Tag Archives: Sumayyah Hussein

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

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Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader.  Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope.  For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events.  For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common.  Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries.  All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy.  As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria.  Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured.  This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit.  They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.

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The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf.   The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold.  As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely.  In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time.  The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them.  Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored.  Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim.  The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.

Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly.  Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose.  This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another.  The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive.   Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had.  This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ.  The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.

When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level.  It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them.  MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger.  The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.

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The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims.  The coming together of community is nice.  No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada.  The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.

FLAGS:

The violence of war may affect young children differently.  Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed.  Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a young book club.  I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book.  There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate.  I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action.  It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.

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One Hundred Ice Creams by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Derry Maulana

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This book on my first reading reminded me a lot of Amira’s Totally Chocolate World in that it takes a religious idea, in this case Jannah or heaven, and uses a child’s excitement for a favorite food to explore it.  Not a bad technique, and alhumdulillah the author was able to stay on the idea of heaven and add some additional information then just the silliness of having all the ice cream you could imagine.  The book is 36 pages and can probably be read by a first or second grader independently and appeal to story time ages of preschool 4 and up.  The book unfortunately takes a while to get going. I struggled with the first few pages, which I found really wordy, and puzzling.  The kids seem to be about 6 years old in the illustrations and in their mannerisms, but they start off the book complaining about homework and needing a break from it, which even my own children found confusing and remarked on it.  There also seems to be some unnecessary description too, in setting the stage: the day, the vehicle, the season, that it’s their favorite park, that they haven’t been there in a while, that they took a breath of fresh air, that they waited 10 minutes, etc..

Thankfully I think once the reader’s get that the park is crowded, that the kids couldn’t enjoy the swings and slide and decide to explore the nearby woods, the story finds its rhythm and engages the reader quite well.  A few minor hiccups throughout the book are again, the abundance of details that don’t further the story and aren’t developed. The river is described when they cross the bridge, and then there is another one, or possibly the same one, as this one is now rushing, and it jars the story as there seems to be a lot of rivers in this park.   There is also a rabbit that pops up and excites the kids and then shows up at the end again, which is cute and brings the story to a happy close, but I don’t really love how the parents dismissed it.  Why not let the kids see that he is scared of them and figure out that he doesn’t know they won’t hurt him/her,  rather than have mom tell them they won’t see him again and dad quickly steering them in another direction. Granted this is my personal preference, but I like when kids figure stuff out in books and solve things themselves, rather than how perhaps it is in real life, with mom and dad constantly calling the shots.ice-creams1I really like how when discussing Jannah, they talk about the rivers of milk and honey, and I absolutely loved how they talk about Grandpa (hopefully) being in Jannah and being young and strong.  I couldn’t figure out why when in the woods and marveling at nature the characters didn’t use Islamic expressions like, mashaAllah, subhanAllah, and inshaAllah, and when I read it aloud I had to add them when we got to the pages about Grandpa.  It seemed awkward not too.  The book is clearly for Muslim children, there is a reference page in the back with the ayats from the Quran and hadeeth that tell us about Paradise, and the characters are discussing an Islamic concept, so I’m not sure why their language isn’t reflective of that.ice-creams-2

The illustrations are simple and colorful and complimentary to the story.  I don’t know why the color of the character’s skin is yellowish green.  It seems to match the ice cream and on some pages seemed more noticeable then others.  Dad’s face when he is swatting the fly is a little angry and the color of the skin makes him look mean.  Not sure why the flies are mentioned. And the illustration is not reflective of his personality in the rest of the book.
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Overall the book has a good message, I think I have just loved all the books at Ruqaya’s Bookshelf so much, that my expectations may have been a little too high.  I’ve never written a book and I have no idea what the publishing process for this book was, but I feel like a a few minor adjustments from an editor or proofer would have made this book absolutely phenomenal.  That is not to say it isn’t a good book,  children undoubtedly, will get a tangible understanding of Jannah after reading the story.  An additional plus is that it is on their level in both content and in perspective, meaning that there is lots to chat about after.  Concepts that the children can discuss based on what they understood from the story with little prodding from an adult.  Points from how the kids are treated at the playground, to adding what they would want they are in Jannah, and ultimately steps we can take to increase our chances of getting there, inshaAllah.