Tag Archives: middle grades

Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

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Rumaysa: A Fairytale by Radiya Hafiza illustrated by Rhaida El Touny

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This middle grades retelling of the classic fairytales: Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, replaces white characters with diverse Desi characters, reclaims female characters’ empowerment, and weaves the stories together with Rumaysa first freeing herself, and then using a magic necklace that takes her to those in need  (Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara) in her quest to find her long lost parents.  After a few chapters, I started writing a list of gaping-huge-ginormous plot holes, they are frequent and laughable, then I took a deep breath and recalled the similar eye-rolling inconsistencies that plague perhaps all fairy tales, but specifically Disney-esque ones. Once I let go of trying to understand why Rumaysa is wearing hijab while locked in an isolated tower, or how the witch can’t remember her name, but Rumaysa knows the name her parents gave her when she was kidnapped on the day of her birth, or that she knows she was kidnapped and her whole backstory, just to name a few, the book was much more enjoyable.  I still have major issues with some of the forced Islamization and cultural tweaks, but not because they existed, but rather because they weren’t strong enough.  Why have an Eid ball for all the fair maidens in the land.  It was awkward to read all the young people showing up to pair off, and then people asking the prince to dance, and him saying he didn’t know if he could.  Why not just make it an over the top Desi wedding with families, where dancing and moms working to pair their kids off is the norm. Having it be a ball for the maidens in the land, just seemed like it was afraid to commit to the premise of twisting the fairytales completely.  There are a few inconsistencies, however, that I cannot overlook.  This is a mainstream published books and there is at least one spelling error and grammar mistake.  I could be wrong, as it is British, and I am by no means competent in even American English, but I expect better.  Even content wise, Prince Harun for example, is wearing a mask, but the text comments on his blushing cheeks, eyes, eyelashes, and smile, not a typical mask perhaps? And don’t get me started on the  illustrations, the same awkward ball has Ayla leaving, and in the picture not wearing a mask concealing her face as the text states.  Overall, the inside illustrations are not well done.  The cover, by artist Areeba Siddique is beautiful with the shimmery leafing on the edges, that would have brought the inside pages a lot more depth and intrigue than the ones it contains.  Despite all the aforementioned glimpses of my critiques to follow, I didn’t hate the book and quite enjoyed the light handed morals and feminism that was interwoven with clever remarks and snark. The first story has Rumaysa wearing hijab, finding a book about salat and praying.  The second story takes place on Eid and Ayla eats samosas, discusses Layla and Majnun, and has a duputta. The third story I don’t recall any culture or religious tidbits other than keeping with the consistency of cultural names.  There is mention of romance between an owl who has a crush on a Raven, but the heroines themselves are learning to be self sufficient from errors of their parents/guardians and are not looking for any males to save them.  Other than that the book really needs an editor and new illustrations, I can see fairytale loving middle grade kids reading the book and finding it enjoyable, or even younger children having it read aloud to them a few chapters at a time, and being drawn in to the stories and eager to see what happens next. It would work for that demographic, but perhaps no one else.

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SYNOPSIS: (spoilers)

Rumaysa’s parents steal vegetables from a magical garden when there is no food or work to be found, as a result when Rumaysa is born, the owner of the garden, an evil witch, takes Rumaysa and places her in a tower protected by an enchanted forest and a poisonous river.  No one can get in, and Rumaysa cannot get out.  In the tower Rumaysa reads, no idea how she learned, and spins straw in to gold as she sings a song that channels the magic she consumed in utero from the stolen garden.  With only rations of oats to eat, a friendly owl named Zabina frequents Rumays daily and brings her berries and news .  When he brings her a new hijab, Rumaysa has the idea to lengthen the hijab with bits of gold over time, so that she might escape.  When she finally gets her chance, she is met by a boy on a magic carpet named Suleiman, and is both shocked and annoyed that someone got close to the tower, and only after she saved herself.  The two however, and Zabina, are caught by the witch and must escape her as well.  When that is all said and done, Suleiman gives Zabina a necklace that takes one to someone in need of help.  His parents want him to save a princess, he wants to study in his room, so he hands off the necklace hoping it will help Rumaysa find her parents, and he heads off on his flying carpet.

