It seems this polarizing 32 page picture book has instagram reviewers torn, perhaps along racial/cultural lines, as to whether the book is wonderful or simply victim to perpetuating the same old tropes and stereotypes. Maybe being half brown, I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself in the middle. I think if you are tired of feeling like the only strong Muslim female from the subcontinent acknowledged by the West is Malala Yousafzai, and seeing her single narrative and experience being repackaged in a new book every other week, then yes, this book is going to grate on a similar nerve and OWN voice or not, you will write it off as Afghanistan being close enough to Pakistan and the story of a girl and education being unoriginal. I think the flip side is that if you find a female lead taking education in the form of a library bus to the places where formal education is not available and you love the empowerment that women educating women can have in changing a society, then you are going to probably love a female driving a bus, a female teaching, a girl planning to go to school, a grandfather making sure in a previous generation when women couldn’t be educated, that he taught his daughter, and being thankful that it is a person from the society and not a “white savior” coming to help the people in Afghanistan. Both as far as I can tell have merit. I think that you see in the book what your paradigm and perspective is before you even start. I have read it and re read it and then read it again over the span of many weeks. I was alerted to it by @muslimkidsbooknook who sensed that we might disagree before she even posted her review (haha it’s like she knows me!), so my review is going to try really hard to focus on the text, and what it says, not on the 30 books before it that had a similar message or on my views on publishers only accepting manuscripts with reassuring easily palatable narratives, there is enough of that already about this book out there. I’m going to try and offer my perspective on what the book contains and while it has problems for me, I definitely liked it more than I disliked it. Oh and one more thing: the illustrations, swoon, are gorgeous, like really, really beautiful. Bismillah…
Pari and her mother are getting ready to set off in their library on wheels. It is Pari’s first day as her mother’s helper and she is a little nervous. It is dark when Pari’s mom drives the bus to their first stop- a small village tucked in a valley between two gray mountains. There are a group of girls waiting for the bus and call it over to return books and pick new ones. This reminds me of my time in New England and hearing about the Book Mobiles and Mobile Book Fairs that would visit the small seaside towns that didn’t have proper libraries. Even my mom used to tell me stories about waiting for the Book Mobile to stop on her street in Davis County, Utah to get books once a month. The concept is universal and that it takes place in Afghanistan and is driven by a woman who is educated and independent, is intentional with the hopes of being inspiring.
The girls then gather for a lesson, it is hard to know how impromptu it is or if it is a regular organized class. It is also not made clear if they always practice English or it is something unique to the day, but they sing the alphabet song and count to ten. After class a girl tries to chat with Pari and see how much she knows. Pari lies and says she can print, but in reality can’t even read or write in Farsi yet. This shows a gap in the story as earlier Pari said she could barely count all the books in the library, and in the pictures there are a lot of books, but she is trying to keep up as the girls count to ten. As the mom and daughter team pack up to head to their next location they discuss how Pari’s mama learned.
Pari’s grandpa taught her mom a long time ago, at a time when girls were not allowed to go to school and she had to hide in the basement to learn. Pari wonders if her mom was afraid of the basement. It is always dark down there. It is really one paragraph on one page that mentions that girls could not learn. It is presented in the past tense, and as the story progresses we learn that next year when Pari is older she will be going to school.
There is a two page spread about the mom seemingly going off on her mantra that learning makes you free. And I’m ok with it. It says when you go to school study hard, period, then the next line says, “Never stop learning. Then you will be free.” Yes! I agree, how many of us pursued a skill or a hobby during this pandemic to feel free from the confines of staying at home. Learning in any capacity is liberating. It may not keep you safe in a war, but the freedom of the mind to find peace and pursue passions is critical to mental health and survival. Am I reading too much in to these basic lines? Absolutely, well probably anyway.
When the bus gets to a refugee camp with tents everywhere, Pari and her mom start handing out pencils and notebooks before settling in to what seems an organized English lesson of ABC. I am torn on my thoughts about them stressing English over their own language. A sense of pride in who they are by learning Farsi or Dari or Pashtu would show readers that Afghan culture is rich and worth learning and valuing. I worry that by stressing the English, it presents the culture and language erroneously as the opposite. At the same time, as a child and teen, I went to Pakistan over a dozen times and would beg my (middle class) cousins to teach me Urdu. I’d make them take me to Urdu Bazaar for dictionaries and text books, and preschool grammar books so that I could learn my father’s language. And it never happened. I’d beg in letters before I got there, and they would agree, but when I arrived they all wanted to work on their English. They wanted to practice it in conversation, they wanted me to read over their assignments, they would introduce me to their coaching center teachers, their principals, the tutors, and I’d find myself teaching them colloquialisms and explaining idioms, and I’d watch my “textbooks” gather dust. This was before social media, and YouTube and Netflix and I was their link from their studies to the larger world that rewarded knowledge of the English language. Is it correct or even logical? No. But it was my experience that they desperately wanted to learn English over Urdu or the required provincial language Sindhi. Would readers of this book know that? No. Do critics of them learning English wish that it wasn’t the case more than wishing that the book simply didn’t highlight it? I don’t know.
As they leave the camp, Pari reads the letters of the refugee organizations off the tents. I find it off that earlier she called it ACDs instead of ABCs and yet now she knows the alphabet. Again I’ve read the critiques questioning why the refugee camps are named and have over thought it. In some ways I think it is a reminder that the country has been at war and that individual organizations are helping care for those displaced by countries that tore the country apart. The text says that, “there are no schools for the girls in the village or the camps.” If anything I took this to show that while we stereotype Afghan society as not making education of females important, that international relief groups don’t either. The great saviors aren’t teaching the girls in the camps, a mom and her daughter come once a week. There is a subtle yet powerful critique of foreign policy there, if you want to really be honest, I think this should be made more clear. At the end of the day the strong Afghan people are putting their country back together after a never ending illegal conflict has ravaged them further.
The author says in his note at the end that this book is based on real people he met in refugee camps when he returned to his homeland and that this book is a tribute to the strong Afghan people, particularly the women. Imagine where any war torn nation would be without the bravery and determination of mothers and teachers, and women who will risk it all for their children and ultimately an entire generation, when politics and power have found other things to value.
The book on its own I think is fine, allbeit written plainly for western readers. Do I wish stories about life in this part of the world didn’t feature war and refugees and education, absolutely. We can argue my experience compared to your experience, to the author’s purpose and intent, to the publisher’s vision. That is the beauty of books, we don’t have to agree and we can discuss and we can all be better for it. There is nothing Islamic in the book other than some of the characters wearing a scarf or chador or hijab.