Tag Archives: refugees

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

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Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

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I was not expecting to be so absorbed by this 362 page AR 5.4 book.  I knew it was about a Syrian refugee in Brussels and his friendship with an American kid living in Europe for a year, so I knew that Islamaphobia and immigration would all be factors.  I also knew that as a middle grade book it would be optimistic, and a bit of a stretch at times,  but when I had to pause in the first chapter to wipe the tears off my cheek, I knew that while it could be billed as, another refugee story, it really was going to be a poignant story about humanity and friendship and family and making a difference, so I settled in and was swept off to Belgium and the adventure of two determined kids.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with 14-year-old Ahmed on a boat with his father hoping to reach Greece from Turkey, when the boat stalls, his father and two other men, the only other people on the dinghy that know how to swim, jump into the sea to drag the boat.  When a storm swell hits them, his father is lost and Ahmed, who left Syria when an explosion killed his mom and sisters, is all alone.

Max is 13 and his parents and sister have just arrived in Belgium for a year.  Not a great student, Max learns that he will be going to a local school where French is spoken, and will be repeating 6th grade.  Less than thrilled with the news, he is additionally hurt that his parents didn’t tell him first.

The two stories start off separate with Max trying to find his footing in school and scouts where he understands very little, and has no desire to learn, and is also getting picked on by a kid named Oscar.  He learns about the history of his street and house during World War II from his after school tutor and a police officer that used to live in the house they are renting and makes regular checks on how it is being maintained.  

 Ahmed has been staying with Ibrahim and his family, another man that tried to drag the boat in the sea, but with news that they are probably going to be forced to return to Iraq, suggests that Ahmed register in as an unaccompanied minor so that he could find a place to stay.  Ahmed knows that if he registers in Beligium he will never make it to England, he hires a smuggler for 300 Euros to get him there.  When the smuggler steals his money and his phone, Ahmed worries his organs could be next, and jumps out of the moving car,  

Ahmed runs through a neighborhood looking for shelter and safety and some warmth from the frigid air.  Ahmed finds the basement of a house unlocked, he then finds a wine cellar room that is empty and decides to stay for the night as he figures out his next step. One day turns in to two and before he knows it, he has a routine of finding food upstairs during the night, which he records so that he can repay the family one day, caring for the family’s discarded orchids, and working on his English.  Then one day Max goes downstairs and discovers Ahmed living there.

Deciding he isn’t a terrorist, Max decides not to turn Ahmed in nor tell his parents, and the two become friends.  The two enlist Farah, a nice Muslim girl at school to help, and they get Oscar too, to forge papers to get Ahmed in to school.  While the biggest problem should be keeping a kid hidden in the basement, and keeping him fed and entertained, the situation is compounded as terrorist attacks by Muslim extremist plague the city and Europe, making everyone on high alert.  The police keep checking in and anti immigrant sentiment rises.  When Ahmed gets accused of being a bomb maker his secret is out, but can his knowledge of how a jewish boy was hidden in the neighborhood during the war keep him free? Nope, I’m not going to spoil it, you have to read it, trust me, you’ll thank me for it!

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love, love, love, the history parallel, and the truth in the story of Albert Jonnart and Ralph Mayer that is woven into this modern fictional story.  I love that Max so plainly says that the stories are the same and that laws that aren’t right shouldn’t be followed, yes! The book reads a lot like Refugee by Alan Gratz crossed with The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf with the kids being so heroic and determined and awesome, throw in a dash of The Diary of Anne Frank, switching out a boy for a girl, a Muslim for a Jew, the basement for the attic, and a diary for a fictional story, and you have this book.

I love that the adventure and excitement shows how resourceful kids can be even when they don’t share common language.  Max speaks English and is learning French, he is helping Ahmed learn better English and some French, when they talk to Farah who speaks Moroccan Arabic /Berber, they often have to go through Oscar who speaks French and English.  Yay, for American television and kids who’s hearts are bigger than the obstacles they are taking on.  Additionally, when the kids hit a dead end, they reach out to Jews in America for help, knowing that the two religions have more in common than politicians and the media would like to think.  Seriously, kids should rule the world.

Ahmed is a religious boy that prays, refuses meat even when hungry to ensure it is halal, and makes sure that Max knows in Islam kindness and charity are the norm and commands, not the violence that people are doing in the name of his religion.  A lot of the moms of the kids at school where hijab, and the author gets the Islam right and believable.  It doesn’t get preachy, but a fair amount of information about Islam is shared.

