Tag Archives: hope

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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Usually when a book leaves me with a lot of questions, it is because the author’s writing was incomplete or flawed, this book however, left me with a lot of questions and I’m certain the author did this deliberately. Hence, I don’t know to be irritated or impressed that I care enough about the characters to want to know more. Considering I’m still emotionally attached to the two alternating voices in the book, I’m going to claim the latter, and just be grateful that I was privy to follow the two girls for 288 pages and let the impression the book left me with overpower the curiosity I have to know everything about their past and their futures. This middle grades read is absolutely wonderful and emotionally gripping. I think all kids will have a hard time forgetting the story and characters, and more importantly I think over time they will recall and re evaluate their own thoughts regarding the personal weight of school shootings, gun ownership, sibling loss, responsibility, and maybe even the possibility of time travel. I know this book will stay with me for a long time. This amazing, half-Middle-Eastern half-American author in her OWN voice book somehow manages to discuss a school shooting without being political or preachy and the result is memorable, heartbreaking, and powerful.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in alternating 12 year old voices: Quinn and Cora are neighbor girls that used to be best friends until Quinn’s brother stole his father’s guns and shot and killed students at his school before committing suicide. One of the classmates he killed was Cora’s older sister Mabel. It has been nearly a year since the incident, and since the girls last spoke, but on Cora’s 12 birthday, Quinn leaves a box on her door.

Cora is whip smart and grieving. She lives with her dad, a professor and immigrant from Lebanon who speaks little about his culture or religion to his kids, even though the kids want to know about their heritage and do identify as Arab American Muslims. She also lives with her grandma, her mom’s mom, despite the fact that her mom has left them. It never tells where she went or what happened, which I desperately wanted to know, but Cora doesn’t miss her, because Cora doesn’t remember her, and the family dynamic seemed to be working until Mabel is gunned down. The loss of Mabel is palpable as Cora recalls that she will one day be older than her older sister, and refuses to pack up or touch anything on her side of the room. Cora is in counseling and seems to have a supportive network of friends in her Junior Quiz bowl team, but she misses Quinn even though she can’t forgive her.

Quinn’s chapters begin with a small letter to her brother Parker: what she wants to say, what she feels, questions, memories, anger, disappointment, despair. They are short, but haunting and heartbreaking. Quinn’s home life is fraught with guilt and blame. Her mother has quit work and her father is always working. Her parents fight, a lot. Her mom blames her dad for owning the guns, her dad wants to move to give them all a fresh start, it isn’t pretty. Quinn often has a hard time getting her words out at the speed she wants, she calls it freezing. As a kid, Cora would help, but without Cora and with no one in the house willing or ready to listen to Quinn, Quinn is often left alone. At school Quinn is largely ignored as no one wants to be around the sister of the mass shooter, so she doesn’t try out for soccer, she has no friends, and no one to talk to get the help she so desperately needs.

Quinn has an idea about how to fix everything, and that is what is in the box. She is convinced that if she can go back in time, she can make everything right. The only problem is, she doesn’t understand all the science and needs Cora’s help. Together the two girls work to figure out a way to find a wormhole and fix the damage that occurred. Along the way the girls realize how much they need each other to heal, and the role forgiving yourself has in the process as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am shocked at how deftly the book talks about a school shooting without talking about a school shooting. It is how the families feel in the day to day acts that follow a year later and how the girls are trying to carry on with the limited tools that exist for individuals dealing with the aftermath of such an act of terror. It doesn’t go in to the 2nd Amendment rights or detail the lack of legislation to curb such acts, it really stays on the two girls. The hope of finding a wormhole is really farfetched and perhaps unrealistic, but they are so desperate to believe, to find a way to make things right, that you hope for their sake that they are successful.

It is amazing to see from the sister of a shooter the isolation and pain she endures. I don’t know that I’ve really ever considered the larger families of the shooter when your heart is so devastated for the families of the victims. Occasionally you hear about the parents, but what about the siblings, cousins, distant relatives?

I desperately wanted to know where Cora and Mabel’s mom went. I was tempted to contact the author since it really was gnawing at me. I also wanted some answers as to why Parker did what he did, what hate he was spewing online, what were the signs, did he single out Mabel for being Muslim, while also appreciating that there is no satisfactory answers for any violence of this magnitude in fiction or real life.

