It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yousefzadeh just wants to fit in.  Before she starts 6th grade at her new Newport Beach middle school, she changes her name to Cindy, a name she gets from the Brady Brunch.  Born in  Iran, she spent two years in Compton, Ca. before going back to Iran for a year with her parents and then returning to Compton, where  no one at her school could say her name.  Having moved back and forth so much their family motto is to not buy stuff that breaks easily.  They’ve just moved to a condo in Newport Beach.  To Zomorod, it seems like galaxies away though it’s only one hour by car.   Given the Rules for Condominium Living by the condescending landlady, her father tells her to translate it for her mother. She balks.  The welcome page shows a typical American family with a boy and a girl next to a barbecue.  Zomorod doesn’t think her family looks anything like the people in the picture, but she thinks that they can relate, since her family loves grilling.  Her father calls himself the “King of Kebabs.”

After the summer goes by pretty much friendless,  except with a short friendship with the51RRffOg3KL next door girl, also a Cindy.   As Cindy, she faces some humiliating days at the beginning of school,  and runs to her classes to inform her teachers about her name change before roll call.   Soon though she makes friends with Carolyn.  She loves going to Carolyn’s house whose mother make tacos and takes them Trick or Treating on  Halloween.   Carolyn gets her to join the Girl Scouts which leads to more friends.

Like many first generation American children, Cindy is embarrassed by her parents lack of knowledge about how things are done here.  It takes her a long time before she has her friends over  to her house.  She hates translating for her mother, and particularly dislikes the Iranian custom of taarof, the Iranian form of being polite and like extreme Southern hospitality, where you keep denying yourself and offering food or tea to guests.  In taarof, it is expected that the guest who says no, they don’t really mean it  and are just being polite.

Expecting to return to Iran, her mother refuses accommodate to life in California; she won’t make a huge turkey for the three of them for Thanksgiving and when she goes to buy camping equipment for Girl Scout camp, she’s annoyed that her father won’t buy her things that aren’t on sale.  But Cindy’s not a whiner; she makes the best of things.

Then, because the novel is set in the last years of  the 1970s, as the political situation with Iran gets increasingly bad over a year, Cindy and her parents begin to worry about their family members in Iran.  They are taunted and recieve threats from neighbors and strangers, including a dead hamster with a note, “ Go back to Iran,” which Cindy keeps quiet.  At school she hears she’s threatened and “Bomb Iran” becomes a popular song.  Cindy and her family turn inwards as the American hostage situation goes on for months and months.   Still jobless and with no hopes of finding employment, her father decides they must return to Iran as they cannot afford to live here.  That’s when Cindy and her family discover who their friends really are.

This semi-autobiographical novel is inspiring and delightful, it’s funny and moves quickly with its short chapters.  During her three years of middle school, Cindy goes from being a shy, timid girl, to one who can stand up for herself and her family.  In conjunction with the book, Dumas is starting a Falafel Kindness Project which will be up on her website soon.   She will post stories by students and educators about acts of kindness they’ve experience.  After all, In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”  which Cindy posted in her room and which the author uses as a lead to her Acknowledgments.


Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

25614492Ruta Sepetys’ forthcoming book for teens, Salt to the Sea, is about the largest maritime disaster ever, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. First built by the Nazis as a cruise ship in 1937, and named for a Nazi officer, it was later requisitioned by the German Navy. On January 30, 1945 it was sunk by Soviet torpedo strikes while evacuating over 10,000 German civilians, Nazi officials and soldiers, 162 of them wounded, and crew. The ship’s capacity was 1,465. Septys captures the overcrowding and panic among the passengers and crew of whom only 1,252 survived. Not many people know about the Wilhelm Gustloff though more people died than on the Titanic.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was shrouded in secrecy partly due to the fact that it was a German ship carrying Nazi officials and their families, soldiers as well as civilians. It happened in the last days of the war in Europe and news accounts were focused on the allied victory. Not wanting to demoralize the German population anymore, the German government suppressed the news about it. Also, the captain of the Russian submarine, Alexander Marinesko, was facing court martial for his problems with drinking. He was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Gorbachev in 1990.

