire has taken over after conquering the planet and two moons.  The storyline is pretty straightforward, the confusion for me was the world building of establishing the culture, the religion, the symbols and characters all intertwined at the start.  The understanding of what life was like before the occupation and now under Vath rule, about the tribes, the birds, and how so much has changed.  

Once Amani is enslaved in the palace and had her near identical features to the princess, surgically made to match the ruthless half Vathek, half Andalaan ruler, the setting is developed through stories and flashbacks that clear up the confusion and make the book a fast and fairly easy read.  As the princess’ body double Amani must learn to act and carry herself as Princess Maram so as to not be discovered when sent in to complete tasks that would put the real princess in danger.  The job of Amani, however, also develops in to her filling in for Maram, whenever the spoiled princess, doesn’t want to do things.  In the process of these engagements, Amani spends a lot of time with Maram’s fiance, Idris, who is Kushaila and as part of the war truce betrothed to Maram.  Maram and Idris are friends, who understand their roles, but when Idris figures out Amani is playing a role as well, the two of them fall in love, complicating matters considerably.  Throw in some Andalaan cousins, forced to the outskirts under the new rulers, a royal half-sister vying for the crown, and a rebel who looks like a beloved Prophetess recruiting Amani to join them as a spy, and you have a protagonist trying to stay alive while following her conscious as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the world created seems plausible and real.  I love that I was engaged and intrigued and able to finish the book (yay!), but ultimately the book reads more like a romance book, than a sci-fi one.  Aside from the planet, droids, holograms, and modes of transport, it could be any culture and religion even here on Earth being fleshed out and established as the back drop for the story.  I love that Amani holds to her culture and the love she feels for her people, their language, poetry, and their history is palpable and descriptive. 

I love that society is focused so much on the strength of women.  Yes Maram’s dad is the evil overlord, but she is the future.  Amani is the protagonist, it is her mom’s strength that she calls on so often in her trials and torture.  The Prophetess that delivers hope is a female, that the poetry comes from women, and is gifted by women.  I love that the leaders of the rebellion are women, that the cousin that has not given up on the true bloodline of rulers is female and that the Dowager is such a strong, yet loving beacon that deserves the truth about Amani’s identity.  At one point, when presenting herself as Maram to Idris’s aunt, the two have a conversation:

“You must eat more,” she says in heavily accented Vathekaar.  “If you are to be any good at bearing daughters.”

“Why daughters?”

“Only your daughters will have the stomach for the future,”  she said.  “It is why your mother had you.”

 

I don’t really like the love story between Amani and Idris, it seems too easy, even though obviously it is plagued with impossibility, there should have been more tension.  Maybe it isn’t even the relationship, but more that Idris isn’t nearly as developed as Amani and Maram, and it shows.  I’m hoping there will be more books in the series and that he will be given some depth, because a lot is told about him, but the authenticity seems lacking.  The disjointedness of the romance could also be the pacing of the book.  I felt like somethings dragged and climaxes seemed rushed. Again, I’m hoping this is more setting the stage for further adventures, and that the next book will delve more in to the political-warring-rebel story line that the author definitely can delve in to and capitalize on along with Amani and Maram’s relationship.

Maram is my favorite character, how delicious that the antagonist is not one, or even two dimensional.  She is cruel, and scared, and vulnerable and everything in between.  I loved the interactions between the two young women.  I wanted to know more from Maram, how she felt about, well, everything, and I’m really hoping holding back on those insights was intentional for a purpose.  While she evokes both hatred and pity from Amani, she evokes so much curiosity and exasperation from the reader it is refreshing.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, the characters have their own fictionalized religion, and religious texts.  The names are familiar to the Muslim world, and arabic words sprinkled in with no definition, definitely will make Arabic aware children feel a connection to the characters and setting of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think one could do this as a book club book for high school aged students.  And while I dislike labeling books for one gender or another and all the stereotypical tropes that that implies, I feel like because of all the romance and the amount of time spent on Amani and Idris the book might appeal more to girls.  The book spends a lot of time on these two as it is their talking that creates understanding of their world for the reader.  It is more telling than showing, and these two snuggled up or caressing each others faces is the manner in which the information seems to be expressed.  I’m holding out hope that the rest of the series will break away from this set up.

author’s website:  http://www.somaiyabooks.com/

article with excerpts: https://ew.com/books/2018/02/19/mirage-somaiya-daud-preview/

FLAGS:

There is kissing and affection.  There is also some violences broadly as the Andalaan’s are tortured and attacked and specifically, as Amani has a bird sent to attack her, and she is regularly hit and beaten. Nothing too extreme for high schoolers.

