Tag Archives: england

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Daniela Sosa

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Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Daniela Sosa

img_7104This engaging and fun early middle grades detective story set in England, features a female protagonist of Pakistani origin who stumbles on a crime at her cousins mehndi party.  Over 231 pages with illustrations and flourishes, Agent Zaiba along with her younger half brother Ali and best friend Poppy will have to solve a case, avoid a nosy cousin, try not to ruin their clothes and so much more while stuffing their pockets with samosas and pakoras, and making sure they make it back for all the traditional events as well.  There is nothing Islamic in this culture rich book, but with names like Fouzia, Samirah, Tanvir, Mariam, Maysoon, and Hassan, Muslim children or readers with sub continent familiarity, will feel an immediate reflection of themselves in the story.  I have no idea what religion the author identifies as either, but from what I can Google, it seems to be an OWN story book and the richness and integrity of the minor details would suggest first hand knowledge.  Anyone looking to see a strong minority female lead with good friends, an open mind, and impressive sleuthing skills, should hold on tight as the agents assemble to get to the bottom of a theft and save the day for a beloved cousin.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zaiba idolizes her Aunt Fouzia who is a real detective and owner of the Snow Leopard Detective Agency in Karachi, Pakistan.  Aunt Fozia’s daughter Samirah is getting married and with the Eden Lockett mystery books Zaiba inherited from her mom when she passed away, this party at The Royal Star Hotel is the perfect venue to test out her observation skills and other lessons she has learned from devouring the famous books.

When Zaiba, Ali, and Poppy learn that there is a VIP guest staying in the same hotel, the team gets a chance to explore the hotel and find out who the guest is.  What starts out innocently enough quickly elevates when a secret staircase is discovered, the VIP’s dog is set off his leash, and a jewel encrusted dog tag goes missing.   The three kids work together and set off to find the dog that has terrified Sam and ruined her mehndi, once that is done, the stakes get higher as Maysoon explains that the good luck charm is not just expensive, but a lucky token she needs to move her career from singing and hosting, to acting.  As the children work to find the diamonds and work their way through the list of suspects at the hotel, they have to make sure not get in too much trouble for missing key events of their cousins big day and getting in trouble with the tattling cousin Mariam.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is really for younger readers, second through early fourth grade, and shows the fun bits of a culture to a larger audience without being daunting.  I love the idea of a mehndi as a back drop for a whodunit, seriously, it has the perfect energy and vibe.  The family is amazingly supportive, Zaiba has a step mom, Jessica, that she adores, and a half brother that she loves.  Aunt Fouzia and Sam encourage Zaiba to go solve the crime and give her respect when she does her big reveal to the police.  It really is empowering to see the grown ups support.  I love that Zaiba grows even in such a limited time as she learns about her mom and we even see  Zaiba’s heart soften for Mariam.

Maysoon is a celebrity that is really flat and weak and whiney, at the end she shines a bit, but I really felt she was lame and under developed.  I’m not sure what a champagne reception is, but the fact that Maysoon is  having one would suggest she isn’t Muslim, not sure, I guess I’ll have to keep searching for clues.

The end of the book has a whole section to test the reader if they have what it takes to join the Snow Leopard Detective Agency:  an excerpt from Eden Lockett’s book, her detective tips, things to practice, code writing, and info about the Agency, including Aunt Fozia’s record amounts of chai consumed.

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FLAGS:

There is lying and stealing, it is a mystery after all, and the presence of champagne, both as part of the mystery solving and at the celebrity’s celebration.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d do it as a book club book, because there wouldn’t be a lot to discuss.  I do, however, plan to suggest and gift the two book series to some young mixed ethnic Pakistani girls I know that would love to see a strong desi girl in the lead.

Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Omar is back, and the nine year old kid with a huge imagination, proves that his heart is even bigger.  Middle graders that loved the first version, The Muslims, and the reboot, Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, will undoubtedly love this book’s adventures and the real, relate-abl, presentation of Islam in a Muslim family.  While it references the first book, it can work as a stand alone book too, and can and will be enjoyed by kids and adults, girls and boys, Muslims and non Muslims.  At 217 pages, the large spaces, doodles, playful fonts, and illustrations, make the book fly by and beg to be read again and again.

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar’s family still has their Science Sundays, but they don’t visit a new mosque every Saturday, as they have found a mosque near their home that gives his parents, “secret smiles” and them all a sense of community.  Omar and his sister still bicker, and his little brother Esa is still lovable, and the former bully, Daniel, is now a great friend to Omar and Charlie.  Life is good, Alhumdulillah, but in the midst of the boys planning how to get laser guided Nerf guns and have an all out battle, Omar learns the mosque’s roof is in need of repair and that the congregation will need to come up with 30,000 pounds to cover the costs, and fast.  In an act of selflessness, Omar abandons his dream of a foam gun and donates to the masjid.  Seeing that is not going to be anywhere close to enough he plots and schemes with his friends, his non Muslim friends, on how to raise the funds.  They bake cookies, make origami birds, and get their school to host a talent show to raise the money.  Their teacher and the head teacher coordinate the hall and judges and winning prizes all to help out Omar and the mosque, in the end though, they raise just under 1,500 pounds.  Not enough by themselves, but a great contribution to what other people hopefully are scrounging up.  The worst part however isn’t that they didn’t make enough, but that what they did make, goes missing.  Omar, Charlie, and Daniel, along with the parents and police and school personnel, try and find the money and who might have taken it before time runs out.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how effortlessly the author adopts a nine-year-old’s voice and persona.  So many of the details, for example, about how the school administration signed off on a fundraiser for a religious building, and how tickets were sold, and the planning took place are left out, as a nine year old, probably wouldn’t know, or be concerned with the logistics of such endeavors.  It seemed like some details should be given, but I doubt readers would feel that way, so I pushed it aside and went along for the ride.

Omar has amazing friends, from the unpredictable old neighbor lady, to his non Muslim friends being so enthusiastic and supportive of saving a mosque.  I love it, and that they are that way because Omar is so unapologetically Muslim first.  They even discuss a hadith about how building a mosque, builds you a house in Jannah, and a mainstream book published this, and it is AMAZING! It isn’t just a kid and his family, who happen to be Muslim, the whole plot of the book is to save a mosque, and the fact that this book exists, seriously is so beautiful, and powerful, and hopeful, Alhumdulillah.

This book has a lot of layers, most kids won’t pick up on the interfaith aspects being so ground breaking, or the beauty of teachers and parents believing and supporting young kids, but will just read it as a funny story with anecdotes and inside jokes that they get as kids, as Muslims, and maybe even as Desis.  It truly is the culmination of an author who can write well, characters that our kids can see themselves in, and an opportunity to tell our OWN stories that make this book work for kids, adults and everyone in between.

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FLAGS:

Omar and his sister are mean at times, but alas love each other and look out for each other too.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but if I did, I would do this book in a heartbeat.  For middle school it would be too quick of a read, but I think all classrooms and all libraries should have the book, up through middle school.

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2020/2/7/planet-omar-pushing-for-muslim-characters-in-childrens-literature

I got my copy here in the US at www.crescentmoonstore.com and as always you cannot beat their customer service and prices.  If you don’t have the first book, you can get it there, too.  Thank you Noura and Crescent Moon Store.

