Book Reviews

Displacement, Diversity & Identity

As I attempt writing my own MG novel, I am drawn to researching more of them, specifically highly acclaimed ones. It’s been a long time since I read middle grade fiction, and my teen years were comprised of reading Sweet Valley Twins, Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys books. I do remember being thrilled with the occasional discovery of Judy Blume books and the Adrian Mole diaries! Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech was also an accidental find during a morning spent at the local bookstore, and although I had no idea who Sharon Creech was back then, I did like the book enough to save it. It now sits proudly on my kids’ bookshelf, waiting for them to grow up.

So it was with much excitement that I picked up these books for my first foray into MG after nearly one and a half decades. Book Twitter helped, as well as my follower feed comprising of many writers of color. I absolutely loved the varied worlds these books let me step into and so I wanted to share those thoughts and feelings. Maybe they will encourage you to pick them up too. In the very least, I hope the authors themselves would read this post and know how much I appreciate them for birthing these books that are sure to be beloved for many generations to come!

The first one I picked up was the very short and succinct Inside out and back again by Thanhha Lai. The blurb goes “Inspired by the author’s childhood experience as a refugee—fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama—this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration” (Amazon). The main character Ha has to flee her hometown of Saigon during the Vietnam war and the story follows her first year in America as a 10-year-old who is extremely intelligent but cannot express herself as she doesn’t know any English.

Oh how I wish I had this book when I was younger (although when it came out in 2011 I would have been very much an adult!). I didn’t even know writing novels in verse was a thing! The author navigates a life changing experience with such sparse language that it seems impossible that she then so successfully makes that world such a vivid one for the reader. I suppose it’s because we feel Ha’s annoyance, anger, confusion, and even excitement despite grieving the loss of everything that is familiar to her; feelings that any child in a similar position would be able to relate to. Being from South Asia myself, her descriptions of the sights, smells, and tastes around her were relatable. One thing that stood out was her how she used symbolism so well, especially the Papaya fruit which is commonly found in Sri Lanka as well. The author says the story was autobiographical and perhaps that was how she knew just what not to say and still have it mean so much – the book is just ~14,000 words. You may finish reading it in a hour or two, but the feelings it invokes will stay with you long after.

The second book I read was Other words for home by Jasmine Warga, which was also written in verse and published more recently in 2019. The main character, 12-year-old Jude, has to flee Syria with her mother to the safety of her uncle’s home in America, leaving behind her father and brother. I drew many parallels with Inside out and back again, as here too was a story with the backdrop of the war in Syria, of being uprooted, of being unsure of when you would be reunited with the rest of your family, having to fit into a new place, and all the resulting complex emotions. Jasmine Warga’s word count is at around ~30,000 words and reads more like a tightly written novel. I read in an interview that the author had changed the book to verse format within two weeks based on feedback from her editor, and I think it certainly does justice to the story. The verse element highlights Jude’s quiet contemplative nature, and serves to dramatize the internal conflict she feels at how she’s viewed by everyone around her who may not really know or understand her. I love her relationship with her mother, and how bonded she is to the rest of her family. While the blurb says “This lyrical, life-affirming story is about losing and finding home and, most importantly, finding yourself“, I also think this is an ode to how we can truly never know anyone or what they’ve been through. And that while it isn’t important to share all those intimate parts with the world, it is important to use those challenges to propel yourself forward and face life head-on.

The last book I read was The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani published in 2018. Described as “a poignant, personal, and hopeful tale of India’s partition, and of one girl’s journey to find a new home in a divided country” (Amazon). While this one was not in verse and is a regular ~50,000 word MG novel, its unique epistolary form of storytelling allowed me to really see the world through the eyes of the main character. 12-year-old Nisha’s letters to a mother who she never knew are written in the backdrop of the partition of India into two new countries. Nisha is half-Muslim and half-Hindu, a part of her identity that she never deemed important till society decided to make it so. The author captures beautifully the innocence, the questioning, and also the longing of the character to just be loved and accepted by her father. I especially loved the sibling relationship that was woven strongly throughout the story, and how her brother’s love and comfort gave Nisha the confidence to overcome her fears. There are many moments of sadness and loss, but they are balanced always with hope for a better future.

Some things that struck me were how much these books had in common:

  • Written in the backdrop of war and death and loss.
  • Protagonists are colored and from marginalized communities, thus falling under the ‘diverse’ label.
  • Involves the protagonist leaving behind her home to a foreign place.
  • Highlights strong familial bonds

As a child who grew up in a country that had an ongoing civil war for more than half my lifetime but also in a country where family is very close to each other, I feel drawn to stories like this. And while it gave me a sense of gratitude that I haven’t had to face such tragedy in such close proximity, it also drew on a place inside me that is obviously scarred by the aftermath of what went on around me.

I wish I had these books to read when I was younger, so that I could have known I wasn’t alone, but most of all to have empathy and understanding of what the ‘other side’ goes through. No matter where we are, or what we believe in, there is and always will be ‘another side’. And while us adults wage wars – big or small- on each other, our children are watching, learning and experiencing things that will last them a lifetime. I think we could all do with this dose of reality.

6 thoughts on “Displacement, Diversity & Identity”

  1. THE NIGHT DIARY is also a favorite of mine, and I remember being so moved by the protagonist’s experience of having to leave her home and all she is familiar with. The story lingered with me for a long time. I enjoyed INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN as well, but I’m afraid I read it so long ago I don’t remember it as well. Your description of OTHER WORDS FOR HOME has prompted me to request this book from my library, and I look forward to reading it in the near future. Thank you, Thush, for these reviews!

      1. Some of my favorite middle grade novels of 2020 were: The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin, The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead, When Stars Are Scattered – a graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (recommended to me by a group of fourth graders), and finally Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – a very powerful and heart-wrenching story about sexual abuse, but also told with humor and in a manner that is appropriate for middle grade students.

        A YA book I loved that I read this past year was THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE, a historical novel by Ruta Sepetys. She is an amazing author, who can take subjects I know little about, or think I have no interest in, and make them compelling stories. Her novel SALT TO THE SEA was another story that I thought about for a long time after reading it.

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