Tag Archives: Oppression

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

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While in the midst of moving from Knoxville to Birmingham nearly 4 years ago, a lady reached out to me telling me that a colleague of hers, also an author, was a follower and fan of my blog and had recently passed away, she asked if she could send me a copy of her friend’s books.  I agreed, not knowing what type of books the lady had written and didn’t think much of it.  In the chaos that is moving, I received the books and boxed them up and then unboxed them and vaguely remembered that they were about Muslims in China.  I put them in the to be read pile and just never got to them.  Then as the plight of the Uyghurs started to be known here in the US, something tickled my brain, but nothing came of it, until recently when I realized, a lady, a non Muslim years ago was trying to tell the Uyghur’s story, and had reached out to me, and I didn’t get it, and still wasn’t getting it.  So alas, I have now read the Vine Basket, and while it might not present Islam the way we are used to seeing it in life and in print, the characters do identify as Muslim and this middle grade book is a simply woven, beautiful story that gives voice to a population that is horrifically being silenced.  The AR 5.0, 252 page book is a quiet book that will stay with me: the drunken father, the threat of being sent to a factory, the loss of tradition;  I am so glad I read the book, and only wish I could reach out to the author to hear more about her knowledge of the region, of the people, of the culture that is being erased.

SYNOPSIS:

Mehrigul is 14, and since her older brother left, she has been forced to leave school to help her father sell goods in the marketplace.  More often than not though, it is solely Mehrigul’s responsibility as her father drinks and gambles away the meager earnings the family makes. Her mother, ashamed of the poverty the family endures along with some presumed mental illness and headaches, seeps further and further away from the reality of life and the chores that need to be done to ensure food and survival of the family.  Her younger sister is the only spark in a dreary and difficult life, and Mehrigul is determined that she should stay in school and be shielded from the darkness hanging over the family.

One day while in the market, an American woman approaches Mehrigul and asks to purchase a frivolous grape vine basket Mehrigul had made and hung to decorate the cart.  She offers her 100 yuan, more money than Mehrigul has ever seen, and asks her to make more baskets, and that she will be back in a month to purchase them. The basket serves no purpose like the willow baskets her grandfather weaves and despite the money, Mehrigul’s father is not happy.

Mehrigul is forbidden from making the baskets for the American, and the fact that she will even return is dismissed.  Her father grows increasingly cruel toward Mehrigul and keeps her busy to prevent her from making more.  Mehrigul seeks solace in her elderly infirm grandfather who tries to help her find inspiration and time to make her baskets as he sees in her a gift that has value in their old culture.  At one point as her father steals her baskets to take on a “religious” pilgrimage to the mountains.  And her planting crops in the fields leaves her hands cut and swollen, unable to make more with just days left before the American lady is due to return.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I was really uncomfortable with the idea of a white American savior coming to a dying oppressed culture to offer hope, until I read the afterwards and understood that much of the story was inspired by the author’s own experience and that she worked with Uyghur’s to get the story right.  The book reads like historical fiction which makes the day to day life of this modern book all the more heart breaking, it isn’t about the past it is the present, and life in East Turkestan is bleak.  I like the character of the father, he is an abusive mess, yet somehow it isn’t that easy to write him off, he has his own struggles and the depth of character I found in him, in a middle grades book, is haunting.  I also really like how Mehrigul’s story is so foreign to us here in America, yet her emotions and insights are universal and thus relatable.  She wants to find her place, and excel, and help her family, and she is scared, doesn’t know who to trust, and takes on more than most children any where should, but often are forced to do.

The characters identify as Muslim and as a people the Uyghurs are Muslim.  They say salam in the story, but only to the grandfather, and the girls all cover their hair with scarves.  The father obviously drinks and gambles, two practices, not permitted in Islam.  Mehrigul fastens a talisman and connects her prayers to it as a form of worship which I would imagine is cultural perhaps, and when things go awry she remarks she should have prayed to Allah swt.  The father goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, which again seems off from traditional Islam, but is presented in the book instead as odd because the father is not normally religious.  Islam is not a big part of the book, so it is hard to know if the representation of it are isolated to who the author met, or a larger norm of the community.  Considering how isolated and oppressed the Uyghurs are, I tried really hard to suspend judgement, or offer my privileged limited critique of the people.

