Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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This 44 page fictionalized retelling of Queen Goharshad, a 15th century monarch of the Timurid dynasty in Afghanistan should really be a larger book than 8 x 8 to appreciate the artwork that is detailed and stunning.  The story of Goharshad, wife of Emperor Shah Rukh, and her influence on art, music, culture, higher education, and architecture, is one that we should be more familiar with, but the actual text and manner in which the story is conveyed isn’t consistent for me and I wanted more details about the society she stepped in to to rule,  I know it is fiction, and meant for 2nd to 4th graders, but I would like to think that readers will want to know what obstacles she had and what support she enjoyed and from where.  That they will question if it was a rich kingdom that she could pay musicians to play everywhere, and wonder if families sent their daughters to the University she built, ask why it wasn’t for women to design a  Masjid, and what was the name of the smaller mosque that bore an older woman’s name? The book at times overly summarizes and at other times is haltingly detailed.  It is a good read to reflect a strong woman and her influence on her land, but unless assigned, I don’t know that seven to ten year olds will pick up the book and be inspired by it enough to change their perception of the Afghanistan that they may see on the news.

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Seven centuries ago Goharshad loved beautiful things such as painting and the texts of Rumi.  Her brothers played at being like Genghis Khan and teased her for not being brave.  She vowed to be brave with beauty even though she didn’t know what that even meant.  At age 14 she was given in marriage to the king, Shah Rukh, in Herat.  She ruled with her husband and had resources and time to spread her beauty by speaking up and being brave.

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Her first act of beauty was by filling the kingdom with music.  She wanted music every day in the court and beyond. Music that was playful and pious, music that painted pictures in the listeners minds and brought joy like the laughter of God.  She next sketched and designed a beautiful and enchanting garden to be built.  It doesn’t say where it was, but that people came from all around to enjoy it.

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Feeling braver she turned her sights on building a mosque in the western city of Mashhad.  She designed it and called the court architect, Qavam al-Din Shirazi to discuss.  He doubted if it was right for a woman to design such spaces, but she assured him that she had the talent for it, so construction began.  An elderly woman refused to sell her cottage for the new project unless a mosque with her name was built.  The advisors wanted the old woman put to death or imprisoned, Goharshad disagreed appreciating the woman’s strength and instead agreed.  The big mosque was built with Goharshad’s name and a smaller one on the property with the old lady’s.

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With such an accomplishment complete, the Queen again summoned the architect and expressed her desire to build a great center for learning.  A college for girls, a grand mosque for prayer, and a vast library.  She wanted the structure decorated with paint from precious stones and sold her crown to finance the project.

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After her husband died Goharshad reigned, but sadly after she died, much of her accomplishments died as well.  Over time, harsh weather and war, nearly all her buildings disappeared and those that remain, do so in ruin.  The book ends with hope that memories of her will endure, A guide to some of the words in the story,  an Author’s note, and a Guide for Parents and Educators.

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There is not a lot of Islam in the story, just the building of masajid .  Some may take issue with her stress and celebration of music, and likening it to God laughing, but if you look at it as her story, it should be able to be appreciated even if you disagree.

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The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

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The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

img_8312This historical fiction piece about Malcolm X follows him through incarceration with flashbacks to his childhood and teenage years.  Written by his daughter it is hard to know where this 336 page book is factual and where it takes artistic freedom with filling in the blanks. A few creative liberties are mentioned in the author’s note at the end, but some sources in the back would help clarify, as she was a toddler when her father was killed. The time frame of Malcolm X’s life and a large portion of the book covers his introduction and conversion to The Nation of Islam, but it never mentions even in the timeline at the end that he left it, or that they were responsible for his assassination.  The book is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, it is also so very humbling and empowering. I just don’t know that younger middle school readers (the stated intended audience is 12-18), will really grasp the content, his condition, and his searching, while trying to keep all the characters, time frame references, and slang straight.  With the mention of his girlfriend who he is/was sleeping with, as well as the drugs, the alcohol, and the abuses occurring in prison, older teens might be able to handle the book better, and be tempted after to dig deeper to learn about him going for Hajj, becoming Sunni, changing some of his views, and ultimately being gunned down in front of his family.

SYNOPSIS:

Malcolm Little is living between Roxbury and Harlem and going by the nickname Detroit Red.  When the story opens, Malcolm and his friend Shorty are about to tried for stealing a watch, a crime that he acknowledges he committed, but undoubtedly doesn’t deserve 8-10  years in prison for at age 20.  Nearly every chapter starts with a flashback to an earlier time and then concludes with the atrocities of prison life at hand.  As the narrative flips back and forth Malcolm’s story and awakening emerges.

