Tag Archives: stories

The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami illustrated by Peter Knorr

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This book is not a quick read, it begs to be read aloud and the pictures poured over.  The 48 heavily text filled pages are a trip back in time before the tale twists in on itself and becomes a story that gets more outrageous with each upgrade.  It claims to be for grades first through fourth, but I think it would need a lot of hand holding and attention to get any children to read it.  The story would really come to life at bedtime with a loved one, or in a classroom with discussion, but I don’t know that most children in that demographic would willingly pick up the book, read it, enjoy it and reflect on it, without some guidance.  The illustrations show characters in hijab and thumbing tasbeehs, the text mentions Allah swt and in phrases calling on Him in exasperation.  There is a “kiss”, it is a love story after all, and some demons and sorcery, but I think it is clean enough and silly enough that kids of all ages will enjoy it and not find it offensive or scary.

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Many years ago an old man in the old city of Damascus, would walk around carrying a large chest and tell stories.  Four lucky kids for only one piaster each could look into the chest and see the images of the story, the other children could listen to the story for free.  He didn’t come often, but when he would come the children would rush to meet him and listen to the stories, their favorite the one of Sami and Leyla.

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Sami was a shepherd boy, he was beautiful, but poor.  Leyla was the daughter of the richest farmer in the village and after their “accidental” kiss Leyla and Sami met every evening despite Leyla’s father forbidding it.  The whole village is in a buzz over the two lovebirds.  When Leyla is kidnapped, her father reluctantly tells Sami that if he can bring her back then they can marry.  When Sami returns with her, Leyla’s father pretends to be ill and in need of milk from a lioness.  Once again he promises that if Sami can obtain the milk than the two can marry.  Sami not only gets the milk, but returns riding a lion.  Leyla’s dad says that he is brave indeed, but that his daughter can only marry a rich man and needs to pay 300 camels as dowry.  Sami heads to Damascus to steal the camels from the king, but gets caught and put in prison.  Lucky for Sami, a dove comes to visit him and after he saves her life, she grants him one wish.  Yes, the animals can talk.  The camels and freedom are granted, but still Leyla’s father is not willing to allow the marriage.  He summons a sorcerer to send demons to turn his daughter in to a lizard.  When night after night the demons fail and beat the sorcerer, it is revealed that the father hired him.  The next day the two are married.

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Over time the pictures in the chest began to fade and new pictures from modern advertisements are used to replace the traditional images.  Leyla becomes Colgate, yes, from a toothpaste advertisement.  She has a glorious smile and is now the daughter of a car dealer who drinks only Fresh Mountain mineral water.  She gets kidnapped and Sami hears about it on his Filix portable radio that she is being held in a club and is forced to serve ice-cold Coca-Cola.  The story continues like this, but at some point the children in the story become bored with the new version, and sing the jingles for the items mentioned instead, until the story teller packs up and leaves.

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Two years pass and no one has heard from the story teller, some say he went mad, others that he died.  Then one day he comes back to town and the children all run to listen to his stories.  There is a chest to peer in, but there is nothing inside, like magic however, when the old man starts to tell his story, the images appear in the minds of the children.

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The illustrations are wonderful and detailed, and radiate warmth and richness.  The conversation I had after with my own kids, about what was valued and the power of stories is so powerful to see dawning on the listeners.  They get it, they do, and they realize how ridiculous the “updates” were.  When they realize it is the story teller and the magic of being together and sharing a story, they too become one of the children in the book and it is wondrous to observe.

Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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This 40 page nonfiction biography is beautifully illustrated and informative.  I had never heard of Maryam Mirzakhani the Iranian born, first female winner of the Fields Medal.  Her life from loving stories and not liking math, to becoming a student and later a professor in the United States is remarkable and inspiring.  Second through fourth grade readers that both love and struggle with math will be drawn in to her unique way of looking at the world, and the math she found to serve as her magic wand in explaining it.  I don’t know if she identified as Muslim, while in Iran she was forced to cover, but when she left, she no longer did.  The illustrator is Muslim and religion aside, I am thrilled that a book like this exists, and that such a brilliant woman and her accomplishments can be presented to young readers.

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Maryam loves stories.  She reads them to her sister, her best friend Roya and her browse bookstores and dream themselves into plots of their favorite stories.  On the weekends she spreads long rolls of paper on the floor to draw and color her imaginary worlds.  She wanted to be an author when she grew up and knew how lucky her generation was to attend school after the war that tore her country apart.

