Tag Archives: strong woman

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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This 44 page fictionalized retelling of Queen Goharshad, a 15th century monarch of the Timurid dynasty in Afghanistan should really be a larger book than 8 x 8 to appreciate the artwork that is detailed and stunning.  The story of Goharshad, wife of Emperor Shah Rukh, and her influence on art, music, culture, higher education, and architecture, is one that we should be more familiar with, but the actual text and manner in which the story is conveyed isn’t consistent for me and I wanted more details about the society she stepped in to to rule,  I know it is fiction, and meant for 2nd to 4th graders, but I would like to think that readers will want to know what obstacles she had and what support she enjoyed and from where.  That they will question if it was a rich kingdom that she could pay musicians to play everywhere, and wonder if families sent their daughters to the University she built, ask why it wasn’t for women to design a  Masjid, and what was the name of the smaller mosque that bore an older woman’s name? The book at times overly summarizes and at other times is haltingly detailed.  It is a good read to reflect a strong woman and her influence on her land, but unless assigned, I don’t know that seven to ten year olds will pick up the book and be inspired by it enough to change their perception of the Afghanistan that they may see on the news.

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Seven centuries ago Goharshad loved beautiful things such as painting and the texts of Rumi.  Her brothers played at being like Genghis Khan and teased her for not being brave.  She vowed to be brave with beauty even though she didn’t know what that even meant.  At age 14 she was given in marriage to the king, Shah Rukh, in Herat.  She ruled with her husband and had resources and time to spread her beauty by speaking up and being brave.

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Her first act of beauty was by filling the kingdom with music.  She wanted music every day in the court and beyond. Music that was playful and pious, music that painted pictures in the listeners minds and brought joy like the laughter of God.  She next sketched and designed a beautiful and enchanting garden to be built.  It doesn’t say where it was, but that people came from all around to enjoy it.

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Feeling braver she turned her sights on building a mosque in the western city of Mashhad.  She designed it and called the court architect, Qavam al-Din Shirazi to discuss.  He doubted if it was right for a woman to design such spaces, but she assured him that she had the talent for it, so construction began.  An elderly woman refused to sell her cottage for the new project unless a mosque with her name was built.  The advisors wanted the old woman put to death or imprisoned, Goharshad disagreed appreciating the woman’s strength and instead agreed.  The big mosque was built with Goharshad’s name and a smaller one on the property with the old lady’s.

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With such an accomplishment complete, the Queen again summoned the architect and expressed her desire to build a great center for learning.  A college for girls, a grand mosque for prayer, and a vast library.  She wanted the structure decorated with paint from precious stones and sold her crown to finance the project.

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After her husband died Goharshad reigned, but sadly after she died, much of her accomplishments died as well.  Over time, harsh weather and war, nearly all her buildings disappeared and those that remain, do so in ruin.  The book ends with hope that memories of her will endure, A guide to some of the words in the story,  an Author’s note, and a Guide for Parents and Educators.

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There is not a lot of Islam in the story, just the building of masajid .  Some may take issue with her stress and celebration of music, and likening it to God laughing, but if you look at it as her story, it should be able to be appreciated even if you disagree.

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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This is the first book in a new middle grades nonfiction series and is Adama Bah telling her own story about being detained as a 16 year old and falsely accused of being a suicide bomber.  A story that sounds like a movie plot is painfully real and terrifying and hearing it in her own words is powerful and impactful.  The writing is very basic in its linear format and straightforward presentation of the experience through her eyes.  It is not sensationalized or overly explanatory about how this situation came to be, how she got out of it, or what the family had to go to to find lawyers and pay for them, for example.  It is how she felt, what she understood at the time, and how the experience shaped her.  While the writing style is sufficient for middle grades, her story is intense.  A big part of her experience is being strip searched, exposed, and seeking asylum to avoid female circumcision.  The 128 page book is a great way to show the realities of our world.  It took place in the 2000, the recent past, to a New York teenager that enjoyed different colored sneakers, chatting with her friends, and spending time with her family, no different than the readers picking up her story to read.

