The author of this wonderful middle grades novel reached out to me after I reviewed her book A Galaxy of Sea Stars, to let me know that this book too has a Muslim character. As we exchanged emails back and fourth I learned more about her work with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven Connecticut (IRIS), and the impact the people she has met there have on her and her writing (the new paperback version of Galaxy has bonus content that reflects this). Allies and advocates are gifts for Muslims and for our fictional representation. The details and warmth of her Muslim character, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, is seamless and accurate, and while this is not his story, his support of the main character helps normalize Muslims as friends and in daily life. He takes time out for his five daily prayers, he refuses to shake a female’s hand, and he uses the word inshaAllah. The story is Ruby’s though, and her journey pulls you in from the first chapter and leaves you cheering for her long after you close the book. Over 295 pages (AR 4.1) you witness Ruby find her voice, dare to not be invisible, accept friendship, and help others.
Ruby has just moved to frozen Vermont from their last “forever home” in Florida. Originally from D.C., Ruby and her mom have been moving to places they have vacationed to try and find joy. Since Ruby’s father, a police officer, died, the two of them have been broken and barely surviving. The only constant is a cousin, Cecy, who helps them out and convinces Ruby’s mom to come back to her childhood town of Fortin, and to be closer to her. The winter is bitter, the house is freezing, and even with Cecy arranging for Ruby’s mom to have a job, it only takes a day for Ruby’s mom to be arrested, fired, and for Ruby to be on her own. With only a garbage bag full of belongings, and some thrift store finds for warmth, Ruby’s plan is the same as it has been in every other town they have landed in: keep her head down and be invisible. Ruby’s dog, Bob, though has other plans, and when he takes off into a neighbor’s yard filled with ‘No Trespassing’ signs a meeting with Abigail takes place that will change Ruby.
Abigail Jacobs is known in Fortin as the “Bird Lady.” She has a home, but lives in a shed on her property, dresses in layers of scraps and scarves, feeds the birds, and keeps to herself. The rumor is that she killed her husband and daughter, everyone knows it, it could just never be proven. There are also stories that she has a moon rock. When Ruby meets her she is angry and cold, but the way she interacts with the animals and her knowledge of the moon, keeps her intrigued and even though Ruby’s mom forbids her from visiting Abigail, Ruby and her develop a friendship of sorts.
At school Ruby’s plan to go unnoticed is challenged by Ahmad Saleem, a refugee who lives with his uncle a grocery store owner and is teased by a few classmates for his accent and disappearances at lunch time when he goes to pray. He is kind and and determined to help Ruby and immediately declares her his friend. Ruby tries to avoid him, but eventually he starts to win her over. With the upcoming wax museum, a Fortin favorite, drawing near, Ruby tries to explain to her teacher that they will be leaving back to D.C. before the final presentation, but Mr. Andrews isn’t letting her off and somehow she finds herself researching Michael Collins, the astronaut that stayed on the space shuttle alone to circle the dark side of the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic walk.
With the mayor singling out Abigail with his new ordinances, Ruby’s mom deciding not to take the plea deal and fight her case at trail, the short cold days, the desire to return to D.C., the wax museum approaching, and Ruby needing answers, Ruby at some point will have to stand up and speak out.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the story unfolds in layers. You don’t know where it is going, but the slow peeling away shows the complexity of people and situations. The book doesn’t shy away from confronting stereotypes and looking beyond appearances. I like that there is some discussion of Islamophobia, when Ahmad is overheard speaking Arabic for example, but the character that needs the most standing-up for is an elderly white woman. The small pivot allows the book to avoid a familiar theme and shows the reader a Muslim shop owner helping the tattered woman that the town fears and resents. I enjoyed the strong reminder of how women and science and their careers have not been widely accepted until recently. I think many readers will be surprised that much of Abigail’s rumors stem from her being a brilliant educated woman that society struggled to respect then and now. I absolutely love the science and space aspects that bring Ruby Moon, her neighbor, and her class project together.
I wish there was a little bit more about her mom and her relationship at the end. The disconnect in their relationship warranted the sparse information in the majority of the story, but I needed some hope for the two of them. Same for the relationship with Cecy. I get that Ruby doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom’s cousin, but as Ruby grew in so many ways, I wish that her appreciation of what Cecy has done for her and her mom would have also been realized in some capacity.
Ruby being dishonest. Death, injury of a pet, physical assault, bullying, teasing, Islamophobia.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I probably wouldn’t focus an entire book club on this book, but I think it would be a great addition to a summer reading list. The insight into a character trying to find herself within her own family and experiences with connections to history and science would be a benefit to any child to read and reflect upon.