Tag Archives: Muslim Characters

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Often these days, minority groups are feeling more and more marginalized in a blaring world that is increasingly divisive and polarized.  So to see a book in my child’s Scholastic Magazine with a muhajaba on the cover, and not a main character, in a book about bullying, where she isn’t the instigator or recipient, made my minority heart swell with hope.  This 238 page graphic novel (AR 2.8) is a quick, quick read for middle schoolers, and one with a good message, that is more self empowering than preachy.  A companion book to Awkward (which I haven’t read, but hope to soon), the author takes us into Middle School through the eyes of Jensen, a kid who is struggling to find his place and escapes into his daydreams to conquer every day stresses.

 

SYNOPSIS:

Jensen wants to be a NASA scientist, but he isn’t good at math.  He loves to draw, but the Art Club is consumed with an upcoming event he knows nothing about, he is harassed by two bullies every chance they get, and occasionally he is asked by the newspaper staff to do menial work.  Yet, somehow despite having no friends, and a constant barrage of things going against him, he doesn’t see himself as a victim or as the recipient of bullying.  Rather, he falls into regular day dreams where he is the main character in a video game and all these battles have to be overcome to reach the end.  The surrounding characters have their own little stories, and you get to know a bit about them through Jensen, but the author doesn’t let any of them be painted with a singular stroke.  You see the athletes, being kind and sticking up for kids getting picked on, one being a math wiz.  The journalism staff of Jenny, Akila, and Felipe, run the school, but have their own stresses and internal struggles.  The circle of activity comes to a head when a student is expelled over the dress code, and all the various groups in Jensen’s world have to come together to make change.  In the process he realizes that he is being bullied, and that something needs to be done.  He also realizes nobody has it all together and he has a part to do to help others as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

First I like it because there are Muslims in the book, that are just characters in the book.  They don’t represent all Muslims, they aren’t “different” or “other.”  Akila wants to be a journalist and she is smart, and she is kind, but she fights with her best friend, the bossy Jenny, and it is Jensen that has to help them see their errors.  I also like that the P.E. teacher, Mrs. Rashad, is a hijab wearing Muslim, that beats the social studies teacher in push-ups. I mean what an amazing way to break a hundred stereotypes, by not mentioning them, and just showing them as normal. A muslim woman, working, being physical fabulous, and being modest, ya we need more of this. There is no mention of their religion, their clothing, their hijabs, nothing.

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I also like that the students in some cases didn’t realize that they were bullying.  I think this happens a lot, where maybe someone won’t let you sit by them because they are saving a seat for someone else, but the second or third time it happens, the recipient feels alienated, where the aggressor may not even be aware.  The book explores lots of ways of bullying, but because it is filtered through the character, it leaves a lot of room for discussion about how people treat us, and how we treat others, and where a lot of pain can come from the misinterpretation on both ends.

There is a lot of diversity in the book, boys, girls, skin tones, body sizes, physical abilities, handicaps, intelligence, etc. that come up to varying degrees, but do at least offer the readers real ways to see themselves in the pages.  The book has a very tidy, happily ever after feel, which is ok I think for middle school. The book has a specific audience. Elementary will just find everyone mean, high schoolers will find it childish, but as social relationships get more challenging in middle school, I think this demographic will often have to find the courage to be brave to get through unscathed.

FLAGS:

None. One character has a boyfriend, maybe. But it is clean with pretty much everything, it even says for All Ages ont he back.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a book club book.  I don’t think it would need any prompting or guides. My 6th grade daughter said it was “ok” yet has brought it up at least ten times since she read it, and has come and sat by me to watch me read it.  I think, she has had some similar issues and to be able to talk about them through the characters, has been liberating for her, and furthered my conviction that fiction has power.

The Author’s website: https://svetlania.com/

 

 

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Salam Alaikum: A Message of Peace by Harris J illustrated by Ward Jenkins

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Harris J’s song by the same name gets stuck in my head because it seems like “Salam Alaikum,” is the only words in the song, so when I heard that he had written a book based on the lyrics, I was a little skeptical. But, total credit to the illustrator, the book is adorable, and the lyrics aren’t too bad either.

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Thirty big pages, that radiate with light and happy faces and a big clear font that celebrates peace, love, and coming together.  The words “Salam Alaikum”  is a Muslim greeting, but there is nothing overtly religious. There is one muhajaba that appears on a few pages, but with the content matter, there is a lot of diversity in the book.  A variety of skin tones, ages, clothing, genders, sizes, all come together to hold hands and work for peace.

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The content isn’t ground breaking, but the number of words on the page are good for 3-6 year olds.  And it does introduce that the world is more fun when we all work together and are kind.  Kids will like the illustrations and return for them undoubtedly.  It is hard to know if the books these days are truly better, or are just done better.  But, while I checked this one out from the library, I think I just might want a copy of my own.

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I Will Not Clean My Room by Saharish Arshad illustrated by Elsa Estrada

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I Will Not Clean My Room by Saharish Arshad illustrated by Elsa Estrada

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What a great premise for a children’s book, a little boy, Musa,  does not want to clean his room, and imagines all the better things he will get to do in Jannah (heaven) instead. Luckily for his room, his sister comes to help him tidy it up, as well as his mom and dad.  FullSizeRender (25)

The rhyme scheme and the kids’ imaginations at how wonderful Jannah will be, go hand in hand and make the book silly and fun.  The cartoonish illustrations also help sneak in messages of listening to your parents, cleaning your room, being kind to your siblings, helping each other, and ultimately doing things even if they are hard or boring to please Allah swt.  

