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Book Reviews

Inclusive Literature


Naomi Shihab Nye        Gay/Lesbian Characters    Character with Disabilities   


  Naomi Shihab Nye

Bibliographic Citation:
Nye, Naomi Shihab.  1997.  Habibi.  New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.  ISBN 0689801491.

Fourteen-year-old Liyana has just been kissed for the first time when her father announces the family is moving to Jerusalem.  She must adjust to a new school, new language, new city, and new culture.  Surrounded by family members she has never met, Liyana feels overwhelmingly alone until she meets Omer.  Their friendship tests the boundaries of the Arab world and the Jewish world. 


    In Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, she tells the richly, descriptive story of fourteen-year-old Liyana.  After receiving her first kiss, Liyana's father announces that the family is leaving the country for his homeland, Jerusalem.  Though Poppy believes the situation between the Arabs and Jews has improved, the Abbouds are constantly reminded of the tension and division between the two groups.  At customs in Tel Aviv, the Israeli agents immediately single out their family.  The agents interrogate them and search every inch of their suitcases and backpacks (Nye 32-33).  One reviewer noted that, "This soul-stirring novel about the Abbouds, an Arab American family, puts faces and names to the victims of violence and persecution in Jerusalem today." (Publishers Weekly)

    Written in Nye's poetic style, the narrative is broken down into short chapters that are almost like vignettes.  These make for a fast-paced story.  Instead of being numbered, the chapters begin with a word or phrase, along with a first line that Liyana has added to her journal.  Since the book is written in third person, these poetic phrases act as a window into Liyana's insights, feelings, observations, and philosophies.  The lines often tie directly into the narrative or dialogue.  One critic explained, "Though the story begins at a leisurely pace, readers will be engaged by the characters, the romance, and the foreshadowed danger.  Poetically imaged and leavened with humor, the story renders layered and complex history understandable through character and incident.  Habibi succeeds in making the hope for peace compellingly personal and concrete." (McClelland)

    Liyana and her brother are "nos-nos" or half-half.  For the first years of their lives, they have lived in St. Louis experiencing the American culture of their mother, Susan.  Now, however, it is their father's chance to introduce them to the Arab side of their identities.  Taking after her father's appearance, Liyana has dark, brown hair that she leaves braided and an olive complexion.  Through her intense and introspective characters, Nye creates a setting that engages the senses and the mind.  Readers follow Liyana as she adjusts to the sights and sounds within Jerusalem.  Her father's relatives are unlike any other she has met before.  They greet the family with hugs and kisses.  The women wear long dresses "made of thick fabrics, purple, gold, and navy blue, and stitched brightly with fabulous, complicated embroidery." (Nye 40)  They all wear gold bangle bracelets and plastic, slip-on shoes.  The older women have scarves tied over their hair.  Liyana and her family are introduced to the Arab customs, such as everyone eating from one large serving dish.  Nye describes every meal with specific details that bring the flavors of rice and lamb and lentil soup to life.  As Poppy takes his family around the city, the children are introduced to more people than they can remember.  It seems as if everyone is somehow connected or related to their family.  

    "Constantly lurking in the background of the novel is violence between Palestinian and Jew." (McClelland)  Israeli soldiers storm into Sitti's house and demand to see her grandson, Mahmud.  When she explains that he was not home, they push past her into the house and begin searching it inch-by-inch.  The soldiers smash her bathtub and toilet with hard metal clubs before leaving (Nye 176-7).  When the children question their father for answers, he replies, "THERE IS NO WHY." (Nye 177)  This incident changes the tone of the story.  It makes the animosity between the Jews and Arabs more personal. 

    The Abboud family is exposed to the Israeli soldiers' cruel hostility again when Poppy attempts to stop them from shooting their young friend, Khaled.  The soldiers were looking for someone to take out their anger on for the bombing in the Jewish marketplace.  Even though the boy had no part in it, they choose him to take out their aggression on.  As a result, Poppy ends up in jail, while Khaled has to be taken to the hospital (Nye 220).  These events change Liyana and her family's optimistic view of Jerusalem.  Poppy had thought that things had improved, but the violence continues to build throughout the story.  However, Liyana's friendship and romance with Omer helps their own family cross the lines between the Arab world and the Jewish world.  One reviewer said, "The sights, sounds, and smells of Jerusalem drift through the pages and readers glean a sense of current Palestinian-Israeli relations and the region's troubled history . . .  However, Liyana's romance with an Israeli boy develops warmly, and readers are left with hope for change and peace as Liyana makes the city her very own." (Kirkus)