FLAGS:

A lot of lying. Some violence, death, hate speech. There is mention of smoking and the adults I think drink wine at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m hoping to do this as a middle school book club selection, because it really is so good.

Author’s website: https://katherinemarsh.com/books/nowhere-boy/

Teaching: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tid=60364

 

Amira’s Family by Elliot Riley illustrated by Srimalie Bassani

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Amira’s Family by Elliot Riley illustrated by Srimalie Bassani

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This 24 page, AR 1.5 book, is part of a series for emergent readers about different families.  The other books in the series focus on diverse family models, some that include a single parent, or lots of siblings, one in the series has foster kids, another adoption, one has two moms, so I’m not entirely sure why a refugee family is included in the group.  The family had to leave a dangerous home, but mom and dad and Amira, are not a “diverse” family structure, by the same definition used for the other books.  So, on its own it is nice to have a book for independent kindergarten and 1st grade readers, but as part of the collection, I find it a bit of a stretch.

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The book is divided into three chapters, or sections I guess, perhaps so that early readers can gain experience with a Table of Contents at the beginning.  There is also a Picture Glossary at the end along with a page encouraging Family Fun and a bit about the author.

The book starts out introducing Amira, and her parents.  It then explains that they just moved to a new country, America, when a war started in their country.  It notes that Amira was sad to leave her home, and scared to move to a new place.

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When Amira starts at school, the classmates welcome her and help her with the language.  It shows her teaching her language too, but it doesn’t look like more than random squiggles.  It then shows she likes recess and swings and slides, allowing the reader to see similarities with the character.

C2E8EF21-AC7B-4594-AA53-68B9764AB84DWhen the family goes shopping, Amira sees an American flag, buys it, and hangs it outside their home.  Amira loves her family and they love her, and it seems like they love their new home too.

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The illustrations are simple yet expressive, and show Amira and her mom in hijab.  It does not mention religion, or what country they left.

The story is basic, yet introduces young readers to the concept of refuges in a soft way.  It shows how the classmates are kind and the parents supportive of Amira.  I like that it also shows various emotions in the text and illustrations.

It might be making a bit of a political statement with the flag and national identity undertones, but I think it is a good thing to show that refugees can love a new country and be part of society, especially given the current climate toward immigrants.

I think the strength of this book is that it shows a Muslim character, and while meant for all new readers, Muslim children particularly will enjoy seeing themselves in a book they can read.  I’d check the library before buying the 8×8 paperback book, as it isn’t particularly memorable, but for the age group it serves a diverse and an inclusive purpose.

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Amira Can Catch! by Kevin Christofora illustrated by Dale Tangerman

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Amira Can Catch! by Kevin Christofora illustrated by Dale Tangerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sadia by Colleen Nelson

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A middle school sports book with a female lead who wears hijab written by a non muslim.  The book could really go a lot of ways, I held my breath for all 239 pages waiting for something to go totally awry, and thankfully it never did.  In fact I read the book nearly straight through and while meant for ages 12 to 15, I quite enjoyed it.

SYNOPSIS:

Ninth Grader Sadia Ahmadi is an immigrant from Syria, her family left before things got “bad,” and while she has adjusted to life in Canada, High School is testing her in other ways.  Her best friend Mariam, an immigrant from Egypt, has started dejabbing, taking off her hijab to fit in it seems any chance she gets.  This is taken as a betrayal by Sadia and their friendship waxes and wanes throughout the book as each girl has to figure out who she is in relationship to hijab, and how to judge and/or accept each other and their choices.  Throw in a new refugee girl Amira from Syria who doesn’t speak English, a co-ed basketball tournament that doesn’t allow any headgear to be worn during games, a cute boy on the team and an awesome teacher with interesting assignments and you have the book in a nutshell.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like Sadia, she is believable and strong.  She is well liked, athletic, she has a good relationship with her parents, brother and teachers, she prays and fasts and owns who she is, but she isn’t perfect.  She is hypocritical at times, and acknowledges it, she is tempted by parties, and boys and taking off her own hijab to play ball, and has to confront it about herself.  She doesn’t do things like pray on time, like she knows she should, but there she is and I am so impressed that the author picked up on so many nuances of Muslim life in her research or in her own observations as a teacher.  Yes, Amira has an awkward observation about Miriam being Muslim and not wearing hijab that seems really one dimensional considering large numbers of Muslims in Egypt and Syria don’t cover, but I don’t know if that was the author’s attempt to draw the issue to the light or if it was just a misstep.  

