Tag Archives: syria

Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

img_8794There is a reason that this 93 page graphic novel is labeled as “Teens.”  There may only be 300 or so words in the entire book, and the pictures at times are very basic, but oh subhanAllah is it devastating. Real, unfortunately, but I was not expecting my heart to be shredded and for me to be haunted by the framing and perspective of the story.  I read a fair amount of books both fiction and nonfiction regarding Syrian refugees and I try not to ever become numb to the plight of so many, but this book was such a reminder that things don’t always turn out well, that sometimes no matter how inspired your life is to follow in the footsteps of a warrior queen, there isn’t always hope.  That no matter how brave you are, horrible things will still happen, and that sometimes there is no one to hear your cries and pleas, and for so many in this cruel world, there is only silence.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Amina on a crowded makeshift book in the ocean, the boat capsizes and we are thrust back in to her memories of playing hide-and-seek with her mother.  The juxtaposition of her little body playing a game hoping not to be found with her limp body in the ocean begging to be found is stark.  The memories then take us back to her mom preparing dolmas with only rice and salt, since that is all that is left.  Her father jokes that they are too salty.  The ocean is salty as well, and the memories continue to flow.  Her parents go to the market and she is not able to go with them.  It doesn’t tell why, but her mother reminds her to be strong and brave like Zenobia. Her mother often reminds her of the Syrian warrior queen who was the most beautiful woman in the whole world, who ruled, fought, and rode like a man.

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Her parents don’t return.  She waits and waits.  There are attacks, an uncle comes to take her away.  They pass destruction and rubble and sleep in the road.  Her body starts to sink in the water.  Her uncle finds some fisherman, he gives them all his money, but it is only enough for one to go on the boat.  He sends her. A kind lady on the boat shares a bit of food, before the boat flips over.  Her body is lost in the ocean, hoping to be found, voiced only as a whisper inside her head.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I really don’t like it.  That isn’t to say it isn’t well done and powerful.  It is hard to finish though.  You really hope she will be plucked out of the water even though a part of you know she won’t.  I made me kids read it.  It rocked them.  In a good way I think, I hope.  We can never forget how privileged we are, although we do all the time.  Books like this remind us how quickly it can all change and how we at the bare minimum need to be acutely aware of what others go through.  If it is hard to read, imagine living it.

The book is Danish, I don’t know if it is translated or originally in English.  It says that it won the Danish National Illustration Award in 2017, so I’m not sure how much to critique phrasing, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how Zenobia was presented as riding, leading, and ruling like a man.  I’m pretty sure she did those things better than MOST men.  Having her stature be glorified as being that equal to a man weakened her and her accomplishments.  Yes, doing what she did at a time when many women were not allowed to do it is impressive, but she was great in her own right, not just in comparison to the male gender.

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FLAGS:

For teens nothing. For younger kids, under 10, it is subtle, but too devastating in my opinion.  Tweens should read it with some discussion, they should know it isn’t always happy and hopeful, but use your discretion if they can handle a drowning, loss of parents, and destruction.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short for a book club, but I think families should consider it and talk about it.  Syria and many other nations may not be headline news at the moment in America, but that doesn’t mean wars and their far reaching implications have stopped.  It just means we have grown weary and changed the channel.

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

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.

Spell it Like S-A-M-A-R by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Saliha Caliskan

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Spell it Like S-A-M-A-R by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Saliha Caliskan

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This 36 page book for kindergarten and up shows the role perseverance, confidence, and believing in yourself can play in conquering bullies, carving out a space for yourself and finding success.  While the book is a little predictable on the surface, older kids will understand that by winning the spelling bee, Samar didn’t just benefit by standing up to the bully, but in proving to herself what she is capable of and ultimately being more confident of her place in a new country.  The book is presented on large 8.5 by 11 full color glossy pages and features discussion questions at the end.

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Samar is in 3rd grade after recently moving to America from Syria, where she was the best student in her class.  ESL wasn’t difficult, but mainstream class is proving to be a challenge, mostly because of Jenna, the class bully.

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Jenna, snickers when it is Samar’s turn to spell words in front of the class, she teased her about her jump rope songs not being in English, and she makes fun of her for her accent.  With the help of a kind friend, Angela, the two girls decide the school spelling bee will be the best chance to prove how smart Samar is, by winning.

