The BFF Sisters: Jennah’s New Friends (Book Review)

[I have several Islamic fiction books in my home library that were published almost ten years ago. The BFF Sisters: Jennah’s New Friends is one of them. I’ve had it on my list of books to review for some time but never did as I keep getting side-tracked with a million other things. However, when I received an email from Suzy Ismail, the author of the book, I was humbled and excited to say the least. Naturally I pulled out the book and got right on with re-reading it and writing this review. Thank you Suzy for sending me that email!]

 

image source: amana-publications.com

I can clearly remember the first time I saw The BFF Sisters: Jennah’s New Friends on the shelf of an Islamic bookshop nine years ago. I remember it because it was probably the only book on the shelf that made me want to pick it up and read it. It made an impression from the start. Why? The answer is because the cover of the book is attractive. With the pink colour and hues of blue and green, a beautiful bracelet and the shadow of a hand in the background, the cover of the book immediately evokes scenes of young girls sharing great times. Now I am not one to judge a book by its cover; but I have to say I do enjoy admiring well designed book covers. I like it when an attractively designed book cover is followed by a good story. The BFF Sisters: Jennah’s New Friends is such a book.

Yasmeen and I have always been the best of friends too, even though we’re really different. Yasmeen’s always real careful about what she says, and tries to make sure everyone is happy all of the time, while I can be a little bossy sometimes and I have a hard time controlling my temper when I get angry. It’s something I really am trying to work on.

“Earth to Jennah! Earth to Jennah! Jennah, what are you thinking about? You totally zoned out!” Khadija was waving her arms in front of my face and snapping her fingers as if she was trying to shake me out of a trance.

“Oh. I’m sorry guys. I didn’t mean to daze off like that,” I said. “I guess I’m just tired of Fatimah’s tricks all day today. So, what’s new with everyone?

“Khadija was just telling us about another new girl who moved close to her house. Her name is Lisa and she is going o be in sixth grade with us as Valley Hills School nest year too, insha’Allah,” Rahma answered.

“Speaking about being in the same school next year, insha’Allah, I’m so excited that Mariam’s going to be in my Islamic school,” Yasmeen chimed in. “We’ll probably take the same bus together and be in all the same classes….

As I listened to Yasmeen’s excited voice, I felt those same fluttering feelings of jealousy in my stomach again. It wasn’t fair. Why was Mariam going to go to the same school as my best friend? I could just imagine her sharing secrets with Yasmeen and calling her every night to talk about schoolwork or their teachers. Soon, Yasmeen would be so caught up with her new friend that she’d completely forget about me. (Excerpt from The BFF Sisters by Suzy Ismail, p. 19-20)

It’s the summer before Jennah and her friends enter sixth grade. They come up with the idea of starting a club which would meet to discuss Islamic ahadeeth as a way of spending their summer in a constructive way. The name of the club: The BFF Sisters. But friendship has its ups and downs and it’s no different with Jennah and her group of multicultural friends.

The author cleverly integrates the subthemes of jealousy, envy and anger into this story showing us how it affects the relationship between friends, in a general way and from an Islamic perspective. Jennah’s tendency to quickly flare up causes her to say hurtful things to family and friends alike. But situations are resolved through some self-inspection and with a little help from the wife of the Imam.

The main characters are all female. The four friends, the mothers and a sister from the masjid are vividly described through words and their actions, making them seem like someone you know. The girls get along for the most part for even though their parents come from different countries (Egypt, Palestine and Pakistan) they girls all have a connection through their upbringing in America. Readers I am sure will find one character who they could relate to. Whether it’s Jennah who is trying to responsibly handle the tendency to quickly lose her temper and control the jealousy that creeps into her relationship with her best friend; or Yasmeen who is the helpful, kind-hearted friend or Rahma who is easy-going or Khadija who is out-spoken. Then there is Jennah’s mother; pregnant, hard-working and trying to keep the household together while the father is away at work or Yasmeen’s mother; caring and always on the lookout for others or Sister Iman; the quiet and helpful wife of the Imam.

The story is told in the first person, a style used frequently in books for teens and middle grade novels as it quickly pulls the reader into the story. The story moves along quickly and comes to a satisfying end. While I enjoyed it, I felt as if I wanted it to go on. Another book, a series even, featuring the BFF Sisters would be great!  

