Tag Archives: Refugee

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.

The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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The Library  Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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It seems this polarizing 32 page picture book has instagram reviewers torn, perhaps along racial/cultural lines, as to whether the book is wonderful or simply victim to perpetuating the same old tropes and stereotypes.  Maybe being half brown, I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself in the middle.  I think if you are tired of feeling like the only strong Muslim female from the subcontinent acknowledged by the West is Malala Yousafzai, and seeing her single narrative and experience being repackaged in a new book every other week, then yes, this book is going to grate on a similar nerve and OWN voice or not, you will write it off as Afghanistan being close enough to Pakistan and the story of a girl and education being unoriginal.  I think the flip side is that if you find a female lead taking education in the form of a library bus to the places where formal education is not available and you love the empowerment that women educating women can have in changing a society, then you are going to probably love a female driving a bus, a female teaching, a girl planning to go to school, a grandfather making sure in a previous generation when women couldn’t be educated, that he taught his daughter, and being thankful that it is a person from the society and not a “white savior” coming to help the people in Afghanistan.  Both as far as I can tell have merit.  I think that you see in the book what your paradigm and perspective is before you even start.  I have read it and re read it and then read it again over the span of many weeks. I was alerted to it by @muslimkidsbooknook who sensed that we might disagree before she even posted her review (haha it’s like she knows me!), so my review is going to try really hard to focus on the text, and what it says, not on the 30 books before it that had a similar message or on my views on publishers only accepting manuscripts with reassuring easily palatable narratives, there is enough of that already about this book out there.  I’m going to try and offer my perspective on what the book contains and while it has problems for me, I definitely liked it more than I disliked it. Oh and one more thing: the illustrations, swoon, are gorgeous, like really, really beautiful. Bismillah…

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Pari and her mother are getting ready to set off in their library on wheels.  It is Pari’s first day as her mother’s helper and she is a little nervous. It is dark when Pari’s mom drives the bus to their first stop- a small village tucked in a valley between two gray mountains.  There are a group of girls waiting for the bus and call it over to return books and pick new ones.  This reminds me of my time in New England and hearing about the Book Mobiles and Mobile Book Fairs that would visit the small seaside towns that didn’t have proper libraries.  Even my mom used to tell me stories about waiting for the Book Mobile to stop on her street in Davis County, Utah to get books once a month.  The concept is universal and that it takes place in Afghanistan and is driven by a woman who is educated and independent, is intentional with the hopes of being inspiring.

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The girls then gather for a lesson, it is hard to know how impromptu it is or if it is a regular organized class.  It is also not made clear if they always practice English or it is something unique to the day, but they sing the alphabet song and count to ten.  After class a girl tries to chat with Pari and see how much she knows.  Pari lies and says she can print, but in reality can’t even read or write in Farsi yet. This shows a gap in the story as earlier Pari said she could barely count all the books in the library, and in the pictures there are a lot of books, but she is trying to keep up as the girls count to ten.  As the mom and daughter team pack up to head to their next location they discuss how Pari’s mama learned.

Pari’s grandpa taught her mom a long time ago, at a time when girls were not allowed to go to school and she had to hide in the basement to learn.  Pari wonders if her mom was afraid of the basement.  It is always dark down there.  It is really one paragraph on one page that mentions that girls could not learn.  It is presented in the past tense, and as the story progresses we learn that next year when Pari is older she will be going to school.

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There is a two page spread about the mom seemingly going off on her mantra that learning makes you free.  And I’m ok with it.  It says when you go to school study hard, period, then the next line says, “Never stop learning. Then you will be free.” Yes! I agree, how many of us pursued a skill or a hobby during this pandemic to feel free from the confines of staying at home.  Learning in any capacity is liberating.  It may not keep you safe in a war, but the freedom of the mind to find peace and pursue passions is critical to mental health and survival.  Am I reading too much in to these basic lines? Absolutely, well probably anyway.

