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Feb 5, 2015 How to choose good reading material: Part II- Fiction

Part II – Fiction

Does fiction belong on your family’s bookshelf? Is it educational? If so, what kind of fiction is good for Muslim kids to read?
Many avid readers (myself included) will say that fiction is a wonderful way to explore, imagine, and escape. Fiction is entertaining and mood-altering. At its best it can be educational and transformative. At its worst, it can be complete fluff. Fiction can teach valuable lessons or instill harmful ideas. No doubt about it, fiction is powerful. That power can be a little frightening to parents who are eager to keep their children on the Straight Path. An article written by Jonathan Gottschall for The Boston Globe on April 29, 2012 makes some amazing and thought-provoking points about fiction. I encourage parents to read the entire article here.

Here are some outstanding excerpts from Mr. Gottschall’s piece:

“The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”

“So those who are concerned about the messages in fiction — whether they are conservative or progressive — have a point. Fiction is dangerous because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies.”

“But fiction is doing something that all political factions should be able to get behind. Beyond the local battles of the culture wars, virtually all storytelling, regardless of genre, increases society’s fund of empathy and reinforces an ethic of decency that is deeper than politics.”

Knowing that fiction can influence readers so persuasively, we parents want to make sure the books our kids read are mostly positive. Here are some criteria I look for in a book:

1. A good, clear moral.

Even if the story contains some bad characters who make unwise choices, is there a good, clear moral to the story? Will my children easily recognize the life lesson that is meant to be taught, or is it too ambiguous? Does the life lesson agree with our Islamic values?

2. An admirable protagonist.

A protagonist who is basically good and who, for the most part, reflects my family’s values. If my child is going to relate to a hero of a book and get immersed in his fictional world, we want to make sure that hero is someone we want our child looking up to and emulating. No protagonist will be perfect, but he or she should basically be a positive role model.

3. A clearly evil antagonist.

Young children cannot handle ambiguity, so the bad guy should be someone who is obviously, consistently bad. By the end of the story, he should be punished or reprimanded, or his character should change for the better, so that young readers learn the consequences of bad behavior. If he is rewarded for bad behavior, or if it is not clear whether he is bad or good, that gives confusing messages to youngsters who are learning right from wrong.

4. No “intolerably unwholesome” content.

This is a judgment that all parents will have to make for themselves, based on their own standards. I say “intolerably unwholesome” because there are some un-Islamic things we might tolerate in a book (for instance, the mention of the words “girlfriends” or “boyfriends” in a book with no details about the relationships), and there are other, major things that we simply will not allow (like graphic romantic/sexual scenes or sadistic violence, for instance). The criteria for “tolerable” and “intolerable” might differ a bit from family to family. In an ideal world, all our kids’ books would be wholesome and Islamic in nature, but that is certainly not the case. Popular, secular books for pre-teens and teens are particularly rife with un-Islamic references. Dating, alcohol and drug use, violence, and foul language can almost always be found, to some degree, in books for older kids. Our job as parents is to decide whether or not to allow our child to read the book. What if our child is begging to read it? One option is to read out loud to them, skipping the inappropriate parts. If the idea of reading aloud to older kids seems strange or unnecessary, check out this excellent article by educator and author Jim Trelease.

Oftentimes there are parts of the book and issues that are raised that we need to discuss with our teens. We can answer any questions they have and explain the proper Islamic perspective. Books can be a great conversation starter and can help bring up topics our kids might be too shy to ask about.

For parents who do not have the time to pre-read their older kids’ books, here are two websites that offer book synopses and reviews: Common Sense Media and Parental Book Reviews

For more helpful articles about choosing good books and motivating young readers, check out these websites: Scholastic and Building Blocks

Finally, I would like to offer my own family’s list of favorite juvenile fiction. Other than a few of the books (marked with an asterisk) I have read and approved all of them, based on my own criteria, which the knowledge that I would need to discuss some of the topics with my kids. My thirteen-year-old son and/or eleven year-old daughter have read the books marked with asterisks. I approved these books after reading reviews of them and discussing some of the questionable material with my kids. If you have any concerns about the suitability of a book, please do look up another parent’s review, or read the books for yourself.

