Tag Archives: middle grades

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

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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.

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

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Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

bunchesA book about 5th grade friendships told from the perspective of four different girls in a variety of styles: instant messages, chatroom conversations, video scripts, and traditional text.  The author seems to have a checklist of diverse characters and afflictions that all must make an appearance in the 335 page story.  It is written on an AR 4.4, but with one of the main characters having two moms, details of a suicide mentioned, talk of pole dancing, male anatomy joked about, thongs, crushes, and mental illness, four girls coming together to form friendships and take down a bully, might raise more questions for young readers than they are ready to handle.  Yasaman the Muslim girl in the group, also borders on perpetuating more stereotypes than she breaks, and while I definitely don’t think this book is a good fit for 4th and 5th graders, I don’t really recommend it for readers of any age, there are just better books out there.

SYNOPSIS:

Asian American Katie-Rose doesn’t have friends, unless you count her neighbor Max, but she doesn’t.  She dreams of having blond haired Camilla as a best friend, but the Camilla she went to Pioneer camp with is not the Milla at school who hangs out with Modessa (aka Medussa) and Quin, and is popular.  Katie-Rose also dreams about being a cinematographer or director, she isn’t sure yet, but she loves to imagine scenes and scripts and how things ideally should play out, even when in reality they never quite seem to do so.

Milla, isn’t sure if she wants to stay friends with Modessa and Quin, they aren’t nice and she has a lot more fun with Katie-Rose, but somehow she always ends up going back to the popular crowd.  She also has a lot of anxiety and needs various totems with her at all time to feel secure.  When her little plastic turtle goes missing, she struggles to stay composed, and her and her turtle will end up changing a lot at Rivendell Elementary.

Violet, is the new girl at school and she is not liking her life at home or at school.  Her mom is in a mental hospital and she misses her desperately, her dad brings home fast food every night for dinner and life just isn’t the same since she moved to California.  Immediately able to tell who the popular kids are at school, she hasn’t decided which group of friends is the best fit for her, but when she stumbles on Tally the turtle, and doesn’t immediately return it to Milla, she has to understand what that says about her, and figure out if she is strong enough to make things right.

Yasaman is the quiet computer wiz, she is also Turkish-American, Muslim, and a hijabi.  She designs a platform where kids who are too young to join Facebook can chat, stream videos and send cupcakes.  The only problem is, she has no friends to get to join.  When Katie-Rose and her strike up a friendship, the first seeds of the four flower named girls are planted, but it will take all four of them to put Modessa in her place, rescue Tally, and deal with stereotypes, emotions, and family along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that a Muslim, muhajaba is included in the quartet, and that her religion, her scarf, her culture, and her belief in Allah, actually are sprinkled in.  I don’t love how in the book’s efforts to include such diversity, that it also seems to fall for a lot of the stereotypes that it on the surface seems to be dispelling.  Katie-Rose asks her if she even knows what YouTube is before being made aware of how computer savvy she is.  All this is to subtly show the assumption that Muslims are not aware of technology and whatnot, and set the record straight, but also regularly thrown in are side comments from Yasaman that her father would never let her wear something, or she wouldn’t be allowed to do that because of her dad, definitely reinforcing a male dominated, authoritarian, out-of-touch patriarchal view.  Even her mother, an artist, is shown to demand a lot of Yasaman and be incredibly strict.  A lot of things aren’t spelled out, they are just dropped in and assumed that the reader get’s it.  But only Yasaman’s parents are portrayed this way.  Milla’s two mom’s are caring, Violet and her dad seem close, and Katie-Rose’s parents are rarely highlighted.  So, I felt like it was noticeable, and not in a positive way.

I’m still completely confused as why pole dancing and male anatomy made appearances in the book.  And the pole dancing reference appeared not once, but twice when Yasaman is talking to an older cousin who is talking about a friend who’s aunt is a pole dancer, and then later when Katie-Rose’s babysitter also mentions the same friend.  They also discuss people as being slutty and boy crazy and skanky.  The male anatomy isn’t spelled out it is hidden with a girl with major orthodontia reading a Wikapedia page on the greek satyrs, discussing their physical pleasures and talents.

