Tag Archives: Elementary Fiction

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

Standard
Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

surfs

I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published.  The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away.  This book unfortunately really fell flat.  I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps.  This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why.  The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me.  It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.

img_2388

SYNOPSIS:

Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh.  Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors.  Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way.  Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts.  Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist.  Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening.  Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer.  When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income.  At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves.  Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English.  A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.

img_2389

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength.  It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should.  The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab.  Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned.  The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected.  I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.

I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like.  I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira.  How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t.  I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings.  I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing.  It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading.   I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either.  If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.

img_2390

FLAGS:

Fairly clean.  There is bullying and mention of death.

img_2379

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club.  It is a solid middle grade read.  Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya.  Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.

img_2373

Stuck in the Middle by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Diana Silkina

Standard
Stuck in the Middle by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Diana Silkina

middle

At 122 pages this early chapter book with frequent illustrations is a great book to share with 2nd-5th graders.  It is has a great message and lesson with lots for children to relate to with regards to life with siblings, getting frustrated, making mistakes and recovering.  The lesson is strong, but doesn’t become preachy as the protagonists voice rings true to her age.  Mistakes are made by many characters and situations are fleshed out so the reader can understand why things are done.   By showing that there isn’t one side to a story, and that knee jerk reactions are common, readers will get that ultimately we are still responsible for how we act, and learning from our transgressions is part of growing up.

5343F790-E06E-47DB-96D9-A85A7EAEFA9E

SYNOPSIS:

Salma is the middle child in a busy family, and very little is in her control.  When her frustration over her brother stealing a chocolate bar, causes her to lose her cool, and then she is forced to run errands with her family, homework doesn’t get done in time and she finds her self in detention.  Normally a very good student, teachers and other students are shocked that Salma is in trouble.  Things don’t improve when her brother steals her carrot cake the next day, and in a plot to get even, Salma ruins her brothers brand new PS4 controller.  She also turns a blind eye at school when she sees someone picking on him.

Doing her best to avoid being discovered as the culprit, or being in a position to see her brother being bullied, her guilt starts to get to her.  When an ambulance has to come to the school for a kid that got pushed and needs stitches, she realizes she has to make things right, even if that means getting in trouble.

7E60CD43-7DCB-41AE-BFF8-6CA415A5BDA2

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is so relatable, honestly switch Salma with my middle son Haroon, and the 13 year old boy that doesn’t want to go out with the family, with my 13 year old daughter that doesn’t want to go out and we are looking in a mirror, haha.  The family is Muslim and they practice and let the religion shape their view of the world and how to function within it.  The girls wear hijab and use the hadith premise that they have to fix a bad deed with a good deed to provide the solution to the mistakes made earlier in the story.

AE60B7D6-48FA-4A46-A4E7-4F0BB40351AD

FLAGS:

None

46612FC3-B196-4A59-9BB8-AA54F7ADBD3F

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I already made my middle child read the book, and because of the length it wouldn’t lend itself to a book club, but I can see teachers having kids read it and then discussing, just like I am doing in my family.  It is sweet and well done and a great addition to your bookshelf.

 

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

Standard
Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

bunchesA book about 5th grade friendships told from the perspective of four different girls in a variety of styles: instant messages, chatroom conversations, video scripts, and traditional text.  The author seems to have a checklist of diverse characters and afflictions that all must make an appearance in the 335 page story.  It is written on an AR 4.4, but with one of the main characters having two moms, details of a suicide mentioned, talk of pole dancing, male anatomy joked about, thongs, crushes, and mental illness, four girls coming together to form friendships and take down a bully, might raise more questions for young readers than they are ready to handle.  Yasaman the Muslim girl in the group, also borders on perpetuating more stereotypes than she breaks, and while I definitely don’t think this book is a good fit for 4th and 5th graders, I don’t really recommend it for readers of any age, there are just better books out there.

SYNOPSIS:

Asian American Katie-Rose doesn’t have friends, unless you count her neighbor Max, but she doesn’t.  She dreams of having blond haired Camilla as a best friend, but the Camilla she went to Pioneer camp with is not the Milla at school who hangs out with Modessa (aka Medussa) and Quin, and is popular.  Katie-Rose also dreams about being a cinematographer or director, she isn’t sure yet, but she loves to imagine scenes and scripts and how things ideally should play out, even when in reality they never quite seem to do so.