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Math made her head spin, she would rather be doodling, but when she was 12 her teacher introduced her class to geometry.  It was different, the numbers held stories and the shapes were pictures. She made stories about the problems and wondered about them as if they were characters.

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In high school, Maryam and Roya entered the International Mathematical Olympiad.  The first year they received participation medals, but the next year, Maryam won the grand prize with a perfect score. She finished her schooling in Iran devoting her life to the stories that numbers told and left Iran to start graduate school at Harvard in the United States.

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When she had a hard time solving problems she would spread large rolls of paper on the floor and solve them.  Her daughter would tell people she was a painter.  She wanted to stretch the mind and how people went about solving equations.  She became a professor and a lecturer and one of her discoveries became known as “the magic wand theorem.”

In 2017 she passed away from breast cancer and the world lost a remarkable storyteller, mathematician and human.  The book concludes with an author’s note, important dates, and books to reference to learn more about Maryam Mirzakhani.

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Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

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hana khanTechnically this book is adult fiction because the protagonist is 24 years old, but the halal rom-com is so sweet and considering the YA options that exist in the same genre, I think high school juniors and senior would do better to dive in to this light, enjoyable, albeit predictable, read over so many of the other options out there.  I read the 368 page book in two days, I was hooked and impressed with the strength of all the female characters, the step away from all the stereotypical tropes and the smooth writing style.  The book is for everyone and while packaged as a light read, there are some themes of immigration, family, choice, and OWN voice realizations that are presented and explored in a thoughtful and impactful manner.

SYNOPSIS:

Hana Khan’s mother owns and operates Three Sisters Biriyani Poutine in Toronto, there are not three sisters, biriyani poutine is not on the menu and business is bad, really bad.  The 15 year old restaurant that Hana named when she was nine is struggling even though it is the only halal option in the close-knit, diverse, golden crescent community.  When news hits that a new upscale halal restaurant is opening a few doors down, Hana chooses to ignore that the business was struggling and instead blames the new proprietors.  They are wealthy, corporate and insufferable.  Well, the dad is anyway, the son Aydin, he isn’t so easily defined.

Hana balances shifts at the restaurant, her internship at Radio Toronto and her own anonymous brown girl podcast.  Hana, real name Hanaan, comes from a supportive and close family.  Her dad was injured in a serious car accident, her older sister is pregnant, and her cousin from India along with a cousin-aunt have just arrived under suspicious circumstances.

As the new restaurant gets closer to opening, Hana finds herself stooping to all new lows to sabotage their success.  Encouraged by an anonymous podcast listener who she has been chatting with for quite a while, and inspired by her rebel cousin-aunt, Hana is determined to secure a permanent job in radio, save her family restaurant, and destroy the competition.  But, an attack downtown draws attention to growing Islamophobia and forces Aydin and Hana to work together.

In a fictional story where everyone knows everyone both in India and Toronto, crazy family members are endearing and loyal, it is no surprise that the main characters are more connected than they think.  As Hana finds her strength to carry on amidst change, she also figures out what direction to focus her energy, her talents, and voice.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the writing.  I was invested in many of the characters, not just the protagonist, and absolutely cheered as she gave a nod to so many assumptions so that she could move past them: forced marriage, hijab, acceptable professions, inclusion, etc.. The family is all about choice and not getting hung up on stereotypes show the power that OWN voices have in telling stories that resonate with everyone.  The book is full of religion, from waking up for fajr, to listening to the khutbah at jumah, going to the masjid to find peace, and believing in destiny.  It is not a preachy book by any means, but the characters are Muslim inside and out.  The traditional family does not pressure Hana to get married, her sister’s marriage was a love one.  She is often alone with her male cousin or brother in law, or best friend Yusuf.  She knows who she is and her family trusts her.

I love the food, the insight of immigrants and family.  I was particularly moved by her articulation of being told by outsiders what it means to be Muslim in Canada, or an immigrant and then not being listened to when pushed back upon. Her challenging a teacher on what the fourth pillar of Islam is and not being heard, resonated profoundly.

Within the first 100 pages or so the reader figures out who everyone is and how they are connected, save one surprise, but it is like watching a favorite movie, you keep going because it is fun, and enjoyable and the point isn’t to figure it out, but to enjoy the ride.