There is also a lot of mental health issues that I’m glad are present, but I’m not sure if they are handled seriously enough.  I’m glad they are addressed, because awareness is a good thing, but discussing how someone swallowed pills to commit suicide and even though she changed her mind still died, and not giving any context seems to make the concept come across as a bit trivial to me in its presentation.  Same goes for Camilla’s anxiety and Violet’s mom being in a mental hospital.  These girls have some major stuff going on that their preoccupation with a snotty group of girls, and the obsession of mud being consumed in an ice cream shake, seems a bit off.

Overall, the girls seem incredible perceptive and articulate in their self reflection and understanding of social personas, that I found their banter completely disjointed.  I don’t think the author’s voice is consistent, and the heavy stuff is too much coming from 5th graders in my opinion.

FLAGS:

Stereotypes, and discrimination against Yasaman and her younger sister Nigar.  Possible triggers with talk of suicide.  Milla has two moms, it is never labeled or made an issue, she just refers to them as Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce. Talk of boy private parts and erections, crushes, pole dancing, words such as skanky, and slutty and dingleberry (poop hanging on) used.  There is lying and bullying and retaliation and poetic justice.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a book club or even have it in the classroom.  I think it gets a bit crass unnecessarily and the cute flowery cover and inside flap, makes it all the more surprising.  You might expect some potty humor in other books, but knowing it is there allows the reader to make a decision to read it or not, I would imagine most Muslim parents would see four diverse girls on the cover, one wearing hijab, get excited and hand the book to their 3rd or 4th or 5th grade daughter and have no idea what the book also includes in passing, with no relevance to the story lines highlighted on the inside flaps and back of the book.

Allies by Alan Gratz

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Allies by Alan Gratz
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This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character.  While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel.  With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional.  An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.

SYNOPSIS:

The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy.  Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.

The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.

Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis.  What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim.  In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds.  When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.

19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.

Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can.  Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.

We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps.  But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux.   And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.

All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at.  The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense.  But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people.   The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are.  The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.

As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave.  To have a Muslim in  an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable.  There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.

FLAGS:

There is a bit of mild profanity.  There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson.  There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.

Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com

 

 

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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I try and keep an eye on what is available at Scholastic regarding Muslim characters and Muslim authors since for many kids the Scholastic Book Orders might be the most interaction they have with seeing available books, and for others, they may see a book in a library or other book store that they have seen on a Scholastic flyer and pick it up for that reason of familiarity.  Granted I might be completely wrong in this assessment and just be trying to justify my review of a non fiction 103 page AR 5.7 graphic novel that talks about Muslims and refugees, but nonetheless I try and read the Scholastic books that feature Muslim representation to a very captive audience.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book takes facts about the plight and flight of the Syrians as they are forced to leave their homes due to war, and the horrors they face on their journeys to finding a new place to call home, and illustrates them.  The book focuses more on the exodus than on the politics that forced them to leave.  There are no characters or story lines, but rather illustrations to the headlines, articles, and facts that detail the truths about the collective experiences of many Syrians.  It seems every single sentence is referenced at the back of the book, which is probably a good thing as it is non fiction and this is a researched book, not a book of anecdotal stories or an OWN voice retelling.

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The book in muted tones tells how the young boys scrawling graffiti is what is attributed to the spark that set Syria ablaze with frustrated citizens standing up to an oppressive regime.  The pictures show different factions policing the people for trying to have pianos, to kicking people out of the homes and torturing them or killing them.  As the situation elevates and no end is in sight the book, then follows people leaving by foot into neighboring countries, and then fanning out as border countries refuse to let more people stay.  Eventually, many are forced on to rafts to countries further away, but as their resources deplete, many Syrians have no where to go and are unwanted.

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WHY I LIKE THE BOOK:

I like that it is real and graphic and violent, it doesn’t show everyone getting a happy ending.  I think many children’s books focus on the heroes trying to help or people having a happily ever after, but by upper elementary, readers need to know that the situation is dire and no resolution is in sight.  The author tries to explain the Sunni and Shia differences by using Christian divisions as examples, and he shows jihadists torturing people, and he does use statements about Islam and music, and I don’t know how a child would take these labels as they don’t come with much explanation.  On the other hand he does highlight that some countries would only take Christian Syrians, so I don’t think he is advocating one faith over another, but the details about Muslims for some reason seemed a little forced to me.