At just about 60 pages this book may be a quick read for some. A glossary of Islamic terms and the meaning of the girls names, part of their Club’s notebook, appear at the end. With its energetic characters and witty dialogue, I think children, especially girls, between the ages of 8 to 11 years will enjoy this book.

Title: The BFF Sisters: Jennah’s New Friends

Author: Suzy Ismail

Publisher: Amana Publications

ISBN: 159008005X

Age Range: 8 – 11 years

Subjects: Friendship

New Books and Interesting Weblinks: An Ummah Reads Roundup

It’s that time again for the Ummah Reads roundup of news, books and interesting websites. Here is what I’ve come across recently:

New Books

book cover image via bibipublishing.co.uk

The Zahra series is a collection of three books by British author Sufiya Ahmed. These books are aimed to children in the 9 to 12 age category. I haven’t had the opportunity to read any of them as yet but they look appealing to girls. Here are some excerpts from the publisher’s website:

Zahra’s Firt Term at Khadija Academy

Zahra has been sent to an Islamic boarding school and she is not happy. She is desperate to return home and will do whatever it takes to get her way.

Zahra’s Trip to Misr

It is the summer holidays and the Khadija Academy girls are visiting the land of pharaohs and pyramids on what promises to be a trip full of sun, fun and laughter. Trouble however, is not far away and the girls of Form Aleef soon find themselves in the middle of it.

There is a third book in the series as well titled Zahra’s Great Debate.

Press Here by Herve Tullet is not your typical picture book. I haven’t read this book as yet but it is getting lots of positive reviews. It’s a unique children’s book since it is what you can call an interactive book. And its interactive without any devices. All you need is the book and the reader. The simple directions on each page gets a child to sort of ‘create’ the progress of the book by pressing, tapping and shaking the dots that appear on the page. That’s all there is on each page, dots! Dots of red yellow and blue. Here is an excerpt of the first few pages:

Press here nad turn the page.

Great! NOw press the yellow dot.

Perfect. Now rub the dot on the left gently.

….

There, well done. Now tilt the page to the left…Just to see what happens.

And of course on the next page the dots have ‘fallen’ to one side of the page! This is a book you have to experience for the fun of it. See some sample pages here.

 

News

International Children’s Book Day was on APril 4th. It’s a day to promote reading, writing and books in general. Schools, libraries and community centres partake in various activities.

April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Canada. Many people, young and old, enjoy reading and writing poetry. Some ways to use poetry to teach reading can be found here.

Websites & Blogs

Just a few days ago, Kube Publishing began its blog called theKubekidsblog. Kube publishing is a publisher of Islamic books for children, teenagers and adults; fiction and non-fiction. This Muslim publishing company has made a wise choice in entering the blogging world. A blog is a great way to interact with readers and writers (especially new and upcoming writers). Getting the word out about new Islamic products and providing resources to readers and writers are essential in today’s world. Thank you Kube and I hope more Muslim publishers follow your lead. See the blog here.

Don’t forget to say Bismillah! (Book Review)

Today, I take a look at an interactive book Don’t forget to say Bismillah! by Farzana Rahman. It’s a book that demonstrates how basic dua is incorporated into the daily life of a Muslim family using a combination of text and sound. I don’t think I’ve come across any Islamic children’s book like this to date. I’m excited about this book because not only is it an engaging story that seamlessly incorporates aspects of Muslim manners, but it is, from the illustrations to the design, a product that is professionally produced.

It’s Safiyya’s first day at nursery today,” says Mum.

“And I have a spelling test today,” says Sara.

“And I have a big football match today,” says Ali

“Everything will go well, Insha’Allah,” reassures Mum, “but don’t forget to say Bismillah before beginning anything you do.”

“I’m done, Al-Hamdulillah,” says Ali. “Your pancakes are the best Mum!”

Jazakallahu Khairan,” says Mum.

Don’t forget to say Bismillah! has a battery operated panel located on the side that allows the reader to press a button to listen to the sound of keywords that appear in the story (such as the coloured words in the excerpt you see above). The slider at the top of the sound panel makes it easy for the reader to move from the Arabic pronunciation of a word to its meaning in English and vice versa. This provides English-speaking children with the opportunity to know the meaning of the Arabic phrases they say, something which is not always the case as the Arabic is learnt and repeated by custom.

