Tag Archives: Muslim Characters

Welcome Ramadan by Lila Assiff-Tarabain illustrated by Gurmeet

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As many of us are setting out our Ramadan decorations and pulling our Ramadan books from the shelves, or realistically browsing Amazon, the quality and presentation of Islamic picture books is impressive.  And with this new expectation, there is also an increase in price, this book however, is the opposite.  Ranging from .97 cents to $3 online this little 6.5 inch by 9.5 inch 24 page book is a lot of bang for your buck.welcome ramadan1

Starting with finding the moon, big sister Maysa tells her younger brother Bilal all about Ramadan, in (mostly) rhyming couplets none the less.  She tells him about walking up before dawn and explains that yes that means no lunch.  She also explains that because they are little they aren’t required to fast. They then explore breaking the fast, going to the mosque to pray, having good manners, and learning that a full moon means that Ramadan is half way over.  Reading the Quran is discussed as well as how we have to be generous with what Allah swt has given us. It concludes with Eid and a Parent/Teacher guide at the end to help Muslim and non Muslims alike learn about Ramadan.

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The pictures are cute and comical, albeit small given the overall size of the book.  It covers Ramadan on a level kids of all ages can understand, and because of its easy reading style even older kids can skim through it and find it enjoyable.  There isn’t really a story, it is just a fun way to share the “facts” but a welcome addition to any book shelf both at home and in a classroom setting.

Watched by Marina Budhos

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Watched by Marina Budhos

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This book is so incredibly timely that it feels like it could be real, granted its been timely since 911 and homeland security took to watching people more aggressively and openly.  But, New York police have been in the news about their methods regarding watching muslims and mosques, and this fiction book does a great job of getting inside a boy’s mind as he explores both being watched and being the watcher.  The book is 265 pages and is written on an AR level of fourth grade, but content wise I would not recommend it for anyone younger than high school.  The concepts and themes need to be put in perspective to appreciate the book.  And at the same time, being able to understand how terrorist recruit and how police aren’t always ethical, creates some gray area that require a certain level of maturity to make it resonate.  It isn’t a black and white story with good pitted against bad or legal verse illegal, the nuances in between are where the action takes place.

SYNOPSIS:

Immigrant. Muslim. Teenager. Screw-up. Lots of labels for high school senior Naeem Rahman.  Born in Bangladesh, he moves to Queens in New York, after his mother dies and his father has remarried in America and sends for him.  While there is a gap in his relationship with his father, the story doesn’t focus on issues at home.  He has a very strong relationship with his step mom, and his younger brother, making him very likable and endearing.  He has problems elsewhere, however, that stress his family and get him in to trouble.  His grades are poor and he learns he will not be able to graduate, which further distances Naeem from his small shop owning father.  And his friends have dwindled to a single friend, Ibrahim,  that enjoys weaving tales mixed with truth and fantasy and dreams, that gives Naeem a taste for living on the edge and running fluidly around the city.  When an adventure with Ibrahim goes bad, and Naeem gets stuck holding stolen goods, it is a deal with some cops that comprises the bulk of the story, and forces Naeem to decide if he can go from being watched, to being a watcher, an informant for the police.

With a prior run in with the law, some marijuana in his backpack, a working class family, and not wanting jail time, the police officers know that they can pretty much ask anything from Naeem and he will comply.  Naeem starts spying on his community online and by going to the masjid for prayers, volunteering with MSA’s, helping out with summer schools for Muslim kids, all things he and his family had stopped doing after 9/11 when cameras started going up on poles outside of mosques, and fellow worshippers started eavesdropping on each other to report back to the police.  But, now that Naeem is on the inside, he finds power and strength in what he is doing, a confidence he has never had before.  He starts helping neighbors, helping the family income, fasting in Ramadan, but all with a guilty conscience.  His foundation is deceptive.  When the story comes full circle and Naeem realizes the path he is on, he has to find a way to get out and own up to the choices he has made both to his community and to the police.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The story has moments of action and intensity, but it is also poetic and introspective.  Budhos really gets inside Naeem’s head and shares that with the readers.  Obviously, the book is for Muslims and non Muslims, it is a companion story to her book Ask Me No Questions, but I think the reason it resonated so much with me is because it is something I am familiar with.  So the poetic musings made Naeem more likeable to me, I didn’t see them as speed bumps in a book billed as a thriller.  I was glad that Naeem was charming and fleshed out.  His relationship with his little brother and with his step mom, really show that he has layers and isn’t just one label or another.  There is a lot of diversity in the Muslims presented and their backgrounds that make them who they are.  There are also a lot of cultures presented in this immigrant neighborhood that make the details solid.  There is no doubt that the author knows what she is talking about, that she is perhaps lived it in some capacity, the authenticity is definitely present.

