Tag Archives: memories

Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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As a partially brown person who enjoys camping and does it frequently, I have been anxiously waiting to get my hands on this beautiful 40 page, kindergarten to fourth grade picture book. So, trust me, I’ve read it multiple times to myself, to my children, and even to a Muslim storytime group to try and figure out why I like it, but, unfortunately, really don’t love it. Ultimately, I think it is because there is just too much going on.

Everything about this book is wonderful: the idea to encourage brown people to go camping, to highlight that time in the wilderness is for everyone and doesn’t have to look a certain way, that bullying and micro aggressions are oppressive, that immigrants have diverse and full lives in their home countries and work hard when they come to America, that culture and language and food and music is diverse, yet universal, that learning new skills and trying hard things makes you a super hero, that dad’s can cook and mom’s can be great fire starters and critter catchers, truly it is all so powerful and affirming, it is just a lot for one book.

It could easily be a three book series with just the information and layered themes presented, and I really wish it was spread out. If you are a 4th grade desi kid who has been camping or desperately wants to go camping this book is a great glimpse to mirror your place in the hobby without compromising your unique spin on it, but I think for anyone not in that demographic, many of the little celebrations, messages, themes, and cultural nuggets will simply be lost.

I wanted to hear the campfire stories and jokes, and laugh at the lyrics being belted out, not just told about them. I wanted to feel Fatima’s accomplishment at helping set up the tent and maybe see her struggle and rebound, not just be told she suggested reading the directions. The book has a ton of industry praise and personally came with a lot of expectation for me, so perhaps I’m overly critical, but kids in my storytime were struggling to stay focused when they couldn’t relate to the cultural touchstones being tossed out, they didn’t get the “not being good at math stereotype,” they needed the non text pictures to be explained to grasp their impact on the story, and they wanted to know why of all the Islamic things a Muslim family could do while camping, halal bacon was the only Islamic reference and came with precious little contextual defining.

The story starts with a Fatima and aapa waiting to be picked up after a terrible week of school to go camping for the first time. The Khazi family has immigrated from India and their father has told them that camping is an American pastime. During the week Fatima has been teased for her pronunciation and lunch, had her hair pulled and done poorly on a math test. But when her parent’s pull up with a packed car and the girls jump in to enjoy samosa and Bollywood songs, the weekend holds promise.

When they get to the campsite, Fatima and her dad tackle the setting up of the tent. Dad cannot seem to figure it out, and after the week she has had, Fatima is scared to help, but after a while she suggests looking at the directions and it seems that does the trick. The family enjoys shami kabab and rotis from home for dinner, before the girls climb in the tent.

A spider on the outside of the tent is magnified inside, and has the girls terrified it is a monster. Mom, the ever brave lizard and scorpion disposer in India reassures them that it is nothing and sends them off to brush their teeth before settling in for the night.

The next morning mom shows the girl the small spider keeping the mosquitos out and they all share a laugh while dad is cooking anda and roti on a gas grill. He calls the girls to come out in urdu to attempt a campfire to cook the halal beef bacon on like other American’s do. Dad and Fatima can’t get it to light, so mom, who is from a smaller town in India has to show them how it is done. Along the way Fatima looks at the other campers and is annoyed that they aren’t having trouble and that her family always is so different. The other families it is worth noting are white.

The Khazi family then starts to pack up and then they go for a hike, play in water and when the time to leave comes Fatima is sad. She doesn’t want to go back to the life they live where they are different and teased and her parents have to work two jobs each. But aapa suggests she share her fun at show and tell, and the family reassures her that they will be back.

The book ends with Fatima telling her class she is a superhero because she can build fires and tents and isn’t afraid of spider monsters. There is no glossary to define the urdu words used and spoken, but there is a reference at the end about the author’s @brownpeoplecamping initiative.

I think the book is rather remarkable and ground breaking because of its subject matter. The illustrations are wonderful, and the book a great reminder that camping and being outdoors is for all. I just wish it focused on a theme or two and highlighted them for this Indian American Muslim Family with relate-ability for other types of minority groups. The book set its own standard in what it wanted to achieve and convey, and sadly I think it missed the mark.

