summer reading 2017
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This one appears to have gone out of print or is at least not available through Amazon. If you wouls like a copy you can buy it here through Kitaab World. I highly recommend ordering through them anyways. They have an amazing selection of books dealing with Islam and South Asian culture. Again, I can’t recommend enough getting more books about Muslims into all parts of your collection. This is a particularly lovely biography with wonderful illustrations and good information.
The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina written by Fatima Sharafeddine, illustrated by Intelaq Mohammed Ali
Form Goodreads: Born in Persia more than a thousand years ago, Ibn Sina was one of the greatest thinkers of his time — a philosopher, scientist and physician who made significant discoveries, especially in the field of medicine, and wrote more than one hundred books. As a child, Ibn Sina was extremely bright, a voracious reader who loved to learn and was fortunate to have the best teachers. He memorized the Qur’an by the age of ten and completed his medical studies at sixteen. He spent his life traveling, treating the sick, seeking knowledge through research, and writing about his discoveries. He came up with new theories in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy and education. His most famous work is The Canon of Medicine, a collection of books that were used for teaching in universities across the Islamic world and Europe for centuries.
So I wasn’t totally captivated by the text in this one. It was in first person which I understand brings the reader closer to the subject, but it also made for a few awkward places. In looking further at the book I discovered that it was originally published in Arabic, which might explain the awkwardness. Things lost in translation.
Otherwise, Ibn Sina made me feel totally inadequate. NBD. He just finished his medical studies at 16. I mean I know it wasn’t like medical school these days, but still. 16. Clearly the man was a genius. The story of his accomplishments was really fascinating. He did a lot and was very interested in life long learning. He studied philosophy, education and even advocated for what we might today consider respectful parenting and teaching.
I wish there had been a little more historical context. He moved around a lot as an adult, but there was only a brief mention that one of the cities he lived in was frequently fighting with another. I think kids in the US will not be particularly familiar with the geography or history of the area or era and need more information. But I also understand that it could potentially make the book unwieldy and boring. A longer more detailed author’s note might have sufficed. I did appreciate that Sharafeddine noted that Islamic contributions to the world are rarely taught in US schools and that was a driving factor in bringing out this book.
I really like the illustrations. They’re done on a speckled brownish paper that makes the colors pop and is different from the usual white paper. The lines are so soft and the shading is spectacular. Everyone has these huge half moon eyes that make them kind of darling and friendly. The illustrations were done in colored pencil and are so saturated and rich.
I’ll definitely be buying this as our budget allows this year. We need more Islamic biographies and I don’t think we have anything on the Islamic Golden Age. The illustrations will entice my students to pick it up. My complaints about the text aren’t significant enough for me to not purchase it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This one is a little out of character because Ruby is (obviously) white, but it’s worth it for having a girl involved in coding! I used this book this past year with my second grade class to begin teaching them about how computers think. Hello Ruby does teach basics of coding, but for me it was important for the kids to learn how computers access information as early as possible. In just a couple years they will be asked to do some online research and they need to understand how best to go about it BEFORE they start out. That doesn’t mean they’ll do it perfectly the first time or even fully grasp what is going on, but it’s about putting the scaffolding in place. A second book in this series is coming out this fall and I’m excited to see how I can use that. In addition to going through the book with my second graders, my own daughter loved the book and activities. She didn’t get all of them as she was only 5 when we read it, but she still really enjoyed it.
Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding by Linda Liukas
From Goodreads: Meet Ruby—a small girl with a huge imagination, and the determination to solve any puzzle. As Ruby stomps around her world making new friends, including the Wise Snow Leopard, the Friendly Foxes, and the Messy Robots, kids will be introduced to the fundamentals of computational thinking, like how to break big problems into small ones, create step-by-step plans, look for patterns and think outside the box through storytelling. Then, these basic concepts at the core of coding and programming will be reinforced through fun playful exercises and activities that encourage exploration and creativity.
