Tag Archives: Islam

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.

City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zayan Unlocks the Quran by Najia Syed illustrated by Rizky Dewi

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Zayan Unlocks the Quran by Najia Syed illustrated by Rizky Dewi

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There is a lot of good information and relatable lessons in this 45 page didactic book encouraging children to get to know the Quran, and to not just recite and memorize it, but the presentation just doesn’t do it any favors.   I can’t imagine that seven and eight year olds are going to identify with the five year old protagonist learning how to add and getting in fights over crayons at school, nor that five year olds are going to have the patience for the explanations and understand the story.  The word story in and of itself is a stretch, it is a bunch of ayats from the Quran that are explained to teach young Zayan lessons that reflect his daily life and how he can succeed and inshaAllah earn jannah in the akhira.  The intention is really good, I just wish there was a bit more plot and that the book’s appearance made more sense.  Having the book look and feel like a leveled reader on the outside, but be completely tiny text filled, save a few entire page generic full-color pictures and green bannered meaning of the Quran’s translation, the book and its seven chapters are intimidating.  Space it out, make it an early chapter book in look and feel, revise the premise that a child has no idea what the Quran is, and is completely shook by learning from the kind and patient Qari Sahib that the Quran has lessons and rules to make us better.  It is a stretch to get the book going, it has some wonderful points along the way, and leaves a warm feeling when completed, but I can’t figure out the intended readers age, nor can I imagine many kids will willingly picking it up.  Like the character in the book dreading Quran class, I’m afraid getting kids to read this would similarly be met with dread, which is a shame, because the lessons are strong, the story and presentation just need a bit of polishing.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zayan does not want to leave his toys for Quran class which he attends one-on-one on the computer with his teacher, Qari Sahib.  Reading the Arabic is hard and confusing, he doesn’t understand what he is reading and he would rather be playing.  He has just built a fort and is afraid if he leaves it for class, his sister will destroy it, (over the first few pages I was convinced his sister was younger than him, and a little confused to learn that both are older).  When he begrudgingly logs on, Qari Sahib can tell he is upset and tells him that being kind to his siblings is a good deed and that many good deeds are in the Quran.  Zayan is shocked.  Qari Sahib offers to read some ayats to him and he can just listen before they resume reading Surah Fatiha.  Zayan is blown away at how pretty the Quran sounds when recited and his eyes sparkle when he learns that the Quran contains directions to get to jannah.

Chapter two explores how the ayats in the Quran about kindness can relate to Zayan’s life.  Being kind to your parents, speaking in a low voice, and not making fun of each other.  Ayats are pulled and connections made so that Zayan can inshaAllah implement his new knowledge in his life.  Zayan returns to playing after class and tests out what he has learned.

This pattern continues with chapter three discussing respect, then anger and forgiveness, cleanliness, and honesty.  The parables come when he doesn’t listen to his mother about finishing his grapes, a fight at school involving crayons, playing in the mud and lying about feeding his pet cat. At one point he remarks that much of what his teacher explains to him from the Quran are things that his mother also tells him, almost like she has read the Quran.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The first few lines are so relatable.  The dread of the child putting the entire family on edge, it is real.  I love that Qari Sahib is kind and gentle and patient.  When the mom mentions things to him about Zayan he finds ways to talk to him about it, without lecturing or reprimanding.  I think the Qari Sahim is the real hero in the book.  I particularly like when he went in to detail about our responsibility to care for animals.  I’m glad Zayan has him to guide him because clearly his parents have failed.  Yes, I’m being judgey.  The kid doesn’t know what the Quran sounds like, doesn’t know why he is being forced to read it in Arabic, doesn’t know what it even is about? I’m not so much judging the fictitious parents, more the inconsistent writing.  If Zayan doesn’t know that his mom has read the Quran how does he know what jannah is and who shaytaan is?

FLAGS:

none

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Obviously not for a book club selection, but I’ve been trying to figure out if maybe my five year old and I could discuss some of the chapters together.  I wouldn’t want to read the whole book because my child loves the Quran and doesn’t dread reciting, I have five children, I know tomorrow it can change, I’m not naive, I’m just saying for him particularly right now, it isn’t a chore and I think if I presented it as a boring thing, he will start to mimic that frame of mind (my older kids know not to ever bash certain teachers, concepts, spiciness of food etc. in front of their younger siblings for this very reason).  But, while some of the lessons are really well thought out, they are just too much for a five year old.  The pictures don’t engage and the text overbearing.  I asked my 10 year old to read it and he found it really childish and didn’t finish.  If the book works for you, alhumudillah, I’m glad, it is a benefit, I wish it worked for me too.