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The first step Samar must do is convince her teacher, Ms. Bryan to help her study.  To  show her commitment she offers to give up her recess to study.  The teacher agrees, but on the way home Jenna teases her saying she’ll never win when she can’t even speak English properly.  Deflated, when Samar gets home, she doesn’t study the flashcards and opts to watch cartoons instead.

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When later in the week her teacher quizzes her, Samar admits she didn’t study.  Ms. Bryan encourages her by sharing her own story of coming to America and having to learn English.  When Samar gets home she sees her mother, a former dentist in Syria, studying for the exams to be a dentist in America. This is the spark she needs and she studies hard, everywhere, and with anyone who will help.

On the day of the bee, Samar spells word after words correctly and after saying bismillah before spelling the final word, wins the competition and beats Jenna. The audience cheers and the next day Samar and Angela are jumping rope and Samar is singing in Arabic.

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I love that Samar and her mom wear hijab while out, but not at home, that they speaks Arabic, and Samar says bismillah.   Samar’s mom is clearly highly educated and determined and mom and dad are supportive.  I love that Samar’s drive, however, comes from her own determination, no one forces her or guilts her, it is her leading the way and understanding what her mother is going through and her teacher has gone through, and using that as inspiration.  I love that at the end she doesn’t rub it in Jenna’s face that she won, and the symbolism of Jenna just disappearing from the story makes this clear as Samar steps in to her own.  I truly love that for every Jenna in the wold there is also an Angela.  Be kind, be supportive, be a good friend!

I got this book from http://www.Ruqayasbookshelf.com and it can also be found at my favorite book store http://www.crescentmoonstore.com as well.  Happy Reading!

Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

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Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

This middle grades, upper elementary book is a character driven contemporary story of two friends with their own fears coming together: one a native of Tampa, the other one a refugee from Syria arriving in the US on the day Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ goes in to effect. In 272 pages of alternating narratives, two 12 year old girls find strength and kindness in themselves, in each other, and in many around them. Islamaphobia is focused on in the story, but the inclusion of diversity, Black Lives Matter, anti semitism, mental health, social justice, and US immigration makes the book relatable to everyone and interesting to explore. The book is remarkably similar to another book published this year, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and I wish I had not read them so close together. Both are well done, and I honestly don’t know if one is better than the other, but space them out so you don’t find yourself comparing them. I got my copy from Scholastic, and I’m always happy when the school market shows accurate strong Muslims, so if you see this in the book order forms that come home or book fairs and are wondering if you should get it, do it, it is worth your time and your child’s, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

Noura’s family has escaped Syria and had been living in Turkey when they learn they have been granted assylum in Tampa, Florida, USA. When the book opens Noura is practicing controlling her fear of water as the plane flies over the ocean. Her twin brother, Ammar, her parents and baby brother Ismail are greeted with protesters when they land. Whisked away by a church group and local Muslims, the family is given support and assistance in a new country.

One of the members in the church group that have volunteered to help the Alwan family, is Jordyn and her mother. Jordyn is going to be Noura and Ammar’s Student Ambassador at Bayshore Middle School and Jordyn’s mom has offered to help Noura’s mom learn English. Jordyn is the state title holder in swimming, but while she was swimming her fastest race, her mom was having a miscarriage, and both have a lot to work through to function as they once did.

The two girls immediately hit it off, and the families follow. Noura’s love of birds is mirrored in Jordyn’s love of water and fish, and both have their fears and mental health coping skills to bond and confide in with one another about. The girls and Ammar are assigned a Social Studies assignment and Jordyn getting close to the Alwans is not well received by Jordyn’s close friend Bailey who’s brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Other classmates also show bigotry and with the real incidents of 2017 incorporated in to the story of a mosque being burned, Jewish cemeteries being ransacked, pedestrians being run-over in France, and more, the Alwans are questioning their new country, and their friends are wondering how America has gotten this way.