Hello Ruby is an interesting hybrid of chapter book and activity book. Oddly, though, the activities are included in the back half of the book and not in or at the end of each chapter. The introduction also says that the book is designed for a parent to read the story to their child(ren) and work through the activities together.
The story is cute and simple with a pretty easy reading level (with some help a second grader could manage), however it jumps from something realistic into what I think is Ruby’s imagination. Ruby’s dad has hidden gems and left her some cryptic messages as clues to finding them. I was a little confused as to how Ruby managed to create a map for a world that I thought was supposed to be around her house, but ended up with a river and a forest. I stuck with it and the story eventually made more sense, it just required accepting that this was not our world. I’m not sure kids will be thrown by the leap into Ruby’s imagination since they are less familiar with genres and rules about worlds and stories. Some of the chapters were a little confusing unless you looked at and did the activities with them.
I did appreciate that the activities built on each other, getting more difficult as the book went on. One helps kids understand Booleans which I might have to use in the library when we talk about them.
I’m going to spend next week going through the chapters and exercises with my daughter to see how engaging it is for kids (I realize she’s a little younger than this is probably gear toward, but it will give me a sense). Considering it needs a parent to go through it with the child (not a bad thing! I wish more parents of older kids were still reading and working with their kids), it’s probably not the kind of book that would be popular in my library. It should work for a public library or a home collection if coding is popular. What I think I might do is buy it to have in the makerspace I run.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I don’t know if the teachers paired this with the Sequoyah biography, but I do know the kids really enjoyed this book. It got them thinking and that’s always a good thing. I still highly recommend this title.
The Apple Tree: A Cherokee Story written by Sandy Tharp-Thee, illustrated by Marlena Campbell Hodson
From Goodreads: A little boy plants an apple seed, and as soon as it sprouts the boy can see the apple tree it is meant to be. But the little apple tree isn’t so sure. Young and impatient, the tree begins to doubt its calling, especially after apples fail to appear that first October. How can the little boy encourage the tree to give the seasons and years the time to work their magic?
I saw this one recommended on Debbie Reese’s site and bought it to replace some of the many Native Nations books I withdrew this summer.
I thought this was a nice gentle story and it’s so sweet. It’s also a quick read. It brought to mind The Giving Tree, a book that I know is beloved by many, but I find incredibly disturbing. Here the little boy helps his apple tree feel better until it can produce it’s own apples. He talks to the tree and interacts with it. Which also brings to mind the book Maple.
Someone in the comments section of AICL noted that Kirkus did not review the book well and that the reviewer was confused by the story. Another commenter posted some quotes from the review. I don’t think the book is confusing at all and found the complaints of the Kirkus review more confusing than this story. If you understood The Giving Tree, you won’t have trouble with this story. Neither will your students.
The text is presented both in English and Cherokee which is a really cool talking point for students. We have a biography of Sequoyah. I can’t speak to how accurate it is (so much of children’s nonfiction is terrible!!), but we are using it. I suggested my second grade teachers pair these two books. Debbie Reese also recommends that you show children the Cherokee tribal website.
It’s a far less disturbing story like The Giving Tree. I highly recommend it for libraries looking to strengthen their collections of Native Nations books. I also suggest it if you have classrooms that do fall themes, trees, or want a story about patience.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
You just can’t go wrong with Zetta Elliott books on your shelf. You just can’t. I still really appreciate that this shows a divorced family doing their thing. In the past two years this one didn’t check out all that often, but it did check out. If there was one think I could change it would be the physical size of the book. This has the trim size of an easy reader, but it’s clearly an mid-range chapter book. Size does matter here, but obviously it didn’t deter my students from reading it.
Room In My Heart by Zetta Elliott
From Goodreads: It took some time for Nikki to adjust to her parents’ divorce, but now she and her little sister Natalie enjoy their new routine. Daddy comes over for dinner on Tuesday nights and the girls spend each weekend with him. But everything changes when Daddy picks them up for their weekend visit and introduces the girls to his new friend Sylvia. Nikki feels invisible when Sylvia’s around and so she decides not to spend the weekend with Daddy anymore. Only after talking about her feelings with her aunt does Nikki learn that her father’s love is unchanging, and that there is room in his heart to love many different people.
