Tag Archives: Graphic Novel

Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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At 224 pages, this graphic novel tells an important OWN voice story in beautiful and powerful illustrations, but despite reading it multiple times, I ultimately found the pacing off, the narrative and plot holes quite large, and the conclusion too forced.  It claims to be for middle grades which would explain the happy ending, but the assault, trauma, mental health, Bengali history, language, and protagonists age (13), make it more suited for upper middle school readers.  I read a digital ARC in predominately black and white images, so I’m hopeful that part of the problem is on me, and that I simply missed or misunderstood parts that seemed to jump around and assume, or that because it was an uncorrected proof, some revisions are still to come.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nisrin is 13 and lives in Oregon with her mother, and maternal grandparents.  Her mom travels a lot and she seems to spend most of her time with her loving Nani, grandmother.  The story opens with Nisrin in 8th grade giving a presentation about her Bangladeshi heritage to her school.  On the way home with a friend, Firuzeh, she is still wearing the cultural clothing and they are playing around with the scarf, when they are violently attacked and the scarf is ripped off of Nisrin’s head.  Her hair is pulled out in the process and the two girls are taken to the hospital and when released maintain professional counseling to process and deal with the assault.  Nisrin fears leaving her house and is increasingly isolated within her home.

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Over the summer we see her and her Nani go over to some cousin’s house where Nasrin is gawked at with her short hair and everyone is unsure how to act around her.  She joins some cousins playing video games where she asks about a cousin in hijab who says that it is essentially her choice between her and Allah (swt), that it isn’t any one else’s business.  A younger cousin tells that she plans to start hijab soon and is surprised to learn that Nisrin’s mom is not Muslim.

As summer comes to an end, Nisrin will be starting high school and exits her room the night before wearing a hijab, or in Bengali, an orna.  Her family freaks out, her Nana, maternal grandfather, is furious claiming that she should have been raised better, and Nisrin is scooted off to her room by her Nani, so that her mom and grandfather can argue.

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On the first day of school, Nisrin tries to talk to Firuzeh, but once again things are awkward between the two girls.  A teacher refuses to try and say Nisrin’s name and becomes angry and aggressive, and at PE she is called a slut and asked if she will be beat for showing her legs.  Nisrin goes home to research Islam and hijab, but everything is so angry and opinion based that she is more confused than when she started.

The next day she meets a nice girl, Veronica, and the two work on an assignment in class and then have lunch together.  Veronica suggests that Nisrin learns about Islam like she would a school assignment and go research it at the library.  Later at home, Nisrin starts to understand what her grandparents and mother saw and endured in the war of 1971 when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.  Her mom and Nana argue over what was seen and Nisrin starts to find her voice in her family.

Nani takes Nisrin shopping for long sleeved clothes and scarves, things are worked out with Firuzeh and Nisrin’s family accepts that Nisrin is not asking permission to wear her scarf, but is hoping they will accept it.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is such a flip on the over-used-stereotype that Muslim girls are forced to wear hijab, in truth many are encouraged not to.  At one point Nisrin says, “If I can’t be safe…then can’t I at least be proud.”  She was attacked for just playing with a scarf and putting it on her head, so she reasons, that there is not safety from racism and hate, she might as well be proud of who she is.  I also love the strength in the idea that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission, it is her faith, her head, her choice.

There is a lot of good in the book, but I struggled understanding quite a bit of it.  It mentions that she was at Texas and she loved it, but there was bullying? No idea what it was in reference to or what purpose it served.  At the beginning the two girls seem like they have been friends for a while, but yet Nisrin warns Firuzeh that her Nani will force her to eat.  Nisrin seems to really love her sleep overs, and I don’t know if it is just to show at the end the healing by coming full circle, but it seems a bit juvenile to be that excited about it to me.

The family dynamic and history, left me very confused.  Nisrin doesn’t know her cousin wears hijab, and is confused that her aunt doesn’t.  Nor do her cousins know that Nisrin’s mom isn’t Muslim?  These cousins call Nisrin’s Nani, Dadi, and since there is no father in the picture it is obvious to even none desi folk that these cousins are related through the mom’s family and the cousins father, so why when Nisrin decides to wear hijab is the maternal side so upset? Why does Nasrin’s mom ask if her cousins have put her up to it? Ok if the mom isn’t religious, but does she actively practice another faith? Why in one of the portraits on the wall does the woman seem to have a bindhi? The Bangladesh independence admittedly is something I should know more about, but I don’t, and this book, didn’t really fill me in.  How is the grandfather both siding? He doesn’t like invader nationalism, but I still don’t completely understand why he left, and what that solved.

