Tag Archives: Love

Sitti’s Olive Tree by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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Sitti’s Olive Tree by Ndaa Hassan illustrated by Soumbal Qureshi

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This lovely 27 page book is a story infused with love, culture, and olive oil.  The hardbound, large thick pages are richly illustrated as the text, perfect for ages preschool to second grade, tell of the olive harvesting season in Palestine.  The story is framed between a young girl learning about the past from her grandma’s memories and enjoying the olive oil sent by her uncles from their homeland.  The story is warm and informative and does not discuss politics or conflict. There is a key hanging on a map of Palestine in the illustrations, but nothing in the text.

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Young Reema watches her Sitti make hummus. When a drop of olive oil slips down the side of the bottle and Sitti wipes it up and rubs it in Reema’s hair.  Reema wants to know how olive oil, zeit zaytoun, can be used in such different ways. As Reema is reminded of how far the oil has traveled and recalls that her Sitti never buys olive oil at the store, the two settle in for Sitti to tell Reema some of her memories about the harvest on her ancestral land.

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Olive harvesting season comes at the end of the year and the families gather to pick the olives and fill the buckets before climbing ladders and catch the falling olives on blankets.  The elders sort them, and at the end of the day they eat and drink tea and coffee and laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

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They tell stories to pass on to the next generation just like Sitti is doing to Reema, because the olives keep the families together.  Sitti hopes one day Reema will go to Palestine and play among her family’s trees.

I wish there was a bit more detail about the hummus, it seems to imply that the garbanzo beans are whole and not smooshed or blended, also when it lists the other things Sitti’s grandparents would do with the olives, the list is olive oil, olive soap and olives for eating.  I would imagine there are more things to do with the olives, even perhaps detailing the way the olives for eating are pickled, or preserved, or prepared would have been nice.

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There is a glossary of a few terms at the end.  There is nothing religious in the text, but many of the women wear hijab in the illustrations.

Overall this book is well done and serves an important point in showing a culture that is rich and full, aside from conflict and politics.  It is a sweet story between a grandmother and her granddaughter and shows how stories, traditions, and food help pass on culture and heritage.

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The Prophet (salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)Described by Zaheer Khatri illustrated by Fatima Zahur, Elaine Limm and Jannah Haque

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The Prophet (salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)Described by Zaheer Khatri illustrated by Fatima Zahur, Elaine Limm and Jannah Haque

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This 48 page rhyming prose filled picture book details our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saw) in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and as stated by Hadith.  The repetitive refrain highlights the two-page spread’s thematic descriptions of Rasul Allah’s appearance, speech, mannerisms, walking style, etc., and the best part is, it is all sourced and referenced at the end.  It features the same two characters and the same layout, as The Prophet’s Pond, which this book even references, but notably, my copy of that book does not have faces in the illustrations of the boy and his mom, and this new book does.  I tried to see if you could find a faceless version and could not, perhaps, that option is forthcoming.  As I often remark to those around me, there are not that many books about Prophet Muhammad (saw) that are factual, but framed in a fictitious manner for children, or that are fun and playful, and this book helps fill that void in creating love and connection to the Prophet.  It is a bit text heavy and it is very thoughtful, but the repetition and rhyme along with the beautiful large horizontal illustrations, create a mood of reflection, appreciation, love, and admiration and will be suitable for ages five and up.

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Zayd and his mom are back and the book starts with Mummy telling Zayd that one day he will meet a special man inshaAllah, and Zayd asking her to give her details so that he can guess who it is. The first set of clues describe how gracious the most handsome man is, and how he will greet Zayd one day.

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The story then moves on to describe Prophet Muhammad’s fragrance, his hands, his words, his stature, his complexion, his hair, and so on.  As the details flow, Zayd and his Mummy journey through nature, standing near beaches, and forests, and rivers and waterfalls.  They cross a bridge on their way out of the city, and the full color pages move from night (or possibly really early morning) to day to night again.