Books for Early Readers:

The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne
A to Z Mysteries series by Ron Roy
The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner
The Cam Jansen series by David A. Adler
The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling
The Arthur Chapter Books series by Marc Brown
Nate the Great series by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat

Books for Intermediate Readers:

The American Girl series by various authors
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maude Montgomery
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann D. Wyss
The Molly Moon series by Georgia Byng
Smells Like Dog, Smells Like Treasure, and Smells Like Pirates by Suzanne Selfors
The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney
The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The You Wouldn’t Want to Be . . . series by various authors *
A Tale of Two Castles and The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
The 39 Clues series by various authors *
Ida B. . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
Hoot and Scat by Carl Hiaasen
Tuesdays at the Castle and Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George *
The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
the Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows *
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
the Max and Maddy series and the Harriet Bean series by Alexander McCall Smith

Books for Teens:

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Ranger’s Apprentice series and The Brotherband Chronicles by John A. Flanagan *
The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan *
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
Holes by Louis Sachar
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Copernicus Legacy series by Tony Abbott and Bill Perkins *
Johnny Tremain by Esther Hoskins Forbes
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Sep 17, 2014 How to choose good reading material -- a brief guide for the Muslim homeschooler

Part I-Non-Fiction

We all know that reading is immensely important to our children’s education. In this Information Age, however, we have such a wealth of material to choose from–both printed and online– that it can be difficult to narrow down our options and choose what is really beneficial. Since homeschooling parents have quite enough on their plates, this brief guide is intended to provide busy parents with a bit of direction when choosing reading material for their children.

As Muslim home educators, one of our chief priorities is instilling and promoting Islamic values. One of the best ways to do this is to read books and articles that address Islamic topics. The body of Islamic literature for children is growing and improving but still does not have the breadth and sophistication of non-Islamic literature. However, several MHN members have discovered some inspiring Islamic-themed books and have listed them in a Google document. The list, which all members are encouraged to use and contribute to, can be found here.

As with any written work, Islamic compositions are best comprehended when parents and children discuss them together. Parents can ask questions, catered to their child’s age and ability, to enable deeper comprehension and retention. Some thought-provoking questions might be:

  • What do you think the moral of this story (or the main point of this article) is?

  • (while stopping at a critical moment in the plot) What do you think will happen next in the story?

  • If you wrote a sequel to this story, what would it be about?

  • Which characters in this story display good Islamic manners? Which do not?

  • What would you do in this character’s situation?

  • Does this article relate to your life? Why or why not?

In addition to books, websites like www.suhaibwebb.com, www.muslimmatters.org, and www.islamicity.com have numerous well-written articles on Islamic topics. These pieces can be a great starting point for lessons and discussions about the deen. Of course, some articles on these sites are geared more towards adult readers, so parents are advised to pick and choose which items they want their child to read, rather than directing the child blindly to the website.

In addition to Islamic literature, non-fiction will be an obvious educational choice for Muslim homeschoolers. If a child is not yet a proficient or enthusiastic reader, it will be particularly important to choose books and articles that are age-appropriate and interesting. Nothing is more discouraging to a student than trying to slog through a book that is too difficult or boring. If the child is supposed to be studying a topic independently as much as possible, then reading a book at or below her reading level is best. If a parent has the time to read aloud, answer questions, and assist the child with her studies, then a more difficult book would be suitable.

If a student shows interest in a topic but then is forced to read a complex description that is above his level without any parental guidance, he will likely lose his spunk and momentum. On the other hand, subjects like science, history, and even mathematics will be enhanced and enlivened by appropriate, well-written non-fiction works. If a child shows a passion for polar bears, the Civil Rights Movement, the Theory of Relativity, rainforests, tessellations, or nearly anything else, the local library will have a wide variety of books on these topics. Books that are not available on the shelves can be ordered from other libraries, often for free or for a minimal fee. The library is, in fact, a homeschooler’s best friend, offering nearly limitless, free materials allowing parents the opportunity to use a variety of books and resources to teach a topic. For instance, we can teach history through biographies, historical fiction, primary sources, and shorter, specialized books rather than one all-encompassing (and less thorough) history textbook.

