Tag Archives: Food

The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

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This 32 page book written on an AR 4.2 is very text heavy and poorly illustrated, in my opinion, but if you have a patient audience, the story is really sweet and flows pretty well.  Plus, the moral and introduction to 4th through 6th graders about hunger and food scarcity in a gentle non condescending manner, makes the book stay with the reader in a humbling way.

On Saturdays, Mama works and its just Nora and her baba hanging out.  And every Saturday night, Nora’s baba makes couscous, but tonight Nora is starving and the couscous is taking too long.  As they wait Baba tells her a story about the butter man.

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Growing up in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, how much food the family had depended on the rain and the crops.  Once during a drought, Nora’s grandfather had to leave his family to try and find work, so the family could eat.  As the portions of bread Nora’s baba was given decreased in size and the butter disappeared completely, his mother would urge him to go outside and wait for the butter man, to ask him to spare a little.  As he would sit and wait he would nibble and the bread and would finish it still waiting for the butter man.  This daily ritual passed the time as his stomach rumbled, and finally after a while his father returned with flour, couscous, vegetables, and meat.  Baba tells Nora that while the butter man never came, the rains did.  And just as Nora hopefully appreciates true hunger, so does the reader, Mama then comes home, the couscous is ready, they say Bismillah and dive in.

butter.jpgThe only real Islamic reference is Bismillah, being said before they eat.  The story is followed by an Author’s note and a much needed Glossary.  A bit of Moroccan culture comes through as the baba waits for the butter man, and with all the talk of food, but it isn’t done well for me in the illustrations.  The characters’ closeups are distracting, and while the Author’s note explains their clothing and what not, I feel like they didn’t help the story come to life.

Here is a book trailer:

 

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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Take Jumanji, turn it into a chapter book, flavor it with steam punk, set it in a Middle Eastern inspired marketplace, and have the protagonist be a Bengali-American, hijab wearing Muslim on a quest to save her little brother with her two BFFs from New York. Bam, you now have a 298 page AR 5.4 reading level booked called The Gauntlet.  

Published by Salaam Reads (Amina’s Voice) this book is written for all kids, the main character’s religion and culture just add depth and a connection to the game they have fallen in to.  I found this book on Scholastic, and when I got it, I handed it to my daughter to screen for me.  I asked her once she finished if it had any Muslims in it and how were they presented, to which she gaped at me and said, “umm mom the whole thing is about a Muslim girl and it is awesome!” So naturally I moved it higher up in the “to be read pile” and while I agree with her assessment, the book is more plot than character driven, and there isn’t a lot of theology in it, just a race against time to get out of the game alive.

SYNOPSIS:

It is Farah Mirza’s 12th birthday and while she should be downstairs visiting with her guests from her new school, she is holed up in her bedroom with her little brother Ahmad and her best friends from the old neighborhood, Essie and Alex, playing board games, the Mirza family’s favorite pastime .  When Aunt Zohra tries to coax them from the room she mentions a gift for the birthday girl is in her room, and the kids sneak off to get it.  Only it isn’t the book she brought to give Farah that they find, it is a bewitched game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand that lures kids in, and keeps them if they cannot out play the Architect.  When Ahmed falls in, the trio has no choice but to follow him in to try and rescue him and escape, before time runs out.

Once inside the game, they are in a city called Paheli. It resembles an old Middle Eastern city with large souks, market places, even a small masjid, surrounded by sand and levels absolutely breathtaking in both their beauty and in their threat to the children.  The inhabitants are those that played the game and lost. The challenges the kids must face range from a life size game of mancala to a taste test of Bengali/Indian sweets.  As they rush from challenge to challenge they meet a kind tea shop owner, giant lizards, spies and police of the architect and see fairly detailed descriptions of different parts of Paheli. The gamemaker/designer known only as the Architect senses that the kids will win, so he starts to cheat, and then feels bad and arranges to meet the players.  When the children meet him, and hear his story, they feel some sympathy for him, but not for the Jinn that holds the ultimate power over the game.  Obviously they do escape, but I won’t spoil the fun the process is, nor the sweet surprise of the reunion.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that at the core, the story is driven by love for a sibling and requires the teamwork and cooperation of friends.  The rest is just frills from this central and clear message that is woven throughout the book.  While it is idealistic, there are hints that it isn’t overly so.  Yes Ahmad with his ADHD is a lot to handle at times, and the friends do have their squabbles, but ultimately both friends and family are worth risking it all.  I love that Farah is Bengali, many of the foods are Indian, and they are set in the Middle East, but yet somehow it seems interchangeable, this made me laugh, and while in other instances might have annoyed me, I liked how connected it made everyone seem, more alike than different.  Essie and Alex know some of the foods and cultural lexicon from growing up in New York.  They don’t find things different, they had lots of kids in school that wore hijab. Readers unfamiliar with some of the words and names found in the subcontinent and Islamic history might be put off a bit by the regular use of these words and the lacking glossary, but if you identify with any of it, you will celebrate seeing yourself in this book, just as Farah relished in seeing something of familiarity in Paheli.  