Milla, isn’t sure if she wants to stay friends with Modessa and Quin, they aren’t nice and she has a lot more fun with Katie-Rose, but somehow she always ends up going back to the popular crowd.  She also has a lot of anxiety and needs various totems with her at all time to feel secure.  When her little plastic turtle goes missing, she struggles to stay composed, and her and her turtle will end up changing a lot at Rivendell Elementary.

Violet, is the new girl at school and she is not liking her life at home or at school.  Her mom is in a mental hospital and she misses her desperately, her dad brings home fast food every night for dinner and life just isn’t the same since she moved to California.  Immediately able to tell who the popular kids are at school, she hasn’t decided which group of friends is the best fit for her, but when she stumbles on Tally the turtle, and doesn’t immediately return it to Milla, she has to understand what that says about her, and figure out if she is strong enough to make things right.

Yasaman is the quiet computer wiz, she is also Turkish-American, Muslim, and a hijabi.  She designs a platform where kids who are too young to join Facebook can chat, stream videos and send cupcakes.  The only problem is, she has no friends to get to join.  When Katie-Rose and her strike up a friendship, the first seeds of the four flower named girls are planted, but it will take all four of them to put Modessa in her place, rescue Tally, and deal with stereotypes, emotions, and family along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that a Muslim, muhajaba is included in the quartet, and that her religion, her scarf, her culture, and her belief in Allah, actually are sprinkled in.  I don’t love how in the book’s efforts to include such diversity, that it also seems to fall for a lot of the stereotypes that it on the surface seems to be dispelling.  Katie-Rose asks her if she even knows what YouTube is before being made aware of how computer savvy she is.  All this is to subtly show the assumption that Muslims are not aware of technology and whatnot, and set the record straight, but also regularly thrown in are side comments from Yasaman that her father would never let her wear something, or she wouldn’t be allowed to do that because of her dad, definitely reinforcing a male dominated, authoritarian, out-of-touch patriarchal view.  Even her mother, an artist, is shown to demand a lot of Yasaman and be incredibly strict.  A lot of things aren’t spelled out, they are just dropped in and assumed that the reader get’s it.  But only Yasaman’s parents are portrayed this way.  Milla’s two mom’s are caring, Violet and her dad seem close, and Katie-Rose’s parents are rarely highlighted.  So, I felt like it was noticeable, and not in a positive way.

I’m still completely confused as why pole dancing and male anatomy made appearances in the book.  And the pole dancing reference appeared not once, but twice when Yasaman is talking to an older cousin who is talking about a friend who’s aunt is a pole dancer, and then later when Katie-Rose’s babysitter also mentions the same friend.  They also discuss people as being slutty and boy crazy and skanky.  The male anatomy isn’t spelled out it is hidden with a girl with major orthodontia reading a Wikapedia page on the greek satyrs, discussing their physical pleasures and talents.

There is also a lot of mental health issues that I’m glad are present, but I’m not sure if they are handled seriously enough.  I’m glad they are addressed, because awareness is a good thing, but discussing how someone swallowed pills to commit suicide and even though she changed her mind still died, and not giving any context seems to make the concept come across as a bit trivial to me in its presentation.  Same goes for Camilla’s anxiety and Violet’s mom being in a mental hospital.  These girls have some major stuff going on that their preoccupation with a snotty group of girls, and the obsession of mud being consumed in an ice cream shake, seems a bit off.

Overall, the girls seem incredible perceptive and articulate in their self reflection and understanding of social personas, that I found their banter completely disjointed.  I don’t think the author’s voice is consistent, and the heavy stuff is too much coming from 5th graders in my opinion.