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Zayd seems to know it is Prophet Muhammad (saw), but keeps begging to hear more details, before he proudly proclaims the only human whose beauty reaches so far is Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.  The book then says he will be waiting by a pond, but that is a story for another day, giving a shoutout to its companion book.

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There are questions recapping what is learned in the story before 10 pages of reference material.  It really is incredibly well done and is a great resource in addition to being a lovely story.  Thank you @crescentmoonstore for getting the book to me so quickly.

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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This AR 3.6, 89 page early chapter book features three stories set in Lagos, Nigeria.  The main character and her family are Christian, but many of the neighbors are Muslim, and the third story is set in Ramadan with Easter and Eid falling at the same time.  The sense of community throughout the book, the OWN voice detail and charm make this book silly, warm, and delightful for first through third grade readers.

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SYNOPSIS:

In the first story Tola heads to the market with her Grandmommy.  Not the fancy mall, but the muddy market further away.  Her older brother Dapo is too busy playing soccer to help, her older sister Moji is busy with homework, that leaves little Tola to carry the items on her head with her tough as nails little grandmother.  Everyone says she is too small, but Grandmommy knows she can do it.  As they purchase the items, and neighbors call to have them pick up items for them too, the duo have to take lots of breaks on their way home, but Too Small Tola does it and proves to herself and others that she might be small, but she is strong.

The second story once again focuses on life in Lagos and the one bedroom apartment the family shares.  One morning both the power and the water are out and the jerry bottles need to be filled at the pump.  When some bullies trip Tola and the water spills, an elderly neighbor lady patiently waits for the right time to get her revenge on Tola’s behalf, and when the bully challenges the woman, the entire line stands together.  Tola may be small, but she stood for something and made a difference.

The final story involves the neighbor, Mr. Abdul, the tailor who lives downstairs, coming to measure Tola and her family for their new Easter clothes.  He let Tola measure everyone last year and praises her as the best measurer in Lagos, and Tola is eager to take the measurements this year.  When the tailor breaks his leg, he is worried he will not be able to ride his bicycle to his clients and will not be able to prepare the Eid feast and pay rent.  Tola knows they have been fasting all Ramadan and between her, Grandmommy, and Dapo they come up with a plan to help.  Dapo will peddle the bike and take Tola to measure everyone for their orders.  Tola may be small, but she can save the day for the Abdul family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love little Tola and her sassy grandma.  The book would lend itself so wonderfully to be read aloud as it bursts with personality and dialogue.  I love the sense of community in such a day-to-day life that would seem to stark and hard to most western readers.  Tola’s draws on those around her to find her strength, from her Grandmommy, to her neighbors, they may tease her that she is too little, but they also build her back up and stand with her.  I love the diversity in Tola’s world.  She seems so excited that Eid and Easter will be aligned and that after her services they will be joining the Abdul’s feast, such a great lesson of tolerance and respect without being preachy about tolerance and respect.  Young readers will enjoy Tola and the insight into Nigeria.

FLAGS:

Grandmommy lies when a neighbor calls her in the market to ask her to pick up his TV, she pretends the battery dies as she and Tola laugh at how ridiculous them carrying a TV would be in addition to everything else they are carrying.  There is bullying when Tola is tripped and then when Mrs. Shaky-Shaky trips the bully.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This wouldn’t work for a book club, but would be ideal in small groups, or to be read aloud.  There would be a lot to discuss as children would relate to Tola and find themselves cheering her on.

The Adventures of Adam and Anisah: My Brother’s Shield by Zahra Patel illustrated by Reyhana Ismail

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The Adventures of Adam and Anisah: My Brother’s Shield by Zahra Patel illustrated by Reyhana Ismail

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Based on the idea that “Fasting is a Shield (ibn Majah),” this adorable book brings Ramadan not just to life, but makes those that fast into absolute superheroes!  Over 32 pages of simple large rhyming words, little Anisah shares her wonder and amazement toward her brother, and his shield that he wields during Ramadan.  The beauty of her admiration for her older sibling combined with the message, illustrations, and presentation, make this book (there is also an accompanying workbook) perfect for ages three and up.

