Tag Archives: teachers

Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik

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Omar is back, and the nine year old kid with a huge imagination, proves that his heart is even bigger.  Middle graders that loved the first version, The Muslims, and the reboot, Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, will undoubtedly love this book’s adventures and the real, relate-abl, presentation of Islam in a Muslim family.  While it references the first book, it can work as a stand alone book too, and can and will be enjoyed by kids and adults, girls and boys, Muslims and non Muslims.  At 217 pages, the large spaces, doodles, playful fonts, and illustrations, make the book fly by and beg to be read again and again.

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar’s family still has their Science Sundays, but they don’t visit a new mosque every Saturday, as they have found a mosque near their home that gives his parents, “secret smiles” and them all a sense of community.  Omar and his sister still bicker, and his little brother Esa is still lovable, and the former bully, Daniel, is now a great friend to Omar and Charlie.  Life is good, Alhumdulillah, but in the midst of the boys planning how to get laser guided Nerf guns and have an all out battle, Omar learns the mosque’s roof is in need of repair and that the congregation will need to come up with 30,000 pounds to cover the costs, and fast.  In an act of selflessness, Omar abandons his dream of a foam gun and donates to the masjid.  Seeing that is not going to be anywhere close to enough he plots and schemes with his friends, his non Muslim friends, on how to raise the funds.  They bake cookies, make origami birds, and get their school to host a talent show to raise the money.  Their teacher and the head teacher coordinate the hall and judges and winning prizes all to help out Omar and the mosque, in the end though, they raise just under 1,500 pounds.  Not enough by themselves, but a great contribution to what other people hopefully are scrounging up.  The worst part however isn’t that they didn’t make enough, but that what they did make, goes missing.  Omar, Charlie, and Daniel, along with the parents and police and school personnel, try and find the money and who might have taken it before time runs out.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how effortlessly the author adopts a nine-year-old’s voice and persona.  So many of the details, for example, about how the school administration signed off on a fundraiser for a religious building, and how tickets were sold, and the planning took place are left out, as a nine year old, probably wouldn’t know, or be concerned with the logistics of such endeavors.  It seemed like some details should be given, but I doubt readers would feel that way, so I pushed it aside and went along for the ride.

Omar has amazing friends, from the unpredictable old neighbor lady, to his non Muslim friends being so enthusiastic and supportive of saving a mosque.  I love it, and that they are that way because Omar is so unapologetically Muslim first.  They even discuss a hadith about how building a mosque, builds you a house in Jannah, and a mainstream book published this, and it is AMAZING! It isn’t just a kid and his family, who happen to be Muslim, the whole plot of the book is to save a mosque, and the fact that this book exists, seriously is so beautiful, and powerful, and hopeful, Alhumdulillah.

This book has a lot of layers, most kids won’t pick up on the interfaith aspects being so ground breaking, or the beauty of teachers and parents believing and supporting young kids, but will just read it as a funny story with anecdotes and inside jokes that they get as kids, as Muslims, and maybe even as Desis.  It truly is the culmination of an author who can write well, characters that our kids can see themselves in, and an opportunity to tell our OWN stories that make this book work for kids, adults and everyone in between.

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FLAGS:

Omar and his sister are mean at times, but alas love each other and look out for each other too.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but if I did, I would do this book in a heartbeat.  For middle school it would be too quick of a read, but I think all classrooms and all libraries should have the book, up through middle school.

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2020/2/7/planet-omar-pushing-for-muslim-characters-in-childrens-literature

I got my copy here in the US at www.crescentmoonstore.com and as always you cannot beat their customer service and prices.  If you don’t have the first book, you can get it there, too.  Thank you Noura and Crescent Moon Store.

From Far Away by Robert Munsch and Saossan Askar illustrated by Rebecca Green

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From Far Away by Robert Munsch and Saossan Askar illustrated by Rebecca Green

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Robert Munsch is a staple in most classrooms and libraries, but somehow, much to my embarrassment, I just learned about this book.  Originally published in 1995 with a different illustrator, I read the newer version that was rereleased in 2017.  I’m not sure how they differ, but they stem from an autobiographical experience of the co-author Saossan Askar, and her leaving of the war in Lebanon.  She wrote to the author and their letters back and forth are how the book came to fruition. 

