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The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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This book is not a quick read, it begs to be read aloud and the pictures poured over.  The 48 heavily text filled pages are a trip back in time before the tale twists in on itself and becomes a story that gets more outrageous with each upgrade.  It claims to be for grades first through fourth, but I think it would need a lot of hand holding and attention to get any children to read it.  The story would really come to life at bedtime with a loved one, or in a classroom with discussion, but I don’t know that most children in that demographic would willingly pick up the book, read it, enjoy it and reflect on it, without some guidance.  The illustrations show characters in hijab and thumbing tasbeehs, the text mentions Allah swt and in phrases calling on Him in exasperation.  There is a “kiss”, it is a love story after all, and some demons and sorcery, but I think it is clean enough and silly enough that kids of all ages will enjoy it and not find it offensive or scary.

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Many years ago an old man in the old city of Damascus, would walk around carrying a large chest and tell stories.  Four lucky kids for only one piaster each could look into the chest and see the images of the story, the other children could listen to the story for free.  He didn’t come often, but when he would come the children would rush to meet him and listen to the stories, their favorite the one of Sami and Leyla.

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Sami was a shepherd boy, he was beautiful, but poor.  Leyla was the daughter of the richest farmer in the village and after their “accidental” kiss Leyla and Sami met every evening despite Leyla’s father forbidding it.  The whole village is in a buzz over the two lovebirds.  When Leyla is kidnapped, her father reluctantly tells Sami that if he can bring her back then they can marry.  When Sami returns with her, Leyla’s father pretends to be ill and in need of milk from a lioness.  Once again he promises that if Sami can obtain the milk than the two can marry.  Sami not only gets the milk, but returns riding a lion.  Leyla’s dad says that he is brave indeed, but that his daughter can only marry a rich man and needs to pay 300 camels as dowry.  Sami heads to Damascus to steal the camels from the king, but gets caught and put in prison.  Lucky for Sami, a dove comes to visit him and after he saves her life, she grants him one wish.  Yes, the animals can talk.  The camels and freedom are granted, but still Leyla’s father is not willing to allow the marriage.  He summons a sorcerer to send demons to turn his daughter in to a lizard.  When night after night the demons fail and beat the sorcerer, it is revealed that the father hired him.  The next day the two are married.

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Over time the pictures in the chest began to fade and new pictures from modern advertisements are used to replace the traditional images.  Leyla becomes Colgate, yes, from a toothpaste advertisement.  She has a glorious smile and is now the daughter of a car dealer who drinks only Fresh Mountain mineral water.  She gets kidnapped and Sami hears about it on his Filix portable radio that she is being held in a club and is forced to serve ice-cold Coca-Cola.  The story continues like this, but at some point the children in the story become bored with the new version, and sing the jingles for the items mentioned instead, until the story teller packs up and leaves.

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Two years pass and no one has heard from the story teller, some say he went mad, others that he died.  Then one day he comes back to town and the children all run to listen to his stories.  There is a chest to peer in, but there is nothing inside, like magic however, when the old man starts to tell his story, the images appear in the minds of the children.

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The illustrations are wonderful and detailed, and radiate warmth and richness.  The conversation I had after with my own kids, about what was valued and the power of stories is so powerful to see dawning on the listeners.  They get it, they do, and they realize how ridiculous the “updates” were.  When they realize it is the story teller and the magic of being together and sharing a story, they too become one of the children in the book and it is wondrous to observe.