FLAGS:

Stereotypes, and discrimination against Yasaman and her younger sister Nigar.  Possible triggers with talk of suicide.  Milla has two moms, it is never labeled or made an issue, she just refers to them as Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce. Talk of boy private parts and erections, crushes, pole dancing, words such as skanky, and slutty and dingleberry (poop hanging on) used.  There is lying and bullying and retaliation and poetic justice.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a book club or even have it in the classroom.  I think it gets a bit crass unnecessarily and the cute flowery cover and inside flap, makes it all the more surprising.  You might expect some potty humor in other books, but knowing it is there allows the reader to make a decision to read it or not, I would imagine most Muslim parents would see four diverse girls on the cover, one wearing hijab, get excited and hand the book to their 3rd or 4th or 5th grade daughter and have no idea what the book also includes in passing, with no relevance to the story lines highlighted on the inside flaps and back of the book.

Lulu and the Very Big Meanies by Mac McGooshie illustrated by Alexis Hogwood

Standard
Lulu and the Very Big Meanies by Mac McGooshie illustrated by Alexis Hogwood

Lulu.jpg

I don’t know what is more frustrating: quality books that are poorly packaged (binding, illustrations, font, spacing, etc.) or beautiful books that miss the mark in storytelling and basic writing skills.  Both are equally annoying, and while yes, a good story should be the basis, this book is really well written that the presentation of it just makes me sad.  At 116 pages, the book is perfect for 3rd graders.  My daughter and son read it a few years ago when I first picked it up.  I made them read it.  And last week when I pulled it out to read myself, both remarked that it was a good story.  The fact that they remembered it and remembered liking it are huge pluses, and made the fact that I had to make them read it all the more disheartening.  I’m certain if you can get your kids to read eight maybe 10 pages they will zoom through the rest of the book.  It is the getting them to pick it up and start, that is the tricky part.  The book is paperback, thick and glossy, but the cover looks homemade almost.  If you thumb through it the font is too small, spaced too tight and the illustrations mean well, but don’t deliver.  Unfortunate, because like my children, I too think the story is fun and I’m disappointed that the book was published in 2013 as #1 in the Lulubug’s Week in the Life Series, and no further books have come out.

SYNOPSIS:

Laila (Lulu), and her family are American Muslims living in Southern Virginia.  Lulu’s mom is a lawyer and a convert, her dad is from Egypt and owns an Italian restaurant, and her older twin brothers are 12 and keep an eye on her.  Being incredibly bright Lulu has skipped third grade and is having trouble with some bullies in her new fourth grade class: Veronica B. and Veronica C.  aka the Veries.  Using help from her brothers, her neighbor and friend Toni, and some friends in class, a trap is set to get the bullies to confess to their evil mischief, but that unfortunately isn’t the only thing Lulu is going through this week.  Throw in her parent’s sudden decision to move closer to the masjid in another city, a litter of kittens abandoned on the side of the road, and some weird noises coming from the woods behind their house, and Lulu has a lot to deal with.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows the day-to-day of a typical Muslim family in a normal presentation.  They pray together, they watch what they eat, they know their neighbors and worry about each other.  It doesn’t idolize the family, making them better than anyone or preachy, but makes them very relatable and likable in a realistic way.  When bees are discovered or the kittens need carrying for, sunnahs and ayats are identified, but very seamlessly, that non Muslim kids will learn a bit about Islam and Muslim kids will be excited to see themselves.  My favorite scene regarding this is when the mom finds out there will be a middle-school dance, and even though the boys are not planning to go, know that it isn’t for them, and don’t even seem tempted by it, they still have a family meeting about it, to discuss.  I also like that at one point Lulu meets another Muslim girl and they don’t hit it off right away, the girls work through it, but it is nice to see some diversity in even the way Muslims are presented and possibly misunderstood even amongst one another.

There is a lot going on in the book in terms of action items, but there still is a lot of character development and dimensions to Lulu.  Lulu has to navigate relationships with her family and friends that ring true and aren’t over simplified.  Her friend and neighbor, Toni, expects Lulu to act different at school now that they are in the same class, but returns to her silly self once they are home.  Lulu clashes a lot with her mom, but can smile and get her way super easy with her dad and manipulates that a lot.  She has to balance her sassiness with her teacher and principal, pick her battles with the Veries, and abide by other adults’ rules and expectations.  The book reads in a similar vein as Junie B. Jones, or Clementine, just maybe a more mature and less obnoxious reincarnation.

