I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published. The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away. This book unfortunately really fell flat. I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps. This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why. The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me. It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.
Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh. Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors. Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way. Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts. Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist. Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening. Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer. When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income. At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves. Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English. A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength. It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should. The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab. Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned. The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected. I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.
I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like. I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira. How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t. I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings. I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing. It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading. I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either. If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.
Fairly clean. There is bullying and mention of death.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club. It is a solid middle grade read. Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya. Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.