Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Middle East or Middle Eastern American’ Category

Gene Lune Yang, the 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature picked the platform “Reading Without Walls”. As part of it, he challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve started posting roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. This is my second post highlighting picture books about the immigration experience.

In Goldfish and Chrysanthemums by Andrea Cheng, a grandmother receives a letter from her brother back in China. He tells her that their father’s old house being torn down. At the house, there used to be a fish pond surrounded by big colorful flowers. Wanting to make her grandmother happy, Nancy buys two goldfish at a fair, digs a hole in the back yard for a pond, and asked her neighbor for some extra chrysanthemums. Nancy’s gesture not only brings comfort to her grandmother, but also deepens the bond between them. My least favorite part is the illustrations. The faces don’t seem the correct proportion. I also don’t know why the children have American names. My favorite part is the story of family, which shows how small acts of kindness can make a difference. According to publishers, Lee & Low, Cheng often writes about intergenerational relationships, and is based on her own experiences. Cheng was inspired to write Goldfish and Chrysanthemums after hearing her husband’s mother talk about her family’s garden in China. You can find a teaching guide at Lee & Low Books.

In Nadia’s Hands, a Pakistani-American girl is offered the opportunity to be a flower girl at her aunt’s wedding. Her cousins caution her. There are many things to remember at a wedding: One needs to sprinkle flower petals down both sides of the aisle; One should avoid eating too much of the wedding food or otherwise one might get sick; One might get stage fright and not move. Nadia’s aunt reassures her that she’ll be a very good flower girl, and so Nadia feels relieved. Except then she finds out that another aunt would visit before the wedding to decorate Nadia’s hands with mehndi or paste that when it dries turns the hands orange or dark red. Nadia doesn’t want to go to school like that, and so her worries return. The rest of the story is the wedding ceremony and how Nadia came to terms with her fears. Nadia’s Hands is a sweet story about learning to take pride in one’s unique culture. A front page provides a glossary and a back page includes a thank you two Pakistan individuals for their help in the creation of the book. Karen English, the author of Nadia’s Hands, is a former school teacher and a Coretta Scott King Award-winner. Check out an interview with her at The Brown Bookshelf.

In My Name is Bilal, two Muslim siblings start a new school. At their former home in Chicago, there had been lots of Muslims kids. Here, there seemed like there were none. Two boys tease Ayesha, pulling at her headscarf. Her brother tries to distance himself from his heritage, and in class he shortens his name from Bilal to Bill. A Muslim teacher offers a book to Bilal that is about the first person to give the Muslim call to prayer during the time of Prophet Mohammed. Through this book, Bilal discovers that others before him have needed to stand up for his faith. The next day he has that opportunity. Other surprises lie ahead too. This is my least favorite in this round-up due to its overt message, drab illustrations, and text level. The Lexile rating is 570 or about grade four, but this is a picture book, and most fourth-graders are reading chapter books. In addition, I was surprised that Bilah dressed in American attire, while his sister wore Muslim attire. Otherwise the book brought back memories for me of being inspired as a child by stories of Christian heroes and heroines. The author, Asma Mobin-Uddin, was born and raised in the United States but her family is from Pakistan. According to her website, she initially decided to write about the Muslim-American experience because she had difficulty finding books on the topic to read to her children.

Seeing themselves reflected in these books, immigrant children feel affirmed, and their classmates glimpse different backgrounds and experiences—perhaps recognizing some of their own stories in the universals of family, traditions, journeys, and the quest for a better life.—Anne Sibley, Note from an Author

In I’m New Here, the stories of three children from other countries struggle to adjust to their new school in the United States. The children are from Somalia, Guatemala, and Korea. They struggle with speaking, reading, and writing in English. The words of their new language sound strange and look like scribbles and scratches. They also struggle with making friends. The people and places around them used to be familiar; now they can’t find their place. The rest of the story tells how the three children came to call America home. My favorite part is the bright illustrations. Although my preference would have been to focus on one main character and to use less poetic language, I’m New Here is a favorite among teachers. It’s considered a touching story about the assimilation of three immigrant students in a supportive school community. Author Anne Sibley O’Brien is American, but grew up in South Korea, and so is familiar with the experience of being a foreigner. She’s one of the founders of I’m Your Neighbor, an organization that promotes children’s literature featuring “new arrival” cultures. You can find a “I’m New Here” Welcoming Kit at I’m Your Neighbor Books.