The story is simple; a look at a day in the life of a Muslim family from morning as they set off to work and school to the evening as they sit together for dinner. The youngest member of the family, Safiyya, is off to her first day of nursery. Just as she is nervous about it, Mom is nervous about returning to workplace after being away for a long time. Through the entire book Islamic duas are said by members of the household as they eat, talk of plans for the day, are at school or the park.

Young children will delight in seeing Safiyya attempt to say the duas. She wants to say the duas just as her big brother and sister do. So Safiyya says “Hum Lala” when she hears her brother Ali say “Al-Hamdulillah” after eating breakfast or “Yah-Lala” when her mother and sister respond to Ali’s “Al-Hamdulillah” when he sneezes.

I really enjoyed the illustrations in this book as they were realistic. The details make the characters seem like they’re from a Muslim family you know. The book is larger than the average book, but its size is suitable for a child to hold in his lap or place on the table or on the ground in front of him. The sturdy covers protect the glossy pages. Text on the page is clearly printed in a font that is easy to read and does not crowd the page.

A glossary at the back of the book provides the meaning of the basic dua and briefly explains when they are used. A simple match game ends the book as readers are invited to match the dua to the context which it should be said. This activity is good for slightly older readers.

Don’t forget to say Bismillah! is a book that a child three years to six years can read with an adult or on his/her own. It provides an entertaining way of learning duas for the first-time learner or of reinforcing those duas that a child may already be learning at home or at school. I think children heading off to school for the first time would enjoy reading this book as well.  

Title: Don’t forget to say Bismillah!

Author: Farzana Rahman

Publisher: Desi Doll Company

ISBN: 9780956586001

Reading Level: 3 – 7 years

Specifications: Interactive Sound book

Q & A with author Fawzia Gilani-Williams

I’m sure somewhere on your bookshelf at home or at school you can find at least one book, if not several, written by Fawzia Gilani-Williams. Many of her books are stories based on one of the two Eids Muslims celebrate; Eid Kareem Ameer Saab and The Lost Ring: An Eid Story  are good examples. The Adventures of Musab and Nabeel’s New Pants are some other books she has written. Her newest book is Cinderella: An Islamic Tale. She also has adaptations of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in the process of being published.

Today I am excited to share with you my interview with Fawzia Gilani-Williams. Sit back and read about the moment when she knew she had to write stories for children. Her poignant words I am sure will not only touch hearts but make readers aware more than ever of  the need to have books about Muslims and by Muslims available on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. 
 
{And I am excited to tell you that Fawzia has very generously offered a copy of her book, Cinderella, for a giveaway! See details below.}

 

UmmahReads [UR]: Welcome Fawzia! It’s so wonderful of you to be here.

Fawzia Gilani-Williams [FGW]: Asalaamu alaikum. Thank you so much for the invitation.  It’s a pleasure to be here.                                                                              

UR: Please tell us a little about yourself.

FGW: I’m of Punjabi heritage. I was born in England. I currently live in Ohio with my husband and daughter. I became a teacher in 1993 and since that time have worked mostly in Islamic schools in the UK, USA and Canada. I also worked as a librarian for over 3 years.

UR: Did you always want to be a writer? How long have you been writing?

FGW: I didn’t know I was going to be a published writer. However, I do remember I liked to write as a child. My father always encouraged me to write but it was for higher education not children. My father didn’t live long enough to see my first book. But he was a very powerful, encouraging force in my life and a strong proponent of women’s rights. He is still my inspiration. In fact I wrote his childhood story last year; it includes how he lost his father in the Indo-Pak partition of the 40s. It’s called My Father’s Hand. It remains unpublished.

 UR: How do you come up with ideas for your stories? What inspires you?

FGW: I mostly write Eid stories. I do a lot of adaptations. I’m motivated as a teacher to give visibility to my students. Eid is a celebration that is generally shadowed – even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize the word Eid. I like to think that my stories are useful resources for parents and teachers.

UR: Of all your books which of your books did you enjoy writing most?

FGW: It’s not quite like that. As a teacher, I find trying to get time to write is a challenge. I suppose I like Eid Kareem Ameer Saab and The Jilbab Maker’s Eid Gifts.

