Tag Archives: Lebanon

Huda and Me by H. Hayek

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Huda and Me by H. Hayek

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At 194 pages, this book just became required reading for all my children save the two year old.  Meant for middle graders, I absolutely loved this book.  Sure literary siblings often run away and have adventures, think Claudia and Jamie Kincaid from Mixed Up Files, or the sisters in Ticket to India, but this Australian Muslim duo adore each other and are doing it to reach their parents and save their other five siblings from an evil Aunty babysitter.  In some ways the book couldn’t and hopefully wouldn’t really happen, it is plausible however, and the way it is written bouncing back and forth in time until the resolution, and the absolute authenticity of the characters make the book hard to put down and had me laughing out loud.  The book is for everyone, Muslim kids specifically though, will feel an incredible kinship to the Muslim family and relate to the anxiety of making wudu in a public restroom, the shock of having the athan clock tossed in the freezer, the nervous looks between siblings hoping someone else will speak up about what Muslims can’t eat, mistaking a nun for a hijabi, amongst so many other little sprinkled in examples.  The power of OWN voice writing is exemplified and celebrated, and provides a mirror that a large swath of Muslims children, not just Lebanese Australians will benefit from and enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

There are seven children in the family and when Mum and Dad announce that they have to make an emergency trip to Lebanon, the kids don’t understand why they need Mum’s friend Aunt Amel to stay with them in Australia.  They don’t really even like Aunt Amel, but they don’t really know her either and as their parents leave, they have no choice but to endure until their parents return.  When Aunt Amel assigns them all duties: 17 year old Omar is the 24/7 chauffeur, Kholoud becomes her personal stylist, twins Suha and Layla must keep her supplied with baked goods and tea, Akeal is the butler, Huda is the maid and little Raheed will be glued to her, some of the kids think it could be fun until they realize they are being used to provide Aunt Amel with a holiday in exchange for her staying with them. The kids are required to be up by five in the morning, are not allowed to talk to their parents, and some are even kept from school to provide the services Aunt Amel demands.  The kids grudgingly try to endure, but spunky Huda is pushing back, and with the help of the retired Polish Sleep Doctor next door, a plan is hatched, tickets are booked, and Akeal and Huda are making a run for Beirut. Along the way they will be met with an Islamaphobic teen pulling off Huda’s scarf, a variety of minders keeping track of the unaccompanied minors through airports and plane rides, and baited breath as they have obstacles at every step to find their parents in a country they have never even been to before.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is incredibly well written, I sometimes stumble a bit with Australian authored books, but this one was easy and universal in most of the dialogue and vocabulary. I enjoyed what was sprinkled in, and as a privileged American didn’t get lost at any point.  The shifts in the timeline to keep the story fast paced and moving also made the stress of “if they could pull off the escape” a little bit subdued allowing the experience and dialogue and connections along the way to really be enjoyed.  I think it was a smart move to not have it be full steam ahead, gritting your teeth, but more in the moment seeing why they had to do what they did, and how it was panning out for them.

I absolutely love that the family is unapologetically Muslim living in a western environment.  They don’t celebrate birthdays, but they seem ok with make-up, they pray, the mom wears hijab I believe, but I don’t think the sisters do, it really is such a relatable family with their own quirks and tests and they are active and doing their best.  It could be my family or most families I know, well lately my kids bicker a lot, that’s why it is required reading for them, but that is off track.  Back to the book, I was so proud of Akeal sticking up for his little sister wearing a scarf to be dressed up and not backing down from confronting her harasser.  I love the spunkiness but maturity of Huda.  From page one you are cheering them on, and it doesn’t let up.

FLAGS:

Kids scheming and lying and running away, all for good cause mind you.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be super fun to read aloud to a 3rd or 4th grade class, but I don’t think it would work for a middle school book club, it is just too quick of a read.

Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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At 304 pages this middle grades fantasy OWN voice book attempts to weave together a granddaughters love for her Teta, with her adventures in a mythical world that only she can save.  In much the same way of Narnia, or Gregor the Overlander, or even Alice in Wonderland, the book takes a realistic character and pushes them, in this case Samara aka Sami, just beyond, into a world filled with mystery, adventure, and lessons.  The Lebanese flavor sprinkled in adds a little depth and uniqueness to the story, and aids a bit in the world building, but it isn’t a strong presence outside of ifrits and character’s names.  Teta is a Beduin that has a prayer rug and tarot cards and a painting of the Virgin Mary that she calls Fatima, and Sami’s deceased dad was American and the house has Christmas lights.  At one point the book remarks that Teta “likes to pick and choose her beliefs.”  The premise starts with Teta showing signs of dementia: speaking in a language no one but Sami can understand, and not eating and seeming present, the resolution as a result could give children the wrong idea about treatments for such real conditions, and adults might want to make sure their middle graders wont be triggered by the decline of a loved one.  The book is written well and holds reader’s interest, the world building is decent and the character’s relatable, I don’t know that it is overly memorable, but it is a fun light magical read with culture and family and friendship at its core that readers will enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami and her brother Tony, along with their attorney mom Alia and maternal grandmother, Serafina, have just moved to Florida from Ithaca, New York.  The children’s father was killed and the family has moved a few blocks away from his sister to start anew.  Sami is not settling in, and to make matters worse, Teta has stopped talking coherently, and Aunt Ivory and Alia are looking for a nursing home to place her in.  For some reason though, when it is just Sami and her grandma, she can communicate just fine, and Teta tells stories of her adventures with her flicker Ashrafieh in Silverworld.  Sami doesn’t necessarily believe the stories are true, but she gets the idea to use her Teta’s fairy stories to try and save her grandma, but when she finds her Teta’s spell book and peers into an old beloved mirror, Sami is taken to Silverworld and realizes that it is not just her grandmother’s future at risk.

In a world of flickers and shadows, Sami finds two balancers that taker her in and guide her: Dorsom and Natala.  The world is a reflection of the Actual world, but the Shadow Nixie is consuming the land and taking prisoners.  The balance is off, and Sami is convinced that this darkness is what is also harming Teta.  Between shadow spies and giant rotifers, magic and prophesied destinies, Sami must push her fear away and accept that she can be the one to set things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Sami has to step in to her own and fight for what she wants, even when she is afraid.  I love the relationship she has with her Teta it is very warm and palpable.  I feel like the “saving Silverworld will save her Teta thread,” however, is lost in the middle of the book, it might be the catalyst and might have worked out that way in the end, but I don’t know that the middle makes the case that the two efforts are one and the same.  I appreciate that there are glimpses of Lebanon in the story with the athan in the background and spinning dervishes, but outside of Teta and a bit of the food, the cultural elements seemed a bit forced and deliberate instead of stemming from a natural flowing place.  A bit odd since it is an OWN voice novel, but maybe I was just wanting more. I would have liked more information about how Teta settled in America, learned English etc., or about her tattoos and Beduin upbringing. Another thing that seemed off to me was the close relationship of Dorsom and Sami at the end.  I hadn’t over nearly 300 pages realized that they were that much closer than Sami and Natala.  I even went back to see if I had missed something, but I couldn’t find that I had.  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were going to see Nixie either, I mean yes it was logical for they type of book it is, but I don’t know that Sami really had a plan for Silverworld or her Teta, she was just going to Nixie’s castle to get there.  There were also a few inconsistencies such as Sami wishing her and Tony could go fishing or surfing, when the book has made it clear that Sami is afraid of the water, particularly the ocean.

FLAGS:

There is magic, killing, death. There is talk of goddesses, there is a female character, a shadow, that has two flicker husbands and children with them both.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would appeal to middle school readers, it is a solid middle grade book.  I do think fourth and fifth grade shelves would benefit from having this book available to be picked up and enjoyed.

The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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Set in Lebanon, this 32 page book for kindergarten to second graders uses the ever important olive tree as a point of contention between two neighbors. Muna’s family moved away during the conflict because they were not like the others in the village, and while they were gone, Sameer’s family cared for the olive tree on their neighbor’s property, and collected the olives that fell on their side of the wall. But now that the neighbors have returned, Sameer is not only disappointed that they don’t have a boy his age to play with, but also clashes with Muna when she says that he shouldn’t take their olives. By the end of the book, olive branches of peace will be referenced and hope hinted at in this brightly illustrated book with a lesson.

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I like that why Muna’s family left is not abundantly clear, saying that “For many years the house next to Sameer’s had stood empty. . . that the family who lived there had gone away during the troubles because they were different from most of the people int he village.”  Lebanon is a diverse place and the illustrations seem to show both Mom’s wearing head scarves, the text does not detail if they are unlike each other because of religion, or culture, or some other reason, and I kind of like that it is left vague so that children learn in the end perhaps, it doesn’t matter.  