Baby’s First Ramadan by Clare Lloyd design and illustrations by Eleanor Bates

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Baby’s First Ramadan by Clare Lloyd design and illustrations by Eleanor Bates

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I was excited to see publishing company DK add this Ramadan book to their board book selection, but overall it didn’t wow me, or even really impress me.  It has realistic pictures of diverse Muslims celebrating Ramadan, simple text, and bright images, but it read awkward as it switched between first and third person, realistic and stock looking images, and not terribly enticing with slightly faded mehndi and unexplained foods.  There are better board books out there for babies and toddlers than this 12 page mainstream published one.  If you can find it at the library, sure check it out, but I’d save my money on purchasing it.

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The book starts out saying Muslims follow Islam and Ramadan is a special month in Islam.  It features a a man holding a little girl and both are people of color.  The opposite page is a cartoonish crescent moon saying it is the start of Ramadan.

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The next page has a plate of realistic deviled eggs on a bright background stating that many Muslims fast, don’t eat from sunrise to sunset.  It also states that the meal before dawn is called suhoor or sehri.  I’m not sure why Urdu is included with the traditional Arabic and no other languages are mentioned.

The next page then shows a little girl praying and switches to present tense first person and says “Let’s pray…” followed by a little boy reading Quran and stating that reading Quran helps us learn about Islam.  It then switches back to declarative 3rd person saying that people break their fasts before sunset prayers and shows a bowl of dates.

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A family is then shown breaking their fast with a meal known as iftar and the reader is urged to pick their favorite sweet to eat from a plate of different shaped baklava.  There is no description about the baklava and I don’t know how enticing they would be if you have never tasted it before.

The book concludes with the same cartoonish night sky and silhouetted masjids saying the crescent has been seen, Ramadan is over and tomorrow is Eid.  The last page is a girls hand saying , “Let’s celebrate Eid by making henna patterns on our hands.”

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I think the idea is good, but I feel like it doesn’t answer many questions about Ramadan and Muslims and probably makes the religion and celebrations seem foreign and odd, presumably the opposite effect.  I admittedly haven’t read the other holiday books in the series and am not a baby expert, so perhaps I’m really critical and missing the developmental reasoning behind the presentation.  But I don’t know that this book is fun or really informative for any age, it just seems random.

My First Book About Allah: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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My First Book About Allah: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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This 26 page non fiction sturdy board book packs in a lot of information in a really simple way that will keep little one’s attention and hopefully encourage them to ask deeper questions as they grow.  The illustrations are soft and alternate between detailed familiar scenes and simple background style scenes that draw attention to the text on the page. It covers the Shahadah, who Allah (swt) is, it mentions that He has 99 names,  that He sent us the Quran and the final messenger is Prophet Muhammad (saw).  The book at times is wordy, and perhaps the vocabulary a bit above a toddlers level, but the flow is smooth and the tone is warm, inviting, and is requested often by my little ones. (It is reasonably priced by at small bookstores, and double the price on Amazon).

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The book starts off by stating that Muslims believe that there is only one God and His name is Allah.  It shows it in Arabic as well on a very muted background.  The next page is much more lively with illustrations showing someone pray, a picture of the ka’aba, a family eating, and a mother reading Quran and making dua.

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The family is then depicted gathered together with the little children asking “WHO is Allah?” and the book dedicating the next few pages to explaining that Allah swt, is the One who made everything and has power over all. He makes the sun rise and set and everything in the heavens and the earth belong to Him.

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The book explains that Allah even loves us more than our own parents before explaining that Allah has 99 names and Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim are the ones we hear the most.  The background has many of the names of Allah written in Arabic.

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The family prays knowing Allah is All Hearing and All Seeing.  An illustration of a cave with a bird and spiderweb accompany the page that tells us that He sent us the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (saw) to show us how to live. InshaAllah if we do as we are supposed to, we are promised paradise and Allah never breaks His promise.

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The book concludes with Facts about Allah and Questions about Allah (swt). The pages are glossy and 6 x 8 in size.

