How do we tell children stories about war? How do we share stories about those children who have survived war? In an era of devastating warfare and a global refugee crisis, both N.H. Senzai’s Saving Kabul Corner and Mike Masilamani’s Th3 8OY WHO 5P3AK5 1N NUM83R5 write about war, violence, refugees, and resilience. They take completely different approaches and each is compelling in its own way.
Senzai’s novel Saving Kabul Corner tells the story of two Afghan immigrant families in California, the Shinwaris and the Ghilzai s, who own rival grocery stores in the same strip mall. Both families have roots in the same village in Afghanistan and a long running family feud. The story is told from the perspective of Ariana, a middle schooler, who is coping with the arrival of her cousin Laila and their family from Afghanistan. Laila’s family has fled the war but her father still works as an army interpreter in Taliban controlled territory. Every story of IEDs and ambushes has the family deeply worried for the safety of Laila’s father. Ariana struggles to balance compassion with the many irritations of having a cousin who seems perfect because she speaks Pashto, can cook Afghan foods, and is loved by all.
As the cousins get to know one another and return to school with their Afghan friend, Mariam, who also has survived the trauma of war, they meet a new boy in class, Wali Ghilzai, whose family owns the rival business that threatens the Shinwaris economic security. However, mysterious crimes affecting both businesses such as break-ins, a fire, and defecting bakers lead the kids to determine that neither family is guilty but that both are being manipulated by some larger greedy interests. The youngsters join forces to solve the mystery, bring about justice, and reunite their families.
This is a novel that speaks to the consequences of the long war in Afghanistan on multiple generations of an immigrant family. It also speaks to the difficulties kids face with ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, and cultural trauma. Woven through all this is a light hearted, feel good story of immigrant grit and community friendships. The novel offers young American readers an opportunity to understand Afghan immigrant culture and to recognize that many immigrants have come to the United States because of complex geopolitical situations. This is a much needed narrative in a time when we in the United States have to grapple with anti-immigrant sentiments and Islamophobia.
Th3 8OY WHO 5P3AK5 1N NUM83R5 is a brilliant, darkly satirical fable based on the Sri Lankan civil war. While this narrative is illustrated and told in simple language that seems targeted at young readers, I can’t help but feel that the real audience for this fable is adult readers. The seemingly simple narrative is layered with so many meanings that the book requires several readings to unpack.
Set in the Island of Short Memories, the novel tells the story of the Boy who Speaks in Numbers when everyone else around him speaks in colors. He lives in Kettle camp, a refugee camp, which looks like “a tin-pot kingdom run by a tin-pot dictator” because his Small Village of Fat Hopes was destroyed by bombs and only he and his uncle survive but his uncle is now speechless. His friend is a Constantly Complaining Cow and the camp is run by an Important Aunty who breaks out in pimples and speaks in chaotic rhymes that mix up familiar nursery rhymes. The only recreation is Silly Cricket at which the boy is surprisingly good and so is spared from being disappeared or recruited by the rebel child soldiers. He can play in the World Series of Silly Cricket and win the day.
Along the way, he joins the Traveling Refugee Circus and becomes an act in it along with the Complaining Cow with whom he is now reunited. Thus, the story continues darkly until one day the Civil War of Lies comes to an abrupt end because “The bullets run out before the lies do.” The boy is set up as a candidate for elections but it is rigged and so he loses, but the Complaining Cow no longer has time for the Traveling Circus because she is the Minister for Complaining Affairs. An awful rain arrives that wipes out everything except the ugly tree that now blossoms with flowering questions—thus ends this dark novel about the absurdity of war, the absence of resolutions and closures, and the way politics erases history. A nightmarish narrative for the not so young. Brilliantly illustrated in red ink by Matthew Frame, this fable is a must read.
Two very different novels about war and children with two very different narrative approaches that seek to memorialize war and trauma from the perspective of children. For these reasons, we must share them with our young readers so they may ponder history.