Tag Archives: middle grades

The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

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This 295 page middle grades AR 4.8 book is a fast passed romp through New York City as two 12-year-old kids explore freedom and fear in a new city while grappling with their own sense of identity and what it means.  The OWN Voice story features immigration, chronic disease, family, bravery, and friendship.  There is lying and avoiding police, sneaking and “borrowing” a horse, but it is all for a good cause, and third grade and up will enjoy this read.  There is very little religion in it, but the main character does say salam, notice the similarities between amen and ameen, and reference eid as his holiday. 

SYNOPSIS:

Jason D, known only to his mom and aunt as Shah, was named by a nurse when his mom wanted to make sure he had an American sounding name, and his middle initial D is for December, which comes from her staring at a calendar when asked if she wanted her son to have a middle name.  Life is fairly simple, he enjoys sneaking on to the roof of his apartment building to imagine training pigeons, his mom works at a dry cleaners, they walk where they need to go, money is tight, but they do ok, and his dad passed away before he was born.  His mom is from Afghanistan, but he doesn’t speak much Dari and his mom speaks English, but not confidently.  On her birthday as they are about to enjoy a cupcake he saved up for, the news in the background is covering protestors chanting for illegal immigrants to go home, and Jason’s mom starts to tell him about how she ended up overstaying her visa and  is living in the US illegally.  

Jason’s dad worked with the US military in Afghanistan and with his work came the promise of visas to America for him and for his wife to study.  Many of the locals though didn’t like that he was cooperating and vowed to take their revenge.  With the family in the US and Jason’s mom starting to study medicine, Jason’s dad had one more job in Afghanistan and sadly was killed by anti American Afghans.  Fearful to return, she chose to stay, but with a new baby, few resources, no family and friend support, eventually she was forced to drop out of school and remain undocumented knowing that to return would be at great peril to her and her son.  At some point she befriends an Indian lady, Seema and to Jason, she is Aunt Seema, the only family other than his mother that he knows.  

When a few weeks later Jason sees his mother being taken away by two officers, he knows that this is what she warned him about when she told him the truth about her legal standing.  Terrified and alone, Jason only knows that somehow he has to get to New York to Aunt Seema so that they can figure out how to save his mom.  He grabs a few pictures of his father, whatever money he can find a broken address and heads to the big apple from New Jersey.

Having never been to NYC or really out of his hometown, he loses his backpack to a dog, and struggles to figure out how to get a ticket to get in to the city.  When he arrives at Penn Station he is overwhelmed and exhausted and passes out, hitting his head, and landing himself in the hospital.  

When he awakens he is met by doctors making sure he is ok, and police trying to locate his parents, he opts to pretend he has amnesia and can’t remember anything.  This buys him time, and also acquaints him with Max, a girl with wires coming out of her head and who claims they are running tests on her to understand her level of genius.

The two hit it off and hitch a plan to escape the locked hospital floor, have a day of adventure in the city, and get Jason D to his aunts house.  Naturally this plan is going to have all sorts of obstacles, but thats the story and that is where the fun and discovery unfolds.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was impressed at how emotionally cathartic the conclusion was.  I hadn’t realized how invested I had become in these two kids and their run through the city.  It was touching, and heartfelt, and a big sigh of relief when it all wrapped up.  I like that both kids are so very different, yet dealing with similar thematic issues from different perspectives.  Max is an epileptic and is kept on a short chain to ensure her safety. She is trying to find and define who she is outside of the medical diagnosis.  Jason is trying to understand if he can be American and Afghan and what that means about where he belongs, and where home is.  There is a lot that they ponder over as they run through central park and the zoo, duck into subways, and get all sorts of turned around on the streets.  Through it all though the kids show just how clever and smart they both are with the quick thinking, riddle solving abilities, and perpetual optimism.  It is at times far fetched, stealing a horse and bumping in to your doctor in the New York City Marathon, and at other times completely plausible, sneaking in to a zoo with a field trip group and ducking through turnstiles to get on the subway.

FLAGS:

Lying, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This is a bit young for even early middle school readers, but would make a great addition to a summer reading list.  I think kids will marvel at the riddles and determination of the two protagonists and imagine a world where kids could maybe get away with such a bold adventure.

