Review posted May 25, 2009.
Square Fish (Feiwel and Friends), 2007. 267 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #1 Other Children's Fiction
Kek has come to Minnesota in winter from his home in Sudan. War has made him lose everything -- his father, his brother, his home, and their family's cows. He last saw his mother in the refugee camp before the soldiers came there, too. He is staying with his aunt and Ganwar, his older cousin who came to America before him. They too lost their family and home, and Ganwar lost a hand to the war.
To say that winter in Minnesota is different from anything Kek has ever known before is an understatement. The cold is like claws on his skin. The brightness of the snow burns his eyes. He tries to help his aunt by cleaning her dishes in what people call the washing machine. No one told him that machine was only for clothes.
But then Kek sees something he does understand -- a cow, old and neglected. The owner is old herself and isn't sure she can keep her farm, but while she does, Kek can help.
Kek's story is beautiful and lyrical. We see the strange new world through his eyes, and see his inspiring ability to hold onto hope. Kek's optimism in the face of overwhelming difficulties uplifts everyone around him, even the cow. And the reader will find his story uplifting as well.
When Kek does get discouraged, when the difficulties seem insurmountable, we are pulling for him with all our hearts.
I like Kek's voice, simple but lyrical. Here is a little section:
The next week,
my ESL class takes a field trip to the zoo.
Field trip is another English trick,
like raining cats and dogs
and a barrel of laughs
because there is no field
and it's not a far trip
like the one I took from Africa.
We take a yellow bus.
When we get to the zoo,
we must stand in line to get our tickets.
The other kids complain,
but I am used to lines.
One day in the refugee camp
I stood in line for nine hours
to get a handful of corn.
At last a guiding lady walks us past
birds and lizards,
fish and butterflies,
zebras and elephants.
We're looking for animals
from our homelands....
We are supposed to be watching the animals,
but I can't stop looking at the people
looking at all the animals.
A class of little children
laughs at the pigs
rolling happily in the cold mud.
Their class looks like our class,
or maybe we look like them:
many colors and shapes
Of all the things I didn't know
this is the most amazing:
I didn't know
there would be so many tribes
from all over the world.
How could I have imagined
the way they walk through the world
side by side
all free to gaze at the same sky
with the same hopes?
This book is beautiful and inspiring, and will linger in your memory. It gives you a taste of the courage and hope refugees must call up simply to face each new day.