Tag Archives: War

Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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At 224 pages, this graphic novel tells an important OWN voice story in beautiful and powerful illustrations, but despite reading it multiple times, I ultimately found the pacing off, the narrative and plot holes quite large, and the conclusion too forced.  It claims to be for middle grades which would explain the happy ending, but the assault, trauma, mental health, Bengali history, language, and protagonists age (13), make it more suited for upper middle school readers.  I read a digital ARC in predominately black and white images, so I’m hopeful that part of the problem is on me, and that I simply missed or misunderstood parts that seemed to jump around and assume, or that because it was an uncorrected proof, some revisions are still to come.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nisrin is 13 and lives in Oregon with her mother, and maternal grandparents.  Her mom travels a lot and she seems to spend most of her time with her loving Nani, grandmother.  The story opens with Nisrin in 8th grade giving a presentation about her Bangladeshi heritage to her school.  On the way home with a friend, Firuzeh, she is still wearing the cultural clothing and they are playing around with the scarf, when they are violently attacked and the scarf is ripped off of Nisrin’s head.  Her hair is pulled out in the process and the two girls are taken to the hospital and when released maintain professional counseling to process and deal with the assault.  Nisrin fears leaving her house and is increasingly isolated within her home.

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Over the summer we see her and her Nani go over to some cousin’s house where Nasrin is gawked at with her short hair and everyone is unsure how to act around her.  She joins some cousins playing video games where she asks about a cousin in hijab who says that it is essentially her choice between her and Allah (swt), that it isn’t any one else’s business.  A younger cousin tells that she plans to start hijab soon and is surprised to learn that Nisrin’s mom is not Muslim.

As summer comes to an end, Nisrin will be starting high school and exits her room the night before wearing a hijab, or in Bengali, an orna.  Her family freaks out, her Nana, maternal grandfather, is furious claiming that she should have been raised better, and Nisrin is scooted off to her room by her Nani, so that her mom and grandfather can argue.

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On the first day of school, Nisrin tries to talk to Firuzeh, but once again things are awkward between the two girls.  A teacher refuses to try and say Nisrin’s name and becomes angry and aggressive, and at PE she is called a slut and asked if she will be beat for showing her legs.  Nisrin goes home to research Islam and hijab, but everything is so angry and opinion based that she is more confused than when she started.

The next day she meets a nice girl, Veronica, and the two work on an assignment in class and then have lunch together.  Veronica suggests that Nisrin learns about Islam like she would a school assignment and go research it at the library.  Later at home, Nisrin starts to understand what her grandparents and mother saw and endured in the war of 1971 when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.  Her mom and Nana argue over what was seen and Nisrin starts to find her voice in her family.

Nani takes Nisrin shopping for long sleeved clothes and scarves, things are worked out with Firuzeh and Nisrin’s family accepts that Nisrin is not asking permission to wear her scarf, but is hoping they will accept it.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is such a flip on the over-used-stereotype that Muslim girls are forced to wear hijab, in truth many are encouraged not to.  At one point Nisrin says, “If I can’t be safe…then can’t I at least be proud.”  She was attacked for just playing with a scarf and putting it on her head, so she reasons, that there is not safety from racism and hate, she might as well be proud of who she is.  I also love the strength in the idea that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission, it is her faith, her head, her choice.

There is a lot of good in the book, but I struggled understanding quite a bit of it.  It mentions that she was at Texas and she loved it, but there was bullying? No idea what it was in reference to or what purpose it served.  At the beginning the two girls seem like they have been friends for a while, but yet Nisrin warns Firuzeh that her Nani will force her to eat.  Nisrin seems to really love her sleep overs, and I don’t know if it is just to show at the end the healing by coming full circle, but it seems a bit juvenile to be that excited about it to me.

The family dynamic and history, left me very confused.  Nisrin doesn’t know her cousin wears hijab, and is confused that her aunt doesn’t.  Nor do her cousins know that Nisrin’s mom isn’t Muslim?  These cousins call Nisrin’s Nani, Dadi, and since there is no father in the picture it is obvious to even none desi folk that these cousins are related through the mom’s family and the cousins father, so why when Nisrin decides to wear hijab is the maternal side so upset? Why does Nasrin’s mom ask if her cousins have put her up to it? Ok if the mom isn’t religious, but does she actively practice another faith? Why in one of the portraits on the wall does the woman seem to have a bindhi? The Bangladesh independence admittedly is something I should know more about, but I don’t, and this book, didn’t really fill me in.  How is the grandfather both siding? He doesn’t like invader nationalism, but I still don’t completely understand why he left, and what that solved.

