Tag Archives: fitting in

Amira’s Picture Day by Reem Faruqi illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Amira’s Picture Day by Reem Faruqi illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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This book is the mirror so many kids are desperate to find in literature. A young Muslim girl is excited to celebrate Eid, while at the same time is sad knowing she is missing school picture day with her class. Not knowing what day Eid will be, not having it a scheduled day off in most school districts, and always feeling like you have your foot in two different doors starts early for children in non Muslim majority countries. This early picture book touches on those emotions, and even if you can’t always get a test rescheduled or a project due date moved, at least readers that face these dilemmas at any age and stage in life, will feel seen in this 32 page book perfect for ages 5 and up.

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Amira and her brother Ziyad start the book looking out the window for the moon. They see it, which means Eid is tomorrow and Amira is going to have her mom put decorative Mehndi on her hands. She has her mom include a dolphin in the green swirls and hopes that by morning the color will be dark and beautiful. Ziyad is excited that they get to skip school.

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Mom recruits the two kids to make goody bags and count out lollipops for the kids at the masjid, when the flyer for picture day catches Amira’s attention. Devastated that she will miss the class picture having already picked out a pink-striped dress for the occasion, mom reassures her that she will get to wear her new shalwar kameez, and they will take lots of pictures at the masjid.

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Amira loves going for prayers and the party after, but she is kept awake at night worrying how her classmates will remember her if she isn’t in the picture. The next morning she is excited, it is Eid, but seeing her pink dress hanging next to her blue Eid outfit makes getting dressed a heavy process.

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When they get to the masjid, Amira hardly recognizes it, it is all decorated and everyone looks beautiful. The smell of baked goods makes focusing on her prayers difficult, and after when everyone is taking pictures she remembers what she is missing and feels deflated.

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On the way home Amira works to hold back the tears, when she suddenly has an idea to take the remaining goody bags to her classmates, and maybe catch her class pictures. Her parents agree and they stop at the school.

I won’t spoil if she made it in time, but the kids in her class love her clothes, and her mehndi designs. The book concludes with an Author’s Note, More about Eid and a Glossary.

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I absolutely love the illustrations, little Amira is infectious and endearing. I wish the mom would have been a little more in tune with Amira’s feelings though, she definitely is upset and while I’m glad the family stopped after the Eid party, I feel like more could have been done beforehand to acknowledge Amira’s feelings, and see what could be done to accommodate both activities.

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I love the diversity and brightness of the book to convey the absolute joy and happiness of Eid outside of presents. I think the book works for all children of all backgrounds and is a much needed addition to the repetitive Eid books available.

The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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I was really surprised by the number of gaps in this 46 page story that is so adorably illustrated and seemingly planned out. I thought perhaps I was being overly critical, so as always I tested it on my kids, and they too were confused by the main character’s rational and choice of words, the holes in the narrative, and the inconsistency of the characters. The book is wordy, so conciseness cannot be the reason for the holes, and it is published by a publishing company, so I would assume it has been proofed. Really the point of stories connecting us and giving us comfort when we need it, is sadly lost. I had hoped to love this fictional story of a Palestinian girl using prayer to give her comfort in her new home, but alas it seemed to be trying to weave in too much, and as a result the story isn’t fabulous for me unfortunately.

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Noor is new at school and stands out. She finds comfort in remembering the things that are the same. 1-Allah could still see and hear her. 2- The Angels were still by her side, and 3-She still slept under the same moon. She also wears clothes that remind her of home and provide an unspoken clue as to where home is for her.

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At school Noor has a problem, she needs a place to pray, but at lunch time the kids are not allowed to go inside and the dinner lady guards the door. Noor needs a distraction to sneak in the building and it isn’t clear if she provides the distractions, or just benefits from a baby bird falling out of a nest, a snake being in the grass, and a classmate getting hurt. Either way, when the teacher is occupied, Noor enters the building and finds a closet to pray in.

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On one such visit to the closet she finds someone already in there, Hannah. Hannah is there because she doesn’t like being on the playground because she is different. Noor never asks why Hannah feels different, so the reader isn’t made aware either. Hannah asks her why she is there and Noor says she comes “to pray because it reminds me of where I’m from.”

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When Hannah asks where she is from, Noor doesn’t just simply answer, she tells her stories about her homeland, the mountains, olive trees, where the athan floats in the air and fisherman return to the shore with their catch. The next day Hannah is there again, and Noor tells her more stories and legends about her culture and lessons of the Prophets. Noor learns that through her stories she feels connected to her old home.

