NPR's Backseat Book Club
7:16 pm
Tue February 28, 2012

Two Books For Kids About How Hard It Is To Fit In

One of the great things about being a reader is that over time, the books on your shelf seem to start talking to one another. Themes echo and resurface and resonate in new ways. That's why in February, NPR's Backseat Book Club — our monthly feature aimed at young readers — selected a pair of books published 60 years apart that still seem to speak directly to each other.

The Hundred Dresses, a children's classic written in 1944 by Eleanor Estes, is about Wanda Petronski, a Polish schoolgirl whose classmates tease her for wearing tattered clothes. The story was inspired by a little girl Estes remembered from her own childhood who was picked on by other kids. Estes' daughter Helena says her mother never forgot that little girl — but she didn't know what became of her.

"As an adult, once she had become a writer, she figured that the only thing she could do was to write her story ... and that in itself, I think, is very, very touching," Helena Estes says.

Over six decades, The Hundred Dresses has touched millions of kids with its poignant tale of bullies and bystanders. Helena Estes can attest to that. She's a children's librarian and says her mom's book is in constant circulation. After all, everyone feels like an outsider at some point.

"Perhaps they've been mean to somebody and regretted that, or perhaps they've stood aside and done nothing when they knew they should have spoken up," Estes says. "I think that all children recognize that has happened to them and to others, and so the book really speaks ... to everybody."

The main character in our second book certainly feels that way. In Shooting Kabul we meet Fadi, a little boy who is a refugee. He and his family escaped from the Taliban's grip in Afghanistan one night in the summer of 2001. During the harrowing journey, Fadi's little sister drops her Barbie doll and gets separated from the family as they climb onto a truck and speed away into the night. Fadi's family ends up in Northern California, and as they struggle to assimilate, Fadi also struggles with his guilt; he feels responsible for losing his sister Mariam, because he was supposed to be holding onto her hand.

Fadi arrives in the U.S. with just a few cherished items: his favorite book and his camera. The title — Shooting Kabul — refers to the photos he loves to take. In school, it's difficult for him to fit in; he struggles to learn the language, culture and customs of America.

Then Sept. 11 happens, and navigating his new country becomes even more difficult for Fadi. "He, being an Afghan — he, being a Muslim — faces a lot of issues that happen in the grown-up world," says author Naheed Senzai. "And as we know, they trickle down onto the playground at school."

For many authors, it's a challenge to write books that explore emotionally complex terrain yet remain accessible to children. But Senzai has faith in her young readers. "I always think kids are smarter than us in many ways," she says. "They may be in the background, they may be — as you say — sitting in the back seat. But they know what's going on around in the world."

The book that Fadi carried with him to the U.S. is another children's classic, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. That sparked a question from one of our young readers, Ellie Carlile, a 12-year-old from Georgia whose father has served in the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan. Carlile wanted to know how Senzai came up with the idea of connecting Shooting Kabul with a book written decades ago.

Senzai says Konigsburg's classic was one of her favorite books growing up. "When I was writing Shooting Kabul, I thought, well, this is a book about running away," Senzai explains. "I thought it would be wonderful to compare their stories, because in many ways Fadi and the main character, Claudia, face a lot of the same issues. They both have mysteries to solve."

There's that idea again — a thread that feels just as fresh in classic and contemporary works. Senzai didn't read The Hundred Dresses as a kid, but once she picked it up, she immediately understood why we paired the books together.

"I saw such immense parallels between Shooting Kabul and The Hundred Dresses," Senzai explains. "... These themes of bullying and acceptance and immigrants and becoming a part of the fabric in America is a theme that's played for many, many years."

For both Wanda and Fadi, art helps them endure the unkindness of their peers and lifts them up on their darkest days. Wanda draws all the dresses she wishes she had, and Fadi turns to photography to help find his lost little sister. "It's an outlet for expression," Senzai says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. It's time now for NPR's Backseat Book Club, our monthly feature aimed at young readers. Our own Michele Norris has been leading us on this reading adventure and, for February, she brings us two book selections.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: One of the greatest things about being a reader is that, over time, the books on your shelf seem to start talking to one another. There are echoing themes that resonate in new ways when they resurface. That's why we chose two books this month.

We came across a recent book that seemed to speak directly to a much loved children's classic that was published almost 70 years ago. Each book, in its own special way, deals with a special brand of childhood advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

NORRIS: No matter how old you are, no matter where you come from, memories of playground teasing can still cause your stomach to tighten. Our first book, a classic, captures that ache. "The One Hundred Dresses" was written by Eleanor Estes in 1944. It's about a Polish schoolgirl named Wanda Petronski. She's picked on by her classmates for her accent and her tattered clothes.

The story was inspired by a classmate from Eleanor Estes' own childhood. Estes' daughter, Helena, explains that her mother never forget those taunts.