I wish the adventure involving the backyard noises, was a bit more dramatic, and maybe even the unveiling of the trap involving the dye was more resolved.  At times the book seemed rushed to wrap up all the stories introduced and I think they deserved a little more time to be explored and enjoyed.  If the font and spacing and pictures could be tweaked I think the book would really speak to kids in a fun way.  Third and fourth graders can easily handle a 150-160 page book that has good pacing and is packaged in a tempting, non intimidating way.  I’m holding out hope that maybe the author will write some more, tweak this one, and give it the chance at reaching an audience that would benefit from the smart, fun, grounded life of Lulu.

FLAGS:

Clean, it does mention that Toni likes a boy, but Lulu thinks that boys are trouble.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If I still did an elementary book club, I think this book would work.  I think kids need a nudge to give it a try, but once the book gets going, girls and boys alike will enjoy it.  I may read it for a Lunch Bunch choice (I read once a week to 4th and 5th graders while they eat their lunch).  Kids will love seeing themselves, their stresses, their families, and their faith presented well.

Freeze-Land: A New Begininng

Standard

IMG_1828

Let me start off by saying that the fact alone that this book (and series) was written by a 9 year old is amazing.  As a former 4th grade teacher, if I saw this type of writing come across my desk, I would have probably pushed her to keep writing and publish one day too.  But, for all the support and love I wanted to give the book and the author, I really didn’t like the story.  So much so, that even with the second book, Good or Evil, in my hands, I couldn’t justify spending less than an hour to read the 124 pages, which is heartbreaking to say, but honest, none-the-less. 

The series is published by Archway Publishing which is a self publishing company through Simon and Schuster, so I have no idea if they have editors, or what the publishing process was for this book.  But, while you might forgive a few plot holes, and story gaps because of the author’s age, there are sentences that simply don’t make sense, words that are missing, and passages, that seem to be arbitrarily made-up on the spot.  So often the book reads like a child telling a bed time story and realizing they hadn’t explained something earlier and have to wiggle out of a tight spot, “and then, and then” become mechanisms to move the story along, when no other logical connection can suffice.

img_1823.jpg

At 93 pages the books is written for 2nd – 4th graders, and while they might inspire others to write, I don’t know that they will get enough out of the story to read the four book series.  The covers depict a girl that looks like Disney’s Belle and the title might excite fans of Disney’s Frozen.  I would like to think the writing improves as the author develops and grows, and I’m fairly confident that I’ll check out one of her future books, however, I think I’ll sit the rest of this series out.

SYNOPSIS:

Fourth grader Samantha Ringle loves snow, and can’t wait for the next storm to arrive on Christmas day.  After opening presents and celebrating the holiday, she meets Rebecca, a snow flake fairy from Freeze-land.  Six children have gone missing in Samantha’s area, six children that were chosen by Santa and infused with his saliva.  The children have gone to a distant planet to try and save it from the evil Lord Ninstagger, and return it to the snowy wonderland the Freezians once knew.  

Lord Ninstragger has a wand and a creates rhyming spells to make it work, he also has some other weapon an any-weapon-a-tor that I never really understood, and he can only be defeated if a word is said, but the word will also kill all the inhabitants of the planet.  To save the planet and free the other six children that have gone missing, she must defeat Ninstragger and his ninsting minions or Earth too will be destroyed.

Needless to say, she succeeds by having the good little cloud fairies cover their ears so she can say the word that will destroy the evil.  She then has to get all six of her friends and her annoying brother who got caught in the wind that brought her to Freeze-land, home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this author can articulate a creative imaginative story in her head and that her family supported her endeavors and got the book published.  I love that the author is Muslim and feels confident writing and sharing her words with the world.  Outside of that, I’m not sure the story would have the same appeal if it was written by a 19 year old, or anyone older than a teenager. 

