Thursday, June 30, 2016

Neighbors to the North

Instead of posting a #kidlit recommendation for #RamadanReads today, I'm sharing this article from today's New York Times: Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome.

It's an inspiring but also unblinking look at the generous, heroic actions of Canadians who are sponsoring Syrian families. And it reminded me of many Mainers I've met, and learned from, over the years, who have devoted their careers, their time, and their friendship to newcomers from around the world. Several that come to mind (and I encourage you to visit these sites and check out their work!):

Julia Sleeper of Tree Street Youth in Lewiston, Maine
Molly Haley of The Telling Room in Portland, Maine
Kirsten Cappy and Anne Sibley O'Brien, creators of I'm Your Neighbor

These folks inspire me! I hope they inspire you.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Eid Reads

Ramadan is ending soon, which means Muslim families are preparing for Eid on July 6th.

As I was putting together my list for this last week of #RamadanReads blog posts I found this incredible site, All Done Monkey, which not only has a wealth of suggestions for kids, but is super well-written and accessible. There are also "teaching plans" for your classes and your own families.

I got completely lost in this site, jumping from one great recommendation to the next ... yeah, like an excited monkey. I know: such a book nerd. But this site is a terrific resource, and I guarantee you will spend a lot of time here. I guess that's a warning: Time Suck Ahead. Because it's that good.

Thanks to Leanna at All Done Monkey for creating this wonderful resource!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Golden Domes

This color-themed, read-aloud book for the very young (ages 0-3) introduces Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors is written by Hena Khan and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Salaam Reads

Growing up in Connecticut as a Muslim-American girl, Zareen Jaffery came of age reading books by established kidlit authors like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. These books fueled her love for reading, but didn't necessarily help her find her "place" in the world. She didn't see herself reflected in those books.

Today, while Muslim characters in children's books are still scarce, they won't be for long if Jaffery, now an Executive Editor at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, has anything to do about it. This year she became head of their new imprint, Salaam Reads, which features Muslim characters and stories.

Salaam Reads aims to offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works. The imprint, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “peace,” plans to publish books for young readers of all ages, including picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult.
So far, Salaam Reads has acquired four books that will come out in 2017, including “Salam Alaikum,” a picture book based on a song by the British teen pop singer Harris J. Others planned for release next year are “Musa, Moises, Mo and Kevin,” a picture book about four kindergarten friends who learn about one another’s holiday traditions; “The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand” by Karuna Riazi, about a 12-year-old Bangladeshi-American who sets out to save her brother from a supernatural board game, and “Yo Soy Muslim,” a picture book by the poet Mark Gonzales.
In addition to publishing works acquired through literary agents, Salaam Reads will also consider for publication unagented and/or unsolicited manuscripts. Submissions can be sent to
This post is adapted from an article in The New York Times and from the website I'm Your Neighbor.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Enrique's Journey

I know, I promised to post Ramadan-related Reads every day throughout Ramadan but this morning's Brexit headlines and yesterday's Supreme Court ruling about immigration have shaken my author's soul so deeply that I can only respond the way I always do ... turning to words, and stories, for answers.

Sonia Nazario won the Pulitzer Prize for Enrique's Journey, an account of a Honduran boy who journeys to find his mother. Here's the Amazon blurb:

Enrique’s Journey recounts the unforgettable quest of a Honduran boy looking for his mother, eleven years after she is forced to leave her starving family to find work in the United States. Braving unimaginable peril, often clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains, Enrique travels through hostile worlds full of thugs, bandits, and corrupt cops. But he pushes forward, relying on his wit, courage, hope, and the kindness of strangers. As Isabel Allende writes: “This is a twenty-first-century Odyssey. If you are going to read only one nonfiction book this year, it has to be this one.”

We need to put a human face on the headlines, and this is what Nazario has done. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Some Things Never Change

Joseph has come to America from a refugee camp in Kenya. While he was in Kenya, his dream was to ride a bicycle ... a dream which remains unchanged when he arrives in the U.S.