Another Zetta Elliott that I bought for my library and love, love, loved. I have to say I connected with this book on a personal level as much as I saw it being a good book for the right kid. Forgive me, but I’m about to get a bit personal in this review. My parents divorced when I was young but this was not something I often saw reflected either in my reading or other pop culture I consumed. My mom remarried a couple times and my dad dated a lot. Although I don’t remember struggling in quite the way Nikki does here, I related to so many of her feelings and her situation. It’s hard going between two households and it’s weird when you introduce new people into the family. I am so glad to see a book that reflects that and talks about it without feeling forced or as if it is telling a child how to feel or respond.
I also think the book does a beautiful job allowing Nikki to have her feelings without casting them as something awful or something she shouldn’t have. We often don’t allow children their emotions. We’re always shushing them and telling them they’re okay when they cry, etc. I think this is best seen when Nikki is upset with her father and decides not to spend the weekend with him, her mother says her father is disappointed:
I just shrugged and went upstairs to unpack my overnight bag. I told myself I didn’t care if my father was disappointed in me. I was disappointed in him!
The father in Room In My Heart puts manners and politeness and his own feelings before Nikki’s. Elliott gets at the ridiculousness of this. Sure, Nikki learns something by the end of the book, but Elliott doesn’t invalidate her feelings. She makes all the characters acknowledge them and address them. All this is to say that Elliott really hit the nail on the head in conveying many of the feelings and troubles of kids whose parents are divorced and at some larger issues for children.
As with Max Loves Munecas I worried that I would have to hand sell this to the kids, that they wouldn’t pick it up on their own. I don’t mind hand selling books and I think those hand sells are very important especially for reluctant readers, however I just don’t have nearly enough time to do it often enough or well enough. So I worry that the books won’t get read after the first few months they’ve been in the library. But Zetta Elliott put this post up on her blog* and in her first part of the conversation she totally speaks to why that doesn’t matter. I am so glad she framed it this way and I feel silly for not having thought of it that way before. I am not going to worry about that any more. Thank you, Zetta Elliott, for assuaging my anxiety about this and for making books that are perfect for giving to the right reader at just the right time. (Update: I put the book out on our new arrivals shelf and lo and behold a kid checked it out with zero prompting from me. I was totally wrong about it.)
*This is not at all the point of her whole post, by the way. I do recommend reading the whole thing. There is so much there to think about and reflect on and Elliott and Kwaymullina are great people to be learning from.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
So not only have I hand sold this to several second and third graders who have loved it, but my friend and second grade teacher reads this out loud to her class every year. And she says the kids get super invested in the story. They are rooting for Max and come away with a new appreciation for things that don’t see to conform to the gender norms they know. Everything Elliott writes is worth having in the library and is the gold standard for self publishing, but this one brings a lot to the table. Be sure to add it to your classroom or library collection.
Max Loves Muñecas by Zetta Elliott, illustrations by
From Goodreads: Max wants to visit a beautiful boutique that sells handmade dolls, but he worries that other children will tease him. When he finally finds the courage to enter the store, Max meets Senor Pepe who has been making dolls since he was a boy in Honduras. Senor Pepe shares his story with Max and reminds him that, “There is no shame in making something beautiful with your hands. Sewing is a skill–just like hitting a baseball or fixing a car.”
I love, love, loved this book. Despite having read the blurb, something about the cover and the title gave me a different impression of what the story would be about. I thought it would be more about Max and him wanting to play with dolls. Instead it’s an inspirational story about Senor Pepe and how he learned to sew and how he grew up in Honduras and then New York with a difficult, but not insurmountable, childhood. And Elliott accomplishes this in just a little over 100 readable pages for third and fourth graders.