In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Hatem Aly

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In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Hatem Aly

I know I am a little late to the review party of this highly anticipated beautiful book, but for good cause: I wanted to test it out in a virtual storytime for preschool to third graders before I chimed in with my opinion of this 40 page picture book ideally for four to eight year olds, but wonderful for all ages. The hardback binding, the glossy pages, the AMAZING illustrations and the factual information at the end, make this one of my favorite books ever for Muslim and non Muslim readers alike. If you can, gift this book to your child, your child’s teacher, their friends, your friends, and ask your library to shelf it. It is unapologetically Muslim, and has the power to mirror our own love of our masajids as well as encourage others to stop in and visit if they are curious about what a mosque is like. After reading it aloud, my only critiques are the very thing pages that make it hard to turn when reading to a group, and the small font which is appreciated so that the illustrations can be enjoyed, but hard to read when the gloss causes a glare and the thin pages bow. The only words in the text that gave me pause is when the “imam tells us stories…” to explain the khutba and speech, and when it says after salat “I whisper heartfelt wishes.” I understand the intent, but feel like the word “stories,” isn’t the correct word for ayats and hadith, nor is “wishes” the right framing of duaa or longings. I also wanted there to be a page number in the references section referring back to the pages in the book that link the inspired illustration of mosques to the real ones detailed at the end. Undoubtedly minor stuff for a book that came with a lot of expectation and yet still managed to blow me away, alhumdulillah.

The book shows diversity of tones, body shapes, and mobility as it welcomes and invites you in to a mosque. The shoes are lined up like beads as you enter and you let your toes sink in to the carpet. We wear our best clothes and get hugs from aunties because we are loved. Grandfathers do thikr on tasbihs and its ok to snuggle up with your dad while he is praying. Grandmas are reading Quran and little kids help put out prayer rugs. The imam gives speeches about unity and that we are all from the same creator. The muezzin calls us all to prayer and we stand in lines linked together with friends like a long chain. Hijabs flow and sometimes we get distracted. We say greetings to the angels on our shoulders and whisper our wishes. We learn to help others, we play in the courtyard and gaze up at the domes. We feel safe and joyful like our friends of other faiths in their places of worship and all are welcome in the mosque.

The book does not shy away from Islamic words in Arabic, nor from faith references such as the “most High,” and “subhanAllah.” The glossary at the end covers their meaning and the text flows in a way that you can stop or review afterward with relative ease. The imagery in the text of the shoes like beads, and standing in salat like a chain, are warm and relatable, and the illustrations, they are magical. The expressions on the children’s faces as they try and pray and stay still, but alas are children and they are silly and sweet and not chided, but loved, is so refreshing in both the text and pictures. The different masajids that are referenced, and the detail make repeated visits to the book heartwarming and joyous.

I love the lists and details about mosques around the world at the end, and the successful portrayal of genuine love and connection Muslims feel to the mosque as a place of coming together, or worship, or friendship, of play, of charity, of community, and of openness.

Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

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Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

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I reread my review of Saints and Misfits before diving in to this sequel that can also work as a stand alone, and imagine my absolute delight when all the things I wanted more of: Muhammed and Sarah, the mom, Jeremy, etc., were explored in this wonderful high school and up, 320 page, romantic comedy story.  The romance stays halal and the comedy light, but seamlessly interwoven into a weekend wedding are very serious notions of racism and prejudice within the Muslim community.  The writing is flawless as I tried to tell the summary to my daughter I realized just how many characters there are in the book, yet while reading, I never once was confused about who someone was or how they fit in to the family, it really is quite remarkable how real and personal the characters all become.  In many ways the story is uniquely an American-Muslim (arguably) one with characters that are half this culture, a quarter that, wearing cultural clothes to coordinate with friends, mutli lingual, multi ethnic, and yet all coming together as friends and family.  We, nor are the characters perfect, but that our weakness is explored in fiction so that we all might benefit in reality, is truly remarkable.  I honestly couldn’t put it down, and my teen and tween children may or may not have had to figure out their own meals, as I hid in the corner to devour this book in a single day. I regret nothing.

SYNOPSIS:

Janna Yusuf has just graduated high school and has been spending the last few weeks at her father’s sprawling house on a lake to help with wedding preparations for her beloved older brother.  What started out with plans to be a small nikkah between Muhammad and Sara, has quickly snowballed into a “wedding” with a few hundred guests and an ever evolving color scheme.  With extended family and friends pouring in over the three days, Janna is anxious to see Nuah and finally tell him that she is ready to return his feelings, reunite with her mom after being apart for weeks, and see who her best friend Tats is bringing as her plus one.  But, Nuah is acting weird, her mom seems to be considering remarrying, and her father is revealing himself to be racist.  There is a lot going on, and in between wedding preparations, possible crushes, family drama, prejudice overtones, and a curious ice cream man, Janna is having an unforgettable weekend.

