Tag Archives: Kindness

Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali

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Now that there is legitimately a genre of YA Islamic Romance out there told in Own Voice, the expectations are high that a book is compelling, realistic, and unique somehow.  While the author’s first book, Saints and Misfits was pretty ground breaking, this 342 page was a great read, but not nearly as remarkable or memorable.  Granted it is not fair to compare the two books, and each day I do age out of the target demographic, but while the story reads authentic and true, albeit a bit serendipitous, it doesn’t have the teeth or grit I was kind of hoping for, and with a mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis my emotions were pretty invested.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from both Adam and Zayneb’s perspectives by way of their individual “Oddities and Marvels” journals, our two characters are presented by a narrator who keeps their story on track and interjects when their versions of an event differ. 

Zayneb is a high schooler and activist who has recently been expelled for threatening a teacher who consistently lets his Islamaphobic beliefs take over the days lessons.  In an environment filled with micro aggressions against Muslims, Zeynab’s parents are at a loss at how to keep their daughter from making waves, and thus allow her to leave her Indiana home a week before spring break to visit her aunt in Doha, Qatar.

Adam is at University in London where he has recently been diagnosed with MS and as a result has stopped going to classes, and is literally “making” the most of the time he has by making things.  As the term ends and he officially withdraws from school, he heads home to Doha to tell his dad and sister that he has the same disease that took his mother’s life years early.

The two characters meet at the airport briefly and then again on the plane and then at Adam’s house and the needless to say  their accidental meetings allow for friendship to grow, attraction to be built upon and a relationship to develop. Both characters have their own lives and own obstacles and own maturity that needs to occur in order for a happy ending to take place, and thus the book keeps you interested, invested and cheering them on.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the dynamic of how the book and characters are set up.  Both are practicing Muslims, both characters don’t cross a line, both characters have diverse mixed cultural backgrounds, and one is a convert and the other the daughter of a convert.  She is fiery and impulsive and emotional, he is pragmatic and calm and quiet.  While they have some background in common, their life experiences are rather different and it is very much a story about opposites attracting.  

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out, and so I knew my expectations would be too high.  That being said the book warns it is a love story and in some ways, that was what I kind of felt was lacking.  There was the physical attraction that was mentioned fairly often, but the deep connection of ideas or growing seemed a bit lacking.  

I really liked Adam, and his internal stresses and struggles and coming to grips with his disease seemed pretty developed.  Somehow though, and I’m probably in the minority, I didn’t love Zayneb.  She is impulsive and definitely learned and grew from the start of the book to the end, but I didn’t love her nuances with dealing with the Emmas and her friends back home and unraveling her teacher, it felt kind of forced and I can’t articulate why.  I’m glad she matured and she got answers about her grandmother, but maybe I should have felt so much in common with her and when I didn’t, I felt a little irritated.  Clearly I get too invested in fictional characters, I’ll admit that.

I like that Islam is presented in a non defensive way.  The parents aren’t evil, there is no rebelling, even the awful teacher spawns backlash and allies to Zayneb and her cause. There is no apologizing or overly explaining if the characters are pushing boundaries established by Islam or if they are establishing their own boundaries based on their understanding of Islam.  I like this, because it shows that Muslims are not a monolith, we are not one way good or bad.  Zayneb covers and prays and has friends that are boys and her family is kept in the loop of what she does, which alone breaks so many of the predominate stereotypes about Muslims.  Adam himself converted at age nine and plays the guitar and has friends that are girls, and is close to his sister, and likes dogs.  A side character is noted to be incredibly religious, but doesn’t cover.  The story takes place in an Islamic majority country, but attitudes at the swimming pool don’t allow Zayneb to dress modestly while she swims.  

Overall, the book is a delightful read that manages to keep the religious integrity in the characters and show their personalities as they come of age.  It may not be memorable years after reading, but what you do remember will be positive, and while you are reading it, you will have a hard time putting it down.

FLAGS:

There is angsty romance, and talk of sex.  The two main characters keep it pretty clean, but the side characters joke about hooking up, being horny, and sneaking off to hotel rooms.  The non Muslim aunt has a secret alcohol and cigarette stash that she gets called out on, but nothing more is mentioned about it. I think 9th or 10th grade and up will be perfectly ok to read.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a lot to unpack in this book and I think if one just listens, teens will naturally add their own opinions and perspectives on EVERYTHING the characters experience, feel, question, and cope with.  The book just came out, but I would imagine that over time discussion questions will appear.

