Rating: An gorgeous and elegant head scarf with an order of balaclava
Summary: A young woman experiences the United States through Syrian eyes.
Would you read more from this author? Absolutely.
Sometimes when I read something, I tell myself, "Wow. This is what having something important to say looks like." It's humbling, because I know I will never be able to convey something this substantial. Will this book change the world? Probably not. But I think it may well change the outlooks of at least some of the people who read it, which is an amazing thing.
This outstanding story was told in verse, which tends to be a hit-or-miss format for me, and I'm pleased to report it hit this time. The simplicity of the poetry helped give some sense of English not being the narrator's first language without adding any awkwardness and it provided a certain amount of grace to her story.
Our narrator is a girl named Jude. She starts the story in her homeland, Syria, but then accompanies her pregnant mother to the United States to stay with family. Exactly what form of visa the pair are on is never discussed, possibly because asking a seventh grader to understand the differences between those is asking a lot of her, or possibly in order to not detract from the story with a conversation about whether the pair overstayed their approved time in Ohio. Likewise, it is mentioned that Jude's younger sibling is born an American, but the implications of that are left alone.
I'll admit that I started the book being in favor of increased and easier immigration, and also with a history of having lived in the Middle East that I fancy gives me a higher-than-average-for-an-American understanding people from the region that made it very easy for me to sympathize with Jude and her family. I think the story was written well enough that it could shift opinions to the positive for people who begin reading less certain than I was that allowing more Middle Eastern immigrants would be a good thing for the US to do.
Parts of this book were physically painful for me to read. When someone as sweet, kind, and good-natured as Jude gets verbally abused for wearing a hijab, I would like to think it would be moving for all but the most heartless of humans. I already had names that I could associate with why Islamophobia is evil, but perhaps this book can give a name for others. In a story that was not tackling important issues of prejudice and discrimination, I would be tempted to say that Jude was a bit of a Mary Sue, but I think that worked well here as it served to prove that even the perfect example of a young woman will face hardships when she looks "other" and speaks with a foreign accent.
The people around Jude show more complexity. Her brother is a bit of a zealot, at odds with his parents for being at odds with both Syrian leadership and Syrian rebels, and although Jude comes close to worshiping him, her mother frequently tells her that his bravery often falls into foolishness. Jude's parents are seen only through their daughter's eyes, but show signs of depth, as do her uncle and aunt. Jude's cousin Sarah is one of the more interesting characters in the book, both longing not to stand out as different and wishing she knew more of her father's culture and could learn Arabic. Sarah has an interesting relationship with Jude, in regards to whom she shows a wide range of emotions. Jude also forms relationships with new American-born friends and with fellow immigrants in her English as a Second Language class.
One of the big things this book left me feeling was temptation to go back to school to gain certification as an ESL teacher, although with my location I'd need to become an online one. The ESL teacher in the book demonstrated the career as a good way to make people feel more welcome and at home in my country, which is something I strive to do whenever presented with the opportunity. I feel that if I had read this story while I was in the target age group, it may well have pointed me in that direction when deciding what to do after high school.
Overall, I really loved this book. I've said a lot about the messages in it, but don't want to leave the impression that it is at all preachy or heavy handed. It isn't. The story is enjoyable and the writing has a fluidity that draws the reader in from the very start. That the story also has such substantially worthy morals is almost bonus material. I highly recommend this to anyone wanting to read about the immigrant experience in the modern US or looking for something to influence young people toward tolerance without lecturing them.