Tag Archives: Learning

From Far Away by Robert Munsch and Saossan Askar illustrated by Rebecca Green

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From Far Away by Robert Munsch and Saossan Askar illustrated by Rebecca Green

from far away

Robert Munsch is a staple in most classrooms and libraries, but somehow, much to my embarrassment, I just learned about this book.  Originally published in 1995 with a different illustrator, I read the newer version that was rereleased in 2017.  I’m not sure how they differ, but they stem from an autobiographical experience of the co-author Saossan Askar, and her leaving of the war in Lebanon.  She wrote to the author and their letters back and forth are how the book came to fruition. 

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The 24 page picture book is an AR 3.5 and my guess it is because of the content a bit more than the reading level.  While it never gets graphic or sensationalized, she does leave a war zone of bombs and shootings, and the words may trigger fear in younger children.

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As the book progresses, the focus is much more on Saoussan settling in to her new life and the hiccups along the way.  From not knowing what anyone is saying, to sneaking out of class to go to the bathroom, and being frightened by a paper skeleton.  The book gives concrete examples that while silly, really show how someone unfamiliar with a new culture could be very confused and even scared.  

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The book has a happy ending with Saoussan adjusting and making friends and even becoming the best reader and speller in her class.  She also gets in trouble often for talking too much.  

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The book, like many in the genre of discussing war and refugees on a child’s level has its strengths and weaknesses.  The heart of the story I would say is wonderful, the illustrations lively and engaging, some of the transitions and details, however, are a bit abrupt and unsatisfying.  Once you know that it is based on reality and came about through letters, it makes more sense, but even that is a concept older readers will appreciate more than younger ones will.

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I checked the book out from the public library and I think does a great job of inspiring empathy.  It is vague as to what conflict is being left which makes it timeless in that I, unfortunately don’t see refugees disappearing soon.  The mom wears hijab, but there is no mention of religion in the book.

Here are the letters from his website: https://robertmunsch.com/book/from-far-away

From Far Away started with this letter:

To Robert Munsch
I am a little girl. My name is Saoussan. I am seven years old. I am in grade two now. I came to Canada one and half year ago. I didn’t know how to speak English at all. I was just sitting and listening. A lot of funny things happened to me.

Children were trying to talk to me, but I was not able to answer them. I began to talk a little by little.

I finished grade one and now I am in grade two. The teacher now is complaining to my dad that I am talking a lot in the class and I read and write a lot of stories.

One day I found a book called Thomas’s Snowsuit. I read it and I laughed with my family.

I went to the library and I brought some of your books. I enjoyed reading them. I even read them to my dad that he laughed so hard he could not stop laughing.

Please come to our school we want to hear a story from you and we want to see you.
I wrote back and asked her what “funny things” had happened. Saoussan wrote back telling me about her first Halloween in Canada:
To: Robert Munsch
Thank you for your letter. My teacher read it to the class and he said: I am not going to tell the class the funny thing that happened to her when she was in kindergarten and I am not going to embarrass you.

I don’t remember all of the funny things. But I remember one thing.

When I wanted to go to the washroom I didn’t know how to say I want to go to the washroom. That’s why I used to crawl to the door and when the teacher turns her head and looks at the other side I crawl under my friend’s desk and when someone opens the door I crawl out and go to the washroom.

When I come back from the washroom I wait beside the door and when someone opens the door I crawl in and go to my desk.

Once I crawled to the washroom. When I opened the washroom door I saw a skeleton. Then I screamed: Aaaaahhhhhhhhh!

Everybody came out. My teacher, Mrs. Garwan came, opened the washroom door and she tried to tell me that it is Halloween time and the skeleton is paper.

I didn’t understand her and I didn’t know what Halloween is.

She jumped up and down and danced around to explain to me that Halloween is just fun, but I thought the skeleton made her crazy and I screamed louder.

Then she hugged me to make me feel better and I jumped on her lap and the pee went down my knees. She put me down because she got wet.

Now I am in grade 2/3 and I am the best reader and speller in the class. This year when it was Halloween I weared a mask and a costume and we did a party at school. Then I went with my sister trick or treating to the neighbours.

Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please come to our school.

I liked her letters so much that I decided to turn them into a book.

So Saoussan and I wrote a lot of letters back and forth and we made the letter into a book. Saoussan and I are both the authors and we split the royalties.