FLAGS:

Aside from the arcing themes that raise flags for the younger, more sheltered readers. There are a lot of things mentioned, although not explicit or celebrated, they are presented in passing to create understanding of an environment.  There is drug use, kissing, violence and some profanity.  In a story like this there is obviously a lot of lying, stealing, talk of homegrown terrorism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The author’s website: http://www.marinabudhos.com/books/watched

Author interview with NBC news: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/immigrant-teen-gets-swept-nypd-surveillance-marina-budhos-watched-n661171

The Treasure at Bayan Bluffs by Farah Zaman illustrated by Kim Zaman

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The Treasure at Bayan Bluffs by Farah Zaman illustrated by Kim Zaman

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At 231 pages this book claims to be for ages 9 to 18 and that’s a pretty large spread for a mystery, yet alone an Islamic fiction one by a first time author.   In a tone reminiscent of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys,  it should really should just say 9 and up, I was hooked!

SYNOPSIS:

Adam and Layla along with their younger twin brothers Hassan and Hakeem from America are visiting their family home of Bayan Bluffs in Midan for the summer.  Their grandfather and great aunt and a few long time servants aren’t much entertainment for the children, so their parents arrange for their college friends kids’ Zaid and Zahra from Crescent City, a few hours away, on the other side of Midan to join them.  The children get along right away and decide to try and solve a mystery of a hidden treasure that they have heard bits and pieces of over the years.  Their search for the Moon of Masarrah starts innocently enough, but quickly escalates as they learn they aren’t the only ones searching for the missing gem.  As they learn more about the jewel and the circumstances of its disappearance the gem and the murder of Adam and Layla’s great grandfather get further entwined.  With a few of the suspects still alive and many of their family members still in the city, the children soon find they themselves in danger as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The biggest reason I like it, is it is well written.  There aren’t confusing passages, or too many characters or boring preachy paragraphs.  The plot is good, the dialogue believable and the fact that they are Muslim children, just depth to the story.  They plan to meet after asr or before Jummah, and they say inshaAllah and mashaAllah, and its just a really good balance of who they are, but not all they are.  In retrospect, maybe they all get a long a little too well, but it isn’t syrupy and they have some minor annoyances, so it doesn’t hinder the story.  The only thing I caught myself looking back on was the age of the twins.  At times they seem like toddlers and at other times much, much older.  Even the author says they are “about six years old,” and having a six year old myself, I do believed that they can vacillate to both extremes in any given moment and thus I accepted their antics and let it go.  Additionally I wish she included a map.  It isn’t confusing, but it would have been great to look back upon as the action speeds up, and would definitely help younger readers visualize the details.  The terrain vocabulary for anyone younger than nine might need some explanation.  There is a glossary at the end for some of the Arabic words, and for some of the specific ships and weapons mentioned.  Their are a few illustrations that I think help the younger readers, they aren’t needed for the story, but they don’t impede it either.  I wasn’t crazy about them within the story, but I did appreciate that they show the girls in hijab and the illustrator clearly put a lot of work in to them.

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I wish that the cover was more appealing, for a story that was so good, I wish it begged to be picked up.  InshaAllah word of mouth will carry the book, so that more like it are written and published.

FLAGS:

None, mashaAllah it is clean and wholesome.  There are good and bad Muslims and no judgement is put in a religious context.  There is some violence, but it is nothing even a seven year old would find offensive.  Alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a Book Club book for 5th through 8th grade.  The writing quality and the different characters the students would be able to identify with, would make it a lot of fun.  There isn’t any deep or though provoking discussion points to accompany the book, but I think the genre is hard to come by and Muslim kids seeing Muslim kids solving a crime and going on a treasure hunt, is just exciting.  I couldn’t find any study guides or even much information on the book or author, but none is needed to enjoy the story.  Farah Zaman if somehow you see this review, know that I hope you keep writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed your book!  Happy Reading Everyone!