There are huge plot holes.  The book says that all the children are taken to the dungeon, but when Ninstragger is defeated it says that only Jake is in the dungeon, the rest are in jail.  When freed all six show up instantly but the walk to the exact same place to free Jake is long and arduous and the climbing over the mountain is unbearable.  Samantha seems to be surprised that Jake is there, but early had overheard a ninsting talking about Jake by name, to Ninstragger.  Samantha doesn’t recognize the freed children or them her, even though some were her friends and they have been gone a year or less.  Some things also don’t seem to make sense, such as how are their rain cloud fairies in a frozen wonderland? Why does the word kill the inhabitants, what does it mean, how did they learn it? Why are their ghosts that come out of the letters and give the wrong advice? How did Rebecca get all six to Freeze-land, but claim she hadn’t thought how to get Samantha there?  Really the story is all over the place, and I could go on for many many paragraphs, but I think you get the point.  

There is nothing Islamic about the book, and I understand that there doesn’t need to be, but I don’t understand why all the Christmas and Santa stuff is needed.  I understand that the author may have used winter to set the stage for the story, but it seemed awkward to me that Santa randomly died going down a chimney into a lit fire, but yet sensed his time was coming and made a ton of arrangements for a future he would not have known would occur.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not use this book as a book club selection, but if a child read it, I’d like to know there thoughts.  To see if the wholes and inconsistencies are noticed by the target reader.  My 11-year-old daughter struggled to make sense of the book, and while I tried so hard to force her to read the second one, after I read the first one I realized her hesitance and apologized.

Authors website: https://www.ayazsisters.com/

FLAGS:

The girl lies a lot and acknowledges that she lied to save Freeze-land, but then says that the book is completely true and not a lie.  Obviously there is Christmas and Santa mentioned and celebrated as well.

The word “stupid” is used a lot, and when Samantha and Jake are interacting they are pretty rude to one another.  While at the end, Samantha gains confidence and stands up a bit to a class bully, there is no reconciliation of her and her brother’s relationship.  She shows no concern other than consenting to take him back to Earth, and doesn’t seem to have been worried or relieved to see him in any of the situations presented.

IMG_1827

Laila and Pesto the Fly by Rania Marwan illustrated by Fatima Asheala Moore Jewel Series Story #1 Cheating

Standard

laila-and-pesto-the-fly

I ordered this book with the hopes that it would be the first book of a wonderful series teaching values in an Islamic context.   It says that it is book #1 in the Jewels Series and it focuses on cheating.  However, the book was published in 2009 and I can’t find any other books in the series.  Sadly, I can possibly see why.  The book is not great.  The illustrations make it so tempting even if all the girls are gorgeous and the illustrations simple, they would seemingly work well with a book aimed at 4 to 8 year olds, and just 24 pages long.

laila1

Unfortunately the text is lacking and doesn’t create a story worth reading more than once. The sentences are repetitive. And the same words are used over and over.  The first page alone says the word “play” four times in three sentences.  It is about 4th grade girls that play, watch cartoons and essentially hold lessons/ book clubs for each other once a week.  A lot going on for a book that on the second page says the word “flies” three times in three sentences.  Needless to say the repetition makes it hard for a story time selection, and the run on sentences hard for young readers.  The first page features a font that is probably about a size 20 and the next page it drops down to one that is about 11, the third page is about a 14 and the trend of the ever-changing font size continues throughout the book.

laila-text

Example of repetitiveness from Laila and Pesto the Fly

The story idea is a good one at its core.  A girl teaches her friends about flies.  Then the fly talks about Laila and how she is kind and honest. Then the next sections returns to Laila not being ready for a math test and she is tempted to cheat when Pesto, the fly, distracts her and writes a message for her in glitter.  I’m not sure how the glitter stays on the page, but, the message is received by Laila and emphasized by the author sharing a hadith, “He that deceives us is not one of us.” The last page of the book is a bulleted list emphasizing the harms of cheating, and how to overcome the temptation as the girls urge you to join their Cheat Deceit Foundation.

Overall, the book is awkward and doesn’t work for me.  There are a lot of better books out there.  That being said, if the author wrote another book, I may give her another chance, it isn’t hopeless. It just needs some tweaks. The fly is a silly likeable character, but the group of friends are a monolith and have no individual roles.  The message is clear and important, and we need books like this, but alhumdulillah the standards have gone up, way up, and the writing quality isn’t where it needs to be to attract Muslim children or their parents.