I like that there is a cute boy that accepts Sadia and who she likes as well, but they don’t do anything.  So often, these books become overrun by the romance story line and this one doesn’t, thankfully.  It seems to find a realistic balance, that she has feelings, but isn’t going to act on them, and based on her mom figuring out when she is lying that she won’t try and sneak behind her mom’s back.

Issues of halal food are mentioned in passing and it fleshes out that the girl is Muslim, not just going through the motions.  At times it is hard to know if her choices are based on belief and faith or expectation, but for an early YA/Middle School book, I think it suffices.  She mentions modesty as a reason for hijab, but also a lot of parental and cultural expectation.  One central theme the reader just has to go with, is that Sadia and the rest of the characters in the book, and there are a fair amount of Muslims, don’t know about any other ways to wear hijab for sports.  I get that Mariam and her sewing ability is a huge arc in the story, but they have smart phones, and its a contemporary piece, they have to know about Ibtihaj Muhammad in the Olympics, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, and Nike making athletic hijabs.  So, to make the story work you do have to turn a blind eye to the fact Muslima’s have taken to sports in the mainstream and that there is no way they can all be that clueless about her fabric, style, and covering options.

I love that the issue of refugees is addressed in the periphery, and the issues are given a human face.   I love that Sadia’s parents are religious, but not left as simple stereotypes, they deal with Islamaphobia, but aren’t looking for sympathy.

There is always the case, that the hijab becomes a stereotyped item as the story involves characters torn to wear it or not, but I loved how judgements were called in to questions and there wasn’t an easy answer.  The side friends in the story are all way too good to be true, but I think the whole book has a bit of a pollyanna feel to it, and in this case it was ok to error on the side of kindness than become overtly sensationalized and whiney.

The biggest hurdle this book faces is, is it the author’s story to tell. And I don’t know, I review a lot of books, and many are by Muslims and they get stuff wrong in my opinion, or they go so extreme to be accepted.  So, I don’t know, I think the book had heart, I didn’t know if the tournament would let Sadia play, I didn’t know if she would sneak off to the party, I didn’t know if she would cross the line with Josh, and I was curious, and invested and sucked in to it all.  Is it a book to teach others about Muslims or a book for Muslims to see themselves? I think all of the above.  Muslim’s should control their own narrative, but I think when author’s get so much right, we have to take some reassurance in the idea that we are being accepted by the larger society, and our stories are being told with love by other’s too.

FLAGS:

There is romance and lying, but no kissing, just hints at emotions or an errant arm flung over a shoulder during a huddle or photo.  There is mention of drinking at the parties, but Sadia doesn’t end up attending.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would do this as a book club selection, but if I met the right group of kids, I would definitely reconsider.  There is a lot of basketball, which I quite enjoyed, but I could see other’s maybe getting bored by the play-by-play.  I’ll make my daughter read it in a few years, and I look forward to discussing hijab and how she feels about it after.  It does raise the subject, and ask you to check your judgements on yourself and on others.

Author’s Website: http://www.colleennelsonauthor.com/

 

 

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

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There is a lot to be grateful for in this 145 page AR 5.2 book before you even begin reading it.  The fact that Katherine Paterson, of Bridge to Teribithia fame, would write a middle school book about the horrors that took place in Kosovo in the late 90s and conclude with the events of 9/11 is both bold, and daring.  There isn’t a lot of mainstream YA literature about the events that happened in the Western Balkans and this book is much needed in shedding light on a history that cannot and should not be forgotten.  While the book doesn’t compel the reader to pick it up, I think as a novel study in school, or as suggested reading, kids 4-8th grade will benefit from the story and retain the humanity presented in the characters.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows 13-year-old Meli Lleshi, an ethnic Albanian, and how her world changes as Serbian atrocities escalate. The story opens showing how while there is tension in the air, a lot of the Lleshi family’s life is relatable to today’s western readers.  The children go to school, they have a big family and help out at home.  The dad owns a grocery store under the house and the neighborhood is made up of Albanians and Serbs, Muslims and Christians.  Quickly, however, bad news of the Serbs kidnapping people and destroying homes becomes reality as Meli’s 14-year-old brother Mehmet, goes missing.  The police refuse to help and with no other recourse the family is left to wait and see if he returns.   Luckily he does, but as fears continue to grow the family leaves home to go live at the familial farm in the country.  This stop is temporary and the first of many as the family moves from one refugee camp to another.  Fighting to stay together and look forward, as that their homes, livelihood, and material goods have all been destroyed, the Lleshi’s end up in America, only to be faced with the discrimination following 9/11.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I had the priviledge of helping with a lot of Bosnian and later Albanian refugee families that came through Salt Lake City, Utah in 1998-2001.  Not in any official capacity but as outreach to help get them settled, enrolled in school, a friendly face to call on for help, and eventually a friend.  Later, I even interviewed many of them in a series I did for my journalism classes at the University of Utah.  This story rings incredibly true to what I recall hearing them speak about.  What they saw, what they had to sacrifice, what they hoped to achieve in America.  So I was almost giddy to learn about this book knowing that it wouldn’t be a “fun” read, but an important one bringing a fictionalized account of a historical horror to children that probably have never even heard about it.  I only wish so desperately that the book had a map in it.  There is a great historical note, but a map would have made it so much more impactful. 