It is not wise for a scholar to rely on one or two books, particularly if the topic is complex. Remember, even non-fiction books are written from an author’s point of view and may contain hidden biases, leave out information, or even endorse untruths. To raise our children to be critical thinkers, it is important to teach them to analyze and question what they read, and to seek out various points of view. In the study of history, in particular, there will often be many different versions of “the truth.” What seems like fact to the conquering nation, for instance, will be disputed by the conquered people, who had vastly different experiences. So which version of any historical event is the “truth?” Let your kids read all points of view and decide for themselves, rather than relying on the author of a history book.

Magazines geared toward young readers can also be a fun and educational source of non-fiction reading material. Ranger Rick magazine, published by the National Wildlife Federation, appeals to animal lovers, and there are two different levels for younger and older readers. American Girl Magazine contains many wholesome and educational pieces for preteen girls. Kids Discover magazine, which I have not read, looks promising as it explores nature, science, geography and history in an ad-free format. All of these magazines can be perused at the local library before making an investment in a subscription. Finally, Saudi Aramco Young Reader’s World is a free, online source for various interesting topics that relate to the Arabic-speaking and Islamic world.

I hope that this advice about non-fiction will be useful to fellow homeschoolers. In my next blog, insha’Allah, I will address fiction and whether or not that genre has an important role in a child’s education.

Jun 24, 2014 Ramadan Calendar Project

This a Ramadan Calendar project that Sr. Hana did recently. The supplies and instructions are listed below and some pictures are attached. You can view all the pictures here.

Have fun crafting!

Supplies:

  • The wooden letters/numbers are from Craft Cuts specifically this page. (I ordered 1 inch letters/numbers at 1/8 inch thick with no paper template, in the comment box choose “offset” for bold or “no offset” for regular lettering. The calendar that doesn’t have “Ramadan Mubarak on it yet has no offset numbers) (each order is custom so give it about 2 weeks for delivery)
  • 100% wool felt from A Child’s Dream specially this page. (Choose from any of the bundles: summer, fall, etc. this felt will become your pockets on the calendar, you’ll have enough felt to make several calendars this way if each pocket is a different color, or at least 2 calendars if you buy just one bundle.) You can buy acetate felt from Joann’s and Michael’s for a fraction of the cost.
  • 100% wool felt for backing of calendar. Also purchased from A Child’s Dream. I used an 18”x18” square piece.
  • Gold or silver metallic thread. ( It can also be purchased from Joann’s with a coupon :)
  • Metallic sewing needles for sewing machine
  • Wooden dowel from Michael’s (1/16 to 1/8 of an inch in diameter)
  • String to hang the calendar from the dowel
  • Glue (any white glue will work, but I like Tombow Mono Liquid Glue)
  • Wooden star embellishments by Studio Calico

Instructions:

  1. Cut 30 pockets to 2 7/8 wide by 21/2” tall.
  2. Fold over the top 2-3 inches of the 18x18 felt backing to make insert for wooden dowel and sew a straight line across the top.
  3. Arrange “Ramadan Mubarak” letters at the top (don’t glue them yet).
  4. Arrange the 30 pockets and pin them in place once you have the right spacing (I left about a 1/4 inch spacing between each row).
  5. Remove letters and sew pockets (with sewing machine or by hand).
  6. Glue letters and numbers.
  7. insert dowel and hang.

What do you fill the pockets with? I have a couple non-candy ideas:

  1. We will have 30 sahaba cards with highlights from a sahaba’s life, you have to guess who it is (answer on back).
  2. Photo and journaling (good gift for grandma).
  3. Project idea in each pocket-activity cards: sadaqa jars, paper chains, etc.
  4. Leave the pockets empty and fill with one memory a day for each day in Ramadan.
  5. A dua or hadith in each pocket for something to read each day for iftar or suhoor.
  6. Trade with another family and fill the pockets with something for them to read each day.
  7. Buy a toy that has many pieces and fill each pocket with a few pieces so they have to build it day to day (Legos would work well).
  8. Fill with old Ramadan memories.
  9. 30 goals for 30 days.
  10. 30 acts of kindness.