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When the bus gets to a refugee camp with tents everywhere, Pari and her mom start handing out pencils and notebooks before settling in to what seems an organized English lesson of ABC.  I am torn on my thoughts about them stressing English over their own language.  A sense of pride in who they are by learning Farsi or Dari or Pashtu would show readers that Afghan culture is rich and worth learning and valuing.  I worry that by stressing the English, it presents the culture and language erroneously as the opposite.  At the same time, as a child and teen, I went to Pakistan over a dozen times and would beg my (middle class) cousins to teach me Urdu.  I’d make them take me to Urdu Bazaar for dictionaries and text books, and preschool grammar books so that I could learn my father’s language.  And it never happened.  I’d beg in letters before I got there, and they would agree, but when I arrived they all wanted to work on their English.  They wanted to practice it in conversation, they wanted me to read over their assignments, they would introduce me to their coaching center teachers, their principals, the tutors, and I’d find myself teaching them colloquialisms and explaining idioms, and I’d watch my “textbooks” gather dust.  This was before social media, and YouTube and Netflix and I was their link from their studies to the larger world that rewarded knowledge of the English language.  Is it correct or even logical? No.  But it was my experience that they desperately wanted to learn English over Urdu or the required provincial language Sindhi.  Would readers of this book know that? No.  Do critics of them learning English wish that it wasn’t the case more than wishing that the book simply didn’t highlight it? I don’t know.

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As they leave the camp, Pari reads the letters of the refugee organizations off the tents.  I find it off that earlier she called it ACDs instead of ABCs and yet now she knows the alphabet.  Again I’ve read the critiques questioning why the refugee camps are named and have over thought it.  In some ways I think it is a reminder that the country has been at war and that individual organizations are helping care for those displaced by countries that tore the country apart.  The text says that, “there are no schools for the girls in the village or the camps.” If anything I took this to show that while we stereotype Afghan society as not making education of females important, that international relief groups don’t either.  The great saviors aren’t teaching the girls in the camps, a mom and her daughter come once a week.  There is a subtle yet powerful critique of foreign policy there, if you want to really be honest, I think this should be made more clear.  At the end of the day the strong Afghan people are putting their country back together after a never ending illegal conflict has ravaged them further.

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The author says in his note at the end that this book is based on real people he met in refugee camps when he returned to his homeland and that this book is a tribute to the strong Afghan people, particularly the women.  Imagine where any war torn nation would be without the bravery and determination of mothers and teachers, and women who will risk it all for their children and ultimately an entire generation, when politics and power have found other things to value.

The book on its own I think is fine, allbeit written plainly for western readers.  Do I wish stories about life in this part of the world didn’t feature war and refugees and education, absolutely.  We can argue my experience compared to your experience, to the author’s purpose and intent, to the publisher’s vision. That is the beauty of books, we don’t have to agree and we can discuss and we can all be better for it.  There is nothing Islamic in the book other than some of the characters wearing a scarf or chador or hijab.

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Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

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Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

This middle grades, upper elementary book is a character driven contemporary story of two friends with their own fears coming together: one a native of Tampa, the other one a refugee from Syria arriving in the US on the day Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ goes in to effect. In 272 pages of alternating narratives, two 12 year old girls find strength and kindness in themselves, in each other, and in many around them. Islamaphobia is focused on in the story, but the inclusion of diversity, Black Lives Matter, anti semitism, mental health, social justice, and US immigration makes the book relatable to everyone and interesting to explore. The book is remarkably similar to another book published this year, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and I wish I had not read them so close together. Both are well done, and I honestly don’t know if one is better than the other, but space them out so you don’t find yourself comparing them. I got my copy from Scholastic, and I’m always happy when the school market shows accurate strong Muslims, so if you see this in the book order forms that come home or book fairs and are wondering if you should get it, do it, it is worth your time and your child’s, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

Noura’s family has escaped Syria and had been living in Turkey when they learn they have been granted assylum in Tampa, Florida, USA. When the book opens Noura is practicing controlling her fear of water as the plane flies over the ocean. Her twin brother, Ammar, her parents and baby brother Ismail are greeted with protesters when they land. Whisked away by a church group and local Muslims, the family is given support and assistance in a new country.

One of the members in the church group that have volunteered to help the Alwan family, is Jordyn and her mother. Jordyn is going to be Noura and Ammar’s Student Ambassador at Bayshore Middle School and Jordyn’s mom has offered to help Noura’s mom learn English. Jordyn is the state title holder in swimming, but while she was swimming her fastest race, her mom was having a miscarriage, and both have a lot to work through to function as they once did.

