If I were the questing type, the type who might travel to the peak of a very high mountain and demand things of the sky, I might demand a certain kind of book.
I wouldn’t expect that book to be a verse novel of remarkable sensitivity. Nor would I expect that book to be a deceptively easy-to-read middle-grade novel, where reading just one more — maybe two more — okay, three, four, five — I guess I’m just reading now — sections is all too tempting.
No, if I were the questing type and I had my chance to demand things from the sky, I might say: Give me a story about the ways in which people are kind to one another; the ways in which a community leans into kindness even while some people within it are sharp and cruel and fearful. Give me a story that tells us it’s okay to be more than one thing, that two different places don’t exist in competition; that you can love them both and it isn’t a betrayal of one. Give me a story that will revel in a nuanced understanding of what is home; a story that gives us permission to search for it even when the proverbial They tell us we should already know our place and that’s it, you only get the one.
Give me a story about imperfect, loving families. About seeing others clearly as you learn to see yourself clearly. A story with humor. A story with trouble. Give me a story with a love of life and a love of joy. Give me a story that speaks — that tells us to speak, to speak up! To speak loudly! To not worry about being told skety, be quiet, hush! Give me a story that tells us to be who we are and who we want to be — to love the spotlight even if we are told it isn’t for us.
Give me a good story, please, one which introduces me to a new friend. Bonus points if it makes me want to be more myself. Extra bonus points if it makes me think about experiences outside of myself.
And along comes Jasmine Warga with Other Words for Home, and she gives us Jude’s story, and it is everything I wanted.
Jude is a twelve-year-old girl from Syria who leaves behind her father and brother and friends in order to come with her mother to the United States — Cincinnati, middle America, the heartland — and live with her uncle’s family. She is lonely. Her best friend isn’t returning her letters. Skype sessions with her father are few and far between. Nobody’s heard from her brother, who’s gone to help in Aleppo, and she’s not even sure he’s okay. Her mother is pregnant. Her cousin wants nothing to do with her; Jude stands out, and in middle school, that’s never a good thing. Back in Syria she spoke English well; by Cincinnati standards, not so much.
Just when she thinks she’s getting a handle on living in America, something happens that draws hatred up like blood welling from a deep scratch. When Jude decides she’s going to try out for the school play, Beauty and the Beast, her new friend Layla tells her she shouldn’t do it: The stage isn’t for girls like them.
Jude has other ideas.
There are so many reasons to read this novel. It’s a book about kindness, for one; it sings, for another, as any good verse novel should. Verse novels are coming into vogue, and Jude’s voice is heightened by Warga’s decision to write her story this way.
It feels true. It feels like middle school and wanting things the way you do in middle school. It feels like being in the middle of so many things and not quite knowing how to navigate that uncertainty. But our protagonist is level-headed and charismatic, clear-eyed — and did I mention charismatic? At one point, Warga writes:
There is an Arabic proverb that says:
She makes you feel
like a loaf of freshly baked bread.
It is said about
The type of people
who help you
And that’s Jude. I wanted nothing more than to be her friend and listen to whatever she had to say about life. She deserves to shine in the spotlight, and so does Other Words for Home.
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.