N.H. Senzai’s newest book (published in January 2018), gives a face and a voice to the grave situation in Syria. Like Senzai’s other books, she uses the rich culture and history of a country to inform the reader, and a compelling front story to keep middle school readers entertained. This 336 page book is not in the AR data base yet, but fourth grade and up should be able to follow the story and be able to handle the violence and destruction presented. The story is unique in the genre, in that it doesn’t focus on getting to a safe country, but rather on the heroine’s journey to simply get out of a dangerous one, Syria. The storyline is fairly linear with flashbacks of life before the war making the story informative, but not necessarily gripping. I wanted to love it, but found myself forgetting about it when I stopped reading.
Fourteen-year-old Nadia, has a fun full life in Syria: a large extended family, she stars in a commercial, has good friends, and a lot of opportunity and perhaps privilege. All that, however, slowly disappears as civil unrest and ultimately war consume the country. As a child she gets glimpses of the changes coming, but is able to still hide in her ignorance and focus on things like her nail polish and Arab Idol. As food gets short however, she sneaks out to get bread with some cousins, and is hit by shrapnel. While, her leg is able to heal, her anxiety of going out alters her life and makes her family’s attempt to get to the Turkish border later, a hard mental obstacle she must face. Her inability to move quickly with the family on their covert escape route, and the bomb that hits their home, separates her from her family and leads to her getting left behind. As she tries to remember how to get to the designated meeting location, she must navigate Syrian soldiers, rebel factions, ISIS, secret police, violence, hunger, and being lost. With her cat, Mishmish, for companionship, Nadia reaches the location only to find that her family has left for Turkey and will wait on the border for her. Luckily for Nadia, amidst this devastating news, she meets an old man, Ammo Mazen, and his Donkey, Jamilah, willing to help her reach the border. Along the way the two face long odds of surviving, not only from the war around them, but also the weather, the old man’s illness and lack of food and water. As they journey through Aleppo, snippets of history and culture are shared, two more children join their journey and mysteries as to who Ammo Mazen really is come to light.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book’s premise is simple, allowing the reader to focus on Nadia and her companions and not get bogged down in the political factions and names and alliances. The book is not about all of the aggressors, it is about a girl trying to reach her family, and the growth and ability to choose kindness that she learns along the way. The girl is not religious, but culturally it is a part of her environment. Her companion Tarek, is religious and he spouts Islamic tidbits as they journey, adding some knowledge to be conveyed about Islam which is sometimes informative and sometimes comical as his character is often a bit awkward.
I love the cultural beauty that is conveyed, and the heaviness in Syrian’s heart that “What had taken five thousand years to build had taken less than two to ravage.” The saving of historical artifacts, the showing of cooperation between people of different faiths as the characters meet in mosques and churches and meet people of all backgrounds, makes the loss of humanity and history so palpable.
I also love that there is an Author’s Note at the end. The whole book I kept having to shush my mind as I felt like this was the story of Mariam in Senzai’s book Shooting Kabul. Yes that takes place in Afghanistan, but it was so similar in that it was a girl getting separated from her family in an escape attempt during a war, and sure enough she mentions that, that is where Nadia’s story grew from.
There is a lot of violence and death, but nothing gruesome or sensationalized.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This would be a great Book Club choice, because it would encourage readers to keep at it and finish the book. While reading it, the book is wonderful, but for some reason, I had to urge myself to pick it up and start it again. Perhaps it is because I have read all of Senzai’s books and I was pretty confident all would end well, or because I’ve read quite a few books now about war and refugees and Syria, but while it reads quick it did take me longer than it should to finish it. I think parts of the book that detail a lot of the skirmishes and fighting might be hard to visualize in the mind’s eye so as an assignment or Book Club selection would benefit the readers to allow them to discuss all the mini climaxes, understand the terrain and architecture, and to really put themselves in Nadia’s shoes. The transformation in Nadia from a brat, more or less, to a compassionate, strong, determined young woman is a journey that I would love to hear feedback from other kids about. I think they would definitely have thoughts and opinions that would really bring the humanity of us all out, and make us connect with the plight of those trying to get out of such horrific circumstances.
Author’s Page: http://www.nhsenzai.com/escape-from-allepo/