Review: Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan. Illus. by Anna Bron. 40 pp. Annick Press. Released 3/10/2020. Tr $21.95. ISBN 978-1773213750. Preschool to Grade 3.
Salma and her mother are Syrian Muslim refugees living at the Welcome Center for new immigrants in Vancouver, Canada. They both miss home and hope that one day soon Salma’s papa will be able to join them. Mama’s long days are filled with English classes and job interviews. Her fatigue and sadness, juxtaposed to Salma’s youthful joy and hope are viscerally heart-wrenching and the reader feels deeply for Salma in her efforts to make her Mama smile, let alone elicit a happy laugh. Salma attempts a joke but Mama only responds with a “sad smile, full of love, but empty of joy.”
Encouraged by Nancy, assumed to be a Welcome Center employee or coordinator, Salma draws back on her good memories. Though Salma realizes that she can’t bring her Papa to be with them sooner, or rebuild their own home in Damascus, there is something she can do to make her Mama happy.
Salma wants to make her mother’s favorite dish, foul shami, but doesn’t have the recipe. Jad, the Jordanian translator helps find a recipe for her, but Salma realizes that she doesn’t know the English names of the vegetables she will need. Creatively, she finds a way to get around the language barrier by drawing pictures of the ingredients she needs. With the encouragement and help of other friends at the Welcome Center—Amir and Malek, a couple from Lebanon; Granny Donya, an older Iranian woman who wears a headscarf, and Ayesha, wearing a pink headscarf and jeans, Salma gets most of the ingredients for the recipe. It’s implied that Ayesha is Somali as she brings Salma home-baked Somalian sweets.
Ramadan captures Salma’s range of emotions and seamlessly weaves in bits of information about the other kids at the Welcome Center through their interactions with Salma—i.e. Ayman misses kushari; Riya misses the masala dosas her mama made in India; and Evan, who recently arrived from Venezuela, misses arepas— highlighting the commonality of the refugee and immigrant experience, and the complexity of feelings of loss, adjustment, and belonging. The interactions between the new immigrants give off feelings of familial warmth, where in moments of frustration Salma is encouraged to see that this home is “beautiful in its own ways.” These interactions are also intentional and powerful; through them Salma’s agency is highlighted while giving fortification and joy to each individual. Bron’s bright, detailed illustrations enrich the text, through character movement and evoking palpable emotions. Bron uses Syrian-inspired geometric patternsto frame illustrations adding cultural depth to each spread. The resulting work is a poignant and universal tale of finding home and belonging, emphasizing the importance of people and community.
In 2019 we did a series of Instagram posts of kidlit books about Ramadan. This year we have curated and updated our list to include new titles and our favorites. Books are listed by format and in alphabetical order by title.
Bashirah and the Amazing Bean Pie: A Celebration of African American Muslim Culture by Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins: At Bashirah’s Islamic school all of the students will bring in a dish to share after Eid to celebrate Muslim cultural diversity. Her classmates, Mustafa and Fatima, will bring jollof rice and biryani respectively; Bashirah decides to bring bean pie, a family recipe that her Pop-pop is teaching her. Her family gets together for Eid prayers, all beautifully dressed and then return home for food: fried chicken, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and green beans, while Bashirah and Pop-pop make bean pie together. Bashirah’s father calls the family together for dhur prayers where “three generations of Muslims—aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents-all prayed together.” Bashirah takes food to share with a neighbor and the family enjoys Bashirah’s very first bean pie. At school, Bashirah proudly brings in her pie, and teacher Nafisah reminds the students that Allah made us into nations, encourages us to get to know each other, and that no Muslim is elevated over another except by faith and deed. Included is a recipe for bean pie.
Drummer Girl by Hiba Masood: In a Turkish village, the musaharati drummer has the important job of waking Muslims for their pre-dawn meals during Ramadan. Najma has followed the beat of the drummer and longs to be a musaharati herself, but a girl has never performed this role before.
Eid Breakfast at Abuela’s by Mariam Saad: Sofia, her mom and dad spend Eid with her Mexican grandmother who throws them a festive breakfast which includes traditional Mexican food, decorations, and activities. Her grandmother and other family members who join to celebrate with Sofia and her family are not Muslim.