The necklace doesn’t transport Rumaysa to her parents, however, it takes her to a street where a girl is throwing rocks in desperation having been denied attending an Eid ball after her dress was torn to shreds.  The story starts with Ayla’s back story before Rumaysa arrives, but the two girls befriend each other, Rumaysa uses her magic gold weaving abilities to conjure up a new and beautiful dress and golden shoes and the girls head to the ball.  When Ayla heads off to get samosas she meets the prince, but doesn’t know he is the prince.  They argue about the play Layla and Majnun and when her stepmother asks about the dress, Rumaysa and Ayla make a run for it.  A shoe is lost, the stepmother comes to know, the guards search for the missing girl, and all is well.  Except Harun is incredibly shallow and superficial and only interested in Ayla’s clothes and status, so she rejects him and points out that she is much too young for marriage.  She instead reclaims her home, fixes her relationship with her stepsisters and begs Rumaysa to stay.  Rumaysa makes her excuses and is whisked away to a land that is being ruled by a man and his dragons.

Originally the land of Farisia is ruled by King Emad and Queen Shiva, but they have become unjust and disconnected from their people.  When Azra gets a chance to steal Princess Sara and take the kingdom, he does.  Rumaysa arrives to free a sleeping Sara from the dragon and restore apologetic and reformed leaders to the thrown.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I do like the spinning of familiar stories and either updating them, or twisting them, or fracturing them, so I am glad to see an Islamic cultural tinge available.  I feel like the first story was the strongest conceptually even if the details and morals weren’t well established.  The second story was strong in the messaging that Ayla, and any girl, is more than just a pretty dress, but the premise was a little shaky and not that different from the original.  The third story was a little lacking developmentally for me and all three I felt could have gone stronger in to the religion and culture without alienating readers or becoming heavy.  There are characters illustrated in hijab, some in saris, some in flowing robes. Princess Sara is noted to be a larger body type and I appreciated that in elevating the heroines, other’s weren’t put down.  Even within the book, there is diversity which is wonderful.  

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FLAGS:

There is lying and stealing with consequences.  “Shut up” is said.  There is magic, death, destruction, and a brief mention of an avian crush.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could see this being used in a classroom for a writing assignment to urge students to write their own tales.  I think it is fourth or fifth grade that children read fairytales from different points of view: think the three little pigs from the wolf’s perspective or the Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, and this book would lend itself easily to that lesson as well.

Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!

Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr: Traditions and Celebrations by Melissa Ferguson

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Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr: Traditions and Celebrations by Melissa Ferguson

This 2021 nonfiction middle grade book about Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr breaks sections down by key concepts and the use of stock image photographs. The information is fairly accurate, no major flags, just a few awkward stresses: that kids look for the moon, that meat is so important at iftar, but most of the information is conveyed well. There is a glossary, more books to check out, internet sites to visit, an index, and pronunciation guide. The Capstone published, 32 page book, shows diversity in the pictures- some women with hijab and some without, different skin tones as well, and while it might not be the most tempting book to pick up, the text is inviting for non Muslims to understand Ramadan and Eid, how to join their Muslim friends in being kind and forgiving, and answers a lot of questions in a straightforward manner. Muslim children will also enjoy seeing their beliefs explained in a positive manner to readers in a book that stays religion focused and doesn’t get distracted by culture.

The book sections are: What is Ramadan?, When is Ramadan?, What does Fasting Mean?, Suhoor, Iftar, The Qur’an and Prayer, Acts of Kindness, Ramadan at School, and Eid Al-Fitr. It starts by introducing a fictional character named Ayesha reading the Quran with her family. It is the start of Ramadan, a month of praying, fasting, spending time with loved ones, and trying to be better people.

It then explains the lunar calendar before discussing that fasting is a choice to not eat or drink from dawn until sunset. It also notes that children and the sick and elderly are not required to fast.

It talks about eating healthy foods early in the morning before praying the first prayer of the day. It details iftar being dates and water, followed by the sunset prayer and then a large meal after that.

It is very clear in explaining that Muslims believe it was during Ramadan that God began to teach Prophet Muhammad the Quran more than 1,400 years ago. It identifies our five prayers and that people can pray at home or in mosques and that children learn to pray with their parents as they grow up.

The book then becomes a little more unique as it gives time to the aspect of kindness in Ramadan. It gives examples of what Muslims do, from raising money and hosting large dinners, to buying and donating a toy. It even dedicates a whole page to children doing kind acts with little to no money: setting the table, making a card, smiling. It encourages non Muslims to join a Muslim friend in doing an act of kindness too.

The next section, is similarly unique in talking about Ramadan at school and how often at school we learn about different religions in our neighborhood. It gives bulleted suggestions on how to learn about Ramadan in school and how to say Ramadan greetings. The book concludes with Eid Al-Fitr and coming back to Ayesha and her family celebrating.

