Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice

Hena Khan, Author

Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fiction,  Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Pakistani and Asian Americans, Friendship, Peer Pressure, Family, Muslim Culture, Community, Prejudice, Racism

Opening: Something sharp pokes me in the rib. “You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class. I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.

Book Jacket SynopsisAmina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American,” now that she is to become a citizen. Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with  these questions, her local mosque is vandalized, and she is devastated.

Why I like this book:

Hena Khan has written a timely and empowering novel about a young Muslim American girl, who finds her voice with the help of friends, family, and community.

Khan’s novel is multi-layered with many themes. The central theme of Khan’s book is about what it’s like to be a Muslim girl growing up in America. She takes her readers into a loving and strict Muslim family, where cultural traditions are at the center of their lives, from praying, studying the Quran and meal preparation, to the respect shown to visitors and the value of community.

The main characters are multi-dimensional and diverse. Amina is a kind-hearted, shy, and talented pianist and vocalist. Her best friend, Soojin, is Chinese and wants to change her name because no one knows how to pronounce it. Bottom line, she wants to fit in. This raises important questions for Amina. Would the popular kids like her better if she changes her name? How does she be true to her Muslim values and still be American? Many readers will identify with the angst of middle school as they navigate through those sensitive years. Amina’s story will also resonate with children of immigrants.

The language is carefully crafted and uplifting. The plot is realistic and leaves readers with hope even after the Islamic Center is attacked and vandalized. It is heartwarming to see how the community rallies behind the Muslim community by inviting them to use their churches and providing labor to rebuild the center. It beautifully demonstrates to readers the meaning of our common humanity. I know my community would come to the rescue of our Muslim neighbors. Verdict: This book belong in every middle grade library. It’s a treasure!

Hena Khan is a Pakistani American who was born and raised in Maryland. She enjoys writing about her culture. She is the author of several books, including It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Night of the Moon. You can learn more about Hena Khan by visiting her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson

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Under the Same Sun

Sharon Robinson, Author

AG Ford, Illustrator

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Jan. 7, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: African-American, Family Relationships, Multigenerational, Multicultural, Tanzania, Safari

Opening: The sun rose in the sky like an orange ball of fire. The rooster crowed. Then the dawn light gave way to an early-morning blue. “Nubia! Busaro! Onia! Wake up!” Father called. “Rachel! Rahely! Faith! The plane will soon be landing!”

Synopsis: Auntie Sharon and Grandmother Bibi are coming to Tanzania from America to visit their family. It will soon be Bibi’s eighty-fifth birthday and her seven grandchildren are planning a big surprise! They spend the next few days telling stories, exchanging gifts, making trips to the markets and preparing spicy meals.

Finally the big day arrives, and three generations of family pack their bags and pile into their father’s jeep for a safari trip in the Serengeti National Park. They view beautiful animals in the wild — hippos, crocodiles, exotic birds, gazelle, a pride of lions, elephants, zebras and giraffes. They make a final stop on their return home to Bagamoyo, a slave-trading post along the Indian ocean.  It is a meaningful stop, because Bibi’s African-born grandchildren learn about how their great-great grandparents were captured and shipped to Georgia to pick cotton on a southern plantation.

Why I like this book:

This is a personal book for Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player. She shares the story of the trips she and her mother make to visit her brother David, who returned to Tanzania to raise his family. Readers will get a strong sense of the rich cultural heritage, customs and language. This is a heart-felt multigenerational story with a twist, showing Sharon’s African nieces and nephews learning about their ancestral heritage. AG Ford’s oil paintings are exquisite. Just study the vibrant and lively book cover. His brush captures the love and joy among the Robinson family.

Resources: There is an Author’s Note, family photos, a map of Tanzania, a glossary of Swahili words spoken in East Africa, and a page about Tanzanian history and meals. This is a great read for Black History Month. Encourage children to talk with great grandparent, grandparents and family members about their family history. Record the stories told, or write them down.

Favorite Quote: Bibi gathered her children and grandchildren in her arms. “We may be separated by land and sea, but we are always under the same sun,” she said. And she hugged them all at once.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website where you will find lists of books by categories.

Every Falling Star: How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

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Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland, Authors

Amulet Books, Memoir, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 11 – 14

Themes: Life in North Korea, History, Family Relationships, Homeless Boys, Street Children, Gangs, Poverty, Loss, Survival, Escape,  Multicultural, Hope

Prologue Opening: My toy soldier peers over a mound of dirt not far from where my father, abeoji, my mother, eomeoni, and I have just finished our picnic, near the Daedong River in Pyongyang.