In Joseph's Big Ride, written by Terry Farish, with art by Ken Daley, we see how even when you are transported to a different world, some things never change. And getting up and trying again, no matter how many times you fall, is a metaphor for more than just riding a bike.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Refugees United

When I'm beginning a new book I usually don't talk about it. Those early months, as I'm figuring out what the story might be and getting to know the characters, is fragile as a bubble. Blow too hard, whisper too loudly, and it will burst.

Eventually, though, there are enough words on the page and the thing seems real, and I'll tell a few trusted souls about my new imaginary friends. This is good, because The Circle of Trust usually makes useful suggestions. Which, when I was writing Out of Nowhere, came in the form of this book: Outcasts United.

After hearing I was writing a novel about refugee kids in Maine playing high school soccer, a friend told me the college where she worked had just done an all-freshmen read which sounded remarkably similar. I picked up a copy of that book and was stunned: writer Warren St. John had written about the very kids I was interviewing in Lewiston, Maine! Except he'd met them and their families when they first arrived to the U.S. and landed in Clarkston, Georgia.

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference (non-fiction) is the story of a youth soccer team made up of diverse refugee kids. They are coached by an amazing young woman, herself a first-gen American, Luma Mufleh. All of these kids and their families were relocated by the U.S. and the United Nations to Clarkston, a typical sleepy southern town, after it was designated a refugee resettlement center. St. John's book is about the kids and their families, about Mufleh, and also about Clarkston and its residents. There are two versions of this book, one for adults, and another for students (cover featured here).

Lewiston, Maine, the setting for my book, is an example of "secondary migration." In other words, after an initial placement in an American city, refugee families often seek new homes in communities which are a better fit for them, might have better job opportunities, etc. Many of the kids I met in Lewiston had started out in Clarkston.

When Out of Nowhere came out I was thrilled to learn that my publisher (then Random House, but nowadays I think of it as Random Penguin) had created resource materials linking it with Outcasts, one of those Common Core non-fiction/fiction pairings. Regardless of what you think of the Common Core, RH did a terrific job creating discussion questions and resources for schools using both books: Resource Guide for Out of Nowhere and Outcasts United.

Warren St. John has written a book which goes far toward building bridges between communities. Particularly for students who like sports, this one might make a good summer read.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I'm New Here

It's the first day of school for Marie, Jin, and Fatimah, and while for all children the First Day can be equal parts exciting, fun and nerve wracking, for these three immigrant kids (they hail from Guatemala, Korea and Somalia, respectively) there are especially big challenges.

What is it like to be a child in school who encounters a wall of words you don't understand? What must it be like to negotiate the American school lunchroom (not to mention the lunch) for the first time?

In I'm New Here, (Kirkus starred review; Kirkus 100 Best Picture Books of 2015) author/illustrator Anne Sibley O'Brien explores the "New Arrival" experience from a child's perspective with her usual insight and beautiful art.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Coming of Age as a Muslim American Teen

I met author Farhana Zia in Boston when we were both panelists at a National Council of Teachers of English conference. Lucky me! That's when I first learned of this terrific middle-grade book.

The Garden of My Imaan is about an ordinary middle-school American girl, Aliya, struggling to fit it. Well, maybe not so ordinary. In addition to dealing with mean girls and wondering if the cute guy likes her, she's navigating a visit from her ethnic grandma (the passages with grandma are pretty hilarious) and comparing herself to the seemingly-perfect Muslim girl from Morocco who appears to know herself well and be confident in her faith and culture. Meanwhile, Aliya anguishes: should she wear the hijab and appear even more different to her non-Muslim classmates? She's old enough: should she fast during Ramadan?

This is a great read for middle-school kids, not simply because the characters are delightful and their struggles real, but also because it presents lots of information about Muslim faith and how various cultures practice differently.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Muslim Teenager's Handbook

This book was designed for American Muslim teens (obviously) but I'd suggest picking up The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook if you have basic questions about Islam and how an observant person living in a Western culture would practice.

Hijab, or not? Prom, or not? Drinking, or not? Fasting during Ramadan, or not? It's all here, delivered in a kid-friendly, down-to-earth style.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Somali Diaspora

While I was researching Out of Nowhere a friend invited me to join her to see a photography exhibit at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. We entered a room filled with the beautiful images which comprise The Somali Diaspora, a chronicle of one family's journey from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya to resettlement in California to eventual arrival in Lewiston.