Jun 23, 2014 20 Things You Can Do Now to Prep for Ramadan

  1. Have a Ramadan countdown calendar next to dinner table. (It could look something like this) Assign a different child to change the day.

  2. Share hadiths about Ramadan. Make it a habit to share an ayah/hadith about Ramadan at least 2-3 times a week to get into the Ramadan spirit. (Its good to tie it to something else, i.e. do it at dinner time).

    Hadith list 1 Hadith list 2
  3. Practice fasting: Fast once or twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays to prep for Ramadan and perform the sunnah fast.

  4. Be prepared to give sadaqa every night. Ever been in the situation when you want your child to put some money in the sadaqa box but you don’t have change? To avoid this, prepare little money pouches for each night of Ramadan for each child. You can even prepare a large Ramadan calendar with a pocket for each day and put your sadaqa pouches in there. Grab and go before taraweeh. Practice now by giving sadaqa every Friday.

  5. Prepare for sponsoring iftars and dates. Have children write to local masajid for dates sponsorships or iftar sponsorships for Ramadan. If you plan to distribute iftar to people, plan now for who you want to distribute to, what you want to distribute, and and which days of Ramadan you will do so.

  6. Share Ramadan stories. Share stories related to Ramadan from lives of the Sahaba or your memories of Ramadan. Have grandparents share their stories as well.

  7. Prepare your dua list now. Prepare a customized dua list (write it down) which has duas you will do daily in Ramadan. Great activity to do with kids and have their own du’a list.

  8. Make salaah times the focal point of your day. Work on centering your day around prayer and make it a habit by Ramadan. (Set times for each prayer)

  9. Get the blessings of 27x reward. Pray at least five prayers at the masjid every week in jama’aah. Try to pray at least 2 prayers in congregation daily at home.

  10. Seek forgiveness. Get into the habit of saying istighfaar multiple times a day.

  11. Pray sunnahs. Work on your own sunnahs and train children to pray two extra sunnahs for two prayers daily. (Can increase once its a habit)

  12. Review fiqh of fasting. Review it with your children. You can find it here.

  13. Control your tongue. Practice now to speak with respect and use good language.

  14. Do more schoolwork now so Ramadan is relatively free. If you intend to do schoolwork in the summer, you may want to do more now to leave the month more free for worship.

  15. Get your Ramadan projects for kids ready. There are so many neat Ramadan related projects you can do with your children during Ramadan that you can find online on blogs Pinterest, etc. Do your research and prep now.

    Project ideas

    More ideas

    Ramadan Tracker

  16. Make decorations. Make your decorations starting now for Ramadan so you are not rushed at the end and you just have to put them up when Ramadan comes.

  17. Listen to lectures about Ramadan. Listen to lectures with the family to get into the spirit of Ramadan.

    Ramadan and the Qur’an

    Fiqh of Ramadan

    Prepare for the Best Ramadan

  18. Prepare your daily Ramadan to-do list. Set a schedule for yourself to ensure you get your Qur’an goals in, your ibadah goals, your good deed goals in every day. Share your Ramadan to-do lists at your next family meeting.

  19. Do your Eid clothes and gift shopping now! Get your Eid clothes ready and Eid gifts ready now so that your time and mind are free during Ramadan.

  20. Declutter. Do a general organizing and decluttering of the house with specific goals to be done by the week before Ramadan. The spring cleaning that hasn’t happened yet, those outgrown clothes that need to be given away, the garage that needs to get organized, do them now so that come Ramadan, you aren’t annoyed by these things and your house gives you peace of mind.

Ma’ali bin Fudail said about the salaf:

‘They used to ask Allah the Almighty six months before Ramadhan to grant them long life so that they could reach Ramadhan and they used to ask Allah the Almighty six months after Ramadhan to accept their fasting’.

May Allah make us reach Ramadan and help us accomplish its countless benefits.