 

 

Muhiima’s Quest by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Daria Horb

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Muhiima’s Quest by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Daria Horb

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This picture book for ages 7 and up, reads incredibly smooth for the amount of text on each page, and the pictures are warm and expressive in this large (8.5 x 11) 32 page book.  Clearly the author is talented in writing and passionate about empowering her character to hold on to her culture and faith, however it seems overly forced at times.  

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The premise is that it is Muhiima’s birthday, but that she doesn’t celebrate birthdays, her family only celebrates both Eids.  So when her mom hands her a surprise on the morning of her birthday and Muhiima asks if it is a birthday gift and her mom says, “kinda” it seems a bit like she is walking back from the premise. The tie-ins throughout the book as she journeys from location to location on her quest as a result seem forced.

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The map first leads her to her father’s book store to get wisdom and love and a gift that she can’t open until the end.  She also journeys to her Grandparent’s house, her Uncle’s basketball game, her Aunt’s beauty salon, and oddly her Masjid Quran Class, which apparently she is skipping, but stops to get the wisdom and gift from her teacher at, none-the-less.  Oddly enough, but at least noted, she reaches home to find everyone on her quest already there.

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On her way home, she sees her non-muslim friend Rosie celebrating her birthday and wishes she could have a birthday gathering with gifts and family too.  When she opens the door to her own home, she gets just that.  The passages detailing why it is hard to be different are incredibly relatable and poignant, but to then have Muhiima get the same thing with a different name, again seems like the author is walking back on her premise.

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The wisdom and advice the family gives to Muhiima is wonderful and powerful. I love that the character is a strong girl of color, and that her family is supportive and consistent.  They say Salaam, they pray, they go to the mosque.  Some of the little details were jarring, like why it didn’t specify what prayer, why it was her class that she visited at the mosque, how all the people got to her house before her, etc.  This minor glitches with the forced premise of relating the quest to her birthday, make the book overall a bit awkward.  This is so unfortunate because the advice and the quest are so endearing, while not being judgementat or preachy.  I don’t know how to fix it, I just hope, like really really really hope, that the author keeps writing and that her next book is a little more revised and editted.

 

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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Islamaphobia is rampant in today’s America, but it isn’t the first time that a minority group has had to face extreme persecution.  Often us Muslims need to look around and be reminded: Blacks are still targeted, Japanese once were interned, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, really every minority group has, and continues to struggle to be accepted as part of American culture, unfortunately.  Today’s middle school students didn’t live through 9//11 and often they think they are the first to be ostracized for their faith or their parent’s countries of origin.  So I picked up this book to see how well the book would serve as a way to discuss prejudice and persecution with Muslim kids, in a way that they could relate to, but be removed enough from that hopefully they could offer their own insights and experiences.   This book takes place in the 1970s and the climax is the Iran hostage situation as the book is told from an 11-year-old Iranian girl’s perspective. 

Similarly, most Persian penned books that I’ve read fight against Islam and the way it was forced upon them by their government, so I also wanted to see how the author would paint the faith in her semi auto-biographical-middle-school tale.  Alhumdulillah, I was happily surprised how Islam was handled in this 378 page, AR 4.7, book, and I think, like the inscription reads, “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason.  This one’s for you.”

SYNOPSIS:

Zomorod has lived in America before.  She was born in Iran, moved to California, moved back to Iran, back to California, and now from Compton, California she is moving to the much wealthier Newport Beach and hoping to start middle school fitting in more with her new Brady Bunch inspired name, Cindy.  Establishing early that she is the translator for her mother, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want to learn, and that she is somewhat embarrassed by her parent’s thick accents, lack of American snacks, Iranian food, and conversation topics, the book will appeal to most middle schooler’s who can relate.  Her parents, however, are pretty chill about letting her go out with friends, and doing whatever she wants, so really its more about the age and being angsty and awkward, then it is about her parents and their lifestyle and culture.  The basic point of the book is a growing-up tale of making friends, finding real ones that care about you, finding the balance between family and the outside world, cultures that conflict, the past and the future, and ultimately finding acceptance and pride in who, and what you are.