Synopsis: Every Falling Star is the memoir of Sungju Lee, a North Korean (Joseon) boy who grows up in a privileged military family in Pyongyang.  He dreams of becoming a general in the army. His father is an important military leader, his mother a teacher and his grandfather a doctor. Sungju plays with his toy soldiers and his father joins him to teach him war strategies. His favorite television cartoon is Boy General. His loving  family lives in a large apartment near Kim Il-sung Square. Life is normal and there is plenty of food. Sungju attends school where he listens to the stories about the eternal leader, Kim Il-Sung, studies regular subjects, and learns about the monsters that want to attack his country — the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans. He takes taekwondo lessons, attends birthday parties, and goes to the amusement park.

One day Sungju’s father is asked to leave his job because of something he’s done. The family is sent north to Gyeong-seong, where they are to work as laborers in the countryside. Sungju is shocked by his new life and the starvation and death around him. He attends school where he makes friends, but attending is not worth his time. Eventually the family’s money (won) runs out and they fall upon hard times like everyone else. His parents hunt for wild vegetables, roots, small animals in the forests to survive. Sungju sells his books in the market. When his father goes to China to sell valuables and his mother heads to an aunt’s home for food, Sungju is alone. They never return and he is homeless. The twelve-year-old is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. He survives for four years by joining a gang (kotjebi) and creates a new family with these brothers. Eventually he leads his own gang. Life is dangerous, brutal, and unforgiving. Sungju learns to steal, lie, and fight-to-kill. Everyday he fears arrest, imprisonment and even execution. It is the hope of finding his parents that keeps him alive.

Why I like this book:

  • Sungju Lee’s brave memoir captivated me from start to finish. I know so little about life in contemporary North Korea, and his gripping and powerfully haunting story touched me in a way I won’t forget. This is a true story that humanizes history for readers.
  • Lee and author Susan McClelland vividly depict the sharp contrast between life for the privileged families living in Pyongyang and the grim, deplorable and brutal life for the poor living through the famine outside the city in the 1990s. You understand how children in Pyongyang are brainwashed with propaganda based on myths from birth. You feel the anger, hopelessness and despair of those starving in the countryside and wonder how you would survive an authoritarian government where censorship is rampant and your freedoms are taken away.
  • Readers will observe Sungju’s transformation from a naïve child, loving and dutiful son in Pyongyang, to a resilient, fearless and notorious street gang leader. He uses the military tactics his father teaches him as a child to outsmart his street enemies, merchants and the police. He has rules his gang all agree to live by, like never stealing food from a child. He develops strategies, secret codes and hideouts. He is a leader and becomes hardened. The only heart he shows is towards his loyal gang brothers: Young-bum, Chulho, Min-gook, Unsik, Myeongchul, and Sangchul. They are his family.
  • The story is a page turner, reads like a novel and is packed with action. The pacing is fierce with most of the storytelling focused on Sungju’s street survival. He and his gang are always on the move. They hop trains to other cities, fight with different gangs for control over markets, manipulate merchants, and are chased out-of-town by police. They move on to other cities and repeat their activities. They also suffer personal injury and loss of two of their brothers.
  • Readers will have to wait until the very last chapter to discover how Sungju leaves his street life and is reunited with his family. The ending feels rushed and I wanted to know more about his big escape. After all, it is a risky event. Thankfully, there is an Epilogue at the end that fills in the gaps. Verdict: Teens will find this powerful memoir about adversity and hope, engaging and satisfying.  Every Falling Star belongs in school libraries. Although the publisher lists the book for ages 12-14, the School Library Journal recommends it for middle grade readers, ages 8 -12. Because of the drinking, drugs, stealing and violence in the book, parents should make that call for tweens.

Quote: “But I hadn’t lost everything. I had hope that I would meet my parents again. With this hope, I made a wish whenever I saw a falling star.”

Resources: There is a Brief History of Korea and Prologue at the beginning of the book. There is an Epilogue and Glossary of Korean words at the end.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

As a Boy

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Plan International Canada

Second Story Press, Nonfiction, Sep. 6, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Boys, Education, Choices, Gender Inequality, Poverty, Responsibilities, Diversity,

Opening: “As a boy, I will have choices from the day I am born. Some will be made for me…and some I will make for myself.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: All children should be treated equally, whether they are boys or girls. Boys have sisters, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. They care about the choices that their mothers have, and the opportunities that their aunts are given. They want to see their grandmothers get the respect they deserve, and that their sisters have the same rights as their brothers.

Because boys love their sisters, they want them to go to school, just like they do. Because boys are sometimes given chances girls are not, they know that this is not right. And as brothers and sons, nephews and future fathers, they can help to make sure that all children have voices and choices.

Why I like this book:

As A Boy is an inspiring global story about boys and their families. Each page features breathtaking, expressive, and powerful photographs that will melt your heart and touch your soul. No matter how difficult lives can be, there are so many smiles on their faces and a glimmer of hope.