Born in Omaha the Little family’s home is burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, they move a few times as the growing family grows closer together and establish themselves as followers of Marcus Garvey in advocating for Blacks.  Malcolm’s preacher father is killed when Malcolm is six years old and his mother institutionalized when he is 13, for refusing to feed her children pork amongst other things, and thus leaving the family grasping as they know she isn’t crazy, yet cannot get her released.  Malcolm is incredibly bright and attends a nearly all white prep school, but even after being class president, a teacher discourages him from pursuing his dreams of being a lawyer, and Malcolm drops out of school and ends up being a hustler.  His white girlfriend, a married woman in Boston and her friends convince him to rob some wealthy white neighborhoods and when he later takes a stolen watch to be fixed he is arrested and found guilty of grand larceny, breaking and entering, possession and more.  He is sentenced to Charlestown State Prison and day-to-day life is rough.

The guards at the overcrowded prison are aggressive, the food un consumable, and being put in the hole as punishment is beyond inhuman.  Malcolm is filled with anger and rage and is still trying to hustle people.  He learns his family has become followers of The Nation of Islam and he doesn’t want to hear it, he doesn’t want to hear about his prison mates preaching the Bible and he doesn’t want to hear about God.  He feels betrayed by God and feels guilty for not being a man his father would be proud of, the refrain: up, up, you mighty race! echoes throughout.

Throughout it all his family’s love is felt in visits, letters, and warm memories of life before his incarceration.  His flashbacks to events in his childhood that defined him, inspired him, molded him, show what a beautiful family he had and how racism in large part destroyed it.  His parents valued education and discipline and his elder siblings carry that torch and pass it on to the younger children, they are a large family and their love is palpable for each other and for the liberation of Blacks in America.

Little’s sisters write letters and eventually get Malcolm transferred to a much nicer prison, Norfolk, where he really channels his rage into reform, determined not to leave the same man he entered as.  He has access to a full library, he joins the debate team, he takes classes, converts to The Nation of Islam and then refuses to get a polio shot and is sent back to Charleston for the remainder of his sentence.

The book concludes with his release, and teases that members of his family are becoming uneasy with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  At the very very end, he meets Betty, the lady who will be his wife.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this chunk of Malcolm X’s life shows the transformation of his thinking, how outside influences forced him to dig in to himself and reflect in such a profound way.  The book is as timely as ever as the systemic racism that is determined to see people of color fail is still running and growing.  There is a little mention of how veterans are treated better in other countries on the front lines than they are at home when they return that I wish was explored more, but there are so many characters that flit in and out of Malcolm’s prison world, it is hard to tell them apart as it is Malcolm’s story and his development that is being told.

Not surprisingly, I wish there was more about him converting to Sunni and going for Hajj.  The book stops before then and I am sure that most readers, will not understand the difference between The Nation, the Ahmadis mentioned, and Sunni Muslims.  This concerns me as the acceptance of Elijah Muhammad as a Prophet is hard to read.  I think some conversation with readers would be necessary as the book offers little if any to differentiate.

I like that each chapter starts with a direct quote of Malcolm X and the the fact that the relevance of his words in today’s world don’t need any explanations or context is devastatingly powerful.  I also appreciate how engaging and smooth the writing is.  You really feel the layers of Malcolm X the character, being pealed back and him coming into the proud confident leader that he is known to be.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, mention of him sleeping around, memories of kissing his girlfriend, alcohol consumption, cigarettes, drug use, violence, beatings, abuse.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this as a book club for middle school.  Possibly if I was a high school teacher I would offer it as outside reading or extra credit when reading about the Civil Rights Era, or if I was teaching the Alex Haley, Auto Biography of Malcolm X.

The Chronicles of Bani Israil: The King, Queen, and the Hoopoe Bird by Dr. Osman Umarji illustrated by Sama Wareh

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The Chronicles of Bani Israil: The King, Queen, and the Hoopoe Bird by Dr. Osman Umarji illustrated by Sama Wareh

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At 134 pages the fictionalized retelling of Prophet Sulaiman’s (AS) kingdom and interaction with Queen Bilqis comes to life from the point of view of a Hoopoe bird.  The book is marketed as a “Quranic fantasy adventure,” which I found a bit misleading.  The book is rooted in Quran and Hadith facts according to the author, and colored in to try and tie a story together, but even for 3rd and 4th graders I don’t know that there is much adventure or suspense.  As a prophet story it is pretty solid, but as an adventure book it seemed a bit scattered in its attempts to give history, draw in unrelated anecdotes and make it seem intense, when the dialogue suggested otherwise.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with the narrator setting the stage to tell his story of being in Prophet Sulaiman’s army nearly 3,000 years ago in the land of Sham.  Told in first person and  limited to what he saw, the Hoopoe bird (Hud-hud) addresses the reader and begins his tale.  He first gives some information about Hoopoe birds and Prophet Dawud (Prophet Sulaiman’s father), before lovingly describing Jerusalem and how the Bani Israil came to the land of Sham.

