Tag Archives: life

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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A perfect introduction to the refugee crisis for upper elementary aged kids.  The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed 9 and 3/4 year old narrator about her friends and how the filling of an empty chair in the back of the room changed their lives.  Ages 7 through 12 will enjoy the plotting and planning of the friends, the awesome climax and the gentle opening of their eyes to the atrocities and bigotry around them.  At 297 pages, with a few pictures and some engaging notes and tidbits at the end, the book is both big, yet completely non intimidating at the same time.  

SYNOPSIS:

Right near the end we learn that the narrator’s name is Alexa, and not too much before that, I learned that she is a girl.  I kind of like that vagueness of it, especially as we also learn that she is half Indonesian and half Austrian.  You realize that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t change anything, and that we all bring our own assumptions to the story and learn a bit about our selves as the narrator’s identity is revealed.  But really, thats a tiny bit of the book, the book is really about a group of diverse friends battling bullies, bully teachers, and trying to help the new kid in their class Ahmet.

Ahmet is a refugee from Syria, but the information isn’t easy to establish, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he disappears at lunch and recess, so Alexa, Josie, Tom, and Michael, first have to figure out who he is, and how they can be his friends.  Along the way we learn the Tom is from America, the book takes place in England.  Josie is the best football player and her parents are nervous to have her interacting with Ahmet, Michael is incredibly wealthy and his parents are Nigerian and French, and Alexa lives with her mom a librarian who works really long hours, her dad passed away and money is incredibly tight.

Once friendships are established, Alexa learns that Ahmet’s mom and dad are missing and that his sister and cat died while fleeing Syria.  When she learns that the government is planning to close the borders to immigrants and refugees, the group of kids come up with plans to keep the gates open until Ahmet’s parents can be found and they can come to the United Kingdom.  The kids come up with a variety of plans, but “The Greatest Idea in the World,” is the one they decide to go with.  It involves a lot of danger, but the general gist is to get a message to the Queen of England, who will keep the gates open, find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.  

Naturally, there are a lot of moving parts to the plan, and a lot of naivety on the part of the 9 year olds, but they do get the Queen’s attention, and they do have a wonderful support system of parents and teachers and while their are bullies around every corner, they do come together to make the world a bit better for Ahmet and for us all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is realistic, with the plotting, and understanding of war, alike.  The war and Ahmet’s journey is very very simplified, but the tone, introduces kids to the intensity without overwhelming them.  Just like the plot to get the Queen’s attention is not celebrated, but appreciated.  What the kids did was wrong and dangerous and they lied, and the kids don’t ever know after if they are in trouble or being praised.  I like that the integrity of both situations is upheld and the book doesn’t get too far fetched.  Similarly, the book is fun and adventurous, and in many ways Ahmet is just a catalyst for the kids to come together to solve a problem and save the day. 

There aren’t a lot of details about his life in Syria, because he doesn’t speak English, there isn’t anything about Islam, except he draws his mom with a scarf on her head.  But there is a lot of learning to accept each other, and stick up for whats right and to not give up on people.  I love the diversity of the friends and how they don’t expect each other to change, they accept each other and move along.  

There is a slight typo on page 3, “…could be half as useful as a Tintin’s dog, Snowy,” that had me afraid that this book was going to be unrefined, but alhumdulillah I was wrong.  The book reads easily and wonderfully, and my children loved it as much as I did.  The author is a first time writer, and I hope she has a bunch more stories in her, because I look forward to reading them.  

FLAGS:

The book is clean and reads believably from a 9 year old’s perspective.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would do this in an elementary book club in a heartbeat. I’ve suggested it to many and I hope to read it aloud to my 4th and 5th grade lunch bunch crew. It is well written, timely, and memorable.

Teacher’s Notes: https://www.hachetteschools.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Boy-at-the-Back-of-the-Class-Teachers-Notes.pdf

A bit about the author: http://beingthestory.org.uk/speakers/onjali-q-rauf

 

 

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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The book is often marketed as a Muslim coming of age story in a post 9/11 world.  The contemporary work is semi-autobiographical, but really I think the positioning is a bit misleading.  It’s a love story, and the main character is Muslim, and her environment is awful and she is angry. Its an engaging read, I read all 310 pages in one sitting, but I don’t know that the take-away will enlighten anyone about Islam, or really what it was like to be Muslim in the years after 9/11, I think people will remember how sweet the couple is and wonder how much of it mirrors the author and her husband, author Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children), but not suddenly become knowledgable about more than what the main character experiences and endures.   I appreciate that the book challenges the stereotypes of Muslim women, there is authenticity as it comes from a writer who lives it, and I do think it shows evolution of attitudes that teens can benefit from.  The book is not yet in the AR database as it just came out, but I would imagine high school and up.  

