This is not a religious story, it is part cultural, but it is really all heart. The sweet relationship between a boy and his sidi stole my heart in The Turtle of Oman, and in this stand alone companion book, I once again was swept away by the admiration and relationship of the two. This lyrical middle grade book is slow and enveloping with its cadence and detail. There is no real climax, but the character driven story will linger long after the last of the 322 pages are read. The book is clean, and never states the characters are Muslim, but it hints at it. It celebrates Oman and America, and would be a great read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime with its poetic passages, lists, and emails back and forth across the ocean.
Aref has finally left Oman for Michigan and as he and his mother board the plane and start their adventure to America to join their father who has gone ahead to set everything up, Aref’s heart aches for all he has known in Oman, and for his beloved grandfather. Once in Michigan, his days are filled with tagging along with his parents to their university classes, exploring Ann Arbor, making friends, and getting to know the neighbors. Everything in America is new and different, but sometimes the same too. He writes messages catching his Sidi up on all that he is taking in, and Sidi writes back, but it isn’t the same. From new flavors of ice cream, the first snow, celebrating Christmas for the first time, and giving a speech on Martin Luther King Jr Day in an Omani hat, there are so many new things Aref feels his Sidi is missing, if only he would come and visit.
Sidi on the other side of the world is lonely. He is trying to take computer classes so he can email his grandson, he can’t figure out how to message on his smart phone, and tries to avoid going anywhere that reminds him of Aref. But he and Aref went everywhere in his jeep, so Sidi doesn’t go out, and is not doing well as a result. It will be three long years before they return to Oman, and Sidi might need to be brave and board a plane. The reunion is not a surprise for the reader, only for Aref, but it is tender and warm and worth the journey for them both.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I wish there was some clear Islam, there is mention of not celebrating Christmas normally, a prayer room at the airport, peace be upon him when there is a death, and prayer beads, so it is possibly there if you search, but it isn’t at the same time. I know I say this a lot in books like this, but it seems that when the religion and culturally religious words are withheld it seems a bit hollow. A family coming straight from Oman to America doesn’t say Assalamualaikum ever, or make dua when hardships arise, or say InshaAllah or MashaAllah? It seems watered down and overly dismissed. I guess the way Christmas is framed is understandable, they are trying so many new American things they decide to give each other one gift to try it too, I wish though Ramadan would have been mentioned or Eid.
All that being said, I absolutely love Aref and the world through his daily actions. He is endearing and his love for his grandpa is goals. I love that Aref’s new school is so diverse and that everyone is celebrated and accepted, it isn’t a story of him being the new kid, but rather them all bringing something unique to the school experience. The first graders as conflict resolvers is either a bit hard to believe or based on something real and absolutely brilliant, I am still undecided about that. Also as an adult reader, I couldn’t help but notice how money never seems to be a problem, and while I don’t know if children will pick up on it, it seemed a little surprising for two parents that are professors to never stress about it.
The language and emotional pull the story has is remarkable, and I think the slower pace would be hard for kids to get used to initially, but it will win them over and the rhythm of the story will hook them and make it hard for them to put the book down once they get going.
Some bullying discussions
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Too young for any book clubs I host, but definitely want it on the library shelf.