Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber.
Crown Books for Young Readers, Penguin Random House, New York, 2020.
MG portal fantasy, 294 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: not yet leveled.
Sami’s family has recently moved, her beloved Teta is speaking gibberish, and there’s a plan to put her in a nursing home. In desperation, Sami tries finding and reciting something from her grandmother’s spellbook, even though she doesn’t believe magic is real – right until she falls through the portal into Silverworld.
Many aspects of this will resonate with readers beyond the Lebanese-American children for whom this book is a mirror. Sami feels stuck between two cultures: her family’s traditional Lebanese culture, and the American lifestyle that surrounds her. To her, the closest connection to her culture is her grandmother’s stories and precious artifacts (although her family also has other aspects, such as her mother’s cooking). Although I am not Lebanese, that aspect of the book rung very true to my own life experiences. Parents and other community members play an important role, but the wisdom of elders and bond between a child and their grandparent is stronger than most other forms of cultural transmission I’ve seen.
There were some very interesting layers here in the connections between our real world (called the Actual world in the book) and the Silverworld. Unfortunately most of those poignant bits are also spoilers, so I’ll discuss them obliquely here. Sami meets a family that helps her grow in her understanding of herself. She does a few very stupid things, which I so appreciated – people often make big blunders in real life, why wouldn’t they also miss obvious clues in a fantasy world? I also loved the imagination of the giant rotifer, the ever falling darkness, and other elements of Abu-Jaber’s fantasy world. At moments like those, the huge potential of this story shined through.
Despite the appeal, I wonder who the audience for this would be. There’s a bit too much contemporary plot to appeal to hardcore fantasy lovers, but definitely more magic than most realistic fiction readers tolerate. The fantasy and real life culture lines were also too blurred. Because as far as I recall, this was the first Lebanese book I’d ever read, and I’m not familiar with the culture, it frequently felt like work trying to figure out what elements of the story were fantastical versus based on real aspects of Lebanese culture.
Personally, I don’t wish for the worldbuilding aspects of a MG novel to take any special effort to figure out – but I do wonder whether the intended audience would notice or be bothered by that at all! None of my children have read it yet so they have not been able to give me their perspective either.
Another area that needed balance was the number of issues. Besides dealing with her own identity and cultural orientation on several levels (and in two worlds), Sami is working through grief over her father’s death, isolation and grief around their move, the sudden and unexpected loss of her dog, a deep fear of the ocean, her grandmother’s dementia and pending move into a nursing home, and shortcomings in the family finances. Then there is the usual family conflict between her and her brother, another relative she dislikes, disagreements with her mother, and the general angst of growing from a sheltered young child to a more mature child.
While it is certainly not unrealistic that one family or child could have all these problems happening at once, adding all these aspects together with the portal fantasy aspect, the second world and all the fantastical drama, and the necessity of explaining a culture unfamiliar to many readers… becomes a lot for a book under 300 pages. This causes Abu-Jaber to take shortcuts in description and plotting which lessen her impact and occasionally confuse the reader.
I didn’t dislike this book and wished to keep reading, but I also felt okay walking away from it several times to finish other, more compelling reads. It seems the author is well versed in writing for adults, and I hope her next book will appeal more broadly to a middle grade audience. Actually, even this book has plenty of room for a sequel.
While my overall review is rather lukewarm, what I really hope is that this gets optioned into a movie or series, or even a graphic novel. I normally prefer books over movies, but think a visual representation of this particular story would solve many of the problems. The Technicolor Dreamworld aspects of Silverworld would be more concisely conveyed through images, and that would also help keep track of where one is, and what is cultural influences vs. imagination.
[ETA 2022-03-10. ISL has a review. I would agree with her assessment that it’s aimed more at the lower end of MG, although I’d still add it to a middle school library as I don’t know of any other MG Lebanese fiction.]