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Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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There is such a shortage of male Muslim protagonist middle grades books that I have been waiting quite impatiently to get my hands on this one, and alhumdulillah, it didn’t disappoint.  I’m not sure if it qualifies as OWN voice, being it has a female author, but the authenticity in the little religious and cultural details would suggest that it should.  The 320 page book is meant for ages 8-12, but the weight of Aziz’s father’s illness, the plot pivoting around three classic books (Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and the clever reflections of Ahmed along with his quick wit and thoughtful choices, might make the book’s sweet spot be 5th to 7th grade readers (as well as us moms who are suckers for elementary literary references, teachers who are heroes, and kids realizing their potential).  The book has a bully, but is clean and wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Ahmed is leaving the only home he has known in Hawaii to move to Minnesota.  His dad has Cirrhosis, a result from a rare genotype of hepatitis C, and Minnesota is one of the top options for treatment.  The family is nervous to move in general, but more so to move to Minnesota.  It is where Ahmed’s dad Bilal grew up, and where his dad’s younger brother passed away at age 12. Ahmed’s younger sister, Sara, is perhaps the only one excited for the new adventure.

The family arrives and is greeted by Bilal’s old friends, and when school starts he realizes one of his dad’s best friends, is his English teacher, and somewhat of a legend at the school in getting kids to try and beat her at an end of the year quiz show like competition.  The school is also where Bilal and his brother Muhammed went to school and a picture of Muhammed hangs right above Ahmed’s locker.  The biggest stress at school is Jack. Jack who lives a few houses over, Jack who rides the same bus, Jack who is in Ahmed’s English group, and Jack who has a lot of followers at school.  Jack is a bully.  One who makes Ahmed’s life miserable at every turn, not just socially, but even the police.

Ahmed is a laid back kid that doesn’t like to read, but loves words, who wants to blend in yet is the only brown kid in a sea of white, who enjoys attending  Jummah salat, but ultimately hates going because of the shoe chaos afterwards.  Ahmed has no intention to read the books assigned in class, but some how the three classic books assigned do get read, and  Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tie together and weave in and out of Ahmed’s epic year.

I don’t want to spoil much, but Ahmed’s dad is in the hospital a lot, there is a lot of plotting to survive being bullied, as well as getting revenge on the bully in Ahmed’s own way without involving parents.  Ahmed slowly grows to love Minnesota, his small circle of friends, and his school while learning about his uncle and the kind of person he wants to be as he grows up.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Ahmed is Muslim and while his mom prays five times a day and his dad is an occasional prayer it doesn’t specify how often Ahmed prays or how he feels about religion, other than going for Jummah.  At first Ahmed thinks he is being bullied by Jack because he is brown, his mom is an immigrant from India, his father the son of immigrants from India, but learns that Jack picks on anyone new.  I like that for as much as Ahmed hates stereotypes and assumptions, he acknowledges that he makes them too.  I like that Ahmed doesn’t like to read, but is smart, and eventually comes around to reading.  He is tech smart and very mature in how he views the world and himself in it, cares for his sister and parents, handles things on his own, and builds others up.  Ahmed is a good kid, not in that he doesn’t make errors or is a teacher’s pet, but in that he has a really good heart and a good head, and I think would make anyone better for knowing him.  I love that the book is smart too.  If you have read the three books mentioned you will love the discussions and questions about the books, if you haven’t read them, you will be tempted to after you finish this book.  I wish there was a tad more religion, there is a sprinkling of culture, primarily the mom’s tragic cooking, but a bit more religion in a book that has illness and death would seem natural to me.  The storytelling is superb, I was so curious where the father’s parents were, but alas it did answer that, I would have liked it sooner, but I was glad it made it in none-the-less.  I would have liked a bit more from the parents about why they wanted Ahmed at his dad’s old school, or how they were comfortable constantly leaving the two kids home alone at night, but Ahmed like I said is pretty mature.  I particularly love the brother sister relationship.  Ahmed is a good older brother and it reminded me in some ways of my older brother, which made my heart warm, good siblings are a blessing.

There are multiple climaxes, but while I expected the dad’s health to be a big one and Jack getting what was due to be a close second along with the outcome of the literary contest, I was not prepared for the level of Jack’s torture to climb to, and was pleasantly surprised by the unresolved thread of Jack and Ahmed’s future relationship.  Things in life don’t magically resolve and I love when middle grade novels keep that in mind.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this in a heartbeat for a middle school book club selection.  Even if the book is more middle grades, I think the students will enjoy it and be surprised by the emotional investment the dad character extracts.  I think they will also benefit from the literary references, relatable characters, and the overall great storytelling.

Amira Can Catch! by Kevin Christofora illustrated by Dale Tangerman

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Amira Can Catch! by Kevin Christofora illustrated by Dale Tangerman

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This is book four in the Hometown All Stars series aimed at 4-7 year olds.  The purpose of the series is to teach real coaching skills to help children learn about baseball, get out of the house to play, and have fun.  The 34 page book is baseball technique heavy with a fictional storyline to move it along.  Most sports books focus on team work and being a good sport, but this one takes it a step further by emphasizing the basic skills needed to play the game, as well as sneaking in lessons about inclusion and acceptance.  If your child is American and likes sports, the book will be a hit, pun intended, but there is a lot of text on each page and as America’s pastime, there is a lot of space dedicated to what it means to be American.

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A refugee Muslim girl from Syria, Amira, is invited to play on the after school baseball team, but first needs some help at school with spelling and adding.  Luckily the kids in class are super nice and accepting and help her learn about life in America, while similarly listening to her tell about life in Syria and at the refugee camp.  Not only do they all become friends, she also gets everyone to appreciate how much food they have, and the variety, as well as gets everyone to try pickles. Yum! They like them.

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The kids at baseball practice are also incredibly welcoming as they get Amira a jersey, and teach her all about #24 Willie Mays.  From here, it is like a virtual baseball practice, the kids warm up with stretches, running the bases, and practicing their stances.  There are little info headers explaining things such as what hand to wear your mitt on and explaining how to squat, why the coach is using foam balls, and reminding the reader not to throw balls in the house.

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The kids learn three different types of catches.  How to stand, how to position their hands and how to be ready.  They run drills and practice, practice, practice. They find out Amira is really good, and she tells them that they had a lot of time to practice catching and throwing in the refugee camp.

The coach then asks the kids and readers questions before Amira’s parents arrive to pick her up.  With big smiles on their faces, the mom is wearing a hijab and chatting with the narrators mom.

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The book ends with a whole page on “What Does It Mean to be American,” a review of new words learned in the book, and all the kids answering who’s the most American of all, with “We are!”  The back cover has a reflective patch with the statement “Americans come from all over the world.  Look in the mirror, and tell me where are you from?”

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The book and series are a great way to learn about a game, that really a lot of kids today may not know much about.  Some of the terms, the skills, and just familiarity is clearly conveyed, with the illustrations providing the visuals and diagrams for what the coach is talking about in the text.  The fact that the author chose to add a refugee to such an “American” book and have the supporting  characters so welcoming, really does show the best of what Americans can be.

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