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When the family moves back home, Sameer watches them and recalls the ways his mom prepares the best olives in Lebanon.  The neighbors are polite, but not friendly.  They don’t ever say much and they don’t return visits.  One day when the ripe olives have fallen on the ground, Sameer heads out with his basket to collect them.   Muna, who has never looked over at Sameer, watches him and tells him that they are her olives, and that the tree has been in her family for a hundred years.

The two bicker about who has rights to the olives on Sameer’s side of the wall and in anger, Sameer dumps his basket of olives on Muna’s side and walks off.  After that, no one on Sameer’s side collects the olives on the ground.  One night there is a storm and the olive tree and part of the stone wall are destroyed.  The adults gather to survey the damage, but walk off without saying anything.  The two children are left to decide what to do next about their beloved tree, and their relationship with one another.

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I like that the resolution is subtle, but thought provoking and that the adults don’t seem to interfere too much.  I can’t imagine that they don’t have opinions about their neighbors and the olives, but the book stays on the children and the assumptions, stubbornness, and unsaid words that have created such a divide, and must ultimately be resolved as a result.

 

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine

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img_6859This 157 page young adult book is translated from Arabic and while at times the story seems intentionally choppy, at other times it seems that the translation is making it more jarring than it needs to be.  I found the book interesting and powerful, in much the way a short story can be, but the length was awkward, as it was too long for a short story, and not long enough to really read as a novel with detail and depth and connection.  I love the growth and retaking of control that the protagonist embodies and I absolutely love the ending being left intentionally unresolved.  There is no mention of religion in this story set in Lebanon, until nearly the end when it states that she is Muslim.  I wonder if the translation took out some of the ‘Salams’ and ‘inshaAllahs’ that would have clarified it a bit even if prayer, or the athan or any outward signs of being a Muslim are clearly absent.  The book is probably fine for ages 13 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Faten is essentially sold in to servitude by her family.  Her family lives in a village outside Beirut and when money gets tight she is forced to go and work as a house keeper/maid for the Zein family.  Once a month Faten’s father comes and collects her salary showing little to know affection for the eldest of his children. The small Zein family has two daughters and lives in a flat.  While the girls are in school, Faten cooks and cleans and dreams of being a nurse.  The family is not particularly cruel to Faten, they often refer to her simply as ‘girl,’ but they are not particularly kind to her either.  The highlight of Faten’s day is watching a young man across the street that drives a dark blue car, come home, study, and play piano.  On occasion she catches his eye, so he knows she exists, but the two know nothing about one another.  On Faten’s 17th birthday she decides she is going to gift her self something, and writes a letter to the blond man across the street.  She has her only friend in Beirut, Rosalynn, a much older house servant in the apartment downstairs from Sierra Leon, deliver the letter which asks the boy to meet her so that she might seek his help in a very important manner.

When Faten and Marwan meet, Faten asks him to obtain information about how she might study nursing and change her future.  The two secretly meet with Rosalynn’s help on Sunday’s, Faten’s one day off.  Faten borrows May’s books to study as she learns what exams she must take to make her dream a reality.  Marwan helps her with questions she needs assistance with and Faten and Marwan become close friends, with both feeling some attraction for one another just beneath the surface.  One day however, they are discovered by a friend of Mrs. Zein at a beach side cafe, drinking coffee and Faten is forbidden from leaving the apartment as a result.  With the oldest girl, May, married now, and nothing to look forward to on her days off, Faten dives in to her studies and is more determined than ever to pass her exams.

To even take the multiple day exam requires a few lies, a few favors, and the willingness to take a huge risk.  When the Zein’s find out she is let go, and now must face her parents back in the village.  With the help of her childhood friend, Faten clings to hope, confidence in her ability, and determination to pave her own way on her own terms.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that while Faten is the victim of cruel parents, and an unfortunate circumstance, she rises up and fights for control.  I love that she has feelings for Marwan, but that they don’t overshadow her future goals, nor does she become overly dependent on him.  I really love her strength in handling the situation with him when it is good, when it is tested, and when she has to walk away.  There are elements of it being a love story, but that is just one thread of the book, her charting her own path is much more the central story line.  I wish her religion and his religion would have come to the surface more, and sooner.  Lebanon is a diverse place and just saying they were of two different faiths could have provided a lot of insight and fleshing out of the culture and the dynamics the two would have faced.  The classism is a bit obvious, but even when that is explored it provides a better understanding to the characters and to the arc they are moving on.  I like that her childhood friend and family are so loving and that her mom is not completely written off as a passive flat character.  Overall, I like the story and the book, set in the 80’s it really could have gone a lot of ways, but it held close to the theme and provided enough side details that it felt grounded, believable and ultimately was enjoyable to read.

