Books like this are hard for me to review, and I have gone back and forth on whether I should post anything or not. On the one hand, we need books that are unapologetically Palestinian written by Palestinians. They need to be celebrated and elevated and I want to offer my support to the stories, to the voices, to the authors, illustrators, everyone involved. On the other hand, if I didn’t love it, why should I shy away from saying so, when I have purchased the book (pre-ordered and changed the shipping address even, to have it delivered to me on vacation because I didn’t want to wait to read it). The book is emotional, but the last six pages unraveled the whole book for me, and in a picture book particularly of this nature, when you finish- if you don’t have a cathartic pull, you start to find holes in the story as you feel deflated. The book, I would go out on a limb to say, needs to be discussed and given context even if you are Palestinian. As someone who is not, I recognize my arrogance in such a statement and am happy to be corrected, but from a literary reviewer standpoint the book needs discussion and additional context. The Nakba is only articulated in one paragraph in the author’s note. In the story itself there is no indication that what happened to Thaer happened to so many Palestinians in 1948. The use of color and how it is depicted in the illustrations is tangible and powerful, but as odd as it is to say, the words got in the way of the story.
The book starts with Thaer trudging to school in dull sepia filled pages to begrudgingly sit at a desk and begin an art lesson. He is glad the spitballs are just spitballs and not real explosions, but the tone is still melancholy. When he sees boys playing soccer he recalls the last time he played soccer, and the memory comes alive in color. He was in Yafa, it was the day before the Zionists came and took his family’s home.
The teacher, back in muted tones, asks him to draw what has made him smile, and Thaer gives it a try. Blue for the color of the sea, green for zeit and za’tar, brown for taboon to get fresh bread, etc.. When he takes the drawings home to his mother, she is not impressed. Drawings are silly and colors aren’t going to bring Baba and Susu back.
Defeated, the next day in class, Thaer recalls the men pounding down the door and Baba being shoved in a truck and Susu falling. The next day at school they hang up some of their pictures and Thaer talks about his sister. (SPOILER) On the way home Thaer paints the alleyway and brings color to his and his mom’s world. His mama says that he is the color, and when the following day’s prompt is to draw what you want to be when you grow up it shows Thaer (presumably) on the beach as an adult painting.
The disconnect for me occurred with the painting of the alleyway. I was incredibly invested in the story, my heartstrings were being tugged, I was breaking for this character and his experiences, and it all came to a screeching halt because I couldn’t understand where the paint and the alleyway and the mama’s change of heart all manifested from. As for the ending, I think I know what the author was going for, but it didn’t connect with any of my kids aged 2-15 nor my mother, a 40+ year early elementary veteran teacher. I wish I could have taken a picture of their faces as she read the book to them. The frozen expressions of huh and confusion at the end, until my 11 year old to broke the awkward silence to ask if the boy wants to be a painter or a father or an adult? Those facets coupled with the often advanced vocabulary, makes the book an important one, but one that needs a lot of outside commentary to connect with the readers and to further the conversation about Zionism, al-Nakba, the occupation, and the continued oppression of Palestine.
There are flags of loss, kidnapping, sorrow, violence, etc., that parents will have to gauge if their children can handle. I’m not sure what age group is the best fit, the murder of a young girl, the forced displacement from one’s home, the removal of the father are all heavy themes. I appreciate that it isn’t “watered down” for a western gaze so to speak, but I wish there was more about what happened to the dad, is there hope he is alive? I wish there was something about this not being an isolated reality for the protagonist and his family. I wish there was some conversation or connection between the mother and son, because the loss of continuity really derailed the story.
As for the idea of the story, and the use of the illustrations to physically show two worlds I think is a great idea, it just sadly fell apart for me at the end: the faltering conclusion and the loss of emotional buildup that the first two thirds of the story worked so hard to create.