While praying at school Ammar and Noura are constantly harassed no matter where they relocate to, and finally ask the administration if there is a safe place they can worship. Florida law says a space can be set aside for all faiths to have the same access as clubs do (I’m overly simplifying), and many different and diverse students come together to turn an old closet into a place of peace, worship, freedom, reflection, and meditation. As expected, the space is destroyed, the culprits never caught and complaints to the school board mount. The ultimate climax involves the kids speaking up about what the space means to them, and waiting to see what the final school board vote is. Along the way there are smaller victories, such as Jordyn teaching Noura to swim, Ammar speaking about the white helmets saving him, and Jordyn and her mother working together to heal.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Muslim Ban is discussed in a way that it is personal, not political. By highlighting a fictional manifestation of refugees affected by such policy, even people that don’t know anyone affected, I’m certain would feel a connection to a concept and its affects in a very real way. I love that N.H. Senzai was brought on to make the story’s Islamic elements ring true and that the prayer room, a very American Muslim construct ends up being at the center of the story. Noura and her family eat halal, wear hijab, and pray. I enjoyed that other diversity and acceptance issues were carried in to the story by the supporting cast including a Jewish boy, a Cuban girl, a Hindu and more. Overall the book is well written and solid, the mental health and coping skills are so beautifully normalized. Both girls have sought help and found success with it, and both are brave in addressing their fears and opening up about them to those around them. It really is empowering.

The end of the book features more information about the real Syrian children heroes mentioned in the book: the ten year old model builder Muhammad Qutaish, the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, and education activist Muzoon Almellehan. There is also information about the two authors and how their collaboration came to be.

I would love to not compare this book to A Galaxy of Sea Stars, but just to highlight a few of the near exact similarities would prove my point that had these two books not been published the same year, one would definitely be accused of copying the other. Both feature middle school girls, both have a refugee arriving to a coastal town with their families (one Afghan one Syrian), both have the American born protagonist loving water, being an only child, and have mothers going through their own life changing crisis. Both have two side kick friends, one that is very anti Muslim and one that is on the fence. Neither have a completely resolving happy ending with the three girls’ friendship and there is doubt in both books of friend’s possible involvement of hate motivated actions. Both feature a side character’s brother being killed in conflict in a Muslim majority country. Both feature an amazing teacher that is very involved in opening minds and facilitating growth regarding prejudice. Both feature PTSD issues, and fear of water issues as well as a major hobby being destroyed by an angry classmate character. The ‘ethnic mom’ in both stories is rather one dimensional but loves to cook and feed everyone. Sure they also have their differences, one alternates point of view and is tied closely to current real events, but both have remarkably similar themes of friendship, overcoming fear, and finding similarities over differences.

FLAGS:

Some mention of violence as the Alwans recall the destruction and fear of war in Syria. Mention of a cartoon drawn by a classmate mocking Jordyn getting her first bra, but it isn’t detailed. The swimming coach is a lesbian and she mentions her wife at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely encourage elementary teachers to have this book on their shelves and encourage students to read it and respond. I think it would be too predictable for middle schoolers to read in a critical manner, however, they would probably enjoy it as a light read. With Covid 19 still keeping me from starting up book clubs again, I have been asked to consider helping put together some side reading lists/suggestions, and this book would definitely find its way on that.

Happy Reading!

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha illustrated by Yujo Shimzu

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The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha illustrated by Yujo Shimzu

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This 40 page true story about Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel of Aleppo aka the Cat Man shows how one person can make a difference even in the middle of a war.  The amount of text on the page, the topic covered, and the detailed illustrations will most appeal to second graders and up, but younger kids, particularly those that love animals, will enjoy the story as well.

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Alaa loves his city: the markets, the foods, the people.  When war comes, he doesn’t flee, he keeps working as an ambulance driver.  He has a big heart.  His sees destroyed neighborhoods where everyone has left, except for the cats.  There is no one to feed them and give them water, and Alaa feels for them.

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After his shift he buys meat, and feeds over a dozen cats.  He does this everyday and soon a dozen turns in to fifty and he realizes that he can no longer care for the cats alone.  He needs a place for them.

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Word spreads and volunteers and donations start pouring in.  He purchases a building with a shaded courtyard and soon cats are everywhere.  When people leave Aleppo they bring their beloved cats to him, and even other animals start arriving.  Alaa even builds a playground for the children and digs a well so everyone can have fresh water.

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The book is pretty straightforward and steady, it doesn’t have much emotion for such a powerful true story, but it will still hit the mark in inspiring children to show kindness and compassion for animals and others.

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There are notes from each other and the illustrator at the end that share light on their connection to the story and the situation in Syria.  There is nothing religious in the book other than a few females in hijab.

