Tag Archives: destruction

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

Standard
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

img_8275

This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Standard
A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

This middle grade, 330 page book is an easy read that touches on concepts of change within friendships and families with the back drop of life in a coastal town, finding courage, and Islamaphobia. While early middle school readers might find the book a bit predictable and cliche’, the characters, lessons, and fluid storytelling would still make the book worth their time.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Izzy spends her summer days in Rhode Island on her skiff mapping out the floor of the pond that runs next to the ocean. Fearful of the open ocean, she is, however, confident and independent in her abilities to navigate the calmer water and understand what is beneath the surface. Her father has recently returned from Afghanistan and with his post traumatic stress disorder making him angry and not the same as before. Izzy is further thrown into turmoil when the family moves out of their house and into the marina, her mother extends her already summer long absence to Block Island and middle school at a new regional school is about to start. As always she hopes to lean on her fellow sea stars, Zelda and Piper, best friends since kindergarten, however, things with them don’t quite seem the same either. Add in that her father’s translator from Afghanistan and his family have just moved in upstairs with their two young boys and 11 year old daughter Sitara, and Izzy has a lot to handle and navigate.

Piper and Zelda decide to take television production class first period to make sure they have at least one class together, Izzy is incredibly shy and while she appreciates that this has all been arranged she isn’t confident that it is a good fit for her. Dragged along, as it seems she often is by her much more confident friends, It is arranged that Sitara will also be in the class. Right away Piper and Zelda decide that they don’t like Sitara and her hijab and her “different-ness” and exclude her and by extension Izzy from their lives. As Sitara and Izzy get closer and start to learn from one another, Piper and Zelda lash out and go from ignoring to being mean to Izzy and Sitara. Sitara explains to people on the announcement show why she covers and helps Izzy to understand that her father was in danger after helping the Americans and that they had to leave Afghanistan. The anniversary of 9/11 however, turns many students into verbally berating Sitara and her having her hijab pulled off in the lunchroom. When Izzy figures out that her former sea stars were involved in the planning she is devastated and must take the lessons from Sitara and her Czech Grandma to have more courage than fear, find her voice, and do something to make things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Izzy has a lot going on in her life and in many ways Sitara has been through a lot, allowing them to encourage each other to keep moving forward. There are some parallels in losing their homes and dealing with change that they comfort each other with, but the two characters combined show readers that strength and bravery occurs when you are afraid, and that most people aren’t truly fearless. I really feel for Izzy, her friends may have been there for her on occasion, but by and large they seem kind of dismissive of her and her fears. I think she sees them as equal, but I don’t get the feeling that they see her that way, they may be protective of her, but they kind of bully her in to doing what they want. Every few chapters is a flashback to a pivotal point in the sea stars friendship and even before Sitara enters the dynamic, I started to question Piper and Zeldas sincerity. Their best friend just moved, her dad came back from serving in Afghanistan, and her mom is not coming home, they should be concerned, not belittling her for liking art and wearing old clothes. The mom is another painful plot point, like lady I get that you have stuff going on in your life, but really you are just going to leave your child? Ya, I wasn’t a fan of hers.

I like that the story addresses Islam and Islamaphobia, and while it is very much in the story, it isn’t really about it. Izzy is front and center, and even she takes a while to warm up to Sitara. I love that it shows what Afghanis that helped fight against the Taliban went through and how painful it is for them to resume life after doing so. I think this point is so lost in mainstream understanding whenever there is a terrorist attack, that this is what the refugees are leaving, that people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are running from, and when they get called terrorist it hurts that much more, because their whole lives and people they care for have suffered from the real terrorists.

I really wish there was a map, I wanted to visualize better the breachway and had I not lived in Rhode Island for a few years I probably wouldn’t have understood Block Island’s location to to the mainland. Like with so many middle grade novels I wish there was some more depth to the characters, but I truly appreciated that there wasn’t a completely happy ending, and that growth occurred in so many characters, but at different rates. It really made it clear that we all need to continuously work to get to know one another, find our voice, our courage, and be willing to change.

FLAGS:

Clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but I think this would be a great recommendation for those that do. There is a lot to discuss and explore that kids can relate to. The majority of the characters are female, but I think the themes are universal enough that boys will enjoy the book as well. I’m confident all readers will learn something new about sea stars and possibly even television production in this sweet story.

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

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

alia

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

5532A37C-C4DF-46FA-8334-5F4AA3A06AB5

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

A3A17616-7940-4E80-8CA1-9798A8BA4FC8

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

B0FB5A2A-7376-4F20-BCD1-6D64956B77C6

FLAGS:

Destruction of property, sneaking, looting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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