Tag Archives: school

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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Islamaphobia is rampant in today’s America, but it isn’t the first time that a minority group has had to face extreme persecution.  Often us Muslims need to look around and be reminded: Blacks are still targeted, Japanese once were interned, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, really every minority group has, and continues to struggle to be accepted as part of American culture, unfortunately.  Today’s middle school students didn’t live through 9//11 and often they think they are the first to be ostracized for their faith or their parent’s countries of origin.  So I picked up this book to see how well the book would serve as a way to discuss prejudice and persecution with Muslim kids, in a way that they could relate to, but be removed enough from that hopefully they could offer their own insights and experiences.   This book takes place in the 1970s and the climax is the Iran hostage situation as the book is told from an 11-year-old Iranian girl’s perspective. 

Similarly, most Persian penned books that I’ve read fight against Islam and the way it was forced upon them by their government, so I also wanted to see how the author would paint the faith in her semi auto-biographical-middle-school tale.  Alhumdulillah, I was happily surprised how Islam was handled in this 378 page, AR 4.7, book, and I think, like the inscription reads, “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason.  This one’s for you.”

SYNOPSIS:

Zomorod has lived in America before.  She was born in Iran, moved to California, moved back to Iran, back to California, and now from Compton, California she is moving to the much wealthier Newport Beach and hoping to start middle school fitting in more with her new Brady Bunch inspired name, Cindy.  Establishing early that she is the translator for her mother, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want to learn, and that she is somewhat embarrassed by her parent’s thick accents, lack of American snacks, Iranian food, and conversation topics, the book will appeal to most middle schooler’s who can relate.  Her parents, however, are pretty chill about letting her go out with friends, and doing whatever she wants, so really its more about the age and being angsty and awkward, then it is about her parents and their lifestyle and culture.  The basic point of the book is a growing-up tale of making friends, finding real ones that care about you, finding the balance between family and the outside world, cultures that conflict, the past and the future, and ultimately finding acceptance and pride in who, and what you are.

The political climate in Iran and in America amplify what it is like when people hate your country, but can’t find it on the map, and manifest in the story with bullying at school, Zomorod’s father losing his job and not finding a new one, and some hateful acts occurring at the Yousefzadeh’s home. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could be heavy and dark, but it’s not.  The voice of Zomorod really stays in the persona of an 11-year-old girl and is poignant, clever and light-hearted, I even laughed out loud a few times.   The 1970’s backdrop isn’t too alienating for today’s readers, as there aren’t a lot of cultural references that would turn them off.  The historical significance, is very likely one they will not have heard of before and the book, through Zomorod’s eyes, will shed light on Iran in the late 70s and early 80s without boring the target audience.  They might even learn something and remember it.  

The stereotypes about Iran are addressed, the concept of a single person having to represent every one of that minority group is felt first had through the main character, and many misconceptions about Iran are clarified.  Yet, the book doesn’t get preachy, it maintains its lightness, and while I read it in a few days, it was just as easy to put down as it was to pick up.  The characters felt real and developed for the most part, so even though it was a tale about life, it was compelling enough to stick around, and you are invested enough to care how the characters are doing. There are a lot of really great supporting characters in the book as well: neighbors, friends, teachers, friend’s families, and a few not so nice characters that surprisingly aren’t painted with a singular condemning evil stroke.  The author is very careful to reserve judgement of all her characters and the sub groups they represent.

Which brings me to how Islam is handled in this book.  Her family doesn’t practice, but her reference for Islam is shia, as evident by her mentioning 12 imams.  I took pictures of most of the pages where Islam is mentioned, less than 10 in all, but where it is mentioned it is handled very politically correct and powerfully.   She talks about how they don’t celebrate Christmas or most holidays as they aren’t Christian or really American, but when the pool key is lost she does pray to a Christian Saint after a suggestion that such an act will help it be found.  It isn’t really presented as a religious act, more of one done in desperation. Here are the most applicable and relevant passages regarding Islam.