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published.  The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away.  This book unfortunately really fell flat.  I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps.  This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why.  The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me.  It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.

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SYNOPSIS:

Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh.  Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors.  Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way.  Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts.  Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist.  Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening.  Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer.  When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income.  At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves.  Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English.  A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength.  It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should.  The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab.  Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned.  The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected.  I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.

I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like.  I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira.  How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t.  I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings.  I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing.  It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading.   I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either.  If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.

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FLAGS:

Fairly clean.  There is bullying and mention of death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club.  It is a solid middle grade read.  Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya.  Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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This middle grades AR 4.5 OWN voice book by Muslim author/comedian/surgeon/activists Bassem Youssef mixes text, comic strips, and illustrations over 166 pages to tell a story about ancient Egypt, friendship, leadership, xenophobia, and life sprinkled with magic.  It has a lot of potential, and I liked the lessons that Egyptian-American Nadia learns, but it just seemed lacking to me.  It seems to be book one in a series, and in many ways it reads like an introduction.  The magical element is underdeveloped to me and often just annoying.  The micro aggressions,  racism, and character’s ages would suggest upper middle grader readers would gravitate toward the book, but the overall writing style and length would more appeal to younger readers.  This disconnect makes the book hard to pin down and hard to connect with.  I’ll definitely check out future books in the series even though no religion is mentioned, because this brown girl has a lot of potential to break down Arab-American stereotypes and empower readers to be proud of where they and their families are from as universal obstacles are worked through.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nadia has just come back from a summer vacation visiting family and friends in Egypt and can’t wait to get ice cream with her best friend Adam.  She picked up an Egyptian comic book for him and is anxious to see if he likes it.  Except the comic book seems to have disappeared and when she asks her many bobble heads to help her find it, her necklace with a hippo amulet starts to glow and an ancient Egyptian teacher, Titi, starts talking to her from the now found comic book pages.  As Nadia figures out how to control this ancient man who lives around her neck and in papers around her, she also has to deal with a new kid that acts like a bully and has the admiration of her best friend Adam.  Nadia loves facts and her and her friends call themselves the Nerd Patrol.  Nadia can be a bit bossy though, and while usually her friends let it go, she seems to be stepping on toes lately, especially with Adam.  When a competition at school is announced that will result in an exhibit at the Museum of American History, Nadia will have to use her “genie” to get help coming up with ideas for her display, coping with a bully, restoring friendships, and learning how to be a leader before her friendships fall apart.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nadia is so proud of her culture and doesn’t feel like she has to pick one of her hyphens over another.  She brings Egyptian food for lunch, wears Egyptian inspired clothing, and is still very “American” as well.  Ancient Egyptian tidbits as well as modern day Egyptian information seeps through and weaves into the story smoothly.  The  diverse side characters are also a plus.  I think her trying to handle the bully in multiple ways makes the story resonate with other kids and gives readers something to ponder over.  I worry that most readers, however, won’t know who Elvis Presley is, or get if Titi is really helping or not and how it all comes together for him.  I am curious to see if he is a major character in future books, because I still have a lot of questions about his knowledge and understanding of the world after being trapped in an amulet for so long. Really, she could have learned so much from him, she just scratched the surface.

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FLAGS:

There is teasing and bullying and racism, subtle and overt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short and superficial for a middle school book club selection, but it could be a fun read aloud in a 3rd or 4th grade class.

Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an  Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky illustrated by Hanna Barczyk

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At 40 pages, this biography about Pakistani born artist Shahzia Sikander is filled with culture and experiences.  The story shows the influences of her family, the city of Lahore, her love of math, and her art education have in shaping her in to the artist she is today.  The book features photographs of her work at the end, but I found it odd that she didn’t illustrate the book herself.  The playful blocky pictures and text would appeal to first or second graders with some assistance, but would be better suited for readers a bit older if they are unfamiliar with some of the cultural and artistic vocabulary.  There is no mention of Islam in the book, when researching, it says her family is Muslim.  It seems she went to Catholic school, and a road trip was taken that included visiting the Sistine Chapel.  A few illustrations show people in hijab and it mentions the athan ringing out five times a day.  The book was interesting, but I wish I could have found it at the library, rather than purchasing it.  I don’t know that it will be read more than once, but that speaks more to personal preference, rather than the quality of the book. If you enjoy fine art, are from Lahore, are a fan of Shahzia Sikander’s work, you will definitely enjoy this book.