The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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I was really surprised by the number of gaps in this 46 page story that is so adorably illustrated and seemingly planned out. I thought perhaps I was being overly critical, so as always I tested it on my kids, and they too were confused by the main character’s rational and choice of words, the holes in the narrative, and the inconsistency of the characters. The book is wordy, so conciseness cannot be the reason for the holes, and it is published by a publishing company, so I would assume it has been proofed. Really the point of stories connecting us and giving us comfort when we need it, is sadly lost. I had hoped to love this fictional story of a Palestinian girl using prayer to give her comfort in her new home, but alas it seemed to be trying to weave in too much, and as a result the story isn’t fabulous for me unfortunately.

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Noor is new at school and stands out. She finds comfort in remembering the things that are the same. 1-Allah could still see and hear her. 2- The Angels were still by her side, and 3-She still slept under the same moon. She also wears clothes that remind her of home and provide an unspoken clue as to where home is for her.

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At school Noor has a problem, she needs a place to pray, but at lunch time the kids are not allowed to go inside and the dinner lady guards the door. Noor needs a distraction to sneak in the building and it isn’t clear if she provides the distractions, or just benefits from a baby bird falling out of a nest, a snake being in the grass, and a classmate getting hurt. Either way, when the teacher is occupied, Noor enters the building and finds a closet to pray in.

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On one such visit to the closet she finds someone already in there, Hannah. Hannah is there because she doesn’t like being on the playground because she is different. Noor never asks why Hannah feels different, so the reader isn’t made aware either. Hannah asks her why she is there and Noor says she comes “to pray because it reminds me of where I’m from.”

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When Hannah asks where she is from, Noor doesn’t just simply answer, she tells her stories about her homeland, the mountains, olive trees, where the athan floats in the air and fisherman return to the shore with their catch. The next day Hannah is there again, and Noor tells her more stories and legends about her culture and lessons of the Prophets. Noor learns that through her stories she feels connected to her old home.

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Weeks pass, and one day when she sneaks in to the school, she finds the door locked. With no where to go she heads back to the playground and starts to cry that she won’t be able to pray. She then sees Hannah disappear and she follows her in to the drama studio. When she enters she sees sets built that look like the setting of her stories, of her home. Hannah knew she missed home and built her sets to look like Palestine.

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Other kids miraculously enter, and Noor begins telling them her stories, without praying first. The other kids seem to enjoy her stories and Noor learns that she can pray anywhere while holding on to her three reassuring thoughts.

The illustrations are engaging, although I’m not sure where the prayer rug seems to magically come from for Noor to pray on in the closet the first time. Had the book just been about prayer and finding a way to pray, or just about the stories connecting us to our past I think it would have been more powerful. I’m glad that Noor loves salat and that Hannah is a good friend, but I feel like by trying to do too much, the poignancy of the little things was lost.

And as for my questions: Can’t Noor ask for a place to pray? Can’t she pray outside? How is Hannah making the sets all by herself? Noor says she prays because it reminds her of home, she doesn’t pray for the sake of Allah or because it is required of her? Why did Hanna feel different, and why didn’t Noor bother to ask? It says that she needed to distract the dinner lady, isn’t that dishonest even for a good cause? Did she harm the baby bird so that it would need rescuing? Put the snake in the grass? Hurt the little girl so that she could get by the teacher? How was Hanna getting inside at lunch time? How is the school ok with a kid coming inside to build a whole set with school materials, but can’t let another child inside to pray for less than 5 minutes? And if Noor didn’t feel comfortable asking for a space to pray, clearly Hannah had connections to get permission to create a huge scene, couldn’t she have asked, or helped Noor ask?

Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

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Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

shirin shamsi

This 127 page book has a lot of potential, but ultimately didn’t win me over.  It is one of those that needs a good editor to encourage the author to flesh out the characters, take advantage of a potentially cathartic resolution, and fill the gaping holes in the story.  Meant for ages 8-12 the tiny font, and tight spacing, make the book really dense and intimidating to look at and read.  The book, as written, should be well over 200 pages, if spaced appropriately for the target audience.  Once you accept the presentation and get in to the story, it isn’t an awful read, it just could have and should have been so much more.  I hope the author revisits it and polishes it up- the time travel, the science DNA component, and the death of the protagonist’s parents, offer a lot for Muslim and non Muslim readers to sink their teeth in and be swept away by, but ultimately, I don’t know that most readers will be motivated to finish the book, and those that do, won’t remember anything about it.

SYNOPSIS:

Laila’s dad has recently died, and with her mother having died years earlier, Laila is now 13 and an orphan living with her stepmom and baby sister.  Feeling resentful that her dad remarried and had a child that took time away from her in his final span of life, doesn’t make Laila a very kind person at home.  Her best friend Beth, even points out how cold she is to her family.  With school vacations approaching, Laila is headed for Umrah with her dad’s brother, her uncle, and his wife.  While making tawaf, Laila loses her aunt and uncle in the crowd and finds herself transported to 7th century Arabia.  She hears a baby crying and learns that the baby’s life is in danger.  To save her, she must get the baby, the baby’s mom and baby’s sister from Makkah to Yathrib.  The only way to do that is to join a caravan, and they can only join a caravan if they have a male escort.  So Laila chops off her hair, acts like a boy, and gets them in the caravan.  They meet bandits along the way, but nothing too scary, they arrive in Medina and right before they meet RasulAllah, Laila finds herself back in the present.  She is in a hospital, but the doctors do not know what is wrong with her so they release her.  She returns to the US, relays the story to Beth, and decides that at an upcoming field trip to study DNA, she is going to submit the baby’s hair that she still has for dating.  The results show it is from 1400 years ago and a family heirloom of her step moms reveals that the baby is a great great great great… grandmother of her’s.  Resolved to open her heart to her family, Laila is a changed person, alhumdulillah.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the premise, it is like Sophia’s Journal and When Wings Expand  thrown together and scrambled.  Laila is struggling with her faith and is trying to find it, while also finding a way to move forward after losing her father.  There are just a lot of things that aren’t answered, are contradictory, or don’t make sense.  It says she learned Arabic because her mother spoke it, her dad is desi, but really no hiccups speaking in 7th century Arabia other than forgetting the word for scissors?  She at one point said she was a cousin from the north, but while on the caravan mentioned that she had never travelled through the desert.  There really should have been more action with the thieves and the regrouping when the men came back.  Similarly, her gender reveal should have been a bigger deal than it was.  I was hoping there would be a mention of if her hair was long or short when she awoke in the hospital, I don’t think I missed it, but maybe, or maybe it wasn’t there.  Once back home, there really needed to be a reunion scene with Laila and her stepmom and half sister, I mean the whole point of the time travel was to save a baby. Really? Nothing? I was disappointed that it was glossed over and mentioned as a retelling to Beth and pushed aside.  The second climax is when the DNA testing is being questioned, but I didn’t get the need for the babysitter and everything to be rearranged for a two second conversation with the principal accusing Laila of theft, a phone call should have sufficed, plus when Laila and Beth mention it to the scientist, it seems everyone was questioned, but Beth wasn’t, something wasn’t consistent there either.  Overall, the book needed more action for a book that involves time travel and more emotional attachment and character connection for a book that involves a newly orphaned young teen girl.

I like the conveying of Islamic facts and information and history in a fairly smooth way.  At the beginning, Umrah being explained was a little text bookish, but it smoothed out as the book progressed.  I love the little flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, I wish there would have been some information about the remarriage of her father and her emotions on the matter at that time.  It is one thing to be grieving, but really she is a brat to her step mom, and if the uncle and aunt live right there, not sure where they live, someone should really be working on getting them all some family therapy, not a quality situation for anyone.

FLAGS:

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use the book as a book club selection, nor would I think it would get read if on a classroom shelf.  I might use the premise of going back in time to meet Prophet Muhammad, as a writing prompt though.  Would be a good assignment with factual and Islamic references to get kids stretching their imagination to make it all come together and work.

