Ida in the Middle
Written by Nora Lester Murad
Crocodile Books, 2022, 224 pp
Ida is an eighth-grade first-generation Palestinian American girl who is ostracized in her predominately White school. Yet she is not the only middle schooler who experiences or witnesses bullying and exclusion because of name, ethnicity, and appearance. Ida is frustrated and angry when peers and teachers hold her personally responsible for current events in the Middle East. The novel explores how she deals with being both invisible as a person and hyper-visible as a scapegoat and stereotype. After violence erupts in Jerusalem, Ida’s Christian and Jewish classmates start a pro-Israel club that misrepresents Palestinians and their desire for safety and freedom. When Ida complains to the school principal, he suggests she start a Muslim club. But that does not address how the club negatively impacts her or the misinformation it is perpetuating.
When Ida changes schools, things seem to improve. But what will Ida write about for her Passion Project, a major assignment about herself and topic of interest? Stressed about this assignment, Ida snacks on olives sent from her relatives in Palestine and is magically transported to the life she would have lived if her parents had not emigrated to the United States. Eventually Ida returns to her life in the US more informed and inspired. What will she do for her own dignity and to support the struggles of others? Now in her daily life Ida experiences the humility and inconvenience of military check-points and the fear of encroaching home demolitions. Family and neighbors discuss how to cope and defend themselves. Ida returns to her life in the US more informed and inspired to take action for her own dignity and to support the struggles of others. In some ways her school situation improves with a principal who supports diversity and a different learning environment, but misunderstandings of Palestinians remain.
Twenty-nine years ago, I met my first Palestinian American protagonist in contemporary children’s literature. She was young Mona in Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye (1994). I was an adult with school-age children at the time. I recognized the void in my own education and historic awareness of Palestine, Palestinians, and Arab perspectives on current events. I applauded the publication of this book and the voice of the author as a sign that the next generation would be better informed. Yet since that time, there have been just a handful of books for children and young adults that flesh out Palestinian and Palestinian American experiences–a story and a history that is broad and multi-faceted. They include Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (1997), Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat (2007), The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter (2008), Balcony On the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine by Ibtisam Barakat (2016), and Determined To Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village by Jody Sokolower (2021).
Ida in the Middle by Nora Lester Murad (2022) is the latest such book and is rich in opportunities for thought and discussion about the treatment of Palestinian Americans in the US and daily life of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. In recent years the State Board of Education in California censored mention of Palestine in state standards for social studies curricula and considered the exclusion of Arab Americans from ethnic studies (Kirk, 2020). In such an environment the rare fact-based novel is a vital source of missing information and perspective. Ida in the Middle acts as a counternarrative to mainstream US news media and popular culture that do not mention the impact of home demolition or military invasion or the imprisonment of children in Israeli military jails, and describe Israel as a Western democracy threatened by terrorism but not as a settler colonial apartheid state, the experience of Palestinians.
The author, Nora Lester Murad, is mindful that parents and teachers may find Palestine a difficult subject and “too complicated” for young readers. Her website for the book addresses these questions and concerns and includes a 2-minute video featuring young women discussing their feelings of belonging and not belonging as a tool to spur classroom discussion. It includes Nora’s presentation of a study she conducted with Palestinian teachers about how Palestinians are portrayed in children’s books and a spreadsheet of lesson plans and background material related to teaching about Palestine at all levels. Also featured is a comprehensive six-week curriculum that can be used for 6-9th grade in ELA and social studies.
Nora is a writer, educator, and activist. Ida in the Middle is her first book for young readers. She co-authored Rest in My Shade: A Poem About Roots with Danna Masad (2019) and edited I Found Myself in Palestine: Stories of Love and Renewal from Around the Globe (2020). She has more than 20 years of experience teaching international and intercultural topics, including at Lesley, Bentley and Fordham universities. While living in Palestine, Nora co-founded Dalia Association, Palestine’s community foundation, and Aid Watch Palestine, an aid accountability initiative. She now lives in Massachusetts where she organizes to expand the teaching of Palestine in schools, among other social justice issues. Nora is a policy member of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network and serves on the Board of Visualizing Palestine. She was selected as a 2023 participating author in the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools Program. Nora blogs at www.noralestermurad.com.
Kirk, G. (2020, August 21). California compromises on Ethnic Studies. Jewish Currents. https://jewishcurrents.org/california-compromises-on-ethnic-studies
Tura Campanella Cook, Austin, Texas
© 2023 by Tura Campanella Cook