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Weeks pass, and one day when she sneaks in to the school, she finds the door locked. With no where to go she heads back to the playground and starts to cry that she won’t be able to pray. She then sees Hannah disappear and she follows her in to the drama studio. When she enters she sees sets built that look like the setting of her stories, of her home. Hannah knew she missed home and built her sets to look like Palestine.

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Other kids miraculously enter, and Noor begins telling them her stories, without praying first. The other kids seem to enjoy her stories and Noor learns that she can pray anywhere while holding on to her three reassuring thoughts.

The illustrations are engaging, although I’m not sure where the prayer rug seems to magically come from for Noor to pray on in the closet the first time. Had the book just been about prayer and finding a way to pray, or just about the stories connecting us to our past I think it would have been more powerful. I’m glad that Noor loves salat and that Hannah is a good friend, but I feel like by trying to do too much, the poignancy of the little things was lost.

And as for my questions: Can’t Noor ask for a place to pray? Can’t she pray outside? How is Hannah making the sets all by herself? Noor says she prays because it reminds her of home, she doesn’t pray for the sake of Allah or because it is required of her? Why did Hanna feel different, and why didn’t Noor bother to ask? It says that she needed to distract the dinner lady, isn’t that dishonest even for a good cause? Did she harm the baby bird so that it would need rescuing? Put the snake in the grass? Hurt the little girl so that she could get by the teacher? How was Hanna getting inside at lunch time? How is the school ok with a kid coming inside to build a whole set with school materials, but can’t let another child inside to pray for less than 5 minutes? And if Noor didn’t feel comfortable asking for a space to pray, clearly Hannah had connections to get permission to create a huge scene, couldn’t she have asked, or helped Noor ask?

Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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This book is a great OWN voice, middle grade coming of age book that rings with truth and hope in its poetic lines that sweep you up and keep you cheering.  Over 352 pages the author’s semi-autobiographic story of coming to Peachtree City, Georgia from Karachi, Pakistan beautifully unfolds.  I absolutely loved this book and the way it is told, in verse.  The details, often small, ring with such sincerity that even those that have never moved to a new country, or been to a new school will feel for young Nurah Haqq and be inspired by her success, touched by her hardships, and disappointed in her mistakes.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nurah’s best day is spent on the beach with her best friend Asna, playing in the warm waves and riding camels.  However it ends up also being her worst day, when she returns home to her father’s news that they are moving to America.  Strong, confident Nurah who spends time with her grandparents, swimming with her older brother Owais, and excelling at math in school is reluctantly leaving it all behind to start anew.

When they arrive in Georgia the family of four settles in a hotel until they find a house.  Everything is different and new, and the transition with no friends and family difficult for the entire family.  The way words are pronounced, the way the air feels and the birds chirp all make Nurah long for home.  When they find a swimming pool at the rec center, things start to slowly change.  Owais was a medal winner in Karachi, and will be one here too, people start admiring him, and Nurah tries to bask in his light.

School starts and math is a relief, but people are white, so white, and a boy reaches out to shake her hand.  She feels betrayed that she has been told the schools in America are better, and lunchtime, with no one to sit by is a huge stress.  She questions her clothing, her appearance, and the weather.

Her and Owais try out for the swim team and make it, and Nurah makes her first friend, Stahr. Stahr lives a few houses down from their new house and when Nurah’s mom has a miscarriage, it is Stahr’s mom who comes to show support and give comfort.  The support is reciprocated when Stahr and her mom need help escaping from her abusive father.

As Nurah works to win swimming races and be more like her brother, she works to find her voice and use it to defend others and herself.  A terrorist attack committed by someone claiming to be Muslim sets the family up to be targets.  In a moment of jealousy, Nurah doesn’t intervene to help her brother and the consequences are huge.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the details and how they are articulated.  I related to so much of Nurah’s feeling and impressions, that I reached out to the author and found her to be just as endearing as her character.  The feeling of being different when swimming because of your decision to be modest, the role of food to comfort you and make you feel at home, the older brother that you so desperately want to resemble and be like: All of it hit close to home for me.  I love how religion and culture are so much a part of the story and about the character’s identity, not to be made preachy, just to understand her and her experiences.  She goes to the masjid, she prays, she starts to wear hijab. I love how she finds her voice and defends those that can’t, but that her path is not easy.  She makes mistakes and she has to challenge herself to do what is right.  The backdrop is always trying to “settle” in a new place, but the story has it’s own plot points that are interesting and simply made more impactful by Nurah’s unique perspective.