  • Dr. Klein shakes his head in sympathy.  “Do your wife and Cindy have to wear those cover-ups if you go back?”  “Yes, and I cannot believe this.  When we lived in Iran, my wife, my sisters, all the women I knew wore western clothes.  No tennis clothes like you see here, but regular clothes.  Only religious women chose to wear hijab, it meant something.  Imagine if everybody in America had to wear a cross around their neck or a Star of David-what would those symbols mean? Nothing. If you have to wear it, it means nothing.  If you choose to wear it, it means something” (168).
  • “The Ayatollah is Muslim, right? So is, like Allah, his God?”  “Allah is the Arabic word for God,” I say.  “It’s the same God. (154).”
  • We don’t have Saints in Islam, just a Prophet with twelve imams, and they don’t preach to animals or help find lost items,  My family, like most Iranians, is Muslim, but we never do anything religious.  I’ve never even been in a mosque, which is like a church (40).
  • “Being Muslim means different things to different people,” I say.  “My family doesn’t do anything officially religious.  My dad says religion is kindness and that’s what everyone should practice” ((184-5).
  • “…even though we belong to three different religions. We are alike in so many more ways than we are different.” 

FLAGS:

The book is fine for middle school readers, there is mention of Cindy’s dad trying alcohol at one point in the past and not liking it.  Cindy’s friends tease her once or maybe twice about liking a boy and Halloween is celebrated.  There is a lot of lying in the book, but it is made clear why, even if she doesn’t always feel bad about it: she is embarrassed by her mom’s food and lies that she shared it, she withholds information a lot, she pranks the neighbor lady who left a dead rodent on their porch, etc.  Hopefully the demographic won’t be inspired by Zomorod’s antics and just find them as her way of dealing with life.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun book club book to discuss being new to a country, minorities, how to handle conflicting cultures, and how to be and have good friends.

Educators guide: http://firoozehdumas.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ItAintSoAwfulFalafelguide.pdf

https://www.floridamediaed.org/uploads/6/1/4/2/61420659/ms_-_it_ain%E2%80%99t_so_awful_falafel.pdf

https://www.bookmovement.com/bookDetailView/49051/It-Ain’t-So-Awful,-Falafel-By-Firoozeh-Dumas

Author’s page: http://firoozehdumas.com/books/it-aint-so-awful-falafel/

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An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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A young adult Islamic fiction romance novel, yes its a genre, albeit small one. I braced myself for stereotypes, cheesiness, over simplifications, sweeping condemnation, and preachy reprimands.  They never came.  I think this book is different, because from what I felt while reading it, and from what I’ve read the author say, this book is written for us: Muslim females, raised in the west, devout, strong, involved, and vulnerable.  It isn’t trying to convince anyone of Islam, or prove our place in America.  It isn’t trying to justify relationships or make us hide in our houses, rather it is taking us up to the line, showing us our strengths and weaknesses, and leaving us there to think.  In 282 pages, I saw myself crystal clear in the protagonist, the vilifying community, the determined best friend, and the steady parent.  It is easy to judge, but this book gets the nuances, the temptation, the justification, the internal battles, and it does it all without resorting to extremes that would make it inappropriate for upper middle and high schoolers. Yay!

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah Ali has grown up in small town Wickley, Pennsylvania, her whole life.  Her dad owns the local hangout, she is well known and well liked ,and very involved at school and in the masjid that her father helped start.  She has a best friend who is Muslim and although her mother has passed away, her home life with her dad and older brother is solid and supportive.  Senior year, however, is where the book takes place, and with Islamaphobes protesting and a new boy, Jason, in town coming to her rescue, the stage is set for her to have to decide how much their “friendship” crosses her internal boundaries of right and wrong, and when feelings are on the table, what choices she will make.

Throughout the book, there are numerous supporting characters that have their own roles in shining light on the situation from the outside and adding context to the world that Sarah lives in.  But this is ultimately Sarah’s story, told from her perspective, and the internal conflicts are believable because they are hers, the reader can see a mile a way what is going on and what will happen, but to see it unfold within her is at times a little naive, but considering her age, plausible.  It is her denial and acceptance of the situation at hand and what her role and hopes are that make the story very hard to put down.

The book in many ways is subtle, I don’t want to give to much of the plot away because it is obvious, it is a love story between two teenagers that can’t have a future based on the fact that she is Muslim and not willing to compromise that.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real feelings involved and real consequences to the choices that are made.  Throw in the gossip mongers at the masjid, an older brother who is concerned, an ever patient father, and a handful of others and the book feels incredibly real. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

Things are never black and white in real life, nor does reality prevent emotions and desires from breaking out.  There is no shaming in their tale (other than by the judgemental aunties), but there are consequences that are also given their time and spotlight.  From a parenting perspective it shows how a few questionable decisions can really get you in a heap of trouble and heartache, even if on the outside you can argue you did nothing wrong.  Even in the book Sarah remarks that they didn’t do anything, but yet, they did so much, this understanding is really powerful, and so needed for the teenage demographic. The book does not celebrate Sarah and Jason’s relationship, although I must admit I did kind of cheer for them at some points (I know, haram).  It shows that they are good people, but that there is a bigger picture.  It also shows there is life and hope, and forgiveness after, in the healing.