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R is for Ramadan by Greg Paprocki

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R is for Ramadan by Greg Paprocki

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This book is fabulously fun, but incredibly puzzling.  The book without a glossary is presumably meant for Muslim children, with words like U is for Umrah and T is for Tasbeeh, and N is for Night of Power.  Which is interesting, because it seems to be written by a non Muslim, who writes and illustrates a lot of various alphabet books, and published by a mainstream company.  I’m sure this adorable book will appeal  to many non Muslims but after reading it, I’m fairly certain they will be 80% clueless as to what most of the letters are about.   Maybe they would be able to make a guess based on the pictures, but with the pronunciation for Arabic words being given underneath, it sure makes for an odd juxtaposition in a toddler board book.

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Additionally, if you are Muslim reading the book and can describe the Arabic to your 3-5 year old, you will possibly have to explain some of the “big” English words too.  H is for Hospitality, G is for Generous, O is for Obligation.

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Thrown in are also some completely silly, random letter prompts.  W is for Watermelon and Y is for Yay.  So, I probably shouldn’t like this book, but it is an absolute delight to look at and read through if you can account for all the aforementioned things.

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The illustrations are engaging and detailed and oh so happy and fun.  The book feels good in your hands reading it with a little one snuggled up beside you at 8.5 x 6.5 and 32 thick pages long. 

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I guess I can’t offer a finalized opinion on the book, just know what it includes (or doesn’t include) before you buy.  I was able to check it out at my public library, and online it is just under $10, so hopefully people won’t be disappointed with the purchase, if nothing else for the pictures alone.  But maybe don’t get excited to send it off to non Muslim friends and family this Ramadan, as it might not offer much in terms of understanding what the blessed month is all about.

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The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard illustrated by Laura K. Horton

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The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard illustrated by Laura K. Horton

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A new 32 page hard back Ramadan book that shows a little girls excitement isn’t enough to get her to abstain from food and drink for the whole long day of fasting, but that there are other ways to enjoy the gift of the blessed month.  A great book that shows how Ramadan is a month of growing and learning and sacrificing and coming together too.  Perfect for ages 4 and up to be read in small groups or at bedtime.  The pictures are delightful and show diversity, and while the little girls love of sparkles might appeal more to little girls, I think the message will allow boys to enjoy and benefit from the book as well.

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Sophia is helping her family decorate for Ramadan and when they see the crescent moon, they know that fasting will start tomorrow.  Excited to be included Sophia can’t wait.  Sahoor, however, is really early and she is really tired.  She eats a little, but by fajr time she can’t even keep her eyes open and falls asleep in sajood.

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When she wakes up it is almost noon, and even though she is hungry she decides keeping busy will help the time pass.  Reading, cleaning, drawing, nothing is working.  Her little brother runs around waving a cookie, and Sophia can’t get away fast enough. 

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She caves and starts eating cookies, her grandma finds her and consoles her.  “There’s always tomorrow and the day after and the next.  You have a full month to keep trying.” The two then discuss other ways to enjoy the month.  Sophia knows her mom reads Quran, but Sophia can’t on her own.  Her father helps others and gives charity, but Sophia doesn’t have any money.  She is about to give up, but then sees her grandma’s hands covered in flour and realizes she can help her make iftar for those that are fasting.

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She helps with the salad and the pizzas for iftar, but when some of the pizzas burn, Sophia will have to show what she has learned and understood to make iftar a success and make everything sparkle.

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There are a lot of Ramadan books out there, but I like that this one doesn’t have the adults saying she can’t fast, but just the same grandma is there to encourage her to do what she can and take advantage of other parts of the month.  I also like that she doesn’t succeed.  Fasting especially on these long summer days can be hard and acknowledging that, and encouraging kids to persevere I think is a very valuable lesson.  Sophia also comes up with a way to help on her own.  Parents are tired and entertaining ways for the kids to be engaged in Ramadan is great, but can be exhausting.  This shows that kids with the right understanding of the month, inshaAllah can find ways on their own too.

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There is an Author’s Note at the end explaining Ramadan, and the book would work and appeal to Muslim and non Muslim kids alike.  Sophia reminds me a bit of Pinkalicious and Fancy Nancy and will probably appeal most to kids that also like those characters. The grandma covers her head, the mom does not, but does when praying and reading Quran.  It mentions and shows praying and breaking one’s fast with water and dates, yet stays focused on the story and does not get preachy or dry.