I like that the family is Muslim, they do not practice, but they identify as Muslim and are thus tortured both in Kosovo and harassed in America.  They are served a ham at one point in America, and they eat it, noting that culturally they don’t eat it, but don’t really see the big deal in doing it.  I remember the first time my family went to meet a Bosnian family and there were no men in the house, all had been killed at the children’s elementary school at dismissal for being Muslim, and they served us beer.  The ham incident reminded me of that, that these are so often the religious rules we tell others and children about what it means to be Muslim, but in the grand scheme how important are they compared to belief in the oneness of God?  I don’t want to turn this literary blog into my theological thoughts, but its hard over the years to forget that these people died for being Muslim, but yet really didn’t know a lot about Islam.  In my safe sheltered world, I know a lot of people that know a lot about Islam, but would we be willing to die for being Muslim?  The Lleshi family don’t pray or go to the mosque, but they do sprinkle their talk with Arabic words like inshaAllah (God willing), and their names are Islamic in nature: Mehmet, Adil, Isuf, etc., they are forced to relocate because of both their nationality and their religion, where the line is between one identity and the other isn’t clear in the book, nor is it in real life.  

FLAGS:

There is a bit of articulated violence, but the book is clean for 4th grade and up.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this for a Book Club selection, and if I was a upper elementary or middle school teacher for a novel study.  The book balances character narrative and historical context to the point that the book is not boring, sensationalized or easily dismissed.  I think kids will need the school environment and structure to compel them to pick up the book and finish it, but will not fight the actual reading of it.

A guide for book discussion: https://media.btsb.com/TitleLessonPlans/454.pdfTeacher’s Lesson Plan: http://mrscarafiello.weebly.com/day-of-the-pelican.html

 

I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

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I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

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Three new kids, not just at school, but to America as well. Maria is from Guatemala, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah from Somalia.  All three telling about what they are faced with as they settle in to their new life and routine, and all tell a bit about how things were back home.  FullSizeRender (48)

This book is not entertaining or fun, it is educational.  Written for ages 5-8 this book is very straightforward as the three characters stories are interwoven to show the growth and settling in that they experience.  The simple sentences, allow the reader to learn real, tangible ways that this children are finding the transition hard.  It also alleviates any sense of pity as it shows the full lives they had before coming to America. 

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I love that the other kids in the class are involved in real life ways to help welcome the new kids to class. Sometimes we are harsh on kids that don’t show empathy or compassion, forgetting that often they don’t know how.  This book works for adults and children in all situations.  We all need to put ourselves in other peoples shoes and see what struggles they are facing, we all need to help one another, and we all need to facilitate environments where these actions can take place.

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The book in many ways would fit well with One Green Apple, as it gives the perspective from the character who is new and articulates some of the obstacles they are facing, while also showing the interactions that help one to feel welcome and comfortable.

The pictures are crucial to the story as they show the feelings of the children and give context to the simple storyline.  I love that their is so much additional diversity in the illustrations: children of all body shapes, there is a student in a wheel chair, Fatimah wears a hijab, and there are male and female teachers in the book.

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The Author’s Note at the end of the 32 page story tells of her experience as a white American child living in South Korea, and some of her feelings and thoughts of being in a new country.  There is no mention of Islam, just implies Fatimah is a Muslim based on her dress, her mother’s clothing, and her country of origin.  

