Tag Archives: Muslim Friends

City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

We’re off to Pray by Sana Munshey illustrated by Eman Salem

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We’re off to Pray by Sana Munshey illustrated by Eman Salem

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This 8×8 hardback rhyming book for ages 4 and up is filled with detailed pictures that will remind children of all ages how important salat is despite how tempting it often is to neglect it.  I think six and seven year olds will benefit the most from this 30 page book that also has an activity poster included, as they start to take on the responsibility of praying on time and making good choices.  The gentle parents, the relatable scenario and the adorable little sister, bring this story to life, and will hopefully be a benefit for young muslims and their families.

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A small family of a mom, a dad, a brother and a sister are out working in the garden when the athan is heard.  The five prayers are mentioned as they set off to pray just like the Prophet (saw) did.

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They all head in to make wudu as wudu and salah go hand in hand.  They start with bismillah before going through the simplified steps to wash their sins away.  They are about to start, when the doorbell rings.

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Friends have come to play.  Mom and dad tell the boy to pray.  The boy says there will be time after they play.  Once takbeer is called, the boys slip out on their bikes.  The boy wants to have fun, but something is nagging at him and he wonders what the Prophet (saw) would have done.

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Whispers urge him to enjoy the beautiful day, but he realizes what he must do, and when his friends ask what is wrong he suggests they go pray.  Aqeemus salah!

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They head back to the boy’s house, make wudu and pray together. The steps are named and explained and after concluding he sees his proud parents watching.

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There is a glossary at the end and the poster has the steps of wudu and salat as well as an activity to put the steps in order.

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Sadiq and the Ramadan Gift by Siman Nuurali illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

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Sadiq and the Ramadan Gift by Siman Nuurali illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

img_8554This 65 page early chapter book in the Sadiq Series does a great job of introducing Ramadan, giving a glimpse of Somali culture, and conveying a relatable and engaging story about friends with a lesson/reminder about the values of communication.  A group of boys hosting a fundraising iftar to help a school in Somalia have to figure out the logistics, the marketing, the cooking, and the execution, as they become socially aware and active in helping meet the needs of their community, both locally and afar.  This OWN voice tale doesn’t shy away from authentically drawing on religion and culture to make characters and a plot that all readers can enjoy.  The book is not preachy, but the characters know who they are in their manners, dress, speech, and environment.  A great book any time of year for first grade and up.

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SYNOPSIS:

With Ramadan starting in a few days, Sadiq and his friends at the Dugsi are reviewing the importance and values of Ramadan.  This year the masjid is raising money for a school in Somali and the students are encouraged to help, as sadaqah, or charity, is especially important during Ramadan.  The boys decide to host a fundraising iftar at the masjid and with parental help to coordinate with the Imam, the kids have to figure out how to get enough food, get the word out, get set up to take donations and more.  They make flyers, set up a website and shoot a small video.  The once excited Zaza, however, is no longer very enthusiastic in the Money Makers Club and Sadiq can’t figure out why, but with so much to do and little time to get it done, more friends and family are brought in to help, and things continue on.  When Zaza tries to tell Sadiq he wants to do his own fundraiser, Sadiq doesn’t want to listen.  I’m not going to spoil if the two friends work it out and how they handle the two ideas, but it is a good lesson in friendship, communication, and charity, Alhumdulillah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story starts with information about Somalia and words in Somali as well as a picture of the family.  There are activities and questions at the end as well as a glossary of religious, cultural, and English vocabulary words. The book doesn’t assume that the reader knows anything about Islam or Somalia, nor does it assumer that the readers don’t.  It strikes a balance of not talking down to the reader or getting too wordy.  It simply provides the information needed if you are curious, but allows the story and the boys dilemma to take center stage.  The whole series is remarkable in showing diversity and relatability with good quality story telling.  I think this is the only book in the series that has a religious theme, I could be mistaken.  The illustrations show the boys in kufis and the women in hijab.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Every elementary school library and every first through third grade classroom library should have this series.  I know my public library has it, and the copies I get from there seem to be worn and loved.  The age is too young for a book club, but would be great in small groups or for outside reading with the short chapters and engaging illustrations.