I appreciated the story because of my connection to the makerspace. I think it’s important for us not to gender activities. Sewing, dolls, crafts, art, cooking, you name it. Max is struggling with his desire to examine the dolls in Senor Pepe’s shop, afraid the other kids will tease him. He may want to play with them, that’s not really touched on, but his interest is in the technical aspects. He loves their jewelry and their clothes, wonders about how they are made and wants to make them himself.
The ability to create this stuff is not girly, it’s an art form and a difficult one at that. I find it sad that by the time my second graders get to makerspace the girls do the crafts with glitter and the boys make weapons. Why not the other way around? I have had only two boys learn to use the sewing machines and that was once they realized to finish the invention they were working on they needed to sew something. Huh. Sewing machine as tool. Not badge of womanhood. Weird.
While I want my kids to read this story, the illustrations and title might make it something that I will have to hand sell (not a problem). I decided, though, to give it first to one of the second grade teachers. Our second grade studies various cultures through the year as part of their social studies curriculum and the final unit is Latinos. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to have the book read aloud to the students so they can discuss and appreciate the story.
I also want to point out that the story ends happily. It’s not free of sadness and distress (Pepe is orphaned fairly early on and lives for awhile in fear that he will be turned out onto the street), but it’s not so maudlin that kids will leave it feeling depressed.
An excellent addition to any school or public library collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From the publisher: Petra’s the best archer in the world. They shoot high, they shoot low, and hit whatever they aim for. One day, soldiers come and offer them gold if they’ll do a hard job. Should Petra take it? This book is about using your skills for good, and features a non-gendered protagonist.
This another one of the three Castor Tales that I got and I like it as much as I like Rook. Petra is a talented archer who is approached one day by a group of men who want Petra to shoot a man. They try to justify the murder by saying the man is bad and Petra is a good girl. Petra responds with “I am no girl! I am no boy! I am Petra!” There are two important things going on here. First is the message of standing up to people trying to coerce you into making bad choices. I am not fond of books with a Message or moral, but I think it’s subtle enough here and empowering. That empowerment I think comes from the second thing going on in the story, the fact that Petra both declares that they are only Petra, neither boy nor girl. Petra’s power and strength come from being uniquely Petra. I am not positive, but I hope this story allows children who may be struggling to fit into gender norms a strong character to identify with.
It’s also empowering for children to see that Petra, a fellow child, is brave enough to stand up to adults who want to do something bad. It can be really difficult for children to stand up to older children and adults in order to follow their moral compass. So often we teach them to submit to authority without question. Petra gives kids a good example of someone being true to themselves and not being afraid to speak up and reject the authority figures.
Petra is then approached by another set of people who want help. At first Petra is frustrated thinking they want another murder, but it turns out they need help healing the sick moon. Petra is glad to help with that task and saves the day.
The art is very different from Rook. It’s a lot wispier and softer with a celestial feel that suits Petra’s ultimate task of helping the moon. It also gives the clothing and hair a lot of movement and makes the faces expressive. As with Rook, Petra is very simple and would be a great addition to classrooms and libraries with emerging readers. These books are not first readers, but they’re close. Nearly all the words are either simple to sound out or come from a list of first sight words. They range from 5-20 words per page and when that count is on the upper end of the range most of the words are repeated. For example: “I shoot the sea. I can even shoot the moon! Boom! But I do not. I do not want to hurt the moon.” So just to be clear readers will have to know or be ready for some simple sight words plus have some skills to sound out a word or two.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From the publisher: Rook is about a cunning young thief who takes whatever she wants. But one day, she steals from the wrong witch and she’s caught! The witch takes her in, and teaches her how to create, not take.