I love that Sarah’s dad is awesome and that his ultimate weapon is dua.  Not the stereotypical immigrant father trope, he is awesome.  I also love that Sarah’s best friend, Jasmine, is a person of color, so diversity gets a bit of a shout out.  The masjid politics is spot on, and the hypocritical aunties are as annoying in the book as they are in real life.  Yes, there are times where the dialogue is a little syrupy and long-winded, but overall, this book is calm and reflective and so, so important for high school and college girls to read.

Islam is the religion practiced, from praying, to how they talk, to how they dress, the subtlties there are brilliant as well.  You can tell the author is Muslim because it is natural and real, not researched and blotched.  The message is ultimately that Allah knows all, and that we do things for His sake alone.

FLAGS:

Truly the most Jason and Sarah do is hold hands, but the masjid ladies constrew that they do a lot more, and that Sarah ends up pregnant and gets an abortion. All untrue, but this revelation, that this is the gossip going around, is explored at the end of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh how great would this book be as a book club for high school or even college age girls.  But, alas I’m not involved in anything like that so I will have to just recommend this book to anyone that meets that criteria looking for a good book. 

Having said that, part of me really thinks this book doesn’t need to be discussed.  Saints and Misfits was a book that needs to be read and discussed with our youth, this book, I kind of like it to stir and fester within each reader.  The lessons are there, and are clear, and some days I could see a girl really feeling one way and switching another.  Like the father in the book, our kids, inshaAllah, have been taught right and wrong, we have to see what they do when tested.  And this book can really speak to them, and offer them a bit of conciousness when faced with a seemingly small decision that could have big consequences.  This book will stay with a reader, and that’s a good thing.  I just don’t know if it will manifest the same with everyone, and I think that is a great thing.

 

Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fraVJZI1xNU

From the Author: https://muslimmatters.org/2017/11/10/an-acquaintance-a-young-adult-novel/

 

Mr. Gamal’s Gratitude Glasses by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Nuria Tomas Mayolas

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Mr. Gamal’s Gratitude Glasses by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Nuria Tomas Mayolas

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Asmaa Hussein over at Ruqaya’s Bookshelf has put out two new books, and this gem of a book is one of them.  Mr. Gamal’s class is angry, about lots of little things getting out at dodge ball, the wrong color grapes, having to wait their turn, and it is making for restless, grumpy students.  On a trip to the dollar store, the teacher is struck by inspiration when he sees some oversized pink lensed glasses.  With a pair for each student, the kids have a week  to try out there “gratitude glasses” and report back on their success.

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In 36 pages readers ages 5-8 will get to know some of the stresses felt by kids they can relate to, and ways to find “good things, even in tough situations.”  They will also learn that the real secret isn’t the glasses, but their own brains discovering “new ways to think about stuff!”

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While the kids learn a lesson, Mr. Gamal does too, and so do the readers, alhumdulillah.

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The book would be great fun to read in a group accompanied by glasses to hand out and test Mr. Gamal’s idea with.  I also think it is great to have on the bookshelf to remind kids that they need to find the positive and break out of their slump.

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The kids all have “islamic” names and a few wear hijab (some do not), but there is nothing religious in the book.  It would work well in any environment and does a good job of showing diverse characters.  The pictures are adequate, I don’t love them, but they compliment the story and set the tone fairly well.  The book is a great size for story time (8.5 x 11) and with a thick cover and shiny pages, should hold up to repetitive use.

 

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.  

Nanni’s Hijab by Khadijah Abdul-Haqq illustrated by Vitchapol Taerattanachai

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Nanni’s Hijab by Khadijah Abdul-Haqq illustrated by Vitchapol Taerattanachai

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MashaAllah, there are so many things to like about this 36 page, brightly illustrated, elementary aged story.  Nanni, the main character, is spunky.  Not only is she strong enough to wear hijab to school, but she also is brave enough to confidently handle a bully on her own.  Surrounded by a supportive teacher, friends, classmates, and her mom, Nanni’s creativity and understanding that Allah swt will help her find a way to handle her predicament results in a happy ending, and many empowering messages.

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The book would work for most children, but I think second grade and up would get the most out of it.  The girl might be young to be wearing hijab, but it seems like she wears it because she wants too.  I like that the illustrations have her and her mom uncovered at home, and that there is a glossary at the back, opening up the book to muslim and non muslim kids alike.