The two girls immediately hit it off, and the families follow. Noura’s love of birds is mirrored in Jordyn’s love of water and fish, and both have their fears and mental health coping skills to bond and confide in with one another about. The girls and Ammar are assigned a Social Studies assignment and Jordyn getting close to the Alwans is not well received by Jordyn’s close friend Bailey who’s brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Other classmates also show bigotry and with the real incidents of 2017 incorporated in to the story of a mosque being burned, Jewish cemeteries being ransacked, pedestrians being run-over in France, and more, the Alwans are questioning their new country, and their friends are wondering how America has gotten this way.

While praying at school Ammar and Noura are constantly harassed no matter where they relocate to, and finally ask the administration if there is a safe place they can worship. Florida law says a space can be set aside for all faiths to have the same access as clubs do (I’m overly simplifying), and many different and diverse students come together to turn an old closet into a place of peace, worship, freedom, reflection, and meditation. As expected, the space is destroyed, the culprits never caught and complaints to the school board mount. The ultimate climax involves the kids speaking up about what the space means to them, and waiting to see what the final school board vote is. Along the way there are smaller victories, such as Jordyn teaching Noura to swim, Ammar speaking about the white helmets saving him, and Jordyn and her mother working together to heal.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Muslim Ban is discussed in a way that it is personal, not political. By highlighting a fictional manifestation of refugees affected by such policy, even people that don’t know anyone affected, I’m certain would feel a connection to a concept and its affects in a very real way. I love that N.H. Senzai was brought on to make the story’s Islamic elements ring true and that the prayer room, a very American Muslim construct ends up being at the center of the story. Noura and her family eat halal, wear hijab, and pray. I enjoyed that other diversity and acceptance issues were carried in to the story by the supporting cast including a Jewish boy, a Cuban girl, a Hindu and more. Overall the book is well written and solid, the mental health and coping skills are so beautifully normalized. Both girls have sought help and found success with it, and both are brave in addressing their fears and opening up about them to those around them. It really is empowering.

The end of the book features more information about the real Syrian children heroes mentioned in the book: the ten year old model builder Muhammad Qutaish, the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, and education activist Muzoon Almellehan. There is also information about the two authors and how their collaboration came to be.

I would love to not compare this book to A Galaxy of Sea Stars, but just to highlight a few of the near exact similarities would prove my point that had these two books not been published the same year, one would definitely be accused of copying the other. Both feature middle school girls, both have a refugee arriving to a coastal town with their families (one Afghan one Syrian), both have the American born protagonist loving water, being an only child, and have mothers going through their own life changing crisis. Both have two side kick friends, one that is very anti Muslim and one that is on the fence. Neither have a completely resolving happy ending with the three girls’ friendship and there is doubt in both books of friend’s possible involvement of hate motivated actions. Both feature a side character’s brother being killed in conflict in a Muslim majority country. Both feature an amazing teacher that is very involved in opening minds and facilitating growth regarding prejudice. Both feature PTSD issues, and fear of water issues as well as a major hobby being destroyed by an angry classmate character. The ‘ethnic mom’ in both stories is rather one dimensional but loves to cook and feed everyone. Sure they also have their differences, one alternates point of view and is tied closely to current real events, but both have remarkably similar themes of friendship, overcoming fear, and finding similarities over differences.

FLAGS:

Some mention of violence as the Alwans recall the destruction and fear of war in Syria. Mention of a cartoon drawn by a classmate mocking Jordyn getting her first bra, but it isn’t detailed. The swimming coach is a lesbian and she mentions her wife at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely encourage elementary teachers to have this book on their shelves and encourage students to read it and respond. I think it would be too predictable for middle schoolers to read in a critical manner, however, they would probably enjoy it as a light read. With Covid 19 still keeping me from starting up book clubs again, I have been asked to consider helping put together some side reading lists/suggestions, and this book would definitely find its way on that.

Happy Reading!