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abel-Fattah

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It is kind of remarkable now that I look back on the book, that before reading it, I knew exactly what was going to happen based on the jacket flap synopsis, yet somehow the book held my interest and I finished it easily.  There were no surprises, no plot twists, not even any amazingly poignant passages, yet, I kept reading, so there is some merit, perhaps in ideas, even if the story line wasn’t meticulously crafted.  At 390 pages, this 4.8 level AR book is not for elementary or even middle school readers, it is a high school and up for content understanding and appropriateness.

SYNOPSIS:

The dual storylines are told from the intertwined perspectives of Mina, a Muslim refugee to Australia who fled Afghanistan in a boat, and Michael, an Australian upper middle class high school student whose parents run an anti-immigration group and oppose the arrival of refugees.  The two see each other on opposite sides at a protest, and reunite when Mina earns a scholarship to a prestige posh school, and the family moves so that she can attend.  Naturally the two clash, then fall in love.  Along the way there are slight changes as the characters grow, some side stories about friends and family members, and like the title suggests, crossing of lines, so to speak.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the book in terms of its political plot is actually pretty nuanced.  You could say it is framed as a good vs. bad, but it isn’t that simple, and I think the characters shed light on the gray area in between.  In many ways Michael changes and grows and challenges himself to go out of his comfort zone created by his family.  He forces himself to see where immigrants live, he steps foot in a mosque, he researches the detention centers and what not, to learn that he doesn’t agree with his parents.  I wish, however, that all of these scenarios would have been slightly more memorable, maybe an interaction at the mosque, or follow-up by talking to Mina about it.  The lack of reflection made his journey seem like he was changing his views for a girl, and not because of a deeper understanding.  At the end his mom even asks him about it, and I kind of had to side with her in wondering about his motives.  Mina’s personal growth is more in that she learns to trust new people, and let them in.  Her growth is not as obvious as Michael’s and I think some would put her on the “good” side and see her as a stagnant character.  She is greatly shaped by the death of her father and brother, by the escape and journey to Australia, and then having to move again for school, but in the course of the books timeline, she really doesn’t change much.  Her Islam is really culture, she doesn’t pray, or mention anything about her belief or faith.  Halal is not explained, but is just seen as a political tool to protest and argue about.  Mina never goes to the mosque, and even for religious reasons never questions if she should have a boyfriend, but worries what her mother will say and thus does keep it secret.  For all realistic purposes, she is portrayed as a Muslim as a political identifier that illicits stereotypes and assumptions by others, not as a description of what she believes, behaves, or thinks.  Michael’s parents are where the real meat of the story for me was.  Understanding how they see themselves as “not racists” ordering ethnic foods from all over, but actively working to keep non-assimilating foreigners out.  Their organization claims to promote the idea of upholding Australian values, not of disliking other countries values, and I think this is really what so much of the world is facing right now. The ethnocentric idea of being so great and understanding in words, but not in behavior and policy making.  Michael’s dad goes overseas and feels sad, but doesn’t feel compelled to help, rather than to keep those people from changing, “his” world.  As the book mentions a lot, his parents in other ways are kind, good people.  It really isn’t good against evil in all facets of life.

I think my favorite part in the book are the female relationships.  I love Mina’s friend Paula, who quotes Oscar Wilde and while on the outside has it all together, lets Mina see the real her.  She is smart and feisty and seems to stay genuine throughout.  I like that Mina’s friends from the “old neighborhood” are still in her life and I even like how close she and her mom are.  It’s nice to see females helping each other, there is power in that, that fiction helps remind readers about.

FLAGS:

There is mention of sex, nothing explicit, but side characters hook up, are accused of being sluts, and it is definitely there.  The main characters kiss regularly.  There is some swearing and lots and lots of lying.  Mina can’t go out after library hours because that is where she says she is, when she is elsewhere.  There is fighting, alcohol, clubbing, and smoking mentioned throughout.  None of the aforementioned flags are glorified or even praised, but all are there.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a student book club, but I think it could be done as an adult book club.  The politics need some background and understanding, that I think some discussion would be enlightening in a community or larger society setting.  Sometimes even in the real world, meeting people different than ourselves does wonders for changing preconceived notions and stereotypes.

The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman illustrated by Karin Littlewood

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The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman illustrated by Karin Littlewood

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This powerful book about Hassan’s first day at school is a bit graphic, and incredibly important.  While it is a picture book, it is definitely not meant for small children.  The rich water color illustrations and the impactful text match the AR level 3.6 and would really appeal to thoughtful 2nd through 4th grade students.