Rook came as one of three in a set of easy readers from Castor Tales. I got them through a Kickstarter campaign. The purpose was to put out easy reader fantasies with diverse characters. Last year when I went through our easy reader collection (you can see the stats here) I was unsurprised to discover it was very homogenous and focused almost entirely on talking animals and/or realistic fiction. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of kids who love those kinds of stories, but if we’re trying to get kids interested in reading we need to be sure we can serve all kids, including those that like nonfiction, fantasy, and science fiction. I think this is especially true for roping in reluctant readers.
When I set out to improve the collection, I struggled to find high quality easy readers that featured diversity in their genres and characters. It often worked out that I could get one or the other but rarely both. I gave to the Kickstarter campaign because I saw first hand the lack of variety and diversity and realized there is a need for books like these.
Rook was a lot of fun. She’s a thief with a pet corvid and, in the beginning of the story, we see her stealing from a variety of people. Then she steals from a witch, oh poo. But instead of a cruel witch, she wants to help Rook change her ways. While you could focus on the theme of making better choices or even friendship, I saw an opening for a discussion around society’s current obsession with consumption. Rook begins by proudly announcing she is a thief who always takes. But with the support of a friend, someone who wants to accept her, she is able to shift to creating. Not to sound like the grumpy old man shouting about getting off the lawn, but kids do a lot of consuming, particularly of online content. I think it’s healthy for us to have conversations with them about not only consuming, but also creating their own content to put out into the world.
Other great features of the book are bright and lively illustrations. They feel like they come right out of an animated series. I especially adore Rook herself. She’s got jewelry, henna or tattoos, a partially shaved head and dirt smudges. I appreciate when characters in picture books don’t conform to some clean, White ideal of what people should look like. Showing girls that they can be strong and beautiful no matter how they choose to look (or are born looking) is an incredibly powerful and important message we need to send.
The book also features a list of the sight words used in the story on the back cover. These are easy readers with some thought put into them. I am tired of books marketed as level one easy readers that have way too many words on a page or really complex spelling patterns. Even a classic like Frog and Toad is not for emerging readers. Rook has a few more difficult words that have more complex spelling patterns in them (“create”), but, by and large, the book uses simple sight words (as seen on the back) and basic, predictable spelling patterns. My own daughter should be able to read it with me in a few months (she recently started reading). Even the harder words are repeated so children will have a chance to see them several times in the course of the story. The text also cleverly repeats which allows them to draw on their memory and shows new readers that, while they are reading the same words again, the meaning has changed.
So, I definitely recommend Rook for classrooms and libraries that serve emerging readers. Unfortunately I don’t think you can buy them just yet. You can visit the website and Kickstarter campaign, but I couldn’t find anything about when or if they would be available outside the campaign which ended last fall. In the meantime I would suggest keeping your eye out for them or contacting the publisher.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I introduced The Magic Mirror into the library collection awhile ago and had good luck hand selling it to a several second graders who wanted chapter books but weren’t quite ready for some of the longer ones in our transitional collection. I cannot recommend books written by Zetta Elliott enough. They are always high quality and engaging and often focus on history that you won’t find in textbooks.
The Magic Mirror by Zetta Elliott
From Goodreads: When a boy at school hurts Kamara’s feelings, she goes home and asks her grandmother if the mean words are really true. Gramma tells Kamara to go upstairs and clean the old mirror in the guest room. But when Kamara starts to rub the glass, she discovers that the mirror is magical! Kamara sees brave women from the past who faced many challenges yet never gave up hope. When the historical journey ends in the twenty-first century, the mirror once again shows Kamara her own reflection. She sheds her self-doubt and instead draws strength from the courage of the women she met in the magic mirror.
The Magic Mirror is another self published gem from Zetta Elliott. At it’s heart it is a story about bullying. Kamara has been teased at school and she has come home to seek comfort from her grandmother. While Kamara shares that she’s been called a name, that word is never used, which allows readers to fill in what it might be. Sadly, I’m sure African American kids can fill in worse words than what my students might. I like, though, that the book leaves it open for interpretation to some extent (as an adult it seems pretty clear to me that Kamara has been called something awful).
