Tag Archives: Sudan

You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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This OWN story, upper middle grades book, is heavy on the pop culture, relatable on the Islamic family presentation and honest in its portrayal of Islamaphobia, yet somehow the tidiness in which everything wrapped up seemed too forced and a bit flat.  At 293 pages, including a three page glossary, the book is a quick read meant mainly for girls.  It involves robotics, academic achievement, and invention, while also discussing crushes, a character coming out to his family and friends, and mention of girls not praying at certain times of the month.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla lives in Australia and goes to the Islamic School of Brisbane. Her Sudanese family: older brother, younger twin brothers, and parents, her Doctor mom and medical machine tech dad, are active Muslims and proud of their culture.  They assimilate to Australian norms in varying degrees, but with all the kids at ISB, Layla doesn’t feel all that different in her school and social life.  Unfortunately she wants more, she wants to be an adventurer, and when she meets Adam over the break and learns about the various opportunities he has it his school, Layla decides she wants to prove herself on a larger stage.  Going in to “shut down” mode Layla has tunnel vision to ace the scholarship and entrance exam and go to a new school.

She gets in to Mary Maxmillion Grammar School and when she goes to meet the board they let her know that the decision to accept a girl like her was not unanimous.  Layla is an immigrant, she is black, she wears hijab, she is loud and proud, and apparently very smart, but as one trustee asks, is she brave?  On the first day of school she arrives late to first period, insults the teacher repeatedly and also makes friends with a group of slightly diverse boys.  At the end of the day however, Peter, a boy who had insulted her earlier, reinforces his disapproval of her being allowed at their school and pushes her.  Standing her ground, she verbal attacks and then head butts the boy in front of a large portion of the school at dismissal.  No one offers any help, nor speaks up when she is suspended for a week, her scholarship and admission put on probation, no one even asks for her side of the story, Peter, is let off completely free, as he is also the son of the Board Chairman.

Layla decides to prove she belongs at the school she is going to win a prestigious robotics competition and since everyone already is on a team, she decides to go for it solo.  The only problem, is she doesn’t know what to invent.  When she returns to school, her friend that she is crushing hard on is acting weird, and she gets caught up in a lie of sorts that serves as both the idea and silliness turned cleverness of the book.  While choking on gummy worms, she says she is working on an edible actuator for her robot, and somehow has to make that come to fruition.

The rest of the book is Layla making a lot of silly errors of judgement: missing classes being in SD mode in the workshop, forgetting to file the paperwork and registration to actually compete in the competition, and leads up to the resolution between her and Peter, learning her crush is gay, and deciding to be herself and proud of it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually like the majority of the book, I really like how Islam is presented and lived.  They pray and say salam and cover, and recite tasbeeha to reflect, and quote hadith very naturally, even how others attack them, and the anger that Layla’s brother Ozzie feels at his inability to get a part time job reads and feels very authentic.  I also like how one of the teacher’s own experience as being a descendant of the forgotten generation and being a first nations ethnicity is woven in.  I felt the side character being gay was added and forced in as an after thought and I don’t know why, as it didn’t show Layla to be a particularly good friend.  She handled his coming out well, but when he was miserable she was wrapped up in her own stuff and didn’t reach out very well, even though he ended up being the spark for her invention.  Her friend at ISB is also an under developed character, that while I get is used to show another side of Layla, in many ways also showed her to be a rather poor friend.

I found the pop culture references annoying, not in and of themselves, but in knowing that they will date and make the book irrelevant in a few short years.  There is a lot of repetition of phrases and ideas that a few times when I put the book down I struggled to re-find my place (I know bookmarks, right?) but certain refrains and paragraphs seem so very similar.  I

There is a lot of good information about Sudan and their food and culture and traditions.  There is also a decent amount about Muslims in Australia.  I like that even within her family there are different views on how much to assimilate, and how much to fight back against perceptions, the fact that there is a lot of gray makes non Muslims and non immigrants reading the book hopefully realize how diverse all people are and to not assume anyone is only one way.  I would have liked more about Layla’s mom and being recruited to come to Australia, and how she was perceived at work, by patients and colleagues.  I also would have liked some sort of resolution about Ozzie and his job search.  Really though my biggest complaint is Layla, herself.  What does it even mean to want to be an adventurer? I like that she is fallible and human and in some ways she does grow, but I felt like her being smart and a go-getter is the foundation of the story, but that she didn’t seem to have much common sense seems a bit off.  Yes she is loud and funny and puts in hard work, but the way she talks to teachers, and misses classes and deadlines, and behaves seems like a disconnect from the pages constantly telling me how smart she is.  To me, part of being smart is knowing when to lash out and when to listen, I don’t feel like her growth arc was all that great, in a nut shell, she changed schools and confronted a bully, that is the story, while not a bad story, it could have been so much more.

FLAGS:

There is crushing, violence, a gay character, mention of alcohol at a party Layla didn’t attend, talk of hooking up in passing and some language.  There is lying but it is acknowledged guiltily, and not familiar with Australian slang, regular use of the phrase, Janey Mack, which according to google is a replacement for Jesus Christ.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know why I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection.  It just didn’t strike me as something they would benefit from.  I wouldn’t be opposed to someone picking it up and reading it in my house, but I doubt I’ll recommend it to my daughter and she is the ideal reader: she wears hijab, is in 8th grade at an Islamic school, and loves to read.  The book is really not memorable as good or bad, it just fell flat and I doubt I’ll read it again, luckily it only took two sittings to read, so I don’t feel like it was a waste of time, but seeing as I had to pay cover price and international shipping, I kind of regret rushing to buy it.

