Tag Archives: culture

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.

 

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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/

 

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date.  I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her.  The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat.  I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.

SYNOPSIS:

Amal lives in a small Pakistani village.   The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter.  The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong.  The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled.  Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between.  It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position.  As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school.  This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher.  Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market.  Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to.  Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family. 

In  many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.  

Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be.  As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost.  And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own.  At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy.  The mom even apologizes to the dad about this.  The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it.  The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it.  I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden.  This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.  

I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental.  There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture.  Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more.  There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions.   The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture.  Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.  

The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well.  At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note.  I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view.  I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book.  It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed.   A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.

The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer.  For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.

FLAGS:

There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped.  There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study.  There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.

Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html

Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf

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!

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.