Being the new kid, not having friends, and being teased are not new themes in literature (or life), so if you are going to write a book about them, take a lesson from Muslim author Aisha Saeed and make sure the story is heartfelt, emotional, and well-told. There is no Islam in the book, no foreign culture, or teasing because of skin color, it is a boy named Rumi who has moved from San Francisco to the other side of America and his shoes, with their drawings and colorings, that cause the kids to stare and start bullying. Rumi seeks solace under a willow tree and fellow classmate Han has to be brave to put a stop to the mistreatment by finding his voice and not simply staying silent. The text and illustrations provide a lot of opportunities for children to see themselves in the story, in the various characters, and ruminate over the actions and feelings from different points of view. The book is lyrical, it is not heavy handed or preachy, and the Author’s Note at the end is equally touching and hopeful.
Rumi is quiet, and on his first day in Ms. Garza’s class the kids stare at him as he stares out the window. At recess he wanders off to sit beneath the willow tree when Asher, Ella and Han leave the swings to see what he is up to. Asher and Ella start to make fun of Rumi, Han is uncomfortable, but stays quiet.
Rumi recalls coloring his shoes with his friends, and how different it was to where he is now, he picks up a twig to twirl as the hurt grows. In music class when the giggling starts, he tries not to cry. At recess he retreats to his refuge under the tree.
When the bullying escalates, and tears fall, Han speaks up and breaks the cycle. Others follow and see the world Rumi has created with his twig and are drawn to it and to Rumi. Forgiveness is asked for, and granted and the tree becomes a place of friendship and togetherness.
The Author’s Note shares the real life observations of the author about her son in kindergarten and how while heartbreaking, there was also hope in the concern shown by other kids that simply weren’t sure what to do. I love that even though Rumi is being teased for his shoes and being different, he doesn’t stop wearing his shoes or try and clean the drawings off.
I think this book is a must read in classrooms and homes were kids can slowly peel back the pieces and see where they can relate, how they can plan to act, and what parts they identify with. The book is deliberate and slow, and while a child could read it on their own and enjoy the story and illustrations at hand, the real power it has, is being a catalyst for discussion and empathy and speaking up.
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