Cora knows nothing of Islam and kind of wants to, I felt like this could have been explored a tiny bit more. Not in that she has to be religious, but I feel like after such a life altering event such as death, religion and what happens when one dies usually comes up and a person decides they are satisfied with an answer or not. The story isn’t in the immediate aftermath of dealing with the shock, but rather is a little after the event to presumably not have to deal with the raw emotion, and can focus on the pain and strength that comes with finding a new normal. I’d like to imagine at some point perhaps Cora and her dad talked about what happens after death, but the text doesn’t suggest that it was an issue of concern. She does wonder if Mabel was killed for being Muslim and asks Quinn about it. Quinn never defends or justifies what her brother does, nor does she pretend to know, she is grieving too. She is irritated that people try and define her religiosity to make themselves feel better and she does say the family occasionally fasts, makes duas, and they always celebrate Eid.

She talks a bit more about wanting to know more Arabic, saying that if you are 50% Arab you should at least know 50 words, and she only knows five. She wants to hear about her father’s life growing up, and know that side of her. It mentions that he wanted her to feel like she belonged in America, but I’d love to know more. Maybe what happened to his family, what brought him to America, why they opted not to give them more cultural names, etc..

I also enjoyed the slight science thread. It seems the author used to teach science and I love that the scientific method and various random facts find their way into the story.

POSSIBLE FLAGS:

The book talks about death, killing, suicide, and gun violence, but doesn’t relive the chain of events or detail what happened exactly. Quinn and another friend have crushes on boys in their class. There is a Fall Festival that the kids dress up for, but it isn’t called Halloween, and there is no mention of it. The book opens with Quinn’s birthday.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely read this as a middle school book club selection. It is engaging and gripping and a great book to have as an introduction to hard conversations with children. The author has a note at the beginning about her own children doing active shooter drills and having to face this real fear, and I think kids talking about it through fiction is a powerful tool to get them thinking and talking.

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.

Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed

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Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed

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I’ve never been a huge fan of short stories, but this book has me reconsidering such an arrogant approach, as every single story in this collection has me feeling the warmth of Eid, the joy of authenticity, and the beauty of being a part of a faith with such strong female writers.  Fifteen entries for middle graders in mind: short stories, poetry, and even a graphic novel, spread over 304 pages that shine light on Eid in today’s world,  Eid al Fitr and Ramadan make up the bulk of the focus, but Eid al Adha and Hajj are in there too.  And the best part of the book is that you will see yourself in it, possibly all through out it, but reading such diverse OWN Voice stories are sure to make a Muslim reader feel represented and right at home, and give non Muslim’s a peek at us from the inside, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

I don’t know how to review the book as a whole since there really are 15 different stories, that are each heartfelt and strong in their own right and yet somehow made better by the company around them.  There were no weak links.  There are stories with bickering siblings, annoying cousins, different cultures, mixed background familes, divorced families, converts’ stories, stories of families where money is tight, stories with illness, stories of loss, a story from the perspective of a refugee, and stories of reaching out of your comfort zone.  There is one story about Eid al Adha and a story starring a Shi’a muslimah feeling different within Islam.  There are stories told from boys voices and girls voices and every single story has a take home message, some more subtle than others, but all there and all real.  I feel like even a summary of a story would prove a spoiler and take away from one just falling in to the collection and receiving the warm hug that awaits.   I’ll leave the summaries to their titles and well known authors to spark your curiousity.