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It starts with a secret.  Adam is a superhero.  When Ramadan arrives, the shield comes out and Adam carries it all day.  He doesn’t eat or drink when he has it.  It makes him brave and saves him from tempting biscuits.  It gives him peace when he reads Quran. It keeps him calm when there is a foul during a soccer game. It even keeps him away from gossip at the mosque.

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When they break their fast, they pull out their magic carpet to fly.  And when Ramadan is over the shield goes away until it is needed again. Anisah patiently marks off the days on the calendar until Ramadan will arrive, because she has another secret.  She is training to be a superhero too.

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The book concludes with how the story came about, discussion questions and some activities to help learn through practice. The illustrations show diversity and whimsy and toddlers and preschoolers, I’m certain will be begging for this story all year around.

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Red Shoes by Karen English illustrated by Ebony Glenn

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Red Shoes by Karen English illustrated by Ebony Glenn

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This delightful 32 page picture book links two girls, two ends of the world, two cultures and two stories together with a pair of red shoes.  The short sentences pop with action and the perfectly illustrated two-page spreads convey relatable emotion and joy.  The beloved shoes travel on the feet of one character to a wedding, Christmas dinner, and birthdays, they are then are donated and journey to West Africa to be given as a gift for a little girl who fasted half of Ramadan.   The message I hope children ages three and up will get from the story, is that we are more alike than different, that we should take care of our things (amazingly the shoes weren’t worn out), and that we should donate things of good quality that we ourselves value.  I hope it doesn’t lend itself to perpetuate the stereotype that we can send our castaway items to Africa, being the author comments in her bio on the back flap that her husband is from West Africa and that she frequently visits there, I’m hoping that this is just me being overly cautious in the messaging, and nothing is being implied or negatively taken from a casual reader.

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Malika and her Nana see a pair of dazzling shoes perched in the window, and Malika is enamored. Her grandma later surprises Malika with the shoes.  She quickly tries them on and tests them out.  She keeps them safe from the rain and dances with them on at her Auntie’s wedding.  She kicks her cousin Jamal with them on, under the table at Christmas when he tries to steal her biscuit.

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She stomps away from her best friend in her red shoes, and jumps double Dutch with them on when she makes up with her friend at her birthday party. But at Nana’s birthday, “the shoes don’t let her forget that her feet have grown.” Nana and Malika take the shoes to the thrift store to be resold.  A sad Malika says goodbye to them, they were her favorite shoes ever.

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Inna Ziya sees the shoes in the window and knows just the little girl who will love them.  She squeezes them in to her suitcase and they are off to Africa. They wait under a table selling claypots in a market waiting for the girl who fasted half the month of Ramadan.

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When Amina comes holding her mother’s hand, Auntie Inna Ziya delivers the promised gift.  Amina thinks they are beautiful and lovingly carries them in the box on her lap as they fide the tro-tro home.  Amina’s little sister Halima, can’t wait to see the gift as she too hopes to one day fast in Ramadan.

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Amina lets her try them on and when she outgrows them she plans to pass them on to her.  Meanwhile, Malika is wondering whatever happened to her beautiful red shoes, and if someone else is wearing them.

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There is no mention of Islam nor is Ramadan explained.  There are women in hijab in America and in Africa, even in the books in a shop window there is representation.  I particularly love the shout-out in the illustrations to “Mommy’s Khimar.”

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The front of the book has Malika, and the back, Amira.

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Baba, What Does My Name Mean? A Journey to Palestine by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Lamaa Jawhari

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Baba, What Does My Name Mean? A Journey to Palestine by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Lamaa Jawhari

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This lyrical journey through Palestine’s major cities, shares historical facts, geographical information, cultural richness, and love for a homeland that will inspire and educate all readers. There is a lot of information pressed in to 32 pages and at times the rhyming text, illustrations, and maps are powerful, and at other times overwhelming. The 8.5 x 11 horizontal paperback bound book needs to be bigger to hold all that the pages contain, and hard back to hold up to the details that need to be poured over to be appreciated. The content about the names and places in Palestine is priceless and well done, but I really wanted to love the book a bit more than I ended up feeling for it. I think trying to make it all rhyme was just a bit too much for my liking, but I would buy this book again in a heartbeat to share with my children. Even though we are not Palestinian, I think all Muslims have a piece of Palestine in our hearts and feel a deep need to celebrate the culture, fight for their freedom, and demand a quality of life that they are brutally being denied by their oppressors.