FLAGS:

When May is entertaining suitors there is some ogling that young kids might question.  There is a lot of lying and deception and the possible romance between Faten and Marwan that in the text is pretty clean, but there is some hand holding if memory serves and implied desire for the friendship to be more.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book offers a lot in terms of classism and forced labor to be discussed and the cliffhanger ending between Marwan and Faten would allow the readers to decide if they could be together despite their different faiths, economic status and families, or not.  I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club, but if I were a high school teacher, I might offer some sort of extra credit assignment involving the book, as the ending really lends itself to the reader projecting the characters’ futures based on their own perspectives which would be fascinating to hear.

My Grandfather’s Masbaha by Susan Daniel Fayad illustrated by Avery Liell-Kok

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My Grandfather’s Masbaha by Susan Daniel Fayad illustrated by Avery Liell-Kok

masbaha.jpgThis 20 page story is endearing and sweet for children aged 4 and up, with a great lesson.   At first I thought it was an Islamic fiction book, but after thinking about it, I’m not so sure.  Lots of faiths use prayer beads, although maybe only Muslims have 33, and the setting, Lebanon, is a pretty diverse place.  Regardless, the character’s names, and the lessons taught are universal and children will benefit from being reminded about how blessed they truly are, in a gentle loving way.

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When little Adam’s friends go home and he has nothing to do, he enters his grandparents house stomping and complaining.  In response, Adam’s Jidoo, grandfather, starts to laugh.  This only makes Adam more angry.

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Jidoo Yousef then shows Adam his misbaha and explains that some people use it like an abacus to count, to mark prayers, some use it as decor, and that he uses it to remember God’s blessings.

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He and Adam, then go around and count all the blessings of toys, and people, and friends, and family, and food, and before Adam knows it, he is feeling blessed and thankful.

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The basic illustrations show the bond between Jidoo and Adam, but are nothing overly fabulous on the large 8.5 x 11 pages.  There is a lot of text on some of the pages, but it flows well and goes quickly.

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The book teaches a great lesson and if you get a chance to read it to your children, you definitely should.

What Happened to Zeeko by Emily Nasrallah illustrated by Maha Nasrallah Kays

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What Happened to Zeeko by Emily Nasrallah illustrated by Maha Nasrallah Kays

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Told from a cat’s perspective about living through parts of the 1982 war in Beirut, this translated from Arabic young adult book is 121 pages.  It reads to me more like a middle grades book, and while the story is fairly monotone and anticlimactic, I find myself oddly thinking about it and wondering about everyday events from different perspectives.

SYNOPSIS:

Zeeka as a young kitten is taken from his cat family and placed with a new human owner, Muna, a young girl who loves and cares, and seemingly understands her new furry friend.  The relationship between Muna and Zeeko is really the crux of the book as they get to know one another, trust one another, vacation in the mountains together and then seek refuge in the basement shelter of their building when the shelling starts and the bombs destroy the neighborhood.  

Through the relationship details, the reader learns a lot about what kind of person Muna is and why Zeeka is willing to perform a heroic act to try and help her escape the danger, while sacrificing his own comfort.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t know that I loved the book, but it was a quick read that I don’t regret spending time with.  It is translated from Arabic, so there are some hiccups, but nothing that impairs the story continuity or comprehension.  It almost starts out like an early chapter book with each chapter being two pages long.  But then all of a sudden a neighborhood cat is murdered by a group of naughty boys, and you realize that it is not for younger children. 

How the book handles war however, is very removed and not really detailed at all.  Much like The Cat at the Wall for about the same age group, the use of an animal to simplify the absurdity and details of war is used to show a different perspective, however, in this book there is no information given about the war.  The reader is never told who is fighting, why they are fighting, what sparked the fighting, nothing.  All we know is that there is fighting.  

There is no mention of religion in the book, and I have no idea of the author’s faith, there really isn’t much culture in the book either. I didn’t learn much about Lebanon or the food or traditions.  I got the book from www. crescentmoonstore.com/ so I thought to review it as it seems available on Islamic websites.  Every dozen pages or so there are illustrations and sometimes there is a blank page before each new chapter and sometimes not.  There is a table of contents at the end of the book.

