Tag Archives: middle grades

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.

The Bee Tree by Stephen Buchmann and Diana Cohn illustrated by Paul Mirocha

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The Bee Tree by Stephen Buchmann and Diana Cohn illustrated by Paul Mirocha

bee treeThis is one of those books that it is hard to know who the target audience is and who would most enjoy the text heavy 40 pages about a boy coming of age in Malaysia by harvesting honey in a traditional manner.  The two page spread illustrations are rich and inviting, and with an AR 5.7 level, the book would work well for children that enjoy other cultures, honey, insects, or children that you hope will be inspired to start seeing the world a little differently than they are used to doing.

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The story starts with a boy talking about his grandfather and how every year he goes to collect the honey from the tualang trees.  The bees travel hundreds of miles and arrive just as the rainforest starts to bloom.  The trees that they build their nests in are higher than the eye can see and grandfather, known as Pak Teh, is the leader of the honey hunting clan.

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He tells everyone what their jobs will be: some will carry ropes, others pails, others torches.  One day, he tells them, someone will have to take his place as the one who climbs all the way up to the top to gather the honey.  He believes Nizam, the narrator, is the one.

To prove himself, Nizam has to practice climbing 120 feet into the sky.  Nizam and grandfather spend a lot of time together praying five times a day and walking through the dense rain forest.  He reminds Nizam that the forest doesn’t belong to them, but to the unseen protector. They enter the forest as if they are visiting a neighbors home.

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At night all the hunters sit together and Grandfather tells the traditional story of the bees.  A story that involves a beautiful servant girl named Hitam Manis who worked in the Sultan’s palace and how the Sultan’s son and her were in love.  When the Sultan found out he ordered the girl run out from the kingdom.  As she and her loyal friends fled she was hit by a metal spear.  She did not die, but her and her friends were magically transformed into a swarm of bees.  Because it was metal that harmed her, she ruled that metal was never allowed to touch the honey.  Hence, when the bee hunters harvest they use a bone knife, leather pouches, and a wooden ladder.

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When it is time to enter the forest, it is pitch dark with no moonlight.  The hunters tap their glowing torches against the trees sending light sparks to the ground to tempt the bees and leaving their nests free for Nizam to collect the honey from.  For seven nights they climb the trees, and then they return home.  With greetings of salam, peace be upon you, Grandfather informs the family that when he can no longer climb the tree, Nizam will carry on the tradition.

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The book ends with factual information about Malaysia, the rainforest, giant honey bees, honey hunters, and the future.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

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Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

 

 

 

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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A book meant for middle grades, 8-12 year olds, that has depth and layers and culture and strength is not something you find very often.  Over 275 pages, the book is at times dark and haunting, but what is truly remarkable is that it doesn’t talk down to young readers and with its pop cultural references and relate-ability,  the book is not dreary.  In fact, the true “haunting” occurs after the book is finished and the concepts of friendship, being alive, and forgiveness stick around and require thought and consideration.  The book is based on a Malyasian folktale, how much is a fleshing out, or simply a starting point, I do not know, but I do know that the characters are memorable, the concept thought provoking, the writing flawless, and the intertwining of Malay culture, Muslim characters and the supernatural, a combination that makes for an enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

When an old witch dies, her pelesit, her ghostly demon, is passed on to her granddaughter Suraya.  Suraya lives with her mother, a teacher, and is lonely and emotionally neglected.  An adventurous girl, the pelesit, keeps the small girl safe, but waits to reveal himself to her in the form of a grasshopper when she is older.  When he does reveal himself to her, she asks him his name, and he doesn’t know it, so she names him Pink.

