I have written before about windows and mirrors, and thought I had found plenty of perfect examples of books that give my rural Wisconsin readers a look into worlds other than their own. That was before I read Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine by Ibtisam Barakat. This title is actually the stand-alone companion to Barakat’s earlier book Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood. Both books are must-haves for middle and high school libraries and classrooms, which I will expand upon in my review below.
Here are the official descriptions from Goodreads for both books:
Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) – February 7, 2007)
“When a war ends it does not go away,” my mother says.”It hides inside us . . . Just forget!”
But I do not want to do what Mother says . . . I want to remember.
In this groundbreaking memoir set in Ramallah during the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, Ibtisam Barakat captures what it is like to be a child whose world is shattered by war. With candor and courage, she stitches together memories of her childhood: fear and confusion as bombs explode near her home and she is separated from her family; the harshness of
life as a Palestinian refugee; her unexpected joy when she discovers Alef, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. This is the beginning of her passionate connection to words, and as language becomes her refuge, allowing her to piece together the fragments of her world, it becomes her true home.
Transcending the particulars of politics, this illuminating and timely book provides a telling glimpse into a little-known culture that has become an increasingly important part of the puzzle of world peace.
Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) – October 25, 2016)
Picking up where Tasting the Sky left off, Balcony on the Moon follows Ibtisam Barakat through her childhood and adolescence in Palestine from 1972-1981 and chronicles her desire to be a writer. Ibtisam finds inspiration through writing letters to pen pals and from an adult who encourages her to keep at it, but the most surprising turn of all for Ibtisam happens when her mother decides that she would like to seek out an education, too. This memoir is a touching, at times funny, and enlightening look at the not often depicted daily life in a politically tumultuous area.
Review of Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine
As an adult, I can honestly say that despite my voracious news consumption, I have never fully understood the issues of Palestine and Israel and the West Bank and the constant conflict there. I still don’t consider myself an expert (or even able to explain it very well) by any means, but Balcony on the Moon has given me the best explanation and visual representation of this region and its history that I have seen yet. This would be an amazing choice to use in classrooms as a read aloud or even a whole class read, whether during a memoir unit or a history or geography unit. Or a strong women or overcoming challenges book club, or………..the list can go on and on!
There are so many things that fascinate me about Barakat’s story, but the one that stands out to me the most is her courage in the face of enormous odds stacked against her. Just two examples of this are when she defied her family and snuck out to find a factory job when she was twelve years old in order to earn her own money, and when she managed to sneak letters to an outside journalist while in high school – I had no idea that she wouldn’t have been allowed to send mail to Kuwait and would have to route it through a British postmaster! These are type of stories about which I can imagine having long and amazing discussions with students, stories that will give students an entirely different worldview.
This book also does an excellent job of discussing the many religions observed in Palestine, and gives a great deal of background information on Islam. This is a topic that must be discussed in US schools today in the face of such lack of general knowledge on the topic leading to fear and uncertainty. With knowledge comes power, but also with knowledge comes security. When students learn about topics that they are originally uncertain or fearful about, they can understand how something like a different religion connects to their own lives. The back pages include a list of resources, including links to the following:
- United Nations Relief and Works Agency Refugees in the Near East
- Institute for Middle East Understanding
- Author’s Personal Website
I can guarantee you that I will be reading extensively on this topic now, and these links will be my jumping off point.
One quote that stood out to me in Balcony is from page 51, when Ibtisam says to her mother, during a time of political turmoil, “I feel afraid!” and her mother replied in frustration, “Well, feel something else!”. That really encapsulates what Barakat and her family had to do to survive their ordeal, or actually, their existence.
VERDICT: If you are a librarian, or teacher, purchase this book for your libraries or classrooms. If you are a library card holder (and you’d better be one!), ensure that your public library has copies of both of these titles – if they don’t have them now, please request that they purchase them.
I first heard about Balcony on the Moon from a Nerdy Book Club post by author Kate Hannigan and was fortunate enough to sent a copy of this book from the author and her publicist after commenting on that post. This copy is being added to my middle-high school library. It is crazy how things work in the librarian and book blogging business – connections are made in the most random places and I always manage to find new books I love and want to shout from the rooftops about!