“Mommy! Mommy! Noor Kids! Noor Kids!” There is not much else that generates the squealing, literally jumping-up-and-down excitement of a new Noor Kids book in my four-year-old son! He is absolutely in love with this series of books, which you might describe as a kid’s magazine or as it says on their site “activity book,” but I generally think of as a comic book.
This is not a bad thing. I love comic books. And judging from my son’s interest in my own assortment of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Tintin, ElfQuest, and of course numerous newspaper comics such as Calvin & Hobbes and Cul De Sac, he also loves comic books. Which I find not at all surprising. From my own childhood, comic books seemed like the perfect bridge into full-scale reading… bright, colorful, and adventurous, with bite-sized amounts of text. I remember skipping some larger blocks of text when I was reading Tintin at a young age, because giant blocks of text can be daunting to an early reader, and with a comic book, you can get by because the pictures also tell the story. In fact you can follow what is going on in a perfectly enjoyable manner even if you can’t read at all (albeit on a different level that just evolves as you grow and re-read the book over and over). Comic books are probably my favorite type of book to re-read… the pictures, the ongoing series (with or without continuity, there’s comfort in your favorite characters appearing again and again), and probably the nostalgia factor since I read them growing up.
Who Are These Noor Kids?
Noor Kids, however, is a different type of comic which fills a gap that I have really not found to be filled by any other book or series! It is specifically geared towards American Muslim Kids between the ages of 3 and 8. Coincidentally, I have one of those :P. As such, I have not seen any other material that comes close. While I’m not averse to procuring reading material from outside the US, of course, what makes this geared towards American muslim kids is that the stories are in a distinctly western or rather non-Middle-Eastern setting. The Noor Kids characters wear jeans, tee shirts, dresses, and sweaters (and hijab for the adults!), they go to school, eat hamburgers (and smoked salmon!), go to the park, hike outside, play baseball. The neighborhood is a somewhat generic suburban area (Maple Grove) apparently near to extensive natural areas for exploring (just like where we live). I think Noor Kids would feel pretty at home across the border in Canada too, and many other places in the world! :). The kids and their families (and other characters) also incidentally happen to be muslim! But this is no passing symbolic muslim kid, like the frequently non-practicing Jewish character who seems to show up in all media these days for diversity. These kids follow Islam, while at the same time being ordinary children who have struggles, get into trouble, and make real mistakes. They turn to their parents and each other for help, and to Allah, and get reminders from the life of the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) and the Qur’an as they go about their days, much as I try to sprinkle these reminders into the life of my own son.
I should also mention that the kids in the series are actually animals! The main characters include Amin, a panda bear, Shireen, a brown bear, Asad, a lion, and Amira, a rabbit. There’s also a supporting family cast for each character and various other folks they interact with from around the animal world. The drawing style reminds me of Japanese manga/anime style, which seems fitting (there are a lot of manga-esque Islamic cartoon drawings online these days, for example the beautiful art of Nayzak at Deviant Art, and to me it seems like a really fun way to connect to Islam, perhaps because I love comics). To those people who are concerned with depicting people, the animal characters may be a welcome alternative (I’m not a fan of “faceless people” illustrations… especially for kids books. I think it usually looks creepy and I really don’t see the basis in Islam… something I’ve considered posting about before since it’s so prevalent). However, regardless of your feelings on this matter, the anthropomorphic animals are cute and appealing to kids and adults.
The Noor Kids series was founded by brothers Amin and Mohammed Aaser of Minneapolis, MN (one of them is not a panda ;)). Their website describes how they have worked extensively with parents across the US while developing the series, incorporating lots of feedback. It definitely shows! The production is extremely professional and covers all the bases. It focuses on a general broad appeal without getting into sectarian issues of any particular school of thought, and works hard to stay out of stereotypes.
On a more personal level, if you delve into the history of Noor Kids on their website, they share the story of how the idea was sparked, which I encourage you to read fully. Here’s an excerpt:
“Let’s do something worth doing,” he said…. I looked at him in anticipation. I knew he was going to follow his statement with something profound. It had to be good, after all he was holding up traffic as a line of at least 30 cars were eagerly waiting for Mohammed to load his luggage so we could go on our merry way….“We need to use our blessings to make a difference for our community. All we have to figure out is how.” As Mohammed finished his sentence, Shireen joined the conversation from the passenger seat. With five words, she changed our lives forever. “I am having a baby.” In a moment, Mohammed and I looked at each other. The initial concept of Noor Kids was given birth. We knew there was a greater force at work because in that exact moment, the cars behind us honked in celebration.