The pacing and tone at times are off too me too.   I didn’t feel the strain on Nisrin and Firuzeh’s relationship, the text suggests that they are and were best friends, but when Veronica asks if Nisrin’s stress is in part to the cute girl she was staring down, I was curious too if there was more to their relationship.  A lot seems to happen between the attack and Nisrin starting to wear hijab and I wish we were allowed inside Nisrin’s head to know how she feels about her mom, her nana, starting high school, her attack, her desire to wear hijab, it seems a bit rushed.  Which is odd since, the story spends a few pages detailing when Nisrin feels like everyone hates her after Nani picks her up on the first day of school and Nani points out that not everyone hates her, the squirrels don’t, and the dogs don’t, etc..  It seems really childish for the incredible ordeal she has been through.

I like the informative section at the end about Bangledesh. I wish the book would have shared some of what Nisrin learned about Islam in her own research, she goes to the mosque, but doesn’t detail if she plans to pray regularly, fast, etc..

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FLAGS:
Language, violence, war imagery, rape mentioned, physical assault. Use of the word slut.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this would work for a middle school book club at an Islamic School, graphic novels are often to quick of reads, but I have a few friends from Bangladesh and I really want them, and their daughters, to read it and clue me in to what I am missing, their view of independence and their impression of the book.

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

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Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

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This graphic novel jammed pack with sleuthing, friendship, and diversity is perfect for ages 8 and up.  The inclusive cast shows motive and growth keeping anyone from being entirely good or completely villainous and strikes a wonderful balance of insight, community building, and relatable fun.  From the main character’s mom wearing hijab, and random hijabis in the background panels, to characters of color, and characters with social obstacles, there are also bullies, cancer survivors, a character with two moms, working parents, and a missing gecko all coming together over 221 pages to leave the reader waiting for the next book in the series.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamila has just moved to the neighborhood and with older brothers as role models, she just wants to spend her summer shooting hoops and taking it easy.  Her mom, on the other hand, wants to send her off to science camp.  Shirley, is incredibly perceptive and wants to spend her summer solving neighborhood crimes, the ones adults won’t or can’t help with, but her mother has signed her up for dance camp.  When the girls cross paths at a yard sale, Shirley uses her wits to convince her mom and Jamila’s mom to let them spend the summer together at the basketball courts, thus both girls get what they want.  The two girls aren’t exactly friends, but the arrangement benefits them both, and the days go smoothly, until a gecko goes missing and Shirley and Jamila have to decide to break their parents’ rules to leave the courts and venture to the swimming pool to investigate.  Jamila and Shirley hit a snag in their understanding of one another and realize they want to be friends, something neither of them currently have.  As they work Oliver and Vee’s case to find Enoch the gecko, the reader meets lots of neighborhood characters, from life guards to daycare informants.  And as the clues come together so do a group of kids, all needing friendship, kindness, and a little understanding.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the Nancy Drew, Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown, vibe of the story.  It is funny and plausible and about so much more than just the case.  It is quick and well drawn, and really just a joy overall.  I love the diversity and teamwork and innocence of a summer and some good old fashion kids using their brains to save the day.

Other than the mom wearing a scarf when out of the home and a few hijabis in the background there is no textual mention of religion.  The mom at one point says something in Urdu and the family has Muslim names.

FLAGS:

One of the side characters mentions that she has two moms.  It is mentioned once, it isn’t dwelled on, and in many ways I think a great way to explain to your kids, if they mention it, that they might have friends and classmates with different family structures.  I love that fiction allows for this conversations to occur in the abstract so to speak, you can guide your children how to handle these differences while talking about fictional characters, and imparting your families view of such matters in an open and hopefully non judgmental or hateful way.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

As always with graphic novels, they just aren’t the best format for book clubs as they are usually quick reads.  The target audience for this is middle grades as well and while middle schoolers might enjoy it, they would read it in less than a half an hour and there really wouldn’t be much to discuss once the case is solved.  I would highly recommend checking your local public library for the book, that is where I found my copy, and happy reading!

