Hiss-s-s-s! by Eric Kimmel

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Hiss-s-s-s!

So um ya, its a book about a boy who wants a pet snake. Very linear, very simple, often more instructional than story, but somehow I really enjoyed it and read it in one sitting, as did my 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. The book is 154 pages (including the author’s note) and is written on an AR 3.7 level.

SYNOPSIS:

Omar is an American Muslim who wants a snake.  His dad, Ahmed, supports the idea, but his mother, Hoda, is terrified of snakes, and begrudgingly gives her permission.  The rules are pretty simple, Omar will have to take care of the pet, and it is never to leave his room.  His mother basically doesn’t want to know that there is a snake under the same roof.  Little sister Zara is just excited.  The majority of the book is Omar learning about corn snakes, and everything involved in their care.  There are a lot of lists, and passages about him researching and taking notes. His friend Philip, nicknamed Samkatt-short for Samurai Cat, is the comical sidekick, who in this case also is the brains in the group, keeps the plot moving along. The author sprinkles in some anecdotes and history giving the characters depth.  We learn Ahmed’s dad is from Pakistan and while he grew up in the city he spent time in the country and with snakes.  He retells a fictional story about how snakes kept the rodent population down, and thus allowed the farmers in his family to have higher grain yields.  He also tells Omar tidbits about his time in college working in a biology lab with snakes.  Omar’s mom is an accomplished artist that often incorporates her Lebanese culture into her work and gallery shows.  The banter between her and Samkatt keep the story light and entertaining.  (SPOILER ALERT) At the climax, the snake gets loose, and Omar learns where his mother’s phobia comes from in her childhood.  During one of Lebanon’s many wars, a man with a snake tattoo beat her father extensively while she was forced to watch.  This somehow over time developed in to Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes.  When the snake pops up, mayhem ensues, resulting in Hoda going to the hospital and Omar having to decide what to do with his snake, Arrow.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It is such a simple story, yet the warmth of the characters at the beginning and end really made it enjoyable.  I truly applaud the author for stretching a very simple idea into a full fledged YA novel.  The characters and family are Muslim, but it isn’t really discussed or made an issue.  There is nothing religious talked about or detailed.  In some ways, it would have been nice to throw a little more cultural or religious depth in to the story to connect with the characters, but being as the author is not Muslim it is kind of impressive that he presented them as just a regular American family.  Culturally there are only a few references outside of the anecdotes the parents share: Omar can’t come up with an example of when he was bullied, some of the foods served or eaten, the mother’s art work.

FLAGS:

None. Even if you don’t like snakes, the book should not make you squeamish.

TOOLS FOR TEACHING THE DISCUSSION:

There is not much to discuss with the book, and thus I wouldn’t choose it for a book club pick.  I think 2nd or 3rd graders, however,would do well with the book in small groups.  There is just a tinge of foreshadowing, symbolism, and interpretation that wouldn’t overwhelm the student, but would boost their confidence when they connect the dots so to speak.  Plus, some discussion could come from how he had to persuade his family, the responsibility he had to show, and the sequencing of events. The worksheets and questions would practically write themselves.

Author Eric Kimmel’s blog about the book http://ericakimmel.com/2012/02/h-i-s-s-s-s-s/

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