The first real glimpse of what kind of ruler Prophet Sulaiman is, is given with the detail allotted to how he repaired Masjid Al-Aqsa.  The bird then tells of Prophet Sulaiman’s many powers and gifts from Allah (swt), the ability to control the wind, control liquid metal, speak with animals, and of course the Jinn.  Slowly, the reader begins to understand how impressive Prophet Sulaiman’s kingdom is, not just by being told, but being shown, so to speak, and reminded pointedly by the Hoopoe that despite so much power how humble towards Allah swt, Prophet Sulaiman remained.

There is a tangent about his love of horses, before the Hud-hud takes center stage again as a spy in the powerful army of men, jinn, and animals. The story of the ants is shared and about half way through the book it is on one of the bird’s scouting missions that he sees a Queen and her people worshipping the sun.

The back and forth between Prophet Sulaiman and Queen Bilqis as Prophet Sulaiman urges the Queen to allow her people to worship Allah or risk invasion is a familiar tale and one the author asserts he tried to use only Islamic sources to include.

The book ends after the Queen has visited, embraced Islam, more anecdotes about Prophet Sulaiman’s wisdom are shared and how even in his death he attempted to show the doubting people the power and oneness of Allah swt.  The revelation of the termite breaking his walking stick and the retirement of the bird who had lived a most wondrous life, conclude the story before an Author’s Note at the end of the book.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Prophet stories and especially ones that are easy to read, memorable, and factual.  I think the book does a decent job in a fictionalized retelling of getting a lot of the important information in, albeit sometimes a bit forced, but keeping it on level for upper elementary and being clear and concise.  I didn’t stumble on grammatical mistakes or find parts confusing, it was well told and presented.  More than once in the book, I felt like it would have made a better oral story than written one.  The bird had to articulate how he knew stuff if he wasn’t there, and he kept asking the reader questions or telling them to pay attention.

The book is meant for Muslim kids and I wish there would have been footnotes or sources.

The illustrations were nice, they are full color but I am admittedly bias as I grew up writing letters to the illustrator who was my penpal for a few years.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Doesn’t fit my book club criteria, but definitely think kids would benefit from reading the story and discussing how the author shared the information, what they think the Hud-hud’s life was like and then maybe trying to retell a story of their own from a different perspective.

 

 

 

Allies by Alan Gratz

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Allies by Alan Gratz
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This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character.  While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel.  With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional.  An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.

SYNOPSIS:

The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy.  Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.

The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.

Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis.  What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim.  In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds.  When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.

19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.

Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can.  Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.

We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps.  But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux.   And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.

All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at.  The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense.  But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people.   The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are.  The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.

As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave.  To have a Muslim in  an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable.  There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.

FLAGS:

There is a bit of mild profanity.  There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson.  There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.

Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com

 

 

Islamic History for Kids: Story of Badr by Qasim Riaz

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Islamic History for Kids: Story of Badr by Qasim Riaz

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This fictional story of a non-fiction-historical event over 37 large, 12×12, pages really brings the battle of Badr to life for readers ages seven and up.  The book is engaging and keeps chidden focused, excited, and clear as to what is unfolding, why the battle was important for Muslims, and why it still has lessons today.  Unfortunately, there are no source notes, bibliography, or references in the book, so I’m not sure how accurate the details are, and I haven’t yet had a chance to have someone more knowledgeable than I check it for accuracy.  The ayats from the Quran quoted are identified in text and yes, I understand it isn’t a reference book, but even having some imam or scholar give their approval would reassure people considering purchasing the book.  Additionally, fairly prominently there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the book that says, “The characters in this book are entirely fictional.  Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental,” which is a common disclaimer, but in a book of this nature, it did strike me as odd.  So, you may want to read it first yourself before presenting it to your child as fact.

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There is also a typo that my children discovered rather quickly and pointed out to me, I was a little disheartened when I asked about it, to discover the author knew about it before mailing it out, but for some reason didn’t find it necessary to put a note or let the customer be aware of it. I put a post-it note in mine to show all of you, and will be taking a black marker to it shortly.  Mistakes and typos happen, but I felt that they should have let the consumer know, once they knew that it was there, for accuracy sake.