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I think his agenda or purpose was to show how the world, with the exception of a few countries, have really turned their back on refugees.  It says in a footnote at the end “that in the first three months of 2018,” for example, “the United States has accepted 11 (refugees) for resettlement.” The facts, the maps, the diagrams, really drive home the point and do evoke an emotional response, which I think is needed.  A few of the pictures are also incredibly resonating, such as the one of the man stating he couldn’t save his family from drowning.

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FLAGS:

The book shows violence and death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The shortness of the book, might not make it an ideal candidate for a Book Club, but the value in such a book makes it a great addition to any and every classroom.  I don’t know how many children will read this book on their own.  It isn’t fun or compelling, its factual and depressing.  But, I think it is important.  Nonfiction is often hard to convince children to read, so I like that it is a graphic novel and I like that the information can all be verified.  I think children need to be encouraged to read things that might not be easy and fun, and have a way to discuss how such readings make them feel.  Furthermore, If you are a teacher teaching references, this book is a great example.

 

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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I realize the inherent difficulty of writing books for middle grades about the events of September 11, 2001: the author lived through it, the readers did not.  Yet, it seems like at some point a book regarding it, will just feel right, and I don’t think for this age group, I’ve found it yet.  This AR 3.3, 228 page book is a quick read, and while some of the characters have spunk and personality, a few of the storylines seem incredibly forced and the overall timeline and holes in the story will be ultimately disappointing for most readers.

SYNOPSIS:

Deja is starting a new school now that her family has gotten a room at a homeless shelter.  Immediately her fifth grade classmates are given an assignment about home, with the end goal that eventually this project will transform in to being about the change of New York’s skyline fifteen years ago.  The details regarding the attacks of September 11, are not given forthright and as Deja knows nothing about the attacks, and the fall of the towers, her inability to get answers adds to her frustration at home and school.

Deja is angry as she bares a lot on her young shoulders.  Her dad can’t hold a job, and his moods and ill health put caring for her younger siblings on her.  Her mom works as a waitress and is always tired.  They lost their house, lived in their car for a while, and now occupy one room in a shelter.  Deja refuses to lie about her home life and thus her aggressive attitude is always on guard.  Another new kid, Ben, joins the class and he and Turkish American popular girl, Sabeen, all quickly become really good friends.  Each have something brewing beneath the surface that they are dealing with, but their friendship helps them cope and bonds them together.

As the trio of kids work on their projects together, Ben finally shows Deja online footage of the attacks and clues her in to what everyone else in their Brooklyn class seems to know and has failed to tell her.  Deja links her father’s declining health to that fateful morning and decides she needs to go to Ground Zero and get some answers.

She doesn’t really get answers, but at least it is the catalyst for an overdue conversation with her and her father, and hopefully a start on the road to healing the family rifts.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Much like the book Nine, Ten there seems to be the token Muslim girl in the story to offer her perspective on the Islamaphobia that occurred after the attacks.  In this case Sabeen doesn’t detail anything specific happening to her, other than a clerk at a store telling her to go back to Saudi and her uncle getting screened regularly at the airport.  Of all the characters I feel like Sabeen gets the short end of the stick.  She is incredibly flat, stereotyped and undeveloped.  Her family is Turkish, she is wealthy, her mom wears niqab and they are all overly kind and sweet, which is great, but when Deja goes over for lunch, they ask her if she prays, which seemed so random and off to me.  A lot of the basics about the character the author got right, she says that the terrorists were Muslim, but they weren’t, sharing a sentiment many of us Muslims feel. She wears hijab, and takes it off when she gets home.  I don’t like that the mom speaks English, Arabic and Turkish, but is first introduced having Sabeen translate for her with another parent.  Seems incredibly pretentious and misleading.  Ultimately her storyline is just overly forced.  She has to leave Ben’s house when they talk about September 11, because she is so affected by it.  She wasn’t even alive when it happened, and I get that when it is discussed us Muslims are on guard, but the author makes it seem like it is her whole world and influences everything around her.  If you live in New York, especially, I’d imagine at some point you’ve had to come to terms with it, no?