Samira’s Trip to the Masjid by Yara Kaleemah illustrated by Aveira Cartoon

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I’m a big fan of books featuring BIPOC leads in everyday situations, but when the quality of the product is subpar, I truly am conflicted if I should mention the book, or just tuck it away and pretend I never read it.  I’ve had this book tucked away for a while now, but I am pulling it out to bring attention to the importance of editors, proofers and revising.  The bar has been raised, Islamic fiction is becoming more and more mainstream.  The quality of many self published books rival and exceed traditionally published options, that to be putting out content that contains grammar errors (missing words, punctuation, random line breaks), spelling errors, voice and point of view inconsistencies, illustration errors, and content mishaps in a 26 page picture book, is not acceptable.  I feel like you are hurting the goal of representation and reflection, more than boosting it, when it is not well done.  I know that is harsh, but sadly minorities always have to do things better, it isn’t right, but it is the way it is.  You can argue my opinion that the story is too wordy or text heavy, but the technical components and final package in a $12 book, really need to be resolved.  The overall concept of the story is lovely: the Islamic details, the reminders about the sunnahs of Jummah, the little girl being excited to wear her favorite scarf and see a friend at the masjid, it really had a lot of potential.

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Samira greets the reader with As Salaamu Alaikum, as the fourth wall is breached and introduces herself as being a Muslim.  She then explains what being a Muslim is and tells the reader it is Jummah.  She asks her Ummi why we go to the masjid on Friday, before chiming in with all the information she in fact does know about Jummah.

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The next page details wudu as she prepares to go to the Masjid.  She then explains hijab as she tries to find her favorite green khimar with polka dots.  The words hijab, scarf and khimar are used interchangeable, causing a bit of confusion,  She explains that hijab is required by Allah swt to guard your chastity and that He also requires us to wear a khimar to the masjid.  I wish it would have clarified that we have to be covered when we pray, not necessarily just going to the masjid as she is a child, and many masjids are more than just places to pray, often having community halls and gyms.

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As the story continues she cannot find her favorite khimar no matter where she looks.  Ummi tries to give her some places to check, but in typical mom fashion, Samira can’t find it anywhere, and mom can find it immediately.  Samira shares some information about wearing your best clothes and they are off to the masjid not wanting to be late and hoping to get to the masjid first as the angels keep a record.  She finds her friend, and settles in to listen to the khutbah (misspelled as “Iman’s lecture” in the book).

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The conclusion of the book says “that even though Samira couldn’t find her favorite khimar, she was happy to take a trip to the masjid…”.  But she did find her favorite khimar? And on the very last page she is wearing the same shirts as she was at the masjid, but the polka dots have vanished from her green scarf?

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I’m hoping the author, illustrator, and publisher will clean up the book and someday republish it, we need these voices and images.

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

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Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

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This 165 page AR 3.9 book about the 42 days in 1991 that Iraq was at war with the United States is told from an 11 year old half Kurdish Christian boy’s perspective, but he mentions that he has friends that are Muslim and culturally and historically the book is relevant, important, and engaging as well.  I had my 9, 11, and 13 year old read it to gain perspective of the Gulf War, the difference between politics and people, and to see diverse religions co-existing despite stereotypes, especially in the middle east.

SYNOPSIS:

Ali gets the highest score on his Atari console the day that the bombs start falling.  Ali and his brothers Shirzad and Ahmed, and sister Shireen along with their parents retreat to the safest room in the upper middle class home to hopefully stay safe.  With experience of surviving the Iran-Iraq war which ended just three years earlier, the kids camp out at night in the room farthest from the nearby school and spend their days playing soccer in the abandoned streets.  The safe room was determined by knowing that Saddam uses his own people as human shields and places military installments in public service locations so that he can use propaganda to try and convince people that the enemy is bombing schools and hospitals intentionally to harm the innocent.

