Review Detail

Kids Fiction 93
Exercise in Empathy
Overall rating 
 
5.0
Plot/Characters/Writing Style 
 
5.0
Illustrations/Photos (if applicable) 
 
N/A
When Jordyn's mother offers to help Noura Alwan's family settle in Tampa, Florida, Jordyn hopes that it will improve her mother's mood. Since her mother had a miscarriage, the whole family has been out of sorts. Jordyn is finding it hard to go back to competitive swimming, and her mother is barely getting dressed. Noura's family has certainly had it tougher. Their home in Aleppo, Syria, as well as the hotel her father ran, were destroyed in bombings; Noura lost her best friend, who drowned while trying to get to Greece, and the family was not selected to settle in Germany near family. Still, they know there is no going back to Aleppo, so they are making the best of it. The father gets a job as a bell hop, Noura and her twin brother Ammar settle in to school, and the mother learns to navigate their new world with toddler Ismail. The Alwans came to the US in 2017, right when a travel ban to restrict Muslims was attempted, so they know there are people in the US who aren't keen to have them. Their social studies teacher wants his students to understand current events, and assigns a project dealing with immigration through history. There are students in the class, like Nick, who make snide comments and do underhanded things to others, but generally the class is culturally diverse and works well together. Jordyn, who is helping the Alwans navigate school, offers to work on the project with them, and the three end up incorporating a model of Aleppo that Ammar has made with information about their personal immigration story. In order to allow his sister to use his model, Ammar has a challenge for her-- she has to let Jordyn teach her how to swim. Since hearing about her friend's drowning, Noura has been afraid of the water, but she has worked with a psychologist and wants to try to work through her problems. The two, with the help from Jordyn's swimming coach, make progress with lessons, and Jordyn starts seeing a doctor to help her deal with the miscarriage and some panic attacks that she has had. Because Ammar and Noura want to pray at school, the administration makes a room available, and many students help them make the space welcoming and inclusive for students of all faiths who need time to reflect. When several racially motivated instances occur in the community, Jordyn and Noura both feel the need to speak up.
Good Points
There is so much upheaval in the world right now, and we hear so much about children being upset. I think it is very helpful to have books that model positive behaviors, but we don't see as many of them because positive behavior is less interesting than mean behavior. (Just look at what trends on Twitter!) This book never downplays the seriousness of the situations that the characters face, but they all get help from supportive adults, have positive attitudes, and demonstrate ways to deal with their problems. The characters are all diverse, well-developed, and interesting, and the story moves along at a good pace. It's especially nice to see books from two perspectives written by two authors; Weeks and Varadarajan's Save Me a Seat and Farqui and Shovan's A Place at the Table are two other excellent books written this way. (I would love to see sports authors collaborate on a book with boys from two different cultures.)

This is a great title for all kinds of readers. It would be an excellent book for a class read aloud or a lit circle study, and should definitely be accompanied by Senzai's informative and interesting Escape from Aleppo in order to help middle grade readers understand how difficult a time Syrian refugees (as well as other refugees) have with the immigration process. I am hoping that this will be available in paperback and widely available at Scholastic book fairs!
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