Eid al-Fitr: Festivals Around the World by Grace Jones

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Eid al-Fitr: Festivals Around the World by Grace Jones

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NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! Seriously, astagfiraAllah! This 24 page middle grades non fiction book about Islam and Eid published in 2018 with smart-board connections and QR scan media enhancements on its surface would seem to be a great classroom all-in-one to learn about the basics of celebrations, Islam, Ramadan, and Eid.  BUT, NO! The information is all sorts of off, and there is an illustration depicting Prophet Muhammad (saw).  How is this sort of ignorance even possible? This isn’t even a Karen Katz My First Ramadan depiction where you can possibly argue and stretch that it isn’t a depiction of the Prophet, but just of the people.  Every picture in the book is a photograph, except on the page talking about the first revelation, it is an illustration and there are no other people on the page, just a picture of the Quran.  I encourage you all to see if your public library shelves the book and ask them to pull it. ****UPDATE: My library pulled it, and the publisher has halted sales of it. Alhumdulillah! We must remember we can use our voices to make a differences, that people are receptive and willing, not always, but we won’t know unless we try.  ****

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The book covers nine topics on two page spreads ranging from the generic what is a festival, to what is Islam to prayer and worship and festival food.  The book has a little girl Noor that pops up on pages to tell you how to say a word and has a glossary with her definitions at the end.  Even the definitions at the end about the foods are wrong, they seem to have switched ma’amoul and sheer khurma.  To it’s credit the book has a photographs of a lot of diverse Muslims celebrating Ramadan and Eid, unfortunately so much is wrong, from little things saying that “Sheer Khurma is traditionally eaten for breakfast during Eid,” to “Muhammad spread Allah’s words to other people by writing them down in a holy book…”.  

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It has in quotes that a voice from the sky called to Muahmmad, “You have been chosen to hear Allah’s words.”  This quote and its source are nor footnoted or referenced, clearly they are not from surah Al Alaq.  I’m not sure where they are getting this from.  There are no salutaions after Rasulallah’s name nor is Prophet before it.

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Other informative sentences are vague and suggest misinformation.  It says that we believe in Allah and pray to him in a mosque, which yes is fine, but we also pray to him in other places five times a day and the way it is worded, I don’t think that would be understood.  I feel like the role of the imam is also overly elevated in the book.  The takeaway I assume would be that only an Imam can lead a prayer and we must always pray in a mosque.  

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Ultimately the biggest problem I have in the book is the depiction of our beloved Prophet.  I can forgive that they assume eating a random dish for Eid is religious and not just cultural, but I can’t forgive such basic ignorance in a book that presumably is trying to teach about a faith to reduce ignorance and misunderstandings.

 

Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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This is the first book in a new middle grades nonfiction series and is Adama Bah telling her own story about being detained as a 16 year old and falsely accused of being a suicide bomber.  A story that sounds like a movie plot is painfully real and terrifying and hearing it in her own words is powerful and impactful.  The writing is very basic in its linear format and straightforward presentation of the experience through her eyes.  It is not sensationalized or overly explanatory about how this situation came to be, how she got out of it, or what the family had to go to to find lawyers and pay for them, for example.  It is how she felt, what she understood at the time, and how the experience shaped her.  While the writing style is sufficient for middle grades, her story is intense.  A big part of her experience is being strip searched, exposed, and seeking asylum to avoid female circumcision.  The 128 page book is a great way to show the realities of our world.  It took place in the 2000, the recent past, to a New York teenager that enjoyed different colored sneakers, chatting with her friends, and spending time with her family, no different than the readers picking up her story to read.

SYNOPSIS:

Adama was born in Conakry, Guinea in 1988 and moved to America as a child.  She attended public school until high school when she was then sent to an Islamic boarding School in Buffalo, New York.  Her family was not particularly religious, but Adama become more visibly Muslim returning home after the attacks on September 11, wearing niqab and wondering why she was being treated with such hostility at the airport.  As she resumes her education in public school, she slowly makes the choice to take off her niqab, while maintaining her hijab and modest clothing.  In 2005 she and her father are taken in to custody early in the morning from their home and detained.  During the questioning at 16 years old, Adama learns that she is not a legal US citizen.  Her father is separated from her, to be deported, and she is moved to Pennsylvania as the youngest person swept up in a terrorist roundup.  She is being accused of being a potential suicide bomber and is detained for six weeks before a plea deal is brokered.  She will wear an ankle monitor for three years and have a nightly curfew.  During this time she is responsible to care for her family as her father has been returned to Guinea, her mother speaks very little english and she has four younger siblings.  Even after the bracelet is removed she finds herself still on no-fly lists and finally after one more time being denied and detained at the airport, she sues the Attorney General, FBI Director, and the Director of the Terrorist Screening Center. When they learn of this they offer to remove her from the no-fly list if she withdraws her case. She is granted asylum and while she had to drop out of school, she dreams of going back.  She has since married, her dad has been able to return to America, and she continues to study Islam and believe that things could have been worse.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is her story, from her eyes and perspective, but I worry that some of the details are misplaced.  She details enjoying talking bad about the government with a friend after she is released knowing that they are listening in, but maintains that she is constantly in fear of being returned to jail and that she considers America her home.  I’m not saying all of those things can’t be true and co exist, but some additional context would help the choppiness in this example and others.  I appreciated that the genital mutilation was clearly attributed to culture and not religion, I think when others tell stories about cultural and religious practices they often conflate the two.  I wish there was more information about where this mysterious list came from, what happened to the Bengali girl that was taken, how the Islamic community reacted.  The story is powerful and moving, and readers will be drawn in as they see themselves in her.  There are also questions at the end that help connect readers to her situation, and the reality that this is the unjust world we live in and can easily be consumed by as she nearly was.