When the electricity goes out and the water cuts off, the family is forced to accept government rations.  Their dad is a dentist, but as he is essentially property of the state, he is forced to work as a medic and is often absent from home.  The family lives in Basra, which is in southern Iraq and near to the invaded Kuwait, thus all the troops pass through the city and the children spend their days keeping up their house, playing soccer with their friend Mustafa and trying to avoid the bullies Omar and Umar who’s father is in Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.

Ali speaks English because of his love of American TV and feels that if he can meet some US soldiers he will convince them that he should be in America not in Saddam’s Iraq.  He loves Superman, video games, soccer, his family, and his country, but the people, not the leader, he loathes Saddam, even though he knows he can’t ever speak ill of him.

A trip to get rations results in Ali seeing public executions and a colleague of his math professor mother’s getting hauled away.  A visit from their cousin gives them news that their father is missing. Life is not easy for the family, and yet they know they have it better than a lot of other people.  After the war, once again the family will have to put back together their lives and carry on.

The book concludes with a 14 year jump and Ali translating at the trial of Saddam Hussein where the leader who has been hiding is found guilty and sentenced to be killed by hanging.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ali is so relatable, he could really be a kid anywhere which makes what he sees and hears and experiences all the more intense.  The way that the book shows how the soldiers are forced to be soldiers, the citizenry at the mercy of the government, and the inability to speak freely so very real and frightening, is strong, but not traumatizing to the reading audience.  Even Ali being forced to observe the killing of  people in the street is handled with the target audience in mind.  They are Kurdish and had to deal with that within Iraqi society, which is a nice added layer to understanding that Iraqis are not a single monolith.  I love how the family had to go to the governor’s house and how nice his son was, even though, they are all Ba’ath Party members and part of the larger oppressive system.  It shows that things aren’t always black and white, and to convey all this to eight and nine year olds so clearly is quite remarkable.

I also like that the book holds up over time.  My kids had no idea what Atari is or was, but they could understand that it is a video game, and that it was an escape during the night for Ali to imagine he was playing a game trying to catch the falling bombs as a way to be brave and endure.

FLAGS:

Execution, death.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club, it is a bit short and definitely more middle grades, but it would allow kids to identify and imagine and discuss war through the fictional characters and voice their understandings of an authoritarian government structure, which would be interesting.

Author’s Reading Guide: http://www.jenniferroy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Playing-Atari-Teacher-Guide.pdf

 

 

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

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All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

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The power of own voice books is that while you may not agree with everything presented, you appreciate that it is being presented.  This 417 page high school young adult book is authentic and relatable and regardless of if you agree with the characters’ approaches, decisions, and understanding, you see and learn something about fictional characters that feels so real that you hopefully will find yourself in “real” life being a bit more understanding, kind, and accepting.

SYNOPSIS:

Allie is 16 and with her red hair and fair skin, she can pass for an all-American teen.  The only child of a college history professor and child development psychologist her family moves around a lot, but her dad’s extended family congregates in Dallas, and that is the anchor of family and love that warms the book.  Allie’s father Muhammad aka Mo is Circassian and his family speaks Arabic, including Allie’s grandma, Teta, who doesn’t speak any English.  Allie’s mom is a convert, but neither practice religion, and while Allie’s mom appreciates it, it is an incredibly hands off topic for Mo.  And Allie, well, she doesn’t speak Circassian or Arabic and knows nothing of Islam, and reinvents herself in each new school and city she finds her self in.

With Islamaphobia on the rise and Allie using her white privilege to neutralize a situation on an airplane, the reader sees as soon as they start the book, that Allie has a lot of skills to read people and understand how to handle complex situations, but that she hasn’t yet found her self.  As someone who can blend in and transform, the book is her journey to understand her heritage, her beliefs, what she wants in life and move toward finding her voice.  Much like Randa Abdel Fattah’s books which often turn the narrative from a Muslim girl rebelling against her faith and parents, this book has a young protagonist rebelling and turning to her faith.  The book seems to stem from a auto biographical place and the journey of learning about yourself, accepting yourself, and growing is universal.

