I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well. The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA. The book is personable, relatable, and informative. I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone. The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect. The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture. Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.
Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters. While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion. But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies. Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans. The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity. They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp. Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning. Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion. The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace. They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity. Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten. The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions. The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated. The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.
I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid. It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood. Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.
I love that sports and art are universal. Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math. He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability. Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan. He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper. Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.
I love the diversity of everyone in each country. Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a . There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone. I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims. We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family. That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.
Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war. It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that. Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club. It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect. The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan. He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed. Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly. The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.