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The story starts with a girl stepping in to a painting with many rooms, filled with many people in a joint family.  It is her (Shahzia’s) home, and her family.  The rooms are filled with ancient fables, Russian fairy tales, poetry, English, Urdu, Bollywood songs, and American Westerns.

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Outside is the city of Lahore, in Pakistan, streets rich in smell and color and sound exist: orange jalebi and strings of jasmine, sounds of Qawwalis and pop music, the melodic call to prayer from the minarets.  As a child she plays cricket and climbs trees and flies kites.  Up on the roof she trains pigeons and looks out at the horizon.  

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When it gets hot, her family heads north.  They once traveled all the way to Rome.  She visited the Sistine chapel, her and Michelangelo share a birthday.

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At school she is shy. She loves math, as it is a tool to understand the world.  She finds she is also good at drawing birds, and people.  She studies miniatures with a magnifying glass.  Eventually training in miniature painting with a master.  Art becomes her ticket to new worlds.

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She heads off for America, taking her roots with her, but once she arrives she cannot leave.  Her passport is the wrong, color.  She lives in New York and cannot return to Pakistan for nine years.  Now she can travel and soar and share her work with the world.

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There is a glossary at the end and more information about Shahzia and her paintings.

 

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

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The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

elephantI have to admit this 240 page middle grade OWN voice book had me invested and glued to the pages.  I was swept away to Sri Lanka and in disbelief at the boldness, cleverness, and spunkiness of the Robin Hood-esque 12-year-old protagonist.  I could not put it down as my head worked over time to figure out how this trio of children, one being a Muslim girl, was going to get out of the heap of trouble they had caused.  Yes, admittedly it wraps up a bit too quickly and simply, the main character Chaya doesn’t learn her lesson and is a terrible friend, and there isn’t a good moral of lying and stealing being bad.  But all that aside, the book is a fun adventure that while written pretty straightforward and clearly, is rich in adventure, culture, and excitement for second to fourth grade readers (and 40 year old moms that love strong girls).

SYNOPSIS:

Chaya is the daughter of a tribal representative, whose mother has passed away.  She goes to school, attends the temple once a week to learn Sanskrit, and at dawn is known to steal things to give to those in need.  At night time, people are on guard, expecting trouble, but dawn seems to be the perfect time to take what she needs from people that won’t even notice.  The book starts out with her stealing jewels from the Queen with the hopes of helping a friend who was bitten by a crocodile get medical help in the next town over.  The people in Sarendib have an unjust king, and stealing from his wife to help take care of people that need assistant is a job Chaya takes seriously.  Her heart is in the right place, but when a guard sees her she stops to visit a friend who works in a wood shop to hide the jewels until the heat dies down.  The box they hide the stolen goods in is purchased by a young Muslim girl, and now Chaya has to steal them back from her to get them to people that are in need.

The chain of events is just getting started, and when the jewels are discovered the wood working Neel takes the blame and is imprisoned, and the new girl in town, Nour, is determined to help free Neel from prison and save the villagers from being tormented by the royal guards.  Chaya devises a plan to free Neel from the palace dungeons, but nothing ever quite goes to plan and all the prisoners are freed.   As she runs to escape her own doom, she steals an elephant to get away, the king’s elephant.

The entire story is a series of follies and at each turn the children have really good intentions, they just keep snowballing into situations beyond their control with the stakes constantly multiplying.  I really don’t want to give it away, but they might just bring down a monarchy as they tromp through the jungle on an elephant, accidentally burn down villages, and find that even though Nour is a wealthy meat eater, they can in fact be friends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is outrageous, yet grounded.  I was sucked in from the first few short chapters and didn’t look back.  Chaya is oh so plucky and her fallibility and flaws make her so endearing.  She is a bit of a mean girl to Nour, but I think she shows growth.  The slight raised eyebrow regarding her, is that she didn’t learn some grand lesson, and in fact is possibly emboldened by her thieving and getting away with it.  There probably should have been some humbling at the end, but she is bold and outspoken, and not one for regrets.  I absolutely love the letter she left her father owning up to her role in the whole hullaballoo, and as an afterthought acknowledging that she skipped two days of school.  She is a cheeky one, but her heart is huge and she has her own sense of integrity that is unwavering.