Desperate to learn about Islam, Allie starts reading the Quran and hanging out with Muslims. While she knows Islam is not a monolith as she has family who cover, some that don’t, some that pray, some that don’t, some that fast, parents who drink, she still feels on the outside when she begins meeting with some Muslim girls at their weekly Quran study group.  As she gets to know the girls, she realizes how truly different Islam is for all of them, and how their experiences shape their views as well.  There is a convert, a black Muslim, a lesbian, some girls that cover, some that can’t read Arabic, some that find praying behind men misogynistic, some that feel unmosqued, they listen to music and read horoscopes, and Allie has a boyfriend.

Allie’s boyfriend, Wells, isn’t just incredibly cute and sweet, and accepting as he learns about Allie’s faith and her journey to understand it, but he is also the son of a cable shock jock toting that refugees should be stopped, and Muslims banned, yeah it is complicated.  As Allie learns more about who she is, she finds her self lying to everyone, and as she finds the courage to speak her truth, she must accept the consequences it has on those around her that she cares about.  Interwoven is a beautiful story line about her and her Teta’s relationship that is heartfelt and genuine and emotionally taxing when tragedy strikes.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this book exists, and that it is written for Muslims and non Muslims alike. I think non Muslims will see that there are all types of Muslims, and we should be reminded that everyone has their own tests and is on their own path.  Paradoxically I love that it isn’t preachy, but desperately wish there was more emotional connection to Allah swt and RasulAllah, because honestly its a gaping void that makes some of the story fall flat for me.  I get that Islam is different for everyone, but while the book pushes so much that Allie wants to know about it to connect and fit in with her family, I feel like there isn’t much “spirituality” to her approach which kind of makes someone accepting religion seem lacking.  Her approach to prayer and fasting is almost robotic, and yes she says she likes it, but there isn’t any emotional resonance in her perhaps having an internal dialogue with God, or crying out to Him when her grandmother is in the hospital, instead it is read this passage from the Quran, or say this prescribed supplication, which makes her conundrum about her boyfriend, seem arbitrary.  Allie’s non believing, non practicing parents seem to have a softer spot for God, as Allie’s mom says something to the effect of it is hard to stop believing once you start, and Allie’s mom asserting multiple times that while she doesn’t practice she converted for herself, no one else.

I also kind of struggle with the attempt of getting every type of Muslim in the book to show that there isn’t a good Muslim bad Muslim dichotomy to the larger audience, but as a result seems to make the point that Islam can be changed to fit today’s world and that line makes me a bit nervous.  It is fiction, it is quite possibly the author’s own experience,  but I felt like the part of continued growth and working to follow the tenants of Islam got left out.  We all have our tests, and we all sin, but to just say ok, this is me and this is my Islam and stop there, halts the journey and character’s arc rather abruptly.

I love that the book really does a good job of laying out that there are problems, misogyny, racism, stereotypes, everywhere, not just Islam or religion, but in societal structures too, it is really shown across platforms and very seamlessly.  I like that a fair amount of side characters are fleshed out, and compassion extended even when opinions differ.  There is a lot of acceptance consistently shown from the characters and those that don’t show it are called out on it as well.

I wanted more on Allie’s dad though, to know what exactly his religious complexity entailed, I felt like I missed something, maybe I did, but just to say his relationship with religion is complicated or complex, left me wondering and wanting for details.

As it seems with so many of these YA books with female Muslim protagonists, the non Muslim boyfriends are absolutely amazing with their understanding, and patience (think A Very Large Expanse of Sea, The Lines We Cross, The Acquaintance), truly fictionalized high school boys, high five.

FLAGS:

There is Islamaphobia, kissing, drinking, death, racism, sexism, LGBTQ characters and discussions.  There is lying and talk of sex.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is a bit advanced for middle school, the concepts and the acceptance of those concepts might not be conducive to Islamic School book clubs of high school level either.  That isn’t too say that kids can’t handle it or shouldn’t read it, but I think when presented from a school, it is assumed that you are endorsing an interpretation or practice of Islam, and this book might push that for some.

