Allison's Book Bag

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

Sixteen-year-old Emma’s happy life in the Philippines as a diplomat’s daughter ends abruptly when her father leaves the family and she is forced to move to a diplomatic compound in Pakistan. Upset at her father’s betrayal, her mother’s prolonged absences for work, and the confines of her new life, Emma struggles to find her place in yet another new country.

The above description comes from the inside jacket flap of Infidel in Paradise by S. J. Laidlaw. The book has won critical acclaim. Having lived most of her life overseas, Laidlaw draws on her own experiences to write an authentic tale of fiction. My review of Infidel in Paradise will appear tomorrow. Save the date: January 28!


Born in Pennsylvania, while her father was studying to be a psychiatrist at Friends Hospital, Laidlaw is the third of four siblings. She’s also the only one born in the States, which inspired her older brother to concoct fantasies about her tenuous right to live in Canada and the likelihood that someday she’d be deported. Despite his predictions, the family moved to Toronto when Laidlaw was three and she hasn’t been deported yet.

Laidlaw attended a small school. The class sizes were tiny and everyone in the whole school knew each other. Her mother was her first classroom teacher and for many years said it was that experience which convinced to give up being a teacher. Apparently, Laidlaw has a handful in the classroom. She also had a reading disability. From third grade on, all of her teachers not only tried to help her learn to read but they also insisted she was destined to be writer. Whether they saw a struggling student who needed extra encouragement or really believed in her talent Laidlaw doesn’t know, but says she hopes some of them read her books “because I’d like them to know whatever their plan was, it worked!”

SJLaidlawIn university, Laidlaw started out by studying journalism. When she realized that fiction was her passion, she switched instead to a degree in English. She also obtained an ESL certificate with the idea of going overseas to teach and write. Her first teaching job was in a girls’ school in Northern Nigeria, where she also met her husband. She fell in love with him, when he gave her a book by her favorite poet. When Laidlaw discovered she preferred talking to kids and helping them with their problems, she returned to Canada to do a Masters in Clinical Social Work.

Ever since, Laidlaw has been an adolescent counselor. Her next adventure was in Sweden, where she had her first son. When the government decided to cut the couple’s post in Sweden short, they found themselves next being sent to Russia.  There, Laidlaw did a lot of volunteer work with orphans and seniors, an experience she calls both rewarding and heartbreaking. After a short break, the couple eventually found themselves in Pakistan, the setting for Infidel in Paradise.

Through all these moves, Laidlaw continued to write. When working at a counseling center in Taiwan and writing articles on parenting, a colleague approached her and invited her to join a SCBWI critique group. Laidlaw wrote the first chapter of Infidel in Paradise in preparation for that group. A recurring theme in many of her stories is kids living in and adjusting to other cultures.


Despite the demonstrations and bombs in Infidel in Paradise, Laidlaw says she chose the setting because she honestly loved living in Pakistan. It was one of her favorite countries. At that time she resided there, around ten years ago, the danger was mainly from a small militant faction who would foment discontent among the poor. The vast majority of Pakistanis went out of their way to make the family feel welcome.

According to Laidlaw, the majority of Infidel in Paradise is true in one way or another. Laidlaw doesn’t view herself as an imaginative person. The main character of Emma is based on youth whom she has worked with over the years. Even some of the conversations Emma had in the story were based on ones Laidlaw had myself with Pakistani friends. Laidlaw also lived on the Canadian Compound, just like Emma. The compound was much as she described it, right up to the cobras in the yard that the guards really did shoot. Children also did pick through garbage behind their compound. In addition, the bombings and evacuations in the story happened while Laidlaw lived there. The frequent demonstrations and the way they were dealt with at the school is also factual. Basically, Laidlaw changed the timeline but not the details.

Laidlaw decided to have her main character be a child of a diplomat, because of her familiarity with them. For example, her eldest son was born in Sweden and has lived in Russia, Pakistan, Philippines, and Taiwan, before returning to Canada for college. She notes that while diplomat families face the same challenges as the average person, they also experience unique challenges too. Often they feel a profound sense of loss and alienation due to the constant moving. It’s hard for them to form deep attachments, when they know they’ll soon be moving on, or the object of their affection will be moving on. They rarely feel completely at home in the foreign country they’re living in, yet they don’t feel at home when they return to their country of origin either.