Janna and Muhammad are close, they are the children of an Indian American non practicing father and an Egyptian American religious mother.  Their parents have been divorced for a while, and their dad and his Greek wife Linda have two little boys and are hosting everyone and the wedding.  The heart of the story is Janna as she thinks she is ready to pursue something halal with Nuah, but is slightly intrigued by Sara’s cousin Haytham and very perplexed by her mother’s potential future new husband’s nephew Layth. Being it is a wedding, and many people are staying at her father’s house and many more at the hotel in town with their own families.  Jana is trying to figure stuff out about Nuah while hanging out with Nuah’s older pregnant sister.  She is constantly thrown together with Layth as she meets his Uncle Bilal, her mom’s college friend that has proposed to her, and who’s own daughters are friends of Sarahs.  Yeah, there is a lot of overlap, a lot.  It’s like real life. As attractions wax and wane in such a short time, it is the relationship Janna has with her own family and the contentment she must find within herself that ultimately matter most.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic the story and its characters are.  I come from a small family, but a very close friend has a huge family, and this just reminded me of going to her family events and finding how interconnected and small the world really is.  I absolutely love Janna, she is Muslim by choice through-and-through and is genuine in her understanding and actions that, while the book is meant for Muslims and nonMuslims, she really sets the standard of how fictitious characters can positively affect their readers.  The only slightly forced thread for me was Janna suddenly loving animals and being ready to head to Peru.  I get that she was crushing, but it seemed a little too over the top for an otherwise very plausible plot.

The best part of the book, in my opinion is that it isn’t all fluff and fun, there are some very real issues that get spotlighted.  Like in Saints and Misfits where Janna is sexually assaulted by a seemingly devout, religious, well liked male, this story addresses racism and prejudice within the Islamic community.  Janna’s dad always felt treated as less than by Janna’s mom’s family for not being Arab.  He flat out warns Janna about her feelings for Nuah because he is Black.  Sarah’s Aunt is offended that the mendhi is more Desi than Arab.  The issues aren’t just pointed out, they require active acknowledgement and action.  The author’s note at the end, even discusses the significance and weight of such views at the end.

FLAGS:

There are mentions of the sexual assault that happened to Janna in the first book.  There is mention of periods, a possible affair, racism, and a character who drove while drunk and killed his son as a result.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this book would be a great fit for a school book club, but I think a group of high school or college aged girls would thoroughly enjoy reading this and discussing it, and I would totally invite myself to their gathering to do so.

One Perfect Eid Day and No More Cake! by Suzanne Muir illustrated by Azra Momin

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One Perfect Eid Day and No More Cake! by Suzanne Muir illustrated by Azra Momin

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This lovely counting book celebrates the end of Ramadan and the festivities of Eid Al-Fitr by counting up to 10 and counting back down.  Over 24 pages of rhyming lines, adorable illustrations will bring the holiday to life as a group of children and a little white cat celebrate.  Aside from the title that for some reason I don’t love, the rest of the book is happy and festive and perfect for toddlers to preschoolers.

It starts with one month coming to an end, then henna cones and designs take over, before five pots and six trays of cake are prepared, decorations are hung, clothes are made ready and ten eager eyes watch the new moon rise.

Then ten sleepy cousins have to get up early for morning prayers with presents waiting, rotis are prepared before seven family members squeeze in the van. Friends are met at the masjid and coins are jingling as lunch parties are attended and fun-fair rides are riden. Two tired friends can’t stay away on this one perfect day, and no more cake.

