Tag Archives: Taliban

Enduring Freedom by Jawad Arash and Trent Reedy

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This isn’t the type of book I am naturally drawn to, and had it not been offered to me as an arc, I didn’t even request it, I probably would not have read it.  So, to say that this young adult OWN voice 246 page post 9/11 war story had a lot to overcome for me personally, is putting it mildly.  I gave in and decided to read it for the simple fact that I was curious to see what the narrative is in today’s literature, as we approach the 20 year anniversary of the attacks on US soil.  The afterward is very clear that the agenda of the two authors, one an Afghan and the other a US veteran, was to show a personal view of growth and assumptions on both sides and how the future of Afghanistan needs to be rooted in education and stability.  I think the book accomplished its goals, and made very clear how the terrorists first victims were their own people, and that extreme ideologies of the Taliban were and are still not reflective of the larger population.  The pacing of the dual narratives, however, was a bit off to me, and I really felt that some of the major plot points didn’t get explored in a meaningful way, that they were simply glossed over and brushed aside to keep the book inline with the authors’ objectives.  The book is not overly political, and the Muslim characters are religious and knowledgeable, but for a book that talked about how even in war the people, the soldiers, are the story, I wanted to see more internal wresting with choices and their outcomes, then what was offered.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told in alternating view points, one is that of Baheer an Afghan boy living with his large extended family in Kabul next to a Taliban compound.  The family is religious, Baheer’s grandfather, Baba Jan, is well read in poetry and religious text and often quotes the Quran by ayat and surah number.  The family sells carpets, and often hides the latest movies or news recordings in the rolls, so that they can be brought home, the blackout shades pulled and the tapes enjoyed.  They are fearful of being harassed for not having long enough beards, shaved heads, turbans and the like. Baheer and his brother Rahim do not enjoy school with the strict and abusive teachers.  The talibs seem to touch them inappropriately and scold them harshly.  Their older sister is not allowed to attend school and never has even though the family used to live in Pakistan where the boys enjoyed school. It doesn’t explain why they were there or why they returned.  One uncle is assaulted by the Taliban and soon after, a news clip showing the attacks on 9/11 is secretly watched by the family.  As a result they decide to move to Farah, in Western Afghanistan where Baba Jan has family and property, to be away from the impending US attacks and Taliban assaults.

Joe Killian is the other voice.  When the book starts he is sitting in class, his senior year, when news about the attacks on the World Trade Center starts to break.  He had joined the national guard that summer for the college money, and as his classmates sit glued to the televisions in Iowa, he is nervous that he is about to be called up to war.  He doesn’t get called up that day, he graduates, and is studying journalism in college when the call finally comes.  He is preparing for combat, but when he is deployed and discovers it is a reconstruction mission he is angry and annoyed.  A year of helping what he terms barbarians, is not what he signed up for.

The majority of the book reads like a ‘day in the life’ of each of these two voices, as they adapt to life in Farah, as they deal with each other’s presence and as their friendship forces their assumptions to change.  The interactions between Joe and Baheer show the power in getting to know someone to alter perceptions, and the threat of the Taliban on both the average citizen and the US forces on the ground as a unifying enemy to allow the friendship to grow.

The book concludes when Joe’s year of deployment is up, but really the authors’ notes at the end are a better conclusion to the real life friendship and growth of the two authors that resulted in the writing of the book

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family sees the planes hitting the towers and is mortified at the brazen destruction and loss of life.  They immediately start praying for the victims even as they realize they will be the recipients of the backlash. I like that it highlights where practicing Muslims and extremists differ, by having the Quran quoted and explained as opposed to the rhetoric the Taliban is spouting.  Baba Jan’s manner for speaking the ayats is a bit awkward in that most people don’t in daily conversation source and reference their dialogues, but it does grow on you.  I think the book is very simplistic in making the Taliban to unequivocally be the ‘bad guys’ without any context of how they gained traction. It talks about the Soviets, but I think it will leave the readers wondering where this group came from and why the Afghan people allowed it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuances and complexities that are overlooked by such a simple narrative, and allow for an inaccurate picture to be formed.

I like that Baheer pushes back on Joe who thinks America is perfect and that Afghanistan is less than, by pointing out the flaws in American society as well as his own.  I was ok with Baheer pushing the cultural limits to talk to a girl, it was innocent and I think understandable. My biggest concern is that I really felt that there needed to be more space on the page dedicated to understanding the repercussions of him being an informant to the Americans, and his brother passing on information to the Talibs.  People were taken in to custody and injured and killed as a result of these boys’ actions and to just chalk it up to something to be forgiven, was not enough for me.  I wanted them to hash it out and wallow in their choices, not forgive and move on so quickly.  I also wanted to know more about their reconstruction efforts.  It seemed rather minimal: relocating explosives, helping a burn victim, sending supplies to a school, I think in a year, that there would be more mixing with the people than the book would suggest.  And finally, I felt like the sister not getting to go to school was handled as an obligation to address, not that any insight or understanding was really given to such a hot button issue.