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Based on the true story of Alia Muhammed Baker, the Basra librarian who saved 30,000 books in 2003 from the destruction during the Iraq War, this 32 page graphic novel, is an AR 3.9 and while it isn’t a chapter book and isn’t just a picture book, it works well for 2nd through 4th grade readers that will enjoy a bit of history, a lot of excitement, and detailed panels that make the story come to life.  The story, as it is based on fact, is very similar to The Librarian of Basra, but with it’s different presentation style, might appeal to a larger audience to appreciate and celebrate what she did to save such precious books, naturally, I’m a huge fan!

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SYNOPSIS:

Alia is the Chief Librarian of Basra Central Library and has always loved books and learning.  As war draws closer, she tells her husband she is worried that the library could be bombed or set ablaze.  She goes to the government to voice her concerns and ask that the books are relocated, but her request is denied.  So she takes matters in to her own hands, and starts smuggling books under her shawl and in to her car, and stacks them in her home.  Every day she does this for a week, soon closets are over flowing and she starts stacking the books in her guest room.  Worried that she isn’t making fast enough progress, she gets the restaurant owner next door to help her when looters start taking the pencil sharpeners and furniture from the library.  She has a plan to have everyone possible come together to move the books, and many people come to help.

Eventually the library is set on fire, the news gives Alia a stroke.  When she recovers she learns she saved 30,000 books, and up next for this real life super hero? Building a new library, inshaAllah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows the value of libraries and books, the determination of one person, and the support of a community.  People are awful during a war, yet, sometimes they are pretty amazing too.  The illustrations are detailed and varied, with inviting text and clear concise language.  It really is well done.

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FLAGS:

Destruction of property, sneaking, looting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think it would be great to have kids read this story and the librarian of Basra and discuss

 

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

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When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

starsThis graphic novel swept me off my feet and left me in tears, not because of the hard life and sadness that life in a refugee camp entails, I had braced myself for that, but because of the hope and humanity and beauty that is so powerfully expressed and conveyed in this 264 page book.  Meant for 3rd graders and up, I think kids through middle school should be encouraged to read it.  The illustrations and colors are incredibly well done and the story is based on a true story that needs to be told and shared.  It is definitely in the top 10 books I’ve read this year and I keep catching my 11 year old re-reading this book repeatedly (like 5 or 6 times).

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar Mohamed lives in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.  His father was killed in the Somali war and his mother has not been seen after she sent Omar and his younger brother Hassan to run with the neighbors to escape the violence.  Hasan suffers from seizures and doesn’t speak, save one word, Hooyo, mother in Somali.  The two boys have an adopted mom Fatuma, who looks after the boys in the camp as if they were her own.  Unable to go to school, Omar spends his days looking after his brother, playing soccer with plastic bags, and waiting in lines for water, food, and news of a better opportunity.

When Omar gets the chance to go to school (5th grade) he has to make the difficult decision of pursuing his own opportunities, with the hope of helping Hassan later, or living day to day and taking care of his younger brother.  He is finally convinced that education will help them both, and that if the girls can find a way to do their chores and attend class, he can too.

Each transition from primary, to middle to secondary school requires testing, and only the top get to continue.  Determined to stay in school, Omar studies while dealing with life’s many challenges and the daily additional challenges of living with little food and resources.

When Omar and Hassan’s names finally appear on a UN interview lists for resettlement, hope seeps in, but the wait and the uncertainty prove to be yet another test.  Along the way there are side characters from the United Nations that show compassion, other families that show how generous and loving humans can be, female classmates show him how to take advantage of his privilege and friendships that move friends to family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is gripping and has heart.  I don’t know what I expected, but I truly could not put it down.  The character’s stresses are felt and emotions are conveyed so powerfully, that I don’t know that you can read the book and forget it.  The most emotional part for me was his honesty in dealing with his brother, the strength of his friends, particularly female, and the bond to Fatuma.  Truly their living arrangements and loss of family is gut wrenching, but it was the little things that touched me the most.  The honesty of Omar having to decide if he was tempted to not go to school because he was scared. Was he using his brother as an excuse to stay with something he knew.  The emotional tipping point of no return for me was when he realized Fatuma would not be able to go to the second interview with the UN and would not be a part of what came after.  Of course I knew that, but by that point I was so connected to the character, that when Omar realized it, I broke for him.  To feel that connection in a graphic novel was new for me, perhaps a first, and alhumdulillah I am better for it.