SYNOPSIS:

Shirin’s Persian-American family moves a lot.  Her and her older brother are incredibly close as their parents are rather aloof to the day-to-day experiences the kids endure.  That isn’t too say her parents aren’t around, they eat two meals a day together and the parent’s are warm, but Shirin’s brother Navid is a much more present.  The story starts with 16-year-old Shirin starting her 12th new school.  Conditioned to not make eye contact, remember faces, or get affected by the trivialities around her, the reader sees how angry she is as she curses at a teacher that assumes she needs ESL not Honors.  Knowing how fleeting her time in any location can be, as her parents are constantly trying to find better jobs, Shirin doesn’t feel compelled to make friends or get attached to anyone or anything.  This intimidating vibe similarly keeps offers at bay, for the most part.  When she gets paired up with Ocean to dissect a cat, he tries to talk to her, and this throws her off her game.  Most every interaction she experiences at school are people making racist comments and being very one dimensional and bigoted.  Ocean tries to be nice, an attitude so foreign to Shirin that it begins to force her to change.  Simultaneously, Navid, who is charismatic and has no problem finding friends wherever they go, decides to put his and his sister’s dream into action and they start a break dancing club at school.  Three other kids join, and start becoming, not just Navid’s friends, but Shirin’s as well.  

Shirin and Ocean fall in love, despite Shirin fearing what the backlash will be for ocean.  She doesn’t really know anything about him, but feels strongly that all the racial slurs thrown at her on a daily bases will effect him and ultimately make them wish they didn’t pursue a relationship. She draws line after line in the sand, and crosses them all.  Only then does she learn how blind she has been, he is in two of her classes, not just one, he is a year older than her, and he is the golden star of the high school basketball team.  Being that the story is told from Shirin’s perspective, this is surprising to the reader as well.  The town turns on the pair and things get really ugly for Ocean who is willing to risk it all for Shirin.  Threats by the basketball coach, pictures of Shirin without her hijab being taken, accusations of terrorist ties and sympathies all challenge the couple and shape Shirin.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really like the twist of having the relationship be difficult for the non Muslim, rather than going with the assumed Muslim girl having to sneak around.  Not saying that I support it, but interestingly she never mentions that what she is doing is going against anything religious.  She mentions twice that her parents wouldn’t like her with any guy, and that they view her as a child still, but she doesn’t explore Islamically any boundaries regarding their relationship.  She hides talking on the phone to Ocean, because her parents are adamant she gets enough sleep at night.  That is about it.  Shirin discusses that she wears hijab like an armor that she gets to pick who she shows her hair too.  I love the strength in that, but wish there was a bit of doctrine to back it up too.  At one point a Muslim, non hijabi, at school calls her out for wearing hijab and having a boyfriend, but she essential tells her it is none of her business, which it isn’t and who is to say that one sin is worse than another, but still it befuddles what exactly Shirin believes and why.  The book just paints her as a Persian Muslim, but never explores what that means other than the superficial outward appearance.  They do fast in Ramadan, no explanation about why is given, just that they not eat or drink during daylight hours, and right near the end, Shirin remarks how her mom asks her and her brother every morning if they have prayed and they lie and say yes, their mother sighs and tells them to make sure they pray the afternoon one, to which they lie and agree, only to have their mother sigh again.  AstagfirAllah, that is awful lying, and lying about Salat, but it is so real, I audibly chuckled.  

I like that the parents aren’t harsh, they just seem disinterested.  I didn’t want to read another book about the parent’s being the gatekeepers and bad guys, so that was really refreshing.  They mention they don’t celebrate Christmas, but they have an open door policy on Thanksgiving for any friends wanting to come.  I did hope for a bit more about them, why they don’t talk to the kids about moving, what makes them tick, because really they seem to have a solid relationship with the kids, they are just clueless to their social experiences and school environment stresses.

I love the growth and self reflection of Shirin, she holds a mirror to herself and she and readers are better for it.  She has to realize that she is doing so much of what she is accusing others of doing.  I love the support and genuine concern of the breakdancers and her brother.  It resonated to me as a girl with an older brother and the relationship feels very genuine. I just wanted to know more about Navid. 

FLAGS:

There is a lot of cursing. kissing, hand holding, romance, lying, and ditching school.  There is a brief mention of graffiti being sprayed.  There is racial slurs, threats of violence, violent physical outbursts by people of authority.  When a student throws a cinnamon roll at Shirin, Navid and his friends beat the kid up severely, it isn’t detailed, but it is mentioned.  Ocean  also gets suspended for a few games for a fight he engages in, and there is some detail of Shirin getting jumped in a previous city for wearing hijab.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I could in good conscience present this to a group of Muslim students.  I wouldn’t want them to think I was endorsing the violence and language and romance.  Like so many books of the genre though, if someone found it and read it on their own, I’d love to chat with them about it, as it is well written.