The book is fast paced and the detail given to the setting and cultural aspects are fun, but I really don’t feel like I connected much with the characters as a result.  There is very little character development and I actually had to look back in the book for some of the names to write this review.  There also isn’t much religion in terms of belief or practice.  The buildings and the food and the tone all hint at Islam, but I would have loved to hear an athan, or even her pausing to pray.  Not even that is there.  She wears hijab and that is about it in terms of religion.  

Ultimately I love that it is a mainstream book, with a strong storyline that is action packed and fun for older elementary and early middle schoolers that is clean and familiarizes and thus normalizes a culture not often seen in young adult fiction.  

FLAGS:

None, it is clean, at times possibly a bit scary with human bones, but not anything overly haunting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be an amazing book for a book club, and I would play the games that they play in the gauntlet at the meeting.  There isn’t a ton to discuss in terms of introspection and growth, but there is enough, and it is fun.  Plus, there aren’t a lot of books like this for Muslim kids to see themselves in, that I think it would be a blast for them to read, and enjoyable for the adults to watch them get swept away.

Interview with the Author: http://ew.com/books/2017/03/27/karuna-riazi-gauntlet-jumanji/

 

Alana’s Bananas by Mariam Hussein illustrated by Saima Riaz

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Alana’s Bananas by Mariam Hussein illustrated by Saima Riaz

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A silly, silly book about a girl’s love of bananas and her despair when a storm wipes out the banana crops in Costa Rica.  The moral of the story is to try new foods, and in 36 pages I think the reader will grasp just how over the top Alana’s obsession with bananas truly is and the lesson will be learned.

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My only stumbling block is I’m not sure what age the book is for.  The bright silly pictures work well for ages 3 and up.  The theme works well for ages 4 and up.  The amount of text on the page, however, is more 6 or 7 and up, and the concepts of where banana’s come from, multiple uses for banana peels is about the same.  The character in the book, Alana, is eight and goes to the library and reads cook books and cooks independently, but the way her parents trick her into eating other foods is to hide eggs, peanut butter, rice, avocados and anything else they could find in banana peels, which keeps with the silliness of it all, but seems a bit off for 8 years old. Also talk about very patient parents allowing their 8 year old to only eat bananas for so long, and then not being upset when they have to resort to extreme levels of trickery.

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There is nothing islamic in the text, and the only islamic elements are the author, illustrator, and the family based on the illustrations.  The mom wears hijab, but it is neither mentioned or referenced and no islamic vocabulary or phrases are in the story. In a scene at school, the girl sitting next to Alana is wearing hijab.

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The book is about 10×10 and sturdy in its construction.  The back cover has a recipe for Alana’s Banana Breakfast Muffins. Enjoy!

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

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Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

IMG_4757I was really excited to learn about this book from the author, as it seemed to be a book that would stand out in a very crowded genre and work for both Muslim and non Muslim kids.  When I tore off the package however, the face on the cover seemed a bit off for my taste, the glossary is on the back cover and while the pages are full size and full color, the book starts on the first page and somehow seemed more “home done” than “professional.”  Which isn’t a bad thing, and I’m happy to support local writers, but alas I do often judge books by their covers and format, and my first impression had to be stuffed away so I could give the book a fair chance.

The book is 20 pages with the 20th page being recipes.   I would guess children 5 and up would be considered the target audience.  It basically is a book telling about Ramadan with the author trying to blend in a story, that for me, sometimes worked and sometimes really didn’t.

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It starts with Zachariah, a 12 year-old-boy waiting for his mom to wake him up to fast, a day he has been waiting his whole life for.  Why he had to wait to fast at age 12 is not clear to me or made clear in the story.  His 10 year-old-sister only does half days, but in the illustrations she seems to only look about 3 years old, so I’m not sure where the arbitrary age requirements for fasting come from.  There is also a third sibling in the pictures that is never mentioned, not sure why, my kids and I speculated a lot more on that than we probably should have.  It isn’t told from Zachariah’s point of view but he is the focus as his day gets started.

The characters are undoubtedly desi as the book is very steeped in subcontinent cultural over tones.  Sehri, the pre dawn meal, is described in abundance of detail, “His mom made omelets, fried potatoes, with curry and tomatoes and his favorite parathas: thin leavened dough that is friend in olive oil or butter”  It’s a bit detailed of how the items are prepared for a kid’s book, and that is just page one of two pages dedicated to detailing the food on the table for breakfast.  Iftar the meal to break the fast is also two pages of description and cooking methods, but about double the amount of text.

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Culture is often food, and Ramadan has its own food traditions, but there is a lot of space dedicated to food in this book,  and it kind of takes away from the message of fasting, and moderation, and not going in excess.  Later in the book the mom does pack up some of the food to take to the less fortunate which is great, but she does it while the rest of the family is breaking their fast.  Not sure why she couldn’t have done it before or after and joined them.

After sehri is presented the family talks about Ramadan and what it means and what they like best about it.  There is a bit of dialogue that is actually sweet and funny, and gives some warmth to the story.  It is clear the author is just trying to flesh out the facts about Ramadan, but for a kid’s book, I think getting the facts in and presenting them in a fictionalized setting is a useful tool.