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The book starts out at bedtime with a little girl, Saamideh asking her baba what her name means. He explains to her that it means “one who is patient, persistent and one who perseveres.” She is named this because she is Palestinian, he explains and then he shows her the key to their ancestral home in Palestine. He asks her to close her eyes and imagine a white dove, named Salam, taking her on tonight’s journey.

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Salam and Samamidah prepare to journey across Palestine’s mountains, hills, deserts, and plains. They start in Areeha, one of the oldest cities in the world, and one one of the lowest points on Earth.

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They journey next to Al-Quds, the capital. They see the old city, Al-Aqsa, and more, before heading off to Nablus, Yafa, Haifa and the Akka. Learning about the cities, the food, and the history of each.

They learn about the dabkah, and the weaving in Gaza and head to Bait Lahem too. They learn about glass blowing in Al-Khalil at the Ibrabhimi Mosque, and finally they conclude their journey with the little girl dreaming of flying around the world to use her key and open people’s hearts and minds.

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She proudly exclaims her love of Palestine and her and her baba pray that one day they will be able to return. Saamidah then asks her baba why they are refugees, and he promises to save that conversation for tomorrow’s beditme story.

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The book concludes with a list of the city names in Arabic, trasliterated in English, and then the English names. It then has discussion questions at the end.

The book is not outwardly political, nor critical. It is a celebration of a people, a culture, and land. Happy Reading!

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.

I am Brown by Ashok Banker illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

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I am Brown by Ashok Banker illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

This 40 page celebration of diversity within the label “brown” is a sweet and powerful book that shows how the color of our skin is beautiful and perfect while at the same time making it clear that who we are and what we can be is not defined by our appearance.  The book shows adorably illustrated brown children finding strength in different cultures, clothing, religions, languages and dreams, which will hopefully empower children everywhere (and of all colors) to take labels that may have negative connotations and turn them in to positive affirmations of identity and strength.  There isn’t a story with a plot, but with the regular inclusion of a girl with a scarf on, and the mention of a mosque, I thought to highlight it.  The book is perfect for preschool and up.  

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The book starts with a little girl identifying herself as brown, beautiful and being perfect.  It then stretches to her being love, friendship and happiness.

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From there it branches out to a whole cast of kids identifying the variety of things they can be, from a writer to an electrician to a prime minister. the same kids then do and make and work on things before identifying where they come from and what languages they speak.  

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The kids all have different hair on their heads and faces and even no hair at all. They live in different dwellings, they like to do different things. 

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Brown people are not a monolith, the kids show that they eat different foods in different ways, that they wear different clothes.

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People with brown skin are roommates and teachers and friends and classmates.  Some go to temple or church, others a mosque or shrine, some not at all. 

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The book ends with a close up of three smiling faces proclaiming, “I am brown.  I am amazing.  I am You.”

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I’m sure people will argue that if you switch out white for brown the book would be deemed racist, and you are correct it would be.  But as a group that is marginalized as “other” and often the darker brown you are with in the brown subset moves you “value” and “worth” down, makes a book celebrating the strength and beauty of “brown” so necessary and heart warming.  I personally am the lightest “brown” imaginable being only half Pakistani.  So, believe me I have privilege in the desi community, but I don’t find this book offensive at all.  I’ve read this book at least a dozen times and my impressions alternate between beaming with pride and tears that so many beautiful people feel less than because of skin color and yes, anger too,  that people are MADE to feel less than.   May we all be more inclusive, more loving, and more open to the diversity of the human being. Ameen.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

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Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

