"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Habibi - A Story of Hope

Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1997. Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0-689-80149-1

Habibi is the story of a family who moves halfway across the world, from St. Louis to Jerusalem.  Fourteen-year-old Liyana has just had her first kiss when her father announces that the family will be moving to his native city of Jerusalem.  He believes the violence there has abated, and now is the perfect time to return.  Liyana is unsure how to feel.  While this may be an exciting adventure, there are so many people and places she will miss.  She is looking forward to meeting her Sitti, grandmother, and the rest of her father's side of the family, but how will she communicate with them?  She does not speak Arabic, and they do not speak English.

Liyana and her brother, Rafik, find they enjoy living in Jerusalem.  The city is beautiful, their family is loving, and she is adjusting nicely to her new school.  But nobody knows her there, what she likes, who her friends were.  She feels like she has to start her life over from scratch.  

As time passes, Liyana starts to feel more at home in Jerusalem and even meets a boy, Omer.  But she is not in America anymore, and the expectations are completely different.  Omer is Jewish, and tensions are running high between the Arabs and the Jews.  Will her family see Omer for who he really is and not just as a Jew?  And what will her family do when the soldiers attack?  Her family and friends are not as safe as she'd like to pretend they are.  Will a shooting and imprisonment leave her family in ruins, or will they be able to rise above it and work towards peace?      

Naomi Shihab Nye draws upon her own experiences of living in Jerusalem when she was a teen to craft this authentic story.  Jerusalem has a long history as a conflict-ridden city.  Through the Abboud family, she is able to show what life is like there for the residents who desperately want peace. 

Arabic is seamlessly interwoven in the text.  Nye sheds light on the differences between American and Arab customs; for example, Liyana is not allowed to wear shorts.  Sitti has never been in an elevator and does not like using the telephone.  Nye also exposes the unfortunate living conditions of those living in the refugee camp.

This novel will appeal to anyone who has ever longed for peace.  Liyana does not let her family's prejudices affect her relationship with Omer.  She is able to look past things such as religion and ethnicity to see people for who they really are.  Teens today have a similar mindset, so they will be able to relate to Liyana.

1998 Jane Addams Children's Book Award Winner

1998 Judy Lopez Memorial Award

ALA Best Book for Young Adults

ALA Notable Children's Book

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY -"This soul-stirring novel about the Abbouds, an Arab American family, puts faces and names to the victims of violence and persecution in Jerusalem today...Nye's climactic ending will leave readers pondering, long after the last page is turned, why Arabs, Jews, Greeks and Armenians can no longer live in harmony the way they once did."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Though the story begins at a leisurely pace, readers will be engaged by the characters, the romance, and the foreshadowed danger. Poetically imaged and leavened with humor, the story renders layered and complex history understandable through character and incident. Habibi succeeds in making the hope for peace compellingly personal and concrete...as long as individual citizens like Liyana's grandmother Sitti can say, "I never lost my peace inside."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "In her first novel, Nye shows all of the charms and flaws of the old city through unique, short-story-like chapters and poetic language. The sights, sounds, and smells of Jerusalem drift through the pages and readers glean a sense of current Palestinian-Israeli relations and the region's troubled history."

Nye is a prolific author and poet.  Have your students read more of her work.
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. There Is No Long Distance Now: Very Short Stories. ISBN 978-0062019653
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. What Have You Lost? ISBN 978-0380733071
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. A Maze Me: Poems for Girls. ISBN 978-0060581916

To give students an idea of the culture shock Liyana experienced, share images with your students of all the places mentioned in the novel. 

To give your students an idea of who Naomi Shihab Nye really is, share this video of Nye reading one of her poems.

Use this novel as a jumping off point to have your students research the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts.

Have students take on the perspective of either Liyana or Rafik.  Have them choose an event from the story and write a journal entry as that character.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

George - Be Who You Are

Gino, Alex. 2015. George. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 978-0-545-81254-2

This middle grade novel is about a boy named George, but George knows she is really a girl.  This is a secret she has not shared with anyone.  It tears her apart inside when others refer to her as a boy or as a soon to be man, but every time she thinks about telling someone, the words get stuck in her mouth.  