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The book starts off with a brother and sister fighting, Zain and Zahrah.  When the father goes to stop them, Zain tells him that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) used to fight, and the father concedes the point, but points out it was not something he wanted to do.  He tells them that for the first 13 years he didn’t fight back even when the Quraysh made fun of him.

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The kids ask who the Quraysh are and why they didn’t believe the Prophet, to which the father lovingly answers their questions before telling him about the verses revealed allowing them to fight from Surah Al-Baqarah.

They learn about Abu Sufyan returning from Syria with a large caravan and how the Prophet wanted to surprise them. Only to learn that Abu Sufyan had arranged a much larger army from Mecca to come and attack the Prophet and his Companions.

There are details about how they determined the size of the army based on how many camels were being eaten, and how the Muslims camped near the wells to control the water.  The story reads smoothly and pulls out when the children have questions seamlessly.

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As the battle is set 1000 soldiers against 313 Muslims, the book explains how the battle starts with three duels and explains how Utbah, Shaiba and Walid battle Hamza (RA), Ali (RA), and Ubaydah (RA).  The Ansar win all three battles and the Quraysh charge.

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Prophet Muhammad (SAW) makes duas, and Allah (SWT) answers sending a thousand angels following one after another to help.

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When the dust settles the Muslims are victorious and the order is given for the prisoners to be treated kindly.  They are given food, rides, and the opportunity to pay a ransom for their freedom or they could teach 10 Muslims to read and write in exchange for their release.

With the story concluded the father then makes sure the children understand some of the many lessons from the battle.  Including having Allah on your side, trusting Allah, putting in your best effort, and being kind and generous even to those against you.

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There is no illustrator listed, but the pictures are done really well showing modern relatable, squabbling kids getting drawn in to a historical story by their father.  The emotion on the characters faces adds depth to the story and engages the readers in seeing and understanding a desert battle so long ago.

The text on some pages varies quite noticeably, with some pages barely having a line to spare and some only being a line or two long.  It does slightly affect the rhythm (and aesthetic) of the book, but it is manageable as long as you remember to give the kids enough time to see the picture on the short pages, as the overall size makes the book perfect for story time to large and small groups.  The book stays on level, which is nice, and there is a glossary of abbreviated terms (AS, RA, SAW, SWT) at the end.

The company: Ghazi Production is planning Uhud to be the next book, and informed me a bibliography will be included in that one.  InshaAllah!

 

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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I realize the inherent difficulty of writing books for middle grades about the events of September 11, 2001: the author lived through it, the readers did not.  Yet, it seems like at some point a book regarding it, will just feel right, and I don’t think for this age group, I’ve found it yet.  This AR 3.3, 228 page book is a quick read, and while some of the characters have spunk and personality, a few of the storylines seem incredibly forced and the overall timeline and holes in the story will be ultimately disappointing for most readers.

SYNOPSIS:

Deja is starting a new school now that her family has gotten a room at a homeless shelter.  Immediately her fifth grade classmates are given an assignment about home, with the end goal that eventually this project will transform in to being about the change of New York’s skyline fifteen years ago.  The details regarding the attacks of September 11, are not given forthright and as Deja knows nothing about the attacks, and the fall of the towers, her inability to get answers adds to her frustration at home and school.

Deja is angry as she bares a lot on her young shoulders.  Her dad can’t hold a job, and his moods and ill health put caring for her younger siblings on her.  Her mom works as a waitress and is always tired.  They lost their house, lived in their car for a while, and now occupy one room in a shelter.  Deja refuses to lie about her home life and thus her aggressive attitude is always on guard.  Another new kid, Ben, joins the class and he and Turkish American popular girl, Sabeen, all quickly become really good friends.  Each have something brewing beneath the surface that they are dealing with, but their friendship helps them cope and bonds them together.

As the trio of kids work on their projects together, Ben finally shows Deja online footage of the attacks and clues her in to what everyone else in their Brooklyn class seems to know and has failed to tell her.  Deja links her father’s declining health to that fateful morning and decides she needs to go to Ground Zero and get some answers.