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This 248 middle grades (AR 4.9) fictionalized biography of Betty Sanders, later to be Betty X and then Betty Shabazz, is the early years of her life in Detroit during the 1940s and how she understood her place in her family, and in the community.  Written by her daughter, the book hops around to major events in her life and doesn’t detail a lot of the whys, but rather keeps an 11 year-old-perspective, allowing readers to identify with her family stresses and anger at the racial discrimination and violence that is rampant.  Showing disagreements within the black community allows young readers to broaden their horizons and not see the civil rights as a monolithic point on a timeline, but something that is still ongoing and part of culture still today.  There is nothing Islamic in the book, as this is a glimpse of her childhood long before Nation of Islam, her conversion to Sunni Islam or her Hajj, in fact the majority of the book focuses on her involvement in the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

SYNOPSIS:

Betty was born in Georgia, as the story goes, but before she was even a year old, Betty’s grandma took her away from her mother and gave her to her aunt, Fannie Mae, to raise.  Having seen a bruise on the baby girl’s neck Grandma Matilda didn’t feel that the young mother was capable to care for Betty.  Fannie Mae showered Betty with love and consistency and treated her like her own daughter.  Betty saw her first lynching while in Fannie Mae’s care and the image stayed with her her whole life.  When Betty was seven her aunt died and Betty went to live with her biological mother, Ollie Mae, in Detroit.

In Detroit, Ollie Mae has married and has three daughters with her husband, Arthur, who also has two sons.  A full house that is religious and disciplined, but for Betty not full of love.  She prays that her mother will look at her the way she looks at her sisters, but that never seems to happen. The family attends Bethel AME church and at age 11 that is when the story gets going.  Betty and her friends sneak out of church to get candy and the cost will probably be a whipping.  Luckily a few of the church ladies like Betty and realize how hard Ollie Mae is on her.  They work to get Betty permission to hang out with girls her own age and try and convince her mother to let her join the Jr. Housewives’ League.  Ollie Mae doesn’t agree with the work of the Housewives, a strong group of women that work to convince others to only support businesses that hire Negroes.  This organization is a major division within the community and the church.  Mrs. Malloy and Mrs. Peck are leaders in the organization, and one of Betty’s friends is for it, while another is against it. This rift affects Betty in many ways.

At age 11 Betty leaves home to go and live with the Malloy family.  A husband and wife who have no children and own a shoe repair shop.  One night turns into two and then she is living there full time and only seeing her siblings and mom at church on Sunday.  She even gets to calling Mrs. Malloy, Mother.  As she comes of age with a new family, and splintering friendships she seeks to make her own family with those that love her, and seeing violence targeted against blacks when a young boy is shot by police in the back, and working with civil rights activists- the icon and leader we know Betty Shabazz to be, is shaped and inspired.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that she gets her own story and own voice, not just to be left as someone’s wife.   She is a force before she meets Malcolm and after he is murdered.  Her story is shaped by so many outside influences, but ultimately it is her own and even in her early years the reader feels that.  She seeks out those that love her the way she should be loved, but she doesn’t give up on those that try and leave her either.  She fights for her mother’s praise and doesn’t abandon friends that believe differently than her, which is powerful to see from an 11 year old.  She sees the world around her and takes a stand against that which is wrong, she feels and hurts and doubts, but she gets back up.

I like that she questions if what she is fighting for will make a difference, while simultaneously doesn’t want to take racism quietly.  The day-to-day nuances flesh out the struggle of the civil rights and give a unique perspective that biographies that cover adult lives or larger portions of one’s life don’t necessarily spend time on.  Seeing activism affect a young girl’s friendships will stay with readers,  as well as how desperate she is for her mother’s love, just as seeing how she is treated on a shopping trip will create a sense of universal struggle that make equality in society resonate as being the responsibility of us all, not just those that are being oppressed.

FLAGS:

Racism, violence, murder, lynching, abuse, Betty being born out of wedlock.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book would work for a book club, and would definitely be a great historical fiction touchpoint to bridge with the Black Lives Matter movement.  A classroom discussing Civil Rights and Malcolm X would perhaps get more value from it than a half hour lunch chat, but either way the book should be read, the ideas discussed, and people made aware of Betty Shabazz’s life.