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Eliyas Explains: Angels by Zanib Mian illustrated by Daniel Hills

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Eliyas Explains: Angels by Zanib Mian illustrated by Daniel Hills

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This last Ramadan I tried every day to listen to Sheikh Omar Suleiman’s Angels in your Presence series with my kids and discuss Angels with them.  I learned so much and got to wondering, why other than the 10 or 15 facts we all learn as children do we not talk about Angels more.  So when I saw the first in a new series by the absolutely fabulous Zanib Mian was about Angels I was so excited, then I forget to review it, and here we are.  The book embodies her sweet spot for personas as she writes as Eliyas, a little boy telling about what he knows about Angels with sincerity, clarity, excitement and humor.  Perfect for ages six and up, I think all children should spend a few minutes with this 81 page doodle filled book to remind us of Allah’s magnificence, Alhumdulillah.

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SYNOPSIS:

Eliyas starts the book by introducing himself and some things about him before diving in, or rather encouraging you to go put socks on so that what he is about to tell you can blow your socks off!  It starts off with him not being able to sleep so he sneaks out of bed to get cookies, because cookies solve everything, and then his dad joining him and them discussing aliens, which leads to outer space, and the knowledge of outer space being filled with angels.

Eliyas then learns about the number of wings the angels have, how strong the angels are, and some of the specific angels that do specific tasks ordered upon them by Allah swt.  The task of protecting us, appeals to Eliyas and the concept of angels the size of mountains praying with us, blows his mind.

We learn through Eliya’s dad about angels coming to Earth in human form and about angel Jibreel (as) specifically.  We also learn a dua to say when leaving the home so that the angels protecting you respond.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the way that the information is presented.  It is a mix of fact and story and tied together with humor and relatability.  If you haven’t read Zanib Mian, please do, her Migo and Ali books, Hadith and Duas are all great Islamic resources, and her Planet Omar and Alien book are hilarious and warm.  I pray that the series continues, it really is a lot of fun.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be great to have a Sunday school class read and discuss or an Islam class offer up as extra credit.  It probably wouldn’t work as a book club selection, but it definitely has a ton of value in a classroom and in a home library.

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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I had debated picking up this book knowing that it isn’t labeled YA and I’m painfully behind on a stack of books I want to review, but after reading @muslimmommyblog’s review I opened the first page: that was 24 hours ago, I couldn’t put it down.  I’ve seen a lot of comments about this book being more YA than adult fiction because it tidies everything up so precisely at the end.  I’ve also seen critiques from non Muslims that it is overly preachy at times.  Many Muslims are so swept away by the rawness and presence in Islam in the book that they are making their teens read it.  So I wanted to read it and review it to determine if it is appropriate from my perspective for teens, and offer my take on it.  Ultimately I think while much of the Palestinian-American protagonist’s life story in the book occurs as a child and young adult coming of age, that the “flags” are so critical to the story and so numerous, that no matter how deftly and non specific she handles these issues and moments, that the book really is meant for more mature readers. I’ll detail it more below in the FLAGS section but to highlight a few mature spots mentioned in the book to varying degrees:  extra marital affair, alcohol, making out, groping, nudity, sex, voyeurism, killing, shooting, physical abuse, profanity, suicide attempt, bigotry, etc.  The writing is absolutely superb, and it isn’t sensationalized, but it is there and provides understanding as to why the characters often are as they are to a point that you need to understand them with a certain clarity.  I would think this 298 page book would most appeal to early college age readers where one is hopefully open minded enough to understand the characters relationship with religion whether they are Muslim or not, old enough to have some of their own life to reflect upon, and on the cusp of a new chapter that they realize the role their choices can make as they move forward.

SYNOPSIS:

Afaf’s life story unfolds out of order and with occasional interruptions from an outside point of view.  It opens with her at work, as a principal of an Islamic girls high school in Chicago as we see her dealing with parents upset with things taught at the school and the balance she tries to achieve in guiding her girls to be strong, confident, well-informed Muslims in a diverse America.  It then flips back to 1976 and begins the tale of Afaf’s life with her parents, immigrants from Palestine, her older sister and younger brother.  Not ever feeling like she fits in at school, she loses any sense of normalcy at home when her 17 year old sister Nada goes missing.   There were problems at home before: her mother never being happy, Afaf never feeling her mother’s affection, her father having having an ongoing relationship with another woman, but as days and months go by, and no clues can find Nada, it will be the event that seemingly tore the family apart.  Afaf’s mother has a mental breakdown, Afaf’s father takes to drinking, and thus Afaf and her younger brother Majeed have to navigate much of their life on their own.  In high school Majeed finds baseball and becomes the ideal student and son.  Afaf lets white boys feel her up and has a reputation for being easy.  She doesn’t cross the line, but her reputation and name on the back of bathroom stalls is fairly accurate.  When their father is involved in a car accident, he finds Islam.  The family is very cultural, but not religious at all.  Eventually Afaf and her brother accompany their father, much to their mother’s protests to the Islamic Center and while Majeed has no interest in religion let alone Islam and never returns, Afaf feels an instant peace and the opportunity to redefine herself and continues to go and study Islam.

The book jumps regularly in sections, not every other chapter, and at some point it shows Afaf as an elementary school teacher making the commitment to wear hijab and preparing to wed a Bosnian man with a broken war filled past.  It jumps and has her brother home from law school visiting and her mother attempting suicide by drinking drano and being found laying naked in a bath tub.  After recovering, her mother returns to Palestine and never returns.  In yet another vignette, it has Afaf and her husband and father preparing to go for Hajj, where her father passes away, and has her returning to find she is expecting her third child a little girl.  There are other surprises that I’ll not reveal, but some of these jumps are interrupted by a voice of a radical alt right mant who walks into the girls school and starts shooting, finding himself face to face with the principal, Afaf.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am seriously blown away at the quality of writing, and the interweaving of religion and culture.  It is a main stream book and it has a lot of religion in it.  It isn’t so much long passages of preaching, the father would like it to be that way, but the other characters keep him in check.  But the quiet transformation of Afaf and having Islam save her from a life she was not content with.  I love that it has joy and happiness despite all the tests and obstacles.  The book could have been really heavy and drag, but it wasnt, it was compelling and hard to put down.  The characters will be with me a while and I can see myself rereading the book just to visit them again.  

I was a little confused with Afaf’s limited Arabic and her mom’s limited English.  How did they communicate? I get that perhaps it was symbolic of their broken relationship, but seriously when Afaf is seven and not understanding Arabic and her mom is not understanding the police and neighbor in basic English, something is a bit off.  I like that insight is given as to why Afaf is fooling around with any boy that wants her and that it shows it isn’t about the acts themselves.  I also like how it showed her conflicts in reporting an Arab child in her class being abused at home by her father and how the response was so sad by the community.  While Islam saves her and holds her to a higher standard, it doesn’t appeal to her brother, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy of people who are Muslim: abuse, owning liquor stores, and it doesn’t make everything better for her.  She has to suffer consequences of her choices, she just feels that Islam gives her the tools to persevere and understand and have hope.  

I love the food, oh man, hearing all the dishes being cooked and served and cleaned up after, really made me very hungry.  The cultural elements of the music and songs and oud really ground the book and make the OWN voice value ring so true and strong.  The racism and bigotry feels very real as well.  The author is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the way that she articulates such pointed examples of not being given the chance to move up in the elementary reading group, side comments the high school coach makes to her, and the general stereotypes thrust upon her, are very powerful.

FLAGS:

So there is a lot, as stated in the intro, but I want to articulate a bit of why I maintain older teens for the book even though it isn’t overtly sensationalized. I’ll walk through some of the major flag themes.:

Take the drinking. The father is an alcoholic, but the mother and children hate it, Majeed drinks beer with his friends, but isn’t Muslim, yet the Khalti is somewhat religious and they pour amber drinks at Thanksgiving. So there is some moral lesson, which I think you could argue is fine in YA or even middle grades.

Relationships/sex/body: The father is having an affair with a much younger woman, they refer to her as sharmoota and everyone knows about it, no other details are given. Afaf lets boys touch her naked body, but draws the line at intercourse, she says she on some level doesn’t want to do that to her parents or something of that nature. Right before proposing marraige, her and Bilal do kiss. Once they are married it mentions them making love in the mornings. It mentions masterbating and blow jobs. The shooter and his girl friend have sex, the shooter watches an Indian neighbor nurse her baby through the door and sees her exposed breast with some detail and then goes home and masterbates. When the mother is pulled out from the tub after attempting suicide it doesn’t just mention she was naked, it comments on her pubic hair.