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The book is a 28 page, 8×8, paperback.  The price is a little steep, $12, for its structure, in my opinion and is meant for Muslim readers.  The only real issue I had is when the mom threatens to flounce Musa. “Stop jumping and bouncing, or you’ll get a flouncing,”  seems excessive to me, and not consistent with how loving the family is throughout the rest of the book. It was probably included to maintain the rhyme scheme, but I took it to be a threat of violence, which I’m not ok with.

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The pictures show the mom in hijab, the word Jannah instead of heaven is used, the characters’ names are Islamic and Allah is mentioned throughout.  Musa’s thoughts on the last page are particularly sweet (see picture below).  I plan to read this to a group of kids at story time and will just omit the flouncing line, as it does well in appealing to ages 4 and up.  Three year olds may not understand it, but because of the rhyming, I think they will be equally entertained.

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A Little Tree Goes for Hajj by Eman Salem

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A Little Tree Goes for Hajj by Eman Salem

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A friend loaned me this book with a bit of hesitation as to its quality, and although I needed one more Hajj book for an upcoming story time, it seemed that it was yet another book about the steps for Hajj, so I wasn’t stressing about acquiring it. Luckily we were both wrong, at least from my perspective.  The book is so sweet, and not so much about the steps and details of Hajj, but more about the longing to go.  To seal the sweetness deal, it is about the friendship between a man, and a tree, and perfect for 3 year olds and up.

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The little tree dreams of traveling, but more than anything he dreams of going to see the Ka’aba.  Noting the logistical struggles of travel with roots, his mother encourages him to make duaa for his heart’s desires.  After a lot of patience and a lot of duaas, (alhumdulillah, it shows duaas take time and are not a magical instant granting of a wish) a young man walks by on his way to the coast to catch a boat for Mecca.  Startled by a talking tree, the clever boy just happens to have a basket and he uproots the tree and they head out together.

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The book shows the two doing all the steps in a large two page illustration, keeping the text to a minimum.   On the next page though, it highlight the two praying and trimming their hair and leaves. When the tree is returned to his mother, she is watered with Zam Zam water and “they agree it is the sweetest water ever tasted.”

The friendship continues, as they journey on countless adventures, and in the end, when the man is old and the tree is too big, the old man returns to rest on the tree’s roots and tell stories to the nearby saplings.

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Written in both English and Arabic, the story is a fast read that holds even the little one’s attention as they look at the expressive illustrations.  There is additional information on the Hajj rituals page, but it can be used according to need, like the glossary in the back.  The story is for Muslim children and families as it does not explain the requirements of Hajj, importance of the Ka’aba, or history of the rituals.

 

Zaahir & Jamel The Camel: At the Mosque by Amatullah AlMarwani illustrated by Sudha Choudhary

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Zaahir & Jamel The Camel: At the Mosque by Amatullah AlMarwani illustrated by Sudha Choudhary

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Another book in the Zaahir and Jamel the Camel series, this book explains to children how to behave at the mosque.  The pictures are colorful and busy, engaging children 2 and a half and up.  Younger children can enjoy the bolder aspects, and older children will enjoy the details.  Some of the text seems to hide behind the geometric shapes, but I would imagine the story is usually read aloud and not independently, so it isn’t too much of a problem.

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Just like when Zaahir and Jamel went for Hajj, the short rhyming sentences go step by step on what to expect as the story follows Zaahir and Jamel through the process: they take off their shoes, they make wudu, they stand for salat, they make du’aa, they stay quiet and respectful.

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The book is 23 pages, but the story is really only 17 pages.  The story is followed by Games and Activities including a quiz and a crossword puzzle, and then a Glossary.  The quiz is great when reading aloud to a group or even just at bed time to make sure the children understood the key points.

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The book is small and rectangular, which makes it work better in smaller groups (6.6 x 9.5), but for a book that cost less than a dollar online, it really should be in every child’s library.  Its a great review for little ones before Jumaah or just as a gentle reminder that praying in the mosque is something that all Muslims have in common.  It also works well for parents of non muslim kids that might be coming to the mosque and want to know what to expect, and how to act.

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A Bedtime Prayer for Peace by Akila Dada & Sukaina Dada illustrated by Michael Wagstaffe

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A Bedtime Prayer for Peace by Akila Dada & Sukaina Dada illustrated by Michael Wagstaffe

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This is a slow, deliberate, thoughtful book, that does a good job or setting a prayerful tone with short rhyming sentences.  Intended for preschool age children, early elementary children also will enjoy this book in rotation at bedtime or nap time.  

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The book thanks the creator and asks for protection for all things small and large, seen and unseen, in a gentle dreamlike manner that really could go on for so much longer than the 32 pages present.  Some items mentioned like the plants and trees a preschooler will know, but some of the concepts introduce little ones to something bigger, “Give shelter to families who need a home, Help all the people who feel alone,” “Guide us with your grace and might, keep us safe from every plight.”  

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The prayer is voiced by a mom to her young boy, Esa, and the illustrations show traditional subcontinent dress as well as western clothes being worn.  The author’s are Muslim but the book is not overtly Islamic.  Sometimes the mom is in hijab, but when in the home she is not.  More distinctly, the word Allah is not used, only God is, and thus the book and prayer, really would work for any monotheistic child as the book does say, “Dear God, protect my beautiful son, You are the Truth. You are the One.”

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The true treasure of this book is that the main character is in a wheelchair.  Showing different abled characters is always such a blessing as it normalizes it and inshaAllah makes us more accepting when out and about.  The illustrations don’t wow me, but their quiet simplicity keeps the pace of the book, and don’t scream for attention.  Some of the smaller details are endearing and help sleepy eyes linger on page without feeling rushed.

With a hard 8×8 cover, the book is a good size for little hands to read over and over again, alhumdulillah. 

 

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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