SYNOPSIS:

Adama was born in Conakry, Guinea in 1988 and moved to America as a child.  She attended public school until high school when she was then sent to an Islamic boarding School in Buffalo, New York.  Her family was not particularly religious, but Adama become more visibly Muslim returning home after the attacks on September 11, wearing niqab and wondering why she was being treated with such hostility at the airport.  As she resumes her education in public school, she slowly makes the choice to take off her niqab, while maintaining her hijab and modest clothing.  In 2005 she and her father are taken in to custody early in the morning from their home and detained.  During the questioning at 16 years old, Adama learns that she is not a legal US citizen.  Her father is separated from her, to be deported, and she is moved to Pennsylvania as the youngest person swept up in a terrorist roundup.  She is being accused of being a potential suicide bomber and is detained for six weeks before a plea deal is brokered.  She will wear an ankle monitor for three years and have a nightly curfew.  During this time she is responsible to care for her family as her father has been returned to Guinea, her mother speaks very little english and she has four younger siblings.  Even after the bracelet is removed she finds herself still on no-fly lists and finally after one more time being denied and detained at the airport, she sues the Attorney General, FBI Director, and the Director of the Terrorist Screening Center. When they learn of this they offer to remove her from the no-fly list if she withdraws her case. She is granted asylum and while she had to drop out of school, she dreams of going back.  She has since married, her dad has been able to return to America, and she continues to study Islam and believe that things could have been worse.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is her story, from her eyes and perspective, but I worry that some of the details are misplaced.  She details enjoying talking bad about the government with a friend after she is released knowing that they are listening in, but maintains that she is constantly in fear of being returned to jail and that she considers America her home.  I’m not saying all of those things can’t be true and co exist, but some additional context would help the choppiness in this example and others.  I appreciated that the genital mutilation was clearly attributed to culture and not religion, I think when others tell stories about cultural and religious practices they often conflate the two.  I wish there was more information about where this mysterious list came from, what happened to the Bengali girl that was taken, how the Islamic community reacted.  The story is powerful and moving, and readers will be drawn in as they see themselves in her.  There are also questions at the end that help connect readers to her situation, and the reality that this is the unjust world we live in and can easily be consumed by as she nearly was.

FLAGS:

Detailing a strip search, detailing taking off her clothes, having orifices checked, and using the bathroom in the open.  There is talk of female circumcision although it doesn’t define it explicitly.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think in a high school Social Studies class or current events discussion this book would be a great topic to explore and voice to highlight.  The book is short and can be read very quickly.  It is an important story to know, to learn from, to sympathize with, and be acutely aware of for people of all ages.

That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story by Huda Fahmy

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That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story by Huda Fahmy

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I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t review and highlight the first book, “Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth About Life in a Hijab” I really should have, so to cut to the chase if you don’t follow the author/illustrator on social media you really should and you should read both her books.  Both are for all ages and while meant for adults, teens and tweens love it as well, I should know I’ve purchased and gifted over a dozen of them. I find my kids thumbing through both books a lot: my (early) teen girl and my tween boys.  Part of is it because the comics are funny, relatable, but more importantly as I’m learning from my kids, because they are curious.  In this book particularly, it is a great example of how Muslim marriages can happen, sure my kids know how my husband and my marriage was “arranged,” but they are constantly surrounded by ideas of dating and crushes and even divorce that I never realized that a book like this, featuring Muslims, actually Islamically contextualizes some of their gleamed information.  The fact that the book is hilarious and clean and rings with such honesty, makes it easier for them to articulate their questions and removes some of the taboo as well.  So, buy it for yourself to enjoy and if you have kids 11 and up in your home, you are ok to let them read it too.

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SYNOPSIS:

It isn’t a chapter book, it is part comic book, part story, part info-graphic, and all biographical.  The book opens with an ayat about spouses from the Quran and follows with an informative and funny message to the reader.  Seriously, I laughed as she explained about drawing herself with hijab in bed and noting that most people don’t read the notes to the reader at the beginning. There are also a list of helpful terms before the introduction begins.  Her story is broken up in to sections to pace and move the story along.  It starts with the ground work of expectations and cultural norms and then tells her story of how she eventually met and married her husband.  Not that it is straight forward, the book is 192 pages.  There is a decent amount of explaining Islam and the role culture plays in the many pitfalls and big decisions along the way.

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WHY I LOVE IT:

I think any female, born Muslim, over the age of 20 will relate to a lot in this, lots of others will as well, but that demographic specifically will find parts very reflective of their own experiences.  I love that it shows the banter between the protagonist and her mother, truly that to me was the heart of the story.  I love that it shows female empowerment and vulnerability at the same time within an Islamic context and unapologetically.  This book is by a Muslim for Muslims, but non Muslims will enjoy it as well.  It dispels and illustrates what an “arranged marriage” can mean for Muslims and shows that there is more than one way to understand the label.