FLAGS:

Detailing a strip search, detailing taking off her clothes, having orifices checked, and using the bathroom in the open.  There is talk of female circumcision although it doesn’t define it explicitly.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think in a high school Social Studies class or current events discussion this book would be a great topic to explore and voice to highlight.  The book is short and can be read very quickly.  It is an important story to know, to learn from, to sympathize with, and be acutely aware of for people of all ages.

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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Usually when a book leaves me with a lot of questions, it is because the author’s writing was incomplete or flawed, this book however, left me with a lot of questions and I’m certain the author did this deliberately. Hence, I don’t know to be irritated or impressed that I care enough about the characters to want to know more. Considering I’m still emotionally attached to the two alternating voices in the book, I’m going to claim the latter, and just be grateful that I was privy to follow the two girls for 288 pages and let the impression the book left me with overpower the curiosity I have to know everything about their past and their futures. This middle grades read is absolutely wonderful and emotionally gripping. I think all kids will have a hard time forgetting the story and characters, and more importantly I think over time they will recall and re evaluate their own thoughts regarding the personal weight of school shootings, gun ownership, sibling loss, responsibility, and maybe even the possibility of time travel. I know this book will stay with me for a long time. This amazing, half-Middle-Eastern half-American author in her OWN voice book somehow manages to discuss a school shooting without being political or preachy and the result is memorable, heartbreaking, and powerful.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in alternating 12 year old voices: Quinn and Cora are neighbor girls that used to be best friends until Quinn’s brother stole his father’s guns and shot and killed students at his school before committing suicide. One of the classmates he killed was Cora’s older sister Mabel. It has been nearly a year since the incident, and since the girls last spoke, but on Cora’s 12 birthday, Quinn leaves a box on her door.

Cora is whip smart and grieving. She lives with her dad, a professor and immigrant from Lebanon who speaks little about his culture or religion to his kids, even though the kids want to know about their heritage and do identify as Arab American Muslims. She also lives with her grandma, her mom’s mom, despite the fact that her mom has left them. It never tells where she went or what happened, which I desperately wanted to know, but Cora doesn’t miss her, because Cora doesn’t remember her, and the family dynamic seemed to be working until Mabel is gunned down. The loss of Mabel is palpable as Cora recalls that she will one day be older than her older sister, and refuses to pack up or touch anything on her side of the room. Cora is in counseling and seems to have a supportive network of friends in her Junior Quiz bowl team, but she misses Quinn even though she can’t forgive her.

Quinn’s chapters begin with a small letter to her brother Parker: what she wants to say, what she feels, questions, memories, anger, disappointment, despair. They are short, but haunting and heartbreaking. Quinn’s home life is fraught with guilt and blame. Her mother has quit work and her father is always working. Her parents fight, a lot. Her mom blames her dad for owning the guns, her dad wants to move to give them all a fresh start, it isn’t pretty. Quinn often has a hard time getting her words out at the speed she wants, she calls it freezing. As a kid, Cora would help, but without Cora and with no one in the house willing or ready to listen to Quinn, Quinn is often left alone. At school Quinn is largely ignored as no one wants to be around the sister of the mass shooter, so she doesn’t try out for soccer, she has no friends, and no one to talk to get the help she so desperately needs.

