Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (9780062747808)

Jude lives in Syria with her beloved older brother and her parents. As her older brother gets involved in the political battles around them, her parents decide that it is too dangerous for Jude and her pregnant mother to stay in Syria. So Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati to live with Jude’s uncle. America is very different than Syria, much louder and faster, and filled with a language that Jude barely understands. As Jude gets acclimated to living in the United States, she steadily makes new friends along the way. Her love of movies and desire to perform lead her to audition for the school musical. But when the attacks of 9-11 occur, the country that Jude has grown comfortable in changes to be more hostile to Muslims. Jude needs to rediscover what she loves about both Syria and the United States, her two homes.

This novel is written in verse, making for a very readable work. Told in Jude’s voice, the poetry allows readers to see how she feels about leaving Syria, how lost she feels when she comes to Cincinnati, and how she starts to find her way. The importance of English Language Learner classes are emphasized, both in learning the language but also in finding a group of friends. Jude also finds friends in other ways, connecting over shared cultures and shared interests.

Jude’s voice is vital to find in a middle grade novel. My favorite chapters are where Jude gets angry and voices her pain at the injustice of being labeled in a certain way, feared because of her religion, judged because of her headscarf. Those moments are powerful and raw, ringing with truth on the page.

Beautifully written with an amazing Syrian heroine at its center, this book is a great read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray. 

Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi (9780062866561)

In the year after the 9/11 attack, Shirin starts yet another new school. At 16, she is in high school and is the only girl in her new school who wears a hijab. Shirin knows what she is in for and comes to school every day braced for both full-faced insults and microaggressions. She tends to ignore everyone, taking advantage of the way her hijab can hide her earbuds so that she can listen to music even in class. But even though she is determined to ignore everyone, people still enter her life. Part of it is her brother starting a breakdancing club that Shirin joins. And then there is Ocean, a white boy who wants to get to know Shirin and can see past her headwear to really see her as a person. But Shirin knows what the world is like and how it will turn against them both if they pursue their feelings for one another. Could the risk be worth it?

Mafi, known for her Shatter Me series, turns to realism and romance in this new book. Her writing is interesting because to make this work for white readers, she has to talk directly about the microaggressions that Shiring experiences and then also about how that makes Shirin feel. Her writing works beautifully and her directness is a strength. Part way through the book, the drama builds alongside the romance into a terrifying mix of love and xenophobia.

The anger of Shirin creates a strong and remarkable heroine. There is no way to read this book without deeply relating to Shirin and her experiences, that includes understanding her fierce defensiveness and rage at the world. Shirin is truly the center of the novel which is a great mix of breakdancing, romance, anger, and defiance. Her relationship with her family is complicated and honest, as is her first romantic relationship. It’s all complicated and wonderfully so.

A fierce heroine faces racism alongside romance in this gripping novel for teens. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin

Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin

Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin (9781338150520)

Rashin tells a story from her own childhood when she traveled for the first time to an American beach. She remembers beach trips when her family used to live in Iran. They took a car, stopping for a picnic lunch along the way. In America, the subway will take them to Coney Island. In Iran, there were strict beach rules. Women and girls swam separately from the men and boys. Her favorite memory was a day when little boys peeped into the women’s section and the ensuing chaos. In America, even the ice cream flavors are different, but Rashin may have discovered a new favorite with the help of another little girl. At Coney Island, the rules at the beach are less clear, but a new friend is quickly made.

The interplay between the two cultures is lovingly depicted, neither better or worse, just very different from one another. There are universal joys like cold ice cream, sand and waves. At the same time, the two beaches and cultures are shown with their own personality and uniqueness. The illustrations add to the sense of joy with their bright colors and smiling people. While the focus is not on religion, it is an inherent part of the illustrations and the story.

A grand example of why diverse books are so important, this book tells the author’s own story. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

3 New Picture Books Featuring Families

Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima

Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima (9781481469111)

The creator of Not Quite Narwhal returns with a new book. Harriet loved to dress up all the time, so of course her birthday party was a dress-up one. When her fathers tell her that they need to pick up some more supplies, she dresses in her penguin “errand-running” costume. At the store, she leaves her fathers at the deli counter and heads off to find party hats, but instead discovers a group of penguins buying ice. Soon she has been carried off with them and up into their hot air balloons, traveling back home. Harried tried and tried to get home, but nothing worked until a kind whale agreed to carry her back in exchange for her bow tie. With the help of even more friends, this time feathered ones, Harriet is back before her fathers even miss her.

Sima captures the anticipation of a birthday party in this picture book that then takes a wild twist. When her parents tell her not to “get carried away,” it is clear that Harriet isn’t really capable of not being entirely herself. The book has a wonderful pace to it, increased at times with the use of panels that offset the full page illustrations. There is attention to diversity in the characters and the book also features gay fathers, something that is treated so matter-of-factly that it is delightful. A great read for birthdays or any day. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall (9780316362382)

This is the story of a lighthouse and its dedicated keeper. When the keeper first arrives at the lighthouse, he is all alone, making meals for one, painting the rooms and dreaming of someone. Then his wife arrives and the two of them care for the lighthouse together. They rescue people from a shipwreck together. When the keeper falls ill, it is up to his wife to not only care for the lighthouse but for him too. Then when she is pregnant and in labor, it is his turn to care for both of them. They make a life together with the sea and the beacon they care for. But eventually modernization comes and they are replaced with technology. Still, they don’t more far from the sea and their light.