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I also really like the larger messages of acceptance, trying new things, and doing better when you know better.  The supporting cast in the book resonates with muslims who go to schools where they are the minority, but have support and encouragement to practice their faith none-the-less.  Nanni’s teacher remarks that her “hijabs are as regal as a princess’s crown,” and the other students like seeing what color or design she is wearing each day.  Although a children’s book, the author does very clearly explain that the hijab is part of Nanni’s faith, although not mentioned by name, and that it is an act of worship. Nanni wants to handle the problem on her own, and for as bad as she wants to punch Leslie, she knows it isn’t the right thing to do.  As she wrestles with what is the best approach, she puts her trust in Allah, swt, which perhaps is the greatest lesson for us all in the book, alhumdulillah.

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 Muslims by Zanib Mian

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The Muslims by Zanib Mian

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After reading this book, I really, really want to meet (and be friends with) the author, she writes from the point of view of Omar, a nine year old boy, and his perspective and voice are so authentic and relevant that while the book targets 3rd through 5th grade, I am certain kids and adults, Muslims and non-muslims, boys and girls, and everyone else, will all thoroughly enjoy this laugh-out-loud 164 page book.  

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar is starting at a new school, we don’t know why, and while he is nervous, he has a good attitude about it.  His parents are supportive scientists and he has an older sister, Maryam who can be a bit mean in a big sister way, and a little brother Esa, who he secretly loves.  All are practicing muslims who remind me a lot of the people I know.  We say our duaas, we pray, we laugh at the funny stereotypes and just try and be good neighbors and people.  Omar’s neighbor is hilarious, Mrs. Rogers, doesn’t like Omar’s family, or “the Muslims” as she calls them, but they just keep being themselves and when she falls and gets hurt, she starts to realize they are good people who care about her.  She even starts showing up for iftar every night in Ramadan and counts down like a space ship launch until it is time to eat. 

Using his Islamic upbringing, and seeing how is family handles problems, gives Omar a lot of tools for starting at a new school.  But Omar is the protagonist, the hero, so he also has a super imagination that involves H2O, his dragon, that shows up to help him out when things get rough.  And unfortunately, a bully by the name of Daniel makes things rough for Omar.  He tells Omar that all Muslims and all Asians are going to be kicked out of the country, and this really sticks with Omar.  He verifies it with a cousin, and learns it could be a possibility.  So, the underlying anxiety is there, but most of the book that focuses on the bullying aspects involve the day-to-day comments, physical pushing, and efforts of Omar to avoid Daniel.  When they do meet up, however, the result is often comical, as Omar and H20 confidently navigate the situation at hand.  Between visiting a different mosque in London each week, learning to read the Quran, celebrating Ramadan, and just being a kid with new friends and a fun family, Omar eventually does win Daniel over after the two of them get lost in the London Underground.  And all of us that came along for the ride are better for it, alhumdulillah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

There is so much to love about this book.  Seriously.  The accuracy of family life depicted is spot on and the Islamic elements are so interwoven that non Muslims would truly learn about Islam through learning about Omar, but not in a preachy way, and Muslims will see themselves on every. single. page.  I love that Omar doesn’t ever seem embarrassed to be who he is.  He is a cool kid for his confidence alone, and being able to laugh at a bully and not have it shake your core belief and self image is so powerful.  The characters are well developed, from little Esa to Omar’s teacher, by viewing them through his eyes, you see enough of their personality to remember them, and appreciate them.  The only exception to this was Maryam, I really didn’t feel like I got much on her, but I have a feeling there will be more books, and she will develop too.  The book reads like a diary, until a tinge of foreshadowing of the changing relationship between Omar and Daniel pops up to setup the climax.  The chapters are short, the fonts and doodles endearing and engaging, and the size of the book, really makes it fun for elementary aged children.  The only possible gripe for American children, is that it is a British book, and you might have to google or ask what a few things are, yeah we are selfish like that, but its good for us to learn what pains au chocolate are, or crumpets, or nappies.  

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FLAGS:

The book is clean. 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh this should be required reading for every kid.  I know I will be trying to implement this every where I go.  This would be awesome for a elementary book club, and especially great in Islamic schools for struggling readers.  In much the same way that teachers use humor to engage students, this book has heart and humor and a surprising amount of information, that I can see it being connected to a lot character building supplements in various curriculums, at least I hope it is, we need voices like this, both within our community and to serve as a representative of us to the larger society.

Book Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIKtoxt3InM

Author’s website: http://www.muslimchildrensbooks.co.uk/