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The story seems a bit lopsided when it shrinks Zachariah’s day at school to one five line paragraph saying it was wonderful and then moves on saying “Later, he helps his mom.”  After spending 10 pages on the predawn meal, I would have liked to know a bit more how school went for him, it is his perfect day after all.  Also, the lapse in time by the narrator seemed a bit off to me in the sequential flow of the story, as it was following him in real time so to speak, and then fast forwards the bulk of the day only touching on lunch time, and

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Alhumdulillah, the family is sweet and excited for Ramadan. They pray together and are seen with smiling faces.  There isn’t much diversity in the pictures, the family has darker skin, the friends at lunch are more fair.  The mom wears hijab and is in the kitchen, dad doesn’t seem to be, but Zachariah helps his mom.

The book is colorful, and busy.  I’m not sure if the pictures are meant to be a stylized reality or look computer generated, but they seem a little blurry in places.  The font and backgrounds are nice.  There is a verse from the Quran in English and Arabic, as well as the athan and some Islamic calligraphy.

Overall, there is nothing “wrong” with the book, it just isn’t memorable.  There are some really good Ramadan books out there, and this one does it’s job of explaining Ramadan, but lacks the characters to leave an impression.  I definitely don’t regret buying it, but I don’t know that my kids or I will read it again this Ramadan, it doesn’t create that reaction.  It will probably stay on the shelf until next year, when we can’t recall many of the details and give it another go.

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Hamza’s First Fast by Asna Chaudhry

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Hamza’s First Fast by Asna Chaudhry

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Hamza’s First Fast starts out a bit wordy as the author tries to explain what Ramadan is and who is required to fast and why, before getting to the actual story line of the book.  The premise that Hamza’s siblings are fasting and that Hamza doesn’t know why or that it is Ramadan is a little questionable to me, but I doubt most 2-6 year olds are as cynical as I am.  Once the story gets going, however, the amount of text on the page drastically decreases to fit the younger demographic and the point of the book is charmingly exposed.

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Hamza understands that he doesn’t “have” to fast, but decides he “wants” to try. He prays with his dad, his sister helps him to understand how fortunate he is to have food, he goes outside to play, and he even tries to get lost in some video games.  But, it still isn’t time to break his fast and he is hungry! As his frustration mounts he decides to sneak a cookie, but when he gets it, he will have to decide to eat it or not.

I like that it is realistic that fasting for kids is hard, and can be really frustrating. It still encourages them to try, and the family members support him which is nice.  It also stays positive framing it that Allah will be pleased if he fasts, not that Allah will be disappointed if he eats the cookie.  Overall, there isn’t much religious rationale for why we fast and the Islamic traditions celebrated as the book stays on age level in what Hamza does.  This leaves the door open for discussion, lessons, insights, and interpretation, but does not weigh the book down with it.

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Perseverance is the theme of the story and that it feels good to do something hard.

Rafiq & Friends’ The Ramadan Date Palm by Fatemeh Mashouf illustrated by Vera Pavlova

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Rafiq & Friends’ The Ramadan Date Palm by Fatemeh Mashouf illustrated by Vera Pavlova

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It is nearly Ramadan, inshaAllah, the most blessed time of year.  I don’t normally do product endorsements and thus I didn’t review this book that comes with a whole Ramadan kit last year when my cousin gifted it my children.  However, as I look for Ramadan Story Time books, I reread this and while it references the activity cards, it really offers a lot as a stand alone book too.  So, yes I am going to review it and plug the kit as something your kids up to age 9 or so will really enjoy, at least mine did and even went searching last week for all the components….without being asked! That’s a pretty strong endorsement right there.

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Rafiq is a date palm tree that is so excited for Ramadan and is going to get you excited too.  He starts off by mentioning the fun you will have with the daily activity cards, and the role you will play in serving iftar dates on the special plate. The reader is then introduced to the cast of characters, Najjah the sheep, and later Asal the bee.

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The middle of this 36 page book are my favorite, the illustrations are so sweet and welcoming you want to hang them up in your children’s rooms.  This is where the “story” begins, it talks about Ramadan and how the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (saw), and fasting, and praying and patience and having fun with friends and playing too.  It then moves on to Eid and all the different yummy foods that are eaten all over the world.  It ends on a note of community and how we all pray the same with our families and use the word salam.

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The book is visually beautiful from one hard back cover to the next.  It is written in rhyme and most of it flows without feeling ridiculously over forced, but there are definite sentences that are awkward, and the rhythm seems to vary a bit that you have to stay alert when reading it out loud or you will get tongue tied.  I think if you just skip the lines that reference the cards at the beginning and end, the book can work without the kit and accessories.  Kids might be confused, but I think the bulk of the book is engaging and the pictures are stunning, that kids will be able to grasp on to the overall message of the book and forget about the “product placement” so to speak.  There is a glossary at the back, and it works for ages 3-10.

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(I wasn’t paid or asked to do this review, I wish I was, but it really is fun for multiple aged children, and gives a bit of daily Ramadan connection for those of us that want to make every day in Ramadan a craft and spiritual extravaganza, but know realistically we just won’t be able to do it all https://www.rafiqandfriends.com/)