From the initial page one knows that this is a special book. The dappled sea stretches from greens to seashell pink as it crosses the page. Other pages are filled with the drama of dark storms with their white capped waves. There is the stillness of fog, the beauty of darkness broken by the light. Each page is different and new. Blackall captures the quiet of life in a lighthouse, the spiral staircase, the duty and care, the wonder of the sea. This is a quiet yet dramatic book, exquisitely written and illustrated. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Mommy_s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins- Bigelow

Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins- Bigelow, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (9781534400597)

A little girl watches her mother put on her khimar, her flowing headscarf. Her mother has so many of them, all colors and patterns. The little girl loves to play with them, twirling around and imagining that she is a queen. She pretends she’s a superhero, a bird or a shooting star when she wears her favorite bright yellow one. She sometimes wears the khimar to see family or to go to the mosque. At night, she has to take off the khimar, but she still dreams about it and how it connects her to her mother.

This lovely picture book beautifully ties a child’s playful imagination to wearing a hijab or khimar. It’s a book that embraces the tradition of wearing a headscarf, showing that it is normal, beautiful and part of being her family. Throughout the book, the illustrations are bright colored and shine. The loving relationship between mother and daughter is highlighted on most of the pages too. A winning picture book of Muslim American life. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy provided by Salaam Reads.)

4 Picture Books Celebrating Hispanic Heritage

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato (9781627796422)

A boy and his family are heading to a birthday party for a newborn baby. But first they have to get their old car to run. The car, like many in Cuba, is very old and has been repaired again and again. Papa opens the hood and the boy helps hand him tools to get the engine chattering again. The road is bumpy and the car is crowded with neighbors who also needed a ride that day. As they get to Havana, the countryside transitions into an urban world, filled with other old cars, bicycles and people walking. After the party, the family heads back in the car in the darkness.

Engle’s skill with writing fills the page with the richness of Cuba and its cars. She spends time looking at the engine and letting the child help. There is a feeling of joy upon entering Havana and a wonder about it as well. The illustrations also feel that way, the text and illustrations slowing together as Havana comes into sight and is entered. A great pick for car fans and diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya

La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (9780399251566)

A Peruvian twist on the classic fairy tale of The Princess and the Pea, this picture book incorporates Spanish words into the story. El principe wanted a wife but his mother was very selective. When a maiden riding past caught the prince’s eye, his mother devised a sneaky test of a pea and a pile of mattresses. But this twist on the tale has one additional surprise for readers familiar with the tale: a prince with a mind of his own! The text of this book is simple and filled with touches of Spanish that keep the book firmly grounded in Peru. The illustrations do the same with traditional outfits and bright colors that blaze against the subtle backgrounds. A great pick to share with children who will love the twist at the end. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.)

Sing Don_t Cry by Angela Dominguez

Sing Don’t Cry by Angela Dominguez (9781627798396)

Two children are visited once a year by their grandfather from Mexico. He brings his guitar and shares songs with them every night. He encourages his grandchildren to sing even if they feel sad. When he was a child and had to find a new country to live in, music helped him. The power of music to change your mood and to draw new people and opportunities to you is explained very simply here. Preschoolers will understand the draw of music and will enjoy the direct message of using music as a way to change. Inspired by the author’s own grandfather, this picture book is a celebration of music and grandparents. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Yo Soy, Muslim by Mark Gonzales

Yo Soy, Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (9781481489362)

Crafted as a letter from a father to his daughter, this picture book sings with love. The poetic language of the text soars celebrating their identity as Muslims and Indigenous people who speak both Spanish and Arabic. The book focuses on positivity but also addresses the fact that some people will be unkind, not smile or ask pointed questions. The book then returns to celebrating identity and diversity, strengthening the message of pride. The illustrations are filled with deep colors, natural scenes and a playfulness that heightens the book. An underlying folklore quality to them ties the images to heritage. A great diverse picture book for all libraries. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

Saints and Misfits by SK Ali

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali (9781481499248, Amazon)

At 15, Janna is a Muslim teen who is still trying to figure out who she is and how to deal with things happening in her life. She wears a hijab, like her mother, though her father doesn’t approve. Her brother has moved back in with Janna and her mother since his father pulled his funding for her brother’s college education when he switched majors. Janna is attracted to a white boy at her school and finds herself being cyber-bullied by some of his friends. Worst of all though is that another boy who is considered to be an upstanding young man tried to rape Janna. She can’t find a way to tell people about what happened to her and the boy continues to stalk her. This modern look at the life of a teen Muslim girl is an important read that shows the strength of young women as they grapple with today’s issues.