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The 24 page picture book is an AR 3.5 and my guess it is because of the content a bit more than the reading level.  While it never gets graphic or sensationalized, she does leave a war zone of bombs and shootings, and the words may trigger fear in younger children.

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As the book progresses, the focus is much more on Saoussan settling in to her new life and the hiccups along the way.  From not knowing what anyone is saying, to sneaking out of class to go to the bathroom, and being frightened by a paper skeleton.  The book gives concrete examples that while silly, really show how someone unfamiliar with a new culture could be very confused and even scared.  

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The book has a happy ending with Saoussan adjusting and making friends and even becoming the best reader and speller in her class.  She also gets in trouble often for talking too much.  

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The book, like many in the genre of discussing war and refugees on a child’s level has its strengths and weaknesses.  The heart of the story I would say is wonderful, the illustrations lively and engaging, some of the transitions and details, however, are a bit abrupt and unsatisfying.  Once you know that it is based on reality and came about through letters, it makes more sense, but even that is a concept older readers will appreciate more than younger ones will.

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I checked the book out from the public library and I think does a great job of inspiring empathy.  It is vague as to what conflict is being left which makes it timeless in that I, unfortunately don’t see refugees disappearing soon.  The mom wears hijab, but there is no mention of religion in the book.

Here are the letters from his website: https://robertmunsch.com/book/from-far-away

From Far Away started with this letter:

To Robert Munsch
I am a little girl. My name is Saoussan. I am seven years old. I am in grade two now. I came to Canada one and half year ago. I didn’t know how to speak English at all. I was just sitting and listening. A lot of funny things happened to me.

Children were trying to talk to me, but I was not able to answer them. I began to talk a little by little.

I finished grade one and now I am in grade two. The teacher now is complaining to my dad that I am talking a lot in the class and I read and write a lot of stories.

One day I found a book called Thomas’s Snowsuit. I read it and I laughed with my family.

I went to the library and I brought some of your books. I enjoyed reading them. I even read them to my dad that he laughed so hard he could not stop laughing.

Please come to our school we want to hear a story from you and we want to see you.
I wrote back and asked her what “funny things” had happened. Saoussan wrote back telling me about her first Halloween in Canada:
To: Robert Munsch
Thank you for your letter. My teacher read it to the class and he said: I am not going to tell the class the funny thing that happened to her when she was in kindergarten and I am not going to embarrass you.

I don’t remember all of the funny things. But I remember one thing.

When I wanted to go to the washroom I didn’t know how to say I want to go to the washroom. That’s why I used to crawl to the door and when the teacher turns her head and looks at the other side I crawl under my friend’s desk and when someone opens the door I crawl out and go to the washroom.

When I come back from the washroom I wait beside the door and when someone opens the door I crawl in and go to my desk.

Once I crawled to the washroom. When I opened the washroom door I saw a skeleton. Then I screamed: Aaaaahhhhhhhhh!

Everybody came out. My teacher, Mrs. Garwan came, opened the washroom door and she tried to tell me that it is Halloween time and the skeleton is paper.

I didn’t understand her and I didn’t know what Halloween is.

She jumped up and down and danced around to explain to me that Halloween is just fun, but I thought the skeleton made her crazy and I screamed louder.

Then she hugged me to make me feel better and I jumped on her lap and the pee went down my knees. She put me down because she got wet.

Now I am in grade 2/3 and I am the best reader and speller in the class. This year when it was Halloween I weared a mask and a costume and we did a party at school. Then I went with my sister trick or treating to the neighbours.

Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please come to our school.

I liked her letters so much that I decided to turn them into a book.

So Saoussan and I wrote a lot of letters back and forth and we made the letter into a book. Saoussan and I are both the authors and we split the royalties.

Sadia by Colleen Nelson

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A middle school sports book with a female lead who wears hijab written by a non muslim.  The book could really go a lot of ways, I held my breath for all 239 pages waiting for something to go totally awry, and thankfully it never did.  In fact I read the book nearly straight through and while meant for ages 12 to 15, I quite enjoyed it.