Perfect: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake:  Aisha Saeed

Kareem Means Generous: Asmaa Hussein

Don’ut Break Tradition: S.K. Ali

Just Like Chest Armor: Candice Montgomery

Gifts: Rukhsana Khan

The Feast of Sacrifice: Hena Khan

Seraj Captures the Moon: G. Willow Wilson and Sara Alfageeh

Searching for Blue: N.H. Senzai

Creative Fixes: Ashley Franklin

Taste: Hanna Alkaf

Eid Pictures: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Not Only an Only: Huda Al-Marashi

Maya Madinah Chooses Joy: Ayesha Mattu

Eid and Pink Bubble Gum, Insha’Allah: Randa Abdel-Fattah

WHY I LIKE IT:

I recieved this book as an Advanced Reader (digital) copy and I am thinking I want a hard copy too, (I wasn’t able to view the artwork).  A lot of people ask me and I see postings in various social media groups asking for suggestions of books to read each night as a family in Ramadan, and I think this one would work for grades 3 and up.  Have each kid read the story throughout the day and then discuss in the evening.  Every story will have something that is familiar, probably something new, and each has a teachable moment.  I think different kids will identify with different aspects of the story and to articulate them in Ramadan will really bring the already memorable characters to life.

The book is very well done, and reads very smooth and cohesive, it really has a unified tempo and mood which is remarkable because so many different author’s and voices are included.  The book stays focused on the feeling rather than getting too weighted down by doctrine.  There are stories that feature hijab prominantly, and a bit of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and some slight mention of islamaphobia, but it focuses on the friends and the love that support us, both Muslim and non, that make Eid and life hopeful.

FLAGS:

Clean

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this as a book club book to be hosted just as I hope to do this Ramadan with my own children in my home (see above).  I think really I just want to buy a bunch of copies to give as gifts to the fabulous elementary aged children I know, alhumdulillah.

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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Woah! Domestic abuse, foster care, murder, astronomy, and above all hope and bravery. It is so, so much, and so beautifully dealt with from the perspective of a child, that I’m still living in Aniyah’s world and praying she is doing ok.  As the beginning of the book states, it is a story written for everyone, but it then goes on to say that there could be triggers and difficult things to read. So please, while it may be written for ages nine and up, you should know what your child can handle before suggesting they read such a heartbreaking 306 page book, and if they aren’t able to handle it yet, make a mental note to have a discussion when they are ready, it is important.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with a map of London and the chapters start with constellations, maps to the stars, and a little girl who wants to be a star hunter.  Drawing on Simba from the Lion King and wholeheartedly believing that stars are people who’s hearts were so big that when they die they light up the night, she maps the stars outside her foster house window, on the lookout for a new star, her mom.  Not remembering all the details that brought her to this foster home, she and her little brother Noah are trying to figure out their new life, the foster home rules, the loud pain they felt, and if they are winning the game of hide-and-seek with their father.

Unable to speak, Aniya, breaks her silence when a news story on TV tells of a star breaking the rules of gravity and flying by Earth.  Convinced it is their mom, Aniyah and Noah with the help of fellow foster kids Travis and Ben hatch a plan to go 73.6 miles from Waverly Village to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to make sure the star hunters name the star the correct name, and not the random computer generated one the contest rules dictate.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is inspired by the author’s aunt who was a victim of domestic abuse and killed by her husband.  The love and pain she feels at her loss, I believe is conveyed through the pages and felt by readers of all ages.  I had my 10 year old son and my 12 year old daughter read the book, because this book’s topics are heavy and weighty, but handled with such sensitivity and childlike innocence that it is a great introduction to the topic, without being overly heavy and weighty.  The author is amazing, and I was curious how she would follow up her amazing debut novel The Boy at the Back of the Class, and I think this one is just as powerful, if not more so. 

All of the foster kids suffer from some form abuse and there is even a note at the beginning about how the author does not like the term “domestic abuse” and there are resources and information at the end of the book for children or adults suffering or how to help someone they know suffering abuse.  There is also a page about Herstory, the constellations, and some personal anecdotes about the author’s aunt.

The book is truly heartbreaking because as an adult reading the book I could easily figure out what happened, that the father killed the mother, and that the games the mom would have the kids play were not games at all, but ways to mask what was going on. The book is very subtle in how it talks about what the mom and kids endured and some kids will not get it, and others will, either way, parents should be aware and available to discuss that abuse is never ok and that if their friends or someone they know is suffering/surviving, there is help.

The book is powerful also in the way the foster kids for the most part stick together, I think the way they are so willing to help and risk their own chances at adoption is selfless and memorable.  Also the way they put up with Noah, a little kid, who gets annoying, but handled lovingly,  because family means so so much when you don’t have one. 