I like that Nour is acknowledged as being Muslim, eating meat, and going to mosques before she moved.  It doesn’t articulate that Chaya doesn’t like her for her faith, but it isn’t helping the two girls befriend each other either.  I love the elephant, and the plants, and fruits, and animals that bring the story to life.

FLAGS:

Lying and stealing. Some destruction of property.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can’t see me doing this as a book club selection, it is just too young of a target audience, but it would be a blast to read aloud to a second or third grade class, or to assign in a classroom setting.  The chapters are really short that early chapter readers will feel accomplished when they complete the book, and the subject matter will compel them to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

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The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Secret of the Himalayas by Adam Gidwitz and Hena Khan illustrated by Hatem Aly

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This middle grades 208 page book is part of a series, but this particular installment is co-authored by Hena Khan, takes place in Pakistan, and features Muslim side characters in the quest to find and protect the mythical, magical, and illusive unicorns.  The adventure is quick, the cultural and religious references sincere and appreciated, the characters quirky and fun, and the writing smooth and enjoyable.  I can’t speak for the whole series, but I think second to fourth grade readers will enjoy the eccentric teacher, the clever kids, and the knowledge about animals, culture, and geography that is woven in to the story to keep it engaging.  I don’t think you need to read the books in order, but I would encourage it.

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SYNOPSIS:

Elliot and Uchenna are elementary aged students and also members of the secret, Unicorn Rescue Society.  When a classmate starts a newspaper and interviews local businessman, the kids teacher, Professor Mito Fauna spots what he thinks is a unicorn horn in an accompanying picture and is determined to go and protect, once found, the imaginative creatures.  He enlists the kids and Jersey, a creature with a blue body, red wings, a goat face, clawed front legs and hooved hindlegs, to set off in his single propeller plane for the Himalaya mountains of Pakistan.

They arrive in Torghar, Pakistan and make a rough landing that nearly kills a local boy.  Alhumdulillah, Waleed is fine, and in true Pakistani and Islamic tradition the boy takes the visitors to his grandmothers home to be fed and welcomed.  Waleed agrees to help the Americans find a man known only as the “Watcher,” to see what he knows about unicorns and the hunters that come to poach for sport.

Hiking the mountains and getting short of breath makes each act that much more difficult, but alas the kids find the Watcher, aka Asim Sahib, but sadly *SPOILER* don’t find unicorns.  Rather a species of mountain goats, markhors, that have two long twisted magical looking horns. The wealthy businessman brothers also show up in their helicopter to capture, not kill the markhors.

The rescue society follows them and learn that the sinister brother are testing out the magical properties of a bezoar on pit viper bites.  Needless to say it doesn’t work and the rescue society must rescue the dying butler, and captured markhors.  All is not lost, even if they didn’t find any unicorns, at least they made new friends, and know that if they haven’t found the unicorns yet, hopefully no one else has either.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that there is praying, and thikr, and ayats from the Quran quoted and explained in the book regarding saving animals, caring for each other and trusting Allah swt.  There is culture regarding taking gifts, welcoming guests, drinking tea and even breaking stereotypes of what a boy from Lahore visiting his family in the mountains knows and doesn’t know.  It isn’t preachy on any accounts, but the messages relayed in their silly way are very well woven in and leave a wonderfully represented impression of Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan.

The diversity featured in the book is nice, even within the main characters: one is an African American girl, one a Jewish boy, and the teacher is Hispanic.  The story at the end, A History of The Secret Order of the Unicorns, takes place during the reign of Charlemagne at a monastery, and features a boy named Khaled and his little sister Lubna. It is clearly intentional and a reflection of the author and illustrator.

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FLAGS:

There are some possibly gross moments featuring the goats licking urine, tea being made from the markhors’ saliva and the near death of a man requiring venom to be sucked from his leg.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is definitely below a middle school book club level, but I think younger elementary teachers and parents would see students get hooked on the series and would benefit from having the books around.

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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!