The characters are Muslim and behave traditionally with praying and Ramadan and Eid.

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FLAGS:

There is talk of khat, something the men chew on the side of the road to forget things.  There is some violence, bullying, a young girl getting married before 6th grade and having a baby.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Yes! I am hoping if and when we resume school I am starting with this book inshaAllah, for my middle school book club.  There is so much to talk about and understand and empathize with.

Running Overload by Jake Maddox illustrated by Tina Francisco

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Running Overload by Jake Maddox illustrated by Tina Francisco

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This 72  page graphic novel features a female Muslim protagonist trying to balance her desire to be a great cross country runner and the rest of her life.  Meant for 3rd graders, the lessons are applicable and relevant for readers in middle school as well.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nimo Mohamed has made the varsity track team, and is determined to keep up with the older girls.  She is training too hard which her coaches and parents warn her against, but she doesn’t listen.  As a result she is lying to her family about what she is doing, her grades are suffering, and her body is exhausted to say the least.  After coming dead last in a meet, getting a D on an English test, and injuring her knee, the truth comes out and her dad has her quit the team.  Can she convince him to give her one more chance? Can she learn to pace herself?

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WHY I LIKE IT:

There is nothing Islamic in the book except for the main character’s family.  The women wear hijab when out, not at home and they have Islamic sounding names.  I like that she is modestly dressed when she runs and that no one seems to care that she is Muslim.  This story is not about her faith, it is a universal story of balance, and the character highlighting the moral is Muslim.  Her parents are divorced, but are on the same page regarding her running and school balancing act, and they come together to support her.  I also like that the book is a sports book and has a female girl of color as the lead.  There is a lot of very intentional diversity in the book and it is refreshing to see.

There are questions at the end, and running vocabulary and tips for running as well.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book wouldn’t lend itself well to a book club, but would definitely provide one-on-one discussion opportunities.  The short linear story is all about imparting teachable moments on the reader, which isn’t a bad thing, but I think the real strength is that the book is one of a larger series that should really be in every classroom and library to show how balance and integrity and strength and diversity are values that we need to hear over and over, not just in one running book, but from a lot of different sources.

 

Mr. Wolf’s Class by Aron Nels Steinke

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Mr. Wolf’s Class by Aron Nels Steinke

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I know this AR 2.1, 156 page graphic novel probably doesn’t deserve a review, but for as important as OWN voice books are, books with Muslim characters thrown in the mix are important for representation too.  Yes sometimes we are the star and we definitely need to tell our own stories, but we are also friends, and side-kicks and supporters too.  In this case we are a purple duck with a headscarf named Aziza, that thinks she is smarter than the other 4th graders in Mr. Wolf’s class, but fits right in with the quirkiness of the anthrmorphized cast too.  There is nothing mentioned about the scarf or about Aziza’s faith, there is also a boy named Abdi in the class that is a cat and could also be Muslim, but really, in this silly book which is the start of a series, I was just so giddy to see a Muslim included and grateful for the representation.

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SYNOPSIS:

It is the first day of 4th grade and Mr. Wolf is nervous.  Margot is new too, but the other kids seem to know each other already.  Aziza, Abdi, Randy, Sampson, Henry, Penny, Bobby, Lola, Oliver, Stewart, Miguel, Noah, Molly, Lizzy, Oscar, and Johnny are all different animals and all unique.  The book is really just a handful of the characters trying to survive the first day of school.  Whether it be confronting another teacher about stealing your stapler, making a friend on the bus, having rats steal your lunch, falling asleep in a box because your new baby brother kept you up on all night, or trying to figure out why you have to show your work when on a math assessment.  The book will resonate with kids 2-4th grade and make them giggle at the silliness of it all.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the teacher is more nervous than the kids about the first day of school and that they all seem to be doing the best they can.  Aziza is earily irritated by her classmates who don’t seem to want to do their work, but she is no more annoying than the other students and all seem to have diverse backgrounds and issues at hand.  The author was an educator and the book reads true to any one who has littles or has been in a school environment, making it all the more charming.  There are four books thus far in the series and my kids say Aziza features prominantly in the second book too.  I have had this book in my house for a while now, and for some reason just now paid attention to the cover today when begrudgingly scolding my kids about leaving books out everywhere.  I asked if the duck had on a hijab and two of my boys without budging to put away said book, replied, “yeah it is Aziza.” As if seeing a muhajaba duck is the norm, who knows maybe it is.  So, I sat down to read the book with enthusiasm and 20 minutes later, thought how great it is to be included. Representation does shape perception, and non Muslim kids may not think anything of it, or my own kids who are flooded with Islamic fiction books, but I can only imagine how ecstatic I would have been as a kid to be included as the norm without fanfare or explanation given.