Youtube video about the book by the author: https://www.hypable.com/tahereh-mafi-a-very-large-expanse-of-sea-tour/

Burcu: No One Wants to Play with Me! by Nursen Sirin illustrated by Nese Inan

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Burcu: No One Wants to Play with Me! by Nursen Sirin illustrated by Nese Inan

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This 32 page, 9×12 story book, for ages five and up, focuses on character education and is meant to be a relatable story with clear lessons about how to behave and deal with situations in life.  The opening page bullets all the lessons readers should learn from the story and the end of the book offers directions to make a balloon craft.  

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I don’t mind books with lessons and morals so clearly delineated, and I like that the morals come from such an adorable character with a whole cast of supporters, and a number of books to her series.  

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My problem is more the story itself, for a lesson on how to make new friends, and dealing with the universal struggle of moving and feeling like ‘no one wants to play with me.”  The book spends nearly seven pages on Burcu making a surprise breakfast for her family before hearing the news that she is moving because the landlord says they should.

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They pack and move seemingly the same day, and then the point of the book gets going.  Burcu has to say goodbye to her friends and doesn’t feel like even going out at the new house to make new ones.

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Her brother, Alper, has no problem making new friends, and finally Burcu gives it a try.  Only a little girl attempts to get to know her and Burcu dismisses her because she is so young.  She tries to be included with the other children, but they don’t know her and aren’t willing to let her play.

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Burcu finally confides in her dad, that she can’t get anyone except the little girl to play with her.  Her dad encourages her to give the little girl a chance.  Burcu does and finds out they are the same age, she just looks really young, and then all the kids are friends and happy.

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The real hero to me is the little girl, Katherine, who didn’t give up on an ageist Burcu that didn’t want to play with her.  Seems odd that Burcu wanted a friend, and then was arrogant to complain about the one she got.  Plus, I would imagine kids who have moved and don’t have friends, would turn to a book like this for tips and hints, and ways to feel less alone.  The book offers none of that.  It doesn’t tell how finally Burcu makes friends, or gets included, other than it took time.  Which is great, but not exactly helpful if you are five and crying everyday because no one will play with you.

The writing is very dry.  I think it has been translated from Turkish, many of the sentences are passive voice, and the sentences choppy.  The book doesn’t have any glaring errors, it just seems like it would work as a story time, or as part of a lesson, and  maybe once as a bedtime story, but not a book that kids will clamor to hear over and over again.

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There is nothing Islamic in the story, but most of the major online Islamic bookshops carry the Burcu series, so I would imagine the authors, and publishers are Muslim.

Overall, the book sets off to teach a great lesson, but falls a bit short.  The illustrations are adorable and the large size and playful font are very well done, the diction, not so much.  The books are reasonably priced and if you see a title that works for a lesson, or theme you are discussing, I think you can make the books work.  If you are looking for a book to read over and over to your kids, you might, however, be disappointed.

 

Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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Power Forward: Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream by Hena Khan illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

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I enjoy Hena Khan’s books, I love basketball, and I love that this three book series is written for 3rd-5th graders.  I didn’t love the cover, however, which I attribute to the reason I waited so long to start reading the book, I know, lame.  But luckily the books were in the public library and I had a few hours on my hands and was able to consume the first two books, and look into ways to get the third one ASAP!  Written on an AR 3.8 level the 126 pages fly by, the second book On Point is 130 pages and an AR 4.0, and the third book in the series, Bounce Back comes out in October.

SYNOPSIS:

Zayd Saleem is in 4th grade and is desperately trying to move from the D squad basketball team to the Gold team with his best friend Adam.  The only problem is he is a pretty scrawny kid, and he has committed a lot of his day to practicing violin.  His desperation forces him to be less than honest and the consequences that follow may strip him of the chance to even try out for the team at all.  The basketball story is intertwined with a rich cultural Pakistani-American backdrop and familial characters that are relatable and fairly fleshed out.  Zayd’s mamoo, maternal uncle, has agreed to meet someone to consider marriage, which brings out some humor as the whole family, including grandma and grandpa, have big roles to play.  Zayd also has to figure out why he gets such stomach aches as he makes regular notes in his food diary, and has to balance the universal themes of friends, school, and homework, as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The font and spacing is wonderful for the target demographic, sprinkle in the illustrations and the book is not intimidating in length or size.  The book is very real and relatable, kids of all backgrounds will relate to the basketball storyline and the video games and players mentioned.  I loved the cultural environment.  My kids absolutely loved the mentioning of the Pakistani food that they eat, and customs they participate in, and dynamics they know all too well.  I don’t know that a non Desi (someone from the Indian subcontinent) will get it, love it, and not be turned off by it.  The books are published through Salaam Reads and I would imagine the author and publisher know what they are doing, and the library has numerous copies, so clearly, I’m over thinking it, but I really want to get feedback on the cultural aspect, because it is done really well and I think it would show promise for future books.  