 

 

The Roses in My Carpet by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Ronald Himler

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The concept of “refugees” is not a new one, but with the pervasiveness of the term in the news right now, children are starting to need some understanding of what it means to be a refugee, and how to empathize with what their classmates and friends may have endured.  Books like One Green Apple, The Red Pencil, and Four Feet Two Sandals are great, and I excitedly hoped this one would be a great addition to the theme.

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The book is leveled as an AR 3.2, but I don’t know that many eight and nine year olds would be able to grasp some of the content unassisted.  This is a good example of the limitations of Accelerated Reader.  Yes, diction and sentence length are third grade level, but content is a bit heavy in this 32 page water-color illustrated book.

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A young boy is telling the story of his life in a refugee camp in Pakistan.  The nightmares of jets dropping bombs opens the story and sets the tone of a very frightening reality that this boy, his mom, and his sister Maha face.  His father, a farmer, had been killed, and I think the author does a good job of showing readers that although the characters are now in a refugee camp, food and safety are still not a given.  I think we as westerners tend to think, ok they had to leave their home, and that is sad, but now they are taken care of, and this book clearly shows that, that is not the case. The boy mentions that someone has sponsored him and helps them with money, something his father wouldn’t have accepted, and I’m not sure why this is included.  Perhaps to show that people still can help and need to, or to show that affluent people donate as a way to ease their conscious without working to fix what caused the problem in the first place? I don’t know. It would lead to some good discussions with older children, perhaps fifth grade and up, as the author doesn’t make it a good or a bad thing, but does introduce it none the less.

The environment is drab, “Here, the walls are mud, the floor is mud, the courtyard is mud, too” and the day-to-day chores monotonous, lining up for water, for food, going to the mosque to pray, and going to school.  For some reason, not sufficiently explained in my mind, the little boy hates school.  A sharp contrast to stories that show how appreciative many children in other parts of the world are at the opportunity to study and learn. The boy rather, loves weaving.  He looks forward to escaping his reality and getting lost daydreaming in the weaving of beautiful colorful images where the bombs can not get him.

The characters are clearly Muslim, as they pray and wear hijab and go to the mosque.  They trust Allah when they are faced with challenges, but no details of belief are conveyed and it simply describes the characters. The book does not come across as whiney to me, and while there is some hope that radiates through when the boy is weaving, it really is a sad book.  It is made more depressing when Maha is hit by a truck, she thankfully survives with broken legs, and by the thought that although the boy wants to use his weaving to provide for his family, the future doesn’t seem bright.  In the end perhaps running free on a rose filled carpet where the bombs cannot get them only exists in his dreams, a sobbering thought for the characters and readers alike.

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Laila and Pesto the Fly by Rania Marwan illustrated by Fatima Asheala Moore Jewel Series Story #1 Cheating

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I ordered this book with the hopes that it would be the first book of a wonderful series teaching values in an Islamic context.   It says that it is book #1 in the Jewels Series and it focuses on cheating.  However, the book was published in 2009 and I can’t find any other books in the series.  Sadly, I can possibly see why.  The book is not great.  The illustrations make it so tempting even if all the girls are gorgeous and the illustrations simple, they would seemingly work well with a book aimed at 4 to 8 year olds, and just 24 pages long.

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Unfortunately the text is lacking and doesn’t create a story worth reading more than once. The sentences are repetitive. And the same words are used over and over.  The first page alone says the word “play” four times in three sentences.  It is about 4th grade girls that play, watch cartoons and essentially hold lessons/ book clubs for each other once a week.  A lot going on for a book that on the second page says the word “flies” three times in three sentences.  Needless to say the repetition makes it hard for a story time selection, and the run on sentences hard for young readers.  The first page features a font that is probably about a size 20 and the next page it drops down to one that is about 11, the third page is about a 14 and the trend of the ever-changing font size continues throughout the book.

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Example of repetitiveness from Laila and Pesto the Fly

The story idea is a good one at its core.  A girl teaches her friends about flies.  Then the fly talks about Laila and how she is kind and honest. Then the next sections returns to Laila not being ready for a math test and she is tempted to cheat when Pesto, the fly, distracts her and writes a message for her in glitter.  I’m not sure how the glitter stays on the page, but, the message is received by Laila and emphasized by the author sharing a hadith, “He that deceives us is not one of us.” The last page of the book is a bulleted list emphasizing the harms of cheating, and how to overcome the temptation as the girls urge you to join their Cheat Deceit Foundation.

