“Other Words for Home,” by Jasmine Warga, is a novel in verse about the grief and happiness of trying to adapt to an entirely new culture, while living an ocean away from your loved ones and familiar places. It is full of funny and bittersweet observations, including everything from confusing English words to how to balance feelings of both loss and gratitude.
Jude is happy living in her coastal Syrian town with her parents and her big brother, Issa. She loves school, she loves watching American movies with her best friend Fatima, and she dreams of being a movie star. But as the Syrian conflict begins to ripple in their community, with protests and police raids, Jude and her mother, who is expecting another child, go visit Jude’s maternal uncle and his wife and daughter in a Cincinnati suburb. Her father must stay behind to run their business and her brother is becoming involved in the protests. Everyone is scared.
The reader sees Jude resist leaving, even when she has no choice. Then we see Jude bravely make the best of the situation, work hard to improve her English, study hard, make friends, and help her family.
The story is as much about how the community views Jude and her mother as it is about how Jude feels about this new life she is experiencing. She tries to strike a balance between finding things like home (such as Ali Baba, a restaurant run by a Lebanese family where Jude can find familiar food) and embracing new things, including trying out for the school musical and making new friends without losing touch with Fatima.
When Jude gets her period and begins to wear a headscarf (hijab) she becomes a lightning rod for strangers’ assumptions and resentments. Her Aunt Michelle worries she feels pressured to wear it. Strangers stop smiling back at her, they think she’s a terrorist or that she’s being forced to wear the headscarf.
People’s reactions to Jude’s hijab resonated with me. I saw myself in these reactions. I remember the first time I saw someone wearing a headscarf in my neighborhood and I felt sorry for her and also a little freaked out. But I sat with those feelings, did some reading, and started paying attention to headscarves (also they became more visible in literature).
Jude acknowledges that women in some countries are forced to dress and act a certain way, including wear a headscarf but that is not her. “… it is possible for two things to look similar but be completely different…” she observes… “I cover my head like other strong, respected women have done before me, like Malala Yousafzai … like my mama … not because I am ashamed forced or hiding. But because I am proud and want to be seen as I am.”
The sprinkling of Arabic words throughout the book is a wonderful touch. Although they are not common words like hello and goodbye, many readers will be able to get the meaning from context. There is also a glossary in the back. “Mahzozeen” (lucky), is one word that comes up a lot. Jude struggles with feeling both lucky and unlucky, just as she adapts to her new life and worries about her father and whether her brother is still alive.
“It is so strange to feel lucky for something that is making my heart feel so sad. … I am learning how it [the word lucky] tastes — sweet with promise and bitter with responsibility.”
Watching Jude in her ESL class is great fun as she makes friends and strengthens her English. One of her classmates teaches them American-isms like “it’s a big deal,” “dough” for money, “bougie” short for bourgeois and “dope,” when something is great.
About halfway through the story, Jude learns about the school musical (Beauty and the Beast) and she decides to try out. Up until now she has been trying not to stick out. Warga does a great job showing how Jude, once so outspoken that her parents were always telling her skety (hush!), becomes quiet and shy in this new setting. The book is, in part, about her finding her voice again, both literally and figuratively.
Although Jude’s relationship with her cousin, Sarah, is rocky, I especially enjoyed watching Jude’s develop warm relationships with her aunt and uncle. Her aunt really makes her feel welcome and appreciated and her uncle enjoys being reminded of his Syrian/Muslim roots by both Jude and her mother.
I imagine many readers have experienced something similar to Jude, in coming from another country, but even those who have not will be able to relate to Jude’s efforts to figure out who she is and where she fits. And I can imagine a young reader, having read this Newbery Honor book, might act more welcoming to a classmate from another country.