Author’s website: https://skalibooks.com/books/

Interview with the author: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/an-interview-with-s-k-ali-author-of-love-from-a-to-z/

 

Unlikely Friends by Sahar AbdulAziz

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Unlikely Friends by Sahar AbdulAziz

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Another wonderful book by a Muslim author that doesn’t discuss Islam, but is expertly written and such a great read, that I wanted to highlight it here on the blog.  At 293 pages and involving a teen character I was really on the fence if this would qualify as “young adult,” so I reached out to the author to ask, and she, mashaAllah, responded! Unfortunately, she felt it wouldn’t quite qualify, even though it is a bit of a coming of age story.  So, why am I still reviewing it?  Because I think high schoolers (muslim and non) would really enjoy the book, and with finals nearly over, anyone in that demographic looking for feel good story that is pretty clean (Ramadan is nearly here), I think this book would be a great choice! And full disclosure, yes I’m biased, the librarian is the hero!

SYNOPSIS:

Told from multiple points of view the linear story brings together two introverts, Irwin and Harper, that have a lot of real and serious issues pressing them.  Their traumatic back stories are slowly revealed as the two unlikely friends come together to deal with their current predicaments.

Irwin is an old ornery librarian that doesn’t like people or change.  He is set in his ways and the stubborn Harper, a young high school student for some reason latches on to him.  He tries to shake her, but finds he is genuinely concerned about her and despite his better judgement finds himself helping her and getting tangled in to her messy home life.  

Surrounded by a cast of developed and diverse characters the fictional world of Irwin and Harper is both believable and realistic.  Irwin’s author neighbor is losing her memory, slowly, but noticeably, his deceased fiance’s daughter passes away shaking his routine, and his colleagues at the library are funny and annoying in their own ways.  Harper’s father is released from prison and her mother must make a stand to resist falling into old drug habits, all while trying to make ends meet and put food on the table.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it reads so very smoothly.  You feel Irwin’s shell cracking and you see that he is so much more than just a stereotypical grumpy old man.  You also see Harper’s mother, Olivia concerned that her daughter and an old man are becoming friends.  You probably could predict how things will end up, but the way it is written you aren’t really worried, you are just enjoying getting to know the characters presented.  Overall, it really is a great lens to remind us all that friendship, real friendship is incredibly valuable.  In a world of filters and digital everything, sometimes our humanity is all we have.  I also like that people are given the chance to change and grow, the group of main characters are not stagnant or one dimensional, their challenges and dilemmas are brought in to the open and you feel for them as you would a real person.

The only two questions that stood out as inconsistent with the characters and story development are why didn’t Harper just get a job to help out her and her mother’s financial situation? Plenty of teens have jobs, so that seemed a little off to me.  Secondly, Olivia works at a supermarket presumably or a market of some sort, so it would seem that an employee discount or nearly expired food section would make their food insecure situation a little less severe.  Granted its fiction, but these two jarring concepts seemed to hold me back from completely being swept away.  

FLAGS:

The book is clean in terms of what is explicitly conveyed.  The details that make it possibly/probably not suitable for younger readers are the drug histories of Harper’s parents and what they did to acquire drugs, what they did when on drugs and what was allowed to take place around Harper when she was a child.  Darren, Harper’s father, believes that Harper was sexually abused by someone when he was high and this memory haunts him.  It isn’t explicit, but it is there.  Some mention of Olivia waking up in dealer’s beds is again mentioned in passing, but not detailed.  One could imagine two druggies trying to raise a child and get their next hit, but a lot of the understanding will come from the prior knowledge the reader has of such scenarios, not from the text itself. 

There is the idea that physical abuse was common between Darren and Olivia and is shown in Darren’s temper when he throws a vase against a wall after coming to Olivia and Harper’s home when released from prison.

There is some mention of Irwin’s fiance’s relationship with her ex-husband in that he cheated on her regularly.

So definitely, the book has elements for older readers, but the way the topics are discussed: drugs, abuse, infidelity, are not glorified or even detailed, more they set the stage in defining the current conflicts the characters face, the pasts they must over come, and the environments that they want to improve upon.  I think 15 and up could handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m thinking to recommend this book to the Sister that runs the high school book club.  I think there would be so much to discuss and myths to dispel that an older group would benefit from the experience and work the author does and writes about in this book.