In My Name is Yoon, a Korean girl starts school for the first time in America. To prepare Yoon, her father teaches her how to write her name in English. But Yoon prefers how her name is written in Korean. Her name looks happy in Korean. The letters seem to dance. She doesn’t want to learn the new way. She wants to go back to Korea. Each day at school, Yoon learns a new word in English at school. And each new day, Yoon writes this new word for her name instead of Yoon. Of the five books I’ve reviewed here, My Name is Yoon is my favorite. It tells how a young girl finds her place in a new country in her own time and on her own terms. I laughed and smile … but also understood Yoon’s sadness and frustration, which eventually turns into joy and acceptance. The author, Helen Recorvits, grew up in America. Her grandparents were immigrants from Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine.

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?

I’m back for a third and final day of reviewing books by Andrew Clements, an author whom I had the privilege to meet and hear speak at the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Incidentally, because I plan to review several books in a short amount of time, my critiques will be shorter than the norm.

Fifth in my round-up is Trouble Maker, a novel of just over one hundred pages that features a “bad” kid. Although the other five books by Clement that I read all have connections to writing, Trouble Maker features a character instead with an artistic talent. Clay likes to draw. In fact, it’s the misuse of this passion that helps get him into trouble.

What do I like about Trouble Maker? Foremost, it’s about a “bad” kid. At some time or another, I have featured kids who deliberately misbehave in my own fiction, as well as worked with them in a school environment. Clements does a nice job of convincing me that Clay is a trouble maker, by having him interrupt classes, launch food at students in the cafeteria, and egg neighborhood houses in the fall. At the same time, he helps me understand him by convincing me that Clay just views himself as having fun rather than hurting anyone. I also appreciate the strong role that family has in Trouble Maker. Clay’s older brother served as the original inspiration for his misbehavior. When he comes home from jail and lays down the law to Clay, he also serves as a real motivation for Clay to turn his life around. Friendship plays an equally strong role, in that Clay finds himself torn between a desire to please his brother and earn the respect of his peers. Indeed, Clay’s peers are a reason behind the police visit to Clay’s home. “Is it too late for Clay?” is a driving question behind Trouble Maker.

Is there anything I don’t like about Trouble Maker? Oh, if I wanted to be picky, I would say that the adults are perhaps a little too quick to accept that Clay is trying to change. Indeed, Clay himself is perhaps a little too eager to allow his brother to take charge. But Trouble Maker is also a novel for middle grade, or young people of ages 8-12. Given its target audience, I think Trouble Maker makes for an entertaining but also thought-provoking read.

Sixth and last in my round-up is Extra Credit, a book recommended to me for its diversity theme. How is it related to writing? The two main credits, Abby and Sadeed become pen pals through a school initiative and mail letters to one another.

What do I like about Extra Credit? I enjoyed reading about two characters who start out being most reluctant to write one another but end up anxiously awaiting each new letter from the other. Abby prefers the outdoors and so doesn’t apply herself at school until faced with the ultimatum of being held back a year. As part of a deal with her teachers, she agrees not only to pull up her grades but also to take on an extra credit project. This happens to be exchanging letters from another country and then reporting on the experience to her class. Saheed lives in Afghanistan and, because of his country’s religious beliefs, shouldn’t even be corresponding with Abby. In fact, he’s originally assigned to help his younger sister to read and write letters to Abby, but pride in his abilities and curiosity about Abby, leads Saheed to initiate his own contact. I also enjoyed the opportunity to view two worlds from different perspectives. For example, Abby hates the flat land of the Midwest, preferring the majesty of mountains. In contrast, Saheed views mountains as dangerous and the cornfields of farming country as being like “a smile of God”.

Is there anything I don’t like about Extra Credit? Absolutely not! Actually, in contrast to the other five novels I have read by Clements, Extra Credit is the most realistic, an aspect I admire. The exchange of letters between Abby and Saheed leads to trouble for both characters. Not everyone in either region approves of their friendship. Nor is there a happy ever after resolution. Yet there is hope.

