This middle grades 224 page read is quick and memorable. The story is set in Pakistan and the characters are probably Muslim, but there is no religion mentioned until nearly the end, and even then only in passing. The only culture specific references are the characters’ names, social etiquettes, and the foods mentioned. By and large, the story is universal and could take place anywhere, and probably does take place everywhere. While I wish it would have had more cultural and religious references, it is an OWN voice story after all, the book is enjoyable, the characters endearing, and I think young readers will benefit from spending the school year with Omar, seeing classism up close, and cheering for an unjust school system to be challenged.
Omar is the son of a servant and when he earns a scholarship to a prestiges boy’s school for seventh grade, the entire village is bursting with pride. When he gets there though, it is hard, really hard. The scholarship kids aren’t allowed to participate in any extra curriculars, they have to do service hours, and they have to maintain the ridiculously high A plus grade average or be expelled. It seems that that headmaster is out to get the scholarship kids, and Omar in particular. As the scholarship students struggle to stay afloat, Omar has to determine if it is all worth it. He spends all his time studying, even when he goes home to visit his mother, and while he doesn’t want to let the village down, he is struggling to find the optimism to keep fighting for his place. When Omar learns that the system is designed to make the scholarship kids fail, and that those that are kicked out are called “ghost boys,” he has to decide to how hard to push himself and ultimately how hard to push to break down the system that treats him and those like him like second class citizens. Luckily, Omar has some supportive teachers, some loyal friends, and a whole lot of determination.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the story is universal, it is at times a much tamer version of the YA book Ace of Spades which also explores second class citizens in posh private schools as a theme, and at times I even felt some Dead Poet’s Society vibes. The cultural setting and names however, to me is a mixed bag. I’m glad that it didn’t become another story about problems in another country with judgmental overtones, but at the same time, to be so void of cultural references seemed too far of an extreme in the other direction to make the story feel real richness and authenticity. I love that the story isn’t about bullying and that a number of characters have depth. I was genuinely confused for a large portion of the book about what the orientation in the summer entailed. It was clarified much too late that it was a weekend, but I was at a loss trying to figure out how he knew some of the campus, some of the other scholarship kids, had a roommate, yet knew so little of the school and what it would be like. I am not sure why that information was delayed, but seeing as I read an arc, I hope it is clarified in the final copy.
Omar and a girl are friends, they hug at the end, but it seems rather innocent, and more sibling like as they were raised together.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This would be a good book on a shelf, and would possibly work as a read aloud to grades four or five.