My Friend the Alien by Zanib Mian illustrated by Sernur Isik

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My Friend the Alien by Zanib Mian illustrated by Sernur Isik

This adorable 96 page book is a great early reader for second graders and up. The play on the concept of being an “alien” is filled with a lot of heart, humor, and thought provoking concepts on what it means to be human, have feelings, and be a good friend. There is nothing religious in this book by a Muslim author meant for all children, but with the name Jibreel and him being a refugee (“alien”) many Muslim children might assume and relate to his plight a little stronger.

SYNOPSIS:

Maxx the alien has come to Earth to understand human feelings. His trip was ok and landing successful, but he hasn’t heard from home and the Filandoo Sperk is broken. Told in diary form, the fart jokes start rights away as he lands in a cow pasture. He heads to a city disguised as a human and discovers chocolate. He also discovers Google and uses it to help him understand human emotions.

As he gets on public transportation he finds that humans smell different, and some are not so nice. At the park he finds how humans talk about baby dogs, he forgets the name for those, very odd, and love very gross. On Day 4 he makes a friend, Jibreel, who is looking at books and magazines about Aliens. He knows he isn’t supposed to talk to humans, but since no one from home is talking to him, he figures it might be ok. When the boys head outside they see two grown men fighting about a parking space and turning red, they punch each other and don’t stop until an old lady whacks them with her purse. Emotions are flying around everywhere and Maxx hopes Jibreel can help him understand it all.

Maxx and Jibreel head to the library the next day for the “All Things Alien Exhibit” and boy do we have it all wrong. As Maxx tries to correct the exhibit and explain the truth about aliens, Jibreel just finds him funnier and funnier, not believing that Maxx is from outer space.

The two boys become good friends and when bullies from Jibreel school start giving Jibreel a hard time, Maxx learns about hugs, and helping a friend out. Maxx starts having feelings. When the boys get called aliens and Maxx makes them both go invisible, Jibreel realizes Maxx is an alien from another planet and Maxx learns that Jibreel is a refugee. He also learns that Jibreel’s misses his mom who wasn’t able to escape with Jibreel and his brother, and is still back in their country.

Maxx makes the bullies look foolish to help Jibreel, but Jibreel is not happy and Maxx has to learn about being kind even when you really want to be mean. Now that Maxx is having all sorts of feelings, he too confides in Jibreel that he is worried about not hearing from home and Jibreel offers to help him fix the Filandoo Sperk.

The only problem is the spaceship after the initial tour, goes missing. And so are the bullies. I won’t completely spoil the ending, but there is a surprise and happy ending for everyone.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Oh I love how the story weaves feelings and emotions in with bullies and friendship in such a smart way. The book is silly with the fart humor and assumptions about aliens, but it really is clever. The vocabulary doesn’t talk down to the reader with words such as abomination and the observations of someone new to Earth offer the reader a chance to add their own silly persepective to the fictional set up. American children might need a bit of help with the British jokes, like the name of the chocolate bars, but it really is such a universal story that will stick with adults and kids alike.

The end has some questions and activities to do with the book, and with the exception of Jibreel’s name being spelled wrong on one these last pages, they do a good job of helping make sure kids grasp the story.

FLAGS:

There are fart jokes, and mention and illustrations of kissing on the cheek as being gross. Bullying, being mean, and two men fighting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is great for 2nd and third graders to read and discuss. I don’t do a book club for that age, but I did have my 2nd grade nephew read it to start a conversation about feelings and emotions with him and it worked great. We talked about how things make us feel, understanding when we see other people acting a certain way how they might be feeling. We discussed how even if we think someone deserves something, our own integrity needs to come first. We talked about being a good friend and how being away from our mom and family would make us feel. From top to bottom this little chapter book, packs a lot of discussion options under its silly superficial layer.

Yusra Swims by Julie Abery illustrated by Sally Deng

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Yusra Swims by Julie Abery illustrated by Sally Deng

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This 32 page biography told in sparse rhyme about Yusra Mardini is powerful in its minimal text and realistic illustrations.  Children as young as six could easily read it, but I think older kids will be more moved by the story of a 17 year old girls Olympic swimming dreams being derailed by war, and the difficult journey her and her sister took to escape.  With no more than 10 words on each two page spread, the vocabulary is more suited to perhaps third grade and up.