Suraya and Pink become best friends, and he provides company for her as she receives very little from her mother and has no friends.  Suraya had no knowledge of her grandmother and Pink modifies the stories to leave out how evil, cruel and vindictive she was through him.  As an evil being with no heart these acts never bothered him, although he stopped enjoying them long before she died.  With Suraya however, he feels things.  He is sad that she is unloved by her mother, teased by the other children, and that she doesn’t have the things other kids have.  Suraya is kind, and forgiving, and tries so hard not to let things bother her.  Pink however, with a twitch of his antenna can make things happen.  Bad things.  Things that might at first seem like a part of life, but when Suraya catches on, she scolds Pink.  She makes him promise never to use his magic to hurt people, ever.  He reluctantly agrees, she is his master after all.  Unfortunately he doesn’t keep his promise.

On Pink’s prodding, Suraya makes friends with a new girl at school, Jing, and their friendship makes Pink jealous.  He harms Jing and Suraya decides she no longer wants to be his master.  As a result Pink is determined to make Suraya’s life miserable.  As desperation mounts, Suraya tells her mom about Pink and a pawang is called in to separate the spirit from Suraya.  Something seems off about the pawang, and when Suraya investigates, she realizes that she must save Pink from him.  Together with Jing, Pink and Suraya are off on an adventure against the pawang and might just learn more than Pink’s backstory in their efforts along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Suraya and her family are Muslim and that Jing is not and they are best friends.  Suraya and her family pray, celebrate Eid, give salams when at the graveyard, but obviously also believe in magic and ghosts, and somehow in the story it doesn’t seem to be contradictory or odd.  I love Suraya’s strength.  None of the relationships in her life are good.  Yet, she is good, and she forgives and fights to make those close to her better.  Pink is manipulative and controlling and abusive, but she still fights for him to be treated better and that says more about her, than whatever he is.  Suraya’s mom is distant and neglectful, but yet, there is still realistic hope that their future can be and will be better.  I love that all these layers are there and yet are subtle too.  Kids are smart and they will bring their own experiences, understanding, and expectations to decipher these relationships, and that is amazing.  I love that the characters in the story may be so different than the typical western reader, but they will still see themselves in this poor Malay girl from a small village, in her best friend Jing who lives and breathes Star Wars, or even in the religions pawang who is a power hungry charlatan; toxic friendships and family secrets make the book universal.

FLAGS:

Pink makes it look like blood is on a girls back side, implying a girls fear of leaking, but it isn’t explicit or named.  There is death and dying and supernatural and lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am thinking strongly about using this as a book club book, as the discussion would be delicious and varied among the participants.

Interview with the author: https://thequietpond.com/2020/08/20/our-friend-is-here-an-interview-with-hanna-alkaf-author-of-the-girl-and-the-ghost-on-writing-friendship-malaysian-childhoods-being-true-to-your-stories/

 

 

 

Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed

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Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed

dianaThis Wonder Woman story of Princess Diana as a young girl is not noteworthy because of its groundbreaking storytelling, but more for the fact that the series and story is by a Pakistani-American Muslim author.  I am not sure how authors are assigned or chosen to  write these reimagined character series, but I think it is a great compliment to her writing and a great mainstream representation of diversity that we should celebrate.  Even more exciting is the subtle addition of Diana’s best friend, Princess Sakina, daughter of Queen Khadijah to the story, and that while they are citizens of fictitious world of Greek gods, they seem to spout Islamic wisdom on occasion, and be equally strong and important to the adventure at hand.  The book is meant for middle grades and at 288 pages is a fun light read for girls and boys of all ages.

SYNOPSIS:

Young Diana is anxiously waiting for the start of the yearly Chara Festival, when strong women from all over the world come to her island home of Themyscira to celebrate their different cultures and strengths.  Most of all Diana is waiting to spend the week with her best friend Sakina.  Frustrated that her mother is not allowing her to train with the other Amazonian women, Sakina listens to her and they hope to persuade Queen Hippolyta that this is the year.

As the women are arriving and gathering in the palace, Diana discovers a boy near the ships, Augustus.  Boys are not allowed on Themyscira.  There is no exception, but when all the women in the palace are drugged to sleep, her and Sakina are forced to trust him to try and save their loved ones.

Augustus confesses that a demon has hypnotized everyone on his island home, and that he was told to break the spell he needed to bring Princess Diana to the demon.  With no options and determined to prove her self, Diana and Sakina and her trusty bird fly off on a chariot to another world.

