I am learning how to be
at the same time.
Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.
At first, everything in America seems too fast and too loud. The American movies that Jude has always loved haven’t quite prepared her for starting school in the US—and her new label of “Middle Eastern,” an identity she’s never known before. But this life also brings unexpected surprises—there are new friends, a whole new family, and a school musical that Jude might just try out for. Maybe America, too, is a place where Jude can be seen as she really is.
Have you ever read a book that made you just… roll in bed after finishing it, the book clutched to your chest, and just sighed deeply because the book was so achingly beautiful and hopeful? Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga is such a book, and it is one of my favourite books of 2019.
Told entirely in verse, Other Words for Home is a middle-grade book that follows Jude, a Muslim Syrian girl who, with her mother, escapes to America when things at home in Syria grow tense, violent, and uncertain. Separated from her beloved father and brother, this thoughtful story reflects on the changes in her life, on being apart from the ones you love and the ache of separation. However, it is also an emotional story about regrowing your roots finding yourself, and finding hope.
I firmly believe that everyone should read this book – even if you don’t read middle-grade, even if you don’t read books in verse. But, just in case you need some convincing, here are five reasons why I think you should read Other Words for Home.
1. An emotional story about change and moving away
Warga’s ability to write about and explore change was stunning, and I am still in awe today. Other Words for Home meaningfully explores change when Jude has to uproot her happy and comfortable life in Syria (and the way Warga captures the contentment and nostalgia of home in all its beauty and love was so nostalgic that it still make my heart ache) to escape the encroaching war to America, a world completely different to what she knows.
I loved the juxtaposition of this and how it was written and wrapped in so much authentic emotion, and how it gives a meaningful and personal examination of why moving away and change is not easy, particularly when you have to leave your content life and leave your home, but also sometimes absolutely necessary.
2. … But also a hopeful one about regrowing roots and finding yourself
Although integrating in America has several challenges, I really loved that Other Words for Home gives weight and meaning to Jude’s journey of regrowing her roots and finding herself in a place that is quick to define her. Shown through Jude’s life at school, her tenuous relationship with her cousin, the bubble of acceptance she finds in her ESOL class, and befriending people in their shared connection to ‘home’, the story honestly illustrates the emotional highs and lows, the victories, and the challenges – and in doing so, Warga has written a story that isn’t just kind, empathetic, and astute, but is also validating.
3. Honest in its depictions of the challenges that Muslim immigrants face – and remains empowering
Although a middle-grade story, Other Words for Home is not the kind of story that glosses over the tough subjects, which I appreciated. Rather, Other Words for Home explores topics such as the complex feelings of belonging, identity, and experiencing anti-Islam actions and rhetoric in a way that is simple, sensitive, and honest.
Nonetheless, Warga navigates through these topics in a way that deeply feels the hardship and complex experiences, but also empowers and remains hopeful. There are so many powerful moments in this book where Jude finds her voice, finds her strength, and protects the people she loves – and herself! – in her small ways that will make you feel so proud and empowered. I wish I could share the moments in the books with you, but I’d really rather you read this and experience them yourself.
4. It isn’t a sad story, but it is emotional and wrapped with so much love
If you go through the book reviews for Other Words for Home, I think a common thing that people will say is that they cried reading this. Heck, I cried reading this too. And I think there’s a tendency for people to associate books about immigrants and refugees with sad stories and sad emotions, which is valid, because some stories are indeed sad.
But Other Words for Home is not a sad story. It’s an emotional story that explores the complex experiences of Jude and her mother – the obstacles of integrating to a new country, the prejudice they face, the ache of being separated from their home and loved ones, and finding who they are – and is filled with some of the most tender writing that will stay with you forever (particularly when she thinks and remembers her brother). This book allows Jude to be naïve, to be vulnerable, to be scared, and to be imperfect. But at the heart of this book, this is a book that is told with so much love – the kind that acknowledges and feels heartache and pain but is also deeply affirming and unconditional.
5. An affirming story about being Muslim
An integral part of Other Words for Home is how Jude feels and lives with her Muslim identity, and how she views her faith in Syria is very different to how she views it in America. Throughout the story, Jude’s faith – and how people perceive her – shapes her experience with belonging and identity. The explorations, though conveyed with such simple and heartfelt words, are thoughtful and astute. There are many vulnerable moments in this story, but there are also so many affirming ones – particularly when Jude first wears her hijab for the first time and, though there is rejection and disdain, the love and support felt louder, more powerful, and more important. And I really loved that.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Jasmine Warga is a brilliant wordsmith and Other Words for Home has convinced me that I’ll now read anything that she now writes. My review doesn’t do this book justice, but Other Words for Home is an incredible book with so much subtlety, so much emotion, and so much – ah! that beautiful thing about books that make you feel grateful that you were alive to read this book. Honestly, I cannot fault this book and this was an effortless top read of 2019 for me. I love this book so much.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Muslim Syrian girl and her mother escape the encroaching Syrian War and move to America.
Perfect for: Readers who love middle-grade novels; readers who love stories in verse; readers who love emotional stories
Think twice if: You’re not a fan of stories told in verse
Genre: middle-grade, poetry, contemporary
Trigger/content warning: anti-Islam rhetoric (challenged), war themes
I know finding a good book is refreshing, but when I find a good middle-grade book? It cleanses my skin and waters my crops. I absolutely love this and genuinely think this is a book that everyone should read. So: please read this, okay?
- Have you read Other Words for Home? What did you think?
- What are some of your favourite stories told in verse?
- What is your favourite middle-grade book?