SYNOPSIS:

Ninth Grader Sadia Ahmadi is an immigrant from Syria, her family left before things got “bad,” and while she has adjusted to life in Canada, High School is testing her in other ways.  Her best friend Mariam, an immigrant from Egypt, has started dejabbing, taking off her hijab to fit in it seems any chance she gets.  This is taken as a betrayal by Sadia and their friendship waxes and wanes throughout the book as each girl has to figure out who she is in relationship to hijab, and how to judge and/or accept each other and their choices.  Throw in a new refugee girl Amira from Syria who doesn’t speak English, a co-ed basketball tournament that doesn’t allow any headgear to be worn during games, a cute boy on the team and an awesome teacher with interesting assignments and you have the book in a nutshell.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like Sadia, she is believable and strong.  She is well liked, athletic, she has a good relationship with her parents, brother and teachers, she prays and fasts and owns who she is, but she isn’t perfect.  She is hypocritical at times, and acknowledges it, she is tempted by parties, and boys and taking off her own hijab to play ball, and has to confront it about herself.  She doesn’t do things like pray on time, like she knows she should, but there she is and I am so impressed that the author picked up on so many nuances of Muslim life in her research or in her own observations as a teacher.  Yes, Amira has an awkward observation about Miriam being Muslim and not wearing hijab that seems really one dimensional considering large numbers of Muslims in Egypt and Syria don’t cover, but I don’t know if that was the author’s attempt to draw the issue to the light or if it was just a misstep.  

I like that there is a cute boy that accepts Sadia and who she likes as well, but they don’t do anything.  So often, these books become overrun by the romance story line and this one doesn’t, thankfully.  It seems to find a realistic balance, that she has feelings, but isn’t going to act on them, and based on her mom figuring out when she is lying that she won’t try and sneak behind her mom’s back.

Issues of halal food are mentioned in passing and it fleshes out that the girl is Muslim, not just going through the motions.  At times it is hard to know if her choices are based on belief and faith or expectation, but for an early YA/Middle School book, I think it suffices.  She mentions modesty as a reason for hijab, but also a lot of parental and cultural expectation.  One central theme the reader just has to go with, is that Sadia and the rest of the characters in the book, and there are a fair amount of Muslims, don’t know about any other ways to wear hijab for sports.  I get that Mariam and her sewing ability is a huge arc in the story, but they have smart phones, and its a contemporary piece, they have to know about Ibtihaj Muhammad in the Olympics, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, and Nike making athletic hijabs.  So, to make the story work you do have to turn a blind eye to the fact Muslima’s have taken to sports in the mainstream and that there is no way they can all be that clueless about her fabric, style, and covering options.

I love that the issue of refugees is addressed in the periphery, and the issues are given a human face.   I love that Sadia’s parents are religious, but not left as simple stereotypes, they deal with Islamaphobia, but aren’t looking for sympathy.

There is always the case, that the hijab becomes a stereotyped item as the story involves characters torn to wear it or not, but I loved how judgements were called in to questions and there wasn’t an easy answer.  The side friends in the story are all way too good to be true, but I think the whole book has a bit of a pollyanna feel to it, and in this case it was ok to error on the side of kindness than become overtly sensationalized and whiney.

The biggest hurdle this book faces is, is it the author’s story to tell. And I don’t know, I review a lot of books, and many are by Muslims and they get stuff wrong in my opinion, or they go so extreme to be accepted.  So, I don’t know, I think the book had heart, I didn’t know if the tournament would let Sadia play, I didn’t know if she would sneak off to the party, I didn’t know if she would cross the line with Josh, and I was curious, and invested and sucked in to it all.  Is it a book to teach others about Muslims or a book for Muslims to see themselves? I think all of the above.  Muslim’s should control their own narrative, but I think when author’s get so much right, we have to take some reassurance in the idea that we are being accepted by the larger society, and our stories are being told with love by other’s too.

FLAGS:

There is romance and lying, but no kissing, just hints at emotions or an errant arm flung over a shoulder during a huddle or photo.  There is mention of drinking at the parties, but Sadia doesn’t end up attending.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would do this as a book club selection, but if I met the right group of kids, I would definitely reconsider.  There is a lot of basketball, which I quite enjoyed, but I could see other’s maybe getting bored by the play-by-play.  I’ll make my daughter read it in a few years, and I look forward to discussing hijab and how she feels about it after.  It does raise the subject, and ask you to check your judgements on yourself and on others.

Author’s Website: http://www.colleennelsonauthor.com/