WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

Written/Illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Beach Lane Books, 2009
ISBN: 978-1416994374

Nasreen lives with her parents and grandmother in Herat, Afghanistan. Unable to attend school because of Taliban rule, she spends her days alone at home. When soldiers take her father away, Nasreen’s mother decides to go search for him, even though women aren’t allowed on the streets. With both of her parents gone, Nasreen doesn’t speak or smile. Aware of a secret school for girls, her grandmother decides to enroll Nasreen. Day after day, she sneaks Nasreen through the streets to the school but Nasreen still does not speak or smile. When the school reopens after the long winter recess, a classmate whispers, “I missed you,” and Nasreen speaks her first words when she whispers back, “I missed you too.” The bond of friendship frees Nasreen to open her heart and share about her life. Gradually, Nasreen begins to smile and learns to read and write, which opens up learning for her. The story ends on a note of hope as Nasreen’s grandmother comments, “the soldiers can never close the windows that have opened for my granddaughter.”

Narrated by Nasreen’s grandmother, this story is about courage and resilience in the face of fear and loss as Nasreen tries to make sense of her world. The book opens with an Author’s Note that provides background on life in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s rule and the dangers that still exist since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It also highlights the courage of girls, families, and teachers who continue to work to keep the schools open.

Winter’s illustrations are framed with wide white margins on the page, offering readers a window into Nasreen’s world. The illustrations are composed of simple shapes that pick up colors of the Afghan region but reveal complex meanings that support and enhance the written text. Darker skies early in the story reflect Nasreen’s sadness and fear and turn bright towards the end to represent the hope and joy she experiences through learning. While the written text never mentions what happened to Nasreen’s parents, their probable fate is evident in a later painting.

Born in Chicago to parents who emigrated from Sweden, Jeanette Winter has researched, written, and illustrated several other biographies that bring her subjects to life rather than merely reporting details. These include The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq (2005), My Name is Georgia (2003), and Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (2008). In a text set on schooling and learning, Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan would work well with Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson & Susan Roth, 2009), Josias, Hold the Book (Jennifer Elvgren, 2006), and Armando and the Blue Tarp School (Edith Fine & Judith Josephson, 2007). Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan would also pair well with Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan (Tony O’Brien & Michael Sullivan, 2008) which beautifully captures the faces and voices of children living in today’s Afghanistan.

Prisca Martens, Towson University, Towson, MD

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