I love the size of the book, the binding and the page quality.  I had no problems with “Yes, I’m Hot in This,” but after seeing the larger size of this book 7 x 8 and the thicker pages, I really preferred this presentation.

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FLAGS:

Clean

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Obviously not really a candidate for a book club, but I think teen girls would enjoy reading this and laughing about it with a group of friends.

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So fun and so good, alhumdulillah.

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Based on the true story of Alia Muhammed Baker, the Basra librarian who saved 30,000 books in 2003 from the destruction during the Iraq War, this 32 page graphic novel, is an AR 3.9 and while it isn’t a chapter book and isn’t just a picture book, it works well for 2nd through 4th grade readers that will enjoy a bit of history, a lot of excitement, and detailed panels that make the story come to life.  The story, as it is based on fact, is very similar to The Librarian of Basra, but with it’s different presentation style, might appeal to a larger audience to appreciate and celebrate what she did to save such precious books, naturally, I’m a huge fan!

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SYNOPSIS:

Alia is the Chief Librarian of Basra Central Library and has always loved books and learning.  As war draws closer, she tells her husband she is worried that the library could be bombed or set ablaze.  She goes to the government to voice her concerns and ask that the books are relocated, but her request is denied.  So she takes matters in to her own hands, and starts smuggling books under her shawl and in to her car, and stacks them in her home.  Every day she does this for a week, soon closets are over flowing and she starts stacking the books in her guest room.  Worried that she isn’t making fast enough progress, she gets the restaurant owner next door to help her when looters start taking the pencil sharpeners and furniture from the library.  She has a plan to have everyone possible come together to move the books, and many people come to help.

Eventually the library is set on fire, the news gives Alia a stroke.  When she recovers she learns she saved 30,000 books, and up next for this real life super hero? Building a new library, inshaAllah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows the value of libraries and books, the determination of one person, and the support of a community.  People are awful during a war, yet, sometimes they are pretty amazing too.  The illustrations are detailed and varied, with inviting text and clear concise language.  It really is well done.

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FLAGS:

Destruction of property, sneaking, looting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think it would be great to have kids read this story and the librarian of Basra and discuss

 

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

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Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

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This 248 middle grades (AR 4.9) fictionalized biography of Betty Sanders, later to be Betty X and then Betty Shabazz, is the early years of her life in Detroit during the 1940s and how she understood her place in her family, and in the community.  Written by her daughter, the book hops around to major events in her life and doesn’t detail a lot of the whys, but rather keeps an 11 year-old-perspective, allowing readers to identify with her family stresses and anger at the racial discrimination and violence that is rampant.  Showing disagreements within the black community allows young readers to broaden their horizons and not see the civil rights as a monolithic point on a timeline, but something that is still ongoing and part of culture still today.  There is nothing Islamic in the book, as this is a glimpse of her childhood long before Nation of Islam, her conversion to Sunni Islam or her Hajj, in fact the majority of the book focuses on her involvement in the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

SYNOPSIS:

Betty was born in Georgia, as the story goes, but before she was even a year old, Betty’s grandma took her away from her mother and gave her to her aunt, Fannie Mae, to raise.  Having seen a bruise on the baby girl’s neck Grandma Matilda didn’t feel that the young mother was capable to care for Betty.  Fannie Mae showered Betty with love and consistency and treated her like her own daughter.  Betty saw her first lynching while in Fannie Mae’s care and the image stayed with her her whole life.  When Betty was seven her aunt died and Betty went to live with her biological mother, Ollie Mae, in Detroit.

In Detroit, Ollie Mae has married and has three daughters with her husband, Arthur, who also has two sons.  A full house that is religious and disciplined, but for Betty not full of love.  She prays that her mother will look at her the way she looks at her sisters, but that never seems to happen. The family attends Bethel AME church and at age 11 that is when the story gets going.  Betty and her friends sneak out of church to get candy and the cost will probably be a whipping.  Luckily a few of the church ladies like Betty and realize how hard Ollie Mae is on her.  They work to get Betty permission to hang out with girls her own age and try and convince her mother to let her join the Jr. Housewives’ League.  Ollie Mae doesn’t agree with the work of the Housewives, a strong group of women that work to convince others to only support businesses that hire Negroes.  This organization is a major division within the community and the church.  Mrs. Malloy and Mrs. Peck are leaders in the organization, and one of Betty’s friends is for it, while another is against it. This rift affects Betty in many ways.

