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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga. Balzer & Bray, Harper. 2019. $21.00 ages 11 and up

"There is an Arabic proverb that says:

She makes you feel
like a loaf of freshly baked bread.
It is said about
the nicest
The type of people
who help you

I just spent a perfect day in the warmth of the back porch reading to my heart's content. One of the books I read was this novel in verse that shares the journey of a young Syrian girl and her pregnant mother from their war-torn homeland to a new life in the United States.

Jude's life in Syria has become increasingly dangerous. She lives there with her parents and her 'superhero' older brother. Political unrest in their homeland is causing strife within their own family. Issa is not content to sit back and do nothing. The family fears that his activism may create an even more dangerous existence for their family. He wants to go to Aleppo to help those in need. Baba, Jude's father, decides that Jude and her mother must move to Cincinnati to live with family there. Baba will stay and look after their store; Issa will not leave when he is needed to fight the oppression that threatens Syria.

Life in America is quite a culture shock for Jude and her mother. They do not speak the language, the pace of life is chaotic and loud. Their life with Jude's uncle and his family is tenuous to begin with, although her uncle is welcoming. It takes time for all to accustom themselves to a new reality. Jude's aunt is excited to have her husband's family with them. Jude's mother is reticent. Jude's cousin Sarah, in middle school as is Jude, doesn't want to garner attention for this new person in her life.

"I love the way Aunt Michelle
greets me every morning with a plate of pancakes. grader
The way she speaks slowly
so that I can understand her,
and always smiles like she understands me,
even when I know my accent is thick
and I have put the words in the wrong order."

Once school starts, Jude begins to make friends. Her ESL class offers the support of a welcoming and patient teacher. There are four students, with varying abilities with the English language and they know exactly how Jude feels. Her abiding interest in the movies and music provides Jude an opportunity to audition for the school musical. Her daily walks in the neighborhood lead her to a Middle Eastern restaurant and a new friend, Layla.

Treatment of Muslim people is not always fair and right. Jude is the object of some racist comments. Despite that, she learns to love her new home, while still holding Syria in her heart. Jude's strong poetic narrative allows readers a close look at the emotions felt as she navigates all that is happening to her. She is initially apprehensive, always brave, sometimes scared, righteously angry, and still willing to do the work it takes to find a new life with her mother and baby sister.

There are powerful moments, both uplifting and heart-wrenching. Through it all, Jude proves she has what it takes to make the best of the cards she is dealt and to find support from family and new friends.

"I shake my head and
blink away my tears.
I tell her I was thinking of Issa.
She squeezes my shoulder again.

He's going to be okay, 
and he would be so proud of you.
Her eyes wander around the room
and find Mama, who is surrounded by lots of friends.
New friends,
American friends.

He'd be so proud of all of you."

In an author's note Ms. Warga reminds us:

"I will
show that you don't need to be afraid of these children
who are fleeing from a war zone. That they want the same
things all of us do - love, understanding, safely, a chance at

We're in a period of human history where empathy is
needed more than ever. As the mother of two little girls,
I'm constantly trying to teach them the idea that no one
every grows poor from giving. That sharing what you have
does not make what you have worth any less. I guess that's
what this book is really about - the ever-growing need for

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