With a little magic in her grandmother’s mirror, Kamara is taken on a journey through history, seeing her ancestors deal with racism and injustice over the centuries and decades since Africans were brought in chains. The history she sees can be rather unflinching, but it isn’t inappropriate (i.e. graphic or overly informative) for the target audience. Elliott knows what she’s doing in sharing difficult history with children.
The beauty, if there can be any beauty in a racist interaction, is that Kamara, and by extension the reader, comes away with a fascinating and uplifting look at black history in America. The fact that this is mostly a realistic fiction story with some school yard drama make this an incredibly appealing book for kids transitioning into chapter books. There is a lot of realistic fiction at this reading level and kids seem to really want that. The book also isn’t especially long, nor is the text especially difficult, which again make it a great addition to a moving-up collection.
If I could change one thing about the book it would be the trim size. It’s somewhere between chapter book and picture book. Not only would making it smaller make the book thicker (and appear longer), but it would match with the chapter books my students desperately want to read. I just don’t understand the stigma against picture books at that second/third grade age. I suspect it comes from adults, though. Despite this, The Magic Mirror is well worth adding to your collection if you can add self published books. The first day it was in the library I had a girl gleefully grab it off the shelf and check it out. It went out at least one other time after that and I added it in the last couple months of school. I’ll be booktalking it at the beginning of the year with my second grade group.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I bought Fatty Legs awhile back for the library and was able to hand sell it to several readers (and one parent looking for something that was #ownvoices and a historically accurate treatment of First Nations people. I didn’t get feedback from all the students who read it, but the ones I checked in with did enjoy the book (as much as you can enjoy a book about bullying and residential schools). I have edited the review below just a little bit because I think I see even more merit in this book than I originally did and I wanted the review to reflect that.
Fatty Legs: A True Story written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, pictures by Liz Amini-Holmes
From Goodreads: The moving memoir of an Inuit girl who emerges from a residential school with her spirit intact.
Eight-year-old Margaret Pokiak has set her sights on learning to read, even though it means leaving her village in the high Arctic. Faced with unceasing pressure, her father finally agrees to let her make the five-day journey to attend school, but he warns Margaret of the terrors of residential schools.
I was pleasantly surprised by Fatty Legs. I expected a depressing book about the hardships of a boarding school meant to strip children of their language, culture and family. Certainly the school tried to do that. But they were in a for a run for their money with Margaret. She would not be dominated or crushed, although the two years she spent in school were damaging and depressing, it made her more determined.
I’m not opposed to sharing with children, even younger ones, the terrible things that have been done to native populations (North American and other places). I also feel depressing and disheartening books have their merit. Fatty Legs shows the despicable nature of these boarding schools, but it gives kids get a strong girl to identify with and root for. Margaret’s ability to be upbeat while telling a story that is, at heart, difficult, unjust, and upsetting is felt like a good balance for the age group the book is aimed at.
I know plenty of Native American children know of the horrors of these boarding schools and it’s incredibly important that we share that and talk about it in hopes that it doesn’t happen again. And in hopes of creating a generation of people who are more tolerant and understanding. I know I’ve said this before, but children are incredibly attuned to injustice and, for most, it’s infuriating. Fatty Legs does an excellent job of showing the injustice that will make kids angry, but without going over the top and making it a book parents (especially white parents) will balk at. In other words, kids will get it. They’ll know what happened wasn’t right and they’ll start asking questions and opening conversations.
The book includes photographs at the back of Margaret, her family, and many of the places mentioned in the story. In the text there are small notes in the margins directing the readers to these pictures which I think is unintrusive while providing some really interesting context. I’m amazed that she seems to have so many photographs of these critical moments from the story! It’s incredibly fortunate. There are also definitions of unfamiliar words down at the bottom of the page , which again is unintrusive, but provides context for kids who don’t know the words. Plus, what kid uses a glossary? The words are right there on the page, no need to flip back and forth breaking your concentration and flow.