    I strongly disagree with one of the book's critics.  She proclaimed that, "Habibi is a book in the midst of an identity crisis.  It can't decide if it wants to be a political novel about Arab/Israeli conflicts, a teen romance, a series of vignettes on loosely related events in one character's life, or a book of poetry that incidentally contains a novel as well. Because the text is, unfortunately, all of the above, its entertainment value is severely limited." (Martin)  Nye's book does combine poetry, politics, and romance but in a way that provokes and engages the reader.  Every thought or consequence falls into Liyana's view of the world.  She finally recognizes, "There is no map.  Every day is a new map.  But it's just a scrap of it, an inch." (Nye 254)  Each day provides new opportunities to act or speak up. 

    As for the narrative's ending, the same critic complained that, "Its climax is weak, and too little tension is maintained throughout to keep readers involved.  Since the end of the book feels no different from its rambling chapters, the last page takes readers by surprise and leaves them wondering about the book's purpose." (Martin)  I feel that Martin cannot be more wrong.  The book ends on an optimistic and hopeful note.  Liyana has come to find her identity and to understand her own personal beliefs.  She is a courageous and outspoken character who advocates peace and action.  Her character provides young readers with a strong and positive role model, while also offering them a glimpse into another world.  I believe that, "Nye's climactic ending will leave readers pondering, long after the last page is turned, why Arabs, Jews, Greeks and Armenians can no longer live in harmony the way they once did." (Publishers Weekly)

Story Extension:
Read together with The Shadows of Ghadames by JoŽlle Stolz.

Reference List:

Kirkus Reviews.  n.d.  Habibi review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Martin, Michelle H.  n.d.  Children's literature: Habibi review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

McClelland, Kate.  n.d.  School library journal: Habibi review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  n.d.  Habibi review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).


  Gay/Lesbian Characters

Bibliographic Citation:
de Haan, Linda, and Stern Nijland.  2002.  King and king.  Berkeley,CA: Tricycle Press.  ISBN 1582460612. 

The queen decides she is tired of being ruler and decrees that her son, the prince, marry and become king.  When the queen informs him of her intentions, the prince agrees.  However, none princesses are the right one until he falls in love with someone unexpected.


    In King and King, Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland retell an old fairy tale with a new modern-day twist.  As one critic pointed out, "Most picture books deal with the acceptance of differences and diversity in an oblique manner, but this story takes a more direct approach to the subject of homosexuality." (Ford 2002)  When the queen decides she has ruled long enough, she informs her son that he must marry and become king before the end of the summer (de Haan and Nijland 2).  His exasperated mother exclaims, "I don't understand you.  Every prince in these parts is married.  Every one of them but you!" (de Haan and Nijland 8)  Even though the queen's talk made him dizzy, he reluctantly agrees to her plan.  He warns her though that he has "never cared much for princesses" (de Haan and Nijland 9).  The prince's comment foreshadows the story's inevitable outcome and hints at his true feelings. 

    After the queen enlists every available princess, the prince begins his search for his true love.  He turned away princesses who sang operas, who performed magic tricks, and who were humorous.  When the prince and his mother's hopes were sinking, the page announced one last princess.  As Princess Madeleine and her brother, Prince Lee entered the room, the prince finally "felt a stir in his heart" and promptly fell in love (de Haan and Nijland 19-20).  However, his sights were set on Prince Lee.  They both exclaimed, "What a wonderful prince!" (de Haan and Nijland 21-22).  One book reviewer commented, "This story recognizes no differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Many youngsters will accept this in a matter-of-fact way, but others will have questions so parents should be prepared with age-appropriate answers." (Ford 2002)  This book does not shy away from the love between the two princes and their marriage.  It even ends the book with the two kissing, though a heart covers the spot where their lips meet (de Haan and Nijland 29).