 

Nusaiba and the 5th Grade Bullies by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Zul Lee

Standard

Nusaiba.png

As someone who deals a lot with reading and comprehension, I really misread the description of this book and assumed erroneously that it was a chapter book targeting 5th graders.  Oops, alhumdulillah, my confusion and slight disappointment didn’t last long as I got swept up in Nusaiba’s spunky imagination and endearing personality.  The message of the book is powerful.  Not only does Nusaiba have to deal with bullies, but she has to wrangle with accepting herself, even if that means being different.

nuaiba2

Nusaiba is almost to school when she overhears some 5th grade boys making fun of her mom and what she is wearing.  Nusaiba’s mom is wearing a hijab, and the story is set up to imply that that is what they find “weird.”  This morning encounter bothers Nusaiba all day, and while she doesn’t talk to her teacher about it when asked, she does spill the beans to her best friend Emily.  The next day Nusaiba distances herself from her mom and asks to walk to the school gate alone.  The bullies don’t say anything, but Nusaiba feels guilty about leaving her mom like that. Later that day when Mom picks Nusaiba and Emily up from soccer they swing by a local hijab shop for some clothes shopping.  I don’t know why, but I found the premise for taking the girls clothes shopping a little forced.  It seemed too words of a setup, and I couldn’t help but wonder why Emily would be dragged along.  As mom tries on skirts for work, the girls in their boredom get swept up in using the scarves as costumes and transforming themselves from queens, to underwater divers, to fisherwomen, to mountain climbers, to fantastic cleaners ready to clean up all the scarves on the display.  Her mom lets her pick one to buy, and she decides to wear it to school the next day.  It is noteworthy that Emily doesn’t try on any of the scarves.  She is an amazingly supportive friend, and even in make-believe is right there with Nusaiba, but she doesn’t put one on, and I kind of want to know the author’s reasoning or purpose as to why.  So the next day at school, Nusaiba asks her mom to again walk with her, and when the 5th grade boys call her mom an “odd-ball.” Nusaiba finds her courage to confront them.  Nusaiba and the reader discover the boys are making fun of Nusaiba’s mom, but it isn’t for her hijab.  Nusaiba and her mom set the boys straight and giggle in the process, as Nusaiba realizes she can be anything she dreams.

nusaiba1

The book is 44 pages and probably about a second grade mid year reading level.  The pictures are big and bold and beautiful making it a great option for story time to ages 4 and up.  The pictures do an amazing job complementing the story and going back through to look at them after the “twist” at the end was even more delightful.  The illustrator draws you into Nusaiba’s world and you really do cheer her on when she stands up for herself. The book easily lends itself to discussion, and there is also a question guide at the end, incase you get stumped. It reads more like a school assignment, but it could obviously be re-worded to engage a child at bedtime or in a read-a-loud environment.  The font is a nice size, however, I found it distracting. On some pages it is white on others black, on some it has a shadow and on others it does not.  I’m certain most people would not notice, but for some reason it was jarring to me.  Alhumdulillah, alhumdulillah, if that is the only negative in a book, I think everyone who reads it will be glad to have a copy of their own to read again and again and again and again and….

 

Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra

Standard

just-a-drop-of-water-cover

Thankfully the adult in me won out as I resolved to read a book whose cover and title did nothing to tempt me.  I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, but seriously a kid running on the American flag with major Muslim characters, written by a non-Muslim about September 11th? I was hesitant and nervous to know what messages would be spread in the 304 pages to children on an AR 4.0 grade level.  But alas, I was  nervous for nothing.  The book is wonderful, and I want to read it again with my 5th grade daughter so we can discuss it.  It is hard to believe 9/11 is now taught as history, but as someone who lived through the tragedy as a college student, this book hit on so many of the defining moments of that horrific morning and the days that followed.  The book isn’t overly political, or judgemental, or preachy, and in retrospect, most people on September 11th and the days immediately following, weren’t either.  We were confused, scared, and unsure, a tone the book reflects and magically presents on an elementary level without getting  overwhelming with the enormity of it all .   The book was published two years ago, and I’m very tempted to contact the author or editor and urge them to reconsider a cover and title change because truly the story deserves it.

