Laila and the Sands of Time
Reviewed by Eve Panzer the Barefoot Librarian for Reader Views Kids (8/19)
I am very excited to introduce “Laila and the Sands of Time,” a debut middle-grade chapter book from Shirin Shamsi. This is a beautifully written middle-grade chapter book which can be used to teach many lessons about Arabian history during the 7th century; cultural customs; Muslim religious history and practices; coming to terms with one’s religious faith; dealing with grief and loss; finding confidence and courage as a teen, and even the science of DNA. On top of this, it is a page-turning, time-traveling book with a strong female protagonist.
In a time when there is a great demand for diverse books, often these books fall short and don’t reflect authentic experiences. An author needs to be sensitive and knowledgeable about what they choose to address. This requires either a great deal of research or having lived in the shoes of their characters. In Shirin’s book, we have an honest, true-to-life look at a modern-day American Muslim 13-year-old girl from an author who has raised Muslim children in the United States. Tweens and teens will find many ways they can identify with Laila.
This book is a great introduction to the Muslim religion. Laila, the main character, is a 13-year-old Muslim girl, who lost her mother as a toddler and just recently, her father. Her father’s faith was a central part of his life, and he instilled this in his daughter. When Laila’s father dies, her belief in her faith falters. The rituals and customs that were a big part of her life go ignored.
The chapters are introduced with short vignettes which are childhood memories about Laila and her father. In these snippets, the reader sees how Laila’s father’s faith shaped and influenced his everyday life. He used these opportunities to pass on his beliefs and practices to his daughter. Two examples of what Laila’s father shares with her are: “God does not look at your bodies, nor your forms, but at your heart and your actions” and “We have to believe in a greater plan. We have to believe there’s more to the ‘here and now’, and faith gives us that” Laila uses all of the beliefs her father has passed to her to sustain her when she must find strength, confidence, and faith.
Her father’s bout with cancer and ultimate death mean that the pilgrimage Laila had planned to Mecca with her father never happens. However, Laila’s aunt and uncle invite her to go with them on their pilgrimage and reluctantly, she agrees to go. When Laila and her aunt and uncle reach the holy shrine, the heat and crowds cause Laila to blackout. She is then transported back in time back to 7th century Arabia. It was at that time Muhammad the Messenger of Islam, was gathering his followers in Mecca, making it a safe haven for people in the region. Laila helps a family, who without a male head was in great danger in this period of history. They join a caravan traveling the Silk Road and make the journey to the safety of Mecca. And although the reader is asked to suspend reality with Laila’s time travel, it provides a factual history lesson for this time period and location.
In addition to the lessons in history, cultural customs, and the Muslim religion, the book brings in an element of science. Laila’s school class is participating in a DNA experiment being conducted by a woman scientist at the famous Field Museum in Chicago, the present-day setting of the novel. The DNA research helps tie together the two separate storylines of the book – the present and 7th century Arabia.
The characters in the book are well developed, especially considering the short length of the book. The main character goes through the most growth. The story starts as she grieves her father’s death and cannot see a time when her life will be better. Her pain and sense of loss are deep and realistic. She shuns her stepmother and half-sister, blaming them for the lost opportunity to go to Mecca with her father. As the book progresses Laila must find strength and confidence to face the challenges that come her way when she “travels” back to the 7th century Silk Road. Throughout the book, Laila grapples with her faith. However, in the end, Laila comes back to her father’s beliefs and realizes that despite her loss, she has many positives in her life – her family and her friends.
This book is highly recommended as a great read for tweens and teens. In addition, this would make an excellent read-aloud or group read for 5th – 8th grade. It provides opportunities to teach across the curriculum and for timely discussions of diversity.