This 295 page middle grades AR 4.8 book is a fast passed romp through New York City as two 12-year-old kids explore freedom and fear in a new city while grappling with their own sense of identity and what it means. The OWN Voice story features immigration, chronic disease, family, bravery, and friendship. There is lying and avoiding police, sneaking and “borrowing” a horse, but it is all for a good cause, and third grade and up will enjoy this read. There is very little religion in it, but the main character does say salam, notice the similarities between amen and ameen, and reference eid as his holiday.
Jason D, known only to his mom and aunt as Shah, was named by a nurse when his mom wanted to make sure he had an American sounding name, and his middle initial D is for December, which comes from her staring at a calendar when asked if she wanted her son to have a middle name. Life is fairly simple, he enjoys sneaking on to the roof of his apartment building to imagine training pigeons, his mom works at a dry cleaners, they walk where they need to go, money is tight, but they do ok, and his dad passed away before he was born. His mom is from Afghanistan, but he doesn’t speak much Dari and his mom speaks English, but not confidently. On her birthday as they are about to enjoy a cupcake he saved up for, the news in the background is covering protestors chanting for illegal immigrants to go home, and Jason’s mom starts to tell him about how she ended up overstaying her visa and is living in the US illegally.
Jason’s dad worked with the US military in Afghanistan and with his work came the promise of visas to America for him and for his wife to study. Many of the locals though didn’t like that he was cooperating and vowed to take their revenge. With the family in the US and Jason’s mom starting to study medicine, Jason’s dad had one more job in Afghanistan and sadly was killed by anti American Afghans. Fearful to return, she chose to stay, but with a new baby, few resources, no family and friend support, eventually she was forced to drop out of school and remain undocumented knowing that to return would be at great peril to her and her son. At some point she befriends an Indian lady, Seema and to Jason, she is Aunt Seema, the only family other than his mother that he knows.
When a few weeks later Jason sees his mother being taken away by two officers, he knows that this is what she warned him about when she told him the truth about her legal standing. Terrified and alone, Jason only knows that somehow he has to get to New York to Aunt Seema so that they can figure out how to save his mom. He grabs a few pictures of his father, whatever money he can find a broken address and heads to the big apple from New Jersey.
Having never been to NYC or really out of his hometown, he loses his backpack to a dog, and struggles to figure out how to get a ticket to get in to the city. When he arrives at Penn Station he is overwhelmed and exhausted and passes out, hitting his head, and landing himself in the hospital.
When he awakens he is met by doctors making sure he is ok, and police trying to locate his parents, he opts to pretend he has amnesia and can’t remember anything. This buys him time, and also acquaints him with Max, a girl with wires coming out of her head and who claims they are running tests on her to understand her level of genius.
The two hit it off and hitch a plan to escape the locked hospital floor, have a day of adventure in the city, and get Jason D to his aunts house. Naturally this plan is going to have all sorts of obstacles, but thats the story and that is where the fun and discovery unfolds.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I was impressed at how emotionally cathartic the conclusion was. I hadn’t realized how invested I had become in these two kids and their run through the city. It was touching, and heartfelt, and a big sigh of relief when it all wrapped up. I like that both kids are so very different, yet dealing with similar thematic issues from different perspectives. Max is an epileptic and is kept on a short chain to ensure her safety. She is trying to find and define who she is outside of the medical diagnosis. Jason is trying to understand if he can be American and Afghan and what that means about where he belongs, and where home is. There is a lot that they ponder over as they run through central park and the zoo, duck into subways, and get all sorts of turned around on the streets. Through it all though the kids show just how clever and smart they both are with the quick thinking, riddle solving abilities, and perpetual optimism. It is at times far fetched, stealing a horse and bumping in to your doctor in the New York City Marathon, and at other times completely plausible, sneaking in to a zoo with a field trip group and ducking through turnstiles to get on the subway.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This is a bit young for even early middle school readers, but would make a great addition to a summer reading list. I think kids will marvel at the riddles and determination of the two protagonists and imagine a world where kids could maybe get away with such a bold adventure.