At age 11 Betty leaves home to go and live with the Malloy family.  A husband and wife who have no children and own a shoe repair shop.  One night turns into two and then she is living there full time and only seeing her siblings and mom at church on Sunday.  She even gets to calling Mrs. Malloy, Mother.  As she comes of age with a new family, and splintering friendships she seeks to make her own family with those that love her, and seeing violence targeted against blacks when a young boy is shot by police in the back, and working with civil rights activists- the icon and leader we know Betty Shabazz to be, is shaped and inspired.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that she gets her own story and own voice, not just to be left as someone’s wife.   She is a force before she meets Malcolm and after he is murdered.  Her story is shaped by so many outside influences, but ultimately it is her own and even in her early years the reader feels that.  She seeks out those that love her the way she should be loved, but she doesn’t give up on those that try and leave her either.  She fights for her mother’s praise and doesn’t abandon friends that believe differently than her, which is powerful to see from an 11 year old.  She sees the world around her and takes a stand against that which is wrong, she feels and hurts and doubts, but she gets back up.

I like that she questions if what she is fighting for will make a difference, while simultaneously doesn’t want to take racism quietly.  The day-to-day nuances flesh out the struggle of the civil rights and give a unique perspective that biographies that cover adult lives or larger portions of one’s life don’t necessarily spend time on.  Seeing activism affect a young girl’s friendships will stay with readers,  as well as how desperate she is for her mother’s love, just as seeing how she is treated on a shopping trip will create a sense of universal struggle that make equality in society resonate as being the responsibility of us all, not just those that are being oppressed.

FLAGS:

Racism, violence, murder, lynching, abuse, Betty being born out of wedlock.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book would work for a book club, and would definitely be a great historical fiction touchpoint to bridge with the Black Lives Matter movement.  A classroom discussing Civil Rights and Malcolm X would perhaps get more value from it than a half hour lunch chat, but either way the book should be read, the ideas discussed, and people made aware of Betty Shabazz’s life.

 

 

 

A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord illustrated by Shehzil Malik

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A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord illustrated by Shehzil Malik

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This children’s biography of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Pakistan’s world famous squash player, is simplified and suitable for children 2nd grade and up.  At 42 pages with bright illustrations older kids will understand a little bit more about the cultural norms that were being oppressive and the strength and risks Maria took to play a sport she loved and defy the Taliban while disguising herself as a boy. Younger children will probably only get her determination and perseverance, which is impressive in its own right.

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In 1990, Maria was born in the mountains of the Tribal Areas in Pakistan.  Conservative society and strict gender roles amplified by the control of the Taliban in 2001.  Maria’s parents supported rights for their sons and daughters, and allowed Maria to cut her hair, dress like a boy, and play sports.

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Her father called her Ghenghis Khan after the great warrior and when the family moved to the city of Peshawar he even introduced her as his son to people.  As Ghenghis, Maria was always picking fights and encouraged instead to play sports to channel her wildness.

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She fell in love with the game of squash, and when she went to join the Squash Club she had to submit her birth certificate which revealed that she was a girl.  The director let her join the club, as the only girl among 400 boys.  But now her secret was out.

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She was bullied and her family ridiculed, but she kept playing and kept winning.  The President of Pakistan awarded her honors for her outstanding achievements, but that infuriated the Taliban and they threatened her family.

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As a result Maria had to hide, and would practice at night, in secret, and for 3 years she played against the wall in her bedroom.  Appealing to squash clubs around the world for help, she finally heard from Jonathon Power in Canada, willing to help her get away from the Taliban and be able to play.

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She left behind everything she knew at 20 years old to train in Toronto.  She still represented Pakistan in tournaments.  She studied, she prayed, she succeeded.  She now is back in Pakistan establishing health clinics, sports clubs, and schools for girls and boys.

The story is inspirational, and well told, it shows how culture limited her, not religion, and that in a larger city, culture was a little less conservative.  Muslim and non Muslim children will be inspired by her efforts, her willingness to look like a boy and her determination to excel.  Muslim kids will enjoy that it shows her praying, but might be surprised to see her in shorts and tank tops.  The book would be a great conversation starter about women’s rights and how it isn’t just in Pakistan that women struggle to have equal opportunity and respect.  It also might many children’s first exposure to the sport of squash.