On the surface though, it is an adventure story, can a ragtag diverse group of kids with little money, injuries and a deadline travel nearly a hundred miles to name a star?  Its fast paced, interesting, and emotional on many levels.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, not even a Muslim name in passing, but the author is Muslim and the story universal.

FLAGS:

Halloween is when they run away.  There is a lot of lying, but they know it.  Lying when the mom covers her bruises and marks, and how she is doing, lying when the kids run away and steal the bikes and sneak on a bus without paying, and break in to the observatory.  The kids feel guilty and know right from wrong in every instance, but when they opt to do something uncouth they rationalize it because they have to name that star!

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m seriously considering reading this as a middle school book club selection.  It is written for a younger audience, but I think I want to open up the topic of abuse and have the school counselor come and listen to the discussion.  The book is that good, and that important, and that powerful, that a discussion and lessons, will keep these characters’ stories in the middle schoolers’ minds as they grow and hopefully teach them empathy, compassion, appreciation, and patience.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai illustrated by Kerascoet

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I’m going to try my best to review a nonfiction autobiographical book and focus on the story, not on the author because yikes, Pakistanis have strong opinions about Malala, and I have no desire to get pulled in to an argument.  I’m half Pakistani, I know the position of both sides.

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I have read both the Young Readers Edition and original I Am Malala books, so I didn’t jump to review this book in 2017 when this AR 3.6 40 page re-re-telling of her story came out.  After reading numerous other children’s books about girls in the subcontinent striving to go to school and be educated, I thought maybe the controversy had calmed down and I could read this large hardbound book a bit more objectively, and thus focus on the story a bit more.

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The book is listed as a biography, not an autobiography, so I’m not sure Malala even wrote the book, but none the less it is a synopsis of her story for younger elementary children.

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Starting off a bit like Harold and the Purple Crayon, Malala asks if the reader believes in magic, and then tells what she would do if she had a magic pencil to draw things that would make other’s happy like a proper soccer ball for her brothers and a way to stop time so she could sleep in a little longer in the morning.

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Every night she hopes for a magic pencil, and every morning she is sad one hasn’t appeared.  As she starts to notice the world around her she realizes that the kids looking for food and metal scraps in the junk yard, have it much much worse.  She asks her father about it and learns that if the children were in school their family’s might go hungry.

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As she notices “real” problems around her, her ideas for what her magic pencil could fix, evolves and develops into a burgeoning social conscience.  But quickly her naive outlook is changed when dangerous men start to appear on the streets and girls in her class stop coming to school.

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Her magic pencil finds real world power when she uses her words and her voice to make a stand and people start to pay attention.  The rest of the book highlights how she made progress despite the attempt to stop her and how she now uses her “magic pencil” to work to make a more peaceful world.

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The surface story is incredibly hopeful and would motivate young children to notice the world around them and do what they can to improve it. Inquiring children might be alarmed at children going through trash, or want a lot more information about who the scary men are and why they don’t want girls going to school and why she gets to travel around and tell her story. Information that is given at the end of the book in an afterwards of sorts.

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Most pages have sparse text and the ones that have a lot are kept on level and avoid being preachy.  Even the attempt on her life is present, but not detailed, sufficing to say that they tried to silence her, but failed.

The illustrations are beautiful and tell the story as much as the words do.  The book does not mention religion, but in the pictures where she is out of the house her hair is covered, but not when she is at home in bed and whatnot.  Obviously it is how she carries her self in real life.

Overall, I think the book is incredibly well done and inspiring to young readers.  Anytime a modern day figure can show children that they too have a voice and can use it, I think it is a good thing.  The fact that the voice comes from a minority, a female, a person with a name and culture different than the ones in most western children’s text books is also a plus.  I hope if nothing else it opens a window to children that there are a lot of amazingly strong and courageous people in all cultures and to seek out their stories.

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The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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At 246 pages I’m not sure if this book would be classified as Young Adult, but I think it could be, as its message, focus and presentation makes it a valuable thought provoking read.  And the cleanliness of everything being resolved so neatly might almost be too coincidental for older, more jaded readers, where I personally wasn’t too bothered by how much emotional action was packed in to the book and how quickly it was resolved as the characters were compelling and the pacing made it an enjoyable quick read.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows two women, Reem and Leah as their very different worlds and circumstances come together when they move in to the same apartment building.