There are lots of little climaxes and victories for Nurah that show her to be well-rounded and relatable.  You cheer for her early on and enjoy the journey.  The only slight hiccup I felt was the name confusion of her Nana and Nani (Nana), it is explained, but it was a little rocky for me, it might be based on a real thing in her family, but once that is resolved, the book flows beautifully and smoothly.

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FLAGS:

Nothing a 3rd/4th grader would find alarming, but none-the-less:

Crushes: Nurah has a crush on a boy at school when he shakes her hand and picks her for a lab partner, but she moves on from him while still maintaining a crush on her brother’s friend Junaid.  Nothing happens, she just thinks they are cute.

Miscarriage: Her mother has a miscarriage and it details a blighted ovum and the mental strain on the mom and family in the aftermath.

Abuse: Stahr’s father is abusive

Hate: There are bullies, discrimination, physical violence.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is a little below level for my middle school book club, but I think it it was on a bookshelf and a middle schooler picked it up, they wouldn’t set it down until they were done reading it.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Three hundred and forty pages written in verse that beautifully consume you and leave you emotionally changed and vulnerable and humbled all at once.  The book claims it is for middle grades, but I think middle school will appreciate it more, and I sincerely hope everyone of all ages will take a couple of hours to fall under the spell that is woven to tell a story of a refugee leaving home and starting anew in America.

SYNOPSIS:

Jude is a 12 year old girl living on the beach in Syria, watching American movies with her friends and hanging out at her dad’s store.  With an older brother and a little sister on the way, life as told from her own perspective is pretty good.  Until it is not.  Until the crimes they only hear about happening in Aleppo and Damascus start to hit closer to home.  Until her brother starts sneaking out to meetings with other youth hoping to change the politics of their country.  Until a raid almost catches Jude and her brother and her parent’s decide it is time for Jude and her mother to journey to America, for a little while, to visit her mom’s brother and deliver the baby.

America is not like it is in the 90’s movies that Jude loves: Pretty Woman, Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality.  Her American aunt and her Uncle that seems to have forgotten his Syrian upbringing, are gracious and welcoming and their daughter, Sarah, who is less than a year older than Jude waxes and wanes in her approach to her cousin.  Adjusting to school, life without baba and her brother, and all the other adaptations that moving to a new country entail are brought to life through Jude’s eyes and understanding of the world around her.  As she comes of age and decides to wear hijab, as Islamaphobia shakes her sense of justice, and her little sister is born, the reader sees her grow and change and mature and find themselves hoping that she will soar.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the style of the story telling somehow gives life to so much.  With verse some things are highlighted in detail and other things skimmed over and yet at the end, not only do you feel like you understand Jude, but a lot of the side characters as well, which caught me off guard.  Truly the writing is strong and deliberate.  A lot of the politics and war crimes occurring in Syria are not detailed, and I have to assume that is because the point of view is a 12 year old girl that is blissfully in her own world.  I imagine this is also why the target audience is listed as 8-12 year olds, because it simplifies a truly horrific situation.  Also because despite moments of raw vulnerability, the book stays pretty optimistic and hopeful.  

I like that the characters are Muslim, and that the mom scolds her brother for not going to the mosque.  The book does talk about Jude’s period starting and thus Jude starting to wear hijab, which is one of the reasons I feel like early middle school might be a bit more appropriate age group.  There isn’t too much talk about faith and Islamic beliefs, but a few tidbits are sprinkled in, prayer, not eating pork, modesty.  The book is not gender exclusive, but I think girls will gravitate much more to Jude’s perspective, experiences and voice.

The only thing I found a bit off is that the book takes place in modern time, present day, yet none of them have cell phones or social media.  Jude Skypes her dad, yet writes letters to her friend back in Syria and is distraught when they don’t have a forwarding address to send them to after her friend also leaves home.  It seems that social media, email, a cell phone number, something would be available for them to all keep in touch.

FLAGS:

There is mention of Jude and her friends having to sneak in to see Pretty Woman because Julia Roberts is a prostitute, and mention of blood between one’s legs and periods starting.  The book otherwise is pretty clean.  It hints at her kind of crushing on a boy that is in the play with her, but nothing more than friendship is explored.  Violence mentioned is minimal and language is clean even when dealing with hate crimes in America.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a good chance that next year the students joining the middle school book club will be all girls, so if that is the case and the school counselor feels all the girls can handle the puberty aspects mentioned I would totally do this book.  The book reads very quick and might be a good way to get new kid to give a book club a try as well.