Plus the fact that the author so easily responded to me, might inspire a group of teenagers to reach out and be equally inspired.

 

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller illustrated by Jen Hill

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Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller illustrated by Jen Hill

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I usually post chapter books on Fridays, but on this one week anniversary of the horrific Mosque attacks in New Zealand, my fragile heart is being kept together by the pictures and notes shared on social media about the kindness people are bestowing on one another.  Company’s setting up prayer spaces for Muslim employees, communities standing guard outside masjids, friends leaving flowers for their Muslim acquaintances, strangers donning hijabs in solidarity, individuals carrying signs of welcome and unity, truly the list goes on and on.  Muslims and non-Muslims reaching out to one another, Kiwis and the rest of the world coming together.  And yet I know so many people are at a loss at what to do, and how to respond to their feelings in an appropriate manner.  I know I often am.  Thats why books like this one are so important for children to learn how to be kind.  We often tell them to be nice or kind, but what does that mean? What does that look like? How do we know if it worked? As adults we often don’t know, so while this book isn’t written or illustrated by a Muslim, there are Muslims in it, and that is why after seeing another blogger a few weeks ago mention it, I want to share it with all of you.  The illustrations show a little girl saying hi to a desi garbed man named Omar, and two hijab clad girls in her view of the world, amongst so many other diverse faces and characters, because that’s the point right? We are one, each of us responsible to one another to be kind.  

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The book starts off with Tanisha spilling grape juice all over her new dress and a classmate being at a loss as to how to console her.  She makes what she thinks is a reassuring comment to Tanisha, but it isn’t received that way, and the little girl ponders and reevaluates what it will take to be kind to Tanisha and what kindness is in general.

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As she works to unravel what kindness is, she explores also what it can look like.  I love that it is seen in terms of action, giving ideas to stay with the reader.  It discusses that sometimes it is easy like saying hello, or not littering, and how important just using a persons name can make someone feel.

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But, it also talks about how sometimes kindness can be hard, requiring patience and a little bravery. I can only imagine how brave people had to be to enter a mosque for the first time and step out of their comfort zones to offer their support.  

The book then takes an important pause when it acknowledges that maybe all this little girl can do to help Tanisha is to sit by her.  I think Muslims around the world are in awe of the Prime Minister of New Zealand for all she is doing, but also for just showing up and hugging people and listening.  A rare gift in todays wold of soundbites.  

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The little girl then imagines her small acts of kindness joining others and making the world a better place.  My favorite part is actually the end.  Tanisha never smiles and tells the little girl thank you, there is no big praise for being kind.  In fact, I bet the little girl doesn’t even know the power her actions had on the little girl.  We the reader know because we see Tanisha hanging the picture up in her room.  But, that let down is real life.  We can’t be kind because of the reward, we must learn to be kind because it is the right thing to do.  And often when people are kind to us, the effect isn’t instantaneous, its weight manifests in the dark when we are looking for hope and reassurance and for this book to contain all of that, in 32 pages with only few words (AR 2.2) is truly amazing.

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The illustrations are gorgeous and engaging.  The hardback 9×10 format makes this book a great addition to any library and should be read regularly.  It isn’t enough to not be mean, action and intention need to be taught so that we all might be more kind, inshaAllah.

 

Basirah the Basketballer says Insha’Allah by Hafsah Dabiri illustrated by Alina Shabelnyk

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Basirah the Basketballer says Insha’Allah by Hafsah Dabiri illustrated by Alina Shabelnyk

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Another sports book starring a smart girl with a supportive father, seems like a trend, and I like it.  The book is relatable to ages 5 and up whether they play basketball or not, and will remind even slightly older children how “insha’Allah” really works.  It features a girl, but boys will gain a lot from the book as the lessons are for us all.

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Basirah loves basketball and with supportive teammates and mad skills, she should be a shoo-in for team captain.  But when her dad reminds her that if it hasn’t happened yet she needs to say insha’Allah, she realizes the power of leaving things to God.  

Testing out her new knowledge of asking God to make happen things she really, really wants, over many of the 30 pages in the story, makes the climax that much stronger and her dad’s wisdom that much more memorable. I’m trying not to spoil the story, even though it is a children’s picture book, it isn’t without a bit of tension and resolution that really makes the book shine.

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This book can be taken at face value with a little bit of a lesson for little ones, or a lot deeper for more reflective readers.  Understanding that things we ask God for often come or don’t come to test us, is a lesson we all need. I hope if read with an adult, the adult will also push the listener to consider why we should do things in the first place, what are intentions are, as Basirah leaves the door open for that discussion at the end, but doesn’t quite articulate it for independent readers.

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I love that at home Basirah is not covered, but is when she is out.  I love that her school is diverse with students of different colors and head coverings and that her coach is female and a muhajaba as well.  I love that Basirah and her father seem incredibly close, and that she listens to him, and he to her, before lessons are espoused and course of action plotted.  The book is not preachy, but lessons are there and the reader will get “it” right along with Basirah allowing her strength to radiate off the page and inshaAllah empower the reader as well.

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I find it interesting that the book doesn’t mention Allah and uses the word God, given that the phrase the book focuses around is insha’Allah.  I would imagine the intended audience is Muslim, but there is not specific mention of Islam.  It would work for non Muslims, but I think they would wonder why she says such a phrase and where it comes from.

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Basirah is presumably in middle school, as she has multiple classes and can bake a cake independently, her age seems a bit fluid, but many 11-14 year olds do tend to be independent in some areas and rather clueless in others, so while I did notice that she seems very naive in knowing what insha’Allah means and how it works in some parts of the story and very mature, and hijab wearing, and willing to grow from her situation in others, I’ve concluded it is plausible.

The book is 8.5 x 11 vertical, well bound, shiny glossy full color pages with clear and easily readable font.  The sentence length and amount of text on the page is not too overwhelming and the spacing keeps it inviting for new fluent readers.  

I love that Ruqaya’s Bookshelf (https://ruqayasbookshelf.com/) has new books out, three to be exact.  Whether the stories work or don’t work for you, I think their presentation and quality, give the books a longevity and find themselves being pulled out for different kids, at different times, when different lessons are needed.  They are well packaged in terms of illustrations and colors and size for the most part, and when I hear they are publishing new stories, I find myself ordering them without even reading the content synopsis.  Thank you for helping get these stories out, may Allah swt reward you!

 

Layla’s Head Scarf by Miriam Cohen illustrated by Ronald Himler

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Layla’s Head Scarf by Miriam Cohen illustrated by Ronald Himler

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It isn’t often that I feel compelled to list all the things I like about a book and all the things I don’t like about a book and count them up to see what I think about a book.  Especially when the book is only 32 pages and an AR 3.2, but this book has me on the fence.

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It is Layla’s first day of school and presumably she is shy.  That’s what the other kids say at least.  The story follows her and the class throughout a typical first grade day, there is no climax or problem, there is just her and her classmates moving from circle time, to the library, to lunch, to recess, to art, and then her joining in at circle time the next day.  

Along the way the kids comment on her scarf, the librarian brings her a book about her country with pictures of sun and sand and veiled women.  The lunch lady looks at her rice and pea pie and says it looks yummy, the kids tell her to take off her hat to play easier, other characters stick up for her and try to correct other classmates that it isn’t a hat, it is a scarf. 

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During art time, she paints her family and the women all wear hijabs, a few kids say they look funny, a few others stick up for her, she ends up crying, but the kids come together to make her feel better and to articulate that in America people can wear what they want.  Some kids talk about family members wearing yarmulkas and others about braiding their hair, but there is no reason given for why Layla wears a hijab.

I don’t think any of the kids are intentionally mean or malicious, they are curious and not given any answers by Layla or any of the adults.  As a result when the book is over, the reader similarly has no answers.  Despite that though, I think readers will get the power of kindness and with some (a lot of) discussion, understand how we can help people feel comfortable and celebrate differences.

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Here is my pro and con list about the book:

PROS:

Book about hijab is included in a mainstream series meant for 1st graders (We Love First Grade!) 

Kindness comes through.

Kids stick up for each other.

Librarian found a book about Layla’s country and read it to the kids.

Kids include Layla while playing.

Illustrations are soft and realistic.

Diversity in the classroom.

CONS:

The book is about hijab, but nothing is learned about hijab.

Lots of stereotypes: girl doesn’t speak englishF from the desert, different food. 

Focus is on differences not similarities.

1st graders aren’t required to wear hijab.