Yusra Swims by Julie Abery illustrated by Sally Deng

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Yusra Swims by Julie Abery illustrated by Sally Deng

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This 32 page biography told in sparse rhyme about Yusra Mardini is powerful in its minimal text and realistic illustrations.  Children as young as six could easily read it, but I think older kids will be more moved by the story of a 17 year old girls Olympic swimming dreams being derailed by war, and the difficult journey her and her sister took to escape.  With no more than 10 words on each two page spread, the vocabulary is more suited to perhaps third grade and up.

Yusra lives in Syria and dreams of the Olympics.  She trains even as conflict grows in the country.  When it gets bad, she has to flee, her father can only afford to send her and her sister.  Smugglers are paid and they leave.  They take on the open sea, and her and her sister steer the boat through the water when the engines stall.  Once they reach land, and pray, they are stared at.  A kind stranger offers her shoes. They continue on land by foot, bus and train.  They finally reach Berlin.

Once settled, she resumes her training, and a fact page at the end shares how the International Olympic Committee invited her in 2016 to join the Refugee Olympic Team and compete in Rio de Janeiro.  And thus she achieved her dream and was able to swim in the Olympics.

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There is nothing religious in the book, except when she is leaving and is hugging a woman in hijab.  Presumably it is her mother, and thus I’m assuming that she too is Muslim. When you google it some articles say she grew up in a muslim family while others say she is Christian, so I really have no idea.

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Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

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Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

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I was not expecting to be so absorbed by this 362 page AR 5.4 book.  I knew it was about a Syrian refugee in Brussels and his friendship with an American kid living in Europe for a year, so I knew that Islamaphobia and immigration would all be factors.  I also knew that as a middle grade book it would be optimistic, and a bit of a stretch at times,  but when I had to pause in the first chapter to wipe the tears off my cheek, I knew that while it could be billed as, another refugee story, it really was going to be a poignant story about humanity and friendship and family and making a difference, so I settled in and was swept off to Belgium and the adventure of two determined kids.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with 14-year-old Ahmed on a boat with his father hoping to reach Greece from Turkey, when the boat stalls, his father and two other men, the only other people on the dinghy that know how to swim, jump into the sea to drag the boat.  When a storm swell hits them, his father is lost and Ahmed, who left Syria when an explosion killed his mom and sisters, is all alone.

Max is 13 and his parents and sister have just arrived in Belgium for a year.  Not a great student, Max learns that he will be going to a local school where French is spoken, and will be repeating 6th grade.  Less than thrilled with the news, he is additionally hurt that his parents didn’t tell him first.

The two stories start off separate with Max trying to find his footing in school and scouts where he understands very little, and has no desire to learn, and is also getting picked on by a kid named Oscar.  He learns about the history of his street and house during World War II from his after school tutor and a police officer that used to live in the house they are renting and makes regular checks on how it is being maintained.  

 Ahmed has been staying with Ibrahim and his family, another man that tried to drag the boat in the sea, but with news that they are probably going to be forced to return to Iraq, suggests that Ahmed register in as an unaccompanied minor so that he could find a place to stay.  Ahmed knows that if he registers in Beligium he will never make it to England, he hires a smuggler for 300 Euros to get him there.  When the smuggler steals his money and his phone, Ahmed worries his organs could be next, and jumps out of the moving car,  

Ahmed runs through a neighborhood looking for shelter and safety and some warmth from the frigid air.  Ahmed finds the basement of a house unlocked, he then finds a wine cellar room that is empty and decides to stay for the night as he figures out his next step. One day turns in to two and before he knows it, he has a routine of finding food upstairs during the night, which he records so that he can repay the family one day, caring for the family’s discarded orchids, and working on his English.  Then one day Max goes downstairs and discovers Ahmed living there.

Deciding he isn’t a terrorist, Max decides not to turn Ahmed in nor tell his parents, and the two become friends.  The two enlist Farah, a nice Muslim girl at school to help, and they get Oscar too, to forge papers to get Ahmed in to school.  While the biggest problem should be keeping a kid hidden in the basement, and keeping him fed and entertained, the situation is compounded as terrorist attacks by Muslim extremist plague the city and Europe, making everyone on high alert.  The police keep checking in and anti immigrant sentiment rises.  When Ahmed gets accused of being a bomb maker his secret is out, but can his knowledge of how a jewish boy was hidden in the neighborhood during the war keep him free? Nope, I’m not going to spoil it, you have to read it, trust me, you’ll thank me for it!