The minimal use of text is strong and conveys Plan International’s message “that boys are routinely given an education and choices that girls are not, and that this needs to change.”  The book allows boys to raise their voices in solidarity, to say that they too want the girls and women in their lives to be given equal opportunities to succeed in the world.”

I am a fan of Plan International books. They address tough issues and teach youth about how difficult life can be for children around the world. Since we are a global family, youth need to know that boys are treated differently than girls around the world. Their needs are put above their sisters. But, boys also face the burden and pressure of growing up quickly to be a man, to work, to support their families, to fight and to be brave.

As a Boy is a perfect companion book to Because I am a Girl: I Can Change the World, as well as The Way to School, both personal favorites of mine. Click on the titles to read my reviews. All three of these books are valuable resources for school libraries, so that children will have an understanding of what it is like to be a boy or girl in a third world country. Since so many children live in poverty, education is vital to their futures. Many times going to school involves hurdles and risks.

Plan International was founded in 1937. It is one of the world’s oldest and largest international charities, working in partnership with millions of people around the world to end global poverty. Not for profit, independent and inclusive of all faiths and cultures, Plan has only one agenda: to improve the lives of children. Proceeds from all the book sales are used to support programs benefitting children around the world.

Resources/Activities: This is an excellent classroom discussion book to talk about how boys and girls are treated differently around the world. Pair As a Boy with the other two books mentioned above, so students get a better look at the gender inequality. Ask students if the feel they are treated equally in their country of origin. Make a list. Ask the boys and girls how they would feel if they had to change places. And, celebrate gender equality with other children on the International Day of the Girl, Oct. 11, 2016.

Blackbird Fly

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Erin Entrada Kelly, Author

Greenwillow Books, Fiction, Mar. 24, 2015

Paperback Reprint Mar. 1, 2016, 320 pages

Suitable for Ages: 8-12 years

Themes: Bullying, Outcasts, Filipino Americans, Family relationships, Friendships, Middle School, Music, Multicultural

Book Synopsis:  Twelve-year-old Apple Yengko believes that there are at least three interesting facts about every person on Earth. Unfortunately, her three IFs make her an outcast in Chapel Spring Middle School in Chapel Spring, Louisiana. She has slanted eyes, a weird Filipino nickname, and a weird mother.

When Apple is voted the third ugliest girl in school, her life quickly falls apart. The boys bark at her in the halls and rumors spread that she eats dogs for dinner. Music is her only escape. All she needs is enough money to buy a guitar, and then she’ll be able to change herself and her life forever. So what if her mother doesn’t understand and thinks she’s becoming too American. So what if her supposed best friends turn the other way…

It might be the Beatles and their music who save Apple, or Mr. Z (Chapel Spring Middle’s awesome music teacher) — or it could be two unexpected friends who show her that standing out in a crowd is better than getting lost in it.

Why I like this book:

  • This is a painfully realistic story by Erin Entrada Kelly about the impact of bullying on an Filipino-American teen who is trying to find her place in a Louisiana middle school. It is an emotionally honest novel about Apple, who feels like an outsider because of her ethnic background. Her best friends turn on her and their boyfriends put Apple on a secret Dog Log list of the ugliest girls at school. Teens who feel different and deal daily with cruelty in middle school, will find Apple a must read.
  • Apple is a strong, smart, quirky and likeable character who loves the Beatles, wants to play the guitar, and be the next George Harrison. Music is her only link to her deceased father. Her over protective mother forbids her to play the guitar or join the school swing choir at school. Apple is embarrassed by her mother who speaks with an accent, clings to old values and cooks Filipino foods. She becomes friends with a new boy, Evan Temple, who is self-assured and doesn’t care what others think of him. He accepts Apple for who she is and encourages her music. They befriend Helena Moffett, who is overweight, is on the Dog Log and has a secret weapon — a powerful singing voice.  Together, the three friends take on the bullies.
  • Kelly’s first-person narrative is extremely effective. The plot is courageous and stays true the theme of what it feels like to be an outsider. I love that Apple spreads her wings like her favorite Beatles song, Blackbird. The pacing is fast, which makes this novel a quick read. There are many unexpected surprises, including the ending which is happily satisfying. 

Erin Entrada Kelly grew up in south Louisiana. Her mother was the first in her family to immigrate to the United States from the Philippines.  Blackbird Fly is her debut novel. Visit Kelly at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Since many of my reviews include diverse books, please check out Diverse Children’s Booksa brand new book-sharing meme designed to promote the reading and writing of children’s books that feature diverse characters. This community embraces all kinds of diversity including (and certainly not limited to) diverse, inclusive, multicultural, and global books for children of all backgrounds. Spread the word by using #diversekidlit on Twitter. Check out the logo in my sidebar.