That’s why I also struggled with Deja’s dad.  He is so debilitated by the events of 9/11 he can’t function, yet they happened 15 years ago, presumably before he met Deja’s mom and they started a family.  So, really she fell in love with him in his current condition and thought having three kids with him was a good idea? He was fine and then wasn’t? For 15 years he hasn’t been able to get some sort of help for his PTSD type symptoms?  Seems like a stretch in the timeline, and one that is hard to excuse even for 3rd and 4th graders.

I really like how Deja’s homelessness is brought out and hopefully readers can learn some empathy from her.  Unfortunately the entire 5th grade class is so idyllic that I don’t know that most if any kids reading the book will relate to such a well behaved, so accepting, forgiving and generous group of kids. I mean yeah that’s the goal, but its way too overdone.  Ben, Sabeen, and Deja are best friends after the first meeting even though Deja is rude, mean, and doesn’t like them.  I’m not even sure what Ben and Sabeen get out of being friends with Deja?  Deja undoubtedly benefits from them, but there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons given why they’d be so drawn to her.

And finally, I struggled with the theme of how being “American” united them all.  It makes sense when discussing it as a class, that it doesn’t matter their color, income, life experience, whether they were immigrants or born in America, but the concept comes up again at a critical point when Ben and Deja are on the subway and seems so misplaced to me.  On the subway there would be plenty of tourists and visitors, that wouldn’t be American, no?

FLAGS:

The book is clean, it does mention some drunk people at the shelter, but nothing specific, just in passing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club selection because the target age is lower than who I meet with.  But, even despite some of my criticisms I’d recommend this book be in classrooms and school libraries as it does offer up a perspective on historical fiction that hopefully could lead to a slightly deeper understanding of the events at a young age.

 

 

 

What Happened to Zeeko by Emily Nasrallah illustrated by Maha Nasrallah Kays

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What Happened to Zeeko by Emily Nasrallah illustrated by Maha Nasrallah Kays

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Told from a cat’s perspective about living through parts of the 1982 war in Beirut, this translated from Arabic young adult book is 121 pages.  It reads to me more like a middle grades book, and while the story is fairly monotone and anticlimactic, I find myself oddly thinking about it and wondering about everyday events from different perspectives.

SYNOPSIS:

Zeeka as a young kitten is taken from his cat family and placed with a new human owner, Muna, a young girl who loves and cares, and seemingly understands her new furry friend.  The relationship between Muna and Zeeko is really the crux of the book as they get to know one another, trust one another, vacation in the mountains together and then seek refuge in the basement shelter of their building when the shelling starts and the bombs destroy the neighborhood.  

Through the relationship details, the reader learns a lot about what kind of person Muna is and why Zeeka is willing to perform a heroic act to try and help her escape the danger, while sacrificing his own comfort.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t know that I loved the book, but it was a quick read that I don’t regret spending time with.  It is translated from Arabic, so there are some hiccups, but nothing that impairs the story continuity or comprehension.  It almost starts out like an early chapter book with each chapter being two pages long.  But then all of a sudden a neighborhood cat is murdered by a group of naughty boys, and you realize that it is not for younger children. 

How the book handles war however, is very removed and not really detailed at all.  Much like The Cat at the Wall for about the same age group, the use of an animal to simplify the absurdity and details of war is used to show a different perspective, however, in this book there is no information given about the war.  The reader is never told who is fighting, why they are fighting, what sparked the fighting, nothing.  All we know is that there is fighting.  

There is no mention of religion in the book, and I have no idea of the author’s faith, there really isn’t much culture in the book either. I didn’t learn much about Lebanon or the food or traditions.  I got the book from www. crescentmoonstore.com/ so I thought to review it as it seems available on Islamic websites.  Every dozen pages or so there are illustrations and sometimes there is a blank page before each new chapter and sometimes not.  There is a table of contents at the end of the book.

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FLAGS:

Murder of a cat, violence in general in terms of bombing and micro level of bullying and threatening.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, but I think if you are looking to learn more about Lebanon or point of view this book would have a lot of potential with guidance.  From a literary creative writing perspective the book would be a great tool to present complex events in simplified ways, it also would be a great read to get students to just look at things from different points of view.  If you have students that love cats and can handle the war aspects, this book would be fun for them.  In a social studies class if you are discussing affects of war or learning about Beirut in the 80’s the students will be able to fill in the gaps historically and politically.

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