UR: Many of your books are centred on or around Eid, either Eid ul Fitr or Eid ul Adha. What makes you chose Eid as the focus for your stories?

FGW: I had cancer in 2002. The only place I would frequent twice a month was the children’s department of the public library. In December of that year, it was also Eid. The children’s area was filled with displays of Christmas and Hanukkah books and even Kwanzaa. But there was nothing on Eid. Not one book. It was very sad and embarrassing that my child’s religious celebration – the second largest in the world – was not acknowledged in any shape, way or form. It was at that moment that I made a silent prayer to address the gap.  When I was hired at the library I contacted all English-speaking national libraries (USA, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, Jamaica etc.) and provided them with a bibliography of Eid Stories so that they could improve their collection. At one workshop on storytelling for children’s librarians, I asked if anyone knew what Eid was. No one did. Yet these librarians had been in service for over 30 years. I believe that as educators and parents we need to follow the example of the Jews and make Eid as visible as Hanukkah is today.

UR: How important are stories and books with Islamic themes and Muslim characters?

FGW: Children need a sense of belonging and a sense of place. Mainstream publishers are only now including multicultural characters but from my recent experience I see that Muslim children in Islamic schools and public schools do not use Islamic names in their own creative writing. I recognize this as a flaw of the educational system because I also suffered from it in the 70s and 80s. Books need to give children visibility. If they are not visible they will always feel inferior and apologetic. It’s a sad point that over the past 40 years there has not been much progress.

UR: From your experience working in libraries do you think there are enough books available out there about Islam and Muslims?

FGW: No I don’t. And because of that there is a lot of wrong information or no information. I recall Dorling Kindersley publishing a book on world celebrations for younger grades. They included obscure festivals but omitting Eid. I wrote to ask them why they had seen fit to omit Islamic celebrations. I received no reply. Imagine a Muslim child reading through that book, how would the child feel seeing that his or her festival does not exist in the USA? I review books for the School Library Journal on Islam on a regular basis; I find books written by non-Muslim authors have mistakes, omissions and generalizations. Moreover public libraries tend to select books from websites controlled by select publishers. It’s important that Muslims have their own publishing companies and their own writers to respond to this problem.                            

UR: How can Muslim writers, illustrators and poets change this when getting into mainstream publishing is so difficult?

FGW: Yes there is gate keeping but this is why we need to develop our own publishers.  It’s an eyebrow raiser that Muslim countries source their books from British and American publishers.

UR: Are you working on a book right now? Any hints what it might be about?

FGW:  I’m not working on any writing project just now but I am visiting schools in Canada and the USA to share my stories. I’m also quite busy with my grade 4 students who participated in Studentreasures last term and so I’m getting their work ready. Studentreasures is a company that publishes children’s books. Lots of schools participate in it. 
 
In terms of my recent published work Cinderella – An Islamic Tale was released in November 2010. I have two titles – Salaam the Selfish Merchant and Little Red Kufi, which is a Ramadan story based on Little Red Riding Hood that were recently accepted for publication. I also have Eid Mubarak Meetah Sahib and Jihad Bin Taye and the Jar of Gold coming out later this year, insha’Allah. Last year, Nabeel’s New Pants was published by Marshall Cavendish. Islamic Book Service published A Grave Trial and Baba Salaam and the Bag of Gold

UR: Are there any last comments you would like to add?

FGW: I would like to encourage more Muslims to write. There’s a pool that needs to be filled with children’s Islamic stories. We need to encourage more people to write.

UR: Shukran (thank you) very much for generously sharing your experience and thoughts. It’s been wonderful!

FGW: Jazak Allahu khairan. It’s been a delight. Thank you!

For a more information about Fawzia Gilani-William’s newest book visit this page

 

Book Giveaway

You can have an opportunity to win Cinderella!

All you have to do is leave a comment about the interview OR comment about one of Fawzia’s books you’ve read (please state the title of the book) and why you liked it.

Only one entry per person please.

Please use your name or kunya (no anonymous comments).

Post comments using your email (so that I can contact you if you’re the winner).

This book giveaway ends on Tuesday 5 April 2011.

The winner will be announced the day after, insha Allah.

You are more than welcome to link this post to your blog so that your readers could participate in this giveaway.

This Book Giveaway Contest is now closed. Thank you to participants. Please see results in the comments below.