 

Proud: Living My American Dream (Young Readers Edition) by Ibtihaj Muhammad

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Proud: Living My American Dream (Young Readers Edition) by Ibtihaj Muhammad

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I had high expectations for a memoir about such an inspiring figure, so I treaded timidly into the book waiting to be disappointed, but after finishing the book in two days (high praise considering I have four kids), I realized I was holding my breath for nothing, the book and Ibtihaj are amazing! Now three days after I started, my daughter too has read it and I have ordered a handful of copies to offer as my next Middle School Book Club selection.  Inspirational, real, Islamic, hopeful, empowering, check, check, check, check, and well written too.  A great story and a great role model, alhumdulillah.  The Young Reader’s Edition is an AR 6.7 and 304 pages including Acknowledgements, Glossary of Fencing Terms, Ibtihaj’s Advice, and Q and A with Ibithaj.

SYNOPSIS:

Ibtihaj begins her life story establishing her background of who her parents are, how they met, how they came to Islam and how they are raising their children.  She also details how she is different and realizes it from a young age, whether it is substitutes not being able, or willing, to pronounce her first name, or not being able to sleep over at her friends’ houses.  She also sets the stage for the environment of Newark that she was born into and how it differs racially and economically from Maplewood where she spent most of her childhood.  The story then is pretty linear walking through some of the challenges of being highly driven and motivated and determined to succeed and get in college.  How she is first introduced to fencing and why she gives it a second chance after initially not liking it.   Along the way the reader gets to know how Islam influences her point of view as Allah is very central to her decisions and expectations of herself.  The quick pace is not depressing, while others at times do treat her differently she definitely doesn’t paint herself or seem to see herself as a victim or as privileged, she is just herself and this is her story.  It isn’t all rosy and it isn’t harsh, she is putting one foot in front of the other and there is amazing support from her family, and some of her coaches and some of her teammates, but not everyone and that is a very important part of her story too, which I think provides even more for young readers to relate and learn from.  Anyone not familiar with fencing and how the sport and its rankings work will learn so much reading this book, but thankfully not be overwhelmed with it all either.  The book ends shortly after the Olympics and her historic bronze medal win.  The title may reflect her being proud of what she accomplished and continues to pursue and her pride in being a Black American Muslim Woman, but I think anyone who reads the book will just be proud that someone like her exists, and that maybe some small part of ourselves can be great too.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book leaves in some of the naysayers and difficult coaches and teammates.  I really think it is easy to assume that people are great and things should all work out when you are competing on an international level, but alas no, completely not the case, yet differences aside, they still had to win an individual sport as a team. 

 I also love that she is truly what she claims, the way she practices Islam is who she is and she loves her family and her faith.  There are no contradictions she excels and perseveres and finds herself while acknowledging all parts of herself and it is so inspiring.  She portrays Islam as a way of life, she prays and fasts and has days when her iman is low and days her faith is rewarding.  She focuses on what she can control and has to learn to accept what Allah swt has decreed for her.  She has Muslim friends, and non Muslim friends and through it all she is finding her place and is surrounded by love and support from her family.  It really is a feel good story and we should all pray that it continues to be.  She doesn’t portray Islam as limiting, nor as her family an exception to what a Muslim home is, and this level of dawah can really change perceptions.  The book is not preachy or arrogant, it is simply her story and Islam is a part of it.

I like that she went to a prestigious university and it didn’t make all her dreams come true, she still had to work hard and find herself and humble herself to work at a dollar store to scrape by, it shows tenacity and a glimpse of the real world that privileged middle schoolers might not have had to consider before.

FLAGS:

The book is clean.  It talks about how uncomfortable she was at her first fencing lesson with her coach having to reposition her stances and thus touch her, and it discusses how she felt listening to music was ok in Islam even though her parents disagreed.  A few sentences at most, collectively, but kids will have thoughts on it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

My 12 year old daughter read the book in a few hours and discussed it with me for even longer.  It was as if some tidbit from the book would blossom inside her and she would consider it, and want to discuss it, from why she would not talk to the kids she was substituting about fencing, to why her coach made her switch to saber, I don’t think there is a shortage of things to discuss, or more importantly listen to from the young readers.