The pacing and tone at times are off too me too.   I didn’t feel the strain on Nisrin and Firuzeh’s relationship, the text suggests that they are and were best friends, but when Veronica asks if Nisrin’s stress is in part to the cute girl she was staring down, I was curious too if there was more to their relationship.  A lot seems to happen between the attack and Nisrin starting to wear hijab and I wish we were allowed inside Nisrin’s head to know how she feels about her mom, her nana, starting high school, her attack, her desire to wear hijab, it seems a bit rushed.  Which is odd since, the story spends a few pages detailing when Nisrin feels like everyone hates her after Nani picks her up on the first day of school and Nani points out that not everyone hates her, the squirrels don’t, and the dogs don’t, etc..  It seems really childish for the incredible ordeal she has been through.

I like the informative section at the end about Bangledesh. I wish the book would have shared some of what Nisrin learned about Islam in her own research, she goes to the mosque, but doesn’t detail if she plans to pray regularly, fast, etc..

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FLAGS:
Language, violence, war imagery, rape mentioned, physical assault. Use of the word slut.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this would work for a middle school book club at an Islamic School, graphic novels are often to quick of reads, but I have a few friends from Bangladesh and I really want them, and their daughters, to read it and clue me in to what I am missing, their view of independence and their impression of the book.

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 Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

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 Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine

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img_6859This 157 page young adult book is translated from Arabic and while at times the story seems intentionally choppy, at other times it seems that the translation is making it more jarring than it needs to be.  I found the book interesting and powerful, in much the way a short story can be, but the length was awkward, as it was too long for a short story, and not long enough to really read as a novel with detail and depth and connection.  I love the growth and retaking of control that the protagonist embodies and I absolutely love the ending being left intentionally unresolved.  There is no mention of religion in this story set in Lebanon, until nearly the end when it states that she is Muslim.  I wonder if the translation took out some of the ‘Salams’ and ‘inshaAllahs’ that would have clarified it a bit even if prayer, or the athan or any outward signs of being a Muslim are clearly absent.  The book is probably fine for ages 13 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Faten is essentially sold in to servitude by her family.  Her family lives in a village outside Beirut and when money gets tight she is forced to go and work as a house keeper/maid for the Zein family.  Once a month Faten’s father comes and collects her salary showing little to know affection for the eldest of his children. The small Zein family has two daughters and lives in a flat.  While the girls are in school, Faten cooks and cleans and dreams of being a nurse.  The family is not particularly cruel to Faten, they often refer to her simply as ‘girl,’ but they are not particularly kind to her either.  The highlight of Faten’s day is watching a young man across the street that drives a dark blue car, come home, study, and play piano.  On occasion she catches his eye, so he knows she exists, but the two know nothing about one another.  On Faten’s 17th birthday she decides she is going to gift her self something, and writes a letter to the blond man across the street.  She has her only friend in Beirut, Rosalynn, a much older house servant in the apartment downstairs from Sierra Leon, deliver the letter which asks the boy to meet her so that she might seek his help in a very important manner.

When Faten and Marwan meet, Faten asks him to obtain information about how she might study nursing and change her future.  The two secretly meet with Rosalynn’s help on Sunday’s, Faten’s one day off.  Faten borrows May’s books to study as she learns what exams she must take to make her dream a reality.  Marwan helps her with questions she needs assistance with and Faten and Marwan become close friends, with both feeling some attraction for one another just beneath the surface.  One day however, they are discovered by a friend of Mrs. Zein at a beach side cafe, drinking coffee and Faten is forbidden from leaving the apartment as a result.  With the oldest girl, May, married now, and nothing to look forward to on her days off, Faten dives in to her studies and is more determined than ever to pass her exams.