She doesn’t really get answers, but at least it is the catalyst for an overdue conversation with her and her father, and hopefully a start on the road to healing the family rifts.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Much like the book Nine, Ten there seems to be the token Muslim girl in the story to offer her perspective on the Islamaphobia that occurred after the attacks.  In this case Sabeen doesn’t detail anything specific happening to her, other than a clerk at a store telling her to go back to Saudi and her uncle getting screened regularly at the airport.  Of all the characters I feel like Sabeen gets the short end of the stick.  She is incredibly flat, stereotyped and undeveloped.  Her family is Turkish, she is wealthy, her mom wears niqab and they are all overly kind and sweet, which is great, but when Deja goes over for lunch, they ask her if she prays, which seemed so random and off to me.  A lot of the basics about the character the author got right, she says that the terrorists were Muslim, but they weren’t, sharing a sentiment many of us Muslims feel. She wears hijab, and takes it off when she gets home.  I don’t like that the mom speaks English, Arabic and Turkish, but is first introduced having Sabeen translate for her with another parent.  Seems incredibly pretentious and misleading.  Ultimately her storyline is just overly forced.  She has to leave Ben’s house when they talk about September 11, because she is so affected by it.  She wasn’t even alive when it happened, and I get that when it is discussed us Muslims are on guard, but the author makes it seem like it is her whole world and influences everything around her.  If you live in New York, especially, I’d imagine at some point you’ve had to come to terms with it, no?

That’s why I also struggled with Deja’s dad.  He is so debilitated by the events of 9/11 he can’t function, yet they happened 15 years ago, presumably before he met Deja’s mom and they started a family.  So, really she fell in love with him in his current condition and thought having three kids with him was a good idea? He was fine and then wasn’t? For 15 years he hasn’t been able to get some sort of help for his PTSD type symptoms?  Seems like a stretch in the timeline, and one that is hard to excuse even for 3rd and 4th graders.

I really like how Deja’s homelessness is brought out and hopefully readers can learn some empathy from her.  Unfortunately the entire 5th grade class is so idyllic that I don’t know that most if any kids reading the book will relate to such a well behaved, so accepting, forgiving and generous group of kids. I mean yeah that’s the goal, but its way too overdone.  Ben, Sabeen, and Deja are best friends after the first meeting even though Deja is rude, mean, and doesn’t like them.  I’m not even sure what Ben and Sabeen get out of being friends with Deja?  Deja undoubtedly benefits from them, but there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons given why they’d be so drawn to her.

And finally, I struggled with the theme of how being “American” united them all.  It makes sense when discussing it as a class, that it doesn’t matter their color, income, life experience, whether they were immigrants or born in America, but the concept comes up again at a critical point when Ben and Deja are on the subway and seems so misplaced to me.  On the subway there would be plenty of tourists and visitors, that wouldn’t be American, no?

FLAGS:

The book is clean, it does mention some drunk people at the shelter, but nothing specific, just in passing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club selection because the target age is lower than who I meet with.  But, even despite some of my criticisms I’d recommend this book be in classrooms and school libraries as it does offer up a perspective on historical fiction that hopefully could lead to a slightly deeper understanding of the events at a young age.

 

 

 

Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Kephra Burns illustrated by Leo & Dianne Dillon

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Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali by Kephra Burns illustrated by Leo & Dianne Dillon

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This beautiful work of historical fiction/folklore is both moving and visually breathtaking.  The 56 page book presents as a picture book, but with an AR 6.4 and the amount of text, it reads like a chapter book.  Thus, I’m going to review it as a chapter book, but keep in mind that it is hard bound, 11 x 9, horizontal and while there are frequent small story breaks, there are no chapter breaks.  

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SYNOPSIS:

There is little historical fact about Mansa Musa as a child, thus this story while rooted in fact about the time, about Mansa Musa as an adult, and about what is known regarding Mali and the Malinke and Tuareg tribes, is a work of imagined fiction.  The story begins with premonitions and dreams from Kankan Musa of the Kaba Kangaba tribe.  Kankan and his two brothers live with their mother, and do not know who their father was, a source of stress and teasing for the young boys.  Having just turned 14, Kankan is treated as an adult, but because he has yet proved himself as a hunter, he may sit with the adults, but not yet join their conversations.  Mali in the years after the great King Sundiata had passed away has begun to fade, but their wealth and hospitality still prospers in the desert. 

One day a desert nomad from the Tuareg tribe dressed in flowing blue robes appears and is welcomed by the village elders.  That night he regales stories about jinns, and the sea, and time spent in the desert, and fears he has for their King, when slave raiders tear through the night and kidnap Kankan.  When Kankan awakens days later, enslaved, the same mysterious man, Tariq al-Aya, again appears and buys him from the raiders.  Tariq vows to accompany Musa on his journey to learn who he is and the two spend seven years together learning about the desert, about the larger world, about themselves, in trial and test and challenges.