The political climate in Iran and in America amplify what it is like when people hate your country, but can’t find it on the map, and manifest in the story with bullying at school, Zomorod’s father losing his job and not finding a new one, and some hateful acts occurring at the Yousefzadeh’s home. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could be heavy and dark, but it’s not.  The voice of Zomorod really stays in the persona of an 11-year-old girl and is poignant, clever and light-hearted, I even laughed out loud a few times.   The 1970’s backdrop isn’t too alienating for today’s readers, as there aren’t a lot of cultural references that would turn them off.  The historical significance, is very likely one they will not have heard of before and the book, through Zomorod’s eyes, will shed light on Iran in the late 70s and early 80s without boring the target audience.  They might even learn something and remember it.  

The stereotypes about Iran are addressed, the concept of a single person having to represent every one of that minority group is felt first had through the main character, and many misconceptions about Iran are clarified.  Yet, the book doesn’t get preachy, it maintains its lightness, and while I read it in a few days, it was just as easy to put down as it was to pick up.  The characters felt real and developed for the most part, so even though it was a tale about life, it was compelling enough to stick around, and you are invested enough to care how the characters are doing. There are a lot of really great supporting characters in the book as well: neighbors, friends, teachers, friend’s families, and a few not so nice characters that surprisingly aren’t painted with a singular condemning evil stroke.  The author is very careful to reserve judgement of all her characters and the sub groups they represent.

Which brings me to how Islam is handled in this book.  Her family doesn’t practice, but her reference for Islam is shia, as evident by her mentioning 12 imams.  I took pictures of most of the pages where Islam is mentioned, less than 10 in all, but where it is mentioned it is handled very politically correct and powerfully.   She talks about how they don’t celebrate Christmas or most holidays as they aren’t Christian or really American, but when the pool key is lost she does pray to a Christian Saint after a suggestion that such an act will help it be found.  It isn’t really presented as a religious act, more of one done in desperation. Here are the most applicable and relevant passages regarding Islam.

  • Dr. Klein shakes his head in sympathy.  “Do your wife and Cindy have to wear those cover-ups if you go back?”  “Yes, and I cannot believe this.  When we lived in Iran, my wife, my sisters, all the women I knew wore western clothes.  No tennis clothes like you see here, but regular clothes.  Only religious women chose to wear hijab, it meant something.  Imagine if everybody in America had to wear a cross around their neck or a Star of David-what would those symbols mean? Nothing. If you have to wear it, it means nothing.  If you choose to wear it, it means something” (168).
  • “The Ayatollah is Muslim, right? So is, like Allah, his God?”  “Allah is the Arabic word for God,” I say.  “It’s the same God. (154).”
  • We don’t have Saints in Islam, just a Prophet with twelve imams, and they don’t preach to animals or help find lost items,  My family, like most Iranians, is Muslim, but we never do anything religious.  I’ve never even been in a mosque, which is like a church (40).
  • “Being Muslim means different things to different people,” I say.  “My family doesn’t do anything officially religious.  My dad says religion is kindness and that’s what everyone should practice” ((184-5).
  • “…even though we belong to three different religions. We are alike in so many more ways than we are different.” 

FLAGS:

The book is fine for middle school readers, there is mention of Cindy’s dad trying alcohol at one point in the past and not liking it.  Cindy’s friends tease her once or maybe twice about liking a boy and Halloween is celebrated.  There is a lot of lying in the book, but it is made clear why, even if she doesn’t always feel bad about it: she is embarrassed by her mom’s food and lies that she shared it, she withholds information a lot, she pranks the neighbor lady who left a dead rodent on their porch, etc.  Hopefully the demographic won’t be inspired by Zomorod’s antics and just find them as her way of dealing with life.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun book club book to discuss being new to a country, minorities, how to handle conflicting cultures, and how to be and have good friends.

Educators guide: http://firoozehdumas.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ItAintSoAwfulFalafelguide.pdf

https://www.floridamediaed.org/uploads/6/1/4/2/61420659/ms_-_it_ain%E2%80%99t_so_awful_falafel.pdf

https://www.bookmovement.com/bookDetailView/49051/It-Ain’t-So-Awful,-Falafel-By-Firoozeh-Dumas

Author’s page: http://firoozehdumas.com/books/it-aint-so-awful-falafel/

Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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N.H. Senzai’s newest book (published in January 2018), gives a face and a voice to the grave situation in Syria.  Like Senzai’s other books, she uses the rich culture and history of a country to inform the reader, and a compelling front story to keep middle school readers entertained.  This 336 page book is not in the AR data base yet, but fourth grade and up should be able to follow the story and be able to handle the violence and destruction presented.  The story is unique in the genre, in that it doesn’t focus on getting to a safe country, but rather on the heroine’s journey to simply get out of a dangerous one, Syria.  The storyline is fairly linear with flashbacks of life before the war making the story informative, but not necessarily gripping.  I wanted to love it, but found myself forgetting about it when I stopped reading.  

SYNOPSIS:

Fourteen-year-old Nadia, has a fun full life in Syria: a large extended family, she stars in a commercial, has good friends, and a lot of opportunity and perhaps privilege.  All that, however, slowly disappears as civil unrest and ultimately war consume the country.  As a child she gets glimpses of the changes coming, but is able to still hide in her ignorance and focus on things like her nail polish and Arab Idol.  As food gets short however, she sneaks out to get bread with some cousins, and is hit by shrapnel.  While, her leg is able to heal, her anxiety of going out alters her life and makes her family’s attempt to get to the Turkish border later, a hard mental obstacle she must face.  Her inability to move quickly with the family on their covert escape route, and the bomb that hits their home, separates her from her family and leads to her getting left behind.  As she tries to remember how to get to the designated meeting location, she must navigate Syrian soldiers, rebel factions, ISIS, secret police, violence, hunger, and being lost.  With her cat, Mishmish, for companionship, Nadia reaches the location only to find that her family has left for Turkey and will wait on the border for her.  Luckily for Nadia, amidst this devastating news, she meets an old man, Ammo Mazen, and his Donkey, Jamilah, willing to help her reach the border.  Along the way the two face long odds of surviving, not only from the war around them, but also the weather, the old man’s illness and lack of food and water.  As they journey through Aleppo, snippets of history and culture are shared, two more children join their journey and mysteries as to who Ammo Mazen really is come to light. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book’s premise is simple, allowing the reader to focus on Nadia and her companions and not get bogged down in the political factions and names and alliances.  The book is not about all of the aggressors, it is about a girl trying to reach her family, and the growth and ability to choose kindness that she learns along the way.  The girl is not religious, but culturally it is a part of her environment.  Her companion Tarek, is religious and he spouts Islamic tidbits as they journey, adding some knowledge to be conveyed about Islam which is sometimes informative and sometimes comical as his character is often a bit awkward. 

I love the cultural beauty that is conveyed, and the heaviness in Syrian’s heart that “What had taken five thousand years to build had taken less than two to ravage.” The saving of historical artifacts, the showing of cooperation between people of different faiths as the characters meet in mosques and churches and meet people of all backgrounds, makes the loss of humanity and history so palpable. 

I also love that there is an Author’s Note at the end.  The whole book I kept having to shush my mind as I felt like this was the story of Mariam in Senzai’s book Shooting Kabul.  Yes that takes place in Afghanistan, but it was so similar in that it was a girl getting separated from her family in an escape attempt during a war, and sure enough she mentions that, that is where Nadia’s story grew from.  

FLAGS:

There is a lot of violence and death, but nothing gruesome or sensationalized.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great Book Club choice, because it would encourage readers to keep at it and finish the book.  While reading it, the book is wonderful, but for some reason, I had to urge myself to pick it up and start it again.  Perhaps it is because I have read all of Senzai’s books and I was pretty confident all would end well, or because I’ve read quite a few books now about war and refugees and Syria, but while it reads quick it did take me longer than it should to finish it.  I think parts of the book that detail a lot of the skirmishes and fighting might be hard to visualize in the mind’s eye so as an assignment or Book Club selection would benefit the readers to allow them to discuss all the mini climaxes, understand the terrain and architecture, and to really put themselves in Nadia’s shoes.  The transformation in Nadia from a brat, more or less, to a compassionate, strong, determined young woman is a journey that I would love to hear feedback from other kids about.  I think they would definitely have thoughts and opinions that would really bring the humanity of us all out, and make us connect with the plight of those trying to get out of such horrific circumstances.

Publisher’s Page: http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Escape-from-Aleppo/N-H-Senzai/9781481472173

Teaching Guide: https://www.teachervision.com/teacher-discussion-guide/escape-aleppo-reading-guide

Author’s Page: http://www.nhsenzai.com/escape-from-allepo/