The second reason she wanted to have her main character be a child of a diplomat is that she believes that perspective is rarely reflected in literature. For example, her eldest son will say he’s Asian because his formative years were spent there, despite the fact he’s a blonde, green-eyed young person, with a Canadian passport.

Infidel in Paradise also touches on issues such as culture shock, divorce, danger, politics, and romance. Laidlaw recognizes that one challenge was explaining culture shock in a way that was both accessible and sympathetic to kids who haven’t experienced moving around. It was important for me to get this right, because so often the young people whom she works with feels that everyone thinks their nomadic lifestyle is glamorous, without realizing the grief that comes with having to pack up their entire lives every few years.

Another thing that was important to Laidlaw was to present a balanced perspective on Islam and cultural practices, like arranged marriage. Because Infidel in Paradise was a book for young adults, Laidlaw approached these issues from a teen perspective. For example, the main character of Emma falls for a boy who’s been promised in marriage to someone else.

Laidlaw says that most challenging balancing act was explaining the political dangers, from demonstrations to bombings, while at the same time showing the kindness and generosity of most Pakistanis. For that reason, has both terrifying experiences at the hands of fundamentalists and uplifting experiences from people who demonstrate kinship of the human spirit.


My notes about Laidlaw’s personal background come from her own website and a page called: biography.

My notes about the cultural background of An Infidel in Paradise come from three different sources:

To read first-hand accounts of the challenges of being a third-culture kid, check out the below sites:

Another excellent resource is TC Kids. This site is defines third-culture kids, shares news about them, and points out additional reading sources.

Twenty-Two Cents by Paula Yoo is a literary and visual experience. As an adult, I enjoyed reading this biography of Muhammad Yunus who established the first microbank. In considering whether or not to recommend Twenty-Two Cents for its target audience of children, I also thought a lot about the wide variety of picture books that exist, including those which are intended to be read aloud.

In being a literary and visual experience, Twenty-Two Cents is the perfect example of a mentor text or a good example of writing for students. The narrative is thorough. It starts at Yunus’s childhood when he first noticed the terrible conditions in which the poor lived, covers his college years when he first met the women who were unable to break out of poverty, and finishes with his senior years when he became known as the Banker to the Poor. Yoo’s prose is both inviting and detailed, as seen even from the initial paragraph: “Muhammad’s stomach growled as he and his brothers and sisters watched their mother mix rice flour, sugar, and coconut to create….” As for the pastel chalk illustrations by Jamel Akib, in reflecting both the richness of Bangladesh and the harshness of poverty, they also enhance this unique story.

As an adult, I enjoyed being introduced to an individual whose accomplishments led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yoo invokes admiration within me for Muhammad Yunus who from a young age felt compassion for those in need. The list of how Yunus provided help is extensive: As a Boy Scout, he raised money for the poor; As a young adult, he studied economics so he could teach people to manage their money; As a college professor, he moved his classes outside to learn how poor villagers managed to survive. Yoo does not skimp on the details of Yunus’s life. If anything, there are times when I’d have appreciated even more anecdotes.

With some reservations, I think that young people will equally enjoy Twenty-Two Cents. As I noted above, reading Yoo’s book inspired me to reflect on what exactly a picture book is. Picture books are most often aimed at young children, but can also be suited for youth and adults. When aimed at young children, the text is often designed to help develop reading skills. The text might be easy enough for independent reading or it might be sophisticated enough that adults will need to read it aloud. The text-heavy pages and challenging vocabulary of Twenty-Two Cents will require adult guidance. Discussions might also ensue about heroes, banks, and other thought-provoking topics.

Twenty-Two Cents provides an engaging look at a relatively unknown hero from Bangladesh who helped change the world. The afterword includes additional information about poverty and the role of microbanks in alleviating it. Several author sources are also provided. This is a text which could inspire adults and students alike to become activists.

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

How would you rate this book?

