Monday, 7 May 2018

Yan’s Hajj, The Journey of a Lifetime by Fawzia Gilani

I like to keep an eye out for Islamic books for children for a number of reasons: increasing their Islamic knowledge, a means of normalising Islamic language, behaviours and dress, creating positive role models and teaching about good deeds.

Yan’sHajj falls into the last two categories.  Yan is a poor farmer who works hard to save money to go to Hajj.  Every time he sets out he finds someone on the way who is more in need of the money than himself and uses it to help.  Each time he saves the money, he is a little older and finds it a little harder to save enough.  By the end of the book he has helped build a school, helped build a masjid and rescued and raised an orphan.  By this time he is also too old to earn enough to ever get to Makkah to perform his hajj – will he ever get to the house of Allah (SWT)?

In the book, Yan’s good deeds came back to help him on his way in one last attempt at this special journey of a lifetime, which has actually taken a lifetime.

This is a clearly written book, with the goodness of Yan and his love of Allah (SWT) evident on every page.  The drawings are simple, but I enjoyed seeing how Yan aged through each event in the book.

What stood out though was the beautiful message of the book.  I loved how Yan put the needs of others before himself at every turn. He loved Allah (SWT) and longed to visit his house, but he could not see others in difficulty and walk away to the extent that he was ready to sacrifice his precious dream to helps others.

This is probably one of the best children’s books I have come across.  The story is wonderful and I choked up as I read it to my children, struggling to keep my voice level by the time I got to the end.  It’s one I would read to my little ones again and again.  I know there are good people like Yan in this world and I hope that this book inspires my children to be amongst them. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Its Jummah! by Najia Rastgar and Lyazzat Mukhangaliyeva

Growing up Friday was always a special day in my home.  There were particular rituals and actions  for the day – My dad dressed in pure white salwar kameez for Jummah (Friday), the house scented with his attar and any new clothes we bought were saved for Friday for their first wear.  I have tried to replicate this feeling of a special day of the week with my children.  

It’s Jummah! is a board book for babies that tries to share a few Sunnah and etiquettes of Friday for Muslims. It is the first in a series of books by the authors that’s aims to combine Islamic knowledge and pre-Montessori education (like shapes, colours, fruits and vegetables, etc.), so babies can learn them both at the same time.

The book uses very simple language and beautiful high-contrast illustrations for smaller children. I really liked that it helps us to introduce Islam to smaller children with easy instructions for Friday like having a bath, cutting our nails, wearing our best clothes and reciting Quran.

My little girls enjoyed the book, it is aimed at slightly smaller children than my three and five year olds but it was a nice little resource for me to teach them about the sunnaan of Friday and to test them by asking questions.

The writers say they plan to translate the books into Urdu, Kazakh, Russian, Arabic, Bengali, and other languages in futures, I think these would make nice little books to get started with teaching little ones another language.  I look forward to see what else come forth from this series.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Muslims by Zanib Miah

When my older children were quite small, I used to buy them books with an Islamic theme, not necessary just instructional, but often something to motivate and inspire: colourful picture books with stories from the lives of the Prophets (peace be upon them) and the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet - may Allah be pleased with them).

As they have gotten older they have lost interest a little for more mainstream books which perhaps they find a little more entertaining.  Both of my boys are fans of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Zanib Miah’s The Muslims is in a similar style.

The book follows our loveable, cheeky but slightly disaster-prone young protagonist Omar, as he introduces us to his very likeable family and moves to a new school.  The book is funny, but not always fun.  Omar gets into plenty of escapades, but unlike the light-heartedness of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Muslims touches gently on deeper themes of how children cope with change, in this case with an imaginary dragon that grows and shrinks as his worries do.  The book also deals with bullying, in this case because Omar is a Muslim.

In an interviewpublished late last year on Happy Muslim Mama, Zanib Miah described how she wrote her book The Muslims in response to the surge of faith-based bullying as, reported by Child Line and the NSPCC.

Interestingly it also touches on how children pick up on the worries from things happening around them – for instance, his fear that all Muslims and Asians could have to leave the country.  This was something I have had conversations about with my children in the past after Brexit and other events that they have picked up on.

This makes the book sound very heavy for a child, but in fact these things are dealt with, with a very light touch.  The book is written from a child’s point of view with illustrations that are almost comic-like.

My favourite parts were those that included the neighbour who started off calling the family “The Muslims” (hence the name of the book) and eventually is won around enough to invite herself to their iftar meals and join in the countdown to Biryani (where she feeds Omar alcoholic chocolates)

I like that the book weaves Omar’s faith into his daily life in the way Islam does in real life for Muslims.  Sometimes this centres on their daily routine, like the way they celebrate Ramadan and Eid and sometimes through his actions, in the way he makes dua (supplication) when he is in trouble.

