This 36 page picture book tells a beautifully presented story that incorporates events from the author’s real life that convey a story of loving your culture, finding similarities and giving people a second chance. Ideal for students between 2nd and 4th grade, younger children will enjoy having the story read to them, and older kids will benefit from the message as well.
Kanzi is about to start her first day of 3rd grade in a new school. It doesn’t specify if she has just come from Egypt, but being she seems to speak English well, knows that she’d rather have peanut butter and jelly instead of a kofta sandwich and mentions that she got a quilt when she visited her grandmother, in Egypt, she possibly is just starting a new school, not her first in America, but it is considered an immigrant story, so I’m not certain.
When she arrives in class and introduces herself she bravely says that she is Egyptian-American, but on the way to school she turns down the Arabic music in the car, so the reader sees that she is a little nervous about being seen as “different.” When her hijab wearing mom brings her forgotten kofta sandwich and calls Kanzi ‘Habibti,’ classmate Molly teases her that she is being called a hobbit.
A crying Kanzi tells her teacher and Mrs. Haugen reassures her that “being bilingual is beautiful.” That night Kanzi asks her mom to send her a turkey sandwich for lunch the next day, and before beds she writes a poem as she snuggles in her beloved quilt.
At school Molly apologizes to her and says that it just sounded funny. Kanzi tells Molly it is because she doesn’t speak Arabic and that her mom says that “learning different languages makes a person smarter and kinder.” Molly dismisses the comment and smugly walks off.
Mrs. Haugen sees Kanzi’s poem about her quilt from her grandma in Egypt and asks her to bring her quilt to school. The kids love it, and Friday Kanzi’s mom shows up to help with a special project: an Arabic quilt with the kids names.
Molly is not enthusiastic and Mrs. Haugen writes English words that come from Arabic on the board: coffee, lemon, sugar, algebra. Telling the kids that “we can speak non-English languages and still be American.”
Kanzi and her mom write the kids names down and the children copy them. The teacher cuts them out and makes a quilt to hang in the hall. On Monday when everyone sees the quilt, they love the beautiful letters and colors. Even Molly sincerely apologizes and asks Kanzi to write her mom’s name in Arabic as a gift. The two hug and seemingly will become friends.
Across the hall another quilt is hung with names in Japanese, as another student and teacher were inspired by Kanzi and her quilt. The last page of the story is a letter Kanzi has written to her parents telling them how grateful she is that she has two languages and that she will speak them without guilt.
The story is beautifully told and exquisitely illustrated on well-sized 9.5 x 10.5 pages in a hardback binding. The mom wears hijab and it mentions it, but there is nothing religious about the text. It is a universal story of coming to be proud of your roots and inviting those around you to learn and grow. There is a Glossary of Arabic Words at the end and a bit about the author and illustrator.
My kids favorite page by far was reading the names written in Arabic and they all enjoyed the story (ages 13, 10, 9, 4). I actually had an issue when Molly apologized the first time, feeling that Kanzi’s response was a bit pretentious to what seemed like an 8 year old being told to go say she was sorry, but my older three unanimously and fervently disagreed with me, saying that she was obviously insincere and Kanzi knew it. I’d love to hear from other readers if they felt like Molly was sufficient in saying sorry and admitting that it sounded funny and that Kanzi was arrogant in saying that people that know two languages are smarter and kinder, or if Molly was being rude and racist and Kanzi was sticking up for herself.
Irregardless, the book is well done, enjoyable, and will get repeated reads by a large range of readers. My children keep pulling it off the book shelf, and for that I need to thank Gayatri Sethi (@desibookaunty) who generously sent me the book the same day I checked it out from the public library. Her generosity once again is a gift that I hope to pay forward in the future. This book also highlights how amazing teachers can be and often are in facilitating inclusion, understanding, and respect.