WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3


My Childhood under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary
Written by Nadja Halilbegovich
Kids Can Press, 2008, 120 pp.
ISBN: 978-1554532674

This moving autobiographical book focuses on the actual experiences of a young girl, Nadja, and her family during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. When the siege officially began, Nadja Halilbegovich was twelve years old. In her diary, she documents the events of the next three and a half years and her feelings about them. Interspersed with the vignettes are simple drawings and photographs she created to accompany the vignettes. For instance, “Bombs are exploding all over the city. I hide my feelings from everyone, but I am drowning in despair. When will this war end? For how long will my life consist of the dead space between two explosions?” (p.53). Nadja writes of her wishes for the violence to end, the stress of having her mother go to work with the threat of sniper fire all around and her own injury with the subsequent painful recovery. At the same time, Nadja sings in a children’s choir, asks why there is not more help from the international community and shares her poetry over the radio waves with her fellow citizens of Sarajevo. Eventually, Nadja endures a treacherous journey in an underground tunnel not large enough for her to stand upright in order to escape to safety to a foster family in America.

This book is one of several diaries published by young people who lived through these traumatic events as ethnic, religious and political unrest was the norm in this geographical area during the late eighties and early nineties. Other diaries include Zlata’s Diary (Filipovich, 1994) and Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (Heleta, 2008). In addition to her diary entries, Nadja includes passages written from the perspective of being an adult looking back on these events. Her initial diary began when she was twelve and ended with her escape at the age of sixteen. Her book was published in 2006 when she was twenty-six. In addition to the powerful rendering of a young girl’s struggle to grow up in an untenable circumstance while retaining her optimism and desire to work toward creating a world where other young people are not subject to living through war and violent conflict, Nadja addresses the issues of conflict resolution and peace-making. In a 2006 interview, Nadja comments “I hope to continue speaking and sharing my story and message. I hope that many children, teenagers and adults will read my book and be inspired to become peacemakers in their everyday life.” (http://www.associatedcontent.com). She also includes a series of black and white photographs which show her as a child, her family, her friends and returning to the tunnel through which she escaped. These photographs give context to the narrative.

A common complaint about this text is that it does not specifically address the causes of war or provide maps and other historical information to help readers learn about this war, which is not well publicized or studied about in the United States. However, the text is a diary which by its very nature reflects the experiences of an individual. This text does a wonderful job of introducing adolescent readers to the challenges of living through war. By experiencing the conflict through the eyes of one young woman, it feels very real and concrete. This is not an abstract exploration of war in general; it is a personal narrative that is descriptive and clear without being overly graphic or glorifying the violence that does occur. For instance, Nadja describes chopping up the furniture to use in the wood burning stove her family was fortunate to acquire and discovering the mushrooms her father cooked for dinner were actually snails he collected in nearby fields. These sorts of detail add to the cultural authenticity and the ability of readers to relate to a situation with which they may not have a personal experience.

As an adult, Nadja is a public speaker, activist and performer about issues of war and peace. By pairing this diary with her speeches and interviews, the issues of war and conflict can be addressed more broadly. As she states in one interview,

The first time I went back was in the summer of 1996 and it was both wonderful and painful. Of course, it was wonderful to be back home, see my parents, family and friends, but much of the city was in ruins and the lasting consequences of the three and a half years of destruction were very disheartening. The factories, businesses, schools and every part of the city life had to be rebuilt and nourished back to what it was before the war. Over the past decade, I’ve learned that it takes a long time to rebuild a war torn country. It is much easier to destroy than to create (www.associatedcontent.com).

Statements such as these provide ample fodder for teachers and students to explore which will result in developing empathy for Nadja and other children living through conflicts not of their own making. Additionally, this diary is a wonderful addition to a text set of other similar texts of children living through conflict like The Diary of Anne Frank and A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah (2007). This diary is set apart from Zlata’s Diary (Zlata Filipovic, 2007) the more popular text dealing with the siege of Sarajevo because Zlata clearly expresses her awareness that she was writing her diary as a record of war and expected it might be shared with a larger audience. She had read and been influenced by Anne Frank—The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank, 1953). My Childhood under Fire does not have the stated intention of addressing a wider audience or serving as a chronicle of war. Instead, this diary serves as a powerful testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, the ingenuity of people in difficult circumstances, the will to survive, common concerns experienced by many adolescents and an exploration of how and why people tolerate this type of conflict in our world.

Charlene Mendoza
University of Arizona and Amerischools College Prep Academy, Tucson, AZ

9 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3

  1. Pingback: Mirror
  2. Monique Stone says:

    After reading the commentary about Mirror- I was very curious about how my Moroccan student would respond. I mentioned that it was all rural- and didn’t that bother her? She said to me very quickly- Did you read this part? The writer explains that she only just happened to travel in the rural parts. This book is really good”

    I teach English as a Second Language in the South Western United States. I have several students from North Africa. Many are young and are quite homesick. I decided to see how they might respond to representations of their cultures in children’s books available in the United States. I did not have enough lead up time to do justice to an explanation of cultural authenticity, so I used questions such as, do you think this book is fair? do you think this book is good? Should I read this book to my son to teach him about your country?

    I can’t say that one student from Morocco can completley decide the authenticity of a text, but her approval for my son’s library means a lot to me.