When Musa journeys back to his home, and Tariq disappears as mysteriously as he appeared, Musa must make himself known to the new Mansa of Mali and see if his wisdom and knowledge can ensure the success of Mali in the future.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m not from Africa and my heart was cheering Musa on as if, my own families success was rooted in his growth and understanding of the world.  As a Muslim, I was proud to know of the success Mali found in Mansa Musa and the historical significance of his rule throughout time.   I wish there was more Islam in the book, his Hajj is well documented and thus tidbits of Mecca and his understanding of it is sprinkled through the story.  There is no talk about prayer or what Islam is, just that he is Muslim and that most of the villagers “had converted to Islam, but at the same time, they had not given up their traditional religious practices or their belief in the ancestors.”  It mentions at the end that he built mosques wherever he went, but prior to this it never mentions him spending any time in a mosque or worshiping in any way. 

I love that the story is told like all great stories, it makes you want to settle in and drink up the details and imagery and got lost in the pictures.  The author weaves in cultural phrases and descriptions, that hopefully readers can unravel from the context as there is not a glossary.  There is a map at the beginning, and author’s note at the end that reveals what is fact and what is fiction in the story.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book should be in every school library and used in classrooms to learn about West Africa, cultures, 14th Century, Islamic history, culture, you name it.  I think this book would work wonderfully in home school environments, where the child could dictate how much to supplement, how much to cover, and the wisdom shared could really be understood.  This isn’t a book that most kids would pick up and read, they would need prodding and guidance, but be better for it.  

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The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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There is a lot to be grateful for in this 145 page AR 5.2 book before you even begin reading it.  The fact that Katherine Paterson, of Bridge to Teribithia fame, would write a middle school book about the horrors that took place in Kosovo in the late 90s and conclude with the events of 9/11 is both bold, and daring.  There isn’t a lot of mainstream YA literature about the events that happened in the Western Balkans and this book is much needed in shedding light on a history that cannot and should not be forgotten.  While the book doesn’t compel the reader to pick it up, I think as a novel study in school, or as suggested reading, kids 4-8th grade will benefit from the story and retain the humanity presented in the characters.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows 13-year-old Meli Lleshi, an ethnic Albanian, and how her world changes as Serbian atrocities escalate. The story opens showing how while there is tension in the air, a lot of the Lleshi family’s life is relatable to today’s western readers.  The children go to school, they have a big family and help out at home.  The dad owns a grocery store under the house and the neighborhood is made up of Albanians and Serbs, Muslims and Christians.  Quickly, however, bad news of the Serbs kidnapping people and destroying homes becomes reality as Meli’s 14-year-old brother Mehmet, goes missing.  The police refuse to help and with no other recourse the family is left to wait and see if he returns.   Luckily he does, but as fears continue to grow the family leaves home to go live at the familial farm in the country.  This stop is temporary and the first of many as the family moves from one refugee camp to another.  Fighting to stay together and look forward, as that their homes, livelihood, and material goods have all been destroyed, the Lleshi’s end up in America, only to be faced with the discrimination following 9/11.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I had the priviledge of helping with a lot of Bosnian and later Albanian refugee families that came through Salt Lake City, Utah in 1998-2001.  Not in any official capacity but as outreach to help get them settled, enrolled in school, a friendly face to call on for help, and eventually a friend.  Later, I even interviewed many of them in a series I did for my journalism classes at the University of Utah.  This story rings incredibly true to what I recall hearing them speak about.  What they saw, what they had to sacrifice, what they hoped to achieve in America.  So I was almost giddy to learn about this book knowing that it wouldn’t be a “fun” read, but an important one bringing a fictionalized account of a historical horror to children that probably have never even heard about it.  I only wish so desperately that the book had a map in it.  There is a great historical note, but a map would have made it so much more impactful. 

I like that the family is Muslim, they do not practice, but they identify as Muslim and are thus tortured both in Kosovo and harassed in America.  They are served a ham at one point in America, and they eat it, noting that culturally they don’t eat it, but don’t really see the big deal in doing it.  I remember the first time my family went to meet a Bosnian family and there were no men in the house, all had been killed at the children’s elementary school at dismissal for being Muslim, and they served us beer.  The ham incident reminded me of that, that these are so often the religious rules we tell others and children about what it means to be Muslim, but in the grand scheme how important are they compared to belief in the oneness of God?  I don’t want to turn this literary blog into my theological thoughts, but its hard over the years to forget that these people died for being Muslim, but yet really didn’t know a lot about Islam.  In my safe sheltered world, I know a lot of people that know a lot about Islam, but would we be willing to die for being Muslim?  The Lleshi family don’t pray or go to the mosque, but they do sprinkle their talk with Arabic words like inshaAllah (God willing), and their names are Islamic in nature: Mehmet, Adil, Isuf, etc., they are forced to relocate because of both their nationality and their religion, where the line is between one identity and the other isn’t clear in the book, nor is it in real life.  