I love the flow of the book, I’m not sure what the four henna designs are or what cousin doesn’t get a present and who doesn’t get to go for prayers, but little kids probably won’t over think it.  The little cat is delightful on each page and the book sets a marvelous tone of what one can look forward to and enjoy on this splendid holiday with friends, family, festivities, and food.

The Great Hair Exchange by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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The Great Hair Exchange by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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I don’t know if twins plot and plan to trick people, but I think those of us that are not twins, and don’t have any in our immediate family, all assume that switching places with someone who looks exactly like us, would be a regular prank with hilarious outcomes and convenient benefits. Two twin Muslim girls with different hair and vastly different personalities learn to love themselves, appreciate how God made them, and get reminded that sneaking has consequences, all while evoking giggles from the reader throughout their adventurous day in each other’s shoes (hair?). This 32 page full-color, high-gloss, fantastically illustrated book is filled with silliness and lessons that will appeal to children five and up.

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Bushra and Roda, are nearly identical, except Roda has curly hair, and Bushra’s is straight.  They often want to try different hairstyles, but their parents tell them they should appreciate how God made them and they can experiment when they are older.  The girls decide that their parents, with their perfectly wavy hair, just don’t understand and sneak in to their parents’ bathroom before school to straighten and curl their hair accordingly.

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Surprised at the final results, “You look like me!”The girls realize they are going to get in trouble and decide to switch clothes and backpacks and head off to school.  At school the girls are ushered in to each other’s classes by their teachers despite their protests that they aren’t who they look like.

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The girls carry on as each other struggling in classes they normally excel in, get annoyed by their hair, and suffer through lunches that they don’t like.  Roda even fools herself as she bumps into a mirror thinking she is going in to hug her sister, and Bushra is startled by a spider that Roda loves.

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After school their dad drops them off at their after school activities and still doesn’t suspect a thing. Roda goes to Bushra’s soccer game and Bushra to Roda’s girl scout hike.  When it starts to rain, the girls’ hair returns to its natural state and when they get picked up, they have a lot of explaining to do.

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The girls are reminded that hair gadgets require supervision, that God made us all unique and being dishonest is not ok.  From here on out the girls still prank their friends and teachers, but do so with their parent’s knowledge.

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The book is fun and silly and for both Muslim and non Muslim’s alike.  It uses the word God, not Allah, and while the mom wears hijab, and the girls do on the last page, there is nothing Islamic or even Islamic specific in the book.  I feel like the grammar on the last page is off, but nothing too major.  The book ends with five discussion questions.

Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen

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Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen

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I have way too many conflicting thoughts for this 32 page AR 2.1 Muslim authored picture book.  The good little wolf, with a cast of familiar story book characters getting cameos, is choppy in its simple story telling to the point I thought pages had been skipped more than once, funny in asking the three little pigs permission to blow their houses down, slightly moral in elevating good behavior and having the courage to hold to your goodness, and ultimately, possibly really dark, as the end gives reason to believe that wolves will be wolves and the good little wolf is no more, as in he has been killed along with an old granny too.  

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Rolf is a good little wolf that likes to bake, eat his vegetable and be nice to his friend.  His best friend Mrs. Boggins has warned him that not all wolves are as nice as he is and Rolf hopes he will never meet a big bad wolf.

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Alas, he does meet the Big Bad Wolf, and he questions if Rolf is a wolf at all.  To prove that he is a wolf he accepts the big bad wolf’s challenges:  He howls or rather whistles at the moon and he tries to blow his friend pig’s house in.  Eventually he resolves that he isn’t mean enough to be a wolf, then the Big Bad Wolf gives him one more chance as he holds out a fork and knife to the wolf while restraining Mrs. Boggins. D31DC212-C85D-439B-BBCF-2A1CEA6F1FF8

Rolf feels something deeply and ties up the Big Bad Wolf feeling more wolf like than ever.  He just happens to be a good little wolf.  To celebrate they all sit down for a snack and the Big Bad Wolf decides to stop eating people…tomorrow.