Yusra lives in Syria and dreams of the Olympics.  She trains even as conflict grows in the country.  When it gets bad, she has to flee, her father can only afford to send her and her sister.  Smugglers are paid and they leave.  They take on the open sea, and her and her sister steer the boat through the water when the engines stall.  Once they reach land, and pray, they are stared at.  A kind stranger offers her shoes. They continue on land by foot, bus and train.  They finally reach Berlin.

Once settled, she resumes her training, and a fact page at the end shares how the International Olympic Committee invited her in 2016 to join the Refugee Olympic Team and compete in Rio de Janeiro.  And thus she achieved her dream and was able to swim in the Olympics.

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There is nothing religious in the book, except when she is leaving and is hugging a woman in hijab.  Presumably it is her mother, and thus I’m assuming that she too is Muslim. When you google it some articles say she grew up in a muslim family while others say she is Christian, so I really have no idea.

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Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan illustrated by Anna Bron

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Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan illustrated by Anna Bron

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This 40 page picture book meant for 4-7 year old children is full of diversity, community and love.  The only thing missing, is a recipe for the dish, foul shami, that Salma recruits everyone at the refugee Welcome Center to help her make to cheer up her mom. Possible flag is there is a gay couple featured in the text and illustrations.

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Salma and her mom are refugees from Syria living in Vancouver, and desperately missing Salma’s dad who still has not been able to join them.  When Salma shares her sadness with Nancy at the Welcome Center, she is encouraged to draw her good memories.  And then Salma has the idea to cook a dish from home for her mom. The other kids at the center mention foods they miss, Ayman from Egypt, Riya from India, Evan from Venezuela.   Then the translator, Jad, from Jordan helps her find a recipe online.

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Convincing herself that she can do this, Salma  draws a picture for each of the ingredients since she doesn’t know the names in English.  She then heads to the market with Ayesha from Somalia, an older girl that helps her cross the street, and get the needed groceries.

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Back at the Welcome Center to cook. Malek and Amir, a gay couple from Lebanon help her chop the vegetables and kiss away each others onion tears.  The spices make Salma sneeze, but she can’t find the sumac.

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Granny Donya from Iran has the missing spice and reassures Salma that she can do this.  That is until the olive oil bottle slips and falls and shatters.  With no more money and feeling discouraged, it takes Nancy and everyone else to convince Salma not to give up as the dish is made with love and Mama will love it.

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Everything is set up to surprise Mama with the dish, but once mama comes home and the door bell rings, it is Salma who is surprised with all her friends coming over to bring her olive oil.

Mama laughs and tells Salma her smile is home, and Salma dreams of riding her bike around the Vancouver seawall laughing with her friends and Mama.

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I love the sense of community that it takes to make the dish and that she finds love and support from so many.  I also like her determination to make her mother smile along with her willingness to accept help when she needs it.

I’m assuming the family is Muslim, the mom appears to remove a scarf when she returns home, Ayesha and Granny Donya also wear hijab.

 

 

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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This memoir may qualify as non fiction, but the majority of this 176 page book is told from the perspective of the author when she was three years old, so much of it reads to me as somewhere between historical fiction and autobiography.  No matter how you categorize it though, this AR 5.8 book is better suited for middle school and up. I love that this is is a Palestinian perspective of the Six-Day War and the immediate aftermath, but after reading it, I’m not haunted by the atrocities of the Israeli occupation so much as, some of the choices her family made.  I got my copy through Scholastic and in excitement, purchased multiple copies that I sadly think will sit in a box as I doubt I’ll find many students that will enjoy this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is divided into three parts with the first and third being short letters written in 1981, and the second part being the majority of the story taking place between 1967-1971.

The first part is a high school Ibtisam getting detained at a checkpoint after heading out to check a PO Box that she uses to keep in touch with her pen pals from around the world.  She reveals what life is like and shares the joy of learning about the outside world from her correspondence, but that she rarely talks about her childhood and her life during the war.  Part two is her sharing that.

The Barakat family lives removed from neighbors and a city, but Ibtisam loves her two older brothers and younger sister and at three years old is happy.  When war comes, the family decides to run, in the process Ibtisam doesn’t have time to find a shoe, and then she gets separated from her family and swept up with the people running for the caves to escape the bombings.  Once reunited with her family, they along with numerous other Palestinians make their way to Jordan and some safety.  Safety comes at a cost though and the family is separated as her father leaves to find work.  When the war ends, the family moves from the shelter and finds a small room to rent until they can return home.