Quinn has an idea about how to fix everything, and that is what is in the box. She is convinced that if she can go back in time, she can make everything right. The only problem is, she doesn’t understand all the science and needs Cora’s help. Together the two girls work to figure out a way to find a wormhole and fix the damage that occurred. Along the way the girls realize how much they need each other to heal, and the role forgiving yourself has in the process as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am shocked at how deftly the book talks about a school shooting without talking about a school shooting. It is how the families feel in the day to day acts that follow a year later and how the girls are trying to carry on with the limited tools that exist for individuals dealing with the aftermath of such an act of terror. It doesn’t go in to the 2nd Amendment rights or detail the lack of legislation to curb such acts, it really stays on the two girls. The hope of finding a wormhole is really farfetched and perhaps unrealistic, but they are so desperate to believe, to find a way to make things right, that you hope for their sake that they are successful.

It is amazing to see from the sister of a shooter the isolation and pain she endures. I don’t know that I’ve really ever considered the larger families of the shooter when your heart is so devastated for the families of the victims. Occasionally you hear about the parents, but what about the siblings, cousins, distant relatives?

I desperately wanted to know where Cora and Mabel’s mom went. I was tempted to contact the author since it really was gnawing at me. I also wanted some answers as to why Parker did what he did, what hate he was spewing online, what were the signs, did he single out Mabel for being Muslim, while also appreciating that there is no satisfactory answers for any violence of this magnitude in fiction or real life.

Cora knows nothing of Islam and kind of wants to, I felt like this could have been explored a tiny bit more. Not in that she has to be religious, but I feel like after such a life altering event such as death, religion and what happens when one dies usually comes up and a person decides they are satisfied with an answer or not. The story isn’t in the immediate aftermath of dealing with the shock, but rather is a little after the event to presumably not have to deal with the raw emotion, and can focus on the pain and strength that comes with finding a new normal. I’d like to imagine at some point perhaps Cora and her dad talked about what happens after death, but the text doesn’t suggest that it was an issue of concern. She does wonder if Mabel was killed for being Muslim and asks Quinn about it. Quinn never defends or justifies what her brother does, nor does she pretend to know, she is grieving too. She is irritated that people try and define her religiosity to make themselves feel better and she does say the family occasionally fasts, makes duas, and they always celebrate Eid.

She talks a bit more about wanting to know more Arabic, saying that if you are 50% Arab you should at least know 50 words, and she only knows five. She wants to hear about her father’s life growing up, and know that side of her. It mentions that he wanted her to feel like she belonged in America, but I’d love to know more. Maybe what happened to his family, what brought him to America, why they opted not to give them more cultural names, etc..

I also enjoyed the slight science thread. It seems the author used to teach science and I love that the scientific method and various random facts find their way into the story.

POSSIBLE FLAGS:

The book talks about death, killing, suicide, and gun violence, but doesn’t relive the chain of events or detail what happened exactly. Quinn and another friend have crushes on boys in their class. There is a Fall Festival that the kids dress up for, but it isn’t called Halloween, and there is no mention of it. The book opens with Quinn’s birthday.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely read this as a middle school book club selection. It is engaging and gripping and a great book to have as an introduction to hard conversations with children. The author has a note at the beginning about her own children doing active shooter drills and having to face this real fear, and I think kids talking about it through fiction is a powerful tool to get them thinking and talking.

Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

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This book is a great OWN voice, middle grade coming of age book that rings with truth and hope in its poetic lines that sweep you up and keep you cheering.  Over 352 pages the author’s semi-autobiographic story of coming to Peachtree City, Georgia from Karachi, Pakistan beautifully unfolds.  I absolutely loved this book and the way it is told, in verse.  The details, often small, ring with such sincerity that even those that have never moved to a new country, or been to a new school will feel for young Nurah Haqq and be inspired by her success, touched by her hardships, and disappointed in her mistakes.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nurah’s best day is spent on the beach with her best friend Asna, playing in the warm waves and riding camels.  However it ends up also being her worst day, when she returns home to her father’s news that they are moving to America.  Strong, confident Nurah who spends time with her grandparents, swimming with her older brother Owais, and excelling at math in school is reluctantly leaving it all behind to start anew.

When they arrive in Georgia the family of four settles in a hotel until they find a house.  Everything is different and new, and the transition with no friends and family difficult for the entire family.  The way words are pronounced, the way the air feels and the birds chirp all make Nurah long for home.  When they find a swimming pool at the rec center, things start to slowly change.  Owais was a medal winner in Karachi, and will be one here too, people start admiring him, and Nurah tries to bask in his light.

School starts and math is a relief, but people are white, so white, and a boy reaches out to shake her hand.  She feels betrayed that she has been told the schools in America are better, and lunchtime, with no one to sit by is a huge stress.  She questions her clothing, her appearance, and the weather.

Her and Owais try out for the swim team and make it, and Nurah makes her first friend, Stahr. Stahr lives a few houses down from their new house and when Nurah’s mom has a miscarriage, it is Stahr’s mom who comes to show support and give comfort.  The support is reciprocated when Stahr and her mom need help escaping from her abusive father.

