This 44 page early elementary book is absolutely beautiful: the message, the relatability, the representation, the heartfelt author note. Reem Faruqi is brilliant. Once again she takes something so personal to her and allows the readers to see pieces of themselves in her OWN voice narrative. This book at it’s core is about peer pressure, but the way it stays with the reader will resonates deeply and powerfully. Readers will remember the choice Zahra made and the way it changed not only her relationship with Kyle, but also her own view of herself, while forgetting the names of the classmates that teased her and made her question herself. It is not the outside reprimanding that gives this book it’s strength, but the guilty conscious that such a young character has to come to terms with as she moves forward.
There are 18 kids in Zahra’s class in early fall, when the leaves are about to be the color of Nana’s spices. One of the kids is Kyle. Kyle often needs a helper, and Zahra is happy to help him with his cutting and gluing and writing. The two have become friends. Kyle is funny and nice and shares his cookies.
Zahra also likes the praise she gets for being such a good helper. One day when the leaves have darkened, Zahra is climbing a tree and hears some of the girls making fun of Kyle. She doesn’t want to listen, but her ears want to hear. When she comes down, they ask her why she helps him. She doesn’t really know.
When she is helping him later, she sees the girls staring at her, and she snaps at Kyle. The next day Ahmed helps Kyle instead. Zahra misses being around Kyle, but he says that she is mean and he doesn’t know her any more. Zahra doesn’t know herself any more either.
The next year finds Zahra at a new school, and when the opportunity presents itself for her to help someone, she jumps to offer herself as a helper remembering Kyle and finding her voice, one that she recognizes.
The book is inspired by the author’s own experience, and the rawness and relatability shines through. The illustrator also relates to the book and needing help with physical limitations. There is nothing overtly religious or cultural other than the mention of the spices, Zahra’s and Ahmed’s names, and the term for Zahra’s grandfather. The diverse kids in the classroom and the universal messaging make this book a must read for every kid and big person. Be kind, always be kind.