FLAGS:

Drinking, gambling, abusive father, anger, lying, deception.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle grades or even middle school book club, there is so much going on in China and in the erasing of Islam there that this book would supplement the news and few stories we are hearing.  It opens up the culture and gives it a face that is not political, but personal.  The faults of the father are not glorified at all, and the discussion about his desire to hold on to culture and fear about his daughter surpassing him would be fascinating to hear from people the protagonists age.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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

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SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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WHY I LIKE THE BOOK:

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

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

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FLAGS:

The book shows violence and death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

 

Jasmine Falling by Shereen Malherbe

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Jasmine Falling by Shereen Malherbe

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This 184 page book about a girl figuring out her past, to accept her present, and plot her future. is not marketed, or perhaps even written as a YA novel, but I’m reviewing it because while the protagonist is in her 20s the book could be enjoyable to ages 15 or so and up, if they are willing to stop trying to understand a lot about the book and are content to just go along for the heartfelt ride.

SYNOPSIS:

Jasmine is half Palestinian and half British and when her wealthy mother passes but stipulates to claim her inheritance Jasmine must find her father, the book leaves England and heads to Palestine.  To further complicate things she has only 10 days to find a father who has been missing for years, in a land she has only visited once before many years ago.

Once in Palestine, the story takes her from one city to the next and one village to another with pit stops at various historical sites along the way.   With lots of fragmented memories, the shadow world of Jinns, and a race against time and around the obstacles of the occupation, Jasmine rediscovers Islam, her family history, and the fears that haunt her.  She also meets Josh, a character of questionable allegiances, motives, and background himself, that constantly finds himself able to help Jasmine and possibly himself.

From Jericho and Jerusalem and Batien, Jasmine hears stories about her father from people that know her family,  as she pieces it all together and reunites with her family members, she understands her past and works to determine what path her future should take.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the backdrop of Palestine and the history and the richness of culture that is brought to light in a surprisingly non political way.  The interaction of the different faiths among the villagers and the love of the land is truly palpable.

The part I struggled with was the holes in the story telling, for each page that brought Jasmine closer to answering her one question of where her father is, the reader was given 27 new ones that would never be answered.  Where did the wealth come from, how did Jasmine’s parents meet, what were the circumstances that made Jasmine’s dad leave, who is Richard, who was Ali, how old is Jasmine, why are there so many Jinns every where, why is there secret passages in the mountain, how come she trusted Josh, how could Josh get from one city to another in record time, why did the soldiers at the check points know of her family and specifically her father, and most importantly why every time she meets someone that knows her family, why does she run away.   It is incredibly frustrating that every time the story hints at what makes her father so famous, or sought after or memorable, or hint at why he disappeared, something interrupts them and the reader is left in the dark, only to have the book end and no really understanding conveyed.

I get why the story is told in pieces, but really the story is confusing in how it is told, and it doesn’t need to be.  The author can write and the last 50 pages are really great.  For as confused as I was so often, I kept reading because the story is good.  There is just a tad too much with diving in to the past to understand the present, the supernatural of the jinn, the reemergence of faded memories and dreams, the political climate, the letters from World War II, that the character dynamics are lost until the end.  I care about Jasmine and am curious about Josh, but a little more detail to the relationships the two main characters have with all the other minor characters that they encounter would really make the story soar, and clarify so much.

One thing I didn’t love was the presentation of Jinns, I know it is to add cultural richness and a bit of muddled confusion, but really the story I think is strong enough without the supernatural and character building could have benefited in its place. I also really, really, really wished there was a map and an afterward telling what parts about Palestine and history and the Holy Cities is fact, for those of us that have never been.

FLAGS:

Jasmine attempts suicide, jumping out a window.  Jasmine also gets drunk a few times in the book before deciding to stop drinking as she doesn’t like who she is when she does.  There is some violence and killing talked about but not overtly detailed.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this as a book club book, but I definitely would encourage those with connections to Palestine to read the book.  And I am really hoping that someone, anyone, that has read the book will chat about it with me.  For all the questions I have, I’m optimistic that I just missed the answers and that they were in fact there.