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FLAGS:

They talk about if farts are better or ice cream in the creation of a venn diagram.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Wouldn’t do it for a book club, but would definitely have it in a class library and school library.  Fun book, seemingly fun series, and easy reading for all levels.

https://www.mrwolfsclass.com/interviews-and-press

Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution by Sherine Hamdy & Coleman Nye illustrated by Sara Bao & Caroline Brewer

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Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution by Sherine Hamdy & Coleman Nye illustrated by Sara Bao & Caroline Brewer

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When I first started teaching I wasn’t a big fan of graphic novels, slowly I saw their benefit for struggling readers, and eventually I came to appreciate them as an enhanced tweak in story telling for everyone.  This book however takes the concept to the next level, for me anyway.   As the inside flap claims, it is a book “that brings anthropological research to life in comic form, combining scholarly insights and accessible, visually-rich storytelling to foster greater understanding of global politics, inequalities, and solidarity.” As a coming of age story of two friends at its core, yet taking on breast cancer, kidney failure, parental loss, different cultures, different religions and with a back drop of the Egyptian revolution, I’d say the book is meant for high school and up.  Not so much for content as for understanding and appreciation of all that went it to creating this ethnographic book.

SYNOPSIS:

Unlikely friends Anna and Layla cross economic, religious, and cultural differences to build a life long friendship.  The book is divided into three parts: Cairo, Five Years Later, and Revolution.  In the first part we see Layla’s family serving as the caretakers of a building and the two young girls bonding over pranks, arrogant tenants, and just being silly.  Anna’s family is American and the father works for the oil companies, thus they are financially very well off, however, the father is rather distant and the mother is dying of cancer.  The section concludes with the passing of Anna’s mom and the family going to Boston for the funeral.

Five years later finds the girls in college.  Layla in medical school and Anna at a university in Boston.  Layla’s father is suffering from renal failure and is unwilling to consider a transplant.  While Anna is trying to see if she carries the same genes as her mother and if insurance will cover it.  She also has to decide if she would want to have a complete double mastectomy, if she would want her breasts reconstructed, if she should do it now or later.  She gets a lot of opinions, but ultimately decides to find a way to pay for it and have it done.  Her father doesn’t understand, and Layla dismisses it forcing Anna to have to handle it alone.  But when news come that Layla’s father isn’t going to make it, she rushes back to Egypt to offer her support.

In the final section, the revolution has spread and Dr. Layla is helping those injured in Tahrir Square during the protests, and Anna is helping to identify bodies despite being attacked for being a foreigner and part of the problem.  Anna has kept the secret of her mastectomy from Layla and Layla assumes she has cancer.  At odds with their roles in the revolution, and with keeping secrets from each other and their differences in financial opportunities coming to a head, Anna returns to Boston.  When Layla’s brother is shot and loses an eye, however, Anna returns to Egypt and the two friends work to keep their relationship.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is grounded in so much conflict and turmoil, but fights hard to keep a character based narrative.  With two illustrators and two authors trying to convey medical approaches, two cultures, two religion, two friends, and a revolution, the last 70 pages of the 302 page book are details about how the book came about, interviews with the various contributors, a timeline of the revolution, discussion questions, key references and a teaching guide.  The book at times was confusing to me, and I’m not sure why, it quickly resolved itself or a flip back a few pages would clarify it, but I think some of the illustrations were just off enough that it complicated things.  Anna by and large is depicted oddly on a few pages along with her family as well.

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Layla’s family is definitely religious and at times has to challenge their thoughts to understand Anna and their own circumstances too.  I think it is handled really well and allows the reader to consider things without answers being clear cut, is it Allah’s will to not have a transplant and accept death as being written for you or to have the transplant and ask Allah to make it successful?  By and large the book poses questions through the juxtaposition of the two characters and the experiences they endure, and while it shows the choices they made, it draws the reader in to wonder what they would do in their shoes without judgement.  The book provides a lot of facts and leaves them there making it more thought provoking than a simple story.