As Nurah works to win swimming races and be more like her brother, she works to find her voice and use it to defend others and herself.  A terrorist attack committed by someone claiming to be Muslim sets the family up to be targets.  In a moment of jealousy, Nurah doesn’t intervene to help her brother and the consequences are huge.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the details and how they are articulated.  I related to so much of Nurah’s feeling and impressions, that I reached out to the author and found her to be just as endearing as her character.  The feeling of being different when swimming because of your decision to be modest, the role of food to comfort you and make you feel at home, the older brother that you so desperately want to resemble and be like: All of it hit close to home for me.  I love how religion and culture are so much a part of the story and about the character’s identity, not to be made preachy, just to understand her and her experiences.  She goes to the masjid, she prays, she starts to wear hijab. I love how she finds her voice and defends those that can’t, but that her path is not easy.  She makes mistakes and she has to challenge herself to do what is right.  The backdrop is always trying to “settle” in a new place, but the story has it’s own plot points that are interesting and simply made more impactful by Nurah’s unique perspective.

There are lots of little climaxes and victories for Nurah that show her to be well-rounded and relatable.  You cheer for her early on and enjoy the journey.  The only slight hiccup I felt was the name confusion of her Nana and Nani (Nana), it is explained, but it was a little rocky for me, it might be based on a real thing in her family, but once that is resolved, the book flows beautifully and smoothly.

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FLAGS:

Nothing a 3rd/4th grader would find alarming, but none-the-less:

Crushes: Nurah has a crush on a boy at school when he shakes her hand and picks her for a lab partner, but she moves on from him while still maintaining a crush on her brother’s friend Junaid.  Nothing happens, she just thinks they are cute.

Miscarriage: Her mother has a miscarriage and it details a blighted ovum and the mental strain on the mom and family in the aftermath.

Abuse: Stahr’s father is abusive

Hate: There are bullies, discrimination, physical violence.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is a little below level for my middle school book club, but I think it it was on a bookshelf and a middle schooler picked it up, they wouldn’t set it down until they were done reading it.

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

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Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

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This graphic novel jammed pack with sleuthing, friendship, and diversity is perfect for ages 8 and up.  The inclusive cast shows motive and growth keeping anyone from being entirely good or completely villainous and strikes a wonderful balance of insight, community building, and relatable fun.  From the main character’s mom wearing hijab, and random hijabis in the background panels, to characters of color, and characters with social obstacles, there are also bullies, cancer survivors, a character with two moms, working parents, and a missing gecko all coming together over 221 pages to leave the reader waiting for the next book in the series.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamila has just moved to the neighborhood and with older brothers as role models, she just wants to spend her summer shooting hoops and taking it easy.  Her mom, on the other hand, wants to send her off to science camp.  Shirley, is incredibly perceptive and wants to spend her summer solving neighborhood crimes, the ones adults won’t or can’t help with, but her mother has signed her up for dance camp.  When the girls cross paths at a yard sale, Shirley uses her wits to convince her mom and Jamila’s mom to let them spend the summer together at the basketball courts, thus both girls get what they want.  The two girls aren’t exactly friends, but the arrangement benefits them both, and the days go smoothly, until a gecko goes missing and Shirley and Jamila have to decide to break their parents’ rules to leave the courts and venture to the swimming pool to investigate.  Jamila and Shirley hit a snag in their understanding of one another and realize they want to be friends, something neither of them currently have.  As they work Oliver and Vee’s case to find Enoch the gecko, the reader meets lots of neighborhood characters, from life guards to daycare informants.  And as the clues come together so do a group of kids, all needing friendship, kindness, and a little understanding.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the Nancy Drew, Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown, vibe of the story.  It is funny and plausible and about so much more than just the case.  It is quick and well drawn, and really just a joy overall.  I love the diversity and teamwork and innocence of a summer and some good old fashion kids using their brains to save the day.

Other than the mom wearing a scarf when out of the home and a few hijabis in the background there is no textual mention of religion.  The mom at one point says something in Urdu and the family has Muslim names.

FLAGS:

One of the side characters mentions that she has two moms.  It is mentioned once, it isn’t dwelled on, and in many ways I think a great way to explain to your kids, if they mention it, that they might have friends and classmates with different family structures.  I love that fiction allows for this conversations to occur in the abstract so to speak, you can guide your children how to handle these differences while talking about fictional characters, and imparting your families view of such matters in an open and hopefully non judgmental or hateful way.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

As always with graphic novels, they just aren’t the best format for book clubs as they are usually quick reads.  The target audience for this is middle grades as well and while middle schoolers might enjoy it, they would read it in less than a half an hour and there really wouldn’t be much to discuss once the case is solved.  I would highly recommend checking your local public library for the book, that is where I found my copy, and happy reading!

