Tag Archives: Prose

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published.  The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away.  This book unfortunately really fell flat.  I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps.  This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why.  The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me.  It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.

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SYNOPSIS:

Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh.  Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors.  Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way.  Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts.  Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist.  Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening.  Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer.  When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income.  At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves.  Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English.  A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength.  It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should.  The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab.  Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned.  The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected.  I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.

I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like.  I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira.  How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t.  I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings.  I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing.  It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading.   I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either.  If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.

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FLAGS:

Fairly clean.  There is bullying and mention of death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club.  It is a solid middle grade read.  Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya.  Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

The Prophet (salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)Described by Zaheer Khatri illustrated by Fatima Zahur, Elaine Limm and Jannah Haque

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The Prophet (salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)Described by Zaheer Khatri illustrated by Fatima Zahur, Elaine Limm and Jannah Haque

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This 48 page rhyming prose filled picture book details our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saw) in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and as stated by Hadith.  The repetitive refrain highlights the two-page spread’s thematic descriptions of Rasul Allah’s appearance, speech, mannerisms, walking style, etc., and the best part is, it is all sourced and referenced at the end.  It features the same two characters and the same layout, as The Prophet’s Pond, which this book even references, but notably, my copy of that book does not have faces in the illustrations of the boy and his mom, and this new book does.  I tried to see if you could find a faceless version and could not, perhaps, that option is forthcoming.  As I often remark to those around me, there are not that many books about Prophet Muhammad (saw) that are factual, but framed in a fictitious manner for children, or that are fun and playful, and this book helps fill that void in creating love and connection to the Prophet.  It is a bit text heavy and it is very thoughtful, but the repetition and rhyme along with the beautiful large horizontal illustrations, create a mood of reflection, appreciation, love, and admiration and will be suitable for ages five and up.

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Zayd and his mom are back and the book starts with Mummy telling Zayd that one day he will meet a special man inshaAllah, and Zayd asking her to give her details so that he can guess who it is. The first set of clues describe how gracious the most handsome man is, and how he will greet Zayd one day.

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The story then moves on to describe Prophet Muhammad’s fragrance, his hands, his words, his stature, his complexion, his hair, and so on.  As the details flow, Zayd and his Mummy journey through nature, standing near beaches, and forests, and rivers and waterfalls.  They cross a bridge on their way out of the city, and the full color pages move from night (or possibly really early morning) to day to night again.

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Zayd seems to know it is Prophet Muhammad (saw), but keeps begging to hear more details, before he proudly proclaims the only human whose beauty reaches so far is Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.  The book then says he will be waiting by a pond, but that is a story for another day, giving a shoutout to its companion book.

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There are questions recapping what is learned in the story before 10 pages of reference material.  It really is incredibly well done and is a great resource in addition to being a lovely story.  Thank you @crescentmoonstore for getting the book to me so quickly.

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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I had debated picking up this book knowing that it isn’t labeled YA and I’m painfully behind on a stack of books I want to review, but after reading @muslimmommyblog’s review I opened the first page: that was 24 hours ago, I couldn’t put it down.  I’ve seen a lot of comments about this book being more YA than adult fiction because it tidies everything up so precisely at the end.  I’ve also seen critiques from non Muslims that it is overly preachy at times.  Many Muslims are so swept away by the rawness and presence in Islam in the book that they are making their teens read it.  So I wanted to read it and review it to determine if it is appropriate from my perspective for teens, and offer my take on it.  Ultimately I think while much of the Palestinian-American protagonist’s life story in the book occurs as a child and young adult coming of age, that the “flags” are so critical to the story and so numerous, that no matter how deftly and non specific she handles these issues and moments, that the book really is meant for more mature readers. I’ll detail it more below in the FLAGS section but to highlight a few mature spots mentioned in the book to varying degrees:  extra marital affair, alcohol, making out, groping, nudity, sex, voyeurism, killing, shooting, physical abuse, profanity, suicide attempt, bigotry, etc.  The writing is absolutely superb, and it isn’t sensationalized, but it is there and provides understanding as to why the characters often are as they are to a point that you need to understand them with a certain clarity.  I would think this 298 page book would most appeal to early college age readers where one is hopefully open minded enough to understand the characters relationship with religion whether they are Muslim or not, old enough to have some of their own life to reflect upon, and on the cusp of a new chapter that they realize the role their choices can make as they move forward.