There aren’t a lot of author interviews or teaching guides, online, but if you do choice to read and discuss, you will be fine, there are a lot of layers, a lot to celebrate, and a lot to relate to in Allie’s story.

 

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

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Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

badman

It’s been a while since I’ve read such an over the top silly book that has a lot of heart.  It is 352 pages that remind me of the the My Teacher is an Alien book series of my youth smashed up with the Weirder School/Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of today.  Meant for upper elementary with some bad words (hell and damn), the story is Pakistani-British representation with many Muslim named characters, a Muslim author, and a shout out to a KFC in another town that is halal.  Don’t read it if if you want to learn anything, but definitely pick it up if you want to roll your eyes, giggle, and ponder a world where Desi aunties are the perfect disguise for force feeding an entire community delicious food as part of their evil plan to take over the world.

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SYNOPSIS:

Humza Mohammed Khan is an 11 year old Pakistani kid in Britain who thinks of himself as the next big rapper, Little Badman.  He dreams big and talks even bigger as he struts around primary school getting in trouble and trying to film his music video on his friend Umer’s extremely old Nokia flip phone.  With a normal enough mom, a hyper exaggerating father, and a handful of their friends known as Aunties and Uncles, Humza gets in trouble regularly enough, but overall seems to have a good heart.

Things at school slowly start to change after their teacher gets stung by a bee named Mustafa, that Umer brought to school to be his pet.  Weird as that might be, it is even more odd, when their teacher is replaced by a volunteer auntie.  Every day it seems like a teacher goes missing, and is replaced by some asian kids’ aunt.  When the supper ladies are replaced and the food improves, no one is complaining.  When every volunteer starts bringing snacks to school, no problem.  Who doesn’t love gulab jams, and samosas, and butter chicken all day long every day?  Well, as the school puts on the pounds and all the teachers and staff are officially missing, Humza, Umer and their former nemesis Wendy, start to get worried.  Humza’s Uncle who he calls Grandpa, claims his wife Auntie Uzma is not really his wife, and helps Humza investigate.

Secret meetings in supermarkets, teachers and grandpa vanishing, and Humza seeing a giant slug coming out of the substitute librarian, means that Little Badman is going to have to run away from cricket practice, not get sent in a crate to Pakistan, face his stage fright, and save the day from the aliens taking over the aunties.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is cultural rep and own voice in its telling.  Humza is Pakistani and his cultural baggage is hilarious and part of him, and no explanations are needed.  In his world people are from lots of places and they all live and play and learn together and they eat caramel apples and toffee and jilabies.  The diversity is great and not articulated, it just is what it is, and they all have to work together to save the day. I think my favorite character is Grandpa, who Humza has to learn to appreciate and not just see as an old almost dead guy and Humza’s dad who exaggerates everything and takes his cricket very seriously.  At the end Humza has to have a heart to heart with his dad and his uncle, Grandpa and it makes this over the top nutty story really kind of sweet too.

There is no “Islam” in it aside from Muslim names and mention in a rap of a halal KFC.  I kind of like that they are Muslim kids and it appeals to a larger audience, sure something praying or something at some point might have been nice, but it isn’t a book that you’d be expecting spiritual nuggets from, so it is ok.

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FLAGS:

The words damn and hell are used.  There is disrespect of authority, parents, and teachers as well as lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had my ten year old read it and he thought it was ok, but was uncomfortable with the language, which I was glad, but I told him I thought he could handle it, and know what is appropriate to use.  That being said, school libraries should have the book, maybe not classroom libraries though, and I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club.  I will have my other kids read it though, cause like I said, it is silly and fun.

Interview with comedian author Humza Arshad: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2019/march/meet-little-badman/

 

 

The Sign of the Scorpion by Farah Zaman

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The Sign of the Scorpion by Farah Zaman

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This is the second book in the Moon of Masarrah series, but can be read as a stand alone book if you are looking for a linear story with fast paced action, intense twists, decently developed characters and quality writing that brings the sleuthing of Muslim characters to life.  At 229 pages including the glossary, the book reads to me as a middle grades book, but the last 50 pages place a lot of emphasis on accusations of a character molesting servants in the castle and another character having an affair, which might be more appropriate for older readers.  Perhaps middle school readers would be a better target audience, but I’m waiting to hear back from the author regarding who she had in mind when she wrote it.  The author said she wrote it for Young Adult, ages 12 and up in mind.