Violence: An Arab Muslim male classmate, drives Afaf away from her bike and the slaps her telling her basically that she should not be such a slut. Afaf punches another girl in a fight at school. A child in Afaf’s class is being hit by her father. Mother lashes out at Afaf, she ends up burned. The climax is a mass shooting where 14 students and a teacher are gunned down and killed. Self harm: car crash while drunk, suicide attempt with drano.

Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would make a great book club selection for those in their early 20s and up. It is well done, just not for younger readers. The book is very popular and numerous author interviews can be found with a quick Google search.

A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

This middle grade, 330 page book is an easy read that touches on concepts of change within friendships and families with the back drop of life in a coastal town, finding courage, and Islamaphobia. While early middle school readers might find the book a bit predictable and cliche’, the characters, lessons, and fluid storytelling would still make the book worth their time.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Izzy spends her summer days in Rhode Island on her skiff mapping out the floor of the pond that runs next to the ocean. Fearful of the open ocean, she is, however, confident and independent in her abilities to navigate the calmer water and understand what is beneath the surface. Her father has recently returned from Afghanistan and with his post traumatic stress disorder making him angry and not the same as before. Izzy is further thrown into turmoil when the family moves out of their house and into the marina, her mother extends her already summer long absence to Block Island and middle school at a new regional school is about to start. As always she hopes to lean on her fellow sea stars, Zelda and Piper, best friends since kindergarten, however, things with them don’t quite seem the same either. Add in that her father’s translator from Afghanistan and his family have just moved in upstairs with their two young boys and 11 year old daughter Sitara, and Izzy has a lot to handle and navigate.

Piper and Zelda decide to take television production class first period to make sure they have at least one class together, Izzy is incredibly shy and while she appreciates that this has all been arranged she isn’t confident that it is a good fit for her. Dragged along, as it seems she often is by her much more confident friends, It is arranged that Sitara will also be in the class. Right away Piper and Zelda decide that they don’t like Sitara and her hijab and her “different-ness” and exclude her and by extension Izzy from their lives. As Sitara and Izzy get closer and start to learn from one another, Piper and Zelda lash out and go from ignoring to being mean to Izzy and Sitara. Sitara explains to people on the announcement show why she covers and helps Izzy to understand that her father was in danger after helping the Americans and that they had to leave Afghanistan. The anniversary of 9/11 however, turns many students into verbally berating Sitara and her having her hijab pulled off in the lunchroom. When Izzy figures out that her former sea stars were involved in the planning she is devastated and must take the lessons from Sitara and her Czech Grandma to have more courage than fear, find her voice, and do something to make things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Izzy has a lot going on in her life and in many ways Sitara has been through a lot, allowing them to encourage each other to keep moving forward. There are some parallels in losing their homes and dealing with change that they comfort each other with, but the two characters combined show readers that strength and bravery occurs when you are afraid, and that most people aren’t truly fearless. I really feel for Izzy, her friends may have been there for her on occasion, but by and large they seem kind of dismissive of her and her fears. I think she sees them as equal, but I don’t get the feeling that they see her that way, they may be protective of her, but they kind of bully her in to doing what they want. Every few chapters is a flashback to a pivotal point in the sea stars friendship and even before Sitara enters the dynamic, I started to question Piper and Zeldas sincerity. Their best friend just moved, her dad came back from serving in Afghanistan, and her mom is not coming home, they should be concerned, not belittling her for liking art and wearing old clothes. The mom is another painful plot point, like lady I get that you have stuff going on in your life, but really you are just going to leave your child? Ya, I wasn’t a fan of hers.

I like that the story addresses Islam and Islamaphobia, and while it is very much in the story, it isn’t really about it. Izzy is front and center, and even she takes a while to warm up to Sitara. I love that it shows what Afghanis that helped fight against the Taliban went through and how painful it is for them to resume life after doing so. I think this point is so lost in mainstream understanding whenever there is a terrorist attack, that this is what the refugees are leaving, that people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are running from, and when they get called terrorist it hurts that much more, because their whole lives and people they care for have suffered from the real terrorists.

I really wish there was a map, I wanted to visualize better the breachway and had I not lived in Rhode Island for a few years I probably wouldn’t have understood Block Island’s location to to the mainland. Like with so many middle grade novels I wish there was some more depth to the characters, but I truly appreciated that there wasn’t a completely happy ending, and that growth occurred in so many characters, but at different rates. It really made it clear that we all need to continuously work to get to know one another, find our voice, our courage, and be willing to change.

