Robert Munsch is a staple in most classrooms and libraries, but somehow, much to my embarrassment, I just learned about this book. Originally published in 1995 with a different illustrator, I read the newer version that was rereleased in 2017. I’m not sure how they differ, but they stem from an autobiographical experience of the co-author Saossan Askar, and her leaving of the war in Lebanon. She wrote to the author and their letters back and forth are how the book came to fruition.
The 24 page picture book is an AR 3.5 and my guess it is because of the content a bit more than the reading level. While it never gets graphic or sensationalized, she does leave a war zone of bombs and shootings, and the words may trigger fear in younger children.
As the book progresses, the focus is much more on Saoussan settling in to her new life and the hiccups along the way. From not knowing what anyone is saying, to sneaking out of class to go to the bathroom, and being frightened by a paper skeleton. The book gives concrete examples that while silly, really show how someone unfamiliar with a new culture could be very confused and even scared.
The book has a happy ending with Saoussan adjusting and making friends and even becoming the best reader and speller in her class. She also gets in trouble often for talking too much.
The book, like many in the genre of discussing war and refugees on a child’s level has its strengths and weaknesses. The heart of the story I would say is wonderful, the illustrations lively and engaging, some of the transitions and details, however, are a bit abrupt and unsatisfying. Once you know that it is based on reality and came about through letters, it makes more sense, but even that is a concept older readers will appreciate more than younger ones will.
I checked the book out from the public library and I think does a great job of inspiring empathy. It is vague as to what conflict is being left which makes it timeless in that I, unfortunately don’t see refugees disappearing soon. The mom wears hijab, but there is no mention of religion in the book.
Here are the letters from his website: https://robertmunsch.com/book/from-far-away
From Far Away started with this letter:
To Robert Munsch
I am a little girl. My name is Saoussan. I am seven years old. I am in grade two now. I came to Canada one and half year ago. I didn’t know how to speak English at all. I was just sitting and listening. A lot of funny things happened to me.
Children were trying to talk to me, but I was not able to answer them. I began to talk a little by little.
I finished grade one and now I am in grade two. The teacher now is complaining to my dad that I am talking a lot in the class and I read and write a lot of stories.
One day I found a book called Thomas’s Snowsuit. I read it and I laughed with my family.
I went to the library and I brought some of your books. I enjoyed reading them. I even read them to my dad that he laughed so hard he could not stop laughing.
Please come to our school we want to hear a story from you and we want to see you.
I wrote back and asked her what “funny things” had happened. Saoussan wrote back telling me about her first Halloween in Canada:
To: Robert Munsch
Thank you for your letter. My teacher read it to the class and he said: I am not going to tell the class the funny thing that happened to her when she was in kindergarten and I am not going to embarrass you.
I don’t remember all of the funny things. But I remember one thing.
When I wanted to go to the washroom I didn’t know how to say I want to go to the washroom. That’s why I used to crawl to the door and when the teacher turns her head and looks at the other side I crawl under my friend’s desk and when someone opens the door I crawl out and go to the washroom.
When I come back from the washroom I wait beside the door and when someone opens the door I crawl in and go to my desk.
Once I crawled to the washroom. When I opened the washroom door I saw a skeleton. Then I screamed: Aaaaahhhhhhhhh!
Everybody came out. My teacher, Mrs. Garwan came, opened the washroom door and she tried to tell me that it is Halloween time and the skeleton is paper.
I didn’t understand her and I didn’t know what Halloween is.
She jumped up and down and danced around to explain to me that Halloween is just fun, but I thought the skeleton made her crazy and I screamed louder.
Then she hugged me to make me feel better and I jumped on her lap and the pee went down my knees. She put me down because she got wet.
Now I am in grade 2/3 and I am the best reader and speller in the class. This year when it was Halloween I weared a mask and a costume and we did a party at school. Then I went with my sister trick or treating to the neighbours.
Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please come to our school.
I liked her letters so much that I decided to turn them into a book.
So Saoussan and I wrote a lot of letters back and forth and we made the letter into a book. Saoussan and I are both the authors and we split the royalties.