HELENA ESTES: As an adult, once she had become a writer, she figured that the only thing she could do was to write her story, since she didn't know where this person was or what had become of this person. And that in itself, I think, is very, very touching.

NORRIS: Over six decades, "The One Hundred Dresses" has touched generations with its poignant tale of bullies and bystanders. Helena Estes can attest to that. She's a children's librarian and says her mom's book is still quite popular. That's easy to understand because everyone, at some point, feels like an outsider.

Our second outsider is much like a modern day Wanda Petronski. His name is Fadi. He's 11 years old and, instead of Poland, he comes to America from Afghanistan. He's the central character in a book called "Shooting Kabul." It's the story of how Fadi and his family flee Afghanistan to escape the Taliban in a summer of 2001.

But not everyone made it out. During the harrowing journey, Fadi's little sister, Mariam, dropped her Barbie doll and she got separated from the family just as they climbed onto a truck and sped away in the dark of night. Fadi carries the guilt because he let go of her hand.

NAHEED SENZAI: (reading) His father's shame flowed over Fadi as the other passengers looked at Habib with pity. He had lost his sense of honor because he had not been able to protect his (unintelligible), his daughter. But it wasn't his fault, thought Fadi. It was mine. I have no honor. I didn't protect Mariam.

NORRIS: Fadi lands in the U.S. with only a few cherished items, his favorite book and his camera. In fact, the title, "Shooting Kabul," refers to the photos he loves to snap. Author Naheed Senzai explains how the little boy tries to fit in at his new school.

SENZAI: He joins a school where he stands out, is learning the customs and the language and trying to fit in, but then something terrible happens - 9/11 happens and time changes. And he being an Afghan, he being a Muslim, faces a lot of issues that happen in the grown-up world and, as we know, they trickle down onto the playground at school.

NORRIS: You know, you set out a task that seems almost impossible for a book aimed at children, but you seem to have achieved it with grace and depth. You share a story of this little boy, he's an immigrant who's come to California from Afghanistan just before 9/11, and then, on top of being, you know, an immigrant and an outsider, he's also wrestling with this sister who's missing and missing because of something he feels he did.

So it's a story that is very deep and very emotional and very complex and yet completely accessible to kids. How did you manage to do that, to make sure that it was accessible to young readers?

SENZAI: One thing is that I always think kids are smarter than us in many ways. They may be in the background. They may be - as you say, be sitting in the backseat, but they know what's going on around in the world. And I thought, if I could write a book about such serious topics as, you know, terrorism and have Osama bin Laden in a book, and if I can make children understand geopolitical, you know, realities of the world in a way that is very digestible for them and, hopefully, their families, I thought that that could be a very positive thing.

NORRIS: Naheed Senzai had never read "The One Hundred Dresses," but immediately understood why we paired the two books once she picked it up.

SENZAI: I saw such immense parallels between "Shooting Kabul" and "The Hundred Dresses." It's about a girl named Wanda Petronski, who is a Polish immigrant and moves to a small town where she is ridiculed for having and wearing the same old, blue dress. And the beauty of the book is - and how it's written, it's actually - a lot of it is from the perspective of the two girls who torment her.

And then I thought about all the kids - and immigrants, in general, who come to the United States. I thought of, you know, Polish immigrants and, at that time, during World War II, Germans and Japanese kids who are in the playground and these themes of bullying and acceptance and immigrants and becoming a part of the fabric in America is a theme that's played for many, many years.

NORRIS: You know, Wanda Petronski, the main character in "The Hundred Dresses," deals with her sorrows by drawing dresses and Fadi turns to photography. And it's so interesting that, for both of these characters, it's art that helps lift them through their darkest days. Is there something to that?

SENZAI: I think so. I think it's an outlet for expression. For Wanda, it's for, you know, showing the other girls that she really does have 100 dresses lined up in her closet and, for Fadi, he uses photography as a way of finding his sister.

NORRIS: That was Naheed Senzai, author of "Shooting Kabul." Our other book was "The Hundred Dresses" by Eleanor Estes. Two books published decades apart provide a powerful lesson. Even though America is a very different place than it was 70 years ago, children often face the same struggles to find a path toward acceptance and understanding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: Now, before we say goodbye to February, one more quick thing. In honor of Fadi and his passion for photography, we asked you, our youngest listeners, to send us photos of the people and the place you love. We received hundreds of beautiful submissions. To see a sampling, visit our website, NPR.org. It's worth a look.

And now, for March, we have a puzzling choice. "The Mysterious Benedict Society" by Arkansas writer Trenton Lee Stewart. It's a story chock full of conundrums and enigmas and it focuses on four orphaned kids united by their genius, their eccentricities and their quest to save the world. Happy Reading. Michele Norris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: As always, we want to hear from our Book Club listeners, so please send in your questions about "The Mysterious Benedict Society." Our email address is BackseatBookClub@NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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