Islam isn’t mentioned, but the Jewish kid mentions his faith.

Don’t learn what her lunch is called or what country she is from.

If she doesn’t speak English how did she label everyone in her picture?

Clearly she understands English, she is just shy, so why does she mess up the song at the end?

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Luckily the book was in the public library, so I don’t feel like I bought something that I am unhappy with.  I don’t know that I would recommend it to anyone, but it is always nice to see a muhajaba in a story, and there isn’t anything “wrong” with the book, it just lacks a lot of detail unfortunately.

The Blessed Bananas: A Muslim Fable by Tayyaba Syed illustrated by Melani Putri

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The Blessed Bananas: A Muslim Fable by Tayyaba Syed illustrated by Melani Putri

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 A fable with lessons of kindness centered around the Salawat, definitely is a great premise and for the most part I really enjoyed the book. 

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The 8.5 by 8.5 hardcover, 50 page book feels great in your hands and the illustrations are sweet and expressive.  The book is long, and is text heavy so I’d say the target audience is maybe 6 to 10 years old.   The font is incredibly small and irritating.   It should have been larger and more inviting to children in my opinion.  It doesn’t match the size, binding, and illustrations, and actually becomes a distraction if trying to read it in a group setting.  

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The story itself is smooth and intentional.  Rico, a blessed, yet ungrateful monkey, lives atop an ever abundant banana tree.  However, he attributes his blessings to his own hands and does not thank Allah swt.  He is mean and greedy toward people and animals alike.  Yet, something is missing in his life and he doesn’t know what. 

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When a little mouse, Chico, comes to him to ask for a banana and gets scolded at instead.  Chico makes dua for Rico asking Allah to guide the monkey to goodness.

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Tucana, a toucan, then stops in Rico’s banana tree after a long flight to be rebuffed by a foul tempered monkey who wants to be left alone.  When Tucana  leaves she forgives Rico for his rudeness and asks Allah to be merciful to him as well.

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Rico then makes signs to keep people and animals away.  Which works for a while, but along comes Simon, an elephant, one afternoon to ask the monkey to climb his tree and help direct him back to his herd.  Rico of course refuses, and Simon reminds him that they are brothers in Islam and to please help. He begins shouting at the elephant to leave, and as Simon is pacing back and forth, he slips on the banana peels, grabs the tree to support himself and shakes the tree back and forth in the process.

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Rico begins hollering for help and sure enough the animals he had turned away previously, return to help him.  They had forgiven him as they hope Allah will forgive us all.  To calm the monkey, chico shouts, “Salawaat’alan Nabi!” in Simon’s ear and when he recites “Allahuma sali’ala Sayyidina Muhammad,” peace and calmness is restored.

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With all the bananas on the floor, many mushy and trampled, Rico has to decide if he learned a lesson, and how he will put his new knowledge into action, or if he will resume his life of ungratefulness.

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The book ends with each animals favorite banana recipe, information about the author and illustrator and benefits of reciting Salawat and an ayat from the Quran.

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The story and how it weaves Islam into the lessons is beautifully done, my only hiccup is the constant refrain of Rico counting his bananas.  I realize it is a fable, and maybe with talking animals interacting with humans, reality is notably suspended.  But, it seems misplaced to me.  How do you constantly count a perishable item? Does Rico only eat a certain amount a day? How many new ones grow a day? What is the number that he is adamant to have at all times? So, many questions, that I didn’t get why he was counting them, why he was irritated when he lost count, and why this detail was in the story and a big part of the story none-the-less.  Like the font, its a minor detail, but a distracting one for me unfortunately.  Clearly, however, I’m in the minority as the book has won the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and the Islamic Writer’s Alliance Creative Story, so give it a read, and let me know your thoughts, jazakhAllah kher.

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Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson illustrated by Fumi Kosaka

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Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson illustrated by Fumi Kosaka

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Once again I picked up a book for the message that it explored, making a difference, and found myself smiling triumphantly when a flip of a page revealed a Muslim lady depicted in an illustration, and her culturally Islamic name gracing the page. 

The book is an AR 4.2, and while there are a lot of words on each of the 32 pages, and the concept of an act multiplying might be hard for little ones to grasp, I think patient kindergarteners and first graders will grasp enough to make the story enjoyable.

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Ordinary Mary is so very ordinary, but she changes the world.  It all starts when she leaves berries for a neighbor.  And that neighbor, Mrs. Bishop, takes the berries and makes blueberry muffins and secretly gives them to five people.

