When I was a child I had a very vague sense of global conflicts in other countries. Because of my Bloom County comics I knew a bit about apartheid in South Africa. Later as a teen I heard The Cranberries sing “Zombie” and eventually learned a bit about the troubles in Northern Ireland. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, however, had a lousy pop culture PR department. Nowhere in the whole of my childhood did I encounter anything that even remotely explained the problems there. Heck it wasn’t until college that I got an inkling of what the deal was. Even then, it was difficult for me to comprehend. Kids today don’t have it much easier (and can I tell you how depressing it is to know that the troubles that existed when I was a child remain in place for children today?). They do, however, have a little more literature at their disposal. For younger kids there are shockingly few books. For older kids and teens, there are at least memoirs like Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat or Palestine by Joe Sacco. What about the middle grade options? Historically there have been a couple chapter books covering the topic, but nothing particularly memorable comes to mind. Enter Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah. Written by the acclaimed author of the YA novel Does My Head Look Big in This?, Abdel-Fattah wades into waters that children’s book publishers generally shy away from. Hers is the hottest of hot topics, but she handles her subject matter with dignity and great storytelling.
Hayaat was beautiful once. That’s what her family would tell you. But since an accident involving the death of her best friend, she’s remained scarred and, to be blunt, scared. Hayaat lives in Bethlehem in the West Bank in 2004. Her family occupies a too small apartment and is preparing for the wedding of Hayaat’s sister Jihan. Unfortunately there are curfews to obey and constant checkpoints to pass. When Hayaat’s beloved Sitti Zeynab grows ill, Hayaat decides to put away the past and do the impossible. She will travel to her grandmother’s old home across the wall that divides the West Bank to bring some soil from in front of her old house. With her partner-in-crime Samy by her side, Hayaat reasons that the trip is attainable as it’s just a few miles. What she doesn’t count on, however, is the fact that for a Palestinian kid to make that trip, it may as well be halfway across the world. Hayaat, however, is determined and along the way she’s able to confront some of the demons from her past.
In a lot of ways this book is a good old-fashioned quest novel. You have your heroine, battle scarred, sending herself into a cold cruel world to gain the impossible. That the impossible would be a simple sample of soil doesn’t take anything away from the poignancy of her intent. By her side is her faithful sidekick, and along the way she meets a variety of different people. Some are bad, some are good, and all are human. So it’s a quest novel, sure, but it’s also a family dynamics novel. The story does a great job of making this an accessible novel to all kids so you believe in Hayaat’s family through and through. From her overbearing mother to her silent father to her grandmother, caught up in dreams and memories. You care about these people. You desperately want a happy ending for them.
Needless to say, if a person writes a book about Palestinians for kids, be it a picture book or a novel, it’s going to be considered a contentious subject. It’s easy to avoid such subjects. Most middle grade does. Abdel-Fattah is to be commended for her guts then. Though her critics will try to find fault with her depictions of Israel, Abdel-Fattah’s restraint is remarkable. There is a moment in this book when a curfew is in place and Hayaat peeks out at the streets at the Israeli soldiers patrolling there. She notes how young they are and how they must have families somewhere. That doesn’t stop her from remembering how her best friend was killed with rubber bullets, of course. Later we hear the tale from Hayaat’s grandmother of how she lost her home. When she and her husband went back, there were new residents living there. Through a translator they hear how the woman’s family died in the Holocaust and there’s that moment of feeling simultaneous pity and horror and anger. Regardless, one family has taken another family’s home which is wrong and not a difficult thing to understand. What Abdel-Fattah does is continually show that everyone in this situation is human. You’ll see similar techniques when authors write middle grade novels about Jim Crow in the American South. In those books you’ll usually find one sympathetic white person in the midst of racists. Similarly, this novel has Mali and David, two Israeli’s who object to the situation in the Middle East and have returned from their new country of residence to try and change things. Through their eyes you see that there is never a single way of thinking about something.
There are a lot of things I admire about this book but it’s the humor I particularly respect. This book is chock full of situations that are not funny. Curfews are not funny. Dehumanization of citizens is not funny. But between these bad times are moments of levity. You care deeply about Hayaat and her family and the little snatches of dialogue we get between characters can be telling. At one point Hayaat’s grandmother explains to her that husband was killed by getting run over by a car shortly after understanding that he’d never be able to return to his home. Hayaat interrupts by asking if he died of a broken heart. “ ‘Yes, of course it was,’ she says, looking confused. And every other part of his body. It was a big car’.”
There were a couple practical storytelling elements I would have changed, had I the power. For example, the moment when Hayaat pours the Jerusalem soil over her grandmother’s hands occurs on page 237. Yet we have a good seventy pages left to go at that point. Admittedly, there’s a lot of backstory to sum up. There’s Jihan’s wedding and the street kid that convinces Samy that he might contain the key to getting out of this life. Still, it was surprising to get past the most exciting elements of the book only to find everything was to be slowly slowly rectified. Another thing I would have included was an Author’s Note on the history of the region. The book sort of makes the assumption that kids are already aware of the history of Palestine and what it has been through. It assumes that they know why there are Israeli soldiers and checkpoints. Even a map of the region would have been important, particularly if it showed the remarkably short route Hayaat and Samy attempt to take. It would be interesting to hand this book to a kid who knew nothing about Israel/Palestine and see how much they comprehend. I suspect that this book would appeal to such kids with a yen for contemporary realistic fiction, but it would pair even better with taught units about Israel/Palestine today.
Getting kids to care about children like themselves in other countries is difficult. Getting kids to care about children in countries they may not have even heard of before is even more difficult. Certainly this book pairs beautifully with Barakat’s aforementioned Tasting the Sky. Both books beautifully convey an untenable situation that cries out for resolution. Abdel-Fattah’s book fills a massive gap in collections everywhere. This is a book worth reading. Hopefully lots of folks will.
On shelves November 1st.
Source: Galley sent for review from publisher.
- Ramblings of a Writer
- Wondrous Reads
- Hodge-Podge Books
- Our Crew’s Reviews
- Reading Through Life
- Steph Bowe’s Hey! Teenager of the Year
- Kiss the Book
Other Online Reviews:
- The book was the winner of the Gold in the 2009 Inky Awards (a teen choice award given out in Australia). The Silver, by the way, went to The Hunger Games.
- It was also shortlisted for the 2010 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.
Notes on the Cover:
A book is a lot more fun to review when it’s been published in a couple other countries first. I’ve nothing against the American cover, but I think that if I was a kid I’d be more inclined to pick up the original jacket (which is Australian). Then again, they are totally cheating with Hayaat’s face here.
Oh, the scars! How on earth does she live with them?
Other covers tap into the foot trend out there in jacketing:
It was even translated into Arabic. This one also covers up the scars, but at least you get a hint of them. The illustrator talks a bit about this cover here.
By the way, how awesome is this artist Nour Bishouty? Check out her blog. I may have to become a regular reader.