Amina and Auma
I’ve been thinking a lot about didactic content recently. As the Newbery Criteria states:
The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.
So, what do we do with books that are important and what counts as didactic content? In some cases it is obvious – a picture book written expressly to teach a moral lesson, but with terrible rhyming scheme and little literary quality. OK, great. That’s easy. But what about places where the line is finer.
AMINA’S VOICE is a book that walks that line for me. There are ways that this book is clearly excellent. Amina, as a character, is believable and lovable. The story is engaging and Hena Khan is an excellent writer. We need #ownvoices books and seeing this kind of representation in middle grade literature warms my heart.
That said, I think this book is trying to do too much in service of didactic content. There are so many intermingling plot points in such a slim volume that I felt like the author was just trying to make sure we got the message in every way possible about what the experience of an immigrant in American is like.
- Amina’s voice and her fear of singing in public at school
- The Quaran competition
- Her best friend becoming a citizen and possibly changing her name
- Her best friend becoming friends with a girl who they used to dislike
- The destruction of the Muslim Center
- The visiting uncle and the pressure that places on the family
While Khan does manage to tie all of these things together and resolve them satisfactorily, I do feel that all together it was a bit much and more focus on just a couple of these things would have made for a stronger title. I know we can’t judge what we wish the book was, only what it is, so I guess I’m saying that maybe what it is was a bit too much, in terms of plot devices, for me. Trying to make things relatable to a broad audience while also staying true to the experience of the narrator as a Pakistani Muslim is a real challenge. This book provides a window and a mirror. Like I said, this book is important. I’m not sure it’s Newbery quality, though.
I also have questions about how the Korean-American family is portrayed, as this author is writing outside her own culture for that part of the novel. Nothing raised red flags for me, but I’ve seen hints that it might have for others. Please chime in if you have thoughts.
Thinking about AMINA’S VOICE and titles from this year I might compare it to, AUMA’S LONG RUN comes up for me, and not just because the color schemes of the covers and the names of the main characters are so similar. In many ways these stories are quite different. One is focussed on the experience of an immigrant family in America, while the other is a story taking place entirely outside of the United States. One is contemporary and one set several decades ago. Both are #ownvoices stories, telling us about experiences of communities outside of white middle or upper class America. Both are important.
Eucabeth Odhiambo, however, does a better job of hitting the criteria. The content feels less didactic, even though it is also a story with a capital-m Message. Where does this succeed in ways that AMINA’S VOICE didn’t for me? Development of plot. Deliniation of characters. I think Auma’s running as a plot device and character builder works better than Amina’s singing talent. Both of these books belong in collections, but I think only Auma belongs on the Newbery discussion table.
What do you think?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Sharon McKellar
Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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