I picked this one up as part of my low-key attempt at the 2021 Reading Women Challenge. To be honest, middle grade is just not my reading sweet spot, but an occasional foray into it usually doesn’t go awry. I’d seen this one around a few times and I do love the cover, so when I saw one of the prompts for the challenge was “Muslim Middle Grade Novel,” I figured I’d go for it. Plus, my library had the audiobook available and if I’ve learned anything from Elizabeth Acevedo’s novels (other than the fact that she is just a phenomenal word artist – check out The Poet X), it’s that I love an audio version of a book written in verse.
“America / like every other place in the world, / is a place where some people sleep / and some people / other people / dream.”
Other Words for Home is told from Jude’s perspective, a young Syrian Muslim girl. When the situation in her hometown becomes violent, Jude leaves Syria with her pregnant mother to stay with family in the United States, leaving her father and beloved older brother behind. Adjusting to America, where everything seems too big and too loud and Jude is self-conscious about her English and her “Middle Eastern” identity and, instead of loving the limelight like she did back home, all she wants is to fade into the background, is difficult. With a little time though, Jude makes a new friend or two, finds camaraderie in her ESL classmates, leans into her pride in starting to wear hijab and decides she may even try out for the school musical.
I loved the way Warga takes on so many of the most difficult themes of immigration, like language and cultural differences and self-consciousness, and the split that often occurs within families, and distills them all down to the simplest and most affecting language that so clearly conveys for young readers and older readers alike. Sometimes, seeing these complex themes described in a straightforward way like this can be even more impactful than a more intensive and philosophical discourse. Jude’s loneliness and feelings of “otherness” are so genuine and without frills. She tells the reader exactly how confusing things are, how all the cultural differences (from food to priorities) don’t line up at all with what she’s used to. Plus, there are a few perfect “side” plots related to Jude’s brother (and his choice to join the fighting back in Syria) and Jude’s new friend Layla that give great insight into the hard choices and “pulled between” feelings of families and immigrants and first-generation Americans within the context of “what I know to be true” versus how the rest of the world sees and reacts to you (in this case, specifically, re: racism and being incorrectly labeled a terrorist).
Also, the language. I mean, the title should have given me a clue, but Warga does a spectacular job highlighting all the idioms and isms and slang that make very little sense, that make English so hard to learn, but that serve (in the most adorable way) to help Jude and her ESL class bond with each other as they decode them together. It’s funny and insightful and written in such a relatable way.
Even though it was such a fast read (well, listen) the end of this novel in verse left me full of emotions. This was, possibly, a much lighter/happier story than some similar stories might have, but I can’t deny how wonderful it was to be left with the inspirational and hopeful vibe that home, the connection and family and love aspects of it, can really be anywhere, even in the middle of incredibly difficult situations. Sensitive and accessible while not shying away from needed perspectives of tough realities, this is definitely an MG that I would recommend (within that target age and beyond).
A few lines that really got me while reading:
“It is so strange to feel lucky / for something that is making my heart feel so sad.”
“I don’t think you have to forget / in order to learn…”
“That it is possible for two things to look / similar / but be completely different.”
“That I cover my head / not because I am ashamed / forced / or hiding. / But because I am / proud / and I want to be seen / as I am.”
“That they all see people like me / and think / violence / sadness / war.”
“We are okay with still learning our lines / because we are liking the script – / maybe, just maybe, we have both finally found roles / that make sense to us.”