Posted in Books, Reviews

Review: Salma the Syrian Chef

Front cover of Salma the Syrian Chef

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 patterns to 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.

Posted in Books, Reviews

Review: I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi

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.”

From the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine.

Posted in Books, Reviews

Review: My Grandma and Me by Mina Javaherbin

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.

From the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine.

Posted in Books, Reviews

Review: More to the Story by Hena Khan

This review was originally posted in Horn Book on September 24, 2019

More to the Story
by Hena Khan
Intermediate, Middle School
Salaam/Simon    262 pp.   
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.

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Posted in Reviews

“Great Books” article in School Library Journal


A few months ago, we had the opportunity to highlight some recent Young Adult (YA) titles for School Library Journal (SLJ)

The criteria for the SLJ list were YA titles published within the last year or two that had Muslim protagonists and/or authors. Typically, these types of SLJ articles highlight 10-12 titles. 

We looked at two dozen possible titles, narrowing the list down to 14, to include different genres/formats, publishers, and a range of authors of different racial and ethnic identities. 

In the article, we mentioned the lack of African American protagonists in the works of fiction. 

Another observation was that most titles feature female protagonists. 

Two of the titles on the list include male protagonists, one who is perceived as being Muslim because of his family background but does not identify as a Muslim.

We know that Islam has been racialized; even if someone doesn’t identify as a Muslim, or practice the religion, because of their ancestry, nationality, or ethnicity, islamophobia and bigotry can still affect them. 

While we hope that this piece is helpful in identifying titles of interest, it’s not comprehensive, nor is it meant to be.

You can find it here.

Thoughts? Questions? Leave us a comment.