Author’s website: http://jasminewarga.com/about

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/80127-q-a-with-jasmine-warga.html

Interview with the Author: https://www.hbook.com/2019/04/authors-illustrators/publishers-previews/spring-2019-publishers-preview-five-questions-for-jasmine-warga/

 

 

Layla’s Head Scarf by Miriam Cohen illustrated by Ronald Himler

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Layla’s Head Scarf by Miriam Cohen illustrated by Ronald Himler

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It isn’t often that I feel compelled to list all the things I like about a book and all the things I don’t like about a book and count them up to see what I think about a book.  Especially when the book is only 32 pages and an AR 3.2, but this book has me on the fence.

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It is Layla’s first day of school and presumably she is shy.  That’s what the other kids say at least.  The story follows her and the class throughout a typical first grade day, there is no climax or problem, there is just her and her classmates moving from circle time, to the library, to lunch, to recess, to art, and then her joining in at circle time the next day.  

Along the way the kids comment on her scarf, the librarian brings her a book about her country with pictures of sun and sand and veiled women.  The lunch lady looks at her rice and pea pie and says it looks yummy, the kids tell her to take off her hat to play easier, other characters stick up for her and try to correct other classmates that it isn’t a hat, it is a scarf. 

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During art time, she paints her family and the women all wear hijabs, a few kids say they look funny, a few others stick up for her, she ends up crying, but the kids come together to make her feel better and to articulate that in America people can wear what they want.  Some kids talk about family members wearing yarmulkas and others about braiding their hair, but there is no reason given for why Layla wears a hijab.

I don’t think any of the kids are intentionally mean or malicious, they are curious and not given any answers by Layla or any of the adults.  As a result when the book is over, the reader similarly has no answers.  Despite that though, I think readers will get the power of kindness and with some (a lot of) discussion, understand how we can help people feel comfortable and celebrate differences.

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Here is my pro and con list about the book:

PROS:

Book about hijab is included in a mainstream series meant for 1st graders (We Love First Grade!) 

Kindness comes through.

Kids stick up for each other.

Librarian found a book about Layla’s country and read it to the kids.

Kids include Layla while playing.

Illustrations are soft and realistic.

Diversity in the classroom.

CONS:

The book is about hijab, but nothing is learned about hijab.

Lots of stereotypes: girl doesn’t speak englishF from the desert, different food. 

Focus is on differences not similarities.

1st graders aren’t required to wear hijab.

Islam isn’t mentioned, but the Jewish kid mentions his faith.

Don’t learn what her lunch is called or what country she is from.

If she doesn’t speak English how did she label everyone in her picture?

Clearly she understands English, she is just shy, so why does she mess up the song at the end?

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Luckily the book was in the public library, so I don’t feel like I bought something that I am unhappy with.  I don’t know that I would recommend it to anyone, but it is always nice to see a muhajaba in a story, and there isn’t anything “wrong” with the book, it just lacks a lot of detail unfortunately.

Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

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Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

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This 40 page book caught my attention because I have a son named Mustafa, and the illustrations looked endearing and fun.  The author/illustrator was inspired to write the story when she visited Croatia and saw the resilience of the children.  She also remarks on her website, that children in new places can all relate to the nuanced uneasiness and gradual fitting in process that takes place universally (http://marielouisegay.com/blog/).

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The text is prose-like as young Mustafa ventures from his apartment each day to the park nearby.  He notices things he has never seen before and compares them to the destruction he recalls of his homeland.  He also finds things that remind him of home and things that look familiar. From little ladybugs and a heart-shaped leaf, to the changing leaf colors and kids dressed up in costumes, there is so much to take in and understand.

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As the days go on, he begins to wonder if he is invisible.  Finally, a little girl with a cat makes a small beckoning gesture to him that doesn’t need language to be understood, and just like that, the world gets a little more welcoming.  This gentle story shows what being new can feel like, and reminds us that sometimes all it takes is a simple act of kindness to change so much.

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The book mentions that Mustafa came on a long journey, but does not specify where he has come from.  He draws his house being bombed in the dirt with a stick and mentions loud noises and fire.  The mother wears hijab, and obviously his name would identify them as Muslims, but other than that there is no reference or mention of religion.

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Overall, the book would be great for ages 4-8.  The passages are a little long, but with the illustrations and relatable concepts, I think children will reflect on what the author is trying to convey, and be able to process what Mustafa has been through, and how hard even the littlest things can be in a new place.