With tests around every corner, literally, the trio has to work together, to stay alive, gather the ingredients to make a potion to save the people on both islands, and push themselves to be brave.

WHY I LIKE IT:

So the story is ok, it is fun, I’m sure most kids that like superheroes and even many that don’t will enjoy the quick paced plot of the story.  There are definitely little nuggets of inspiration and motivation that make the book a positive influence on the reader.  The trio discuss bravery and how being scared doesn’t make you less brave, they encourage one another to push themselves and they forgive each other when they make mistakes.

Sakina and her people are scholars and on occasion says deep thoughts.  She says at one point, “My mother always says we are supposed to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong.” Which is a general principal, but the word choice sounds a lot like Surah 3 verse 110 “enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong,”

FLAGS:

There is talk of Zeus and the other gods.  There is lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t do this as a book club book, but I would definitely encourage kids to read it.  I think muslim kids will get a kick out of seeing the names Sakina and Khadijah in the book and feel like its a bit of a shoutout, which I think is awesome.  It seems like it is book one in a three part series, so I hope to have my kids read them all and make sure the 3rd-5th grade teachers at their school have them as well.

 

Stuck in the Middle by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Diana Silkina

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Stuck in the Middle by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Diana Silkina

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At 122 pages this early chapter book with frequent illustrations is a great book to share with 2nd-5th graders.  It is has a great message and lesson with lots for children to relate to with regards to life with siblings, getting frustrated, making mistakes and recovering.  The lesson is strong, but doesn’t become preachy as the protagonists voice rings true to her age.  Mistakes are made by many characters and situations are fleshed out so the reader can understand why things are done.   By showing that there isn’t one side to a story, and that knee jerk reactions are common, readers will get that ultimately we are still responsible for how we act, and learning from our transgressions is part of growing up.

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SYNOPSIS:

Salma is the middle child in a busy family, and very little is in her control.  When her frustration over her brother stealing a chocolate bar, causes her to lose her cool, and then she is forced to run errands with her family, homework doesn’t get done in time and she finds her self in detention.  Normally a very good student, teachers and other students are shocked that Salma is in trouble.  Things don’t improve when her brother steals her carrot cake the next day, and in a plot to get even, Salma ruins her brothers brand new PS4 controller.  She also turns a blind eye at school when she sees someone picking on him.

Doing her best to avoid being discovered as the culprit, or being in a position to see her brother being bullied, her guilt starts to get to her.  When an ambulance has to come to the school for a kid that got pushed and needs stitches, she realizes she has to make things right, even if that means getting in trouble.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is so relatable, honestly switch Salma with my middle son Haroon, and the 13 year old boy that doesn’t want to go out with the family, with my 13 year old daughter that doesn’t want to go out and we are looking in a mirror, haha.  The family is Muslim and they practice and let the religion shape their view of the world and how to function within it.  The girls wear hijab and use the hadith premise that they have to fix a bad deed with a good deed to provide the solution to the mistakes made earlier in the story.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I already made my middle child read the book, and because of the length it wouldn’t lend itself to a book club, but I can see teachers having kids read it and then discussing, just like I am doing in my family.  It is sweet and well done and a great addition to your bookshelf.

 

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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This fabulously fresh and honest book told in alternating OWN voices shows how two seemingly different 6th grade girls discover how much they have in common as they learn about themselves and their families along the way.  Sarah is a Muslim Pakistani-American, and Elizabeth is Jewish and has an English immigrant mom, the two come together over food, family stress, discrimination, and middle school social drama to form a solid friendship.  But fear not, it isn’t easy and the book will keep upper elementary/ early middle school girls hooked.  Not sure if boys will be as drawn to it, but if they can get over the brief mention of having a period, they too will enjoy the story.  The 336 page book shows how much we have in common, and how hard fitting in can be for everyone.