FLAGS:

There are relationship threads, but nothing more detailed than a hand touch after a funeral.  Her best friend Yusuf marries their best friend Lily an Agnostic, knowing that both families are against it.  There is music and racist talk and vandalism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The high school book club usually tries to include a halal romance novel for the loyal participants that clamor for it in the group and I plan to suggest this one to them.  For as light and straightforward as the book is, there is a lot to discuss when the surface is peeled back.  There would be lot to explore from her podcast, internship experience, and her hate crime experience, that the romance part will be seen as simply a vessel to more profound issues to explore.

The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon by Shereen Malherbe illustrated by Sarah Nesti Willard

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I was really surprised by the number of gaps in this 46 page story that is so adorably illustrated and seemingly planned out. I thought perhaps I was being overly critical, so as always I tested it on my kids, and they too were confused by the main character’s rational and choice of words, the holes in the narrative, and the inconsistency of the characters. The book is wordy, so conciseness cannot be the reason for the holes, and it is published by a publishing company, so I would assume it has been proofed. Really the point of stories connecting us and giving us comfort when we need it, is sadly lost. I had hoped to love this fictional story of a Palestinian girl using prayer to give her comfort in her new home, but alas it seemed to be trying to weave in too much, and as a result the story isn’t fabulous for me unfortunately.

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Noor is new at school and stands out. She finds comfort in remembering the things that are the same. 1-Allah could still see and hear her. 2- The Angels were still by her side, and 3-She still slept under the same moon. She also wears clothes that remind her of home and provide an unspoken clue as to where home is for her.

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At school Noor has a problem, she needs a place to pray, but at lunch time the kids are not allowed to go inside and the dinner lady guards the door. Noor needs a distraction to sneak in the building and it isn’t clear if she provides the distractions, or just benefits from a baby bird falling out of a nest, a snake being in the grass, and a classmate getting hurt. Either way, when the teacher is occupied, Noor enters the building and finds a closet to pray in.

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On one such visit to the closet she finds someone already in there, Hannah. Hannah is there because she doesn’t like being on the playground because she is different. Noor never asks why Hannah feels different, so the reader isn’t made aware either. Hannah asks her why she is there and Noor says she comes “to pray because it reminds me of where I’m from.”

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When Hannah asks where she is from, Noor doesn’t just simply answer, she tells her stories about her homeland, the mountains, olive trees, where the athan floats in the air and fisherman return to the shore with their catch. The next day Hannah is there again, and Noor tells her more stories and legends about her culture and lessons of the Prophets. Noor learns that through her stories she feels connected to her old home.

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Weeks pass, and one day when she sneaks in to the school, she finds the door locked. With no where to go she heads back to the playground and starts to cry that she won’t be able to pray. She then sees Hannah disappear and she follows her in to the drama studio. When she enters she sees sets built that look like the setting of her stories, of her home. Hannah knew she missed home and built her sets to look like Palestine.

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Other kids miraculously enter, and Noor begins telling them her stories, without praying first. The other kids seem to enjoy her stories and Noor learns that she can pray anywhere while holding on to her three reassuring thoughts.

The illustrations are engaging, although I’m not sure where the prayer rug seems to magically come from for Noor to pray on in the closet the first time. Had the book just been about prayer and finding a way to pray, or just about the stories connecting us to our past I think it would have been more powerful. I’m glad that Noor loves salat and that Hannah is a good friend, but I feel like by trying to do too much, the poignancy of the little things was lost.

And as for my questions: Can’t Noor ask for a place to pray? Can’t she pray outside? How is Hannah making the sets all by herself? Noor says she prays because it reminds her of home, she doesn’t pray for the sake of Allah or because it is required of her? Why did Hanna feel different, and why didn’t Noor bother to ask? It says that she needed to distract the dinner lady, isn’t that dishonest even for a good cause? Did she harm the baby bird so that it would need rescuing? Put the snake in the grass? Hurt the little girl so that she could get by the teacher? How was Hanna getting inside at lunch time? How is the school ok with a kid coming inside to build a whole set with school materials, but can’t let another child inside to pray for less than 5 minutes? And if Noor didn’t feel comfortable asking for a space to pray, clearly Hannah had connections to get permission to create a huge scene, couldn’t she have asked, or helped Noor ask?