Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Cultural comparisons: The Tyrant's Daughter, The Secret Sky and Taking Flight

Students are back to school and teachers may be looking for some new titles to enhance their literature curriculum. Young adult novels about kids from different cultures lend themselves to teaching the writing of comparison contrast essays, reflecting on the similarities and differences between the culture depicted in the book and their own. Depending on the students’ level of sophistication, the essay can range from a simple four paragraph essay to a fully developed paper, where each similarity and difference is explored in great detail. Three new YA books that lend themselves to this activity include The Tyrant's Daughter, written by JC Carleson, a former undercover CIA agent, The Secret Sky, penned by Atia Abawi, a foreign war correspondent in Afghanistan, and Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, co-written by Michaela DePrince, a refugee from Sierra Leone, and her adoptive mother.

In The Tyrant's Daughter Laila and her mother and brother flee their war torn Middle Eastern home, when her father, the king, is killed in a coup.  Arriving in Washington, D.C., Laila gradually adjusts to her new life, whereas, her mother is still looking for revenge.  She conspires with CIA operatives to regain the throne that is her son's legacy.  Despite her misgivings, Laila find herself caught up in the intrigue, as an international crisis threatens. She befriends Amir, a teenage boy from her country, in order to spy on the resistance movement, and navigates American high school customs and a flirtation with an American boy.  The conflict Laila feels, as she discovers her father was a tyrant rather than the loving parent she remembers, is heart breaking. Written by a former undercover CIA agent, the story captures the contrasts between American social mores and those of the Middle East in a fast paced thriller that is a real page turner.

Taking place in current day Afghanistan, The Secret Sky is a cross-cultural love story which illustrates the tribal strife in small Afghan communities.  Fatima, a Hazara girl whose father is a farmer, and Samiullah, a Pashtun boy whose father is a landowner, are childhood friends who fall in love. Their love is forbidden as the two tribes are not allowed to intermarry.  Fatima dreams of further schooling, as she learns to read from a friend's grandmother, whereas Sami has returned from his madrassa school, disillusioned by the harsh indoctrination forced upon students there.  Although they were allowed to play together as children, Sami and Fatima must now hide their friendship which has blossomed into love upon his return.  When Rashid, Sami's cousin who is a member of the Taliban, discovers and reports their attachment, it has far-reaching and horrific consequence.  The author, who was a foreign war correspondent in Afghanistan, does not shy away from depicting the disturbing physical, emotional, and sexual  violence that plagues this society.  This suspenseful love story is a rewarding read that ends on a hopeful note, but is only recommended for the mature reader. 

Michaela DePrince, the author of Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, escaped war-torn Sierra Leone when she was adopted by an American family who fostered her love of dancing.  Considered a "devil child" in Africa, due to a skin condition called vitiligo, Michaela suffered many hardships in the orphanage where she was abandoned after her parents died.  At that orphanage she found a picture of a ballerina that gave her strength to carry on. Adopted by the DePrince family at the age of four, she began studying ballet and ultimately starred in the movie First Position, as well as appeared on Dancing with the Stars.  She is now the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Co-written by Michaela and her adoptive mother, this autobiography is a truly inspirational story of what a child can achieve with love and acceptance.