SYNOPSIS:

Brother and sister, Adam and Layla are reunited with their friends, siblings, Zaid and Zahra after last summers intense adventure involving a diamond.  This summer as a result, they are the honored guests of Shaykh Sulaiman at his dessert home, Dukhan Castle. They arrive to find out that the Shaykh is bedridden from a stroke after learning his son has died.  With a house full of relatives with reasons to want their claim to the Shaykh’s fortune, the four teenagers start putting odd occurrences of a ghoul in white, a hooded horseman, a gypsy woman’s tale, and the idea that there has been foul play, together to try and arrive at the truth of what is going on.  As they piece more and more together about the tutor, the cousin, the fiance, the grandson, and a mysterious mole-man following them, they themselves get tangled in the sinister plot of revenge and must keep an eye out to figure out who the scorpion, Al-Aqrab, is before one of them ends up dead.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Set in a fictious land, the detail is the perfect balance between setting a stage and over describing it.  The book did not drag for me at any place, nor did I find myself confused about what was going on and why.  Granted I probably could not tell Adam apart from Zaid and Layla from Zahra, but the book is about their adventure and figuring out whats going on, not about their relationships or back story.  And with the focus on all the possible perpetrators and their motives taking center stage, having four people gathering clues makes the information come easier and smoother.

All the characters are Muslim.  Some of the women cover and some do not, some stop to pray and make regular references to Islamic hadith or Quranic Ayats, and some are suspects.  For example when they are exploring the dungeons beneath the castle, they liken the caves to the Sleepers in the Cave mentioned in Surah Kahf.  The book never gets anywhere near preachy, nor do the few references ever get annoying, they just flesh out that the characters are Muslim, and thus they see the world through that lens.

FLAGS:

The book has murder, lying, deception, all the ingredients for a good who done it.  And while the details are all clean regarding how the four teens interact with the opposite genders, the climax of the book is the coming to light of allegations of molestation and a failed marriage is attributed to a presumed affair.  No definition of the words is given, and I reread many of the passages and I don’t know that there is even enough context clues to decipher what the word molest means in the text.  Most kids however, could easily ask Siri or Hey Google or whatnot and may have more questions about what it means to sexually assault a person, specifically a woman or child, and why someone would do it.  I leave that for parents to decide at what age those in their charge can grasp such a word and concept.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m torn on teaching the book as the linear telling might not appeal to older kids, but the motive and revenge isn’t appropriate for younger kids.  I think if used to discuss broader issues the book could be really powerful, and not just a fun read.  I could see discussing with 9th graders or so the seriousness of false accusations, drawing on the Me Too movement and how sexual crimes and transgressions should be handled and treated.  I think the book could be a springboard for those discussions and seeing the effects of believing or not believing, and perhaps suspending judgement until research can be done.  In the case of the book, it would not have been difficult to pursue the allegations, while protecting any potential victims.

 

NOTE:

The first book in the series, The Moon of Masarrah, was originally published under the title, The Treasure at Bayan Bluffs, some changes have been made in the new printing, so while I don’t normally review second books in a series, I felt this book might bring attention to the new title of the first book and drum up interest for the upcoming third book in the series.  No, I don’t benefit in any way and I purchase my copies just like you, the stories are just really well done and I want readers to give them a try.  Happy Reading!

The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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At 246 pages I’m not sure if this book would be classified as Young Adult, but I think it could be, as its message, focus and presentation makes it a valuable thought provoking read.  And the cleanliness of everything being resolved so neatly might almost be too coincidental for older, more jaded readers, where I personally wasn’t too bothered by how much emotional action was packed in to the book and how quickly it was resolved as the characters were compelling and the pacing made it an enjoyable quick read.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows two women, Reem and Leah as their very different worlds and circumstances come together when they move in to the same apartment building.