Once the family returns home, things do not return to normal as the Israeli army begins training near their house causing Ibtisam’s mom to worry constantly in her attempts to keep the children inside and away from the windows.  Eventually, the mom takes the children and herself to an orphanage in Jerusalem saying that their father cannot keep them safe.  Ibtisam is close to her father and this dramatic change does not sit well with her.

In the orphanage, the boys get separated from the girls and eventually their father promises the mother to build a wall and make repairs to the home and purchase a goat if they come home.  They do, and the kids are grateful to be together again.  The boys then start school and the goat has a baby and life carries on.   Ibtisam grows close to the baby goat and their father promises that he will remain the children’s pet and will not be slaughtered.  But, when the boys are 8 and 9 they get circumcised and the feast involves the goat.

The next major event in young Ibtisam’s life is when she finally gets to go to school.  Incredibly smart, her mother essentially equates her love for her daughter with her success in school and with that motivation and predisposition to learn and excel, she does very well.  One day on the way home, she is sexually assaulted by an older boy, and makes arrangements to always have her brothers with her when walking.  Her parents are not made aware of the offense, and don’t seem to investigate Ibtisam’s change in attitude toward school.  When an Israeli soldier attempts to assault her mother, the family moves once again and part three is a teenage Ibtisam quarreling with her parents and once again excelling at school.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that tidbits of memories are woven together to give an overall impression of the author’s childhood.  The book is a quick read and is compelling enough to hold one’s attention.  The family is culturally religious, but the book makes a point that the father prays, not indicating that the rest of them do or even know how.  I love how the freedom and hope that Ibtisam has comes from learning the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alef.  The love of language and the power found in reading and writing, is celebrated in its reverence to the learning of the letters.

I don’t get the mother, and while I get that war is a horrific time, and she is 24 when Ibtisam is 3 and has like four kids, so her life is definitely not easy, I still find it disturbing to me that she would lose a one shoe-ed daughter, take her kids to an orphanage to live while both parents are alive and well, and be so cold to her daughter.  The father seems to be loving to the kids, but he still slaughtered their pet, and I’m guessing culturally circumcisions are done at that age, because that seems incredibly cruel.

FLAGS:

War, loss, sexual assault, details about the circumcisions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I won’t do the book as a book club selection and while I know the book is in many libraries and classrooms I doubt many kids would be compelled to pick it up and read it based on the cover and synopsis on the back.  I have a few Palestinian friends that I will ask to read the book to see if they find it an accurate representative of life during the six-day war and even today as it could definitely be used to teach about the region, the conflict, and writing a biography about life for others to learn from.

 

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.

 

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/

 

 

Lubna and the Pebble by Wendy Meddour illustrated by Daniel Egneus

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Lubna and the Pebble by Wendy Meddour illustrated by Daniel Egneus

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This beautifully illustrated book with simple text and story, is heartwarming and powerful in conveying emotion about child refugees. 

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The 32 pages tell the story of young Lubna who has escaped something horrible and picks up a pebble when she and her father reach their new home, a World of Tents.  She finds a felt tip pen and draws a face on the pebble and the pebble becomes her friend.  She tells it her secrets, her dreams, she keeps it warm as winter approaches.

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Then a little boy arrives, Amir, and Lubna and he become friends and she introduces him to Pebble.  One day Lubna learns she is leaving the tents to go to a new home and even though Pebble is still her best friend, she knows Amir needs him more.

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This book is truly a picture book, as the text is made magical because of the pictures.  The simplicity and love that Lubna feels for a rock reveals how much pain she has seen without details having to be given.  The fact that Amir doesn’t laugh or find being friends with a rock odd, cements the idea that these children have seen too much.  The compassion that Lubna displays by passing on her beloved Pebble also shows how much love and comfort they have, we all have, to give.

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The book has many layers, and the superficial one makes it a sweet story for children as young as four, the deeper understanding would appeal to kids up to 2nd or 3rd grade.  There is no mention of religion, culture, or a specific country.  I think Muslim children will assume Amir and Lubna are Muslim, but really the names could be from any culture or faith.

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