Teacher guide: https://www.penguin.com.au/content/resources/TR_YouMustBeLayla.pdf

My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd by Cristina Kessler illustrated by Walter Lyon Krudop

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My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd by Cristina Kessler illustrated by Walter Lyon Krudop

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A beautiful story based on a true event in Sudan, this 32 page AR 4.2 book contains lessons about tradition, new technology, village life, culture, family, love, and community.  Unfortunately it is one of those books that I doubt any child would pick up and want to read.  Meant for fourth graders, there is a lot of text on each page, and the story is not quick and light, it is thoughtful and memorable. The book is a powerful one in opening one’s eyes to a different culture, environmental challenges, and innovations making it an important one for parents and teachers to share with younger children and encourage older ones to spend some time with.

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Fatima’s Sudanese village has just installed a new pump, and to show how easy it is to use, Fatima is chosen to try it out first.  With all the excitement over new technology, life for the village is about to get easier.  No more hauling the water with camels and filling the baobab trees to store the water in for the dry season.

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Easier for everyone except Fatima’s grandmother.  She refuses to abandon the methods of the past so easily, and independently begins to prepare her tree, her great-grandmother’s gourd.  Fatima tries to talk her out of it, and the other villagers mock her refusal to accept technology.

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When Fatima hears the neighbor louder than the call to prayer calling her grandmother a fool and laughing at her, Fatima boldly and defiantly joins her grandmother in preparing the tree for when the rains come.

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The two dig a circle, a necklace, around the old tree to catch the water in the hard red clay, when the rains come, it catches the water, and when it stops, the two move the water to the inside of the tree with buckets. All the while, the villagers shake their heads at the two hard at work.

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When, in the middle of the dry season, the pump breaks and it will be days before it can be repaired, the chief, Ibrahim, declares they must resort back to the old ways and Fatima and her grandma offer to share their water to hold everyone over.  “Maybe it’s wise to mix old with the new,” Grandma poignantly notes.  The following year the village works together to prepare the trees, just in case the pump breaks.

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There is a glossary of Arabic Words at the beginning of the book and an Author’s note about the “Thirst Triangle” and the use of the baobabs or tabaldi trees used to store water.

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There is nothing overtly religious in this culturally rich story.  The women cover their head, they say “inshaAllah,” the call to prayer is mentioned and they have Islamic names: Fatima, Ibrahim, Musa, Ahmed, Ali, Osman etc..

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney illustrated by Shane W. Evans

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I didn’t realize the book was written in prose until I opened it up to read, and immediately taken-aback I rechecked the AR level and sure enough, this 309 page book that is written in prose and covers the genocide in Darfur, is written on a 4.2 level. And it is amazing. I forced myself to stop reading at one point so as to not rush the depth and soul of the simple words from being lost in haste.  It is truly, in my opinion, a beautifully remarkable feat to convey such horrific atrocities with such hope and integrity to young adults in a palatable and inspiring way.

“Allah is the light,” he says.

I ask,

“How do you find Allah’s light?”

Old Anwar says,

“Take the path that shines the brightest.”

SUMMARY:

Amira’s life on her family’s farm is by no means easy, but she has loving parents, a little sister, her beloved sheep, and a dream of going to school.  Her father advocates for her, but her mother, steeped in tradition, sees education only as a waste of time.  The illustrations and sparse words manage to convey fairly solid understanding of Amira’s life, optimism, and relationships with those closest to her.  Although warned of the dangers the Janjaweed could cause, Amira remains fairly unconcerned about the mounting political unrest around her, until it is too late.  When death and the destruction of her home force the surviving members of her family and neighbors to seek refuge in a camp many miles away, the reader sees how truly horrific her experiences have been.  She refuses to speak or rather cannot, when a chance encounter with an aid worker brings her the prospect of getting her voice back, through the empowerment of a red pencil.  With restored determination she convinces an elder neighbor to teach her, but it is not enough for Amira Bright.  Her sparrow needs to soar free.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You expect a book written in verse to have a lot of imagery and symbolism, and The Red Pencil does a good job of balancing the story and the description, to keep the book on track.  The linear story line remains focused on telling the story at hand, making it attainable for elementary and middle school children.  The Darfur conflict is complicated at best, and using verse to convey it from a young girl’s voice allows a lot of the politics and dirtiness of war to be side-stepped without dismissing it.  Amira’s optimism and hope is at times naive, but more as a reflection of her personality then out of ignorance. She sees things, and feels things, and must deal with things, no child should, but her spirit shines through and keeps the book from being depressing, while still being sad.

Today the red pencil does more

than beg for my hand.

It makes me a promise.

It tells me to try.

The characters are Muslim and they rely on Allah, and pray, yet Amira’s thirst for knowledge includes that of learning the Koran (Qur’an) as that knowledge too, has not been readily available to her  There is a lot to discuss in the book, both what is written and what the reader brings to it.  I look forward to teaching the book, and re-reading it once again to savor in the rich images.

Here,

Muma stoops.

Here,

she has nothing to reach for.

FLAGS:

Their is violence when the Janjaweed attack her family.  But I think it is conveyed in a manner suitable for 3rd grade and up.  It is not celebrated or glorified, it is traumatic and has repercussions that are respectfully conveyed.  There is also mention of a child bride, but not in so many words, that in all honesty I doubt most young readers will be as bothered by it as perhaps they should.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a discussion guide in the back of the book along with an Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, Glossary/Pronunciation Guide, Character/Location Pronunciations, and Important Terms that Appear in the Book.

An Educators Guide: http://media.hdp.hbgusa.com/titles/assets/reading_group_guide/9780316247801/EG_9780316247801.pdf

A study guide and quiz: http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-the-red-pencil/free-quiz.html#gsc.tab=0

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