Reem is a Syrian refugee whose past is presented in bits and pieces as her fragmented memories surface in the story.  She is searching for her 10 year old brother Adar, as well as trying to create a future for her self in London.

Leah has recently lost her husband, left her training as a doctor, and is trying to make a life for her and her son, Elijah, away from her parents’ shadow of expectation and demands.

When the two ladies meet, neither is completely settled or functioning, yet the desperation each is feeling causes Reem to ask for Leah’s help, and Leah agreeing.  The two become friends as they share parts of their world with one another and slowly start to heal.

Then Reem’s secret pregnancy comes to light, her abusive husband finds her, Leah’s posh friends abandon her, and their apartment building, the tower, catches fire.  Granted it doesn’t all happen that quick and there are lots of details that make their pasts, their friendship, and their goals for the future believable and inspiring, as well as making the pain for those lost in the fire emotionally wrenching.

As the two women once again try and survive hardship, this time together, they make progress before a terrorist attack on the mosque again sets them back.  Through all these major plot points details about how Reem got to England, and the atrocities she suffered that her mind blocked out are made clear.  Additionally, more about Leah and her families involvement in the tower fire and their friends’ involvement in human trafficking all tie the lose ends up. In the final pages there is hope and resilience and respect from the reader for the brave characters brought to life and their determination to persevere.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is a very personal, character driven story about a horrific fire, reminiscent of the Grenfell fire which claimed the lives of over 70 people.  I also absolutely love how Islam is presented.  The Muslim characters are tangibly real.  Reem wants to fast because it is Ramadan, but has the excuse that she is pregnant, but tries anyway.  She prays, she covers, she meets a Muslim that doesn’t cover, but they pray together at the mosque later and become great friends.  Leah is interested in Islam and asks questions and when she cooks for her Muslim friends she gets halal meat.  There is an amazingly helpful character Mo in the story who Leah is crushing on, but he refuses to be alone with her, or touch her, and when she tells him of her feelings, he says that everything she likes isn’t him it is his religion.  Leah and Reem discuss how the sunnah’s of the Prophet influence Mo and his brother and it is quite detailed.  Quranic ayats are quoted in character’s dialogues in natural presentations, not preachy or misplaced.  It hints at the end, when Leah has joined Doctors Without Borders and is in the Middle East that perhaps she has taken shahada, but it isn’t a plot point and isn’t mentioned explicitly.

My biggest complaint about the book is the random foreshadowing that pulls out from the story to hint that something more is going to happen between certain characters or be of more importance later.  I think it happened three times, and each time completely unnecessary. The story and characters and writing are clear and done well enough that needing the hint sells it all short and it wasn’t just annoying and irritating, it really kind of made me mad.  Here I was feeling an attachment for a character or what they were experiencing only to be reminded that there will be more, rather than letting me go along for the ride with the character.

I also was bothered by the font and spacing.  It is really tight on the pages, but with big margins, that a little breathing room would have been nice.  So, much happens in the book, that I wanted to be able to relish in each event and often I felt the presentation made it rushed and I found myself skimming, more than I would have liked.  I would have also liked to know what parts, if any, were based on or inspired by real events: the tower fire, human trafficking, stealing organs, artifacts coming out of Syria, refugee treatment in London, etc.

FLAGS:

There are memories of war and dead bodies.  The stealing of organs and dumping of bodies into the ocean.  There is a lot of death after the fire and after the shooting at the mosque.  There is a lot of blood, a terrorist act, a baby being delivered, a drunk man at a party.  Nothing is overly sensationalized, but it is a gripping book with some intense moments.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if middle school can handle the book, the characters are older, so it won’t resonate with them like a traditional YA book would, but I’m tempted to have my almost 13 year old read it so we can discuss.  I will most definitely suggest it to the high school book club adviser as there is a ton to discuss and relate to in this action packed book.

Author’s website and Q and A: https://shereenmalherbe.com/