A refugee from Somalia, Hassan finds it “tiring remembering even a few English words.”  He misses the color of Somalia, his cat, the warmth of the sun, and the freedom of learning out doors.  He doesn’t miss the violence though.

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When it is time to paint, Hassan paints his home and his family, all 9 of them, and his pets, in bright happy hews, much to the delight of his teacher.  But then, Hassan, engulfs his house with the red paint of flames, smudges out his Uncle Ahmed when the black bullets that take him down, and Hassan communicates his sadness to his teacher.

Hassan doesn’t take his picture home, he knows it will upset his mom and little sister, Naima.  The next day, a translator comes to help Hassan.  Fela is Somali and wears a black hijab, like Hassan’s mom, but western clothes, a new concept to the young boy.

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Through Fela, Hassan opens up to his teacher and explains what it was like when the soldiers came and he had to hide under the bed.  How they had to leave without any of their stuff, including his beloved pet cat Musa.  All they could take was his father’s prayer rug and the Quran, as they set off on foot in the night.  He tells about leaving his grandparents and cousins behind and being scared on the plane.

Being able to share his fears, seems to help as he paints a new picture to share with his mom.  This one filled with his animals, and not with fire and bullets.  There is hope for Hassan as he looks forward to adding color to his new life and reminds himself to learn the english word for “home.”

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The book  is great for seeing the experience through Hassan’s eyes, and taking the reader through some of his adult like fears, and childish stresses.  Older kids should appreciate that what he has lived through is horrific, but his understanding as a child is slightly limited.  It should increase empathy, compassion, and kindness.

While the illustrations are rich and detailed they are very realistic.  This adds to the somberness of the book, and keeps this work of fiction a very real reminder of the world and what trials so many go through.

The characters are visibly Muslim, but there is no mention of religious doctrine, and readers may not know what a prayer rug is or a Quran.  They will be able to use context clues to figure out hijab, but there is not a glossary in the back.

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

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Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

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Often children’s stories of refugees fleeing war are hopeful in a forced way that seems to want to protect them from the reality of what is going on in the world.  As adults we often cling to the ones with happy endings for our children and for ourselves, because the tragic ones are too numerous and overwhelming to comprehend.  This book marvelously does a great job for those older children in the middle that are beginning to understand the world around them, while not bombarding them with the severity of how cruel we can be to one another.  This true story instead focuses on a beloved cat and all the humans of different backgrounds, all over the world that help reunite her with her family.  Giving hope, but also showing the difficulty in the world, and the effects even one person can have in making a difference.

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Kunkush’s family goes to great pains to get themselves (all 6 of them) out of Mosul, and away from the war.  That the fact they sneak their beloved cat with them, shows just how much a member of the family he is. They drive through the night, and walk for days over a mountain, they reach a Kurdish village where they sneak the cat on a bus to Turkey, they then have to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, only to land in Lesbos and have Kunkush disappear.  The family searches as long as they can, but alas have to move on to their new home.  From here the story switches from following the family to following the cat and all the people determined to reunite him with his family.  Unfortunately, they don’t know where the family is.  Amy, a volunteer, takes the cat to the vet to get cleaned up, and then creates an internet campaign to try and find his family.  People from all over the world donate to his care, and his travel expenses.  Eventually, Amy takes the cat to Germany, where many refugees have resettled and continues her search.  Finally, word gets to the family in Norway, and Doug, a photographer, arranges to fly the cat to her new home. Alhumdulillah.

img_3838.jpgOne could argue that countless people are misplaced each day due to war, and we overlook it because it is easier than dealing with it, so why care about a cat.  And to that I challenge the skeptic, animal lover or not, to read this book and not have your heart-strings tugged.

IMG_3839The book is done beautifully.  The pictures are warm and endearing and are the only proof that the family is Muslim, by their hijabs.  The love the family has for their pet is expressed in the illustrations, and even more so by the real photographs at the end of the book following the Note from Doug and Amy.  At 48 pages the book works really well for 3rd grade and up (it isn’t AR) who can marvel at the cat’s journey.  I particularly think this book is a great way to show children another aspect of refugees.  There are a fair amount of books that talk about the refugee experience or show refugees getting adjusted to a new home.  But, this is a great way to show that refugees are not just defined by a word.  They are vibrant individual people just like everyone else.  By focusing on the cat and his journey, the reader sees what a refugee goes through, particularly this family, and hopefully will stop and think about it.   But it doesn’t just show the family in that capacity, it shows them as a vibrant family who loves and desperately misses their cat- something more children may be able to relate to.

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