Who could NOT want to support these guys? 🙂
How the Series Works
The Noor Kids books come out approximately every 3 months, for a yearly subscription of 4 issues. The series could be read in any order, however, it doesn’t have an ongoing storyline from one issue to the next, but, the characters and their families (which play a supporting cast role) are recurrent, so with each issue we learn more about the same characters and they have different experiences. When I first heard about the series, last summer, I was a little bit hesitant to pay the asking price much for only 4 issues spaced over a whole year. However, they were running a 50%-off deal, which is also going on currently for a *limited* time: $19.99 for a year (4 books) plus $5.00 shipping. If you miss this, don’t despair, I’m having a contest to give away 4 free issues! Also, on the NoorKids.com website, you can request a “sample” which allows you to view an online, shortened, version of a book. This is an excellent feature which gave me a very good idea of the book, and I think it is a great move to offer this. Definitely check out the sample available. However, bear in mind that the sample is a SUPER short version! I was delighted to find that the actual books are much longer, each 28 pages (including covers). You definitely get your money’s worth, and the books are as durable as any of our paperback kids’ books of similar size.
Each book follows a similar format. There’s a theme for each issue (such as honesty), and the content is geared around the theme. An introductory page tells the reader a little bit about the personality of each of the 4 main characters, and a brief parent page which gives some ideas for discussion of the theme. Good luck getting the book away from your kid long enough to read that page though, until you’ve read the book together several times already! But not to worry, the books are both geared to be fun and engaging for a kid to follow along and also to open up lots of room for discussion of each topic as you read it together. The Noor Kids website explains that they are designed for read-together and discussion with kids at the younger end of the age range, while the older kids might read it on their own and then talk about it. I’m sure even with an older kid you won’t be able to resist reading it too, though.
Each issue has two stories in comic book style, each centered around one of the four primary characters. Which characters are the “stars” of the main stories alternates by issue so they all get some time in the limelight (with girls and boys sharing equal time). The other characters also tend to show up in supporting roles in the same stories as they are all friends. In between, before, and after the two main stories are activity pages, with each feature introduced by one of the characters. For example, “Into The Wild with Shireen” features a double-spread focusing on an aspect of the natural world such as a particular animal. Amira sometimes has a page with a simple recipe to try at home. Asad has a “find the differences between the two pictures” page (one of my son’s favorites) which also discusses inventions from Islamic history. There’s also usually a section with one of the 99 names of Allah related to the theme of the book. The last page has an Arabic letter with word examples illustrated by the characters, including Arabic, English, and transliteration. Other activities, which vary by issue, include coloring pages, mazes, word search, jokes and riddles, and unscramble the words. The age level of the activities is variable, so there will definitely be activities for both younger and older kids.
Within the story sections, there are prompts to stop and discuss issues related to the story. Have you ever felt like this character feels? What would you do in this situation? Which choice do you think he/she should make? etc. Throughout, there are many references to the Qur’an and the practices of the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as they apply to both the activities and also the real-life situations the characters face in each story. The adults and sometimes other characters in the story often make reference to Allah’s words of guidance or the practice of the prophet when helping the kids make decisions; they also make dua (simple prayer) seeking Allah’s help.
Some Other Things I Like…
I really like the way that the books integrate things like making dua or taking lessons from the Qur’an into the situations in the stories in a natural way, as might happen in real life. There aren’t improbably miraculous resolutions to the characters’ problems, and they confront real issues that make them upset (if anyone remembers their own childhood, I’m sure it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies). They find comfort in remembrance of Allah, as we can in real life, and they often turn to their parents for help and guidance, which is given gently.
While the material is realistic in terms of childhood disappointments which are of huge import at that age (lost toys, not able to do a fun thing with a friend, disagreements with friends, telling lies or cheating, and so on), it’s also not too dark. I like that they have emotional involvement and I think that this helps connect with the characters, and it’s also the type of situations where we both need to and tend to be driven to reconnect with Allah. But you don’t have to worry about things like their pets getting run over, kids starving, domestic violence, religious dispute with grandparents, etc. Obviously these are also real problems, but sometimes other books go into such areas for the emotional response that end up being more disturbing than the lesson they are trying to teach, especially for young kids. To a kid, a mean word from a friend or being worried about what someone would say if they knew about a mistake you made is plenty traumatic, and Noor Kids sees into that world very well. I think the animal characters living in the “real world” can also make difficult content easier to handle than human characters would… they’re relatable without being too similar to reality. I would even venture to say that I feel from the books so far that if Noor Kids did have to venture into a more difficult area, I’m pretty sure they would do it in a way I’m comfortable with. The keyed in areas for discussion also help a lot.