There is a ton about her online as she became the first American Muslim to medal and the first to compete in hijab.  I highly recommend this book for book club, and will  hopefully add how our meeting went in a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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At 254 pages this boarding school story beautifully blends Islamic information, mystery, and compelling characters embarking on a new stage of their lives.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and engaging this book for upper elementary aged children reads and would strongly recommend it for grades 3-5.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Yusif is about to begin his first year at the prestigious Dar Al Ilm Academy a few hours away from his family, friends, and home.  Nervous to be on his own, he is excited to be giving his dream of memorizing the Quran the chance to become a reality.  When he arrives at the old mansion turned beautiful campus, he is paired up with Reda, a student to help him get situated and before you know it the two are fast friends.  When they get put in the same house, Ibn Kathir, with Warsoma and Daud, the four friends embark on a year of adventure and bonding as well as growth and learning.  Along the way they learn some Islamic history, they understand important hadith and Quranic Ayats and are challenged to live according to the sunnah even when tempers and frustrations abound.  When items start to go missing the boys and their house will have to keep their cool, not accuse anyone, but figure out what is going on all at the same time.  When the culprits are uncovered, they will be further tested to hold a grudge, offer forgiveness, or even extend an invitation to friendship. 

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WHY I LIKE IT:

This idyllic story and predictable mystery will appeal to impressionable readers that can’t see what is coming and can still be inspired by the beauty of such a protected environment.  The window might be small for such readers, but well worth the attempt as the book is well written and the characters well developed.  The boys are diverse and kind and helpful and all the things we want our children to be, especially when they are away from us.  Each character has their strengths and weaknesses and the friends accept them and celebrate one another rather than try and force them to change. The four houses and the characters vying for year captain and having fun along the way reminds me of a Harry Potter spinoff, but alas I think that is just my ignorance of the British school system.  I love that the four houses and their namesakes are detailed at the end as well as there being a glossary of terms.  There are illustrations every chapter or so that are appealing and offer a nice visual of the boys’ world.  The text, line spacing, chapter breaks and all are perfect for the demographic and while the fictional story is solid, I am happy to report I learned a number of things as well. 

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FLAGS:

None, alhumduillah

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: 

I can’t find much on the author or even on any future books, which is unfortunate because I think it would be great for an elementary book club selection, and I may read it to my 4th and 5th grade Lunch Bunch group after we finish The Great Race to Sycamore Street.  I think it should be in Islamic School Libraries and classrooms as its cover will hold its own and compel kids to pick it up off the shelf.

Book trailer: http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/trailerfullhd.html

Book website:http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/index.html

 

 

Mustafa and Arwa go on a Ramadan Adventure by Mekram Mohammad

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Mustafa and Arwa go on a Ramadan Adventure by Mekram Mohammad

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Ramadan is two months away and this little book is a great way to introduce and stir up excitement for little Muslim toddlers and preschoolers. It could work for non Muslims, but the general overview given would need some details and explanations, and this book seems more geared to introduce excitement and a few key concepts for the blessed month.

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In 27 rhyming pages the brother sister duo explore some of the feelings of the month, activities that make the month special and what to expect at suhur, iftar, and taraweeh at night.  

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I like that it makes it clear that you don’t eat one bite, that you fast even if you are at work or school, that you use your time to do good and help people, and that you ask Allah for paradise.  

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The end is Eid and while the text presents some great general info, the illustrations are what really give the minimal clear text life.  Seeing the kids giving presents to people and looking for the moon and enjoying iftar together with smiling faces, show kids the warmth of Ramadan.  

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The book doesn’t have a story, it just talks about Ramadan, but the tone in this book and in Mustafa and Arwa go on a Prayer Adventure is very fun and light.  It doesn’t get into rules or articulate what little kids are expected or required to do, or even why Muslims do it, it just gives them some knowledge and some emotion to create the feeling of it being a grand adventure.

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The book is paperback 8.5 x 8.5 and the thickness, sheen and quality of the pages makes it durable and enjoyable to read at story time (in small groups) and bedtime alike.  This book most likely will be on repeat in the weeks leading up to Ramadan and then referenced throughout the month to remind children about what they are seeing and experiencing.  

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!