Oman and Naomi Shihab Nye On My Mind

BookendsCindy: I read The Turtle of Oman last fall and I’ve been meaning to write this post for months. My advance reader copy has sticky notes hanging off the pages and highlighter marks noting my favorite passages throughout. After ALA Midwinter, I thought I should just move on to looking at 2015 publications, but Naomi Shihab Nye’s quiet story keeps tugging at my head and heart—I can’t help but write about it.

The Turtle of OmanThe story opens with Aref Al-Amri’s father boarding a plane in Oman for Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aref and his mother are there to send him off and will be following a week later. Aref ignores pleas to pack his suitcase—the things that are most important to him cannot be taken; his rock collection is too heavy, the sea turtles too big and too alive, and his grandfather, Sidi, to old to want to make the trip. Sidi helps Aref say goodbye to Muscat by spending time with him each day. Sidi even takes Aref on an overnight camping trip to the beach to spend time with the beloved turtles—”the only hard thing about going to the beach was leaving it.” Their time together is precious and filled with small delights. As Nye did with her teen novel Habibi (1997), a place foreign to most Americans, Oman, is brought to life, mostly through her poet’s-eye focus on small, common, simple elements and moments. As I read, I hungered for the roasted almonds from the Sim-Sim Nut Store. I wanted Sidi to find a perfect stone for me to carry in my pocket too. I wanted to climb in the jeep with them and “zoom down a golden-brown highway like two three meteorites speeding through the heavens.”

What makes a home?
In our mobile society, these are issues
that many students face today.

The relationship between Aref and Sidi is the heart of this story. Readers will see how Sidi is helping Aref prepare to leave the place he loves so much, reminding him that he has welcomed American children to Oman before, so there will surely be American children who will do the same. Sidi tells Aref that Michigan has new turtles to discover and new foods and customs to experience, that he will return again to Oman in three years when his parents have earned their degrees, that it will be easy to meet the family goal of discovering something new each day in that unfamiliar place. What young readers may not see is that Sidi is working to process his own acceptance of his family moving—Sidi will be missing Aref as much as Aref will be longing for home.

HabibiThis is not a novel for plot-driven readers—those readers will want to rush through the packing and travel part to get to Aref’s arrival in Ann Arbor. As author Naomi says in her interview with Roger Sutton, readers can tell that story themselves. This is a novel that would make a great classroom read-aloud for third or fourth grade. It could spawn great conversation about what it’s like to move away from home and the importance of welcoming new students. What makes a home? In our mobile society, these are issues that many students face today. Have I mentioned that Aref is a list-maker? His whole family makes lists: his father and he use notebooks, his mother uses the computer, and Sidi keeps his lists in his head. Aref and Sidi even start a list of things they will do when they are together again. I had a lump in my throat when I read some of those passages. Sidi has “aches”—Sidi is old. Will he be there when Aref returns? I decided to imagine the next chapters myself. In my sequel, Sidi is well and waiting for more adventures and stories to share with his grandson. It shall be so.

I’m not doing this book justice. Sometimes words fail me! I think I need some fresh, hot, pita bread to get the creative juices flowing. I won’t be in Oman anytime soon, but I can easily make it to Ann Arbor in two and a half hours. I’ll add that to my list. Road trip!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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