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FLAGS:

Murder of a cat, violence in general in terms of bombing and micro level of bullying and threatening.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, but I think if you are looking to learn more about Lebanon or point of view this book would have a lot of potential with guidance.  From a literary creative writing perspective the book would be a great tool to present complex events in simplified ways, it also would be a great read to get students to just look at things from different points of view.  If you have students that love cats and can handle the war aspects, this book would be fun for them.  In a social studies class if you are discussing affects of war or learning about Beirut in the 80’s the students will be able to fill in the gaps historically and politically.

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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

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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.

Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

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I have read a fair amount of fictionalized accounts of the war in Syria, the journey of refugees, and their resettling in various countries, but this was the first graphic novel on the subject that I have seen, and I was excited to wait my turn behind my kids to read it.  My 7th and 4th graders read it in about 20 minutes and said they really liked it, knowing that it was a quick read, I wanted to take it in slowly and examine each picture to grasp the full message that the author, a Lebanese journalist, was conveying.  Definitely meant, for ages 5th grade and up because of the content, I appreciated the book more than I loved it.  It seemed rather choppy and the fictionalized parts come across just as a front to convey facts.  The book definitely is a great introduction to the conflict, and the format will appeal to a broad range of individuals.  

SYNOPSIS:

Told from the voice of Amina, a bright young girl who rushes home to show off her latest A grade paper to her family, is met instead by a bomb striking the beautiful peaceful neighborhood.  The images on the first page are destroyed as her younger brother Youssef must be located in the rubble and debris.  Now in Canada, Amina tells the story of their journey from Aleppo.  The bouncing around of time, provides some context to how life became under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, how checkpoints and emergency rule changed everything about Amina’s life.  As war creeps in it isn’t just inconveniences and fear, but also death, as further shown through Amina’s uncle who has joined the rebel army.  The family decides they need to flee to Lebanon and truly believe it will be just for a little while. 

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They rent an apartment for a year, but when they cannot afford rent they relocate to a refugee camp, where they stay for two years.  Amina’s father is determined that Amina stays in school but as work remains scarce and Youssef’s health continues to deteriorate.  Amina is forced to take a break from school to try and find work.  Eventually her father arranges to go by raft to Europe to try and start a new life and bring his family there once he is settled.  The terms of the loan to pay the smugglers is steep and when the raft doesn’t make it too far before tossing its passengers, Amina’s father Walid is forced to return to Lebanon unsuccessful. 

It isn’t until Amina’s family considers, like many other families in the camp, to get her married to keep her safe.  That Amina upon picking up some aid at a UN reception center, spills everything to a worker there, and a week later the UNHCR contacts the family to help move them to Canada.  The readers at this point I would assume are relieved the family will be safe, and are surprised when the family isn’t sure if they want to leave.  Syria is there home, and before the mom will agree to anything, she wants to go back to Syria to see her newborn niece.  Once in Syria, she sees that her home is no more as she remembered it, and agrees to be resettled anywhere.  Through the same flashbacks and flash-forwards in time, we also see that life in Canada is not easy.  The family is welcomed and helped and grateful, but it isn’t yet home, and the ghosts of Syria are still present.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I kind of like how choppy it is upon further reflection.  At first it annoyed me, but as I thought about it more and more, I have decided I like that it isn’t easy and smooth and fleshed out, the tone of the unknown comes through by not over narrating the emotions and circumstances.  I also like that everything that happens to Amina and her family is anchored in reality and the footnotes, references, and facts are all in the Endnotes.  Having said that, I wish their was a little more character development, it reads like a bunch of facts strung together and connected by this fictional family.  There isn’t anything wrong with it, but a little more warmth for the characters would have added a beautiful level and would not have been hard to come by at all.  There are so many stories from this conflict out there, and the reason they resonate with so many isn’t from all the facts and numbers, but often from the individuals that make the numbers real and haunting.  I felt like this book fell short on the human element unfortunately.  The only character I really felt had some heart, was the dad, he was awesome, and his love for his family and determination for his daughter’s education was definitely felt.

The book does drop some acronyms and political alliances to add context but not overwhelm the reader.  It definitely hints that there are a lot of groups vying for power, and control: Assad, Russia, ISIS, US, rebels.

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I love that the flashbacks to pre-war Syria are so relatable.  Kids need to really understand that we are all so much more alike than different.  Not just in our hopes and dreams, but even in our daily lives.  The characters in the book are the same as us, their lives look great,  maybe even better.  They have friends, and families and jobs, and cell phones, they also unfortunately, have war.

There were a few surprises for me, for example that buses between Lebanon and ISIS held Syria took/take people back and forth.  Similarly,  I was surprised to see that the punishment of smuggling cigarettes was being beheaded, but maybe more surprised that the book included it.