The books are really beautifully made, with engaging bright colors and patterns. The illustrations are also appealing. The illustrations look like they are made on the computer, so there is occasionally some of the “copy and paste” effect reusing exact images in different comics panels, but this hasn’t become too problematic (though occasionally it bugs me when a figure is repeated in exactly the same position in the next panel).
A few months after I began my subscription, Noor Kids advertised the option to order back copies of some of the earlier books. By this time, Noor Kids was a staple in the household and the loooong wait between issues made this a no brainer. Unlike my consideration when first placing my order, I had no hesitancy of snapping up the previous 3 issues. Due to the rare delight of receiving a Noor Kids book, I confess I did not give my son all 3 back issues at once, but instead have spaced them out in between the actual releases to provide more ongoing enjoyment (though we routinely re-read previous copies, of course). I hope that in the future they will be able to put out a book more than 4 times a year, but until then, they have my full support! For now I am taking the full collection to date (the first 5 books) under consideration in my review.
There have been only a few things that bugged me about Noor Kids, which I feel confident are among the kinks to be worked out as the series continues, insha’Allah far into the future.
The first thing I noticed wrong was several typos and proofreading errors. Now, I have realized in the course of my interaction with “normal” people over the years, that many people look at a missing word here, roving apostrophe there, and roll their eyes. “Who cares?” They say. If it’s not evident by now, I don’t fall into that category ;). I feel discomfort (and hilarity) at grocery store signs reading “Save” on Bannana’s. I read Eats Shoots and Leaves with great enjoyment at the vision of the author skulking around with a Sharpie and a bottle of white-out to correct wayward signs. The grammatical gaffes over at Cake Wrecks are some of my favorite posts. Yes, I got into Quality Assurance for a reason. 😛 As I tell my careworn colleagues, it’s not something you can turn off! It’s a Way Of Life. Before you get too worried, the mistakes on Noor Kids are not that egregious, but when I see a missing (or extra) word or punctuation mark it does give me a little twitch, especially since kids in the Noor Kids age range are learning how to read and write. I did find myself thinking that they need to step up editing a little to catch these kinds of mistakes. I almost sat down with the last issue, my copier, and a highlighter, but the other side of me that the Quality Assurance side keeps trying to edit out informed me that most of you probably wouldn’t find that useful, so… moving on 😉
Occasionally I see other continuity factors which irk the editor side of my brain silently, but sometimes my son points these out as well so I know it’s not just my QA brain on overdrive. For instance, in one story Amira is sad not to have seen any butterflies yet at the park, yet an earlier panel shows her looking out the window of the vehicle with several butterflies present. When my son pointed this out, I charitably explained that she hadn’t yet seen any IN the park, those were on the way there. Kids need to trust their books :P. In another slightly odd twist, the book titled “Noor Kids Go to Hajj,” while containing topics relevant to Hajj, does not actually involve them going to Hajj (well, Shireen is hiking around Mecca in one scene, and it does have related topics, but they don’t appear to actually go there except on the cover). Of course, comic book fans have been lamenting cover teases for decades 😛
I had been pondering the incongruency factor in Noor Kids while re-reading the original Oz books recently… good grief…. how much I overlooked at my son’s age (and older)! There were so many weird continuity issues from one Oz book to another (not to mention typos), way beyond how Dorothy’s hair mysteriously changes from brunette in the first book to blonde in all the subsequent books (Ozma’s hair later goes the other way after her first appearance). No, the issues went far deeper than that and flip-flopped all over the place from one book to the next in a way that greatly disturbed me. I also noticed with some satisfaction that my mother (from whom I inherited the Oz books) had corrected some of the spelling and punctuation typos as a child using a ball-point pen. After comparing these classics to the relatively tame issues in Noor Kids, I decided Noor Kids wasn’t doing too badly after all.
I did notice that the more recent Noor Kids books are written in a different style. This has changed slightly with each edition. The most recent book, Family Matters (book 5), is written in rhyming format through most of the two main comic stories, in both the speech bubbles and panel descriptions. While I’m not against rhyming in general, the way it is written makes for some very awkward phrasing at times, becoming unnatural and making quite a stretch to catch a rhyme on multiple occasions.