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Yeah, it isn’t clear and could be up for debate, but Rolf and Mrs. Boggins are no longer at the table, and the Big Bad Wolf looks pretty happy.

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There is nothing religious in the book, it could be debated if the book is dark or just silly and aside from the choppiness of the transitions, overall the book is a fun turn on classic characters and concepts.

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The Adventures of Adam and Anisah: The Flying Carpet by Zahra Patel illustrated by Reyhana Ismail

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The Adventures of Adam and Anisah: The Flying Carpet by Zahra Patel illustrated by Reyhana Ismail

 

img_6995I am confident that every Muslim child has imagined their prayer rug at one time or another to be a flying carpet, so how absolutely heart filling as an adult to find a book that embraces this idea, roots it in Islamic fact and presents it so beautifully for our littlest Muslim believers.

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The occasionally rhyming and constantly cadence filled picture book features a big brother preparing for and performing salat as his enamored little sister puts imagination and celebration to the act of worship.

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I absolutely love the admiration that Anisah has for her big brother and am delighted how prayer is presented not as an obligation but as an opportunity to soar and marvel in amazement.

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The book concludes with a section that provides context to the story, questions to discuss, and ways to extend the learning.  The hardback binding, 8.5 x 13 horizontal orientation and high glossy illustrations make the book a joy in small groups and at bedtime.

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This book is really, really well done in its simplicity, and I need to order the other book in the series, My Brother’s Shield from Crescent Moon Book Store, as soon as possible.  

Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell

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Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell

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A great book about inclusion for back to school, except well with Corona, we aren’t doing things how we always have.  None-the-less this book about the first day of kindergarten for Musa and the friendships and celebrations of diversity (Eid al-Fitr, Rosh Hashanah, Las Posadas, Pi Day) that will take place over the school year, connect the kids and their cultures in a beautiful and heartwarming way.  The book is 40 pages with engaging illustrations and text perfect for 5-7 year olds.

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It is the first day of school and Ms. Gupta tells the class it is her favorite day of the year.  She also tells the children that the people around them will become their best friends.  Musa doubts this as he looks around at the strangers at his table.

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He also wonders how the first day of school can be any ones favorite day, clearly Eid al-Fitr is the best holiday.  Luckily, every show-and-tell will be about someone’s favorite day, so that the class can join together in celebrating it.  Moises can’t believe that Christmas isn’t the most fun until he learns that not everyone celebrates it.

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When it is Musa’s turn to teach about Eid, his mom and he bring in food and decorations and teach the kids to say Eid Mubarak.  They learn what Eid is like and can see why it is his favorite.

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Up next is Mo’s turn.  He tells everyone about Jewish New Year and how to say Shanah Tovah.  On Rosh Hashanah they light candles and share food with friends and family.

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Moises explains how Las Posadas is how his family celebrates Christmas.  It lasts nine days and there are songs and pinatas and presents.

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In the spring it was Kevin’s turn and he shared his love of Pi Day as his family celebrates science.  On March 14 (3.14) they make different pies and learn about scientists and their discoveries.

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On the last day of school, the children are sad, but their teacher hopes they will remember each other always throughout the year as she hands out calendars for them to keep.

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The book concludes with information about each of the four holidays mentioned. It is possible that on the Rosh Hashanah page the family is two gay men with two children, but it could be just two men as well, and doesn’t say anything in the text that suggests who and how the family is comprised.

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Omar & Oliver: The Super Eidilicious Recipe By Maria Dadouch illustrated by Aly ElZiny

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Omar & Oliver: The Super Eidilicious Recipe By Maria Dadouch illustrated by Aly ElZiny

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This super cute Eid book works great for ages 5 and up.  Written in both Arabic and English, not just translated in to both languages, the book features a Muslim celebrating Eid and a Christian boy working together to try and get Omar’s sister’s cookie recipe so they can be the best cookie cooks ever!  The book would work for either Eid and with the adorable illustrations, and included recipe, the book will get lots of requests all year round.