And the important verdict?  Both my boys utterly loved this book and both said they would read more instalments if they could get them.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

My First Book about the Qur’an by Sara Khan

My First Book about the Qur’an tackles the weighty issue of the beginning of creation in the Muslim scripture and the role of the Quran in our lives, but for an audience of small children.  The book takes us through the creation of the heavens and the earth, the elements, the animals and humans.  It highlights the beauty of all of creation and the uniqueness of human beings.  It then comes to the books of Allah (SWT) and how they teach us to live good lives, for instance by telling us to care for our parents, be good to our neighbours and take care of the earth.  It touches on the five pillars, mentions family life and ends with the promise of Jannah.  The last pages of the book contain some simple facts about the Quran and some questions and answers.

It is a solid little board book of a nice size that can be handled by the smallest hands.  The different things mentioned in the book act as a nice starting point for lots of conversations with your little one.  The illustrations are what really stood out for me, they really are beautiful and very high quality – with bright washes of colour and lovely drawings on every page.

The book reminded me of one or two books my older children had when they were younger, books about creation and where the world came from, but this is of a higher quality and aimed at smaller children (2+).  My two and four year old girls enjoyed having it read to them and looking at the pictures alone.  Darling (aged four) liked the page with the wedding, Baby (aged two) was fascinated with the pictures.  Gorgeous (ten) decided to take a look and remarked that many of the facts in the back of the book would not be known to some adults.  It was a little reminder of how important it is to start learning about the message of the Quran from a young age and as the first step of a life long journey.

You can buy the book here or here on Amazon and learn more on Facebook or Twitter

Sunday, 13 August 2017

#BabyLove: My Toddler Life by Corine Dehghanpisheh

Mums will be familiar with the ability of babies to hone in on their mobile phones, utterly fascinated, or sometimes just using it as a teether.  My Toddler Life incorporates this fascination by babies into its narrative.  The book follows a small child through the eyes of his mother, or more accurately the frame of her phone as they play and makes memories.

 The little one is shown counting, colouring and making music with mum recording the fun and sharing.  This is until he is tempted by him mum’s phone.  Knowing he mustn’t touch but unable to resist, he takes the phone and tries taking selfies and pictures of the dog before dropping the phone and getting scared.  Mum handles he situation with love and utmost gentleness, encouraging him to apologise.

This is a good sized, glossy soft book, more suited to reading to a child than letting them handle it.  Slightly older children who understand how to take care of a book might also enjoy it.  The pictures are bold and colourful and easy on the eye for a little one, I really liked the expressions and actions of the dog throughout the book.  I liked that the prose is written in rhyme, making it more pleasurable to read.  The book does have a lot of pages, so takes a bit of time to get through when reading out loud.

I wondered if the book would be judgemental, as people so often are when parents use their smart phones, but there was no preachy message about putting your phone down, instead the book ends with the mum sharing her special moments on the phone, hugging her little one, then outing her phone down to play with her child.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Author Interview: Dana Salim

Dana Salim is an author and co-founder, with her husband, of DS Publishing, LLC.  Dana's childhood was split between Amman, Jordan and Vancouver, Canada. She finished Industrial Engineering at the University of Jordan before moving to Ohio, and then Texas.  On her about page she describes herself as loving “singing silly songs, standing in the breeze and eating chocolate cake.”  Her most recent book, Beautifully Different, was recently reviewed on Happy Muslim Mama and Umm Salihah's Book Reviews.

Many people dream of becoming writers, what made you put pen to paper and actually write a book?  
I've had this dream since I was a kid in elementary school, always writing poetry and stories on the side as a hobby. But I never actually went after it till I was pregnant with my son. I became motivated with the idea of writing a children's book with a character named after him so we can read it together during bedtime. I also wanted to write a book where Muslim kids can enjoy going on adventures like ones they read about in other books they borrow from libraries but with a character they can relate to. Little did I know, there was so much more to publishing a book than writing it. But as hard as this path of becoming an author has been, it's also been rewarding and I’m thankful to God for that.

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I’ve always been inspired by Shel Silverstein and Dr Seuss, both of whom write in unique ways related to them while sharing important lessons with kids. Dawud Wharnsby has also definitely inspired me from a young age. I still remember attending an Eid gathering and he was there singing and I was in awe, not only with how he wrote poetry but also how he turned it to beautiful nasheeds/songs.

What inspired you to write this book, Beautifully Different?
The inspiration for Beautifully Different came while listening to the song "Love Who You Are - by Harris J". I was on a road trip with my husband Hamzah and our little boy Yousuf and we had Harris J's album "Salam" playing when this song came up. The entire subject of bullying and trying to 'fit in' is one that I am passionate about. While listening to this song, an idea started forming and I immediately knew that I needed to write. I needed to try and answer the question that popped in my head "Why are people different? Why couldn't we all be the same?". Then, I took my iPad and started typing for an hour or so, and the story was written. I can't explain how the idea turned into the full story because I don't start a story knowing how it's going to go or how it will end. I just start writing and with the flow of words the story takes shape. That's how "Beautifully Different" came to be. 