The Hijab Boutique by Michelle Khan feels like a religious book. It’s about one big happy family whose members mostly do the right thing. If there are unsavory characters, they’re minor ones and often clichés. And even Khan admits she wrote this book to deliver a message. According to an interview at The Kube Blog, she “wanted to teach the values of Islam surrounding the hijab.” Yet I moderately enjoyed this simple (albeit preachy) tale about fifth-grade student Farah, whose is given the assignment of bringing something to school that represents her mother.

There is one main feature which I disliked, which is that the “bad guys” in this book are rich, snobby, popular girls whose sole function is to ridicule Farah and her best friend. School stories seem to abound with these stock characters. What’s worse is that Farah and her best friend Ashanti are themselves from rich families, the type who have security gates and limousines. While stories about the rich can be handled well, here Farah’s wealth creates an unnecessary distance between her world and mine. That seems a big mistake in a story which is trying to lessen the distance between Islam and other religions.

As for the features I like, Farah is a likeable teenager. She loves her mom, does well at school, enjoys hanging out with friends, and has a peppy personality. Then there is Khan’s message. I have limited knowledge of the Islam religion and know even less about the hijab tradition. Thanks to Farah’s enthusiastic narration, I wasn’t bored by her lessons on the hijab. In fact, I was intrigued by her sales pitch for the hijab as a fashion accessory.

Because I grew up in a Christian home (and still adhere to that faith), I now have a sentimental fondness for Sunday School papers, religious magazines, and Christian books. They’re as much a part of my literary culture as children’s classics and bestsellers. And so I wasn’t put off by the religious tone of The Hijab Boutique. Due to its short length of fifty pages, I can even see The Hijab Boutique being accepted by fans of books like the Perfectly Princess series–which also contains flat characters and overt messages. However, I hope there will be better books to come about the Islamic culture.

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

How would you rate this book?

Farah enjoys her private girls’ art school and fun with her friends. That is, until the day she’s given an assignment to bring in something representing her mother to talk about for “International Women’s Day”.

The above description comes from the back cover of The Hijab Boutique, a novel by first-time author Michelle Kwan and published by The Islamic Foundation.


Michelle Khan is an Indo-Canadian, who first began speaking English in kindergarten. According to an interview with The Kube Blog, picture books saved the day for Khan! After them, her English skills took off. While a student at the University of Toronto, Khan began to be published in its student paper. Eventually, her words also made it into mainstream newspapers through her internationally syndicated youth advice column. She went onto to win two media scholarships and work as an editorial assistant on a TV gossip show, but inside she wanted to write books for children. When laid off from her columnist job, Khan made good on that dream by taking children’s writing workshops and submitting manuscripts.


Examples of hijabs in different regions

Examples of hijabs in different regions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Khan has often wondered what would lead someone to become a hijabi. Sometimes, she is in the position to ask. When her family doctor made the decision to wear hijab as an adult an idea also blossomed. Although she herself doesn’t yet wear one, Khan loves the hijab and the religious concept behind it. With The Hijab Boutique, Khan decided to explore “the whole process a woman undergoes through the open eyes of a child” with regards to the hijab.

Of course, as reviewer of The Hijab Boutique, I felt it my duty to do my own research into the hijab. An article at Islamic Insights provided this explanation: “The word Hijab literally means a curtain or veil and is best understood by exploring the Islamic concept of modesty. Muslim men and women are required to be modest while mingling with unrelated members of the opposite gender…. In order to appear modest, Muslim women are required by their faith to observe the most visible form of the Hijab in public – the headscarf to cover our hair and full-length clothing to conceal the shape of our bodies.” The article continues to list five detailed reasons as to why women wear the hijab.

Another intriguing site called Hijabis Doing Things contains a collection of photos of women wearing the hijab and doing all kinds of things such as riding motorcycles, canoeing, and flying airplanes. There’s also a post by a non-Muslim woman who tried wearing one for research.


If interested in reading other books for children which feature the Muslim faith, Islamic Insights has a reading list that might help. As one hears over and over with regards to multicultural literature, “books provide children a mirror in which they see themselves and the world around them reflected.” Eleven books are described.

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