My only complaint about the book is the format. The full color pictures and larger size of the book make it feel younger. It’s certainly appropriate for fourth graders and would make a great class read in third grade, even a strong third grade reader could pick it up on their own. But fifth grade and sixth grade, who would also make a perfect audience, might shy away from it purely based on looks. It drives me crazy when publishers do that to good books.
Excellent book for reflecting the experiences of many Inuit families and opening up discussions with non-native children who are probably ignorant of what went on less than a century ago.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Hamda has just become big enough to start wearing her veil like her older sisters. Each sister chips in with her own suggestions based on what worked for her. But it is up to Hamda to work out her own unique way to wear the veil making it a part of her active and happy life.
This is a gentle little family story about Hamda growing up and finding her place. It just so happens that for Hamada and her family, that means wearing hijab. It’s also a story about ingenuity. Hamada has to find a way that works for her to put the hijab on and keep it on.
Hamda is a funny and determined little girl who wants to be a “big girl”. She’s the youngest in the family and is finally tired of being told she’s too little to join her sisters in their activities. I think as parents and teachers we all know a couple of those. After a little pep talk with her mother, Hamda realizes part of becoming a big girl is deciding to wear the veil. And here is where this book gets very important for American audiences. This is not something Hamda is being forced to wear nor are her sisters, but it is a really big deal for the family. They are exceedingly proud that Hamda has recognized the step that choosing to wear hijab is and feels ready.
Except putting the scarf on and keeping it on as Hamda frolics turns out to be much harder than Hamda thought it would be. Each sister shows her how she wraps the scarf, but none of their ways work for Hamda. When Hamda goes down to say goodbye to her father before he heads out to the mosque she notices his cufflinks and this gives her an idea for her problem. It’s a bit Goldilocks, a bit Rosie Revere (or any of those inspired girl books).
The one thing I can’t decide about is the fact that religion is not mentioned in relation to the hijab. I suspect this is because the book was originally published in Arabic for a Muslim and/or Arab audience that would have assumed the characters were Muslim or at least understood where the tradition comes from. I don’t think it will be confusing for American children unfamiliar with Islamic practices, but I do think it will be important to point out that they are Muslim so the connection is made with average families and Islam. I found it rather refreshing that they weren’t overly or overtly religious. Not all Muslims are, just as not all Christian are, so I think it’s only fair to show them being Muslim in a range of ways just as Christians are in children’s books.
From a purely reading level perspective this is a worthwhile book to have on the shelf . It is certainly an easy reader in that it has large font, repetitive text, and is fairly short. But it has chapters and a story that carries across those chapters, so in a lot of ways if feels like a beginning chapter book instead of an easy reader.
A few words about the illustrations. They are, as you can see from the cover, quite adorable. Each page has at least one spot illustration and quite a few illustrations spread across the bottom of two pages or are full bleed across the spreads. It’s just another way that the book helps those emerging readers. Hamda is absolutely adorable with her secret smile and curly hair. She looks a bit mischievous, actually. Her mother has some wild red hair and her sisters are all lovely girls, but Hamda steals the show. The pictures are all in a more pastel palette, but they manage to be bright and inviting. Try not to laugh when Hamda tries (and fails) to copy her fashionable sister Jamila (which means beautiful in Arabic). The result of her tying scarfs together looks striking on Jamila and just plain funny on Hamda. I tested the book out on my daughter and she loved the story (we read it several times over the following days), but I think she really clicked with the illustrations and Hamda.
I don’t think this is technically a small press publication, but it was originally put out in Arabic (in the Emirates) and was then translated and brought over to the UK market (as far as I can tell), so I fudged it. I cannot recommend My Own Special Way enough for all library and classroom collections that have easy readers and early chapter books. It’s a gentle little family story that shows a side of Islam and Arabs we don’t normally see. It’s also a perfect transitional book for kids moving from easy readers into chapters or for those kids that want to look like they’re a big kid reading a chapter book.