The characters are often composites of real characters the academic author’s learned about, yet some are directly based on activists and leaders of the revolution.  The graffiti artwork is attributed and powerful.  There is a lot of information in the notes after the comics end.

FLAGS:

There is death and revolution, Layla’s brother is taking Tramadol, and their are sketches of breasts as Anna learns about her disease and prognosis.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club as I don’t know how much middle schoolers would get out of it and the book is pretty pricey.  I would recommend people read it though as it gives a different perspective on numerous things many of us take for granted.

http://lissagraphicnovel.com

 

 

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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I try and keep an eye on what is available at Scholastic regarding Muslim characters and Muslim authors since for many kids the Scholastic Book Orders might be the most interaction they have with seeing available books, and for others, they may see a book in a library or other book store that they have seen on a Scholastic flyer and pick it up for that reason of familiarity.  Granted I might be completely wrong in this assessment and just be trying to justify my review of a non fiction 103 page AR 5.7 graphic novel that talks about Muslims and refugees, but nonetheless I try and read the Scholastic books that feature Muslim representation to a very captive audience.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book takes facts about the plight and flight of the Syrians as they are forced to leave their homes due to war, and the horrors they face on their journeys to finding a new place to call home, and illustrates them.  The book focuses more on the exodus than on the politics that forced them to leave.  There are no characters or story lines, but rather illustrations to the headlines, articles, and facts that detail the truths about the collective experiences of many Syrians.  It seems every single sentence is referenced at the back of the book, which is probably a good thing as it is non fiction and this is a researched book, not a book of anecdotal stories or an OWN voice retelling.

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The book in muted tones tells how the young boys scrawling graffiti is what is attributed to the spark that set Syria ablaze with frustrated citizens standing up to an oppressive regime.  The pictures show different factions policing the people for trying to have pianos, to kicking people out of the homes and torturing them or killing them.  As the situation elevates and no end is in sight the book, then follows people leaving by foot into neighboring countries, and then fanning out as border countries refuse to let more people stay.  Eventually, many are forced on to rafts to countries further away, but as their resources deplete, many Syrians have no where to go and are unwanted.

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WHY I LIKE THE BOOK:

I like that it is real and graphic and violent, it doesn’t show everyone getting a happy ending.  I think many children’s books focus on the heroes trying to help or people having a happily ever after, but by upper elementary, readers need to know that the situation is dire and no resolution is in sight.  The author tries to explain the Sunni and Shia differences by using Christian divisions as examples, and he shows jihadists torturing people, and he does use statements about Islam and music, and I don’t know how a child would take these labels as they don’t come with much explanation.  On the other hand he does highlight that some countries would only take Christian Syrians, so I don’t think he is advocating one faith over another, but the details about Muslims for some reason seemed a little forced to me.

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I think his agenda or purpose was to show how the world, with the exception of a few countries, have really turned their back on refugees.  It says in a footnote at the end “that in the first three months of 2018,” for example, “the United States has accepted 11 (refugees) for resettlement.” The facts, the maps, the diagrams, really drive home the point and do evoke an emotional response, which I think is needed.  A few of the pictures are also incredibly resonating, such as the one of the man stating he couldn’t save his family from drowning.

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FLAGS:

The book shows violence and death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The shortness of the book, might not make it an ideal candidate for a Book Club, but the value in such a book makes it a great addition to any and every classroom.  I don’t know how many children will read this book on their own.  It isn’t fun or compelling, its factual and depressing.  But, I think it is important.  Nonfiction is often hard to convince children to read, so I like that it is a graphic novel and I like that the information can all be verified.  I think children need to be encouraged to read things that might not be easy and fun, and have a way to discuss how such readings make them feel.  Furthermore, If you are a teacher teaching references, this book is a great example.

 

Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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I have read a fair amount of fictionalized accounts of the war in Syria, the journey of refugees, and their resettling in various countries, but this was the first graphic novel on the subject that I have seen, and I was excited to wait my turn behind my kids to read it.  My 7th and 4th graders read it in about 20 minutes and said they really liked it, knowing that it was a quick read, I wanted to take it in slowly and examine each picture to grasp the full message that the author, a Lebanese journalist, was conveying.  Definitely meant, for ages 5th grade and up because of the content, I appreciated the book more than I loved it.  It seemed rather choppy and the fictionalized parts come across just as a front to convey facts.  The book definitely is a great introduction to the conflict, and the format will appeal to a broad range of individuals.  