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There is an afterward at the end with more information.  A list of additional reading about other inspirational women, a selected bibliography and a highlight timeline of female firsts in sports.

 

Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan illustrated by Anna Bron

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Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan illustrated by Anna Bron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan

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The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan

 

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This 36 page picture book tells a beautifully presented story that incorporates events from the author’s real life that convey a story of loving your culture, finding similarities and giving people a second chance.  Ideal for students between 2nd and 4th grade, younger children will enjoy having the story read to them, and older kids will benefit from the message as well.

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Kanzi is about to start her first day of 3rd grade in a new school.  It doesn’t specify if she has just come from Egypt, but being she seems to speak English well, knows that she’d rather have peanut butter and jelly instead of a kofta sandwich and mentions that she got a quilt when she visited her grandmother, in Egypt, she possibly is just starting a new school, not her first in America, but it is considered an immigrant story, so I’m not certain. E403D261-438B-4263-A2FB-C3F8693C9D3E

When she arrives in class and introduces herself she bravely says that she is Egyptian-American, but on the way to school she turns down the Arabic music in the car, so the reader sees that she is a little nervous about being seen as “different.”  When her hijab wearing mom brings her forgotten kofta sandwich and calls Kanzi ‘Habibti,’ classmate Molly teases her that she is being called a hobbit.

A crying Kanzi tells her teacher and Mrs. Haugen reassures her that “being bilingual is beautiful.”  That night Kanzi asks her mom to send her a turkey sandwich for lunch the next day, and before beds she writes a poem as she snuggles in her beloved quilt.

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At school Molly apologizes to her and says that it just sounded funny.  Kanzi tells Molly it is because she doesn’t speak Arabic and that her mom says that “learning different languages makes a person smarter and kinder.”  Molly dismisses the comment and smugly walks off.

Mrs. Haugen sees Kanzi’s poem about her quilt from her grandma in Egypt and asks her to bring her quilt to school. The kids love it, and Friday Kanzi’s mom shows up to help with a special project: an Arabic quilt with the kids names.

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Molly is not enthusiastic and Mrs. Haugen writes English words that come from Arabic on the board: coffee, lemon, sugar, algebra.  Telling the kids that “we can speak non-English languages and still be American.”

Kanzi and her mom write the kids names down and the children copy them.  The teacher cuts them out and makes a quilt to hang in the hall.  On Monday when everyone sees the quilt, they love the beautiful letters and colors.  Even Molly sincerely apologizes and asks Kanzi to write her mom’s name in Arabic as a gift.  The two hug and seemingly will become friends.

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Across the hall another quilt is hung with names in Japanese, as another student and teacher were inspired by Kanzi and her quilt.  The last page of the story is a letter Kanzi has written to her parents telling them how grateful she is that she has two languages and that she will speak them without guilt.

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The story is beautifully told and exquisitely illustrated on well-sized 9.5 x 10.5 pages in a hardback binding.  The mom wears hijab and it mentions it, but there is nothing religious about the text.  It is a universal story of coming to be proud of your roots and inviting those around you to learn and grow.  There is a Glossary of Arabic Words at the end and a bit about the author and illustrator.

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My kids favorite page by far was reading the names written in Arabic and they all enjoyed the story (ages 13, 10, 9, 4).  I actually had an issue when Molly apologized the first time, feeling that Kanzi’s response was a bit pretentious to what seemed like an 8 year old being told to go say she was sorry, but my older three unanimously and fervently disagreed with me, saying that she was obviously insincere and Kanzi knew it.  I’d love to hear from other readers if they felt like Molly was sufficient in saying sorry and admitting that it sounded funny and that Kanzi was arrogant in saying that people that know two languages are smarter and kinder, or if Molly was being rude and racist and Kanzi was sticking up for herself.

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Irregardless, the book is well done, enjoyable, and will get repeated reads by a large range of readers.  My children keep pulling it off the book shelf, and for that I need to thank Gayatri Sethi (@desibookaunty) who generously sent me the book the same day I checked it out from the public library.  Her generosity once again is a gift that I hope to pay forward in the future.  This book also highlights how amazing teachers can be and often are in facilitating inclusion, understanding, and respect.

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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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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

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At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/