 

 

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz

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I debated whether I should read this book, or listen to it as an audio book with my children, ages 2,7,8,11.  The AR level is 5.3 and Common Sense Media suggests 10 and up because of the intensity, but knowing my kids are aware of some of the heartbreak the book discusses from other fictional works and the news, I decided to share this emotionally powerful book with them.  Tears were shed, discussion occurred, and the stories I pray will haunt and bother my children for years to come, inshaAllah resulting in compassion and action.  

The book is 338 pages with maps, references, ways to help, and acknowledgements at the end.  The audio book is just over seven and a half hours.

SYNOPSIS:

Three kids stories are told in pieces as they occur in different time periods, in different parts of the world, and for different reasons, but the heart of the stories are not the differences, but the similarities that all three share.  The real life parallels of each horrific event, and how small the world suddenly seems, is amplified by the ties that connect these fictional stories to one another.

Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930 Nazi Germany.  When his father is released from a concentration camp; he, his mom, and younger sister Ruthie board the MS St. Louis headed for Cuba to try to find a new life.  However, Cuba refuses to let them in, and Josef’s father cannot escape the ghosts from his time in a concentration camp.  Returned to war in Europe, the family is once again on the run from Nazis and not all survive.

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. Unrest is growing in Havana and when Fidel Castro says people can leave, her family: Grandfather, dad, and pregnant mom, join their neighbors in their makeshift boat to try to reach El Norte.  The shark filled waters, tankers, getting blown off course, and a temperamental boat engine, all pose as obstacles for the family trying to get on dry land to avoid being sent back to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.  

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015 who’s life has been altered by the civil war, but when their home is destroyed by explosians, they must leave right then.  His parents, younger brother Waleed, and baby sister Hana,  begin walking, their journey will travel through many countries as they seek the promised land of Germany.  Along the way they will be held at gun point, be forced into detention centers, walk for days and put their lives at the mercy of the Mediterreanean Sea in a flimsy rubber dinghy. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this book takes huge pivitol historic events in our life time and gives them a face.  Numbers are often numbing as they are difficult to grasp, and political motivations are often so hard to understand in their complexities, that this book does a marvelous job of making it about the person, about the humanity at stake.  I challange any one, especially those opposed to letting refugees in, to not cheer these three on, to not get irrated by those that willingly can help and chose not to, and those being relieved when people finally do see them and do help.  Its amazing how far a little kindness can go, and seeing it in tangible terms is powerful.  Yes, taking into your home a refugee is a huge kind step, but so was the giving of water and asprin to Isabel and her family, or giving of clean clothes and a ride to Mahmoud and his family, or removing the protrait of Hitler from the Social Hall during Josef’s Bar Mitzvah, all little kindnesses that hopefully we can rememember.

I love that the author got Mahmoud’s religion right.  They stop and pray, they make duas, their cell phone apps for salat times all ring at once, they are Muslim and their religion is mentioned as they practice it, not as a storyline.

Overall, I was impressed at the book.  Many reviews online found issue with the structure of the stories being broken up and seperated, but listening to it, atleast, made them feel incredibly connected.  I absolutely enjoyed seeing the parallels of each story and the humanity of each chacter shine through.

FLAGS:

The book has a lot death, and violence, and it is intense, but, it is not glorified and it isn’t too graphic.  It is done tastefully to make a point and keep it real, but not to overwhelm the audience or sensationalize the events, although I don’t know that any fiction, could be worse than the reality endured during these time periods.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

A map, would be awesome, a big one.  I like that the author gives some tips to help, but I think more on hand would be beneficial as the urge to help others is pretty intense after listening to/reading the book.  Especially ways to get involved in Syria, as the struggle is still ongoing.  

There are lots of tools online as the book is published through Scholastic. 

https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/lesson-plans/17-18/refugee-discussion-guide/

Book Unit Ideas: http://bookunitsteacher.com/wp/?p=5858

Author’s page: https://www.alangratz.com/writing/refugee/refugee-discussion-guide/