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah is starting a new school, a public one, having been at a small Islamic school prior to 6th grade.  She is not happy about it and to top it off, her mother is teaching an after-school cooking class at the school that she is required to attend.  Hoping to sit in the back drawing and go unnoticed, she finds she can’t sit quiet when her classmates start giving her mom a hard time.  Unaware of why she had to leave her previous school, and tired of her mom needing her help with her catering business, Sara also has to help her mom study for her citizenship test, handle two little brothers, deal with no friends at school and not being able to celebrate Halloween.

Elizabeth loves cooking. Her mother does not.   She is excited to learn Pakistani food at the cooking club even if her best friend thinks they shouldn’t be learning things from “them.” Elizabeth is admittedly nerdy, and struggling with a life-long friend finding others to spend time with, her life at home is difficult too.  Her dad is always traveling for work, and her mom is depressed with the recent passing of her mother in England, to the point of not really functioning.  With Elizabeth doing the cooking at home, and trying to get her mom to study for her citizenship test, Jewish holidays and obligations get neglected, and Elizabeth not knowing how to help her new Muslim friend handle racism,  is spiraling herself.

When the two girls decide to give each other a chance they find they might be able to be more than just cooking partners, but it seems like one of them always does something to mess it up.  Either saying something hurtful, getting defensive, or not sticking up for each other.   The girls get their mom’s together to study for their test, but it isn’t so easy for the girls, who are hesitant to trust one another.

An upcoming cooking competition, offers the girls a chance to make a cross cultural fusion dish that can wow the judges, help Sarah’s family’s financial situation, prove to the school that diversity is a good thing, and hopefully give the two girls a solid friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic it sounds and feels and how it doesn’t focus on boys or crushes, but on friendship between two girls at an awkward point in their lives and the family stresses they are experiencing.  The book is for all readers and does a great job of not going overboard with what the girls face.  I love how tolerant they have to learn to be with one another and that they have to learn to drop their defensive guards.

I read the book in two settings and didn’t want to put it down, it has enough pull that you really want to see where the book is going and are happy to overlook the slight repetitiveness of them stressing about the competition, but doing nothing but talking about the stress. Really the competition doesn’t even seem that important at the end, but considering everything going on, that to me is exactly as it should be.

I love the rich culture of Pakistan, England, Islam, and Judaism that seep in and never get preachy or dogmatic, but get celebrated and experienced.  This is why OWN voice books are so beautiful and powerful.  Admittedly, Elizabeth’s family is not super religious, but a few more similarities would have been nice.  Yes her brothers are eating pepperoni Hot Pockets, but a shout out about halal/kosher marshmallows would have really rung true for so many of us that stock up at Passover.

I also love how the side characters have substance and aren’t just used as a foil to show something about the main characters.  They get a little flesh on their own, and that enhances the richness of the story.  Seeing that they have their own struggles to overcome as well shows how none of us have it all together, and that we are all capable of improving ourselves.

FLAGS:

The girls meet during school hours when Elizabeth lies about her period starting to get out of class.  Sarah mentions that hers has already started.  Elizabeth mentions that her Jewish grandmother is visiting her son and his husband, nothing more is said, just that.  There are some derogatory things said about Sarah and being Muslim and Pakistani, but really mild.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to find a way to do this book for a middle school book club.  I’ve already told my 13 year- old daughter it is required summer reading.  The Muslims have diversity within themselves, some wear hijab, Sarah does not.   The book is so relatable and the personas sound the age for their views and struggles and perspective.  The financial stress, the mental illness, the immigrant experience, the racism, the politics, are all wonderfully woven together, and the food, well, there is a reason I didn’t recommend this book at the beginning of Ramadan, you are welcome.  Happy Reading.