  3. Yun-Hui Tsai says:

    I remember when I read Yenika-Agbaw’s “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereo-types with New Ones?” in the book “Stories matter: the complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature”, she argued that “a fair comparison would have been to compare urban life and children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in both regions”. however, at that time, my first, shallow reflection was that “there is no such thing as a ‘fair’ comparison”, since these two kinds of kids/lives do exist in this world, so would this kind of comparison. I was wrong. And I am glad I realized that. By reading the book Mirror and this review I now understand that authors of children’s literature should keep in mind that their works have the impact deeper than we imagine, therefore they must possess the social responsibility to provide authentic and non stereotype stories to their young readers, who have less knowledge and sensitivity to read critically. I was really impressed that there are so many similarities the Baker designed in the book, even the color of each family member’s clothes, that makes readers connect two countries almost effortlessly. However I also noticed that if Baker didn’t choose to portray them this way, this book could inevitably end up in just another “unfair” comparison. This is such a outstanding book with beautiful illustrations and noble themes. But just because it’s so success and wild recognized, we should also pay more attention on its influence, either positive or negative.

  4. Taylor Yagow says:

    I think this review is really exceptional! The respect she shows for both cultures is great! I especially enjoyed her interruptions of the differences and yet the main purpose of the book Mirror was to focus on similarities as what connect all of us. I found some books that I thought would go well alongside Mirror, “Why I Love Australia” by Bronwyn Bancroft, Bundle of Secrets: Savita Returns Home by Mubina Hussanti Kimani and Ikenna Goes to Nigeria by Ifeomas Onyefulu. These are just other suggestions. I personally liked these three because they go into the cultures that Mirror compares in a child friendly way.
    I found Mirror to be a beautiful book with extraordinary illustrations. It really made me think about the stereotypes that we all make and that our similarities are really what hold us together.

  5. Annette Fiedler says:

    I found this review of Mirror expressed wonderfully; I enjoyed the intensive review and information provided here. I enjoyed this book greatly and felt that the images of the cultures told a beautiful story of culture and identity. The story that each side of the book represented was told in a way that children of all ages could understand. I brought this book into my classroom and my students’ had many questions, but the exposure to the literature was great. I am usually not a huge fan of wordless picture books but this one is one that grabbed my attention and I would like to do into depth more so with it and my future lessons in my classroom. There is a lot to expose our children to in this text and doing so will invite them into many different culture related discussions.

  6. I loved the design of this book! It was a “clever” way to capture my attention. I studied it forward and backwards the first day I had it because I was so intrigued with the design. This is a powerful book with a deep message, I thought, that shows we are all just people living life. In certain aspects we connect in the way that we live and in other aspects we don’t, but that is what makes it all so very interesting. The details of the illustrations are quite detail oriented. It certainly is a book that can be studied repeatedly and you will discover something interesting within the illustrations.
    The review is done nicely. I enjoyed reading her thoroughness of the book and that she reflected on the positives and slightly negatives. Authenticity is an important aspect that we have discussed throughout this semester. The reviewer discusses that the cultural authenticity was done correctly and portrays each culture accurately except for the magic carpet. I agreed with her. Usually there are words or situations that cause you to think that something does not seem right. I didn’t have that with Mirror. This is a great picture book to own!

  7. Dana Gray says:

    I enjoyed reading this review. I think the book Mirror was very unique and beautiful. The pictures were so crisp and naturally stunning. Baker obviously took great care and consideration in the images she chose to represent and compare. As the reader it was very apparent to me that her goal was to show similarities while highlighting differences. I think that this book could be appreciated for is central message and beautifully crafted images, we shouldn’t get too carried away with judging the book on its relevance and representation within a social-political responsibilities of the author.

    I do think that Short raised a good point, describing how the boy drew pictures of the magic carpets, and how that connection to Arabic is overdone and could be construed as negative. I did not view that as a negative quality.

    Overall this is a beautiful thought-provoking book that I will soon be adding to my library.

  8. Lanika Rodrigues says:

    I definitely enjoyed the book. Honestly, I believe it is more complex than many picture books I grew up with as a child and critiqued when I was old enough to babysit. The differences were actually what stood out most to me–the greater the differences, the more similar the families. For example, at the end of the story, when the Australian family settles in to enjoy some time away from the constant overflow of technology by the fireplace, while on the other hand, the rural, Moroccan family chooses this time to enjoy technology together as a family…it’s still family time, with the members enjoying each others’ company; it’s just done differently for the families. It reminds me of trying to read a book in a mirror: while a human face reflects exactly in a mirror, a book will always read backward in a mirror. This story’s ending example is no different: while there are places in the book where there are similarities between the cultures, it is still a fascinating joy to explore the differences, just as much as holding the book to the mirror.

    Because of such symbolic complexity expressed in this book, I see the lack of political societal structure representation as negligible, particularly when considering its main target audience. It is, after all, a PICTURE book, written for children whose parents and primary adult environments very likely teach stereotypes about people of foreign origin. Children in this case often see the attacked culture from very simple perspectives simply because ignorant perspectives are exactly that: simple. The author, therefore, appears to be using the very stereotypes (for example, the notorious “magic carpet”) to bring respect, rather than ridicule, to the different cultures. After all, when we look into a mirror, we might not always like what we see–yet often what we dislike about ourselves just might be what others see in us as beautiful. The book, the author, doesn’t focus on political structures because that isn’t the heart of the book. The heart of the book is to bring us back to the very simple truth: that no matter what our differences, at the end of the day, we are beautiful when we work together, especially when we work together to bring out the good in others, no matter how far away that may be.

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