 

Yusuf’s Ramadan Lantern by Jasmin Zine illustrated by Brad Cornelius

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Yusuf’s Ramadan Lantern by Jasmin Zine illustrated by Brad Cornelius

yusuf ramadan lantern

The soft illustrations on 32 pages, surrounded by ample, large, well -paced text for second graders and up give life to a sweet story about a young boy, his grandfather, and the passing on of a Ramadan heirloom.  While not a chapter book, and a little too long for little ones to enjoy as a simple picture book, the book may not beg children to pick it up and read it, but if they do, they will enjoy a sweet story that parents won’t mind reading more than once.

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Synopsis:

Yusuf’s grandparents have just returned from their trip to Egypt and Yusuf is excited to see them, and receive the electronic fanooz he asked them to bring back. But when Grandpa takes Yusuf outside to give him the gift, it isn’t the modern light up lantern he asked for, it is an old rusty, cracked metal fanooz.  Grandpa explains that the old fanooz used to be his when he was a young boy and begins his story of himself going out with his father to wake their neighbors for suhoor in Ramadan.  The subtle details of how he would be woken up, how his dad would beat the drum and the song they would sing as they would walk around, keeps the story slow and engulfing.  He then tells about returning and eating dates soaked in milk, and bread and fava beans before the white thread of light appeared.

Slowly the little boy, seeing how happy his grandfather is in his reminiscing, realizes that the fanooz he has been entrusted with is far better than the electronic one he asked for.  As he walks his grandfather out the door, he is surprised with the gift he originally wanted, the fancy new fanooz.  Not excited, his grandfather asks Yusuf what is wrong, and Yusuf, realizes that he likes the history filled one better.

The old fanooz finds a permanent place in Yusuf’s room, and he and his father fix the broken glass and polish up the metal to be regularly lit on Ramadan mornings and remind them all of grandfather as a little boy walking and waking people up before dawn.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the subtlety and detail.  There are now so many books about the tradition of waking the neighbors up for suhoor, but this one focuses on the bonding of the grandfather and his father as well as the bond between the grandfather and Yusuf.  The story speaks of the tradition with the drum, yet somehow it is the lantern that ties it all together.

There is sufficient referencing about Ramadan and fasting to appeal to Muslim kids and inform non Muslims a bit.  The book is not preachy, it is cultural and religious in a narrative story sort of way.

My only main complaint is that I don’t know who the target audience is with the long pages of text, and full page pictures.  It is a hard book to place.  The illustrations are sweet and compliment the story, but in the pictures, Yusuf just seems too young.  His ability to appreciate his grandfather’s old lantern verses the electronic fanooz he asked for implies a bit older child.  In the pictures he looks like he is three or four years old, a disconnect that often distracted me from the story.  I also wish they would have used an Arabic word or title for the grandfather.

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FLAGS:

clean

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It is obviously too short and not the correct format for a book club, but I am hoping to share it at story time.  It will be a bit of a challenge for little children to sit through, but I’m thinking it is worth the effort, inshaAllah, bismillah…

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Down and Across: A Novel by Arvin Ahmadi

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Down and Across: A Novel by Arvin Ahmadi

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This 320 page book featuring an Iranian American lead written by an Iranian American is a coming of age story written on an AR 5.2 level, that I don’t think most reading this blog would want their child to identify with.  It is an OWN voice book from what I can gather in the author’s interviews online, and sure many Muslims definitely receive the label of “Muslim” more from others than from their own self identity, but I don’t know that many would want their children seeing themselves in the main character who runs away from home, hangs out in bars getting drunk, picks up girls as a challenge, and basically tells one lie after another, especially while being completely endearing and quirky and someone you really find charming.

SYNOPSIS:

Sakeet Ferdowsi aka Scott, is an only child of Iranian immigrants who really love him and want him to do well in life.  The story opens with 16 year old Scott chatting with his dad at McDonalds about his lack of direction, his lack of interest in his summer internship, and his parents leaving him alone for the summer as they journey to Iran.  Sakeet’s dad tells him of a professor at Georgetown University who writes about “grit” and how grit, not wealth or IQ is the greatest predictor of success.  With a track record of not seeing things through, Scott is told he needs to find some grit and some direction in life.  Drawn to this idea, Sakeet lasts a few days at his mouse poop research internship before become obsessed with grit, jumping on a greyhound bus and heading from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. to get help face-to-face with Professor Cecily Mallard.