The book is really slow and dragging at parts, I couldn’t tell you about any of the dozen or so soldiers that are mentioned, I don’t even recall any of their names. I think the book has a lot of potential, and perhaps it does shine in showing the effects of war and terrorism on the Afghan people.  It held my attention while actively reading it, but I just as easily could have put it down and forgotten about it if I wasn’t under obligation to offer an opinion in exchange for an early copy.

FLAGS:

There is language, stereotypes, physical abuse, sexual misconduct, death, killing, violence, acts of war, bloodshed, a crush. Upper middle school and high school can handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d select this book as a book club selection because I’m not sure what would be gained from the book.  The characters assumptions are challenged and evolve, but I think most minorities know that, getting to know someone is often the best way to have their image changed.  I think the book still functions to make Americans feel better about  invading Afghanistan, rather than have us question what the long term affects of our involvement have been.

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.

 

Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai illustrated by Kerascoet

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I’m going to try my best to review a nonfiction autobiographical book and focus on the story, not on the author because yikes, Pakistanis have strong opinions about Malala, and I have no desire to get pulled in to an argument.  I’m half Pakistani, I know the position of both sides.

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I have read both the Young Readers Edition and original I Am Malala books, so I didn’t jump to review this book in 2017 when this AR 3.6 40 page re-re-telling of her story came out.  After reading numerous other children’s books about girls in the subcontinent striving to go to school and be educated, I thought maybe the controversy had calmed down and I could read this large hardbound book a bit more objectively, and thus focus on the story a bit more.

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The book is listed as a biography, not an autobiography, so I’m not sure Malala even wrote the book, but none the less it is a synopsis of her story for younger elementary children.

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Starting off a bit like Harold and the Purple Crayon, Malala asks if the reader believes in magic, and then tells what she would do if she had a magic pencil to draw things that would make other’s happy like a proper soccer ball for her brothers and a way to stop time so she could sleep in a little longer in the morning.

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Every night she hopes for a magic pencil, and every morning she is sad one hasn’t appeared.  As she starts to notice the world around her she realizes that the kids looking for food and metal scraps in the junk yard, have it much much worse.  She asks her father about it and learns that if the children were in school their family’s might go hungry.

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As she notices “real” problems around her, her ideas for what her magic pencil could fix, evolves and develops into a burgeoning social conscience.  But quickly her naive outlook is changed when dangerous men start to appear on the streets and girls in her class stop coming to school.

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Her magic pencil finds real world power when she uses her words and her voice to make a stand and people start to pay attention.  The rest of the book highlights how she made progress despite the attempt to stop her and how she now uses her “magic pencil” to work to make a more peaceful world.

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The surface story is incredibly hopeful and would motivate young children to notice the world around them and do what they can to improve it. Inquiring children might be alarmed at children going through trash, or want a lot more information about who the scary men are and why they don’t want girls going to school and why she gets to travel around and tell her story. Information that is given at the end of the book in an afterwards of sorts.

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Most pages have sparse text and the ones that have a lot are kept on level and avoid being preachy.  Even the attempt on her life is present, but not detailed, sufficing to say that they tried to silence her, but failed.

The illustrations are beautiful and tell the story as much as the words do.  The book does not mention religion, but in the pictures where she is out of the house her hair is covered, but not when she is at home in bed and whatnot.  Obviously it is how she carries her self in real life.

Overall, I think the book is incredibly well done and inspiring to young readers.  Anytime a modern day figure can show children that they too have a voice and can use it, I think it is a good thing.  The fact that the voice comes from a minority, a female, a person with a name and culture different than the ones in most western children’s text books is also a plus.  I hope if nothing else it opens a window to children that there are a lot of amazingly strong and courageous people in all cultures and to seek out their stories.

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Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby illustrated by Suana Verelst

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Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby illustrated by Suana Verelst

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I usually love books about girls, and education and hope, but for some reason, I didn’t love this book.  I really like the pictures with their mixed media feel and textures, but I found small things annoying in the book, that based on other online reviews really put me in the tiny minority.  Most people seem to drool over this 32 page AR 4.1 picture book, I, however, think there are a lot of inspiring books about girls in Afghanistan dreaming of an education that one needs to do something different, and do it well to win me over.