The story focuses on a group of characters who have joined up to get to Gotenhafen, or as the Poles called it, Gdansk, before it fell into German rule and after it was returned to Poland. There they hope to escape the Red Army by ship. They are Joana, a young Lithuanian who came to Germany as a refugee and is a nurse with a big secret. There is a wonderful old man who is a shoemaker who has become a guardian of a young boy who lost his parents. Florian, who they call the Prussian, is really a German who unknowingly worked with those responsible for stealing art for the Nazis. He has fled them, is afraid for his life and has many secrets, including something he carries in his knapsack. The last is Amelia, a 15-year-old Polish girl who is pregnant, fearful and somewhat delusional. The story of their trek to the port of Gotenhafen, evading the Red Army and dealing with their own predicaments is moving. They were all, except one character who chooses not to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, sympathetic, but, except for Florian, seemingly in denial of the crimes committed by the Nazis. He actually is a positive character as he wants to get to Finland to tell about the Nazi theft of art.

I have a conflicted relationship with Ruta Septeys’ new book. I feel that the author turns a blind eye to the Nazi attrocities. Afterall, the city Gotenhafen contained a Nazi concentration camp, not mentioned in the book and it’s hard for me to sympathize with Nazi officials and soldiers in flight. The one openly Nazi character in the book is such a caricature of a Nazi that everyone else seems to be wonderful.

I cannot accept that there is a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Soviets. When the Red Army marched into Germany and liberated the Auschwitz they had gone through a German occupation in which 2.6 million Soviet prisoners-of-war were starved in camps, another half-million mostly Soviet Jewish soldiers were shot. and a million Soviet civilians died during the siege of Leningrad. I find that this book simplifies what was an amazingly complex period of history.

Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly

Zoe Webster, or Princeton as Digby calls her, has just moved to the small upstate New York town of River Heights. She’s skipped school on day one, not knowing how fast she’d wind up9780525428404 in detention. The trouble is, Digby is there too and he’s trouble. He wants her to help him find out who has been abducting young girls and he thinks it’s one of the town’s OB-GYNs, the one her mother goes to. She just wants to go back to go to a private school that will help her get into Princeton, and live with her dad and stepmom. Thus the nickname Princeton.

As much as Zoe dislikes Digby, she can’t help participating in his schemes, whether it’s going to the doctor with Digby and then downloading the his hard drive or breaking in at night to get Dr. Schell’s password, so Digby can open the encrypted files he stole.

Then there’s the weirdos across the street, an “end-of-the-world cult,” a bunch of kids that live in a mansion that supposedly runs an herbal tea business. The girls who wear prairie dresses are always cleaning and their driveway smells like chemicals while the boys  put bags with biohazard waste logos on them in their van.

This treat of a book is fast paced, funny, with close calls and plenty of sarcasm. As Zoe figures, “Preparing to survive a typical day of being Digby’s friend wasn’t that different from preparing to survive the apocalypse.”

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter is an elegantly written book, narrated by Jack, the Orbiting_Jupitertwelve-year-old son of an organic farmer and his wife. Set in rural Maine, the family has taken in a thirteen-year-old boy, Joseph Brook, as a foster child. Not only has Joseph been in juvie, but he is also the father of a baby girl named Jupiter. He is withdrawn and remote. Joseph won’t let anyone walk behind him, but Jack lets him know he “has his back.” He walks the 2 miles to school in the freezing cold with Joseph who gets harassed on the bus. Jack also teaches Joseph to milk cows and the cows take a liking to Joseph.  And Joseph shows Jack the planet Jupiter which he searches for nightly.

Despite the principal’s dislike of Joseph, Coach Swieteck, who’s back from Okay for Now, admires Joseph’s talent as do his math and English teachers. But Joseph wants so much to find his daughter whom he’s never seen but whom he loves.

Gary Schmidt is a tremendous author who creates real and unique characters all of whom are searching for something.  Watch him talk about Orbiting Jupiter