 

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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While in the midst of moving from Knoxville to Birmingham nearly 4 years ago, a lady reached out to me telling me that a colleague of hers, also an author, was a follower and fan of my blog and had recently passed away, she asked if she could send me a copy of her friend’s books.  I agreed, not knowing what type of books the lady had written and didn’t think much of it.  In the chaos that is moving, I received the books and boxed them up and then unboxed them and vaguely remembered that they were about Muslims in China.  I put them in the to be read pile and just never got to them.  Then as the plight of the Uyghurs started to be known here in the US, something tickled my brain, but nothing came of it, until recently when I realized, a lady, a non Muslim years ago was trying to tell the Uyghur’s story, and had reached out to me, and I didn’t get it, and still wasn’t getting it.  So alas, I have now read the Vine Basket, and while it might not present Islam the way we are used to seeing it in life and in print, the characters do identify as Muslim and this middle grade book is a simply woven, beautiful story that gives voice to a population that is horrifically being silenced.  The AR 5.0, 252 page book is a quiet book that will stay with me: the drunken father, the threat of being sent to a factory, the loss of tradition;  I am so glad I read the book, and only wish I could reach out to the author to hear more about her knowledge of the region, of the people, of the culture that is being erased.

SYNOPSIS:

Mehrigul is 14, and since her older brother left, she has been forced to leave school to help her father sell goods in the marketplace.  More often than not though, it is solely Mehrigul’s responsibility as her father drinks and gambles away the meager earnings the family makes. Her mother, ashamed of the poverty the family endures along with some presumed mental illness and headaches, seeps further and further away from the reality of life and the chores that need to be done to ensure food and survival of the family.  Her younger sister is the only spark in a dreary and difficult life, and Mehrigul is determined that she should stay in school and be shielded from the darkness hanging over the family.

One day while in the market, an American woman approaches Mehrigul and asks to purchase a frivolous grape vine basket Mehrigul had made and hung to decorate the cart.  She offers her 100 yuan, more money than Mehrigul has ever seen, and asks her to make more baskets, and that she will be back in a month to purchase them. The basket serves no purpose like the willow baskets her grandfather weaves and despite the money, Mehrigul’s father is not happy.

Mehrigul is forbidden from making the baskets for the American, and the fact that she will even return is dismissed.  Her father grows increasingly cruel toward Mehrigul and keeps her busy to prevent her from making more.  Mehrigul seeks solace in her elderly infirm grandfather who tries to help her find inspiration and time to make her baskets as he sees in her a gift that has value in their old culture.  At one point as her father steals her baskets to take on a “religious” pilgrimage to the mountains.  And her planting crops in the fields leaves her hands cut and swollen, unable to make more with just days left before the American lady is due to return.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I was really uncomfortable with the idea of a white American savior coming to a dying oppressed culture to offer hope, until I read the afterwards and understood that much of the story was inspired by the author’s own experience and that she worked with Uyghur’s to get the story right.  The book reads like historical fiction which makes the day to day life of this modern book all the more heart breaking, it isn’t about the past it is the present, and life in East Turkestan is bleak.  I like the character of the father, he is an abusive mess, yet somehow it isn’t that easy to write him off, he has his own struggles and the depth of character I found in him, in a middle grades book, is haunting.  I also really like how Mehrigul’s story is so foreign to us here in America, yet her emotions and insights are universal and thus relatable.  She wants to find her place, and excel, and help her family, and she is scared, doesn’t know who to trust, and takes on more than most children any where should, but often are forced to do.

The characters identify as Muslim and as a people the Uyghurs are Muslim.  They say salam in the story, but only to the grandfather, and the girls all cover their hair with scarves.  The father obviously drinks and gambles, two practices, not permitted in Islam.  Mehrigul fastens a talisman and connects her prayers to it as a form of worship which I would imagine is cultural perhaps, and when things go awry she remarks she should have prayed to Allah swt.  The father goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, which again seems off from traditional Islam, but is presented in the book instead as odd because the father is not normally religious.  Islam is not a big part of the book, so it is hard to know if the representation of it are isolated to who the author met, or a larger norm of the community.  Considering how isolated and oppressed the Uyghurs are, I tried really hard to suspend judgement, or offer my privileged limited critique of the people.