On the bus, he tries to position his backpack to prevent having a seatmate, but a college girl, calls his bluff and forces him to chat with her.  Fiona is not like most people with her free spirited ways and her love of crossword puzzles, and with her now in his life, Scott’s four week DC adventure is set to be memorable.

While in DC Scott learns a lot about himself from the people he meets, the situations he finds himself in, and in general the freedom from his parents.  He is mistaken as a college student and keeps the ruse running to everyone he meets outside of Fiona, Professor Mallard, and Trent.  Trent saves Scott after he crashes a stolen bike (he didn’t know it was stolen) and is being chased by its owner.  They quickly discover they both know Fiona and the big hearted southern helps Scott get a fake ID to get in to bars, and a job working behind the bar to pay for his time in DC.   Trent dreams about working with his favorite senator, which is a big part of the climax, as is the fact that he has been cut off by his well-to-do family because he is gay.  Throw in an ultra conservative “girlfriend” who Sakeet picks up on a dare at the National Zoo and Sakeet to discover if in fact he has grit.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book reads really easy and smooth, hence the middle grade AR level, but I don’t think any elementary kids should read it, or even middle school for that matter.  As a coming of age book, early high school would probably be the best fit, but with such a focus on drinking and bars, and sex I kind of feel like the rave reviews are coming from adults who find the antics quaint and idyllic as a way for Scott to grow, not as something they would want their own child to identify with.  Online reviews praise the person of color protagonist and the Muslim representation, but really I don’t find either of them overtly influential in the story.  Yes, Scott is straddling two worlds as a child of immigrants and must balance parental expectation with his own mysterious wants (he doesn’t know what he wants), but I don’t know that culture or religion shape him other than his parents not letting him go to overnight camps growing up.

When he is called a terrorist by a drunk guy, or dumped by a girl for being Muslim, he takes it, he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t let it really rile him either.  At one point Scott amends Fiona’s statement of calling him a Muslim.  “‘ish,’ I said.  ‘A long time ago I asked my parents what religion I was, and accepted what they told me.  Haven’t gotten around to reevaluating it or whatever.'”  Other’s call him a Muslim, but I don’t know that he every really says it himself, which ironically I kind of appreciate.  In a few phone conversations with his parents he says “Salam” or “inshaAllah,” but there is no Islamic practice or conscious or even expectation in the book.  I think for readers they will respond to Sakeet and his faith based on where they are in life.  For Muslims, they may find such a careless label frustrating and belittling, or possibly relatable.  Non Muslims may understand Sakeet’s practice means Islamic rules are not followed, and those that do follow them more “extreme.”   Islam is fluid and we are all flawed, so I don’t expect a fictional or real character to be perfect, I’m just pointing out what my concerns would be to have this book in an Islamic school library.  As a reader, I appreciated that the author had the character articulate that he is Muslim-ish only, and have other people call him Muslim and have him not constantly use his faith and culture to set himself apart.  He is fallible and growing and he has a lot of parts to his persona not just these markers.  Incidentally the parts he is exploring and questioning and learning about himself as he looks to his future don’t involve Persian culture or Islam.

FLAGS:

Alcohol, getting drunk and hungover, cursing, some violence, theft, nudity, kissing, talk of sex, sexting, talk of making out, a gay character, lying, drug addiction, getting high.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection because of the themes and inconsistency of values, also because of the inconsistency of topics and writing style.

Author’s website: https://www.arvinahmadi.com/

Interviews with author:

https://mashable.com/article/mashreads-podcast-down-and-across-arvin-Ahmadi/

https://ew.com/books/2017/08/03/the-hate-u-give-author-angie-thomas-interviews-arvin-ahmadi/

https://www.npr.org/2018/01/27/580837850/a-puzzled-teen-seeks-answers-and-finds-crosswords-in-down-and-across