SYNOPSIS:

Afaf’s life story unfolds out of order and with occasional interruptions from an outside point of view.  It opens with her at work, as a principal of an Islamic girls high school in Chicago as we see her dealing with parents upset with things taught at the school and the balance she tries to achieve in guiding her girls to be strong, confident, well-informed Muslims in a diverse America.  It then flips back to 1976 and begins the tale of Afaf’s life with her parents, immigrants from Palestine, her older sister and younger brother.  Not ever feeling like she fits in at school, she loses any sense of normalcy at home when her 17 year old sister Nada goes missing.   There were problems at home before: her mother never being happy, Afaf never feeling her mother’s affection, her father having having an ongoing relationship with another woman, but as days and months go by, and no clues can find Nada, it will be the event that seemingly tore the family apart.  Afaf’s mother has a mental breakdown, Afaf’s father takes to drinking, and thus Afaf and her younger brother Majeed have to navigate much of their life on their own.  In high school Majeed finds baseball and becomes the ideal student and son.  Afaf lets white boys feel her up and has a reputation for being easy.  She doesn’t cross the line, but her reputation and name on the back of bathroom stalls is fairly accurate.  When their father is involved in a car accident, he finds Islam.  The family is very cultural, but not religious at all.  Eventually Afaf and her brother accompany their father, much to their mother’s protests to the Islamic Center and while Majeed has no interest in religion let alone Islam and never returns, Afaf feels an instant peace and the opportunity to redefine herself and continues to go and study Islam.

The book jumps regularly in sections, not every other chapter, and at some point it shows Afaf as an elementary school teacher making the commitment to wear hijab and preparing to wed a Bosnian man with a broken war filled past.  It jumps and has her brother home from law school visiting and her mother attempting suicide by drinking drano and being found laying naked in a bath tub.  After recovering, her mother returns to Palestine and never returns.  In yet another vignette, it has Afaf and her husband and father preparing to go for Hajj, where her father passes away, and has her returning to find she is expecting her third child a little girl.  There are other surprises that I’ll not reveal, but some of these jumps are interrupted by a voice of a radical alt right mant who walks into the girls school and starts shooting, finding himself face to face with the principal, Afaf.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am seriously blown away at the quality of writing, and the interweaving of religion and culture.  It is a main stream book and it has a lot of religion in it.  It isn’t so much long passages of preaching, the father would like it to be that way, but the other characters keep him in check.  But the quiet transformation of Afaf and having Islam save her from a life she was not content with.  I love that it has joy and happiness despite all the tests and obstacles.  The book could have been really heavy and drag, but it wasnt, it was compelling and hard to put down.  The characters will be with me a while and I can see myself rereading the book just to visit them again.  

I was a little confused with Afaf’s limited Arabic and her mom’s limited English.  How did they communicate? I get that perhaps it was symbolic of their broken relationship, but seriously when Afaf is seven and not understanding Arabic and her mom is not understanding the police and neighbor in basic English, something is a bit off.  I like that insight is given as to why Afaf is fooling around with any boy that wants her and that it shows it isn’t about the acts themselves.  I also like how it showed her conflicts in reporting an Arab child in her class being abused at home by her father and how the response was so sad by the community.  While Islam saves her and holds her to a higher standard, it doesn’t appeal to her brother, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy of people who are Muslim: abuse, owning liquor stores, and it doesn’t make everything better for her.  She has to suffer consequences of her choices, she just feels that Islam gives her the tools to persevere and understand and have hope.  

I love the food, oh man, hearing all the dishes being cooked and served and cleaned up after, really made me very hungry.  The cultural elements of the music and songs and oud really ground the book and make the OWN voice value ring so true and strong.  The racism and bigotry feels very real as well.  The author is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the way that she articulates such pointed examples of not being given the chance to move up in the elementary reading group, side comments the high school coach makes to her, and the general stereotypes thrust upon her, are very powerful.