FLAGS:

Drinking, gambling, abusive father, anger, lying, deception.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle grades or even middle school book club, there is so much going on in China and in the erasing of Islam there that this book would supplement the news and few stories we are hearing.  It opens up the culture and gives it a face that is not political, but personal.  The faults of the father are not glorified at all, and the discussion about his desire to hold on to culture and fear about his daughter surpassing him would be fascinating to hear from people the protagonists age.

Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

planet omar

Omar is back, and the nine year old kid with a huge imagination, proves that his heart is even bigger.  Middle graders that loved the first version, The Muslims, and the reboot, Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, will undoubtedly love this book’s adventures and the real, relate-abl, presentation of Islam in a Muslim family.  While it references the first book, it can work as a stand alone book too, and can and will be enjoyed by kids and adults, girls and boys, Muslims and non Muslims.  At 217 pages, the large spaces, doodles, playful fonts, and illustrations, make the book fly by and beg to be read again and again.

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar’s family still has their Science Sundays, but they don’t visit a new mosque every Saturday, as they have found a mosque near their home that gives his parents, “secret smiles” and them all a sense of community.  Omar and his sister still bicker, and his little brother Esa is still lovable, and the former bully, Daniel, is now a great friend to Omar and Charlie.  Life is good, Alhumdulillah, but in the midst of the boys planning how to get laser guided Nerf guns and have an all out battle, Omar learns the mosque’s roof is in need of repair and that the congregation will need to come up with 30,000 pounds to cover the costs, and fast.  In an act of selflessness, Omar abandons his dream of a foam gun and donates to the masjid.  Seeing that is not going to be anywhere close to enough he plots and schemes with his friends, his non Muslim friends, on how to raise the funds.  They bake cookies, make origami birds, and get their school to host a talent show to raise the money.  Their teacher and the head teacher coordinate the hall and judges and winning prizes all to help out Omar and the mosque, in the end though, they raise just under 1,500 pounds.  Not enough by themselves, but a great contribution to what other people hopefully are scrounging up.  The worst part however isn’t that they didn’t make enough, but that what they did make, goes missing.  Omar, Charlie, and Daniel, along with the parents and police and school personnel, try and find the money and who might have taken it before time runs out.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how effortlessly the author adopts a nine-year-old’s voice and persona.  So many of the details, for example, about how the school administration signed off on a fundraiser for a religious building, and how tickets were sold, and the planning took place are left out, as a nine year old, probably wouldn’t know, or be concerned with the logistics of such endeavors.  It seemed like some details should be given, but I doubt readers would feel that way, so I pushed it aside and went along for the ride.

Omar has amazing friends, from the unpredictable old neighbor lady, to his non Muslim friends being so enthusiastic and supportive of saving a mosque.  I love it, and that they are that way because Omar is so unapologetically Muslim first.  They even discuss a hadith about how building a mosque, builds you a house in Jannah, and a mainstream book published this, and it is AMAZING! It isn’t just a kid and his family, who happen to be Muslim, the whole plot of the book is to save a mosque, and the fact that this book exists, seriously is so beautiful, and powerful, and hopeful, Alhumdulillah.

This book has a lot of layers, most kids won’t pick up on the interfaith aspects being so ground breaking, or the beauty of teachers and parents believing and supporting young kids, but will just read it as a funny story with anecdotes and inside jokes that they get as kids, as Muslims, and maybe even as Desis.  It truly is the culmination of an author who can write well, characters that our kids can see themselves in, and an opportunity to tell our OWN stories that make this book work for kids, adults and everyone in between.

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FLAGS:

Omar and his sister are mean at times, but alas love each other and look out for each other too.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but if I did, I would do this book in a heartbeat.  For middle school it would be too quick of a read, but I think all classrooms and all libraries should have the book, up through middle school.

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2020/2/7/planet-omar-pushing-for-muslim-characters-in-childrens-literature

I got my copy here in the US at www.crescentmoonstore.com and as always you cannot beat their customer service and prices.  If you don’t have the first book, you can get it there, too.  Thank you Noura and Crescent Moon Store.