SYNOPSIS:

Told from the voice of Amina, a bright young girl who rushes home to show off her latest A grade paper to her family, is met instead by a bomb striking the beautiful peaceful neighborhood.  The images on the first page are destroyed as her younger brother Youssef must be located in the rubble and debris.  Now in Canada, Amina tells the story of their journey from Aleppo.  The bouncing around of time, provides some context to how life became under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, how checkpoints and emergency rule changed everything about Amina’s life.  As war creeps in it isn’t just inconveniences and fear, but also death, as further shown through Amina’s uncle who has joined the rebel army.  The family decides they need to flee to Lebanon and truly believe it will be just for a little while. 

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They rent an apartment for a year, but when they cannot afford rent they relocate to a refugee camp, where they stay for two years.  Amina’s father is determined that Amina stays in school but as work remains scarce and Youssef’s health continues to deteriorate.  Amina is forced to take a break from school to try and find work.  Eventually her father arranges to go by raft to Europe to try and start a new life and bring his family there once he is settled.  The terms of the loan to pay the smugglers is steep and when the raft doesn’t make it too far before tossing its passengers, Amina’s father Walid is forced to return to Lebanon unsuccessful. 

It isn’t until Amina’s family considers, like many other families in the camp, to get her married to keep her safe.  That Amina upon picking up some aid at a UN reception center, spills everything to a worker there, and a week later the UNHCR contacts the family to help move them to Canada.  The readers at this point I would assume are relieved the family will be safe, and are surprised when the family isn’t sure if they want to leave.  Syria is there home, and before the mom will agree to anything, she wants to go back to Syria to see her newborn niece.  Once in Syria, she sees that her home is no more as she remembered it, and agrees to be resettled anywhere.  Through the same flashbacks and flash-forwards in time, we also see that life in Canada is not easy.  The family is welcomed and helped and grateful, but it isn’t yet home, and the ghosts of Syria are still present.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I kind of like how choppy it is upon further reflection.  At first it annoyed me, but as I thought about it more and more, I have decided I like that it isn’t easy and smooth and fleshed out, the tone of the unknown comes through by not over narrating the emotions and circumstances.  I also like that everything that happens to Amina and her family is anchored in reality and the footnotes, references, and facts are all in the Endnotes.  Having said that, I wish their was a little more character development, it reads like a bunch of facts strung together and connected by this fictional family.  There isn’t anything wrong with it, but a little more warmth for the characters would have added a beautiful level and would not have been hard to come by at all.  There are so many stories from this conflict out there, and the reason they resonate with so many isn’t from all the facts and numbers, but often from the individuals that make the numbers real and haunting.  I felt like this book fell short on the human element unfortunately.  The only character I really felt had some heart, was the dad, he was awesome, and his love for his family and determination for his daughter’s education was definitely felt.

The book does drop some acronyms and political alliances to add context but not overwhelm the reader.  It definitely hints that there are a lot of groups vying for power, and control: Assad, Russia, ISIS, US, rebels.

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I love that the flashbacks to pre-war Syria are so relatable.  Kids need to really understand that we are all so much more alike than different.  Not just in our hopes and dreams, but even in our daily lives.  The characters in the book are the same as us, their lives look great,  maybe even better.  They have friends, and families and jobs, and cell phones, they also unfortunately, have war.

There were a few surprises for me, for example that buses between Lebanon and ISIS held Syria took/take people back and forth.  Similarly,  I was surprised to see that the punishment of smuggling cigarettes was being beheaded, but maybe more surprised that the book included it.

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It is reassuring for readers to know that the family survives, but the harrowing journey of seeing body bags, cutting costs to survive, risking it all to trust smugglers with fake life jackets, paint pictures of a journey that will stay with the reader.  The book doesn’t talk down to anyone, if something seems too simplistic, it almost encourages the reader to go research more about it.  

There isn’t any mention of Islam or religion, the females wear hijab, that is the only indication along with their names that they are a Muslim family.