However, after I got my order of the earlier books, I noticed that they didn’t start out this way. The rhyming seems to start in Honestly Speaking (book 4) but it’s more of a milder rhyming cadence and it only appears in the speech bubbles vs. the panel text (some of the speech bubbles come out more awkward than others, but it’s not quite as jarring as in book 5). It is much more natural to read the speech on the earlier books, so once I discovered it hadn’t always been in rhyme, I found myself hoping this was a little experiment which might go away or be really toned down again. It would be okay if it weren’t quite so forced in places, requiring awkward and unnatural sentence phrasing in order to work.
As I reference the books, this also brings me to another point: the books don’t seem to have any kind of indication as to where they fall in the series, either by an issue date (e.g. Spring 2012) or an issue number (#3). As the series grows, I think this would be very helpful, both to ensure that you have all the books if you want to collect them, and to refer to them and know the order in which they appeared. It’s rather unusual in a series publication for this to be left off, and in fact, a date appears on the online “sample” comic, so I found myself wondering why it was removed and hoping that it will be reinstated. I, for one, would feel confident looking at my shelf of books knowing they were all there and we hadn’t misplaced one or missed one :). It would also be easier to see the progression of which features had changed.
One of the other things that I noticed seemed to change over time is the references after mentioning the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) switched from English (in “Noor Kids go to Hajj”) to Arabic in later books. That book uses the “PBUH” abbreviation, while the later books have “SAW.” As a practical matter, maybe because I mention the prophet in front of both muslims and non-muslims, I say “Peace Be Upon Him” in English. Actually, most English-speaking muslims I know say this, though we use plenty of other Arabic phrases such as bismillah, alhamdulillah (though, I don’t use these when speaking to non-muslims because they don’t know what it means… while they do know what peace be upon him means). However, as it turns out, this whole issue of using Arabic or English with English-speaking muslims can be a be a passionate area of debate with a wide range of practices that is really another blog post in itself! So I won’t go into all that here, but I do mention it in the context of this being a book targeting “American Muslim Kids,” most of whom speak English, and for whom “Peace Be Upon Him” is a standard English expression particular to muslims.
I will say that I do quite like the Arabic letters section for seeing and practicing Arabic. I’ve studied Arabic myself some and I think it would be beneficial for my son to learn… as another language, and for his prayers and understanding of the Qur’an as he gets older. I like to build familiarity with it and definitely am in favor of learning Arabic (and any other language too). I guess the blessing of the prophet just comes out in English for me. I also appreciate the fact that whenever other Arabic phrases are included, they are translated and sometimes transliterated as well, and that all Qur’an quotes and hadiths have the source included (this is something that has also improved as the series progresses… I am in favor of transliterating every time the Arabic appears along with a translation! 🙂 ).
One of the things my son was bothered by was that in the most recent books, Family Matters, one of the four main characters doesn’t appear. Amira is on the covers as usual, but she doesn’t come into any of the stories or activities at all, while the other characters do. The main stories are about Shireen and Amin in this issue, while Asad has an activity feature. Asad and Amin also both show up in Shireen’s story at her baseball game, but Amira doesn’t. My son was quite concerned as to what had happened to Amira, and when we read it he even goes so far as to identify some of the distant rabbity-looking people watching the baseball game as possibly Amira. This was only the second issue we got (Honestly Speaking was our first), but he knew who the characters were and was expecting them to all be there. Once we got the back issues though, I realized the characters are usually pretty well balanced or included in activities when they aren’t main players in the stories, so perhaps this was just a one-off situation. Still, I bet a lot of kids will want each of the four to at least make appearances every time, especially if they have a favorite character.
One thing that bothered me more than any part of the stories or characters was a very small detail in one of the “parent pages.” I feel certain this was overlooked, but I also feel it’s worth mentioning because of the nature of the problem. Most of the parent pages contain an innocuous small intro about the topic of the issue, presumably written by the Noor Kids author team, but one of the earlier books, “Noor Kids Go to Hajj” had instead a quote by Dr. Freda Shamma. The quote includes the statement, “Even the absent parent is role modeling to the degree that a boy, whose father abandoned his family, will probably treat his own children the same way.” Dr. Shamma is an educator, and she probably meant well and has seen examples of this. I don’t deny that there is truth behind her statement and the importance of role modeling, I know it too well. And I know this is the “parent” page, not supposed to be addressing kids directly. But they will read it at some point, of course, given the opportunity. As the single, divorced, mother of a son who almost never sees his father, yet who talks of having his own children and being a Daddy some day (he also currently wants to run a daycare when he grows up), I would never want him to take such a statement to heart. Especially at this age, to be told what he “will probably do” in imitation of his father’s negative traits. (To take the role modeling even further, there are also worse things than not being there, most of which my son is thankfully unaware of… yet). I know there are uncomfortable truths that he will face as he grows up, but telling him at the age of 4 that he will probably abandon his own family someday isn’t the way I want that lesson to go.
