There is a lot to be grateful for in this 145 page AR 5.2 book before you even begin reading it. The fact that Katherine Paterson, of Bridge to Teribithia fame, would write a middle school book about the horrors that took place in Kosovo in the late 90s and conclude with the events of 9/11 is both bold, and daring. There isn’t a lot of mainstream YA literature about the events that happened in the Western Balkans and this book is much needed in shedding light on a history that cannot and should not be forgotten. While the book doesn’t compel the reader to pick it up, I think as a novel study in school, or as suggested reading, kids 4-8th grade will benefit from the story and retain the humanity presented in the characters.
The story follows 13-year-old Meli Lleshi, an ethnic Albanian, and how her world changes as Serbian atrocities escalate. The story opens showing how while there is tension in the air, a lot of the Lleshi family’s life is relatable to today’s western readers. The children go to school, they have a big family and help out at home. The dad owns a grocery store under the house and the neighborhood is made up of Albanians and Serbs, Muslims and Christians. Quickly, however, bad news of the Serbs kidnapping people and destroying homes becomes reality as Meli’s 14-year-old brother Mehmet, goes missing. The police refuse to help and with no other recourse the family is left to wait and see if he returns. Luckily he does, but as fears continue to grow the family leaves home to go live at the familial farm in the country. This stop is temporary and the first of many as the family moves from one refugee camp to another. Fighting to stay together and look forward, as that their homes, livelihood, and material goods have all been destroyed, the Lleshi’s end up in America, only to be faced with the discrimination following 9/11.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I had the priviledge of helping with a lot of Bosnian and later Albanian refugee families that came through Salt Lake City, Utah in 1998-2001. Not in any official capacity but as outreach to help get them settled, enrolled in school, a friendly face to call on for help, and eventually a friend. Later, I even interviewed many of them in a series I did for my journalism classes at the University of Utah. This story rings incredibly true to what I recall hearing them speak about. What they saw, what they had to sacrifice, what they hoped to achieve in America. So I was almost giddy to learn about this book knowing that it wouldn’t be a “fun” read, but an important one bringing a fictionalized account of a historical horror to children that probably have never even heard about it. I only wish so desperately that the book had a map in it. There is a great historical note, but a map would have made it so much more impactful.
I like that the family is Muslim, they do not practice, but they identify as Muslim and are thus tortured both in Kosovo and harassed in America. They are served a ham at one point in America, and they eat it, noting that culturally they don’t eat it, but don’t really see the big deal in doing it. I remember the first time my family went to meet a Bosnian family and there were no men in the house, all had been killed at the children’s elementary school at dismissal for being Muslim, and they served us beer. The ham incident reminded me of that, that these are so often the religious rules we tell others and children about what it means to be Muslim, but in the grand scheme how important are they compared to belief in the oneness of God? I don’t want to turn this literary blog into my theological thoughts, but its hard over the years to forget that these people died for being Muslim, but yet really didn’t know a lot about Islam. In my safe sheltered world, I know a lot of people that know a lot about Islam, but would we be willing to die for being Muslim? The Lleshi family don’t pray or go to the mosque, but they do sprinkle their talk with Arabic words like inshaAllah (God willing), and their names are Islamic in nature: Mehmet, Adil, Isuf, etc., they are forced to relocate because of both their nationality and their religion, where the line is between one identity and the other isn’t clear in the book, nor is it in real life.
There is a bit of articulated violence, but the book is clean for 4th grade and up.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would absolutely do this for a Book Club selection, and if I was a upper elementary or middle school teacher for a novel study. The book balances character narrative and historical context to the point that the book is not boring, sensationalized or easily dismissed. I think kids will need the school environment and structure to compel them to pick up the book and finish it, but will not fight the actual reading of it.
A guide for book discussion: https://media.btsb.com/TitleLessonPlans/454.pdfTeacher’s Lesson Plan: http://mrscarafiello.weebly.com/day-of-the-pelican.html