America is full of families who originally moved to the country from somewhere else, and our next reading adventure for NPR's Backseat Book Club explores this theme in two books. These books, published more than 60 years apart, both explore what it's like to try to create a new home while still yearning for the home you've left behind. We selected two stories that teach important lessons about accepting others, and going against the crowd when classmates are teasing or making harsh judgments.
Each month, we ask young people and their parents to read along with us and then join in the conversation with that month's featured author. In this case, readers can read one or both books and then send in questions and observations.
The first book is the classic The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. It was published in 1944 and tells the story of a quiet Polish girl named Wanda Petronski who is mercilessly mocked by the girls at school for a variety of reasons: She lives in a poor section of town, she has what kids think is a funny-sounding last name, and she wears the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda yearns to find acceptance and insists that she has 100 beautiful dresses at home — dresses that she designed herself. Her insistence just brings more laughter and teasing. No one believes a child with such finery in her closet would choose to wear rags to school. There is a student named Maddie who is very uncomfortable with the daily chorus of taunts; she knows it's wrong, but she says nothing and goes along with the crowd.
One day, Wanda does not show up at school. Instead, her father sends a simple note:
Dear teacher: My Wanda will not come to your school anymore ... Now we move away to big city. No more holler Polack. No more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in the big city. Yours truly, Jan Petronski.
It's only then that the students learn the real story behind those 100 dresses in a twist that will resonate in young hearts for years. The Hundred Dresses is a favorite book in the classroom — teachers use it to spark discussions about bullies, bystanders and compassion. All Things Considered discussed The Hundred Dresses in a segment on books that help parents ease children through some of life's challenges. Caroline Ward of Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn., says the book provides a powerful lesson about the remorse that settles in when a student misses an opportunity to say "I'm sorry."
Eleanor Estes attended elementary school during World War I, and she told her own daughter that she was inspired by a Polish girl in her Connecticut classroom who wore the same dress to school every day. Estes said she never forgot the little girl who was treated so badly and who, like Wanda Petronski, moved to the big city midway through the school year.
Our second book for February was also inspired in part by real-life events involving young people who moved to America from a distant land. Author N.H. Senzai was inspired by her husband's experience fleeing Soviet-controlled Afghanistan in 1979. Her book, Shooting Kabul, tells a more modern story of a family of refugees from Afghanistan through the eyes of an 11-year-old named Fadi. Like Wanda, Fadi struggles to find his way through middle-school life in Freemont, Calif., just outside San Francisco.
Fadi's well-educated family flees Kabul to escape repression under the Taliban. But Fadi makes a heartbreaking misstep: In a desperate crush of people, his six-year-old sister's hand slips out of his, and she's left behind. This book could have just as easily been called "Missing Miriam" because her absence provides the central tension in this story. The family searches desperately for a way to return to Kabul to find Miriam, but on the morning of Sept. 11, everything changes in their new home in Northern California. Suddenly Fadi faces taunting and prejudice at school. His family feels harsh stares wherever they go. They're trapped — unable to return to Afghanistan and unaccepted in the U.S
Fadi finds solace in the photography club at school, where he learns about a contest with a tantalizing grand prize: an all-expenses-paid trip to India. For Fadi, the prize offers a chance to get close to his homeland — and his missing sister. Shooting Kabul is a wonderful tale about acceptance, love and never giving up on your dreams — or your responsibilities. And it's wrapped up in a wonderful tale in which the sorrow and yearning is leavened by a big dollop of humor.
Senzai describes herself as someone who "grew up balancing life on the edge of two cultures," with a family that enjoyed "tandoori chicken and hot dogs grilled side by side on the Fourth of July." She was born in Chicago but spent her childhood globetrotting among Saudi Arabia, San Francisco and London. She will join us to talk about the shared themes in Shooting Kabul and Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses.
Emily Davis for NPR
Here's How You Can Get Involved
Please remember to send us your questions and observations about these books so we can include them in our interview with Senzai. And, if you get the all-clear from your parents, we have another little assignment for you. In Shooting Kabul, Fadi finds his voice — and the chance to find his lost little sister — through photography. Because Shooting Kabul is all about places, people and photographs, we'd like to see your photographs of the people and places you love.
You can take a photo of someone close to you — a sibling, a grandparent or a teacher. Or, you can take a picture of one of your favorite spots — the garden outside your window, the favorite nook where you like to read, or the beautiful covered bridge near the river. Then, ask your parents to help you submit that photo here. In the caption, please tell us your name, your age, and a brief description of what the photo shows and why it is so special to you. We may feature some of your pictures on our website! Click here to see an example of a previous reader gallery.
hide captionN.H. Senzai's novel Shooting Kabul tells the story of a boy who falls in love with taking photos.
Sylvia Fife/Courtesy Simon & Schuster
N.H. Senzai's novel Shooting Kabul tells the story of a boy who falls in love with taking photos.
Sylvia Fife/Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Some Photo-Taking Tips
1. Get Close! Don't be shy! When taking pictures of people, it's best if you get up nice and close.
2. Watch the light! Try to avoid taking pictures of people with their backs to a window. If you notice your friend is squinting in the sun, find a spot in the shade. If your photo is coming out blurry or too dark, try using the flash or wait until the sun comes out.
3. Experiment! Get down on your belly, or climb up high to take your photo from a new and interesting angle. But be careful — when you're framing your shot, try not to cut off heads, noses, knees, or toes!