Do I think this is a message encountered elsewhere in Noor Kids? No, I only mention it because it is SO important to carefully look at the things children are associating with their favorite books and characters from a parent perspective, and to think about what the child readers may have gone through from a writing-to-the-audience perspective. I love the fact that the Noor Kids families model the “ideal muslim family,” and have strong parent characters who are active and involved in their children’s lives. But this quote might make some kids feel that they would never be able to achieve that themselves, as readers of course come from all walks of life, including single-parent homes, unislamic environments, or mixed-religion families. As far as role modeling goes, my son is very interested in reading about the fathers of the characters that appear in the stories. In fact, one of the things I like about the series, maybe because it was started by two brothers, is that it is definitely oriented towards boys as well as girls… something I sometimes find missing in Islamic kids materials that seem to strongly lean one way or the other. Muslim men in books are unfortunately about the only ones my son has much interaction with (the muslim community where we live is unfortunately very segregated, so even if we attend a public prayer, it’s “all women” as far as my son is concerned, and I know he is aware of this–one of my arguments for shared prayer spaces is in fact about role modeling).
Role modeling is important. Learning you can choose not to imitate an important person in your life (parent, friend, ancestors, etc.) when you want to follow a better path is also important. In fact, it’s a lesson repeated many times in the Qur’an and the sunnah. After all, if I had followed my parents about religion, I would not have converted to Islam 🙂
I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to “join the Noor Kids family” early on, and to order the previous books. In looking at the span of the first 5 books, I have been able to see how the series has evolved and progressed, with small changes and improvements made between the issues, and also have gotten a better idea of the variety of topics presented. It’s obvious from reading the Noor Kids website (and their Facebook page) that they take reader feedback very seriously and consider changes based on that, which is something I really appreciate. It has also worked very well for them as I can see from the result of the last couple of years! The problematic areas that I have noted here are, I feel, part of growing pains. The good that Noor Kids presents far outweighs these in my opinion… and perhaps some have already been addressed since I am looking at over a year’s worth of production. I haven’t found any other source of such wholesome Islamic education and fun for kids like this series, and my son’s enthusiasm for it from the very first issue is really the best testimonial.
All in all, our Noor Kids books are much loved, and have remained in pretty good shape under heavy usage. Although some of the books have places to write in the answers to discussion questions, we don’t do this with our copies (nor on most of the other activities) so we can talk about them each time we read the book… answers vary and my son’s responses to the dilemmas presented evolve as we re-read! And it is fun to repeatedly do the things like mazes and find the difference over again at my son’s age. I think an older kid would probably be more into filling out the sections and the more advanced puzzles, so maybe he will do that when he gets a bit older (he does like the coloring parts, although sometimes he tells me to do them, in a particular way).
Currently, the books are recommended for ages 3-8, though recently they have begun marketing as 4-8. We started when my son was about 3 and a half, and he was hugely enthusiastic from the very beginning. At first, I would of course sit and read through them with him. Now, he also reads them himself or to me (but still enjoys me re-reading them to him). The way the books are designed, I think they would work really well for a range of ages and to be enjoyed more while growing. I certainly get some things out of them that are kind of over his head, but he got things out of them at 3 that were age-appropriate. Ultimately, it would be up to any family to see if the age was right, but as with clothes, if you find it’s a little “too big” you can always put it away for a month only to find they’ve grown into it before you know it 🙂 I would even venture to say that a kid older than 8 would love to read these books, but I’m speaking as someone who loves to re-read books I had as a kid anyway! I highly encourage you to check out the sample and order the books, especially if you have kids or know anybody with kids. They would also make a great gift, or if you run a business, a wonderful addition to a kid’s center, waiting room, library, or daycare.
Coming Up: Your Chance To Win Noor Kids for FREE!
Still on the fence or already ready for your first book? Noor Kids has graciously invited me to do a giveaway to 4 lucky people! Here is how to enter! 🙂
If you have questions about anything in Noor Kids, please feel free to post here, I’ve read them all numerous times and will happily look into it for you 🙂 (or if you just want to chime in about your own experience with them, go for it!)