FLAGS:

Clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but I think this would be a great recommendation for those that do. There is a lot to discuss and explore that kids can relate to. The majority of the characters are female, but I think the themes are universal enough that boys will enjoy the book as well. I’m confident all readers will learn something new about sea stars and possibly even television production in this sweet story.

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

ghost

A book meant for middle grades, 8-12 year olds, that has depth and layers and culture and strength is not something you find very often.  Over 275 pages, the book is at times dark and haunting, but what is truly remarkable is that it doesn’t talk down to young readers and with its pop cultural references and relate-ability,  the book is not dreary.  In fact, the true “haunting” occurs after the book is finished and the concepts of friendship, being alive, and forgiveness stick around and require thought and consideration.  The book is based on a Malyasian folktale, how much is a fleshing out, or simply a starting point, I do not know, but I do know that the characters are memorable, the concept thought provoking, the writing flawless, and the intertwining of Malay culture, Muslim characters and the supernatural, a combination that makes for an enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

When an old witch dies, her pelesit, her ghostly demon, is passed on to her granddaughter Suraya.  Suraya lives with her mother, a teacher, and is lonely and emotionally neglected.  An adventurous girl, the pelesit, keeps the small girl safe, but waits to reveal himself to her in the form of a grasshopper when she is older.  When he does reveal himself to her, she asks him his name, and he doesn’t know it, so she names him Pink.

Suraya and Pink become best friends, and he provides company for her as she receives very little from her mother and has no friends.  Suraya had no knowledge of her grandmother and Pink modifies the stories to leave out how evil, cruel and vindictive she was through him.  As an evil being with no heart these acts never bothered him, although he stopped enjoying them long before she died.  With Suraya however, he feels things.  He is sad that she is unloved by her mother, teased by the other children, and that she doesn’t have the things other kids have.  Suraya is kind, and forgiving, and tries so hard not to let things bother her.  Pink however, with a twitch of his antenna can make things happen.  Bad things.  Things that might at first seem like a part of life, but when Suraya catches on, she scolds Pink.  She makes him promise never to use his magic to hurt people, ever.  He reluctantly agrees, she is his master after all.  Unfortunately he doesn’t keep his promise.

On Pink’s prodding, Suraya makes friends with a new girl at school, Jing, and their friendship makes Pink jealous.  He harms Jing and Suraya decides she no longer wants to be his master.  As a result Pink is determined to make Suraya’s life miserable.  As desperation mounts, Suraya tells her mom about Pink and a pawang is called in to separate the spirit from Suraya.  Something seems off about the pawang, and when Suraya investigates, she realizes that she must save Pink from him.  Together with Jing, Pink and Suraya are off on an adventure against the pawang and might just learn more than Pink’s backstory in their efforts along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Suraya and her family are Muslim and that Jing is not and they are best friends.  Suraya and her family pray, celebrate Eid, give salams when at the graveyard, but obviously also believe in magic and ghosts, and somehow in the story it doesn’t seem to be contradictory or odd.  I love Suraya’s strength.  None of the relationships in her life are good.  Yet, she is good, and she forgives and fights to make those close to her better.  Pink is manipulative and controlling and abusive, but she still fights for him to be treated better and that says more about her, than whatever he is.  Suraya’s mom is distant and neglectful, but yet, there is still realistic hope that their future can be and will be better.  I love that all these layers are there and yet are subtle too.  Kids are smart and they will bring their own experiences, understanding, and expectations to decipher these relationships, and that is amazing.  I love that the characters in the story may be so different than the typical western reader, but they will still see themselves in this poor Malay girl from a small village, in her best friend Jing who lives and breathes Star Wars, or even in the religions pawang who is a power hungry charlatan; toxic friendships and family secrets make the book universal.

FLAGS:

Pink makes it look like blood is on a girls back side, implying a girls fear of leaking, but it isn’t explicit or named.  There is death and dying and supernatural and lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am thinking strongly about using this as a book club book, as the discussion would be delicious and varied among the participants.

Interview with the author: https://thequietpond.com/2020/08/20/our-friend-is-here-an-interview-with-hanna-alkaf-author-of-the-girl-and-the-ghost-on-writing-friendship-malaysian-childhoods-being-true-to-your-stories/