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Each of those five people in turn give or do something kind to five people and over 30 billion people are impacted.  But there are not that many people on the planet, so there is love left over and extra to give.

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The book doesn’t follow all 30 billion obviously, but it picks and follows one person to show how the chain works before showing the mathematical growth in numbers.  Mrs.  Bishop gave a plate to the paperboy Billy Parker, who handed the next five people their newspaper personally instead of tossing it in their bushes.  One of the people that got their newspaper smiled for 10 hours on his flight, and helped people with their bags, etc etc.  

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The book shows that giving something can be something tangible, or a compliment, or a phone call, or a smile.  Over long distances,  the kind deed comes back to Mary and the message too, comes full circle.

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Along the line is Sahar, a college student who’s bag breaks and she benefits from a kind man who was just gifted oranges at the grocery store when he didn’t have enough money.  She in turn compliments a woman on a boat who is distraught and unsure. An important character in the link, and an import illustration of inclusion.

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There author mentions a variety of names, male and female, and the illustrator represents a fair amount of diversity of age, color, gender, religions, socio economic, ethnicity and mobility.  Truly, we all have the potentially to change the world.

 

Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

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Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

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This 40 page book caught my attention because I have a son named Mustafa, and the illustrations looked endearing and fun.  The author/illustrator was inspired to write the story when she visited Croatia and saw the resilience of the children.  She also remarks on her website, that children in new places can all relate to the nuanced uneasiness and gradual fitting in process that takes place universally (http://marielouisegay.com/blog/).

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The text is prose-like as young Mustafa ventures from his apartment each day to the park nearby.  He notices things he has never seen before and compares them to the destruction he recalls of his homeland.  He also finds things that remind him of home and things that look familiar. From little ladybugs and a heart-shaped leaf, to the changing leaf colors and kids dressed up in costumes, there is so much to take in and understand.

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As the days go on, he begins to wonder if he is invisible.  Finally, a little girl with a cat makes a small beckoning gesture to him that doesn’t need language to be understood, and just like that, the world gets a little more welcoming.  This gentle story shows what being new can feel like, and reminds us that sometimes all it takes is a simple act of kindness to change so much.

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The book mentions that Mustafa came on a long journey, but does not specify where he has come from.  He draws his house being bombed in the dirt with a stick and mentions loud noises and fire.  The mother wears hijab, and obviously his name would identify them as Muslims, but other than that there is no reference or mention of religion.

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Overall, the book would be great for ages 4-8.  The passages are a little long, but with the illustrations and relatable concepts, I think children will reflect on what the author is trying to convey, and be able to process what Mustafa has been through, and how hard even the littlest things can be in a new place.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

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I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

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Three new kids, not just at school, but to America as well. Maria is from Guatemala, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah from Somalia.  All three telling about what they are faced with as they settle in to their new life and routine, and all tell a bit about how things were back home.  FullSizeRender (48)

This book is not entertaining or fun, it is educational.  Written for ages 5-8 this book is very straightforward as the three characters stories are interwoven to show the growth and settling in that they experience.  The simple sentences, allow the reader to learn real, tangible ways that this children are finding the transition hard.  It also alleviates any sense of pity as it shows the full lives they had before coming to America. 

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I love that the other kids in the class are involved in real life ways to help welcome the new kids to class. Sometimes we are harsh on kids that don’t show empathy or compassion, forgetting that often they don’t know how.  This book works for adults and children in all situations.  We all need to put ourselves in other peoples shoes and see what struggles they are facing, we all need to help one another, and we all need to facilitate environments where these actions can take place.

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The book in many ways would fit well with One Green Apple, as it gives the perspective from the character who is new and articulates some of the obstacles they are facing, while also showing the interactions that help one to feel welcome and comfortable.

The pictures are crucial to the story as they show the feelings of the children and give context to the simple storyline.  I love that their is so much additional diversity in the illustrations: children of all body shapes, there is a student in a wheel chair, Fatimah wears a hijab, and there are male and female teachers in the book.

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The Author’s Note at the end of the 32 page story tells of her experience as a white American child living in South Korea, and some of her feelings and thoughts of being in a new country.  There is no mention of Islam, just implies Fatimah is a Muslim based on her dress, her mother’s clothing, and her country of origin.