Photographer Abdi Roble, a native Somali who came to the U.S. in 1989, opens a hidden door into the lives and experiences of Somali immigrants with this book. A White House "Champion of Change," he is the executive director of the Somali Documentary Project and a visiting scholar at Ohio State University. Doug Rutledge, a poet and playwright who is also the writer for the Somali Documentary Project, contributed the essays.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Memoirs from Kenya to Maine

When I was researching Out of Nowhere, I went to Portland one evening for a reading from this collection, They Were Very Beautiful, Such Things Are. Several of the writers/contributors to this volume read from their work. It was quite the night, and this is an incredible book.

Once an isolated outpost in a desert region of northeastern Kenya, today Dadaab is the site of the largest refugee "camp" in the world, with more than 300,000 people. I use the term camp loosely, because Dadaab has grown so exponentially and residents there have remained so long, it has taken on a permanence that "camp" does not convey. It is a harsh place to dwell: daytime temperatures rarely fall below 90, summertime is often above 115, annual rains bring disastrous floods.

Beginning in 2001 Somali refugees, many who were resettled to the U.S. from Dadaab, began making their way to Lewiston, Maine. By 2008, more than 3000 Somalis lived in Lewiston: a former mill town of about 30,000, where annual winter snows of several feet are typical, and the population is predominately white, Catholic and Franco. Maine is the "whitest" state in the nation (although Vermont rivals us); Lewiston the most Franco city in the nation.

This book is a collection of voices from this unlikely merge. Unpolished, raw, and completely honest.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Faith Club

A Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew walk into a ... sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?

It's actually a TERRIFIC book. The Faith Club: Three Women Search for Understanding, written by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner, is an honest conversation among three women of different faiths. They don't shirk from the hard questions, and they don't always like each other's opinions or answers, but they all come to respect each other and learn from each other. Here's the summary:

In the wake of 9/11, Idliby, an American Muslim of Palestinian descent, sought out fellow mothers of the Jewish and Christian faiths to write a children's book on the commonalities among their respective traditions. In their first meeting, however, the women realized they would have to address their differences first. Oliver, an Episcopalian who was raised Catholic, irked Warner, a Jewish woman and children's author, with her description of the Crucifixion story, which sounded too much like "Jews killed Jesus" for Warner's taste. Idliby's efforts to join in on the usual "Judeo-Christian" debate tap into a sense of alienation she already feels in the larger Muslim community, where she is unable to find a progressive mosque that reflects her non–veil-wearing, spiritual Islam. The ladies come to call their group a "faith club" and, over time, midwife each other into stronger belief in their own respective religions. More Fight Club than book club, the coauthors pull no punches; their outstanding honesty makes for a page-turning read, rare for a religion nonfiction book. From Idliby's graphic defense of the Palestinian cause, Oliver's vacillations between faith and doubt, and Warner's struggles to acknowledge God's existence, almost every taboo topic is explored on this engaging spiritual ride.

If I had to say anything critical about this book it's that ... well, it's almost too easy. Look at these women: beautiful, educated, safe, upper middle class. These well-heeled "People of the Book" don't have to stretch too far to be civil, find common ground and learn from one another. A far more challenging conversation might take place among women whose religious practices are more rigid/conservative and whose educational and economic backgrounds more disparate.

Nevertheless, this book was well done and the topics important.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Warm Rain

I Remember Warm Rain is The Telling Room's first anthology, and I remember when my friend, Gail, handed it to me. I was in the early stages of writing Out of Nowhere and driving between Brunswick, Lewiston, and Portland to meet and interview kids who had arrived in Maine after their families fled war zones. While there's no substitute for actually sitting with a person and hearing his/her story over many hours and many cups of tea, not everyone has that opportunity. Or privilege.