So the basic premise, in this text heavy, tiny font, book, is that Razia learns they are building a new school close to her home in Afghanistan for girls, and wants to go.  Her grandfather also wants her to go, but one of her older brothers, Aziz, won’t allow it, so she isn’t allowed to go.  No historical lead up explaining why her grandfather talks about days when women were educated, and now it is a rarity.  No summation on the Taliban or the 17 years of war that the grandfather mentions.  So, unless the reader knows some background on Afghanistan, the story may not resonate with them or provide needed context for connection and appreciation.  Even the afterward, about the real founder of the school, offers very little context.  The brother’s decision is final until one day he falls ill and can’t read the medication directions, and Razia can, eventually he relents and she is allowed to go. The story hints that the rocks around the school are from the quarry he works at so he now feels confident she will be safe, and that his initial refusal was a concern for safety.  They hug and seem loving, and once school starts Razia has to learn as much as she can to be able to go home and teach Aziz and her mom.

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I like that when she initially is told no, she doesn’t sit and assume a helpless manner, but rather goes to the school and meets the founder herself.  I find it odd, and irksome that the head of the school is also named Razia and it isn’t even noted. I get that is her real name, but why have the two main characters in a book have the same name and then not even acknowledge it? I didn’t get why the little girl couldn’t have a different name, seems distracting to me, and imply that every girl has the same name in Afghanistan.  I also didn’t get the hierarchy. The grandfather wants her to go, the father and uncles have legit concerns of where she is needed in helping the family farm and orchard, but why did the brother’s opinion trump them all? There is no mention of Islam, but they wear hijabs and burkas, so I think the stereotype is implied.  And that was another thing, they made it seem like she would be corrupted if she went out alone or without the burka on, but then Aziz shakes the headmistress’s hand, as if that isn’t against religious and custom norms. I felt that the kindness of the brother at the end was disjointed too, a bit too forced. The grandpa seemed kind, but the rest of the family seemed cold and rigid and not overtly concerned with Razia’s well being and growth.  Yes, they did have a jerga, to discuss and consider it, but I felt like Razia never had a voice, and while education is important, having a voice is too.  More has to change in society and in literature to give me real hope, and this book sadly fell short.

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The Breadwinner By Deborah Ellis

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The Breadwinner is the first book in Deborah Ellis’ four book series about 11 year-old-Parvana, her friends, and her family in Taliban controlled Afghanistan.  The remarkable thing about this book is that it is a compelling story, that has moments of intensity and reality, yet never falters from being on about a 4th grade reading and comprehension level.  The AR level is 4.5 and as a teacher I taught the book as a novel study to 4th graders, and now as a librarian I presented the book for my Jr. Book Club.  In both cases, after completion, the children are arguing and fighting for the next books in the series, Parvana’s Journey, and then Mud City, and finally My Name is Parvana.  It is not a tempting book on the shelf necessarily, but once you start, it is hard to put down.

SYNOPSIS:

The book gives readers a glimpse of how the Taliban changed the day-to-day lives of the Afghani people.  Young Parvana starts out helping her father, a  former History teacher, earn a meager living by reading and writing for the illiterate in the marketplace, and selling odds-and-ends that the family is willing to do without in order to survive.  As a young girl she is allowed to accompany her father into the marketplace, her older sister and mother, however, have not left their home in a year and a half.  When Parvana’s father is dragged off to prison, the family is in need of a provider, a breadwinner, and with some of her deceased brother’s clothes, a haircut and some courage, young Parvana becomes Kaseem.  She carries on her father’s work, digs up bones to earn more, and sells items from a tray to keep her family afloat.  In the process she meets an old classmate, Shauzia, who is also disguised as a boy, an old gym teacher, Mrs. Weera, determined to fight back through disseminating journals and magazines, and other characters that bring the horrors and hope of the Afghan people to life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it doesn’t get too political, which would bog down the story and turn off young readers, and while it presents unfair imprisonment, stadium style punishments, death and pain, it does so in a way that evokes empathy not fear.  It even at times finds a way to stay light-hearted and offer up hope as the reader sees the resilience and determination of these people.

“I’ve been thinking about starting up a little school here,” Mrs. Weera said to Parvana’s surprise.  “A secret school, for a small number of girls, a few hours a week.  you must attend.  Parvana will let you know when.””What about the Taliban?” “The Taliban will not be invited.”

FLAGS:

The book is intense at some moments, such as when the father is taken by the police, the girl’s nearly see prisoners having their hands chopped off, and the characters discuss landmines.  But it is on a child’s level, too much description is not offered and for most 3rd graders and up, I think the book is a great dialogue starter about what some people have to endure in the world.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: (There are a lot of resources for this book)

Author’s website and study guide:   http://deborahellis.com/teacher-resources/

Unit study:  http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/FREE-The-Breadwinner-Unit-Guide-for-Students-365169

Lesson plan:  http://coolkidlit-4-socialstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/27715927/The%20Breadwinner%20Lesson%20Plan