FLAGS:

So there is a lot, as stated in the intro, but I want to articulate a bit of why I maintain older teens for the book even though it isn’t overtly sensationalized. I’ll walk through some of the major flag themes.:

Take the drinking. The father is an alcoholic, but the mother and children hate it, Majeed drinks beer with his friends, but isn’t Muslim, yet the Khalti is somewhat religious and they pour amber drinks at Thanksgiving. So there is some moral lesson, which I think you could argue is fine in YA or even middle grades.

Relationships/sex/body: The father is having an affair with a much younger woman, they refer to her as sharmoota and everyone knows about it, no other details are given. Afaf lets boys touch her naked body, but draws the line at intercourse, she says she on some level doesn’t want to do that to her parents or something of that nature. Right before proposing marraige, her and Bilal do kiss. Once they are married it mentions them making love in the mornings. It mentions masterbating and blow jobs. The shooter and his girl friend have sex, the shooter watches an Indian neighbor nurse her baby through the door and sees her exposed breast with some detail and then goes home and masterbates. When the mother is pulled out from the tub after attempting suicide it doesn’t just mention she was naked, it comments on her pubic hair.

Violence: An Arab Muslim male classmate, drives Afaf away from her bike and the slaps her telling her basically that she should not be such a slut. Afaf punches another girl in a fight at school. A child in Afaf’s class is being hit by her father. Mother lashes out at Afaf, she ends up burned. The climax is a mass shooting where 14 students and a teacher are gunned down and killed. Self harm: car crash while drunk, suicide attempt with drano.

Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would make a great book club selection for those in their early 20s and up. It is well done, just not for younger readers. The book is very popular and numerous author interviews can be found with a quick Google search.

Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan illustrated by Saffa Khan

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Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan illustrated by Saffa Khan

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This 40 page book of prose begins each stanza with “InshaAllah” and reads as a beautiful prayer from parent to child.  Each two page spread is filled with warm vibrant colors and illustrations that radiate love while complementing the slow pace the book is meant to be read with.D900B288-5527-4519-8EDF-EE830D3A464D

The book is clearly from an Islamic perspective, yet I think any religious family would find beauty in the book.  The author has a note on the title page that defines inshaAllah as meaning God willing in Arabic and explains how it is a common wish/prayer for people of other cultures and faiths as well.  She also explains that that each line is inspired by the Quran, but universal for people everywhere.

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Some of my favorites are:”InshaAllah you seek knowledge, reflect, and read, InshaAllah you speak truth and work for its sake. InshaAllah you have faith that won’t waiver or bend. InshaAllah you are kind to those most in need.”

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The illustrations show a family that at times wears hijab and at others does not.  It shows multiple generations, and diverse characters in terms of skin color and mobility.  The illustrations at first weren’t my favorite, but they definitely grow on you.

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Over all the story reads like a lullaby, and is soft and sweet at bedtime particularly.  The 10 x 10 size would make it work well in groups as well, and I could see it used to lull kids to sleep at nap time with great success for the youngest baby to early elementary.

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Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

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Sitti’s Secret was published in 1994 and given the events of the week, I’d say it is more relevant today than it was when written.  And if by some chance the events of the week haven’t affected your children, then the poetry and soul of the book still makes it an amazingly powerful story.

Mona travels from America to Palestine to visit her grandma, her Sitti.  Without the ease of speaking the same language, Sitti and Mona learn to communicate and build a tight bond cut too short by a vacation coming to an end.  When Mona returns she sees the news and writes a letter to the President, telling her Sitti’s secrets, telling him they would be great friends, and telling him they only want peace.

Truly Nye is a poet, even in Turtle of Oman her words transport you to a place where time slows down and the connection between a child and a grandparent make you nostalgically yearn for a simpler time.  Having spent my summer’s abroad visiting my grandma I could relate to so much of this book and truly had to still my heart.  The little things, like examining your grandma’s hand, or hanging out laundry, or brushing her hair. Even that dreaded final hug as you prepare to leave,  I could relate and it was enchanting.

No where in the book does it mention the Middle East or Islam, only at the beginning does she hint at it by dedicating the book to her 105 -year-old Sitti in Palestine, it mentions that she speaks Arabic and a few words are sprinkled in. And the Grandma does wear a scarf.  Other than that the book is by and large not political.  If you know that Nye has a Palestinian father and American mother and often writes semi auto biographical pieces, the book can take a bit of a different role to the reader.  Many reviews criticize the activism upon her return (the letter to the President), and found it disjointed to the rest of the story.  But in today’s climate I found it empowering and hopeful.  The world will only find peace when we put a face to those that are different to us, and even children can change our stereotypes.  I love that my children are seeing that they can make a change in the world today, and to see it reinforced in literature was gratifying.