I love that the book is about a boy and basketball, but it isn’t limited to being a boy book or a sports book.  The story moves seamlessly through all facets of the characters life that makes it pretty memorable for what could have just been a sports story with a moral.  The “life lessons” are clear and obvious, but not overly elevated.  The little mistakes that Zayd makes are a part of his life, as are the consequences, but his family helps him through them, and help him learn.

There isn’t anything preachy or blatant about Islam in the book, but the characters are Muslim and it mentions that the parents are heading to the mosque at one point to help with a fundraiser.  

FLAGS:

There is lying, but that is kind of the lesson being worked through.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I recently agreed to help a teacher with her “Lunch Bunch.”  Once a week students can opt to eat lunch in the library and have a book read to them.  They must commit for the duration of the book and I think for a 4th and 5th grade group this book would be a lot of fun.  It would probably only take two sessions to read and with the diverse class I can see if they get the cultural stuff or if it just bogs down the story to them.

Author’s website: https://www.henakhan.com/power-forward/

 

Digging Deep by Jake Maddox text by Wendy L. Brandes illustrated by Katie Wood

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Digging Deep by Jake Maddox text by Wendy L. Brandes illustrated by Katie Wood

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It is great to see a beautiful hijabi on the front of a sports book, written by a non Muslim, published by a major publisher, and having the story have nothing to do with the cloth on her head, but rather the skills on the court.  Teaching lessons about teamwork and self-worth, there is a whole series of these books about different sports with different main characters, and this one focuses on volleyball and a girl named Asiyah Najjar.  I’d maybe recommend this 63 page book to kids starting to feel confident with early chapter books, but more on that later.

SYNOPSIS:

Asiyah plays rec volleyball and enjoys it, but when her friend Lucy convinces her to try out for the traveling team, she has to not just be good enough to make the team, but focused enough to not let her teammates down.  With daily practices, comedian Asiyah feels like everyone is taking the new team way too serious and she questions if she wants to continue.  She loves playing the piano and with school work, her time is being consumed by volleyball.  When she overhears her friends doubting her commitment to the team, she, with the support of her brother, decides to dig deep and give it one last, serious, try.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Asiyah mentions in the first chapter that she is nervous about the traveling team, because of her hijab and that people in town know “what it is, and why I wear it,” she says.  She never mentions that she is Muslim or why she wears it, just states that the people around her know. Religion and faith are never brought up again.

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There are some slightly off things in this book for me.  According to the publisher, the book is meant to appeal to 8-11 year olds,  but to me, the style of the book is aimed for 6-8 year olds.  Those who need pictures and a large font and big spaces between lines and short chapters.  The illustrations, however, in the book make the main character and her friends seem like high school students, with their heavily makeup looking faces, or at least middle school with the main character wearing hijab.  After reading the book, twice, I still don’t know how old the main characters are.  They seem pretty independent, but then when Asiyah’s parents have to run some errands, her brother Rad walks her and Lucy to volleyball practice, like an escort.  

That’s another thing, of all the ethnic or religious names that could have been chosen, Rad seems like an odd choice in that it will come across as funny to readers and kind of mitigate the amazingness of having a socially accepted female Muslim athlete on the cover, again, just my opinion.

Another slightly confusing thing for me is that the book is a “Jake Maddox book,” but he isn’t really the author.  After looking in to it, I think it is more like a series or type of sports book that other’s write for and include his standards, “each of his stories is stamped with teamwork, fair play, and a strong sense of self-worth and discipline (http://www.capstonepub.com/consumer/products/digging-deep/).” The book is ok for 2nd graders, the lessons learned will resonate in the moment and teach a point, but the characters will be quickly forgotten.  The book has questions at the end and a glossary of volleyball terms which would be great for kids interested in volleyball.  

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FLAGS:

Clean, the characters listen to music and Asiyah plays the piano.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a book club book, but with the standards of sportsmanship and the integrity I’d probably have it in my classroom.  The book is a super short read, so reading it would help boost struggling reader’s confidence, and with so many books in the series, if the child likes sports, they will have lots of options with positive messages to engage with.

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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.