Review: A Country Called Amreeka

“Today there are at least an estimated 3.5 million Americans of Arabic-speaking descent, and they live in all fifty states. […] The purpose of this book isn’t to separate them out but to fold their experience into the mosaic of American history and deepen our understanding of who we Americans are.” p. xi

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A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives by Alia Malek.
Free Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009.
Nonfiction, 292 pages.
Not leveled.

A walk through American history through the lives of a wide variety of Arab-Americans.

A Country Called Amreeka resized

I picked this book up on a whim, but it turned out to be very interesting nonetheless.  Mostly, I wanted to know why America was misspelled in the title (Amreeka is the Arabic word for America), and after looking at the blurb, I thought this could be an interesting perspective on American history which I personally had not very much considered before.

Much like Prisoners Without Trial, this book opened my eyes to another important part of American history.  Similar to that book, this one also deals with a limited time period, since immigration laws prevented large numbers of Arab immigrants prior to the 1960s.  However, Malek tells her story in a very different (although just as engaging) way.

After a brief forward explaining the background, format and scope of the book, she takes snapshots from various Arab-American lives and uses them to illustrate a wide variety of experiences and time periods.  In between these vignettes are brief chapters that give immigration statistics, updates on legal and cultural developments, and information about world politics that had bearing on Arab-American lives.

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C&C: Two Novels about Sudanese Refugees

A comparison and contrast of two similar middle grade books.

Last summer, N and I read two novels about Sudanese refugees.

One was A Long Walk to Water: A Novel Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park.  Although this was reviewed first, I actually read it second.

The other was The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane Evans.  I read this one first and then traded with N, who had read Long Walk to Water first.

A Long Walk to Water

One book is a novel closely based on a true story, while the other is a wholly fiction novel in verse with illustrations.  The main character of The Red Pencil is a girl who is displaced within Sudan, while A Long Walk to Water follows a boy who is displaced outside of Sudan.

The two characters face very different pressures within the same conflict.  Both witness the traumatic deaths of family members.  Both are survivors who try to hold on to hope and be a force for good in the world.  Both suffer.  Both lose their homes and most of their families and feel like they have lost their country.  Amira finds her religion as a source of hope, while for Salva the idea of improving other people’s lives motivates him.  Salva is forced to flee further and faster because for him the consequence is to be forcibly conscripted as a child soldier if not outright murdered.  Amira is able to flee more slowly and keep some family and neighborhood connections because women and female children were aggressively pursued in a different manner, which is glossed over in this children’s book.  Both characters are in danger of their lives, and both are surprised when the violence suddenly erupts in their hometowns.

Both of these books are written by marginalized authors, but neither are written by a Sudanese refugee.  One of these is written by a Korean-American, closely referring to the true story of one Sudanese refugee and American immigrant.  The other is written and illustrated by African-Americans.

The Red Pencil cover resized

Which do I recommend?  Well that depends.  By reading both of these within a close time period, I felt like we got a decent overview of Sudanese refugees from two different viewpoints.  Together, they gave us a broader viewpoint than we would have gotten with only one.  However, we didn’t find a middle grade nonfiction text, which I would have liked to supplement these books.

The Red Pencil is better suited to younger readers, because while it does contain suspense and incredibly sad and awful events, the narrator is “safe” (we know she survives to write the story) and the violence is comparatively downplayed.  I probably wouldn’t use it in the classroom with students below fourth grade, but it could be appropriate for individual children who are younger.  This book could be read up into middle school, and probably even high school.

However, I didn’t enjoy the poetry and the illustrations didn’t balance that out.  It doesn’t seem to translate well into adult reading (as, for example, A Time to Dance or When the Mountain Meets the Moon do).

A Long Walk to Water works as an adult read, but it is very suspenseful and includes more graphic violence.  I’d use it with middle and high school students but would be cautious about using it with younger students.  Both books are appropriate for middle school students, and a comparison between the two could make for an interesting class discussion.

Generally speaking, both books were interesting, although I preferred A Long Walk to Water.  N enjoyed both books, although I find it telling that she stopped in the middle of The Red Pencil and put it down for an extended period of time.

Any books about Sudan or refugees that you recommend?

Review: The Red Pencil

This illuminated novel in verse tells a story of internal displacement for middle grade readers.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane Evans.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
Middle grade novel in verse, 331 pages including extras but not excerpts.
Lexile:  HL620L  (What does HL mean in Lexile?)
AR Level:  4.2 (worth 3.0 points)  .

Amira is a young village girl who dreams of going to school and learning to read the Koran.  But her mother desires a more traditional life for her.  Then the Janjaweed attack, and it seems like all dreams, and words, are gone forever.  Can a gift restore hope?

The Red Pencil cover resized

This one was a bit of a gamble.  I have yet to dislike a book by any of the Pinkneys – individually and collectively they are so talented that the name alone can sell me on a book.  Plus I have loved Shane Evans’ work, and the kids find his illustrations appealing too.

But.  This is a novel in verse.  I wasn’t actually aware that it was illuminated until after purchasing, and Shane Evans’s illustrations did take the edge off.  But as I’ve said before, novels in verse rarely work for me.  I love poetry and novels, but feel that the combination usually loses something.  For this reason, I don’t often seek those books out unless they come highly recommended or with an author/illustrator team I can’t ignore.

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Review: A Special Fate

“There is a bit of Japanese folklore that made Chiune’s parents think that perhaps their son might be special.” page 1

A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust by Alison Leslie Gold.
Polaris, Scholastic, New York, 2000.
Nonfiction, 176 pages.
Lexile:  980L  .
AR Level: not leveled

The story of one Japanese diplomat who followed his conscience to issue life-saving passports to Jews during World War II, against the orders of his superiors.

A Special Fate Chiune Sugihara resized
A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust by Alison Leslie Gold.

Sugihara was such an interesting figure.  Many of his choices, starting with the one that caused him to eventually become a diplomat, were quite unusual for Japanese society.  His early experiences defying his father look, in retrospect, like preparation for his major act of defiance in issuing the passports.

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Review: A Long Walk to Water

“He ran until he could not run anymore. Then he walked. For hours, until the sun was nearly gone from the sky.” page 9

A Long Walk to Water: A Novel Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2010.
Middle grade realistic fiction, 121 pages.
Lexile:  720L  .
AR Level:  5.0 (worth 3.0 points) .

Southern Sudan, 2008: Nya is a young girl who, for seven months of the year, spends every day walking to a nearby pond and bringing a heavy plastic container back to her family.  After a brief stop for lunch, she repeats the task in the afternoon.  Every day.

Southern Sudan, 1985: Salva is a young boy displaced by the wars and drought that are sweeping through the Sudan.  He, too, walks for miles every day, but without a lunch, home, or destination.  He walks with the hope of survival, unlikely for a young Sudanese boy alone in the world.

A Long Walk to Water

This book has been on my TBR for a while, but originally I was under the impression it was non-fiction.  The afterword has notes from both Salva Dut and author Linda Sue Park, explaining how the story was based on his life, using interviews, personal conversations, and his writings to keep the fictionalized story as close as possible to what actually happened.

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