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It is reassuring for readers to know that the family survives, but the harrowing journey of seeing body bags, cutting costs to survive, risking it all to trust smugglers with fake life jackets, paint pictures of a journey that will stay with the reader.  The book doesn’t talk down to anyone, if something seems too simplistic, it almost encourages the reader to go research more about it.  

There isn’t any mention of Islam or religion, the females wear hijab, that is the only indication along with their names that they are a Muslim family.

FLAGS:

The violence, is pretty haunting and while the images and text aren’t graphic, the splatter of blood and guns and death are very present.  There is also mention of cigarettes.  While not explicit and possibly over the heads of some readers, the book does show that the loan sharks would be willing to take Amina, “Something nice and sweet…like you,” to help pay off the family’s debts.  A former classmate of Amina also invites the family to her wedding.  At 13 Amina’s family is also considering getting her married as a way to help keep her safe.  

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be better in Social Studies class more than in a Language Arts one. It would be a great supplement to share even, when discussing current events.  Its a quick read, a factual account and a powerful one at that.  

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsZZwxM7YyQ

Publisher’s Synopsis: https://www.fireflybooks.com/index.php/catalogue/product/11566-escape-from-syria

Hiss-s-s-s! by Eric Kimmel

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Hiss-s-s-s!

So um ya, its a book about a boy who wants a pet snake. Very linear, very simple, often more instructional than story, but somehow I really enjoyed it and read it in one sitting, as did my 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. The book is 154 pages (including the author’s note) and is written on an AR 3.7 level.

SYNOPSIS:

Omar is an American Muslim who wants a snake.  His dad, Ahmed, supports the idea, but his mother, Hoda, is terrified of snakes, and begrudgingly gives her permission.  The rules are pretty simple, Omar will have to take care of the pet, and it is never to leave his room.  His mother basically doesn’t want to know that there is a snake under the same roof.  Little sister Zara is just excited.  The majority of the book is Omar learning about corn snakes, and everything involved in their care.  There are a lot of lists, and passages about him researching and taking notes. His friend Philip, nicknamed Samkatt-short for Samurai Cat, is the comical sidekick, who in this case also is the brains in the group, keeps the plot moving along. The author sprinkles in some anecdotes and history giving the characters depth.  We learn Ahmed’s dad is from Pakistan and while he grew up in the city he spent time in the country and with snakes.  He retells a fictional story about how snakes kept the rodent population down, and thus allowed the farmers in his family to have higher grain yields.  He also tells Omar tidbits about his time in college working in a biology lab with snakes.  Omar’s mom is an accomplished artist that often incorporates her Lebanese culture into her work and gallery shows.  The banter between her and Samkatt keep the story light and entertaining.  (SPOILER ALERT) At the climax, the snake gets loose, and Omar learns where his mother’s phobia comes from in her childhood.  During one of Lebanon’s many wars, a man with a snake tattoo beat her father extensively while she was forced to watch.  This somehow over time developed in to Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes.  When the snake pops up, mayhem ensues, resulting in Hoda going to the hospital and Omar having to decide what to do with his snake, Arrow.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It is such a simple story, yet the warmth of the characters at the beginning and end really made it enjoyable.  I truly applaud the author for stretching a very simple idea into a full fledged YA novel.  The characters and family are Muslim, but it isn’t really discussed or made an issue.  There is nothing religious talked about or detailed.  In some ways, it would have been nice to throw a little more cultural or religious depth in to the story to connect with the characters, but being as the author is not Muslim it is kind of impressive that he presented them as just a regular American family.  Culturally there are only a few references outside of the anecdotes the parents share: Omar can’t come up with an example of when he was bullied, some of the foods served or eaten, the mother’s art work.

FLAGS:

None. Even if you don’t like snakes, the book should not make you squeamish.

TOOLS FOR TEACHING THE DISCUSSION:

There is not much to discuss with the book, and thus I wouldn’t choose it for a book club pick.  I think 2nd or 3rd graders, however,would do well with the book in small groups.  There is just a tinge of foreshadowing, symbolism, and interpretation that wouldn’t overwhelm the student, but would boost their confidence when they connect the dots so to speak.  Plus, some discussion could come from how he had to persuade his family, the responsibility he had to show, and the sequencing of events. The worksheets and questions would practically write themselves.

Author Eric Kimmel’s blog about the book http://ericakimmel.com/2012/02/h-i-s-s-s-s-s/