You can do it here, with this book. Fifteen teenagers from around the world share their coming-to-America stories, and each is unique and honest. Here's the summary:

Fifteen students, from countries such as Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran are represented in our first anthology, I Remember Warm Rain. In it, you meet Ali killing hyenas and Arunda speaking to his father by phone after ten years of believing he is dead. You meet Kahiye, revealing his first experience of snow, and Stella doing something once forbidden to her, playing a game she loves: soccer. These rich stories were written as part of The Telling Room's yearlong Story House Project, a multi-media initiative built on the collaborative efforts of local artists, writers, filmmakers, sound technicians, teachers and the 15 young storytellers who bravely told their tales of leaving home in hopes of finding a new one in America.

#RamadanReads #RadicalEmpathy

Monday, June 13, 2016

New Mainers

Guess what? We're not all lobstermen, lumberjacks, or exiles from Massachusetts and New Jersey. Stroll down the streets of Portland and you'll find a startling diversity of faces, languages and YES! restaurants.

From Amazon: "Who are these new Mainers, and why have they come here? They are from war-torn countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Cambodia; from poor Latin American nations; and from economically vibrant places like Hong Kong, India, and Europe--in other words, from across the global spectrum. They came to Maine for a job or to reunite with their family or because they fell in love or to attend college here or to flee persecution in their homelands.

Although the twenty-five immigrants who tell their stories had widely varying reasons for coming to Maine, many have made remarkable contributions to the state. Some contribute high-level skills in medicine, engineering, academia, law, public-school education, hotel management, and social services. Others have enriched the state's arts and sports worlds. Several are used to going back and forth across borders, either as transnational professionals or as migrant workers. About one-third of these immigrants are successful entrepreneurs.
As you will find out, the journeys of these immigrants have not been easy, but all of them are glad they wound up in this state and are proud of their new identities as Mainers."

This terrific book is written by Pat Nyhan and Reza Jalali; photography by Jan Pieter van Voorst von Beest

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Curious George Does Ramadan

What can I say? My "kids" are 20-something adults now, but it feels like yesterday we were cuddling together reading Curious George. To this day, whenever one of us screws up (which is fairly often) we'll comment, "Sometimes little monkeys forget!"

So, this is terrific, right? A board book to introduce the very young to Ramadan.

In  It's Ramadan, Curious George by H.A. Rey and Hena Khan, it's the first day of Ramadan, and George is celebrating with his friend Kareem and his family. George helps Kareem with his first fast and joins in the evening celebration of tasting treats and enjoying a special meal. Then, George helps make gift baskets to donate to the needy, and watches for the crescent moon with the man in the yellow hat. Finally George joins in the Eid festivities to mark the end of his very first Ramadan. 
     This playful tabbed board book would be good not only for those who celebrate Ramadan, but also for those who are learning about it for the first time!

The Good Braider

I remember the day I first heard author Terry Farish read from her novel, The Good Braider. It was the section where the main character, Viola, a Sudanese refugee girl/rape survivor who has been relocated to Portland, Maine with her family, reflects on who she is now and what remains of her shattered, former self.

Terry's voice is gently haunting, and the section she read was particularly honest. We were sitting together at a long table, part of a YA panel at some book conference, and I couldn't help it: I started to cry. I wasn't a colleague in that moment, speaking "professionally" before an audience. Her words transformed me into another reader/listener, moved to tears by this powerful story.

A summary of the book: "In spare free verse laced with unforgettable images, Viola's strikingly original voice sings out the story of her family's journey from war-torn Sudan, to Cairo, and finally to Portland, Maine. Here, in the sometimes too close embrace of the local Southern Sudanese Community, she dreams of South Sudan while she tries to navigate the strange world of America—a world where a girl can wear a short skirt, get a tattoo, or even date a boy; a world that puts her into sharp conflict with her traditional mother who, like Viola, is struggling to braid together the strands of a displaced life. Terry Farish's haunting novel is not only a riveting story of escape and survival, but the universal tale of a young immigrant's struggle to build a life on the cusp of two cultures."

The Good Braider received the Maine Literary Award and the Lupine Award.

Friday, June 10, 2016

New Arrivals

Why focus on a single book when I can recommend a few thousand at once? Today, it's I'm Your Neighbor.