The book is 32 pages and written on an AR 3.9 level.  The illustrations are beautiful.  They bring the words to life in a tender and heartfelt way.  The detail is subtle but deep and i have found myself thumbing back through the pages to get lost in the illustrations multiple times.  I think the book works on different levels for different age groups.  If you have a family that has to overcome great distances to be together, even younger readers will be able to identify with the story’s tenderness.  If you are in 3rd-6th grade and are aware of what is happening in the world you will be inspired.  If you just are looking for a sweet book, subhanAllah it manages to fulfill that category too.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney illustrated by Shane W. Evans

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I didn’t realize the book was written in prose until I opened it up to read, and immediately taken-aback I rechecked the AR level and sure enough, this 309 page book that is written in prose and covers the genocide in Darfur, is written on a 4.2 level. And it is amazing. I forced myself to stop reading at one point so as to not rush the depth and soul of the simple words from being lost in haste.  It is truly, in my opinion, a beautifully remarkable feat to convey such horrific atrocities with such hope and integrity to young adults in a palatable and inspiring way.

“Allah is the light,” he says.

I ask,

“How do you find Allah’s light?”

Old Anwar says,

“Take the path that shines the brightest.”

SUMMARY:

Amira’s life on her family’s farm is by no means easy, but she has loving parents, a little sister, her beloved sheep, and a dream of going to school.  Her father advocates for her, but her mother, steeped in tradition, sees education only as a waste of time.  The illustrations and sparse words manage to convey fairly solid understanding of Amira’s life, optimism, and relationships with those closest to her.  Although warned of the dangers the Janjaweed could cause, Amira remains fairly unconcerned about the mounting political unrest around her, until it is too late.  When death and the destruction of her home force the surviving members of her family and neighbors to seek refuge in a camp many miles away, the reader sees how truly horrific her experiences have been.  She refuses to speak or rather cannot, when a chance encounter with an aid worker brings her the prospect of getting her voice back, through the empowerment of a red pencil.  With restored determination she convinces an elder neighbor to teach her, but it is not enough for Amira Bright.  Her sparrow needs to soar free.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You expect a book written in verse to have a lot of imagery and symbolism, and The Red Pencil does a good job of balancing the story and the description, to keep the book on track.  The linear story line remains focused on telling the story at hand, making it attainable for elementary and middle school children.  The Darfur conflict is complicated at best, and using verse to convey it from a young girl’s voice allows a lot of the politics and dirtiness of war to be side-stepped without dismissing it.  Amira’s optimism and hope is at times naive, but more as a reflection of her personality then out of ignorance. She sees things, and feels things, and must deal with things, no child should, but her spirit shines through and keeps the book from being depressing, while still being sad.

Today the red pencil does more

than beg for my hand.

It makes me a promise.

It tells me to try.

The characters are Muslim and they rely on Allah, and pray, yet Amira’s thirst for knowledge includes that of learning the Koran (Qur’an) as that knowledge too, has not been readily available to her  There is a lot to discuss in the book, both what is written and what the reader brings to it.  I look forward to teaching the book, and re-reading it once again to savor in the rich images.

Here,

Muma stoops.

Here,

she has nothing to reach for.

FLAGS:

Their is violence when the Janjaweed attack her family.  But I think it is conveyed in a manner suitable for 3rd grade and up.  It is not celebrated or glorified, it is traumatic and has repercussions that are respectfully conveyed.  There is also mention of a child bride, but not in so many words, that in all honesty I doubt most young readers will be as bothered by it as perhaps they should.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a discussion guide in the back of the book along with an Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, Glossary/Pronunciation Guide, Character/Location Pronunciations, and Important Terms that Appear in the Book.

An Educators Guide: http://media.hdp.hbgusa.com/titles/assets/reading_group_guide/9780316247801/EG_9780316247801.pdf

A study guide and quiz: http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-the-red-pencil/free-quiz.html#gsc.tab=0

The Red Pencil 1