SYNOPSIS:

Jake and Sam have been friends their whole lives.  They bonded in the sandbox with their little green army men and have been planning battles and missions together ever since.  Told from Jake’s perspective the reader sees what life is like for these two 8th grade boys.  They push each other in cross-country, their parent’s come together for Jake’s 13th birthday, neighborhood boys swing by for pizza and front yard football games.  But there are stresses too: siblings, busy parents, not getting named captain of the team, friends that play dirty.  Then September 11th happens and worlds are shattered.  The boys learn that one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was from their town, and although Sam has only been to the Mosque a few times with his grandparents, and his parents are culturally American not Saudi, the school bully Bobby is determined to get rid of Sam.  Jake makes it his mission to defend his friend with his fists and his words, but when his parents urge him to stay away from Sam, the stakes are raised.  President Bush says, you are either with us or against us.  But what is Jake to do?  Secrets about Sam’s dad come out and the FBI takes him away for questioning.  The town is gripped in fear and 8th grade boys on both side are determined to change the world, to be the drop of water creating ripples of change.  As Sam and Jake pull away from each other, Sam starts going to the mosque to learn about what he is being accused of being and begins to identify as Muslim.  Jake’s frustration with his parents continues to grow as does his impatience with Sam, but when Jake overhears Bobby plotting something serious, Jake will have to decide where he stands and how strong he is.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the author crafts a story that is complex, but not overwhelming.  She sticks to focusing on getting inside Jake’s head and succeeds.  He is frustrated and confused and determined, but alas he is only a kid and can’t foresee his actions or articulate them the way an adult can.  He is likeable and fallible and she doesn’t belittle him, thus making his plight tangible and relatable.  I was a little disheartened when about a quarter of the way in it was made clear that Sam knows nothing of Islam or his culture, but it works so well in the story to show that he was pushed to go learn about his roots, since others were treating him as if he represented Arabs and Muslims.  This is so real, I knew so many non practicing Muslims that suddenly started coming to the mosque or reading books on Islam because they realized they should know where they come from.  Many resumed a secular life over time, but many also became more practicing, a phenomenon, the US media and politicians have seemingly failed to acknowledge as Islamaphobia is rampant and so many people pick up a Quran to see how a religion painted so negatively, can simultaneously be one of the fastest growing religions in the world.  The author doesn’t even touch on what Muslim’s believe, but she does include that they abhor violence and disavow the attacks.  The Sheikh is presented as nice enough and there is no negative judgement or tone from the author, aside from the xenophobic characters.

The title of the book comes from a song that Jake’s grandma likes and she often tells Jake, “just a drop of water.” Jake takes it to mean that something is insignificant, but she has him listen to the song and explains that it makes ripples that grow.  The imagery is great, and the line becomes powerful, I guess I just felt it wasn’t devolved or woven in enough to make a strong, clear statement to be the title of the book.  I’m sure many would disagree with me, but as I stated earlier the title along with the cover photo didn’t pull me in.  The book appeals to both girls and boys as both are presented very positively.  There are a handful of side stories that add depth to the characters and narrative that I haven’t touched on, but they are all charming in their own way.  There is a Boo Radley type character, there is a whole tangent about Jake’s grandfather and the details surrounding his grandfather’s death, and the overall messages about friendship, and doing what’s right that make the book relevant to a wide spectrum of readers of all ages.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean considering it is about an act of terror followed by bigotry.  There is some hate speech and violence, and some lying and cheating, and mention of getting pantsed.  But, overall clean and no concerns for 4th grade and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There are a lot of resources online and it doesn’t surprise me.  This book would do great as a novel study, as it is historical fiction.  It would also work well as a book club selection for any elementary or middle schoolers, not just those in an Islamic school.

Core Connections: achievethecore.org/file/1602

 

King For A Day by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Christiane Krome

Standard

King-for-a-Day1.jpg

Its time for Basant, the Lahore, Pakistan kite flying festival, and Malik and his siblings are ready.  Ready to launch Falcon into the sky, ready to set other kites free, and ready to put the bully next door in his place.  While some kids have huge kites, and some have many, Malik has just Falcon, a speedy little kite that Malik prays can get the job done.