The creation of Kid Lit Grande Dame Kirsten Cappy (Curious City) and author Anne Sibley O'Brien, I'm Your Neighbor is an incredible resource for teachers, librarians and parents looking for diverse books for young readers.

Inspired by the influx of "new arrivals" to Portland, Maine, Kirsten and Anne have curated a list which is organized by setting, groups represented and theme. The books cover a wide range of age needs and reading levels and adults will find a wealth of good reads here as well.

#RamadanReads #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Telling Room

I'm a big fan of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement but frankly that's not enough. We need diverse voices. If you've ever attempted to crack the publishing business and see your writing bound and displayed on store shelves, you know getting to that stage is akin to getting struck by lightening.

So the books out there are a slim reflection of the stories that beg to be heard.

The Telling Room in Portland, Maine is a hub of diverse, soul-searing stories. A non-profit writing center that works with children all the way through high school age, it draws not only the reluctant but also the inspired writer. And the writer "from away." In Maine, anyone who wasn't born here is considered "from away," and Portland in particular, as a refugee relocation center, is home to many from FAR away.

Working with young people who represent myriad cultures, races and religions, The Telling Room publishes anthologies of their  stories. They are honest, funny, inspiring and devastating. You won't find them in Barnes and Noble or trending on Twitter, but they are the stories you'll want to, need to, hear. Check them out: The Telling Room.

#RamadanReads #WeNeedDiverseVoices

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Early Ramadan Reader

With beautiful illustrations by Sue Williams, Under the Ramadan Moon, by Sylvia Whitman, tells the story of a modern family's traditions during Ramadan. Good for grades 2-4.

There's also a detailed note at the end about Ramadan.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Culture, or Religion?

Wearing the hijab: is it a religious requirement, or a cultural practice? I have Muslim friends who are covered from wrist to ankle, and others whose gorgeous long hair flows freely. All are observant Muslims.

The delightful YA novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah addresses this issue. When sixteen-year-old Amal decides to wear the hijab full-time, her entire world changes, all because of a piece of cloth...

She makes the decision to start wearing the hijab full-time and everyone has a reaction. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, people on the street. But she stands by her decision to embrace her faith and all that it is, even if it does make her a little different from everyone else.
Can she handle the taunts of "towel head," the prejudice of her classmates, and still attract the cutest boy in school? Brilliantly funny and poignant, Randa Abdel-Fattah's debut novel will strike a chord in all teenage readers, no matter what their beliefs. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Ramadan Reads

Welcome to Monday, June 6, 2016, the beginning of Ramadan!

In my novel, Out of Nowhere, the main character, Tom Bouchard, is dismayed to learn that Ramadan ... the Muslim holy month of fasting, alms giving, and much more ... falls during the height of his team's soccer season. And four of their star players are Muslim! Predictably (for the evolving Tom) his primary concern is how this will affect their performance on the field.

Writing Out of Nowhere gave me a marvelous "excuse" to seek out and get to know Muslim teens in Maine and ask them about their faith and their various cultures. Much of the novel is based on anecdotes they shared and insights they trusted to confide.

Despite all I learned from them, I continue to be surprised by what I don't know or understand about this holy month. So in the interest of deepening my own knowledge and sharing a wealth of terrific titles for all ages, I'm going to post, throughout the month of Ramadan, about books for both children and adults which not only explore Ramadan but also include stories with Muslim protagonists. It's all part of #RamadanReads and I encourage you to follow that Twitter hashtag and check out the wealth of books people are talking about.

I want to kick off with Moon Watchers: Shirin's Ramadan Miracle, by Reza Jalali, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien.  Moon Watchers offers an inside view of daily life in a modern Muslim family during Ramadan. Shirin and her older brother Ali have a history of not getting along, so when she discovers him sneaking food one afternoon during his Ramadan fast, she is tempted to tease him about his weakness. Instead of tattling, Shirin decides to mind her own business. She is determined to prove to her parents that she is ready to participate in this important rite of passage. Ultimately the little sister is surprised by a gift from her brother. Readers from all faiths will appreciate this universal story with its thought- provoking focus on family life.

From now until July 6th (Eid al-Fitr) I'll share a book per day. Happy reading!