Overall, the book is awkward and doesn’t work for me.  There are a lot of better books out there.  That being said, if the author wrote another book, I may give her another chance, it isn’t hopeless. It just needs some tweaks. The fly is a silly likeable character, but the group of friends are a monolith and have no individual roles.  The message is clear and important, and we need books like this, but alhumdulillah the standards have gone up, way up, and the writing quality isn’t where it needs to be to attract Muslim children or their parents.

 

Nusaiba and the 5th Grade Bullies by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Zul Lee

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As someone who deals a lot with reading and comprehension, I really misread the description of this book and assumed erroneously that it was a chapter book targeting 5th graders.  Oops, alhumdulillah, my confusion and slight disappointment didn’t last long as I got swept up in Nusaiba’s spunky imagination and endearing personality.  The message of the book is powerful.  Not only does Nusaiba have to deal with bullies, but she has to wrangle with accepting herself, even if that means being different.

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Nusaiba is almost to school when she overhears some 5th grade boys making fun of her mom and what she is wearing.  Nusaiba’s mom is wearing a hijab, and the story is set up to imply that that is what they find “weird.”  This morning encounter bothers Nusaiba all day, and while she doesn’t talk to her teacher about it when asked, she does spill the beans to her best friend Emily.  The next day Nusaiba distances herself from her mom and asks to walk to the school gate alone.  The bullies don’t say anything, but Nusaiba feels guilty about leaving her mom like that. Later that day when Mom picks Nusaiba and Emily up from soccer they swing by a local hijab shop for some clothes shopping.  I don’t know why, but I found the premise for taking the girls clothes shopping a little forced.  It seemed too words of a setup, and I couldn’t help but wonder why Emily would be dragged along.  As mom tries on skirts for work, the girls in their boredom get swept up in using the scarves as costumes and transforming themselves from queens, to underwater divers, to fisherwomen, to mountain climbers, to fantastic cleaners ready to clean up all the scarves on the display.  Her mom lets her pick one to buy, and she decides to wear it to school the next day.  It is noteworthy that Emily doesn’t try on any of the scarves.  She is an amazingly supportive friend, and even in make-believe is right there with Nusaiba, but she doesn’t put one on, and I kind of want to know the author’s reasoning or purpose as to why.  So the next day at school, Nusaiba asks her mom to again walk with her, and when the 5th grade boys call her mom an “odd-ball.” Nusaiba finds her courage to confront them.  Nusaiba and the reader discover the boys are making fun of Nusaiba’s mom, but it isn’t for her hijab.  Nusaiba and her mom set the boys straight and giggle in the process, as Nusaiba realizes she can be anything she dreams.

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The book is 44 pages and probably about a second grade mid year reading level.  The pictures are big and bold and beautiful making it a great option for story time to ages 4 and up.  The pictures do an amazing job complementing the story and going back through to look at them after the “twist” at the end was even more delightful.  The illustrator draws you into Nusaiba’s world and you really do cheer her on when she stands up for herself. The book easily lends itself to discussion, and there is also a question guide at the end, incase you get stumped. It reads more like a school assignment, but it could obviously be re-worded to engage a child at bedtime or in a read-a-loud environment.  The font is a nice size, however, I found it distracting. On some pages it is white on others black, on some it has a shadow and on others it does not.  I’m certain most people would not notice, but for some reason it was jarring to me.  Alhumdulillah, alhumdulillah, if that is the only negative in a book, I think everyone who reads it will be glad to have a copy of their own to read again and again and again and again and….

