I know many of you are thinking, another book about school for girls in Afghanistan, and given the reception by most to the author’s first book, The Library Bus, I can sense the rolling eyes. I was in the minority on that one, as I enjoyed it, but, this one is simpler, sweeter, more universal while being complimented by culture, and I hope it is a more authentic and accurate OWN voice portrayal. I know I have a lot to learn about white washing narratives and breaking down colonial paradigms, so I promise if you disagree I will listen. But I genuinely enjoyed the illustrations and little Aria finding a way to make a bench so she could sit comfortably at school with her prosthetic leg. The girls go to school, and the furniture was burned to keep warm in the winter, a concept that the author verifies at the end as something experienced in his own life. Aria has to find a way to sit in class because she wants to learn, and lack of wood working experience, resources, and doubt that a girl can do it from her classmates, isn’t going to stop her. Over 32 pages, early elementary age children will meet a determined young girl as she pieces together scraps to build a bench.
Aria has been in the hospital for a while after an accident took her leg. She is excited to be back at school, but quickly realizes it is hard to sit on the floor with her new helper leg. She tries leaning on the wall, standing even, but just getting up and down off the floor is really difficult. At home when she mentions it to her mom, her mom reassures her that she can get through it and her little brother offers to help her carry her things.
That night Aria considers how much she would miss school if she isn’t able to figure something out. Then she has an idea, she’ll build a bench. At school the next morning, classmates tell her “Girls don’t build benches,” but Aria responds, “I can do anything a boy can.”
With that, a single friend joins Aria as they comb the city for discarded wood, broken furniture, screws, and nails. They assemble the resources and when they have enough Aria and her mom head across town, past the Blue Mosque, to visit the carpenter, Kaka Najar. He shows them how to fit the pieces together like a puzzle and loans them the tools needed to be successful. He even gifts her some sky-blue paint, “the color of courage, peace, and wisdom.”
That weekend Aria and her mom and little brother build a bench, paint it blue, and get it to school. When the other students see it, their excitement bubbles and they imagine building tables, book cases, and more. Anything is possible after all, there is paint left in the can and they are willing to work together.
There is nothing religious in the text, save the mention of walking past a mosque, but in the illustrations the women are all covering their heads when they are out, and are uncovered at home, the school uniform seems to be a white hijab and black abaya. I wish there were some Pashto words sprinkled, and it was a bit off that she was building a bench, but the finished project was a bench and table. The end has an Author’s Note and I enjoy seeing the smiling faces and bright illustrations in a book set in Afghanistan.