Friday, October 25, 2013

Children's/MG Fiction: Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye

Publisher: Simon Pulse
Date: 1997
Format: paperback
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for book club
Pages: 270
Reading time: a couple of days

From GoodReads: The day after Liyana got her first real kiss, her life changed forever. Not because of the kiss, but because it was the day her father announced that the family was moving from St. Louis all the way to Palestine. Though her father grew up there, Liyana knows very little about her family's Arab heritage. Her grandmother and the rest of her relatives who live in the West Bank are strangers, and speak a language she can't understand. It isn't until she meets Omer that her homesickness fades. But Omer is Jewish, and their friendship is silently forbidden in this land. How can they make their families understand? And how can Liyana ever learn to call this place home?

My review: This is a book that I think I would have enjoyed more at a younger age, just because I feel like I would have identified more with the main character during my middle school years in particular. Liyana is an interesting character - compared to those that I am used to in YA novels, she seems simultaneously younger, more naive and sheltered but also more thoughtful and sophisticated. Her creativity and writing, calmness, occasional loneliness, and musings are aspects that I would have been drawn to in my younger days because I identified with them.

Perhaps because of this characterization, I felt like I had about outgrown the audience range of this novel. It's a nice book, of course, and has some good messages about community and acceptance and getting along with each other despite any differences, but it just flows differently from what I am now used to. I am used to aspects of the plot and of characters being explored more than they are in this novel, where Omer and other friends feel flat and the potential central conflicts flash by with relatively little effect. Fifteen years after the book's initial publication, I also struggled to place the events of the novel in context: are they taking place a couple decades in the past, or in the 1990s, or are they still realistic for Palestine in 2013? The stories and messages within Habibi are certainly still relevant, but, as an older (i.e., not child/tween) reader, I found it difficult to truly engage with the characters and plot as well as to fully figure out their connection with current events.

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