Maya’s Blanket – La Manta De Maya

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Monica Brown, Author

David Diaz, Illustrator

Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, Fiction, Aug. 15, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Bilingual, Blanket, Creativity, Recycling, Family traditions and relationships, Love, Latino, Multicultural

Opening: “Little Maya Morales had a special manta that she loved very much. The blanket was blue and green, with purple butterflies that Abuelita had stitched with her own two hands when Maya was just a baby.”

Synopsis: Maya’s grandmother stitches a beautiful blanket for her as a baby and she loves her manta very much. The blanket becomes worn and Maya helps her Abuelita sew a new dress from the fabric. When Maya outgrows the dress, they make a skirt for her to wear. Over time the skirt is repurposed into a shawl, a scarf,  and a bookmark. One day Maya loses her bookmark and finds a creative way to keep alive the memory of her beloved manta.

Why I like this book:

Monica Brown’s heartwarming story celebrates family traditions, love, creativity, and recycling.  It is bilingual, written in both English and Spanish on double-spread pages.  The English text is sprinkled with Spanish words.

Children will delight in the use of repetition each time the blanket is made into another item and will chime along as you read, “So with her own two hands and Abuelita’s help, Maya made her falda (skirt) that was her vestido (dress) that was her manta into a rebozo (shawl) that she loved very much.” They will also have fun predicting what happens next.

This beautiful Latino story is based on a traditional Yiddish folk song about a coat that is remade into something else. In writing the story, Monica Brown honors both her Jewish and Latino heritage in her lyrical and lively storytelling. The ending is so charming, I won’t give it away.

David Diaz’s illustrations are richly textured, colorful, and bold. Each double-page spread conveys an energy that jumps off the pages. Children will enjoy watching Maya’s magical journey unfold through his artwork.

Resources:  There is a fun Author’s Note and Glossary of Spanish words in the back pages.  Children usually have a favorite blanket, stuffed animal or toy at home. Ask them share stories about their item. Encourage them to think about how they could reuse or recycle their favorite item into something else. Older children may want to write a story or a poem.

Monica Brown is the author of many award-winning picture books, including Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match. Visit Monica Brown at her website.

Written in the Stars

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Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction,  Mar. 24, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes: Forced Marriages, Pakistani-American teen, Diversity,

Synopsis: Naila is a responsible and trustworthy daughter to her immigrant Pakistani parents. Steeped in cultural tradition, her parents allow her to attend a Florida high school, study subjects she likes, wear her hair how she wishes, dress like the other students and choose her career path in college. The only thing she is not allowed to do is date boys or choose a husband. Naila falls in love with Sajf, a Pakistani-American boy, during her senior year. She keeps her secret and meets Saif for lunch everyday. When Naila disobeys her parents and sneaks to the senior prom with Saif, her parents are outraged at her betrayal of trust and humiliated by their close-knit community. In attempt to help Naila understand her heritage, they pull her out of school, travel to Pakistan to visit relatives. Naila enjoys meeting so many family members and bonding with her cousin, Selma. Her vacation turns into a nightmare when her parents betray her, force her into an arranged marriage with Amin, and then leave Pakistan. She is alone living with a strange family, who see her as their ticket to America. Is this Naila’s destiny or is there any hope for escape?

What I love about Written in the Stars:

  • Aisha Saeed has masterfully written a bold, heart wrenching and complex cross-cultural novel that will be an eye-opener for many young readers. It is also beautiful love story between two Pakistani-American teens.
  • The setting is culturally rich for teens reading Written in the Stars. It is about Pakistani traditions, extended families living together, food preparations, small villages, the landscape, neighbors knowing everyone’s business, and shopping in local markets.
  • The first-person narrative with Naila offers greater depth into her character. Naila is a strong and determined protagonist. Her anger and pain are palpable, as is her desire to escape. All of the characters are well-developed, memorable and stay with you after you finish. The plot is suspenseful and brutal at times. The author shows much of the action, which is more powerful than words. The reader experiences Naila’s prison. Written in the Stars is a page-turner and I could not put it down. The ending is unexpected.
  • The author shares that although her own marriage was arranged by her parents, she wrote the book to shed light on the many arranged forced marriages.  I have never read anything like this powerful book, and I mean that as a compliment. Saeed sheds so much light on the problem of forced marriages in America and around the world. Although her characters are American-Pakistani, Saeed points out that “the issue is not limited to one particular culture or religion.”

Resources: There is a lovely Author’s Note at the end, along with resources for individuals needing advice, and a glossary. Visit Aisha Saeed at her website.

Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani American writer, teacher and attorney. Written in the Stars is her debut novel. She is on of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign.