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Monday, January 25, 2010

Nasreen's Secret School, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster, 2009. $21.99 ages 6 and up

"Poor Nasreen sat at home all day,
because girls are forbidden to attend school.
The Taliban soldiers don't want girls to learn about the world,
the way Nasreen's mama and I learned
when we were girls."

Jeanette Winter begins with an 'author's note' that tells readers of her journey to its publication. The story of Nasreen was shared by one of the founders of the secret schools that were established in Afghanistan while the Taliban held power. At that time girls were not allowed to go to school and women weren't allowed to work outside the home, leave home without a male chaperone, and had to wear a burqa that covered their entire body, but for their eyes. So many things were lost in a child's life, including family.

Nasreen's story is told by her grandmother, a woman who defied the ruling Taliban and showed great courage to make her granddaughter's life better. She did so in the face of great danger to herself.

Nasreen's parents are both missing and she lives in sadness and silence, awaiting their return. Her grandmother is very worried about her and decides that Nasreen should attend a secret school for girls. Taking a great risk, she hurries her granddaughter through the lanes to a green gate where Nasreen is made welcome. Her silence remains, and while threats are made to the learning being done, the girls continue to learn about the world beyond the gate. Nasreen needs nothing. She is unresponsive and alone. When winter brings a long break from school, Grandmother and Nasreen continue the vigil for their family. Once school resumes another student, Mina, is brave enough to tell Nasreen that she has missed her. It is just what Nasreen needs to break her silence. In doing so, she shares her story and her deep sadness with her new friend. It is a marked change in the young girl. She begins to learn to read, write and do math this knowledge sustains her. Her abiding interest in this new world gives her grandmother strength to move forward, with a sense of certainty that soldiers will never be able to take away what Nasreen has gained while attending the 'secret school'.

Books like this one make us part of the world community, giving us an opportunity to know how other children live. It invites open discussion about war and how it affects children, how it changes their lives and how it causes people to be even more courageous in the face of such adversity. It shows us the resilience of the human spirit and informs our hearts and minds.

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