I really like the concept and approach of this 192 page non-fiction graphic novel. It isn’t a memoir or OWN voice retelling, it is basically an in-depth news story about a Syrian refugee family that has been fact checked and then illustrated. Unfortunately, parts of the story are really choppy and unresolved, details shared for no purpose and occasionally reinforcing of stereotypes. The book is an easy read and the Muslim family is shown to practice and be fleshed out, but more than once I found myself questioning what the author’s commentary was suggesting/implying based on what was being included. I allowed my 12 year old son to read it before I was finished, but the last few pages had both misogynistic and homophobic slurs coming from bullies so I made sure to discuss that with him. I think upper middle school to YA is probably the ideal readership because of the subject matter of escaping war, facing financial insecurities, PTSD, bullies, islamophobia, and navigating a new environment when you are not quite a child, but not yet an adult either.
Naji’s family is undecided if they should leave Syria or not. Part of the family has permission to travel to Connecticut in America, but part of them still do not, including Naji’s grandmother. The war has already imprisoned Naji’s father and uncles in the past and with the US election showing Trump having a chance, they feel like they need to make a decision quickly. Naji loves all things American and is the only one in the family anxious to get to the US and get on with life, but when the moment of saying good-bye arrives, he has doubts.
Once they arrive in America, all their doubts multiply as life is difficult, help is hard to come by, and day to day fears of safety have not been left behind. School, finding jobs, learning the language, and facing hate are just the big things that plague a family who has left everything to start over in this detailed account that follows Naji and his family as they navigate their new world.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that the book has been approached as a news article. I just didn’t like the unresolved threads that seem to take up so much of the narrative only to be abandoned. I really struggled with the idea that Naji knows America and obviously media is global, but is shown to be confused by a dining table. I didn’t like the commentary of Naji’s sister Amal and her hijab, I find it hard to believe there aren’t other hijabs in the school or larger community and why it is made to be such a big deal by her, and those trying to help her. It would seem small after everything she has been through. I do like that there are a few other Muslims in the school and at least they discuss that there is not a nearby masjid. I wish other Muslims would have been around to help settle the new family. I know a few groups that helped in immigrants in New England, so that there were no Muslims in the welcoming groups seemed hard to accept. By and large it does show Islam being practiced, not just names and hijabs, which I appreciated, but for a book that is based on a real family, with graphics, I really expected a stronger emotional impact that ultimately for me was just not there.
Death, abuse of power, war, language, bullets, shooting, kidnappings, detainment, destruction, kids making out in hallways, implied rape/sexual assault, death threats, racism, islamophobia, misogyny, slurs, name calling, differential treatment, fear.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This wouldn’t work for me for a book club selection, but if I ever teach a journalism class again, I think I would some how incorporate this book as a way to show what journalism can be, and also as a clear way to show how what parts you include and what parts you keep out affect the messaging of the story as well.