George's fourth grade class is going to put on a production of Charlotte's Web, and George really wants to be cast as Charlotte.  If she could only perform as Charlotte, maybe everyone would finally realize that she is a girl, as well.  Unfortunately, her teacher won't even consider her for the part because "he's a boy."  As the story progresses, George struggles with sharing this information about herself with her mother and her best friend, Kelly.

Is George destined to work behind the scenes, while her best friend, Kelly, performs onstage as Charlotte?  And will George ever be able to let the world know who she really is?

Alex Gino has given the world a true gift in this powerful and important novel.  There is a profound lack of children's literature about characters who are transgender, especially for middle grade students.  This timely novel helps fill that gap.  It is beautifully written and completely age appropriate.  It is not about dating or sexuality; it is simply a story about personal identity.  Anyone who has ever felt different will relate to George.  Her dreams of being accepted for who she really is are not all that different than the dreams of most preteens.  Her utter devastation at not only not getting the role of Charlotte, but being dismissed as a joke by her teacher for even reading for the role, will resonate with readers who have ever been unfairly denied something they wanted.  And Kelly's ultimate acceptance of her and their experience together at the zoo will leave readers with a feeling of hope that George's (Melissa's) life is finally moving in the right direction. 

George's mother was a believable character.  She seemed to be in denial that her son was anything other than a typical fourth grade boy.  When she found George's secret stash of magazines, her first instinct was anger and to take them away from her.  As a mother, she doesn't want her child to choose a difficult path in life, and that's what she initially thinks when George tells her that she's a girl.  Fortunately, she does seem to start accepting her child for who she really is at the end of the book, in her words, "one step at a time."

Inevitably, there will be some who feel that the subject matter of this book is too controversial or inappropriate for middle grade students.  To those, I would say that it is my role as a library media specialist to promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of ALL young people.  If today's students are going to grow to be intelligent, empathetic, and kind adults, they need to build an understanding and appreciation of the diversity of the world we live in.  Literature is the best way to expose children to other cultures they may not encounter in their own lives.  George is an exemplary novel that can do just that.

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015 Finalist

Kirkus Reviews Best of 2015

Publishers Weekly Best Books 2015

School Library Journal Best Books 2015

School Library Journal Top 10 Audio Books 2015

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "For George, as is the case for many LGBTQ youth, coming out is a process that she must repeat until she is properly recognized. There is pain in George, but not without the promise of a better tomorrow, even if tomorrow doesn’t arrive as soon as it should. VERDICT A required purchase for any collection that serves a middle grade population."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "George’s joy during stolen moments when she can be herself will resonate with anyone who has felt different, while providing a necessary window into the specific challenges of a child recognizing that they are transgender. Profound, moving, and—as Charlotte would say—radiant, this book will stay with anyone lucky enough to find it."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "George, a fourth-grader who knows she is a girl, despite appearances, begins to tell her secret.  The word “transgender” is used midway through, but far more work is done by the simple choice to tell George’s story using third-person narration and the pronouns “she” and “her.” Readers then cringe as much as George herself when bullies mock her or—perhaps worse—when well-meaning friends and family reassure her with sentiments like “I know you’ll turn into a fine young man.”...Warm, funny, and inspiring."
For teachers who are looking for ways to talk about George in a sensitive manner, Alex Gino has written a blog post that addresses just that.  This is a great resource to use before reading/discussing this book with your students. http://www.alexgino.com/2015/08/how-to-talk-about-george/

Have your students write about a time they felt different from their peers.  Have anyone who is brave enough share their writing with the class.

Check out this blog post for other quality LGBTQ literature for middle grade students. http://www.leewind.org/2009/12/glbtq-middle-grade-bookshelf.html

One of the characters in the story, Jeff, is a classic example of a bully.  Have a discussion with your students about bullying and what they can each do to help a friend who is the victim of a bully.

Kelly is truly George's best friend in every way.  Have students write about their best friend and what that friend does to make them feel special.