A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

This middle grade, 330 page book is an easy read that touches on concepts of change within friendships and families with the back drop of life in a coastal town, finding courage, and Islamaphobia. While early middle school readers might find the book a bit predictable and cliche’, the characters, lessons, and fluid storytelling would still make the book worth their time.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Izzy spends her summer days in Rhode Island on her skiff mapping out the floor of the pond that runs next to the ocean. Fearful of the open ocean, she is, however, confident and independent in her abilities to navigate the calmer water and understand what is beneath the surface. Her father has recently returned from Afghanistan and with his post traumatic stress disorder making him angry and not the same as before. Izzy is further thrown into turmoil when the family moves out of their house and into the marina, her mother extends her already summer long absence to Block Island and middle school at a new regional school is about to start. As always she hopes to lean on her fellow sea stars, Zelda and Piper, best friends since kindergarten, however, things with them don’t quite seem the same either. Add in that her father’s translator from Afghanistan and his family have just moved in upstairs with their two young boys and 11 year old daughter Sitara, and Izzy has a lot to handle and navigate.

Piper and Zelda decide to take television production class first period to make sure they have at least one class together, Izzy is incredibly shy and while she appreciates that this has all been arranged she isn’t confident that it is a good fit for her. Dragged along, as it seems she often is by her much more confident friends, It is arranged that Sitara will also be in the class. Right away Piper and Zelda decide that they don’t like Sitara and her hijab and her “different-ness” and exclude her and by extension Izzy from their lives. As Sitara and Izzy get closer and start to learn from one another, Piper and Zelda lash out and go from ignoring to being mean to Izzy and Sitara. Sitara explains to people on the announcement show why she covers and helps Izzy to understand that her father was in danger after helping the Americans and that they had to leave Afghanistan. The anniversary of 9/11 however, turns many students into verbally berating Sitara and her having her hijab pulled off in the lunchroom. When Izzy figures out that her former sea stars were involved in the planning she is devastated and must take the lessons from Sitara and her Czech Grandma to have more courage than fear, find her voice, and do something to make things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Izzy has a lot going on in her life and in many ways Sitara has been through a lot, allowing them to encourage each other to keep moving forward. There are some parallels in losing their homes and dealing with change that they comfort each other with, but the two characters combined show readers that strength and bravery occurs when you are afraid, and that most people aren’t truly fearless. I really feel for Izzy, her friends may have been there for her on occasion, but by and large they seem kind of dismissive of her and her fears. I think she sees them as equal, but I don’t get the feeling that they see her that way, they may be protective of her, but they kind of bully her in to doing what they want. Every few chapters is a flashback to a pivotal point in the sea stars friendship and even before Sitara enters the dynamic, I started to question Piper and Zeldas sincerity. Their best friend just moved, her dad came back from serving in Afghanistan, and her mom is not coming home, they should be concerned, not belittling her for liking art and wearing old clothes. The mom is another painful plot point, like lady I get that you have stuff going on in your life, but really you are just going to leave your child? Ya, I wasn’t a fan of hers.

I like that the story addresses Islam and Islamaphobia, and while it is very much in the story, it isn’t really about it. Izzy is front and center, and even she takes a while to warm up to Sitara. I love that it shows what Afghanis that helped fight against the Taliban went through and how painful it is for them to resume life after doing so. I think this point is so lost in mainstream understanding whenever there is a terrorist attack, that this is what the refugees are leaving, that people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are running from, and when they get called terrorist it hurts that much more, because their whole lives and people they care for have suffered from the real terrorists.

I really wish there was a map, I wanted to visualize better the breachway and had I not lived in Rhode Island for a few years I probably wouldn’t have understood Block Island’s location to to the mainland. Like with so many middle grade novels I wish there was some more depth to the characters, but I truly appreciated that there wasn’t a completely happy ending, and that growth occurred in so many characters, but at different rates. It really made it clear that we all need to continuously work to get to know one another, find our voice, our courage, and be willing to change.

FLAGS:

Clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but I think this would be a great recommendation for those that do. There is a lot to discuss and explore that kids can relate to. The majority of the characters are female, but I think the themes are universal enough that boys will enjoy the book as well. I’m confident all readers will learn something new about sea stars and possibly even television production in this sweet story.

