Review: Lailah's Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi with illustrations by Lea Lyon

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Hardcover, 32 pages
Published June 1st 2015 by Tilbury House Publishers
Source: Author

The review for this book could not come at a more relevant period as it is the month of Ramadan currently and Muslims all around the world are fasting. Fasting in this sense means abstaining from food and water from before sunup to after sundown.

These days being Muslim is difficult for reasons I’m not particularly keen to get into at the moment. Suffice it to say that Lailah’s Lunchbox is an extremely timely picturebook.

The picturebook focuses on the titular character, Lailah, who is going to fast for the first time during Ramadan. She had been too young the previous year so hadn’t been able to fast while all her friends had. Being able to fast is a distinction she has been waiting anxiously for. (Children are not obligated to fast until they are 10-12 years old.) This year, Lailah’s mother finally deems her old enough to be able to handle fasting and so Lailah hangs up her lunchbox for the month of Ramadan.

Lailah’s family are new in the country as they lived in Dubai and have only recently immigrated to the US. Lailah has gone from being surrounded by people who are similar to her in background and religion to being surrounded by people who are much more diverse in culture and religion. She goes to school with a note for her teacher from her mother to explain that Lailah will not be eating lunch for the month as she will be fasting. But when the time comes to give the note to the teacher, Lailah falters; she worries that no one will be able to understand what Ramadan is and she won’t be able to explain properly. The librarian helps her find a way to reach her teacher who helps Lailah explain to her classmates what Ramadan is.

While I’m sure there are other picturebooks about Ramadan in English, this is the first one I’ve come across one. I almost feel like someone else should have reviewed this as Ramadan is not new to me and I cannot be objective about it. I started fasting when I was ten years old. I remember waiting anxiously until I was old enough to do so. Fasting is an honour when you are a child particularly because everyone else apart from you is doing so. There is a festive atmosphere to the month that is difficult to capture with words. Waking up in the morning long before the sun is a glimpse in the horizon, eating more for breakfast than you ever have before, waiting through the day for the sun to set and then gathering with your extended family to open fast. The first sip of juice, the gritty texture and sweetness of dates–fasting is a lot more than just not eating or drinking water. Ramadan is really something that needs to be experienced. It is also far easier to fast when everyone else around you is fasting. Things get vastly more complicated when you have to explain (and sometimes justify) fasting to people who may not have ill intentions but do not understand why anyone would put themselves through a month of fasting. It can be difficult to explain what fasting is particularly to children.

Lailah’s Lunchbox addresses that difficulty by expressing Ramadan and fasting in terms that children will be able to understand, empathize with, and relate to. (Who hasn’t known insecurity when having to mark themselves as clearly different from everyone else?) In our multicultural classrooms, we’re all going to have different traditions that will not be familiar to everyone. Ramadan is one of them. Lailah’s Lunchbox will allow children to gain a passing knowledge about the month though greater knowledge (the whys of it) will need more research on the part of the teacher/librarian/parent.

The art in Lailah’s Lunchbox perfectly complements the traditional nature of the story. Lailah’s Lunchbox is a gentle introduction to Ramadan, giving human faces to a religious tradition that may be unfamiliar to other children. The book will be invaluable as a teaching tool for teachers and librarians. Recommended.