To even take the multiple day exam requires a few lies, a few favors, and the willingness to take a huge risk.  When the Zein’s find out she is let go, and now must face her parents back in the village.  With the help of her childhood friend, Faten clings to hope, confidence in her ability, and determination to pave her own way on her own terms.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that while Faten is the victim of cruel parents, and an unfortunate circumstance, she rises up and fights for control.  I love that she has feelings for Marwan, but that they don’t overshadow her future goals, nor does she become overly dependent on him.  I really love her strength in handling the situation with him when it is good, when it is tested, and when she has to walk away.  There are elements of it being a love story, but that is just one thread of the book, her charting her own path is much more the central story line.  I wish her religion and his religion would have come to the surface more, and sooner.  Lebanon is a diverse place and just saying they were of two different faiths could have provided a lot of insight and fleshing out of the culture and the dynamics the two would have faced.  The classism is a bit obvious, but even when that is explored it provides a better understanding to the characters and to the arc they are moving on.  I like that her childhood friend and family are so loving and that her mom is not completely written off as a passive flat character.  Overall, I like the story and the book, set in the 80’s it really could have gone a lot of ways, but it held close to the theme and provided enough side details that it felt grounded, believable and ultimately was enjoyable to read.

FLAGS:

When May is entertaining suitors there is some ogling that young kids might question.  There is a lot of lying and deception and the possible romance between Faten and Marwan that in the text is pretty clean, but there is some hand holding if memory serves and implied desire for the friendship to be more.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book offers a lot in terms of classism and forced labor to be discussed and the cliffhanger ending between Marwan and Faten would allow the readers to decide if they could be together despite their different faiths, economic status and families, or not.  I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club, but if I were a high school teacher, I might offer some sort of extra credit assignment involving the book, as the ending really lends itself to the reader projecting the characters’ futures based on their own perspectives which would be fascinating to hear.

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.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

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When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

starsThis graphic novel swept me off my feet and left me in tears, not because of the hard life and sadness that life in a refugee camp entails, I had braced myself for that, but because of the hope and humanity and beauty that is so powerfully expressed and conveyed in this 264 page book.  Meant for 3rd graders and up, I think kids through middle school should be encouraged to read it.  The illustrations and colors are incredibly well done and the story is based on a true story that needs to be told and shared.  It is definitely in the top 10 books I’ve read this year and I keep catching my 11 year old re-reading this book repeatedly (like 5 or 6 times).

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar Mohamed lives in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.  His father was killed in the Somali war and his mother has not been seen after she sent Omar and his younger brother Hassan to run with the neighbors to escape the violence.  Hasan suffers from seizures and doesn’t speak, save one word, Hooyo, mother in Somali.  The two boys have an adopted mom Fatuma, who looks after the boys in the camp as if they were her own.  Unable to go to school, Omar spends his days looking after his brother, playing soccer with plastic bags, and waiting in lines for water, food, and news of a better opportunity.

When Omar gets the chance to go to school (5th grade) he has to make the difficult decision of pursuing his own opportunities, with the hope of helping Hassan later, or living day to day and taking care of his younger brother.  He is finally convinced that education will help them both, and that if the girls can find a way to do their chores and attend class, he can too.

Each transition from primary, to middle to secondary school requires testing, and only the top get to continue.  Determined to stay in school, Omar studies while dealing with life’s many challenges and the daily additional challenges of living with little food and resources.

When Omar and Hassan’s names finally appear on a UN interview lists for resettlement, hope seeps in, but the wait and the uncertainty prove to be yet another test.  Along the way there are side characters from the United Nations that show compassion, other families that show how generous and loving humans can be, female classmates show him how to take advantage of his privilege and friendships that move friends to family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is gripping and has heart.  I don’t know what I expected, but I truly could not put it down.  The character’s stresses are felt and emotions are conveyed so powerfully, that I don’t know that you can read the book and forget it.  The most emotional part for me was his honesty in dealing with his brother, the strength of his friends, particularly female, and the bond to Fatuma.  Truly their living arrangements and loss of family is gut wrenching, but it was the little things that touched me the most.  The honesty of Omar having to decide if he was tempted to not go to school because he was scared. Was he using his brother as an excuse to stay with something he knew.  The emotional tipping point of no return for me was when he realized Fatuma would not be able to go to the second interview with the UN and would not be a part of what came after.  Of course I knew that, but by that point I was so connected to the character, that when Omar realized it, I broke for him.  To feel that connection in a graphic novel was new for me, perhaps a first, and alhumdulillah I am better for it.

The characters are Muslim and behave traditionally with praying and Ramadan and Eid.

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FLAGS:

There is talk of khat, something the men chew on the side of the road to forget things.  There is some violence, bullying, a young girl getting married before 6th grade and having a baby.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Yes! I am hoping if and when we resume school I am starting with this book inshaAllah, for my middle school book club.  There is so much to talk about and understand and empathize with.

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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This memoir may qualify as non fiction, but the majority of this 176 page book is told from the perspective of the author when she was three years old, so much of it reads to me as somewhere between historical fiction and autobiography.  No matter how you categorize it though, this AR 5.8 book is better suited for middle school and up. I love that this is is a Palestinian perspective of the Six-Day War and the immediate aftermath, but after reading it, I’m not haunted by the atrocities of the Israeli occupation so much as, some of the choices her family made.  I got my copy through Scholastic and in excitement, purchased multiple copies that I sadly think will sit in a box as I doubt I’ll find many students that will enjoy this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is divided into three parts with the first and third being short letters written in 1981, and the second part being the majority of the story taking place between 1967-1971.

The first part is a high school Ibtisam getting detained at a checkpoint after heading out to check a PO Box that she uses to keep in touch with her pen pals from around the world.  She reveals what life is like and shares the joy of learning about the outside world from her correspondence, but that she rarely talks about her childhood and her life during the war.  Part two is her sharing that.

The Barakat family lives removed from neighbors and a city, but Ibtisam loves her two older brothers and younger sister and at three years old is happy.  When war comes, the family decides to run, in the process Ibtisam doesn’t have time to find a shoe, and then she gets separated from her family and swept up with the people running for the caves to escape the bombings.  Once reunited with her family, they along with numerous other Palestinians make their way to Jordan and some safety.  Safety comes at a cost though and the family is separated as her father leaves to find work.  When the war ends, the family moves from the shelter and finds a small room to rent until they can return home.

Once the family returns home, things do not return to normal as the Israeli army begins training near their house causing Ibtisam’s mom to worry constantly in her attempts to keep the children inside and away from the windows.  Eventually, the mom takes the children and herself to an orphanage in Jerusalem saying that their father cannot keep them safe.  Ibtisam is close to her father and this dramatic change does not sit well with her.

In the orphanage, the boys get separated from the girls and eventually their father promises the mother to build a wall and make repairs to the home and purchase a goat if they come home.  They do, and the kids are grateful to be together again.  The boys then start school and the goat has a baby and life carries on.   Ibtisam grows close to the baby goat and their father promises that he will remain the children’s pet and will not be slaughtered.  But, when the boys are 8 and 9 they get circumcised and the feast involves the goat.

The next major event in young Ibtisam’s life is when she finally gets to go to school.  Incredibly smart, her mother essentially equates her love for her daughter with her success in school and with that motivation and predisposition to learn and excel, she does very well.  One day on the way home, she is sexually assaulted by an older boy, and makes arrangements to always have her brothers with her when walking.  Her parents are not made aware of the offense, and don’t seem to investigate Ibtisam’s change in attitude toward school.  When an Israeli soldier attempts to assault her mother, the family moves once again and part three is a teenage Ibtisam quarreling with her parents and once again excelling at school.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that tidbits of memories are woven together to give an overall impression of the author’s childhood.  The book is a quick read and is compelling enough to hold one’s attention.  The family is culturally religious, but the book makes a point that the father prays, not indicating that the rest of them do or even know how.  I love how the freedom and hope that Ibtisam has comes from learning the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alef.  The love of language and the power found in reading and writing, is celebrated in its reverence to the learning of the letters.

I don’t get the mother, and while I get that war is a horrific time, and she is 24 when Ibtisam is 3 and has like four kids, so her life is definitely not easy, I still find it disturbing to me that she would lose a one shoe-ed daughter, take her kids to an orphanage to live while both parents are alive and well, and be so cold to her daughter.  The father seems to be loving to the kids, but he still slaughtered their pet, and I’m guessing culturally circumcisions are done at that age, because that seems incredibly cruel.

FLAGS:

War, loss, sexual assault, details about the circumcisions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I won’t do the book as a book club selection and while I know the book is in many libraries and classrooms I doubt many kids would be compelled to pick it up and read it based on the cover and synopsis on the back.  I have a few Palestinian friends that I will ask to read the book to see if they find it an accurate representative of life during the six-day war and even today as it could definitely be used to teach about the region, the conflict, and writing a biography about life for others to learn from.