A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

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A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

This 320 page middle grade novel with alternating point of view chapters engulfs you like a warm genuine hug. It does not have a clear climax, it is predictable, and some characters and cultural touch points could have used more detail, but honestly, I couldn’t put it down. As a half American kid who spent my summers in Karachi, so much of the author’s love of her homeland flows so effortlessly from the pages and took me back to my childhood and how the transformation of comparing the two countries moves to seeing the best in both causes growth within your heart and makes leaving so devastatingly hard. Readers of all backgrounds will seamlessly fall in to the story and enjoy the growth of the main characters, while learning a bit about a culture and the similarities of people.

SYNOPSIS:

The back drop is the sweltering heat of a Karachi summer in the middle of elections. Mimi, Maryam, is visiting Pakistan for the first time in her life. It is her mother’s home land, but her grandparents, and her mom aren’t close. They didn’t approve of Mimi’s dad and mom getting married, and even though they have been divorced for years and he has left, Mimi’s mom hasn’t been home in 12 years.

Sakina narrates the other chapters. She is the daughter of Mimi’s grandparent’s cook. She dreams of going to school, but needs help with her English to pass the admissions test. And even if she passes her family needs her income to survive, and her father’s failing health means that she has to take over his job too.

When Mimi arrives at her grandparents home, it is awkward at best. She doesn’t really know her grandparents, she has never had servants before, and her mother is rarely around. That leaves her to get to know Sakina. Sakina finds this odd as the owners of the home rarely “chat” with her and here this American girl wants to get to know her and is fine with helping in the kitchen. The two strike a tentative friendship as Mimi agrees to help Sakina with her english, and Sakina with the permission of Mimi’s grandmother and with the use of the driver, agrees to show her some of the city.

As Mimi takes in the traditional tourists sites she gives Sakina her first taste of ice cream and soda and other “luxuries” she has never experienced. Sakina introduces her to bun kabobs and other local foods. The budding friendship isn’t smooth, mostly because Mimi constantly compares Pakistan to America and Sakina doesn’t understand why Mimi doesn’t have a father. When the girls find out that Mimi’s dad, a journalist, is in Karachi covering the elections, the girls work together to try and find him.

Throughout all of this, Mimi keeps a journal and the entries are letters to her father.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the girls have to navigate their friendship without and often despite interference from adults. I also like that while societal wise one girl is seen as economically privileged and one is not, the book gives enough for even elementary aged children to see that in America Mimi and her mom are financial struggling, but in Pakistan they are not and how that disparity is arbitrary. They also see that family and safety and security are also a part of life’s quality and not country specific. Things that one girl takes for granted are envied by the other, and it goes both ways.

Even for a middle grades book, there were some plot holes. If Mimi had been late night googling and plotting on a secret map all the places her dad had been writing articles from, she should have had a heads up about Pakistan. She knows so little about Islam and has like one shelwar kamees, so it seems a bit of a stretch that she speaks urdu pretty proficiently. I feel like some stumbling with the language or some back story on that would have been great.

Religion is handled as a cultural touch point, neither girl prays, but both find solace in visiting a masjid. Various characters are in sleeveless tops, the athan is heard in the back ground. I wish there would have been a bit more finding of Islam as Mimi found her culture too, but alas it isn’t there.

The majority of the book takes place within the grandparent’s home with the elections being a big part of why they can’t go out, yet the mom goes out a lot, which really rubbed me the wrong way. She took her daughter shopping once to meet an old friend and that is it. Who travels across the world to spend zero time with her kid. I didn’t like the mom at all, and wish there was some background or even some growth on her part. A lot of the minor characters seemed to fizzle as well in terms of having some depth.

There are some cultural and country facts at the end of the book, but within the text I was surprised that more wasn’t shared. I like that it mentioned Karachi was the original capital, but it should have also in the same sentence mentioned that Islamabad is the current, I think readers would assume that Karachi is still the capital of Pakistan.

The book is an OWN voice through and through and the value of that is felt in every sentence. It isn’t all positive and rosy, but it is genuine. The author loves what she is writing about and it shines through leaving the reader with a favorable sense of Pakistan: the country, the culture and the people.

FLAGS:

The book is clean, possibly some tense moments when Sakina’s family is robbed. There is also discussion of marrying someone your parents don’t approve of, divorce, and Mimi’s mom possibly having a boyfriend. Mimi’s mom is an artist and paints pictures of people. There is lying and scheming.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think the book would be a fine choice for an elementary book club, I think any one older will find the book a tad bit predictable. I plan to have my children read it so we can discuss points of view, experiences, universal traits and social economic classes. There are a lot of wonderful lessons wrapped up in a heartfelt story that I can see 4th and 5th grade children benefiting from over and over again.