FLAGS:

The violence, is pretty haunting and while the images and text aren’t graphic, the splatter of blood and guns and death are very present.  There is also mention of cigarettes.  While not explicit and possibly over the heads of some readers, the book does show that the loan sharks would be willing to take Amina, “Something nice and sweet…like you,” to help pay off the family’s debts.  A former classmate of Amina also invites the family to her wedding.  At 13 Amina’s family is also considering getting her married as a way to help keep her safe.  

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be better in Social Studies class more than in a Language Arts one. It would be a great supplement to share even, when discussing current events.  Its a quick read, a factual account and a powerful one at that.  

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsZZwxM7YyQ

Publisher’s Synopsis: https://www.fireflybooks.com/index.php/catalogue/product/11566-escape-from-syria

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Often these days, minority groups are feeling more and more marginalized in a blaring world that is increasingly divisive and polarized.  So to see a book in my child’s Scholastic Magazine with a muhajaba on the cover, and not a main character, in a book about bullying, where she isn’t the instigator or recipient, made my minority heart swell with hope.  This 238 page graphic novel (AR 2.8) is a quick, quick read for middle schoolers, and one with a good message, that is more self empowering than preachy.  A companion book to Awkward (which I haven’t read, but hope to soon), the author takes us into Middle School through the eyes of Jensen, a kid who is struggling to find his place and escapes into his daydreams to conquer every day stresses.

 

SYNOPSIS:

Jensen wants to be a NASA scientist, but he isn’t good at math.  He loves to draw, but the Art Club is consumed with an upcoming event he knows nothing about, he is harassed by two bullies every chance they get, and occasionally he is asked by the newspaper staff to do menial work.  Yet, somehow despite having no friends, and a constant barrage of things going against him, he doesn’t see himself as a victim or as the recipient of bullying.  Rather, he falls into regular day dreams where he is the main character in a video game and all these battles have to be overcome to reach the end.  The surrounding characters have their own little stories, and you get to know a bit about them through Jensen, but the author doesn’t let any of them be painted with a singular stroke.  You see the athletes, being kind and sticking up for kids getting picked on, one being a math wiz.  The journalism staff of Jenny, Akila, and Felipe, run the school, but have their own stresses and internal struggles.  The circle of activity comes to a head when a student is expelled over the dress code, and all the various groups in Jensen’s world have to come together to make change.  In the process he realizes that he is being bullied, and that something needs to be done.  He also realizes nobody has it all together and he has a part to do to help others as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

First I like it because there are Muslims in the book, that are just characters in the book.  They don’t represent all Muslims, they aren’t “different” or “other.”  Akila wants to be a journalist and she is smart, and she is kind, but she fights with her best friend, the bossy Jenny, and it is Jensen that has to help them see their errors.  I also like that the P.E. teacher, Mrs. Rashad, is a hijab wearing Muslim, that beats the social studies teacher in push-ups. I mean what an amazing way to break a hundred stereotypes, by not mentioning them, and just showing them as normal. A muslim woman, working, being physical fabulous, and being modest, ya we need more of this. There is no mention of their religion, their clothing, their hijabs, nothing.

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I also like that the students in some cases didn’t realize that they were bullying.  I think this happens a lot, where maybe someone won’t let you sit by them because they are saving a seat for someone else, but the second or third time it happens, the recipient feels alienated, where the aggressor may not even be aware.  The book explores lots of ways of bullying, but because it is filtered through the character, it leaves a lot of room for discussion about how people treat us, and how we treat others, and where a lot of pain can come from the misinterpretation on both ends.

There is a lot of diversity in the book, boys, girls, skin tones, body sizes, physical abilities, handicaps, intelligence, etc. that come up to varying degrees, but do at least offer the readers real ways to see themselves in the pages.  The book has a very tidy, happily ever after feel, which is ok I think for middle school. The book has a specific audience. Elementary will just find everyone mean, high schoolers will find it childish, but as social relationships get more challenging in middle school, I think this demographic will often have to find the courage to be brave to get through unscathed.

FLAGS:

None. One character has a boyfriend, maybe. But it is clean with pretty much everything, it even says for All Ages ont he back.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a book club book.  I don’t think it would need any prompting or guides. My 6th grade daughter said it was “ok” yet has brought it up at least ten times since she read it, and has come and sat by me to watch me read it.  I think, she has had some similar issues and to be able to talk about them through the characters, has been liberating for her, and furthered my conviction that fiction has power.

The Author’s website: https://svetlania.com/