 

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

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Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

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In many ways this 338 page dystopian YA fiction book focuses more on romance than the super human powers the 17 year old protagonist has and the role she will play in the resistance.  That isn’t to say the book is bad, just that it isn’t as high action, or reform-a-broken-world, or even use-my-super-powers-to-save-myself-and-those-around-me as I had hoped. It is more a lot of self loathing, desire, and anger.  That being said, I am on the fence about reading the rest of the series, as this is the start of a six book series, with two “half” novellas interjected in and being told from other characters’ perspectives.  If this was a show pilot, however, I would let Netflix automatically start the next episode until I had binge watched the entire season, not necessarily because the story is great, or the characters amazing, or the writing stellar, but because it is easy and fun and you really want to suspend belief and know who all these attractive mutated teens running a broken world are, and yes you will roll your eyes at the syrupy sweet lust filled pages, but it is YA so maybe I’m just overly cynical and 15 year olds and up will enjoy it.  It is an AR 4.3, but the language, violence, and romantic build ups should not be read by 4th graders.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Juliette counting how many days she has been locked up in a cell, 264, void of human interaction of any sort and hinting at the reason her parents feared her and turned her in.  She is then joined by a male cellmate, Adam, one she slowly realizes she remembers from her youth and is in love with.  As he asks her questions we learn a bit about her power and the state of the world.  Juliette can kill people with her touch and apparently has killed someone, a child.  Her parents, along with everyone else, have always feared her, and not being hugged or touched her whole life has definitely been a painful existence for her.  Adam is a soldier and can touch her, he is also planted to learn about her as part of his job.  Warner, another teen, is in charge of a soldiers in the Reestablishment and has been following Juliette for a long time trying to see how they can weaponize her and use her for their cause.  Adam was playing a role, and now Juliette will have to play one in a world where the food is fake, the clouds the wrong color, and artifacts of culture and life before it all fell apart are destroyed and deemed illegal.  Along the way she will have to see the world in shades of gray and be willing to forgive and understand that people are not just for or against the way things, are, that sometimes you just have to do things to survive and protect the ones you love.

WHY I LIKE IT:

With all the talk of Iran in the news, I felt compelled to read a book with a Persian character, or at least by a Persian author, so I revisited the works of Iranian-American Muslim Tahereh Mafi.  The book reminds me of a Bollywood drama from the 90s where the hero and heroine do everything suggestive, except kiss, in this book they do a lot, but I guess don’t quite cross a line.  The scenes with Adam and Juliette are too much at times, where the story building about her understanding herself, her world, and what her powers can be, too little. The stage however, is set for the book and characters to grow in the series and with that optimism of knowing that the story stretches on, I have to hope the twists and turns make for a more interesting ride than this first book presents.  Most of the drama is already spelled out on the back cover, she can kill people just by touching them, she wrestles with seeing herself as a monster, or as being more than human.  It really doesn’t start getting good until she finds others like her, but then she is bored of them and the book ends.  The book has a huge following, so much like perhaps the Twilight series, maybe I’m just too cynical, and not in the target demographic, or maybe I need to keep reading.

FLAGS:

There is violence, *SPOILER* Juliette accidentally kills a child.  There is language, there is suggestive talk, there are romantic passages with kissing and touching.  For a book about a character who can’t touch, I feel like the majority of the book is about her touching and being touched.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club, because I feel like it really is just a book setting the stage for what more is to come and because it ends so abruptly it feels almost like a teaser, yes a 300+ page teaser.  I was hoping that I could at least suggest it to readers of Hunger Games, City of Ember, The Giver, etc., but I don’t think it spends enough time on the crisis of the world at hand, and the adjustments made by a select few to appeal to the same readers.  It really is a romance, at least thus far, and the destruction of life and the environment just a back drop for their storyline.

Allies by Alan Gratz

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Allies by Alan Gratz
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This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character.  While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel.  With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional.  An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.

SYNOPSIS:

The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy.  Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.

The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.

Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis.  What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim.  In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds.  When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.

19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.

Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can.  Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.

We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps.  But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux.   And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.

All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at.  The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense.  But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people.   The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are.  The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.

As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave.  To have a Muslim in  an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable.  There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.

FLAGS:

There is a bit of mild profanity.  There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson.  There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.

Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com