This week, because I desired the opportunity to read a multitude of books by Andrew Clements, I spent less time on the computer writing the actual reviews. In my breezy introduction to Clements, I hope I have convinced you to check out this best-selling and award-winning author. Certainly, reading his books have made me a fan.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Code by Dennis Prager is a short and easy-to-read guide to these Biblical rules. Whether the guide will convince non-adherents to change their minds, I’m not sure. As for me, it did inform me of some differences between the Jewish and Christian faith. For those interested, there is also a picture book version available. I’ll refer to both in my review.

As a child, I memorized The Ten Commandments along with other scriptures. What surprised me most then about Prager’s guide is that some of his interpretations of these Biblical rules were different from those familiar to me. For example, I always viewed the first commandment has: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Not so according to Prager, who lists the first as: “I am the Lord your God.” Then there is there’s the interpretation of the second commandment, “Do not misuse God’s name.” Like many of my Christian friends, I grew up believing this solely meant not to swear and being chastised for doing this. While Prager does note that one should indeed respect God’s name, he states that the commandment actually refers to it being wrong to do something evil for God. According to Prager, breaking this second commandment is a unforgiveable sin. There are a few other differences too, but I’ll leave you to discover these in his guide for yourself. I will note that Prager’s guide lead me to do some research of the Jewish faith and to discover that there definitely exists a different explanation for some of the Ten Commandments among Jews in contrast to Christians.

There are some other aspects to praise too about The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Code. First, it’s a short guide of only 90 pages, with each commandment being covered in about three to six pages. Second, should you want to reflect on the text or use this in a study group, each chapter about the actual commandments has five questions at the end. There’s also a page of lines where one can write notes. Last, the guide is straightforward, with fairly simple sentences, and so makes for a quick and uncomplicated read. As for the picture book version, its length actually falls short of the average 48 pages, being less than 30. Moreover, each commandment is explained in one page. The end pages include a story of the origins of the Ten Commandments, as well as the scriptural text for these Biblical laws. I also enjoyed the colorful illustrations, one for each page of text, which are pleasing to the eye and professional in appearance.

Is there anything to dislike about either guide? At $15, the adult version feels overpriced, both because of its size and because the text feels as if just the bare bones about the Ten Commandments. Otherwise, I have two main other issues, each again involving the adult version. First, in his foreword where Prager tries to argue a case for society to follow the Ten Commandments, he says that mankind is not evil but is just not predisposed to goodness. A cursory search of the Old Testament scriptures will turn up many verses which contradict Prager and makes a clear case for saying that the ways of man without God are wicked. In going against scripture, Prager weakens his stand that the Ten Commandments are important. Finally, while I think that the Ten Commandments can show us how to make the world a better place, the fact remains that in the 3000 years since their existence many have not followed them. As some reviewers asked: What then is the remedy?

Overall, Prager has created two well-written guides to The Ten Commandments. For those who are already familiar with these Biblical rules or who disagree with society’s need of them, his adult guide may fall short. Everyone else, however, will find that he makes the rules palpable and maybe even adds to their understanding of them. As for his picture book, it’s an excellent presentation of a guide for life.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

DennisPragerNew York’s Jewish Week described Dennis Prager as “one of the three most interesting minds in American Jewish Life.” Tomorrow I’ll review his two recent books on the Ten Commandments, one for children and one for adults. Save the date: June 26!


Prager was born to modern Orthodox Jewish parents. In tenth grade, while attending Yeshiva of Flatbush in New York, he met Joseph Telushkin. The two later became close friends and authored two books together.

After high school, he attended Brooklyn College and graduated with double major in anthropology and history. For graduate school, he attended the Middle East and Russian Institutes at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Later, he also studied international history, comparative religion, and Arabic at the University of Leeds.

Although he continues to maintain many traditional Jewish practices, Prager abandoned his Orthodoxy as an adult. Even so, after withdrawing from academia, Prager and his friend wrote an introduction to Judaism. The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism was intended for the nonobservant Jews and became a bestseller.

In April 1976, the founder and director of the Brandeis Institute, invited Prager to succeed him as the director. Prager remained at the institute until 1983, during which time he succeeded in influencing many young Jews and built up a cadre of “Prager followers”.

