MTYT: The Garden: A Novel

By Susan Corapi, Trinity International University, Deerfield, IL, and Deanna Day, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA

The conflicts in today’s world forces many people to move to new places in hopes of a safer life. Though people may cross borders physically, crossing borders between different people figuratively is often the more difficult task. This week Susan and Deanna give their takes on The Garden: A Novel by Megan Ferrari, another USBBY OIB book, which focuses on a boy from Syria who moves to Canada to escape civil war and struggles to adjust to a new culture and community with help from the people around him.

DEANNA: “It sounds like heavy rain, the dirt being tossed on the sheet of plywood inches above our heads. My brother and I sit below, in the hole my mother dug for us in her garden.” These opening sentences introduce readers to the brothers Elias and Moussa who hug each other tightly in an underground shelter where they are safe from rebels who walk the streets in Syria. Every time the missiles get close or armed men begin looking for children to train and thrust into battle, the young brothers hide in the makeshift hole and pretend to play hide and seek. Hours later their parents lift the sheet of wood and welcome them back into their home.

This brief 119 page novel shares the story of one Syrian family who is trying to survive the civil war in their country. Alternating chapters go back and forth between Syria and Canada, where the family eventually moves to.

On the second page it states, “The world has turned its back on us,” so I researched this civil war that has been going on for almost 10 years. For a couple of years, the war was ignored by Western countries until the United States and Allied forces began conducting airstrikes in 2014. The war still continues today with Russia and Iran helping the Syrian government and President Bashar Assad. This war has devastated the Syrian people with approximately 500,000 deaths and 11 million Syrian people who have lost their homes.

I appreciated this short book and read it aloud to one of my literacy classes last fall. We then read news articles on this war, viewed photographic images from the United Nations website, read poetry from Syria, and more.

SUSAN: I, too, appreciate the story. It does not mince on words describing the difficulties the characters go through, but readers encounter the hardships through flashbacks, which “distances” them from the harsh realities of child soldiers, torture and death. The author, Canadian educator Megan Ferrari, uses the story to mesh the trauma of the war and being a refugee with the difficulties of transitioning to a new country and language. She witnessed first-hand how difficult it is for children because the novel is based on the personal stories of her students. So even though it does not come out of her personal experience with conflict, it has a ring of authenticity because she witnessed the healing from trauma that her students have to experience at the same time they are crossing enormous cultural borders. The story is an interesting combination of difficulty and hope.

One of the picture books we received, Vanishing Colors, gives a pictorial view of conflict in that area of the world. The country is not named in the text, but the illustrations by Turkish-Norwegian Akin Duzakin reflect a landscape and architecture that resembles Syrian cities. In the book, a girl and her mother are waiting out the night in their bombed out home. The girl is naturally afraid. Through a conversation with a large bird, she gathers courage and hope for the future by remembering life before in all of its glorious color.

As I reflect on these two stories together, I think about the process of finding hope in really grim circumstances. I see memories playing a key role in Vanishing Colors. How do you see Elias hanging on to hope in The Garden?

DEANNA: The classmates Elias meets in Canada, Liling and Sullivan, help Elias adjust to his new homeland and school bullies, giving him hope for a future. Like Elias’ family, Liling’s family are refugees from China so she understands how difficult it is to communicate and connect to a new school, community and country. Elias’ past haunts him, giving him flashbacks of the trauma that occurred in Syria, similar to what the girl and mother experience in Vanishing Colors. Thankfully Elias is able to slowly share his story with his friends, helping him heal some. In addition, a guidance counselor offers a listening ear and supportive words. Elias dreams of returning to Syria someday to help his people rebuild their country.

In Vanishing Colors the imaginary bird protects the mother and child, reminding the girl of her beautiful memories, “Have you forgotten everything? All of the wonderful things that were here before.” This bird encourages her to close her eyes and see the colors in the midst of the destroyed city. She remembers walking through the streets with her Papa that are now rubble, visiting the market, listening to her Papa play a string instrument and playing with her best friend. Recalling all of these images is wonderful but depressing. The bird folds its wings around her and advises her mother and her to, “Stay together, help each other.”

SUSAN: I love that last bit of advice from the bird! For me it is a key concept in crossing borders. To travel with someone instead of alone makes all the difference in the world. That is the hardest part of the journey from Syria to Canada for Elias; he does it alone without Moussa. It is the companionship with Liling and Sullivan that helps him begin to adjust.

Another book we received is a strong illustration of companionship. In Caravan to the North: Misael’s Long Walk, poet Jorge Argueta chronicles in verse the power of an entire group of people making the journey from their home in El Salvador to Tijuana on the Mexican American border. The end in that book is not nearly as hope-infused as the other titles we discussed this week, because the group of people are turned away at the border and told to return home. But the focus of the bulk of the story is on the “groupness” of journeying together and the hope that propels the parents and children to keep walking. The illustrations by Manuel Monroy are sparse with lots of white space, communicating a hopeful anticipation of a safe future.

I appreciate each of these refugee narratives, because they counter so many of the disparaging remarks broadcast in the media. Each of the characters in the books we discussed this week are seeking safety. Each is finding the courage to cross borders through making the trip side by side. That is a great introduction to the next book I would like to discuss–another side-by-side journey but out of a fantasy world!

Title: The Garden: A Novel
Author: Megan Ferrari
ISBN: 9780889955684
Publisher: Red Deer Press
PubDate: February 21, 2019 (October 23, 2018 in Canada)

Throughout February 2020, Susan and Deanna give their take on books focused on narratives that cross borders. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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