 

Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra

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Thankfully the adult in me won out as I resolved to read a book whose cover and title did nothing to tempt me.  I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, but seriously a kid running on the American flag with major Muslim characters, written by a non-Muslim about September 11th? I was hesitant and nervous to know what messages would be spread in the 304 pages to children on an AR 4.0 grade level.  But alas, I was  nervous for nothing.  The book is wonderful, and I want to read it again with my 5th grade daughter so we can discuss it.  It is hard to believe 9/11 is now taught as history, but as someone who lived through the tragedy as a college student, this book hit on so many of the defining moments of that horrific morning and the days that followed.  The book isn’t overly political, or judgemental, or preachy, and in retrospect, most people on September 11th and the days immediately following, weren’t either.  We were confused, scared, and unsure, a tone the book reflects and magically presents on an elementary level without getting  overwhelming with the enormity of it all .   The book was published two years ago, and I’m very tempted to contact the author or editor and urge them to reconsider a cover and title change because truly the story deserves it.

SYNOPSIS:

Jake and Sam have been friends their whole lives.  They bonded in the sandbox with their little green army men and have been planning battles and missions together ever since.  Told from Jake’s perspective the reader sees what life is like for these two 8th grade boys.  They push each other in cross-country, their parent’s come together for Jake’s 13th birthday, neighborhood boys swing by for pizza and front yard football games.  But there are stresses too: siblings, busy parents, not getting named captain of the team, friends that play dirty.  Then September 11th happens and worlds are shattered.  The boys learn that one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was from their town, and although Sam has only been to the Mosque a few times with his grandparents, and his parents are culturally American not Saudi, the school bully Bobby is determined to get rid of Sam.  Jake makes it his mission to defend his friend with his fists and his words, but when his parents urge him to stay away from Sam, the stakes are raised.  President Bush says, you are either with us or against us.  But what is Jake to do?  Secrets about Sam’s dad come out and the FBI takes him away for questioning.  The town is gripped in fear and 8th grade boys on both side are determined to change the world, to be the drop of water creating ripples of change.  As Sam and Jake pull away from each other, Sam starts going to the mosque to learn about what he is being accused of being and begins to identify as Muslim.  Jake’s frustration with his parents continues to grow as does his impatience with Sam, but when Jake overhears Bobby plotting something serious, Jake will have to decide where he stands and how strong he is.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the author crafts a story that is complex, but not overwhelming.  She sticks to focusing on getting inside Jake’s head and succeeds.  He is frustrated and confused and determined, but alas he is only a kid and can’t foresee his actions or articulate them the way an adult can.  He is likeable and fallible and she doesn’t belittle him, thus making his plight tangible and relatable.  I was a little disheartened when about a quarter of the way in it was made clear that Sam knows nothing of Islam or his culture, but it works so well in the story to show that he was pushed to go learn about his roots, since others were treating him as if he represented Arabs and Muslims.  This is so real, I knew so many non practicing Muslims that suddenly started coming to the mosque or reading books on Islam because they realized they should know where they come from.  Many resumed a secular life over time, but many also became more practicing, a phenomenon, the US media and politicians have seemingly failed to acknowledge as Islamaphobia is rampant and so many people pick up a Quran to see how a religion painted so negatively, can simultaneously be one of the fastest growing religions in the world.  The author doesn’t even touch on what Muslim’s believe, but she does include that they abhor violence and disavow the attacks.  The Sheikh is presented as nice enough and there is no negative judgement or tone from the author, aside from the xenophobic characters.

The title of the book comes from a song that Jake’s grandma likes and she often tells Jake, “just a drop of water.” Jake takes it to mean that something is insignificant, but she has him listen to the song and explains that it makes ripples that grow.  The imagery is great, and the line becomes powerful, I guess I just felt it wasn’t devolved or woven in enough to make a strong, clear statement to be the title of the book.  I’m sure many would disagree with me, but as I stated earlier the title along with the cover photo didn’t pull me in.  The book appeals to both girls and boys as both are presented very positively.  There are a handful of side stories that add depth to the characters and narrative that I haven’t touched on, but they are all charming in their own way.  There is a Boo Radley type character, there is a whole tangent about Jake’s grandfather and the details surrounding his grandfather’s death, and the overall messages about friendship, and doing what’s right that make the book relevant to a wide spectrum of readers of all ages.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean considering it is about an act of terror followed by bigotry.  There is some hate speech and violence, and some lying and cheating, and mention of getting pantsed.  But, overall clean and no concerns for 4th grade and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There are a lot of resources online and it doesn’t surprise me.  This book would do great as a novel study, as it is historical fiction.  It would also work well as a book club selection for any elementary or middle schoolers, not just those in an Islamic school.

Core Connections: achievethecore.org/file/1602