King for a day inside

Once again Rukhsana Khan does a remarkable job of taking a universal theme, adding some culture, and finding artists to empower minorities without making it an issue, all in a 32 page children’s book.  Written on an AR level of third grade ninth month, readers see characters handling a bully by beating him “on the court” so to speak, a character having confidence in his abilities, yet still asking Allah swt for help, and a boy in a wheel chair celebrating a fun spring time festival with his family.

king 1

The illustrations are rich with texture and angles, which contrasts the font and text presentation.  Little kids probably won’t be tempted to pick this book up, but as a read-a-loud first and second graders will enjoy the story and the kite flying action.  Third and fourth graders will enjoy reading the book independently, and find themselves cheering for Malik, appreciating his kindness, and wanting to pick up a kite and head out themselves.  The author includes a note at the back which provides more information about Basant and how it is celebrated.  Although it takes place in Pakistan and is a festival not celebrated in America, there isn’t a “foreign” feeling to the book, as kids can relate to bullies, wanting to be the best and the satisfaction of succeeding and feeling like a “king for a day.”

king2

Nadia’s Hands by Karen English illustrated by Jonathon Weiner

Standard

nadia's hands.jpegNadia’s aunt is getting married and she gets to be the flower girl in the Pakistani-American wedding.  She also will get mehndi put on her hands for the big event.  Her cousins warn her that she might mess up and even in the midst of her excitement she begins to worry what the kids at school will say when they see her hands on Monday.  As her aunt prepares the mehndi and the application process begins, various uncles peek in on her and her aunt gifts her a beautiful ring.  The mehndi has to sit on the skin for a while to set and as Nadia practices sabr, patience, I couldn’t help but think something seemed off in the story.  I’ve been at, in, and around a lot of Pakistani and Pakistani-American weddings, and this story didn’t seem to reflect the tone of such occasions.  The book doesn’t reflect the hustle and bustle and near chaos, it doesn’t sound like the tinkle of jewelry and laughter as the women sit around chatting and getting mehndi put on together, the pots on the stove are referenced but not described so that the reader can smell the sauces thickening and hear the pans crashing and taste the deep rich flavors.  It is lonely.  Nadia is lonely and filled with anxiety about Monday.  Durring the wedding she is walking down the aisle and suddenly freezes when she looks down and doesn’t recognize her hands.  Her cousins seem to show unsupportive “I-told-you-so” expressions as she searches for some comforting encouragement to continue on.  When she finishes her flower girl duties, her grandma asks if she understands why looking at her hands makes her feel like she is “looking at my past and future at the same time.” Nadia doesn’t understand and the author doesn’t explain.  At the end she is ready to embrace that her hands are in fact hers and that she will show her friends on Monday.  But the reader has no idea how it goes, or what exactly the significance of her painted hands are.  The book fails to give any insight or excitement for a culture bursting with tradition at a time of marriage.

 nadia's hands inside

There is a glossary at the beginning for the few Urdu words sprinkled in the book.  There is no further explanation however, of  mehndi, or weddings, of the brides clothes etc.  The illustrations are adequate, but because the text doesn’t offer much warmth or vibrance, they seem a little drab, and raise more questions about what some of the traditional items depicted are.  The book is a standard 32 page picture book and is written on an AR 3.8 level, which I think is a little high.  Granted my children are familiar with mehndi, but my first grader read it to me with little assistance.  There isn’t any mention of Islam and could probably be argued that the story reflects any wedding from the subcontinent background performed in the west.  The bride has a duputta on her head in the picture, but that is neither here nor there, and no one in the audience appears religiously covered.  I would assume they are Muslim because of the minor characters’ names: Omar, Saleha, Amina, Abdul Raheem.  Also, the word Sabr, an Arabic word, suggests that they are Muslim.  Plus they eat kabobs which the glossary defines as mincemeat, so probably not Hindu.  Overall the book is not, “bad” or “wrong,” I just wish there were more to it.