FLAGS:

There is a bit of articulated violence, but the book is clean for 4th grade and up.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this for a Book Club selection, and if I was a upper elementary or middle school teacher for a novel study.  The book balances character narrative and historical context to the point that the book is not boring, sensationalized or easily dismissed.  I think kids will need the school environment and structure to compel them to pick up the book and finish it, but will not fight the actual reading of it.

A guide for book discussion: https://media.btsb.com/TitleLessonPlans/454.pdfTeacher’s Lesson Plan: http://mrscarafiello.weebly.com/day-of-the-pelican.html

 

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz

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I debated whether I should read this book, or listen to it as an audio book with my children, ages 2,7,8,11.  The AR level is 5.3 and Common Sense Media suggests 10 and up because of the intensity, but knowing my kids are aware of some of the heartbreak the book discusses from other fictional works and the news, I decided to share this emotionally powerful book with them.  Tears were shed, discussion occurred, and the stories I pray will haunt and bother my children for years to come, inshaAllah resulting in compassion and action.  

The book is 338 pages with maps, references, ways to help, and acknowledgements at the end.  The audio book is just over seven and a half hours.

SYNOPSIS:

Three kids stories are told in pieces as they occur in different time periods, in different parts of the world, and for different reasons, but the heart of the stories are not the differences, but the similarities that all three share.  The real life parallels of each horrific event, and how small the world suddenly seems, is amplified by the ties that connect these fictional stories to one another.

Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930 Nazi Germany.  When his father is released from a concentration camp; he, his mom, and younger sister Ruthie board the MS St. Louis headed for Cuba to try to find a new life.  However, Cuba refuses to let them in, and Josef’s father cannot escape the ghosts from his time in a concentration camp.  Returned to war in Europe, the family is once again on the run from Nazis and not all survive.

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. Unrest is growing in Havana and when Fidel Castro says people can leave, her family: Grandfather, dad, and pregnant mom, join their neighbors in their makeshift boat to try to reach El Norte.  The shark filled waters, tankers, getting blown off course, and a temperamental boat engine, all pose as obstacles for the family trying to get on dry land to avoid being sent back to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.  

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015 who’s life has been altered by the civil war, but when their home is destroyed by explosians, they must leave right then.  His parents, younger brother Waleed, and baby sister Hana,  begin walking, their journey will travel through many countries as they seek the promised land of Germany.  Along the way they will be held at gun point, be forced into detention centers, walk for days and put their lives at the mercy of the Mediterreanean Sea in a flimsy rubber dinghy. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this book takes huge pivitol historic events in our life time and gives them a face.  Numbers are often numbing as they are difficult to grasp, and political motivations are often so hard to understand in their complexities, that this book does a marvelous job of making it about the person, about the humanity at stake.  I challange any one, especially those opposed to letting refugees in, to not cheer these three on, to not get irrated by those that willingly can help and chose not to, and those being relieved when people finally do see them and do help.  Its amazing how far a little kindness can go, and seeing it in tangible terms is powerful.  Yes, taking into your home a refugee is a huge kind step, but so was the giving of water and asprin to Isabel and her family, or giving of clean clothes and a ride to Mahmoud and his family, or removing the protrait of Hitler from the Social Hall during Josef’s Bar Mitzvah, all little kindnesses that hopefully we can rememember.

I love that the author got Mahmoud’s religion right.  They stop and pray, they make duas, their cell phone apps for salat times all ring at once, they are Muslim and their religion is mentioned as they practice it, not as a storyline.

Overall, I was impressed at the book.  Many reviews online found issue with the structure of the stories being broken up and seperated, but listening to it, atleast, made them feel incredibly connected.  I absolutely enjoyed seeing the parallels of each story and the humanity of each chacter shine through.

FLAGS:

The book has a lot death, and violence, and it is intense, but, it is not glorified and it isn’t too graphic.  It is done tastefully to make a point and keep it real, but not to overwhelm the audience or sensationalize the events, although I don’t know that any fiction, could be worse than the reality endured during these time periods.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

A map, would be awesome, a big one.  I like that the author gives some tips to help, but I think more on hand would be beneficial as the urge to help others is pretty intense after listening to/reading the book.  Especially ways to get involved in Syria, as the struggle is still ongoing.  