Ali’s writing is fresh and fabulous. She invites readers into the day-to-day life of a Muslim family. The question of hijabs and niqabs are discussed and in many ways demystified for the non-Muslim reader. While the sexual assault is central to the book and vital to the story, there are also other moments that are critical in Janna’s growth. Some of these are small details of caring for an elderly neighbor or figuring out that saint-like girls may have other aspects to them as well. All of these smaller details add up to the strength that Janna needs to face her larger monster.

Janna is a great heroine. She is clearly written as a younger teen, something that we often don’t see in teen novels. Since she is younger, her growth is dynamic and entirely believable. Her relationship with her mother and brother are complicated and filled with teen reality. The same is true of her tumultuous relationship with the boy she likes and her friends. Just having friends who are non-Muslim is complicated, particularly when it exposes Janna far more than she is comfortable with.

A vitally important book that serves as a window and a mirror for people in every community, this book belongs in every public and high school library. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy received from Salaam Reads.

 

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Aminas Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (9781481492065, Amazon)

Amina doesn’t like the spotlight. Her best friend Soojin knows that Amina can really sing, but Amina just won’t even try for the solo for the upcoming concert. Amina’s life is changing now that they are in middle school. Soojin has started being friendly with Emily even though Emily had helped bully them in elementary school. Amina just isn’t ready to forgive Emily so quickly. Meanwhile, Amina’s uncle comes to visit from Pakistan, bringing new ideas about what it means to be Muslim. He causes Amina to start to question whether she should even be singing or playing music at all. Amina feels pressured to change but in multiple directions at once.

Khan has created a book for middle schoolers that takes a quieter look at diversity, family and being true to oneself. It is a book that looks closely at what it means to be a Muslim girl in America and how to follow the values of your culture even as you are pressured to be more American. It is a book that looks at the power of voice, of music and of community to overcome hardship and to share emotions. It is a book that has a gorgeous warmth to it, a joy of family, friendship and diversity.

Amina is a very special protagonist. Rather than being the center of attention, she doesn’t seek it at all. Still, she is lonely or ignored. She has friends and is grappling with the normal changes that come during middle school. On top of that, she is also asking deeper questions about faith, culture and living in America that will ring true for all young readers. Amina’s quietness and thoughtfulness allow those questions to shine.

Filled with important questions for our modern world, this middle-grade novel sings with a voice all its own. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Salaam Reads.

Review: Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane

deep in the sahara

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi

Released October 8, 2013.

Lalla wants to wear a malafa just like the other women in her family do.  Lalla tells her mother she wants to be beautiful just like her, but her mother says that a malafa is about more than beauty.  Lalla tells her sister that she wants to be mysterious just like her, but her sister says that a malafa is about more than mystery.  Seeing all of the women in their malafa, Lalla tells her cousin that she wants to be like all of them, but she replies that a malafa is more than that.  Her grandmother too says that a malafa is about more than tradition.  Finally, Lalla goes back to her mother and explains that she wants to be able to pray like her mother does.  Her mother agrees, saying “A malafa is for faith."  And the two face east and pray together in their malafa.

Set in Mauritania, this book celebrates the Muslim faith in a very beautiful way.  Written in the second person, readers are invited to see themselves as Lalla and learn about her faith and her world.  Cunnane writes beautiful descriptions of both the malafa themselves and also the community where Lalla lives.  There are donkeys, camels, and other exotic things, but Cunnane goes deeper than that and paints a world with pink houses shaped like cakes and silver heels that click on tiles.

Hadadi’s art is jewel toned and filled with details.  She has created a warm and loving community for Lalla to explore with the reader.  The beauty of the malafa are shown, the colors of the rooms, and the tangible love of an extended family.

An accessible and beautiful look at a Muslim community that dazzles.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Schwartz & Wade.

Review: The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

garden of my imaan

The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

Aliya is different than the other kids in her class because she’s Muslim.  She does all she can to fit in, but that means she doesn’t stand up to the kids who pick on her or even talk to the cute boy she likes.  Then Marwa moves to their town and she is in the same grade as Aliya.  Marwa is also Muslim and wears the hijab or head scarf.  Marwa also does not just put up with the teasing of others and appears to Aliya to be much more confident than Aliya personally feels.  Aliya starts to write letters to Allah which start out as just complaints at first and then lead to something more: action.  As Aliya begins to deal with her own insecurities, she discovers that the world is much more accepting of differences if they are handled with confidence.

Zia has created a universal story with a Muslim heroine.  Children of all faiths will recognize themselves in these pages.  They will have struggled with teasing and bullying, they will have tried too hard to fit in, they will have not liked someone at first and then learned to like them.  Zia incorporates details about Zia’s Indian culture, her faith, and her family traditions with great skill, handily defining things with skill and ease.

It is wonderful to see a young heroine whose life includes cute boys but is not driven by it.  Faith, family and friendship are really at the heart of this novel, but Aliya is definitely a young girl too.  She struggles with issues in a way that shows definite growth in a natural way.  Zia writes with a wonderful lightness that makes this book an effortless read. 

Filled with giggles between girlfriends, this book reveals the warmth of family and faith in a completely approachable and joyful way.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Peachtree Publishers.