    Using ink drawings and brightly-colored collages, the authors have created jarring and disruptive illustrations that take away attention from the story.  "Unfortunately, the multimedia collages are cluttered with clashing colors, amorphous paper shapes, scribbles of ink and bleary brushstrokes; the characters' features are indistinct and sometimes ugly."  (Publishers Weekly 2001)  The queen is depicted with a large nose and wide ugly mouth, especially in the illustration where she declares that she's had enough (de Haan and Nijland 5).  Her image is threatening and frightening as sweat pours down her forehead and her hair clumps together in stringy strands. 

    In the midst of the collage opposite, the authors have utilized meaningless phrases and images, such as "open-air swimming pool," "The Papermill," and drawings of insects (de Haan and Nijland 6).  Despite the harshness of the drawings, the crown kitty appears in most illustrations adding a touch of humor.  He can be seen wearing a green tutu, walking on stilts, and juggling a mouse.  One critic admitted, "Some of the details in the artwork are interesting, including the 'crown kitty' performing antics in the periphery.  However, that isn't enough to compensate for page after page of cluttered, disjointed, ill-conceived art." (Threadgill 2001) 

    Even though the story tackles a difficult topic in an honest and subtle way, I have to agree with the book's several critics.  It lacks the depth and attractive illustrations to draw in young readers.  One reviewer said, "Despite its gleeful disruption of the boy-meets-girl formula, this alterna-tale is not the fairest of them all." (Publishers Weekly 2001)  Another critic went on to say, "Originally published in the Netherlands, this is a commendable fledgling effort with good intentions toward its subject matter. Unfortunately, though, the book is hobbled by thin characterization and ugly artwork; the homosexual prince comes across as fragile and languid, while the dour, matronly queen is a dead ringer for England's Victoria at her aesthetic worst." (Threadgill 2001) 

    Regardless of the story's topic and focus, I would be reluctant to recommend this book because it does not have the literary quality or appeasing illustrations that I am used to seeing.  "The book does present same-sex marriage as a viable, acceptable way of life within an immediately recognizable narrative form, the fairy tale. However, those looking for picture books about alternative lifestyles may want to keep looking for a barrier-breaking classic on the subject." (Threadgill 2001)

Reference List:

Ford, Carolyn Mott.  2002.  Children's literature: King and king review. (Accessed August 4, 2006)

Publishers Weekly.  2001.  King and king review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Threadgill, Catherine.  2001.  School library journal: King and king review. (Accessed August 4, 2006)


  Character with Disabilities

Bibliographic Citation:
Clements, Andrew.  2002.  Things not seen.  New York: Philomel Books.  ISBN 0399236260. 

Bobby has always felt average, even invisible.  But when he wakes up one morning "gone," he learns the power he has over others and how it really feels to be overlooked.  Through his friendship with a blind girl named Alicia, Bobby discovers his own self-worth, while trying to find a cure for his condition. 


    In Things Not Seen, Andrews Clements introduces readers to fifteen-year-old Bobby Phillips.  "As the title hints, this is a tale about sight and insight, as well as the fanciful theme of actual invisibility." (Rohrlick 2002)  After taking a shower, Bobby goes to comb his hair in the mirror.  That is when he knows something is wrong.  He says, "It's what I don't see . . . I'm not there . . . I'm.  Not.  There." (Clements 1)  Overnight, Bobby has become invisible.  "As preposterous as the teen's predicament may be, the author spins a convincing and affecting story." (Publishers Weekly 2004)  After convincing his parents that he is not joking, they react as they would to any other problem.  His genius, physicist father tries to look for a scientific explanation concerning light anomalies and mathematical theories.  His mother, on the other hand, attempts to comfort Bobby and allows her husband to take control of the situation.

    When Bobby's parents are in a car accident that forces them to be in hospital for several days, Bobby is left to fend for himself.  "Bobby quickly finds out that the reality of being invisible is quite different from what is portrayed in movies and books . . . Not only is Bobby invisible, but he also is alone." (Hepler 2002)  Bored and lonely, he ventures out into the city.  Because of the February weather in Chicago, no one looks twice at him bundled up from head to toe.  He takes the bus to the university library, where he ditches his clothes in the bathroom and begins exploring.  On his way out, he bumps into a girl who knocks off the scarf around his face.  Thinking his cover is blown, he sees her white cane and realizes she is blind.

