I was not expecting to be so absorbed by this 362 page AR 5.4 book. I knew it was about a Syrian refugee in Brussels and his friendship with an American kid living in Europe for a year, so I knew that Islamaphobia and immigration would all be factors. I also knew that as a middle grade book it would be optimistic, and a bit of a stretch at times, but when I had to pause in the first chapter to wipe the tears off my cheek, I knew that while it could be billed as, another refugee story, it really was going to be a poignant story about humanity and friendship and family and making a difference, so I settled in and was swept off to Belgium and the adventure of two determined kids.
The book opens with 14-year-old Ahmed on a boat with his father hoping to reach Greece from Turkey, when the boat stalls, his father and two other men, the only other people on the dinghy that know how to swim, jump into the sea to drag the boat. When a storm swell hits them, his father is lost and Ahmed, who left Syria when an explosion killed his mom and sisters, is all alone.
Max is 13 and his parents and sister have just arrived in Belgium for a year. Not a great student, Max learns that he will be going to a local school where French is spoken, and will be repeating 6th grade. Less than thrilled with the news, he is additionally hurt that his parents didn’t tell him first.
The two stories start off separate with Max trying to find his footing in school and scouts where he understands very little, and has no desire to learn, and is also getting picked on by a kid named Oscar. He learns about the history of his street and house during World War II from his after school tutor and a police officer that used to live in the house they are renting and makes regular checks on how it is being maintained.
Ahmed has been staying with Ibrahim and his family, another man that tried to drag the boat in the sea, but with news that they are probably going to be forced to return to Iraq, suggests that Ahmed register in as an unaccompanied minor so that he could find a place to stay. Ahmed knows that if he registers in Beligium he will never make it to England, he hires a smuggler for 300 Euros to get him there. When the smuggler steals his money and his phone, Ahmed worries his organs could be next, and jumps out of the moving car,
Ahmed runs through a neighborhood looking for shelter and safety and some warmth from the frigid air. Ahmed finds the basement of a house unlocked, he then finds a wine cellar room that is empty and decides to stay for the night as he figures out his next step. One day turns in to two and before he knows it, he has a routine of finding food upstairs during the night, which he records so that he can repay the family one day, caring for the family’s discarded orchids, and working on his English. Then one day Max goes downstairs and discovers Ahmed living there.
Deciding he isn’t a terrorist, Max decides not to turn Ahmed in nor tell his parents, and the two become friends. The two enlist Farah, a nice Muslim girl at school to help, and they get Oscar too, to forge papers to get Ahmed in to school. While the biggest problem should be keeping a kid hidden in the basement, and keeping him fed and entertained, the situation is compounded as terrorist attacks by Muslim extremist plague the city and Europe, making everyone on high alert. The police keep checking in and anti immigrant sentiment rises. When Ahmed gets accused of being a bomb maker his secret is out, but can his knowledge of how a jewish boy was hidden in the neighborhood during the war keep him free? Nope, I’m not going to spoil it, you have to read it, trust me, you’ll thank me for it!
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love, love, love, the history parallel, and the truth in the story of Albert Jonnart and Ralph Mayer that is woven into this modern fictional story. I love that Max so plainly says that the stories are the same and that laws that aren’t right shouldn’t be followed, yes! The book reads a lot like Refugee by Alan Gratz crossed with The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf with the kids being so heroic and determined and awesome, throw in a dash of The Diary of Anne Frank, switching out a boy for a girl, a Muslim for a Jew, the basement for the attic, and a diary for a fictional story, and you have this book.
I love that the adventure and excitement shows how resourceful kids can be even when they don’t share common language. Max speaks English and is learning French, he is helping Ahmed learn better English and some French, when they talk to Farah who speaks Moroccan Arabic /Berber, they often have to go through Oscar who speaks French and English. Yay, for American television and kids who’s hearts are bigger than the obstacles they are taking on. Additionally, when the kids hit a dead end, they reach out to Jews in America for help, knowing that the two religions have more in common than politicians and the media would like to think. Seriously, kids should rule the world.
Ahmed is a religious boy that prays, refuses meat even when hungry to ensure it is halal, and makes sure that Max knows in Islam kindness and charity are the norm and commands, not the violence that people are doing in the name of his religion. A lot of the moms of the kids at school where hijab, and the author gets the Islam right and believable. It doesn’t get preachy, but a fair amount of information about Islam is shared.
A lot of lying. Some violence, death, hate speech. There is mention of smoking and the adults I think drink wine at one point.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I’m hoping to do this as a middle school book club selection, because it really is so good.
Author’s website: https://katherinemarsh.com/books/nowhere-boy/