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/

 

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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Woah! Domestic abuse, foster care, murder, astronomy, and above all hope and bravery. It is so, so much, and so beautifully dealt with from the perspective of a child, that I’m still living in Aniyah’s world and praying she is doing ok.  As the beginning of the book states, it is a story written for everyone, but it then goes on to say that there could be triggers and difficult things to read. So please, while it may be written for ages nine and up, you should know what your child can handle before suggesting they read such a heartbreaking 306 page book, and if they aren’t able to handle it yet, make a mental note to have a discussion when they are ready, it is important.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with a map of London and the chapters start with constellations, maps to the stars, and a little girl who wants to be a star hunter.  Drawing on Simba from the Lion King and wholeheartedly believing that stars are people who’s hearts were so big that when they die they light up the night, she maps the stars outside her foster house window, on the lookout for a new star, her mom.  Not remembering all the details that brought her to this foster home, she and her little brother Noah are trying to figure out their new life, the foster home rules, the loud pain they felt, and if they are winning the game of hide-and-seek with their father.

Unable to speak, Aniya, breaks her silence when a news story on TV tells of a star breaking the rules of gravity and flying by Earth.  Convinced it is their mom, Aniyah and Noah with the help of fellow foster kids Travis and Ben hatch a plan to go 73.6 miles from Waverly Village to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to make sure the star hunters name the star the correct name, and not the random computer generated one the contest rules dictate.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is inspired by the author’s aunt who was a victim of domestic abuse and killed by her husband.  The love and pain she feels at her loss, I believe is conveyed through the pages and felt by readers of all ages.  I had my 10 year old son and my 12 year old daughter read the book, because this book’s topics are heavy and weighty, but handled with such sensitivity and childlike innocence that it is a great introduction to the topic, without being overly heavy and weighty.  The author is amazing, and I was curious how she would follow up her amazing debut novel The Boy at the Back of the Class, and I think this one is just as powerful, if not more so. 

All of the foster kids suffer from some form abuse and there is even a note at the beginning about how the author does not like the term “domestic abuse” and there are resources and information at the end of the book for children or adults suffering or how to help someone they know suffering abuse.  There is also a page about Herstory, the constellations, and some personal anecdotes about the author’s aunt.

The book is truly heartbreaking because as an adult reading the book I could easily figure out what happened, that the father killed the mother, and that the games the mom would have the kids play were not games at all, but ways to mask what was going on. The book is very subtle in how it talks about what the mom and kids endured and some kids will not get it, and others will, either way, parents should be aware and available to discuss that abuse is never ok and that if their friends or someone they know is suffering/surviving, there is help.

The book is powerful also in the way the foster kids for the most part stick together, I think the way they are so willing to help and risk their own chances at adoption is selfless and memorable.  Also the way they put up with Noah, a little kid, who gets annoying, but handled lovingly,  because family means so so much when you don’t have one. 

On the surface though, it is an adventure story, can a ragtag diverse group of kids with little money, injuries and a deadline travel nearly a hundred miles to name a star?  Its fast paced, interesting, and emotional on many levels.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, not even a Muslim name in passing, but the author is Muslim and the story universal.

FLAGS:

Halloween is when they run away.  There is a lot of lying, but they know it.  Lying when the mom covers her bruises and marks, and how she is doing, lying when the kids run away and steal the bikes and sneak on a bus without paying, and break in to the observatory.  The kids feel guilty and know right from wrong in every instance, but when they opt to do something uncouth they rationalize it because they have to name that star!

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m seriously considering reading this as a middle school book club selection.  It is written for a younger audience, but I think I want to open up the topic of abuse and have the school counselor come and listen to the discussion.  The book is that good, and that important, and that powerful, that a discussion and lessons, will keep these characters’ stories in the middle schoolers’ minds as they grow and hopefully teach them empathy, compassion, appreciation, and patience.

 

 

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

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Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

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It’s been a while since I’ve read such an over the top silly book that has a lot of heart.  It is 352 pages that remind me of the the My Teacher is an Alien book series of my youth smashed up with the Weirder School/Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of today.  Meant for upper elementary with some bad words (hell and damn), the story is Pakistani-British representation with many Muslim named characters, a Muslim author, and a shout out to a KFC in another town that is halal.  Don’t read it if if you want to learn anything, but definitely pick it up if you want to roll your eyes, giggle, and ponder a world where Desi aunties are the perfect disguise for force feeding an entire community delicious food as part of their evil plan to take over the world.