Where do you get your ideas for your books?
Each one has its own inspiration. The first book in the series titled “Dreamland with Mommy” was inspired from a poem I wrote years back. I wanted to take kids on adventure full of silliness and fun. The second book “Beautifully Different” was inspired by the song “Love Who You Are" by Harris J.

What do you love most about writing?
There are two main things I love about writing. The first is the power of words and being able to use them to teach kids important lessons in a fun way. The second is being able to create worlds that readers can travel to and enjoy.

What do you find the most challenging about writing and the journey to getting published?
I published my first book in September 2015, one year before establishing our company, DS Publishing. During my publishing journey, before and after the company, the biggest challenge was and continues to be marketing. Your day-to-day life changes from a person caring for family or working with others around you to someone trying to get their name and book out there.

I think what helped the most in overcoming it was two things: persistence and having supportive people around (especially my husband) when I faced self-doubt or discouragement. It's not easy when you are doing your best without immediate results or benefit. But after persisting and finding new ways to market, it finally started producing results.

Do you ever suffer from writers block and if so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, I think every writer faces that at one point. With children's books it was easier for me to overcome it than with writing a YA novel. I usually just stop writing for a few days and use that time to think about the story without overstressing it. I try to think of different scenarios and endings until something clicks then I go back and continue writing. There's a YA chapter book I started writing a few years ago and halfway through I got writers block. I put it aside for a bit and tried to think of how I wanted the story to proceed. After a bit of thinking, I realized I couldn't proceed because I wanted to change the beginning which would affect the plot. I also realized at that time that I wasn't ready for this story yet. Who knows, it may be my next project.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read. That’s the first and most important one. The more you read, the better you will be as a writer because reading helps to expand your imagination, your vocabulary and your writing. My second piece of advice is to start writing immediately, even if it is done on the side while you focus on school. When you get an idea, write it down. Keep a journal of all your writings, and keep at it till you reach a point in life when you can take it to the next level. And my third piece of advice is connect with authors out there. So many of them (myself included) have their emails available for people to reach out to them, so use that. Ask them questions and learn from their experience because it really helps to take advice from someone who has done it. Other than that, always remember that nothing comes easily so work hard, be patient, believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you. You will face obstacles, you will make mistakes but that’s life; a big and continuous learning process. As long as you look at a problem you may face as just another step on your journey instead of a reason to stop, you will be able to do anything, God willing. 

Thank you Dana Salim! You can learn more about Dana's books here or watch an interview with her here.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead

I try so hard to read good books, worthy books and books that I will learn from.  But sometimes I just need a book that will grab me and take me out of the world and refuse to let go.  In other words a good story that I have to drop everything for.  The cover of The Underground Railway says “Winner of the National Book Award” and “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017”.  In the past the grand titles have meant that a book is likely to be worthy, but no guarantee that it is interesting enough to hold my often goldfish level attention.

The Underground Railway tells the story of a young woman called Cora from a cotton plantation in Georgia who decides to try and escape the utter misery and horror of life as a slave.  We follow her on her journey, with a slave catcher in pursuit.  The book doesn’t hold back when describing the horrific treatment of slaves at every step of their lives.  It also throws light on the plight of freed men and women, who despite not being slaves are completely at the mercy of the whims of white people of the time.

The book highlights the thinking of the time that stated non-whites were inferior, barely human and even sinful (from the biblical story of Ham), requiring control and discipline or punishment from white people.  Even those who are considered to be comparatively sympathetic are shown to treat black people as subjects of ridicule of experimentation.

On her journey Cora also provides us with a window into the other forms of persecution of the time, whether medical experiments, arbitrary violence against black people, or the “clearing” of whole towns of any black people through public lynchings.

The Underground Railway is written in clear, forceful prose.  The writer often builds up tension and suspense and then resolves it so suddenly and quickly that within a sentence the awful has happened, barely leaving you time to feel the full horror of  a situation. 

Cora is a complex protagonist, veering from thinking deeply about her situation only to dismiss it to being driven by a profound anger at her situation.  Interestingly, she never buys into the negative narrative about her race and situation.  She is always crystal clear that there has been an injustice against her race and that they are deserving of  justice and freedom, that the slave owners and sympathisers are the sinners.

The book moves from brutal scenes of violence to contemplative passages, meditating on the situation of the people.  Colson Whitehead’s writing and the themes of this book reminded me of the books of Tony Morrison, one of my favourite writers: moving, often painful to read, leaving you brimming with anger at the injustices brought down on generations of people in the name of money and justified through both religion and science.  Part polemic, part history lesson, this is a fascinating and engaging story, I think I will keep hold of this book for the my children to read.