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Omar is excited that his friend and neighbor, Oliver, is sleeping over the night before Eid.  They boys are playing when Omar’s sister Judy brags that her friend has given her the best cookie recipe in the entire world.

Naturally, Omar and Oliver want to be the best too and offer to help Judy.  She refuses, and the quest to get the recipe is on, so that Omar can make them for Eid and Oliver for Christmas.

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The boys try to steal it through the kitchen window.  But Judy catches them and slams the window shut.  They then try binoculars from the stairs, but the boys can’t write fast enough and Judy grabs an umbrella to shield the recipe.  Undeterred the boys pull out a drone, but the zoom on the camera isn’t quite good enough.

The boys then see Judy rushing out of the kitchen and run in to see if she left the recipe.  They don’t find it, but they peek at the cookies and see that they are golden brown and if left in any longer might burn.

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Tempted to let them burn, a sign on the fridge saying, “Eid: a time to share and show we care,” makes the boys realize saving them is the right thing to do.  Judy says she too saw the sign and rushed out to copy the recipe for the boys.  They then all work together to make lots of Eidilicious cookies and share them with everyone on Eid.

The book starts with some tips for parents on how to present the bilingual book and ends with a cookie recipe, as well as some information about what Muslims and Christians celebrate.  I love the illustrations and that they are two page spreads, but the page with the note is the whole resolution and the note is split on the folded binding and honestly I missed it when I read the book myself and when I read it at bedtime to my kids.  When I opened the book wide to take pictures it was crystal clear, and if you were reading it to a group you might not have an issue.

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I also didn’t love the word, Mashallamazing, I obviously get what it is trying to do, and I feel like it works with Eidilicious, but that Mashallamazing is a stretch.  Additionally, if it is claiming to be an interfaith book, a word like that might need some explaining.  I got a bit hung up on it, so I had my 13, 11, and 9 year olds read it and they did as well.  I also didn’t think the pulling out of the story to ask the reader if the boys were successful in getting the recipe was necessary after each attempt.

Disclaimer: I don’t speak Arabic and cannot comment on that, sorry!

 

The Green Dinosaur Umbrella: A Hajj Story by Amina Banawan illustrated by Rania Hasan

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The Green Dinosaur Umbrella: A Hajj Story by Amina Banawan illustrated by Rania Hasan

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This 36 page Hajj story covers the steps of Hajj by following a green dinosaur umbrella as it gets passed around to those that need it more than the person who currently holds it.  A great story for ages 4 to 8, the large 8.5 by 11 colorful pages-full of diversity, kindness, and bits of information help inspire and amuse our little Muslims.

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Ibrahim is getting ready for hajj and picks out a green dinosaur umbrella to take to Makkah.  When he gets separated from his father while making tawaf, it his umbrella that his father sees to find his grateful son again.

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Outside Ibrahim sees an old man sitting in the hot son and gives him the umbrella realizing the old man needs it more that he does.  The old man takes the umbrella to Mina and makes dua’as for the generous boy at Arafat.

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When a tour leader comes around to hand out water and juice, the old man determines that he needs it more than he does and passes it on.  The leader carries it toward Jabal Ar-rahma and Muzdalifah.  He is awoken from his sleep by two men arguing and uses the dinosaur to defuse the tension.

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The next morning he sees a mother carrying a young child and gives her the umbrella as the rain starts to come down.  She and the baby are kept dry as they go to throw their pebbles as the jamarat, and kept them dry as they walked back to Mina.

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After they trim their hair and prepare for Eid, she sees a little girl looking sad and gifts her the green dinosaur umbrella. After performing the Sa’ee, her father offers to take her to feed the pigeons and she runs off forgetting the umbrella, as it rolls under a book shelf of Qurans.

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After making his farewell Tawaf, Ibrahim goes to get a Quran for his father and finds his special umbrella peeking out from under the shelves.

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A beautiful fun book that shows the steps of hajj for even the little ones to enjoy all while teaching lessons about generosity, selflessness, and worshipping Allah swt, alhumdulillah.