    Bobby cannot help but take notice of her.  The author does not hide Bobby's infatuation for her.  He says, "You know how Hemingway writes?  He couldn't write about this girl's face . . . This face needs someone like Dickens, or maybe Tolstoy.  Someone who'd take a whole page and spend some time on her eyebrows and cheeks, or maybe notice the shape of her mouth when she's concentrating on walking with her cane." (Clements 29)  But Alicia is more to Bobby than a beautiful girl.  She is someone he can connect with.  One reviewer noted, "When Bobby meets Alicia at the library, he believes he's found a friend who will accept him as he is . . . Their growing friendship and the mystery concerning Bobby's condition make for an absorbing, imaginative tale." (Draper 2002)  Their friendship provides the basis for the story.  "Together they help each other work through their situations to find friendship and a new strength that they did not realize they possessed." (Hepler 2002)

    Though Bobby's invisibility moves the story ahead, it is his and Alicia's friendship that mesmerizes readers.  Alicia is immediately sarcastic and defensive.  When Bobby comments that she gets around by herself really well, she throws back a snide comment saying, "Yeah, and if I work extra hard for another ten years or so, I'll be able to go places about as easily as your average six-year-old on crutches.  So that's something to look forward to, right?" (Clements 83)  Bobby, however, cannot be deterred by her sarcastic comments.  "Both feeling angry, scared, and vulnerable, their relationship gets off to a wonderfully tumultuous start, but builds on a foundation of caring and loyalty into something solid enough to survive Bobby's final return to visibility." (Kirkus) 

    Alicia confides in Bobby about how delicately her parents treat her.  She says, "They're afraid for me all the time, like if a shoe is lying in the wrong place, they think I'm going to trip over it and break my neck." (Clements 104)  Her mother, especially, feels responsible for Alicia.  She quit her public relations job to care for her.  When her mother suspects her of lying about where she is going, she follows her thinking that Alicia does not she is there.  Her parents handle her as if she is fragile and weak.  Bobby, however, sees her as someone he has in common.  When he comments that he felt invisible long before he actually was, Alicia tells him, "That's exactly how I felt that first morning, that whole first year when I was suddenly the little blind girl.  It was like I became invisible.  I couldn't see myself . . . Everything just disappeared." (Clements 106)  She is afraid for all the things she might miss out on because of her eyesight.

    Even though she is blind, Alicia can tell when other people look at her funny.  She can feel it and hear in their voices.  Her anger always surfaces as she talks.  She reveals all her insecurities that came with her blindness.  Alicia speaks of her doubts about her future and the burden she places on her parents.  Where others see weakness, Bobby sees confidence and strength.  While Bobby is retrieving the names and phone numbers from the legal department of Sears, Alicia distracts them by pretending to be interested in what jobs are available for someone like her (Clements 179).  She later explains to Bobby that she was able to see herself moving on and working, but it made her feel alone as well.  He reassures her that she will never be alone because she will have him.  When Alicia finds the solution to Bobby's problem, she rejoices with him.  She uses her fingers to trace his face.  He watches as she tries to match up this new physical image with what she already knows about him (Clements 243).  Though she cannot literally she him, Alicia is the one person who never thought he was invisible.       

    "Written in a more serious tone than Clements's popular Frindle, this novel will prove thought-provoking as it asks the reader to consider all the 'things not seen.' " (Hepler 2002)  I believe that the combination of imagination and true friendship will attract young readers.  One book reviewer proclaimed, "Clements's story is full of life; it's poignant, funny, scary, and seemingly all too possible. The author successfully blends reality with fantasy in a tale that keeps his audience in suspense until the very end." (Davidson 2001)  The narrative holds readers' attention as Bobby gets closer to a solution and closer to Alicia.  The story demonstrates how their meeting impacts and changes their own view of themselves.  Things Not Seen is a "readable, thought-provoking tour de force, alive with stimulating ideas, hard choices, and young people discovering bright possibilities ahead." (Kirkus)

Reference List:

Davidson, Saleena L.  2001.  Things not seen review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Draper, Joanne.  2002.  Children's literature: Things not seen review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Kirkus Reviews.  n.d.  Things not seen review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Hepler, Heather.  2002.  VOYA:  Things not seen review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  2004.  Things not seen review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Rohrlick, Paula.  2002.  KLIATT: Things not seen review. (Accessed August 4, 2006).

Other Multicultural Book Reviews:

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Native American    Asian

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