Tag Archives: culture

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.

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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:

 

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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Take Jumanji, turn it into a chapter book, flavor it with steam punk, set it in a Middle Eastern inspired marketplace, and have the protagonist be a Bengali-American, hijab wearing Muslim on a quest to save her little brother with her two BFFs from New York. Bam, you now have a 298 page AR 5.4 reading level booked called The Gauntlet.  

Published by Salaam Reads (Amina’s Voice) this book is written for all kids, the main character’s religion and culture just add depth and a connection to the game they have fallen in to.  I found this book on Scholastic, and when I got it, I handed it to my daughter to screen for me.  I asked her once she finished if it had any Muslims in it and how were they presented, to which she gaped at me and said, “umm mom the whole thing is about a Muslim girl and it is awesome!” So naturally I moved it higher up in the “to be read pile” and while I agree with her assessment, the book is more plot than character driven, and there isn’t a lot of theology in it, just a race against time to get out of the game alive.

SYNOPSIS:

It is Farah Mirza’s 12th birthday and while she should be downstairs visiting with her guests from her new school, she is holed up in her bedroom with her little brother Ahmad and her best friends from the old neighborhood, Essie and Alex, playing board games, the Mirza family’s favorite pastime .  When Aunt Zohra tries to coax them from the room she mentions a gift for the birthday girl is in her room, and the kids sneak off to get it.  Only it isn’t the book she brought to give Farah that they find, it is a bewitched game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand that lures kids in, and keeps them if they cannot out play the Architect.  When Ahmed falls in, the trio has no choice but to follow him in to try and rescue him and escape, before time runs out.

Once inside the game, they are in a city called Paheli. It resembles an old Middle Eastern city with large souks, market places, even a small masjid, surrounded by sand and levels absolutely breathtaking in both their beauty and in their threat to the children.  The inhabitants are those that played the game and lost. The challenges the kids must face range from a life size game of mancala to a taste test of Bengali/Indian sweets.  As they rush from challenge to challenge they meet a kind tea shop owner, giant lizards, spies and police of the architect and see fairly detailed descriptions of different parts of Paheli. The gamemaker/designer known only as the Architect senses that the kids will win, so he starts to cheat, and then feels bad and arranges to meet the players.  When the children meet him, and hear his story, they feel some sympathy for him, but not for the Jinn that holds the ultimate power over the game.  Obviously they do escape, but I won’t spoil the fun the process is, nor the sweet surprise of the reunion.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that at the core, the story is driven by love for a sibling and requires the teamwork and cooperation of friends.  The rest is just frills from this central and clear message that is woven throughout the book.  While it is idealistic, there are hints that it isn’t overly so.  Yes Ahmad with his ADHD is a lot to handle at times, and the friends do have their squabbles, but ultimately both friends and family are worth risking it all.  I love that Farah is Bengali, many of the foods are Indian, and they are set in the Middle East, but yet somehow it seems interchangeable, this made me laugh, and while in other instances might have annoyed me, I liked how connected it made everyone seem, more alike than different.  Essie and Alex know some of the foods and cultural lexicon from growing up in New York.  They don’t find things different, they had lots of kids in school that wore hijab. Readers unfamiliar with some of the words and names found in the subcontinent and Islamic history might be put off a bit by the regular use of these words and the lacking glossary, but if you identify with any of it, you will celebrate seeing yourself in this book, just as Farah relished in seeing something of familiarity in Paheli.  

The book is fast paced and the detail given to the setting and cultural aspects are fun, but I really don’t feel like I connected much with the characters as a result.  There is very little character development and I actually had to look back in the book for some of the names to write this review.  There also isn’t much religion in terms of belief or practice.  The buildings and the food and the tone all hint at Islam, but I would have loved to hear an athan, or even her pausing to pray.  Not even that is there.  She wears hijab and that is about it in terms of religion.  

Ultimately I love that it is a mainstream book, with a strong storyline that is action packed and fun for older elementary and early middle schoolers that is clean and familiarizes and thus normalizes a culture not often seen in young adult fiction.  

FLAGS:

None, it is clean, at times possibly a bit scary with human bones, but not anything overly haunting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be an amazing book for a book club, and I would play the games that they play in the gauntlet at the meeting.  There isn’t a ton to discuss in terms of introspection and growth, but there is enough, and it is fun.  Plus, there aren’t a lot of books like this for Muslim kids to see themselves in, that I think it would be a blast for them to read, and enjoyable for the adults to watch them get swept away.

Interview with the Author: http://ew.com/books/2017/03/27/karuna-riazi-gauntlet-jumanji/

 

The Boy Without A Name by Idries Shah illustrated by Mona Caron

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The Boy Without A Name by Idries Shah illustrated by Mona Caron

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It is hard to know what a child would get out of this 32 page 3.2 AR level, but even if they just get lost in the pictures, and swept away by the idea of a boy searching for his name and a dream, I suppose there is value.  Some, ok most of Idries Shah’s, Sufi teaching stories are beyond my comprehension, but they are lyrical and often silly just the same. He has written over 30 and the libraries have quite a few, and people online seem to love so many of them, so perhaps I’m just not clever enough or philosophical enough to grasp them.  Which is neither here nor there, but maybe don’t buy one until you read one and see what you get out of them.  I keep checking them out and hoping I too will fall in love with one, I’ll keep you posted.

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Before they can name their son an old man comes and tells the parents to not name him and to wait.  The boy grows up searching for a name, hoping someone has one he can have.  At one point he is made aware that he has nothing, even to trade for a name.  He responds that he has an old dream he no longer wants.  He and his friend Anwar then go to the wise man and he receives his name and a new dream.

The synopsis claims that patience and determination is learned, but I couldn’t get over the fact that the parents just didn’t name their child, and I never felt like I learned why he was such an important boy.

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The pictures are wonderful with the scenic village’s tall minarets and colorful hijab clad women in the market place.  I particularly like the magic spilling out of the boxes in the old man’s house when the boys are finding names and dreams.  There is nothing overtly Islamic in the text, I’m not aware of how strong the Sufi origin is, not being Sufi, or having studied it.  But the illustrations definitely place the book in an Islamic cultural environment and the names reinforce this.