In his personal life, he married Janice Goldstein in 1981. Two years later, they had their son.


Dennis Prager has a lot of credits to his name. For example, his syndicated column is published in newspapers across the country and on the Internet. His writings have also appeared in major national and international publications including: Commentary, The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal. In 1985, Prager launched his own quarterly journal, currently named Prager Perspectives.

He’s also considered one of America’s most respected radio talk show hosts. For ten years, Prager conducted a weekly interfaith dialogue on radio with representatives of virtually every religion in the world.

From 1992 to 2006, he taught the Hebrew Bible verse-by-verse at American Jewish University. All the lectures are available on CD and digital download.

Prager has lectured on all seven continents, in 45 U.S. states and in nine of Canada’s 10 provinces. He has engaged in interfaith dialogue with Muslims in the Persian Gulf, Hindus in India, Catholics at the Vatican, and Protestants at Christian seminaries throughout America.

In 2011, Dennis co-founded a website called Prager University that offers five-minute videos on various subjects. According to Prager, he created the site to challenge the “unhealthy effect intellectually and morally” of the American higher education system. New videos are added to the website about once a week.

For many reasons, I’m excited to tell you about Infidel in Paradise by S.J. Laidlaw. With one exception, whenever I smugly thought I knew the direction of the plot, Laidlaw surprised me with a different but believable twist. She also thankfully provided a likable main character, something that my most recent reads have failed to do. Because the impact of divorce and romance on teens is realistically captured, Infidel in Paradise serves as a universal story. At the same time, in authentically depicting the isolation that many third-culture young people feel, Infidel in Paradise is also an excellent multicultural novel.

On the surface, Infidel in Paradise is a cliché story about a new girl in a new place. What makes it unique however is twofold. First, there is the setting. Emma’s birth home was Canada, her most recent home was the Philippines, and now her new home is Pakistan. Second, there is the reason for the move. Emma’s family are diplomats, who are constantly on the move. This latest move however was inspired by her father’s divorce. On the surface, Infidel in Paradise is also a cliché story of new girl falling for the hot guy. Or vice-versa. What makes it unique is again twofold. First, there is the fact that Emma is a Christian and the hot guy is a Muslim. These religious differences alone create a lot of cultural conflicts. One huge example is the dress expectations. Second, there is the fact that hot guy is part of an arranged marriage. I admire how Laidlaw realistically depicts the struggle that he feels. Hot guy is at once infatuated with Emma, but also deeply fond of his girlfriend, and wants to do the right thing.

As I read Infidel in Paradise, I kept thinking about what it takes to create a likable character. Mostly this was on my mind, because of my most recent reads. Emma has her disagreeable sides. She blames her mom for the divorce, even calling her a selfish bitch. She initially gets off on the wrong foot with her peers, when she disparages their country. Some of her choices are selfish ones. For example, Emma refuses to continue with the family tradition of telling a bedtime story to her younger sister, because she resents that her dad is no longer there to help. Emma even makes wrong choices, choosing at times to skip school or to sneak out of the Canadian Compound where the family live. Yet I like Emma, a lot, because Laidlaw also shows how much Emma wants to love her family, fit in with peers, and act like a decent person. As such, Emma comes off as an average young person trying desperately to find her place in the world.

The last topic I’ll address is the multicultural aspect. Laidlaw notes in various interviews that the most challenging balancing act for her was explaining the political dangers while at the same time showing the warm side of most Pakistanis. The political dangers are made clear foremost by the fact Emma and her family are safest only when within the confines of the Canadian Compound. These dangers are heightened when Emma’s closest friend and many of her peers are evacuated due to threats on the American Compound. Laidlaw creates a balance by having Emma meet Pakistani adults who treat her with kindness. One even gives her a plant that Emma likes. Balance is also provided through peers, who eventually become Emma’s friends and even put their lives on the line for her.

Infidel in Paradise is my favorite read for this month. I selected Laidlaw’s novel to read, due to my own experience with being Canadian and living in another country. Moreover, my step-mother is from the Philippines. Thus, the book held a lot of potential interest for me. I kept reading it because of the complexity of the plot, the characters, the theme. Everything about Infidel in Paradise appealed to me. I’m eager to read Laidlaw’s next book!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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