The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard: Sophia loves all things sparkly including the decorations her family puts up during Ramadan and the heart of the person that fasts. When her first attempt at fasting is harder than she anticipates, Sophia’s grandmother reminds her that there are more opportunities to try again and that there are other ways to celebrate the month and equally important acts of worship and ways to help. With Sophia’s multitude of feelings and the encouragement of her family, Lumbard captures the feelings of Ramadan and what the month means to believers. The story also reminds us that for those who cannot fast there are other ways to make Ramadan meaningful, to nourish the sparkles within the heart.
Hassan and Aneesa Celebrate Eid by Yasmeen Rahim: In another story about Hassan and Aneesa, they are excited to celebrate Eid, decorating the house, attending Eid prayers in new clothes and hosting an Eid party with family and friends.
Hassan and Aneesa Love Ramadan by Yasmeen Rahim: Brother and sister Hassan and Aneesa, British Muslims, are excited for Ramadan. At night Aneesa hears noise from the kitchen and sees her parents eating sahur, the pre-dawn meal. In the day they observe their parents reading Qur’an and giving charity. Having iftar with their cousins, they see their cousins fasting, and want to try as well, their mother agreeing but saying that they can stop if they feel too hungry because children don’t need to fast. While younger Aneesa breaks her fast with a banana, Hassan wants to try to fast the whole day, and they have their evening meal with a special treat. Glossary included.
Ilyas & Duck: Ramadan Joy! by Omar S. Khawaja: The fourth book in the Ilyas & Duck series features Ramadan, the joy of the month as well as the difficulty of fasting and the empathy and compassion that comes as a result. All the while readers familiar with the antics of the duo and a new villain in town, Mr. Mean.
Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi: Having recently moved from the UAE to Peachtree, Georgia, Laila is excited to fast this year for Ramadan with her family but is hesitant to tell her teachers and classmates. Instead of sharing a note from home, Laila first goes to the lunchroom and then to the library, before the school librarian encourages her to express her feelings. This lovely and relatable book is a gentle introduction to Ramadan that helps to equip children with language and tools to advocate for themselves and reminds the adults in their lives to advocate and listen to them. The term sehri is used for the predawn meal instead of suhoor, adding another layer of identity to Laila and her family’s immigration story.
A Moon for Moe and Mo by Jane Breskin Zalben: Two neighbors, Moses Feldman, and Mohammed Hassan, both known as Moe/Mo by their families, share a picnic in the park when the Ramadan fast coincides with Rosh Hashanah.
Moon Watchers: Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle by Reza Jalali Shirin: watches for the moon with her family and wants to participate in the fast, but at 9 years old she is told that she’s too young to do so. She concentrates on doing good deeds like trying to get along with her older brother.
The Most Powerful Night: A Ramadan Story by Ndaa Hassan: A Ramadan story about Laylat-Al-Qadr, the night Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (saw). This is a special night that occurs once a year during the month of Ramadan.
My First Ramadan by Karen Katz: My First Ramadan is by Karen Katz. This story follows a young boy as he observes the month of Ramadan with his family.
Night of the Moon by Hena Khan: Seven-year-old Pakistani American Yasmeen and her mother observe the tiny crescent of the moon signifying the start of Ramadan. As the month goes by Yasmeen tracks the phases of the moon as passage of time while highlighting the various events that take place during Ramadan through the eyes of a child capturing the spirit of Ramadan, familial and community love and fellowship.
Owl & Cat: Ramadan Is…by Emma Apple: A brief note introduces readers to the concept of fasting during the month of Ramadan, indicating its specialness and being a time of generosity and gratitude. The sixty pages that follow indicate one action, deed, and an illustration on the opposite page of Owl and Cat and their various friends. After 60 pages (30 days), Ramadan is over and it is Eid.
A Party in Ramadan by Asma Mobin-Uddin: Leena is excited to participate in Ramadan. Not old enough to fast the entire month, she decides to participate by fasting on certain days with her family. When a birthday party of one of her friends falls on a fasting day Leena is determined to fast, even though her mother asks if she would like to fast on another day. Leena enjoys the party and finds fasting easy at first, but as the afternoon goes on and grows hotter she finds herself longing for a glass of lemonade and birthday cake. She is able to keep her fast and has the opportunity to do a good deed and share a test with her sister after breaking fast.
Ramadan by Susan L. Douglass: Ramadan by Susan L. Douglass, illustrated by Jeni Reeves and published by Lerner Books gives an overview of Ramadan for readers. Susan is an incredible source for Islamic education for K-12 educators in social studies, history, and religion and apart from her many accomplishments is currently the K-14 Education Outreach Coordinator Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
Ramadan Around the World by Ndaa Hassan: Ramadan Around the World looks at Muslim children around the world and their celebration of Ramadan in prayer, charity, and fasting.
Ramadan Moon by Nai’ma B. Robert: Ramadan Moon by Na’ima B. Robert. This story captures the wonder and joy of the month of Ramadan from the perspective of a child.
Rashad’s Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr by Lisa Bullard: Rashad is fasting this year for Ramadan with his family. The simple story of acts of worship during Ramadan are coupled larger text boxes that explain broader ideas and actions. Includes a glossary of words.
The Shapes of Eid According to Me by Samia Khan: A child reflects on the shapes they see on Eid. Told in rhyme, this book features a South Asian family and the city of Chicago.
Under the Ramadan Moon by Sylvia Whitman: Presents information about actions taken during Ramadan for the very young, in lyrical rhyme and repetition of the phrase “under the moon, under the Ramadan Moon.” Great read aloud for young children who can watch for the moon waxing and waning during the course of page turns.
The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi: Noor and her family are preparing for the festival of Girgian, celebrated in Kuwait on the three consecutive nights in Ramadan, when the moon is fullest. The family prepares sweets together, a nut brittle made of honey, powdered sugar, and roasted pistachios for the children that will come to their door that night. Noor and her brothers prepare as well, decorating their candy bags and put on traditional clothing, the brothers- dishdashas and Noor a dress “so bright that Noor thought she could see the red with her eyes closed.” In a tender moment between Noor and her grandmother, grandmother reminds Noor that the true meaning of Ramadan is spending time with family and sharing with those less fortunate. After a night of treats Noor and her grandfather take a basket of food to the masjid for the poor. As they walk together they admire the beauty of the moon.
Ramadan (Celebrate the World) by Hannah Eliot: A board book that describes the every day actions taken during Ramadan including prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family. As part of a series of holiday board books it actually has a significant amount of text in the small format, varying from one to three sentences per page. Illustrations are colorful and show people of various skin tones, ages, and wearing clothing from suits and school uniforms to thobes with agal and ghutrah or a fez.
Badir and the Beaver by Shannon Stewart: An early chapter book about Badir and his family who have recently immigrated to Canada from Tunisia and are celebrating the month of Ramadan at home. Badir sees what he thinks is a giant rat. When he is is told that it is a beaver, a symbol of Canada, Badir tries to find out what he can about this interesting animal. He also finds out that some of the locals think it is a nuisance and want to move beaver out. Badir, knowing what it’s like to leave your home, embarks on a campaign with his classmates to save the beaver and its home.
The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia: In this coming of age book set during Ramadan, Aliya is thinking about growing up, and finding her place and identity as a Muslim in her school and beyond.
More to the Story by Hena Khan: In a novel inspired by Little Women, thirteen-year-old Pakistani American Jameela Mirza, second oldest of four sisters and an aspiring journalist, lives with her family in Atlanta and her father is missing Eid for the first time ever to look for a new job.
Once Upon an Eid ed. S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed: A compilation of fifteen short stories that celebrate, the most joyous of Muslim holy days! Groundreaking for the diversity of authors and experiences, including a story told as a graphic novel.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet Zanib Mian Imaginative Omar and his family have moved to a new home in London and he is nervous about starting school, especially since a bully seems to have targeted him and their new neighbor is not so nice.
Crayola: Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr Colors by Mari Schuh: A simple and effective introduction to Ramadan for younger readers in a series that connects holidays by colors. Readers are still introduced to some concepts of Ramadan like sighting the moon and fasting. Photographs of smiling Muslim children around the world are featured throughout the book as well as colorful visual elements. Back matter includes the usual glossary, index and further resources as well as crayola colors used in the book and a coloring activity page.
