Here in the land of Sheltering-in-Place, it feels obvious to say we understand waiting. We wake up and do the same things each day, and we sigh and wonder when our real life will get back to being real. We are tired of waiting. We are tired of the uncertainty of our futures. We are tired.
For some, of course, this time is covered over with personal tragedy, some are grieving the very real loss of loved ones, some are waiting for test results or for the escalation of this disease that they definitely have and can only hope to come through. But for the rest of us, the waiting is all there is. When our faces in the mirror is all we see, it becomes easy to think our story is the only story.When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed are able to remind us of how small our waiting really is.
Though some might find it an unusual choice, Jamieson sees the immersive quality of the graphic novel as an ideal medium through which to tell Omar's story. And it is his story, his voice, and his community that jumps off each page. A native Somali, growing up in a UNHCR refugee camp in Kenya, Omar's story is already a departure from the standard fare of kid lit graphic novels. Add the fact that his father was killed in the conflict and he is caring for his younger brother alone, and you might be tempted to read this story as fiction. Reader, do not make that mistake. Omar's story is true -- as is the story of countless refugees who will likely never that camp. And it is important that we hold that truth for them and for ourselves.
At several points in the narrative, Omar returns to the familiar refrain of waiting: In the opening pages as he describes his daily routine of morning prayers, fetching water, and cleaning their tent, he explains, "for me, one of the worst parts of living in a refugee camp is . . . it's really boring. Every day is basically the same." And then again, some years later, after they have finally been granted an initial interview with the UN regarding resettlement:
"In a refugee camp, it felt like all you ever did was wait. Wait to see if your brother gets well again. Wait for water. Wait for food. Wait to hear from the United Nations. Wait for your life to start. Wait for your life to get better. Every single person in this camp was waiting for something better. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. How long can you wait before you lose all hope?"
For Omar, the wait at least had moments that helped keep that hope alive. For others in the camp, like his friend Maryam, life is a series of disappointments. The brightest and most driven student in school, Maryam hoped to win a scholarship to a university in Canada. Her father, however, wants her to marry. She is fifteen. She is also at the heart of perhaps the most profound, convicting lesson to Omar, and to readers everywhere. Upon learning that Maryam will not return to school and will be married, Omar is angry on her behalf, rightly so, but the mother of another school friend gentles him, saying, "There are many people in the world less fortunate than you and I. Remember that, Omar."
Remember that, reader. Omar doesn't have to believe his life is perfect; he can know - fully - the pain and difficulties of his journey and still recognize the pain and difficulties of others. Your fatigue at the waiting, the isolation, the tension between your brain and your body, the murder hornets, the everything of this season is real and true; and "there are many people in the world less fortunate than you and I." Goodness. What a reminder.
Omar's community delivers several such reminders, but my other favorite is this:
LOVE IS A GIFT!
Omar's guardian in the camps, Fatuma, reminds him that every human is a gift and that the love and protection of a community is a gift. We may feel disconnected from our communities right now, but the disconnection is a form of love, a way to protect each other. And so we wait. Each day the same. Waiting. But like Omar, we wait with hope.
The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.
OST: Moving, well-drawn, and a story that should be heard, but lacking some of the narrative complexities of other graphic novels, it won't be enough to compel the committee's final decision.
Previous titles under consideration:
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
A Many Feathered Thing by Lisa Gerlits
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
Chirp by Kate Messner
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang