Middle Grade Mondays: Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye

Author: Naomi Shihab Nye
Title: Habibi
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 1997
ISBN: 0-689-80149-1

Naomi Shihab Nye is known more for her poetry than this novel, and as far as I know, Habibi is her only novel. I picked it up several years ago because I adore Naomi as a person, having met her several times on the poetry circuit. She’s the kind of person who automatically makes you smile when you see her coming your way. I am not exaggerating when I say she is one of the kindest writers I have ever met.

Habibi is the story of a 14-year-old Palestinian-American girl who is crushed when her father decides to move the family to Jerusalem the day after she gets her first kiss from a boy.

from School Library Journal:

When Liyana’s doctor father, a native Palestinian, decides to move his contemporary Arab-American family back to Jerusalem from St. Louis, 14-year-old Liyana is unenthusiastic. Arriving in Jerusalem, the girl and her family are gathered in by their colorful, warmhearted Palestinian relatives and immersed in a culture where only tourists wear shorts and there is a prohibition against boy/girl relationships. When Liyana falls in love with Omer, a Jewish boy, she challenges family, culture, and tradition, but her homesickness fades. Constantly lurking in the background of the novel is violence between Palestinian and Jew. It builds from minor bureaucratic annoyances and humiliations . . . to a bomb set off in a Jewish marketplace by Palestinians. It exacts a reprisal in which Liyana’s friend is shot and her father jailed.

There are many things to love about this book, which I recommend to upper middle graders through early YA. There are probably many books about teens coming to America and learning to fit in, but how many books are there in which a typical American teenager has to live in a challenging foreign environment?

The characters are engaging and real (partially due to the fact that Arab-American Nye lived part of her teenage years in the Palestinian city of Ramallah) and a budding romance foreshadows real danger.

As a poet, Nye’s grasp of language is a beautiful thing, capturing rich personalities of both of character and place. It is not a faced-paced story, but Nye creates tension that creeps about as Liyana explores the streets practicing her Arabic. The seriousness of what is happening around Liyana is balanced with a sweetness that reflects the author’s own childlike curiosity, but which is hardly naive. There is violence that brings the conflict home, but Nye is always one to leave a path to hope and friendship possible.

It is full-bodied poetically, sprinkled with humor, profound in its compelling personal search for peace, and engaging in the way it makes the protagonist’s experience universal.  I think it would make a terrific assignment for a 6th or 7th grade classroom, leading to a wealth of interesting discussion and history lessons.

A lovely multicultural character-driven upper middle grade read.

6 Comments

  1. gsprendergast
    Dec 12, 2011

    I love the sound of this one. The Romeo and Juliet romance sounds sweet and poignant.

  2. It is. I know middle grade steers away from romance as a rule, but this isn’t one of those passionate soul-yearning YA romances. It’s that very innocent first crush kind of thing.

  3. Myrna Foster
    Dec 12, 2011

    This one sounds lovely, and I hadn’t heard of it before. Thanks for your review. :o)

  4. Shannon O'Donnell
    Dec 12, 2011

    I absolutely LOVE Naomi Shihab Nye. I’ll have to pick this one up soon!! 🙂

  5. Joanne Fritz
    Dec 12, 2011

    I’m familiar with Naomi’s poetry, but never read this. Sounds fascinating. I love upper MG, and I always need good multicultural books to recommend to customers. Thanks, Danika!

  6. You know, this might be the kind of book adults HOPE middle graders are reading, but they might not grab it off the shelf themselves. I used it when I was working with an ESL Korean student and she loved it. She was 12.

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