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SYNOPSIS:

Humza Mohammed Khan is an 11 year old Pakistani kid in Britain who thinks of himself as the next big rapper, Little Badman.  He dreams big and talks even bigger as he struts around primary school getting in trouble and trying to film his music video on his friend Umer’s extremely old Nokia flip phone.  With a normal enough mom, a hyper exaggerating father, and a handful of their friends known as Aunties and Uncles, Humza gets in trouble regularly enough, but overall seems to have a good heart.

Things at school slowly start to change after their teacher gets stung by a bee named Mustafa, that Umer brought to school to be his pet.  Weird as that might be, it is even more odd, when their teacher is replaced by a volunteer auntie.  Every day it seems like a teacher goes missing, and is replaced by some asian kids’ aunt.  When the supper ladies are replaced and the food improves, no one is complaining.  When every volunteer starts bringing snacks to school, no problem.  Who doesn’t love gulab jams, and samosas, and butter chicken all day long every day?  Well, as the school puts on the pounds and all the teachers and staff are officially missing, Humza, Umer and their former nemesis Wendy, start to get worried.  Humza’s Uncle who he calls Grandpa, claims his wife Auntie Uzma is not really his wife, and helps Humza investigate.

Secret meetings in supermarkets, teachers and grandpa vanishing, and Humza seeing a giant slug coming out of the substitute librarian, means that Little Badman is going to have to run away from cricket practice, not get sent in a crate to Pakistan, face his stage fright, and save the day from the aliens taking over the aunties.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is cultural rep and own voice in its telling.  Humza is Pakistani and his cultural baggage is hilarious and part of him, and no explanations are needed.  In his world people are from lots of places and they all live and play and learn together and they eat caramel apples and toffee and jilabies.  The diversity is great and not articulated, it just is what it is, and they all have to work together to save the day. I think my favorite character is Grandpa, who Humza has to learn to appreciate and not just see as an old almost dead guy and Humza’s dad who exaggerates everything and takes his cricket very seriously.  At the end Humza has to have a heart to heart with his dad and his uncle, Grandpa and it makes this over the top nutty story really kind of sweet too.

There is no “Islam” in it aside from Muslim names and mention in a rap of a halal KFC.  I kind of like that they are Muslim kids and it appeals to a larger audience, sure something praying or something at some point might have been nice, but it isn’t a book that you’d be expecting spiritual nuggets from, so it is ok.

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FLAGS:

The words damn and hell are used.  There is disrespect of authority, parents, and teachers as well as lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had my ten year old read it and he thought it was ok, but was uncomfortable with the language, which I was glad, but I told him I thought he could handle it, and know what is appropriate to use.  That being said, school libraries should have the book, maybe not classroom libraries though, and I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club.  I will have my other kids read it though, cause like I said, it is silly and fun.

Interview with comedian author Humza Arshad: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2019/march/meet-little-badman/

 

 

The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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At 246 pages I’m not sure if this book would be classified as Young Adult, but I think it could be, as its message, focus and presentation makes it a valuable thought provoking read.  And the cleanliness of everything being resolved so neatly might almost be too coincidental for older, more jaded readers, where I personally wasn’t too bothered by how much emotional action was packed in to the book and how quickly it was resolved as the characters were compelling and the pacing made it an enjoyable quick read.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows two women, Reem and Leah as their very different worlds and circumstances come together when they move in to the same apartment building.

Reem is a Syrian refugee whose past is presented in bits and pieces as her fragmented memories surface in the story.  She is searching for her 10 year old brother Adar, as well as trying to create a future for her self in London.

Leah has recently lost her husband, left her training as a doctor, and is trying to make a life for her and her son, Elijah, away from her parents’ shadow of expectation and demands.

When the two ladies meet, neither is completely settled or functioning, yet the desperation each is feeling causes Reem to ask for Leah’s help, and Leah agreeing.  The two become friends as they share parts of their world with one another and slowly start to heal.