Reem is a Syrian refugee whose past is presented in bits and pieces as her fragmented memories surface in the story.  She is searching for her 10 year old brother Adar, as well as trying to create a future for her self in London.

Leah has recently lost her husband, left her training as a doctor, and is trying to make a life for her and her son, Elijah, away from her parents’ shadow of expectation and demands.

When the two ladies meet, neither is completely settled or functioning, yet the desperation each is feeling causes Reem to ask for Leah’s help, and Leah agreeing.  The two become friends as they share parts of their world with one another and slowly start to heal.

Then Reem’s secret pregnancy comes to light, her abusive husband finds her, Leah’s posh friends abandon her, and their apartment building, the tower, catches fire.  Granted it doesn’t all happen that quick and there are lots of details that make their pasts, their friendship, and their goals for the future believable and inspiring, as well as making the pain for those lost in the fire emotionally wrenching.

As the two women once again try and survive hardship, this time together, they make progress before a terrorist attack on the mosque again sets them back.  Through all these major plot points details about how Reem got to England, and the atrocities she suffered that her mind blocked out are made clear.  Additionally, more about Leah and her families involvement in the tower fire and their friends’ involvement in human trafficking all tie the lose ends up. In the final pages there is hope and resilience and respect from the reader for the brave characters brought to life and their determination to persevere.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is a very personal, character driven story about a horrific fire, reminiscent of the Grenfell fire which claimed the lives of over 70 people.  I also absolutely love how Islam is presented.  The Muslim characters are tangibly real.  Reem wants to fast because it is Ramadan, but has the excuse that she is pregnant, but tries anyway.  She prays, she covers, she meets a Muslim that doesn’t cover, but they pray together at the mosque later and become great friends.  Leah is interested in Islam and asks questions and when she cooks for her Muslim friends she gets halal meat.  There is an amazingly helpful character Mo in the story who Leah is crushing on, but he refuses to be alone with her, or touch her, and when she tells him of her feelings, he says that everything she likes isn’t him it is his religion.  Leah and Reem discuss how the sunnah’s of the Prophet influence Mo and his brother and it is quite detailed.  Quranic ayats are quoted in character’s dialogues in natural presentations, not preachy or misplaced.  It hints at the end, when Leah has joined Doctors Without Borders and is in the Middle East that perhaps she has taken shahada, but it isn’t a plot point and isn’t mentioned explicitly.

My biggest complaint about the book is the random foreshadowing that pulls out from the story to hint that something more is going to happen between certain characters or be of more importance later.  I think it happened three times, and each time completely unnecessary. The story and characters and writing are clear and done well enough that needing the hint sells it all short and it wasn’t just annoying and irritating, it really kind of made me mad.  Here I was feeling an attachment for a character or what they were experiencing only to be reminded that there will be more, rather than letting me go along for the ride with the character.

I also was bothered by the font and spacing.  It is really tight on the pages, but with big margins, that a little breathing room would have been nice.  So, much happens in the book, that I wanted to be able to relish in each event and often I felt the presentation made it rushed and I found myself skimming, more than I would have liked.  I would have also liked to know what parts, if any, were based on or inspired by real events: the tower fire, human trafficking, stealing organs, artifacts coming out of Syria, refugee treatment in London, etc.

FLAGS:

There are memories of war and dead bodies.  The stealing of organs and dumping of bodies into the ocean.  There is a lot of death after the fire and after the shooting at the mosque.  There is a lot of blood, a terrorist act, a baby being delivered, a drunk man at a party.  Nothing is overly sensationalized, but it is a gripping book with some intense moments.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if middle school can handle the book, the characters are older, so it won’t resonate with them like a traditional YA book would, but I’m tempted to have my almost 13 year old read it so we can discuss.  I will most definitely suggest it to the high school book club adviser as there is a ton to discuss and relate to in this action packed book.

Author’s website and Q and A: https://shereenmalherbe.com/