One of the things I enjoy in my reading life is to find multicultural titles for a great teacher to include in her middle school classroom library. She had both of my children in her class and does a tremendous job of bringing the world to a roomful of children who rarely, if ever, have much contact with people of any age who are not exactly like them. I generally just pass on the reviews, but once in a while, a title sticks with me and I try to take time to read it. Other Words for Home struck a chord in me because my own children were immigrants from a country once feared and still subject to prejudice. The final reason for picking this one up was the story’s location: Cincinnati, Ohio, just about 40 miles west on highway 32. It’s where we go if we go “to town” here. I loved that it wasn’t a New York story.
7th grader Jude (pronounced Jude-ah) and her pregnant mother arrive in Cincinnati from Syria to stay with her mother’s brother, a doctor married to an American with a daughter the same age as Jude. The story tells of her first school year in America. She lives in a part of Cincinnati close to the University and its medical center and which is far more multi-cultural than where I live. She finds the Ali-Baba restaurant owned by the parents of a girl in her grade at school and makes a first friend. From there the story progresses through time spent with her new friend, Layla, through the exchanges in her English as a Second Language class and in other areas of her life. She unexpectedly tries out for the school musical and meets a boy who convinces her that being different is good.
As an adult reading the story I thought the main characters–Jude, Layla, and Miles, were all a bit too mature–too self-aware and too articulate, especially on big issues. An example would be Jude realizing so quickly that American’s leave the difficult things unsaid for the newcomer to fill in. Questions such as “When you were in....[Syria]” that sort of thing. I also thought Miles a little too adult in realizing that being different was good–thankfully his “difference” is age-appropriate–he loves astronomy.
Looking at the book as a child in anywhere from about 3rd to maybe 7th grade, I thought the story was of “big kids” who were older and cooler–and it all worked. I did love that Jude defends her wearing hijab in the way a child would see it–she has had her first period and now gets her longed-for rite of passage to womanhood by having her mother help her put on the scarf. She sees herself differently now, which is how a rite of passage should impact a young person. I also like that her maturation was emphasized by having her recognize that her Mom was trying to protect her, not destroy her by not mailing her letters to her best friend back in Syria. Finally, I liked that she (like I did) called on the actions of her big brother to make her be brave.
My one regret was that Jude “found herself” as an American by meeting a boy. Of course, having friends who are boys is fine! And, no there was no real romance, Of course to the age group the book is aimed at this would be very cool. I just hoped we could get beyond the boy “rescuing” the girl. Again, that is a matter of an adult’s versus a child’s take on things.
This is an excellent story, very well-told. It lacked the now eye-rollingly frequent homages to politically correct thought and woke-ness that would have destroyed it, which is a tribute to both the author and the publisher. It deserves the awards and accolades it has received.
I rarely give 5 full stars
I listened to the excellent audio performance.
Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga currently $1.99 for Kindle