There are lots of tools online as the book is published through Scholastic. 

https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/lesson-plans/17-18/refugee-discussion-guide/

Book Unit Ideas: http://bookunitsteacher.com/wp/?p=5858

Author’s page: https://www.alangratz.com/writing/refugee/refugee-discussion-guide/

 

 

 

nine, ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

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nine, ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

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I still struggle with the fact that 9/11/2001 is taught as history, it seems so current and fresh in my mind, that I really struggle with how works of fiction (and non fiction too) try to tell me about the pulse and the mood and the impact of something that I lived through and recall so clearly.  I suppose this isn’t a unique predicament, but because of the magnitude, one that I still wrestle with.  The author of nine, ten glosses over the big picture and in a lot of ways, the events of 9/11, but instead tries to show the paradigm shift that occurred and the division drawn as life before and life after.  She attempts to do this on an AR 4.8 and in 197 pages.  No easy feat, but one that definitely has some hits, and for me at least,  a few misses too.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from four different perspectives that intersect at the opening and at the close, the reader meets the characters two days leading up to 9/11, spends some of September 11 with them, and then peeks in on them again a year later.  The characters all cross paths at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The first character is Will.  A middle school boy struggling to come to terms with how his father died helping someone on the side of the road.  Often more responsible and mature for his age as he helps his mom with his younger siblings, he lives in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and finds healing with helping those affected by the plane that goes down there.

Next we meet Aimee, who has just moved to California and is starting a new school.  Her daily drama is more missing her mom who travels a lot to New York for business, but is relatable as she tries to make new friends, fit in, and find her place in a new environment.  Her mom is in New York during the duration of the book, and has a meeting in one of the Twin Towers on the 11th.

Sergio lives in Brooklyn, New York and is a math wiz who gets a special award and recognition for his achievements.  He lives with his loving grandma, but it is the stressful encounter with his deadbeat father that sets him on a fateful subway trip that introduces him to Gideon, a New York fire fighter.

Naheed is the fourth character, and is an Iranian American Muslim girl, who is struggling to handle friends, and new questions about the hijab she wears.  Her friend drama consumes her, until 9/11 happens and she has to now prove her love of America at every turn.

The characters each take chapters divided by dates and while short, they do form a connection in their snapshots.  You feel like you get to know the characters and you do feel a tinge of stress knowing how they are all related geographical to what will transpire on the 11th. But in the afterward, the author explains why she intentionally keeps the carnage at bay to show how connected we all are, especially children, at the forefront of her fictionally retelling, and to show how much we all were affected that day.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that breaking up of the story, it adds some dimension to the book.  I know some reviews feel it is over done, but I think it is deliberate, and highlights how we all are inter connected and for late elementary, early middle school readers, I think the choppiness it allows, keeps the book on their level.  I like that each character has their own struggles, it isn’t that life was rosy and then 9/11 ruined everything, these kids have their own issues and stresses and realistic personalities before and after.  I also like that the Muslim character is not from the Middle East, it further shows how groups get lumped together for different reasons giving the book a bit more for readers to consider.

There are however, some real issues in how they present Naheed, which seems odd, since the book is so politically correct, and given the topic, you’d think the author and editors would work overtime to get the islamic parts correct.  But alas at one point Naheed’s visiting Uncle wants to know why Naheed doesn’t pray the mid day prayer, thuhr, at school, to which the mom replies, “she makes up her prayers at third prayer.” What? Yes I laughed out loud, no one calls the prayers by their numbers! I have never used numbers to describe our prayers, they have names, and we use their timings to describe them to others, not numbers. At one point, Naheed is making wudu, ablution, and the author gets it wrong. “And lastly, feet.  Right foot with right hand. Left foot with left.  Toes to ankles.” Left hand for both feet.  I also take some issue with Naheed having to wear hijab at age nine.  Hijab becomes required at puberty, so yes it could have been when it became required of her, but it seems a little young for her, and it seemed a bit forced.

In terms of plot, I would have liked a day or two after 9/11 to juxtapose the differences in priorities and the lens of how we got to a year later, or two years later, or 15.  Also, how they all went to New York on the anniversary to tie the story together made for a nice ending, but why they all went was a bit of a stretch, ok a big stretch.

FLAGS:

For a book about 9/11 there is relatively no violence.  The only death is in talking about Will’s father and the only blood is when Sergio helps a man on the subway.  There is some hate speech at the end, but even that is minimal.  Will does kiss a girl he likes. And both Will and Sergio skip school.  Aimee worries if her mom is having an affair (implied) and if her parents are getting divorced, but it isn’t explicit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a good book for a younger book club.  With its overt commitment to political correctness and breaking down stereotypes, it reinforces how similar we all are through strengthening bonds of humanity, rather than being divided by our skin color, or religion.  I think it would also lead so easily into faccilitating discussion of today’s kids putting themselves in the story.  What in their lives wouldn’t matter any more or what would matter more. There is a Reading Group Guide at the end of the book, along with an Author’s Note and Acknowledgement, that easily lend themselves to more discussion ideas.

Curriculum Guide: http://www.norabaskin.com/nine-ten-curriculum-guide/