Ramadan: The Holy Month of Fasting by Ausma Zehanat Khan: This nonfiction chapter book, targeted for children ages 9-14, is divided into four chapters, filled with pictures and personal anecdotes (including Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad), along with explanation of religious practices during Ramadan and beyond. Chapter three details projects and charity undertaken by youth during the month while chapter four details traditions from different countries across the globe. Valuable for school and public libraries as well as Muslim home libraries in a way that validates Muslim children and the variety of ways that Muslims experience Ramadan both on a personal and cultural level without diminishing the universal experience.
This review was originally published in the November/December issue of Horn Book magazine and can also be found on the Horn Book website.
I Hope You Get This Message
by Farah Naz Rishi
High School HarperTeen 420 pp. g
10/19 978-0-06-274145-5 $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-06-274147-9 $9.99
When the world learns that omnipotent aliens will decide humanity’s fate in eight days, chaos erupts, and three teens strive to make their (potentially) final days count. Cate is charged by her mother, who has schizophrenia, to find the father who abandoned them — and who her mother believes is an alien. Adeem, an amateur hacker, searches for his sister, estranged from their Pakistani American Muslim family after she came out as a lesbian. Crossing paths in Reno, Cate and Adeem head to Roswell, where Jesse, the third teen, is convincing desperate people that he can (for a fee) transmit their pleas for salvation to the aliens, using a machine created by his now-deceased ne’er-do-well father. Rishi’s debut novel skillfully addresses complex contemporary issues on both the global (environmental damage, war, greed) and personal (identity, mental health) scales. It also tackles prejudice and the ways existential fatalism can inordinately affect marginalized people. But even given these themes and the novel’s dark story line, Rishi ends on a hopeful note of possibility, using an adapted quote from Rumi: “Your pain is where the light enters you.”
This review was originally published in the November/December issue of Horn Book magazine and can also be found on the Horn Book website.
My Grandma and Me
by Mina Javaherbin; illus. by Lindsey Yankey
Primary Candlewick 32 pp. g
8/19 978-0-7636-9494-4 $16.99
The unnamed narrator recalls her childhood growing up in Iran (where the author also grew up) with her beloved grandmother, who lives with the family. The child accompanies her grandma on her daily routines (“When she swept, I swept. When she cooked, I cooked. When she prayed, I prayed like her, too”), through which the child experiences joyful elements of Iranian Islamic culture and acts of faith. They also spend time with friends (Grandma’s best friend’s granddaughter is our narrator’s best friend); and as the older women laugh, drink coffee, and knit blankets for their mosque and church, respectively, the children (and readers) witness a beautiful interfaith friendship. Yankey’s muted illustrations work well to convey cherished memories and love, with thoughtful cultural details incorporated throughout — a hopscotch board with numbers in Persian, a henna stain on the back of a hand. Striking Persian patterns providing an eye-catching, but not disruptive, contrast to the quotidian activities. Appended notes on the copyright page provide heartfelt details about the author’s and illustrator’s grandmothers. A lovely homage to the unconditional love and wisdom of elders.
More to the Story by Hena Khan Intermediate, Middle School
Salaam/Simon 262 pp. g 9/19 978-1-4814-9209-6 $17.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4814-9211-9 $10.99
In a novel inspired by Little Women, thirteen-year-old Pakistani American Jameela Mirza, second oldest of four sisters and an aspiring journalist, lives with her family in Atlanta. This Eid holiday has brought changes: their beloved father is missing Eid for the first time ever to look for a new job, and Ali, a (good-looking) nephew of a family friend, arrives from London. At school, Jameela is named newspaper features editor but is in constant conflict with the editor in chief, who never approves her hard-hitting pitches. When her father takes a job overseas, the family is distraught, and Jameela is determined to write an article that will make him proud. Her assigned piece on Ali goes awry, complicating her feelings for him and her journalistic aspirations. But when her younger sister Bisma is diagnosed with cancer, Jameela must reevaluate her priorities and figure out how she can truly support what matters. Khan (Amina’s Voice, rev. 3/17) tells the story of a modern-day Pakistani American family while retaining the charm, familial warmth, and appeal of Alcott’s classic (this novel’s first line is, “This is the worst Eid ever!”). Cultural norms about dating, clothing, food, and prayer in the family’s Atlanta community and overseas are subtly alluded to, while characters grow and impart valuable lessons without sounding overly didactic.