Then Reem’s secret pregnancy comes to light, her abusive husband finds her, Leah’s posh friends abandon her, and their apartment building, the tower, catches fire.  Granted it doesn’t all happen that quick and there are lots of details that make their pasts, their friendship, and their goals for the future believable and inspiring, as well as making the pain for those lost in the fire emotionally wrenching.

As the two women once again try and survive hardship, this time together, they make progress before a terrorist attack on the mosque again sets them back.  Through all these major plot points details about how Reem got to England, and the atrocities she suffered that her mind blocked out are made clear.  Additionally, more about Leah and her families involvement in the tower fire and their friends’ involvement in human trafficking all tie the lose ends up. In the final pages there is hope and resilience and respect from the reader for the brave characters brought to life and their determination to persevere.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is a very personal, character driven story about a horrific fire, reminiscent of the Grenfell fire which claimed the lives of over 70 people.  I also absolutely love how Islam is presented.  The Muslim characters are tangibly real.  Reem wants to fast because it is Ramadan, but has the excuse that she is pregnant, but tries anyway.  She prays, she covers, she meets a Muslim that doesn’t cover, but they pray together at the mosque later and become great friends.  Leah is interested in Islam and asks questions and when she cooks for her Muslim friends she gets halal meat.  There is an amazingly helpful character Mo in the story who Leah is crushing on, but he refuses to be alone with her, or touch her, and when she tells him of her feelings, he says that everything she likes isn’t him it is his religion.  Leah and Reem discuss how the sunnah’s of the Prophet influence Mo and his brother and it is quite detailed.  Quranic ayats are quoted in character’s dialogues in natural presentations, not preachy or misplaced.  It hints at the end, when Leah has joined Doctors Without Borders and is in the Middle East that perhaps she has taken shahada, but it isn’t a plot point and isn’t mentioned explicitly.

My biggest complaint about the book is the random foreshadowing that pulls out from the story to hint that something more is going to happen between certain characters or be of more importance later.  I think it happened three times, and each time completely unnecessary. The story and characters and writing are clear and done well enough that needing the hint sells it all short and it wasn’t just annoying and irritating, it really kind of made me mad.  Here I was feeling an attachment for a character or what they were experiencing only to be reminded that there will be more, rather than letting me go along for the ride with the character.

I also was bothered by the font and spacing.  It is really tight on the pages, but with big margins, that a little breathing room would have been nice.  So, much happens in the book, that I wanted to be able to relish in each event and often I felt the presentation made it rushed and I found myself skimming, more than I would have liked.  I would have also liked to know what parts, if any, were based on or inspired by real events: the tower fire, human trafficking, stealing organs, artifacts coming out of Syria, refugee treatment in London, etc.

FLAGS:

There are memories of war and dead bodies.  The stealing of organs and dumping of bodies into the ocean.  There is a lot of death after the fire and after the shooting at the mosque.  There is a lot of blood, a terrorist act, a baby being delivered, a drunk man at a party.  Nothing is overly sensationalized, but it is a gripping book with some intense moments.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if middle school can handle the book, the characters are older, so it won’t resonate with them like a traditional YA book would, but I’m tempted to have my almost 13 year old read it so we can discuss.  I will most definitely suggest it to the high school book club adviser as there is a ton to discuss and relate to in this action packed book.

Author’s website and Q and A: https://shereenmalherbe.com/

 

 

The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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At 254 pages this boarding school story beautifully blends Islamic information, mystery, and compelling characters embarking on a new stage of their lives.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and engaging this book for upper elementary aged children reads and would strongly recommend it for grades 3-5.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Yusif is about to begin his first year at the prestigious Dar Al Ilm Academy a few hours away from his family, friends, and home.  Nervous to be on his own, he is excited to be giving his dream of memorizing the Quran the chance to become a reality.  When he arrives at the old mansion turned beautiful campus, he is paired up with Reda, a student to help him get situated and before you know it the two are fast friends.  When they get put in the same house, Ibn Kathir, with Warsoma and Daud, the four friends embark on a year of adventure and bonding as well as growth and learning.  Along the way they learn some Islamic history, they understand important hadith and Quranic Ayats and are challenged to live according to the sunnah even when tempers and frustrations abound.  When items start to go missing the boys and their house will have to keep their cool, not accuse anyone, but figure out what is going on all at the same time.  When the culprits are uncovered, they will be further tested to hold a grudge, offer forgiveness, or even extend an invitation to friendship. 

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WHY I LIKE IT:

This idyllic story and predictable mystery will appeal to impressionable readers that can’t see what is coming and can still be inspired by the beauty of such a protected environment.  The window might be small for such readers, but well worth the attempt as the book is well written and the characters well developed.  The boys are diverse and kind and helpful and all the things we want our children to be, especially when they are away from us.  Each character has their strengths and weaknesses and the friends accept them and celebrate one another rather than try and force them to change. The four houses and the characters vying for year captain and having fun along the way reminds me of a Harry Potter spinoff, but alas I think that is just my ignorance of the British school system.  I love that the four houses and their namesakes are detailed at the end as well as there being a glossary of terms.  There are illustrations every chapter or so that are appealing and offer a nice visual of the boys’ world.  The text, line spacing, chapter breaks and all are perfect for the demographic and while the fictional story is solid, I am happy to report I learned a number of things as well. 

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FLAGS:

None, alhumduillah

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: 

I can’t find much on the author or even on any future books, which is unfortunate because I think it would be great for an elementary book club selection, and I may read it to my 4th and 5th grade Lunch Bunch group after we finish The Great Race to Sycamore Street.  I think it should be in Islamic School Libraries and classrooms as its cover will hold its own and compel kids to pick it up off the shelf.

Book trailer: http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/trailerfullhd.html

Book website:http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/index.html

 

 

Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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I read this book a few years ago and was blown away that Islamic fiction could explore these topics compellingly in a YA package.  I remember loaning out the book to a mom with middle school kids to see if she could tell me how accurate the storylines were.  Yeah, I never got the book back, and never got the feedback, and the book slipped my mind and thus I never wrote a review on it.  Fast forward to last month and I’m trying to find a middle school book club selection and I can’t believe that I don’t have a blog entry of this book to look back on.  Clearly, this shows why 1- I don’t loan out books anymore and 2-Why I have a blog, cause I remember nothing about the flags, relevance or appropriateness of the book, thus I bought another copy, read it, and am now documenting my thoughts.

The book is 260 pages and an AR 5.3, but the drug use and violence I’d say would warrant an older reader, 9th grade and up perhaps.  And while by the end, the book leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth and you would place it back on the shelf in a contented manner, I would be misleading if I didn’t confess that it took much self motivation to pick the book up and keep reading more than once, that it honestly took me a month to read.  The last third was hard to put down, but you have to get through a fair amount of frustration, stereotypes, and extremes to get there.

SYNOPSIS:

Sixteen year old twins Farhana and her brother Faraz live in London and are incredibly different from one another.  Farhana goes to a school where she excels both academically and socially.  She is queen bee, beautiful, and articulate.  Faraz on the other hand, goes to a different school and doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but in the art studio.  One thing that unites them, however, is their determination to grow and learn about Islam this Ramadan, and their home environment of a large extended Pakistani family that places culture above religion.

Both twins are close with the “black sheep” of the family, their Aunty Najma, a niqabi rebel set on marrying a white convert.  But, both twins have their own stresses as well.  Farhana has recently called it off with a boy named Malik, but isn’t really over him and Faraz has gotten himself involved in a street gang to find a place to belong, but the stakes are getting higher.  Both twins on the eve of Ramadan and with the coaching of their Aunt are determined to get their lives straightened out, fast properly, reconnect with their faith, and with each other.  They do, alhumdulillah, however, the spiritual high only lasts so long, as earlier decisions come back to haunt them.

Farhana makes the bold decision to start wearing hijab, but once the novelty wears off, she starts to question her choice.  It isn’t helped by her mom who is very, very against the need to veil and makes it difficult for her daughter.  Faraz meets some street artists at the masjid and while it looks like he could find a place to excel, his alliance with a gang, also comes with enemies from rival crews.  Physical fights and drug runs have him out at all hours of the night and the priority of fasting and praying fade as the the pressures of not getting killed or caught prevail.

As each kid has their ups and downs, and the parents prove to be out of touch with the lives of those in their homes, tidbits of Islam come through, but unfortunately so does a lot of cultural dogma that isn’t always clarified or pushed back on, making there a lot going on in this book, and making me wish it was a just a bit longer and more fine tuned.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book, I could argue set the foundation for the amazing pieces of literature currently available.  Published in 2010, the book really was a first of its kind.  Written by a Muslim, unapologetically written for Muslim and non-Muslims, and available in the mainstream.  The book tackles real issues, but seems to fall into stereotypes too.  That Farhana covers and is so beautiful, she looks like Aishwariya Rai, the Bollywood actress, why would she cover.  Malik decides to figure things out and wait for her, ahhh, so sweet.  There’s the rebel Asian girl who gets a lot of page space early on for her incredibly minor role, going on about Asian Girl Bachelor Parties and hooking up with everyone and anyone. There is the best friend who is religious and the Imam’s daughter and is also chubby.  The nice brother at the masjid who saves the protagonist.  I don’t know, they all seem predictable.  What I like about fiction is it allows Muslims to be seen in shades of gray not just black and white, and while this book tries to do it, I feel like only the main characters are allowed to grow and change, the minor characters hold on to their positions so resolutely that, they kind of seem dry.

I like that the tables on hijab are switched up, it isn’t the parents that want the girl to cover, but rather the girl her self, and some of the conversations about hijab and Farhana’s choice to do it compared to her friend who is forced allow for some powerful moments.  I also like, that she has doubts soon after opting to wear it.  I wish some religious reasonings were brought in to her understanding of hijab, but the aspects of choice and how to wear it, are present.  I’m grateful that Faraz’s storyline takes most of the action, so that it isn’t a romance novel, with Farhana pining relentlessly for Malik.  I had hoped for a little growth from the gang head, Skrooz, especially after Aunty Naj sheds some light on him, but his criminal act at the end after showing Faraz his cousin or maybe it was his brother seemed a bit off.  Again, it was only to benefit the protagonist, not to show that we all have our own battles.

The parents and extended family are irritating to say the least. To the extent of delaying iftar to get the food to the grandmas house and then serving the men first, like really? I don’t think so.  There is nothing that says the women have to eat after serving everyone else in religion and that is never challenged.  Yes, Farhana challenges her mom’s notion of women not going to the mosque, but the food bugged me.  I am Pakistani American, and the culture has its flaws, but the presentation in the book, is one big wide stripe of female oppression, which isn’t fair either.  Absolutely, their are families that the women cook all day and then eat in a corner, but I feel like the staging of this book as “authentic” either needs to show variation, or account that this is how one family views it, not that it is universal.

FLAGS:

There is talk of casual sex, physical violence with knives and fists, details about drugs: cocaine and heroin.  None of it is celebrated, but it is present and very much the norm in how it is presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I still sway back and forth on if this could be done as a book club selection, and in the end I would opt that no it can’t.  Not for the drug use, or boy girl relationships, but ultimately for how the backwards and closed minded the Pakistani culture is presented as being.  If the group was high school Pakistani heritage kids maybe, but I think Arabs and non Muslims in general will not think very highly of the culture after reading this book, and I think that is a disservice to be promoting in a book club selection.  

 

 

The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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I’m not sure why Amazon states the book is for pre-school and up, when the publisher, Kube, posts this book for ages 7 and up.  I think 3rd or 4th grade soccer/football fans will enjoy the book.  There are some slightly mature ideas presented and worked through, and the soccer lingo assumes the reader knows the sport.  Plus the quality of the illustrations and the small font isn’t going to entice someone not already excited to read the book based on the content within.  My boys, ages 8 and 9, enjoyed the book, as did I, once the story got going.  It doesn’t really grip you from the first sentence, but as the story progresses and the way Islam is woven in makes for some learning experiences in the midst of a few intense football matches.

SYNOPSIS:

The boys at the Sunday Madrasa do not enjoy their time there.  They find the Imam boring and thus are not inspired to learn. When they sneak a football into break time however, they suddenly feel more engaged and present in their lessons.  A change the Imam notices and appreciates, but doesn’t know the reasoning for as he strictly forbids football and finds it a waste of time.  Outside of Madrasa, Junayd is having a hard time at home.  He has to help out a lot at his father’s restaurant and his older brother Saleem has gotten in trouble with the police.  His mom prays for the kids, but is also at a loss as to how to help with the stresses at home.

During a secret game of football in the masjid courtyard, an arrant ball breaks the neighbor’s greenhouse window, and the boys are forced to come clean about their covert game.  The Imam demands the kids stop playing and that they tell their parents what they have done, so that they may earn some money to replace the window.  As the kids come through with the money and the Imam sees the kids resort back to their lackluster attitudes to learning.  He gets an idea to start a football club after madrasa classes.  The only problem is that he knows nothing about the sport and no parents are willing to help.

Saleem by chance comes to collect his brother one day, and as he hollers advice from the sidelines, the Imam recruits him to coach the team.  In response the Imam ever so gently uses football to teach not only the madrasa kids, but Saleem as well.  When the boys learn of an upcoming tournament, the Madrasa enters an A and B squad and the Shabab Al-Nasr, Victory Boys, will be tested not only in their play, but also in their manners, and understanding of what it means to be a team and Muslim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Imam grows and changes.  I mean it is a kids book about soccer, but really it is the adult in the story that shows the most heart.  He goes out of his comfort zone, reevaluates his opinions, and admits when he is wrong.  High five Imam!  I also like that he didn’t give up on Saleem, and the way he leads him is with such kindness and compassion, that even youngsters, will be impressed.  

The book does not talk down to the reader, which is nice, but at the same time I think it pushes the age appropriateness a bit with the detail devoted to alcohol being sold at the restaurant, Junayd’s father’s flaws, and even Adam’s dad’s tantrum of sorts.  There really aren’t any nice parents in the book.  We don’t learn much about the moms, but none of the dads seem too supportive.  Really the only nice adults are the Imam and the neighbor who’s window they broke.

The timeline isn’t entirely smooth, the kids come together and play well as a team remarkably fast for how intense the tournament is, and how well they perform. And some of the characters could have used some fleshing out, I couldn’t really tell you much about them.  The font is really small and the spacing often forgotten.  The book is about 95 pages with a glossary and an acknowledgement at the end, fortunately the 2nd book in the series seems to space the words and lines out more and is 155 pages.

The story is solid and for the most part well written.  I read it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed the lessons learned and then put into practice.  The book isn’t preachy, but you are glad to see the Imams words given life in the other characters’ actions.  Saleem changes quickly, but the author and story account for it in a way that is believable for the audience and the message of not giving up on one another comes through loud and clear.  There is a lot of technical detail about the sport, but it doesn’t drag on, it adds to the excitement even if you just know the basics.

FLAGS:

The talk of alcohol, of Saleem being with a group of kids and a stolen car, there is some yelling and aggressiveness from the adults.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The story is a bit short for a book club selection, but I would definitely consider it for Lunch Bunch (where I read to 4th and 5th graders while they eat lunch).  And I think most Islamic School libraries and classrooms should stock the series.  

https://thevictoryboys.com/