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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Free Verse, Middle Grade Readers, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga

When we first meet 12-year-old Jude she is living in Syria with her parents and her older brother, Issa. Jude and her friend Fatima love to watch older American rom-com movies and act them out at home. Jude dreams of being a famous actress like Julia Roberts. As the unrest in Syria builds (mid-2010s), Issa becomes increasingly vocal in his criticism of the Syrian government, joining with his friends from university who organize protests in the streets. Jude’s father runs a small convenience shop that depends on the tourist trade for business so he is invested in NOT upsetting the status quo.

I pace back

and forth by the window.

Sometimes I think I can hear the protests….

Imagining my brother’s face,

red and angry.

Chanting about freedom and democracy,

words that I know, but don’t quite

understand.

The conflict in Syria continues to grow and the violence accelerates:

After the protests,

there are more police….

There are louder whispers about a town nearby

where men with stolen tanks and stolen weapons

rolled in and took over.

 

Those men are now fighting

against the government’s army

and the people who live in the town

don’t know whose side to choose.

They only want the violence to stop.

Nobody knows which side is the right one anymore.

When Jude’s mother discovers she is expecting a baby her parents decide that Jude and her mother will travel to the United States and stay with Jude’s uncle and his family. When Jude arrives in Ohio to meet her uncle, aunt and cousin she is overwhelmed by the huge differences between the home she has left in Syria and the new one she must create in the United States.

Told in stunning free verse, Other Words for Home is a beautiful story, following Jude’s journey to embrace both her new home and the home she has left in Syria. Jude confronts common misunderstandings from Americans when it comes to knowledge of her heritage and belief system and struggles to define herself and her place in an unfamiliar culture.

Jude sometimes feels as though she is betraying her father and her home if she finds aspects of America which she enjoys. As she begins attending school with her cousin, Sarah, Jude realizes Sarah is embarrassed by her and doesn’t want to be associated with her at school: she’s too weird. She feels more at ease in her ESL class with other students who, like herself, are trying to understand and adapt to American cultural norms and become more adept at using English in the colloquial manner of their peers.

When she begins to wear a hijab as a mark of her maturity and status as a woman, she is troubled by some American women’s assumption that she is being forced to dress–and think, believe–in a certain way

I want women like Aunt Michelle

to understand

that it is not only women who look like them

who are free

who think

and care about other women.

 

That I cover my head

not because I am ashamed

forced

or hiding.

 

But because I am

proud

and want to be seen

as I am.

When Jude’s friend, Layla, tells her about the musical their school performs, Jude begins to hope that auditioning for the show is a way to reclaim her dreams of becoming a singer/actress–a piece of the very foundation of who she is–AND embrace her new home. Jude encounters blatant skepticism from her friends and from the girls who congregate around Sarah (who is also auditioning). But she also finds support from a new friend and from the voice within herself that assures her this is the purposeful pursuit of who she wants to be.

The author, Jasmine Warga, says in her Author’s Note that she wrote Jude’s story as a way to tell herself “that as an Arab-American girl, my dreams, hopes, and fears are as valid as anyone else’s.” She further states that she hopes to “show that you don’t need to be afraid of these children who are fleeing from a war zone. That they want the same things all of us do–love, understanding, safety, a chance at happiness.”

Warga absolutely accomplishes her goal through Jude and Other Words for Home. Jude is joyful, sweet and genuine. Her huge heart leads her thoughts and actions along her brave journey to claim her own life, her own dreams. The text in free verse flows smoothly throughout the novel, clearly detailing the arc of Jude’s growth and empowerment.

An excellent independent reading choice for middle grade readers, Other Words For Home offers many opportunities for discussion about prejudice against Arabs, Arab Americans and Islamophobia within the context of daily life in the United States, by offering numerous and specific examples in Jude’s experience. It offers readers with little knowledge of Arab history and culture the chance to learn without fear and it offers young Arab or Arab American readers a chance to see “a brown girl in a book who was proud of her family and where she came from.”

 

 

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