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love, love, love, the history parallel, and the truth in the story of Albert Jonnart and Ralph Mayer that is woven into this modern fictional story.  I love that Max so plainly says that the stories are the same and that laws that aren’t right shouldn’t be followed, yes! The book reads a lot like Refugee by Alan Gratz crossed with The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf with the kids being so heroic and determined and awesome, throw in a dash of The Diary of Anne Frank, switching out a boy for a girl, a Muslim for a Jew, the basement for the attic, and a diary for a fictional story, and you have this book.

I love that the adventure and excitement shows how resourceful kids can be even when they don’t share common language.  Max speaks English and is learning French, he is helping Ahmed learn better English and some French, when they talk to Farah who speaks Moroccan Arabic /Berber, they often have to go through Oscar who speaks French and English.  Yay, for American television and kids who’s hearts are bigger than the obstacles they are taking on.  Additionally, when the kids hit a dead end, they reach out to Jews in America for help, knowing that the two religions have more in common than politicians and the media would like to think.  Seriously, kids should rule the world.

Ahmed is a religious boy that prays, refuses meat even when hungry to ensure it is halal, and makes sure that Max knows in Islam kindness and charity are the norm and commands, not the violence that people are doing in the name of his religion.  A lot of the moms of the kids at school where hijab, and the author gets the Islam right and believable.  It doesn’t get preachy, but a fair amount of information about Islam is shared.

FLAGS:

A lot of lying. Some violence, death, hate speech. There is mention of smoking and the adults I think drink wine at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m hoping to do this as a middle school book club selection, because it really is so good.

Author’s website: https://katherinemarsh.com/books/nowhere-boy/

Teaching: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tid=60364

 

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.

 

 

Amira Can Catch! by Kevin Christofora illustrated by Dale Tangerman

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Amira Can Catch! by Kevin Christofora illustrated by Dale Tangerman

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This is book four in the Hometown All Stars series aimed at 4-7 year olds.  The purpose of the series is to teach real coaching skills to help children learn about baseball, get out of the house to play, and have fun.  The 34 page book is baseball technique heavy with a fictional storyline to move it along.  Most sports books focus on team work and being a good sport, but this one takes it a step further by emphasizing the basic skills needed to play the game, as well as sneaking in lessons about inclusion and acceptance.  If your child is American and likes sports, the book will be a hit, pun intended, but there is a lot of text on each page and as America’s pastime, there is a lot of space dedicated to what it means to be American.

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A refugee Muslim girl from Syria, Amira, is invited to play on the after school baseball team, but first needs some help at school with spelling and adding.  Luckily the kids in class are super nice and accepting and help her learn about life in America, while similarly listening to her tell about life in Syria and at the refugee camp.  Not only do they all become friends, she also gets everyone to appreciate how much food they have, and the variety, as well as gets everyone to try pickles. Yum! They like them.

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The kids at baseball practice are also incredibly welcoming as they get Amira a jersey, and teach her all about #24 Willie Mays.  From here, it is like a virtual baseball practice, the kids warm up with stretches, running the bases, and practicing their stances.  There are little info headers explaining things such as what hand to wear your mitt on and explaining how to squat, why the coach is using foam balls, and reminding the reader not to throw balls in the house.

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The kids learn three different types of catches.  How to stand, how to position their hands and how to be ready.  They run drills and practice, practice, practice. They find out Amira is really good, and she tells them that they had a lot of time to practice catching and throwing in the refugee camp.

The coach then asks the kids and readers questions before Amira’s parents arrive to pick her up.  With big smiles on their faces, the mom is wearing a hijab and chatting with the narrators mom.

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The book ends with a whole page on “What Does It Mean to be American,” a review of new words learned in the book, and all the kids answering who’s the most American of all, with “We are!”  The back cover has a reflective patch with the statement “Americans come from all over the world.  Look in the mirror, and tell me where are you from?”

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The book and series are a great way to learn about a game, that really a lot of kids today may not know much about.  Some of the terms, the skills, and just familiarity is clearly conveyed, with the illustrations providing the visuals and diagrams for what the coach is talking about in the text.  The fact that the author chose to add a refugee to such an “American” book and have the supporting  characters so welcoming, really does show the best of what Americans can be.

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