Tag Archives: refugees

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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The Roses in My Carpet by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Ronald Himler

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The concept of “refugees” is not a new one, but with the pervasiveness of the term in the news right now, children are starting to need some understanding of what it means to be a refugee, and how to empathize with what their classmates and friends may have endured.  Books like One Green Apple, The Red Pencil, and Four Feet Two Sandals are great, and I excitedly hoped this one would be a great addition to the theme.

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The book is leveled as an AR 3.2, but I don’t know that many eight and nine year olds would be able to grasp some of the content unassisted.  This is a good example of the limitations of Accelerated Reader.  Yes, diction and sentence length are third grade level, but content is a bit heavy in this 32 page water-color illustrated book.

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A young boy is telling the story of his life in a refugee camp in Pakistan.  The nightmares of jets dropping bombs opens the story and sets the tone of a very frightening reality that this boy, his mom, and his sister Maha face.  His father, a farmer, had been killed, and I think the author does a good job of showing readers that although the characters are now in a refugee camp, food and safety are still not a given.  I think we as westerners tend to think, ok they had to leave their home, and that is sad, but now they are taken care of, and this book clearly shows that, that is not the case. The boy mentions that someone has sponsored him and helps them with money, something his father wouldn’t have accepted, and I’m not sure why this is included.  Perhaps to show that people still can help and need to, or to show that affluent people donate as a way to ease their conscious without working to fix what caused the problem in the first place? I don’t know. It would lead to some good discussions with older children, perhaps fifth grade and up, as the author doesn’t make it a good or a bad thing, but does introduce it none the less.

The environment is drab, “Here, the walls are mud, the floor is mud, the courtyard is mud, too” and the day-to-day chores monotonous, lining up for water, for food, going to the mosque to pray, and going to school.  For some reason, not sufficiently explained in my mind, the little boy hates school.  A sharp contrast to stories that show how appreciative many children in other parts of the world are at the opportunity to study and learn. The boy rather, loves weaving.  He looks forward to escaping his reality and getting lost daydreaming in the weaving of beautiful colorful images where the bombs can not get him.

The characters are clearly Muslim, as they pray and wear hijab and go to the mosque.  They trust Allah when they are faced with challenges, but no details of belief are conveyed and it simply describes the characters. The book does not come across as whiney to me, and while there is some hope that radiates through when the boy is weaving, it really is a sad book.  It is made more depressing when Maha is hit by a truck, she thankfully survives with broken legs, and by the thought that although the boy wants to use his weaving to provide for his family, the future doesn’t seem bright.  In the end perhaps running free on a rose filled carpet where the bombs cannot get them only exists in his dreams, a sobbering thought for the characters and readers alike.

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Four Feet Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed Illustrated by Doug Chayka

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A beautiful hardback picture book I picked up at the Scholastic Warehouse sale, at 32 pages long and an AR level 3.2, Four Feet, Two Sandals, works well as both a story time selection to younger students and as independent reading for up to 5th grade.  The story is about two refugee girls that come to know each other when relief workers throw donated clothes for the people and Lina and Feroza each end up with one sandal each of a beautiful pair.  Rather than fighting or being ungrateful, the girls work out a plan so that they can both enjoy the sandals and in the process, become friends.  The girls share their stories with one another, and thus the reader, about how their families have been affected by war and how they came to be at this refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.  The girls dream of school and their futures and show the readers a bit of their daily struggles getting water and doing chores.  When Lina’s name shows up on a list to go to America, and Feroza’s does not, the friends must part and decide who gets the sandals.

While it probably bothers some that America is seen as the saving grace to sweep Lina to a better life and pander to an American audience. I think it makes sense seeing as the book was co-authored by the executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center and was inspired by a refugee girl who asked “why there were no books about children like her.”  Clearly refugees do get a chance at a new life when other countries open their borders and stories like this that give our children insight into the world they have left behind, with the hopes of fostering compassion, is something that I definitely want to share with my own children and students.

The author’s website and reading guide: http://www.karenlynnwilliams.com/files/sandals_guide.pdf

The Friendship Matchmaker Goes Undercover

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I’m posting yet another Randa Abdel-Fattah book that my mom stumbled upon and sent me 10 copies to do for our Book Club. I didn’t love the book, but it is clean and brings up the issue of bullying, friendship and honesty.  So, I’ve decided to do a 3rd- 5th grade Jr. Book Club and use it as a starting point to discuss this critical social realms that they are facing.  The book is a 4.4 Accelerated Reader level and has no Muslim characters or themes.

SYNOPSIS:

This book is the second in the series, and, thankfully, having not read the first book, The Friendship Matchmaker, didn’t hinder my understanding.  Told from the perspective of Lara Zany, a former friendship matchmaker of Potts Middle School, the reader gets to know the major characters at the school and their problems.  Lara now has a best friend and has retired from the matchmaking business, but old habits are hard to kick, and as a new student from Somali out plays the school bully in soccer, Lara is forced to go undercover to help her classmates.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book doesn’t stand out in the genre, but it is fun because I think 3rd through 5th graders deal with everything in the book, every day.  The book shows restraint where a lot of books over do it.  The characters show growth, they aren’t disrespectful and they aren’t all painted with a simplistic brush stroke.  The bully has redeeming qualities and no one is perfect or hopeless.

FLAGS:

The book is clean in regards to violence, relationships, and language.  The only concern I have is there are two major instances where the characters lie, and there are no consequences.  The smaller breaches of honesty the characters in some way or another must own up to, but there are two scenarios: a forged field trip signature, and an untruthful excuse given for being late to class, that rubbed me the wrong way.  Before allowing students to check it out for the purposes of Book Club, I sent a note to the parents with these two concerns and left it to them to encourage or discourage their student’s from checking it out.  My goal is to discuss why the author included these in the book, and realistic alternatives that would promote honesty, but still allow for a happy ending.