As we’re at the end of Women’s History Month, I couldn’t help but choose a story about girls’ education in Afghanistan:
Title: Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan
Written & Illustrated By: Jeanette Winter
Publisher/date: Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster, 2009)
Suitable for Ages: 6-9
Themes/Topics: Afghanistan, girls’ education, overcoming loss & trauma
My granddaughter, Nasreen, lives with me in Herat, an ancient city in Afghanistan.
Art and music and learning once flourished here.
Then the soldiers came and changed everything.
The art and music and learning are gone.
Dark clouds hang over the city.
Brief Synopsis: Set in the late 1990s, during the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Nasreen’s Secret School is the true story of one young traumatized girl whose grandmother enabled her to attend a secret school for girls.
Links to Resources:
- Compare Nasreen’s school room to your school room;
- Simon & Schuster provides a comprehensive teacher’s guide;
- Teaching Books.net provides links to other teacher guides;
- Learn more about Afghanistan and its history.
Why I Like this Book:
From the Author’s note at the beginning of the book, in which Winter tells the backstory of Nasreen and the secret school for girls, to the end, when the narrating grandmother shares that her mind is “at ease”, I found myself holding my breath: both in hopes that the secret school would remain secret and that the knowledge Nasreen gained in the school would help her overcome the trauma she experienced. As Winter writes, “Windows opened for Nasreen in that little schoolroom.” Similarly, Winter herself opens windows to readers through her words and framed, brightly-painted illustrations about the obstacles girls and their caregivers have overcome to obtain education, the importance they place on education, and the worlds that books and education open for all of us.
A Note about Craft:
Winter tells Nasreen’s Secret School from the point of view of Nasreen’s grandmother, the woman who enables Nasreen to attend school despite the Taliban threat. I think this is a good choice of narrator, as it distances the reader somewhat from the daily fears Nasreen must have felt, but it isn’t as far removed and potentially less empathetic as an omniscient or other third-party narrator.
In the Author’s note, Winter indicates that the Global Fund for Children contacted her to write a book about a school they support. The founder of that school, in turn, shared the story of Nasreen and her grandmother (changing names, for privacy and safety’s sake). This brings up an interesting question as to whether Winter filled in gaps and whether any of this “true” story has been fictionalized. Like Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, which is a refugee’s tale culled from interviews with several refugees, Nasreen’s story is filtered through interviews with both the Fund and the school’s founder. Despite these filters, I think Winter and Beach Lane are safe to term this non-fiction, especially with the Author’s note about how she came to tell the tale.
Finally, there has been a lot of discussion in the children’s literature community about who gets to share a story. While I would love to read a first-hand account by an Afghani woman who attended a secret school for girls, the reality, I believe, is that for certain regions and topics, the existence of a well-written and illustrated picture book by any writer, regardless of background, is more important than who wrote or illustrated it, as long as the story is told with respect and empathy. Winter has a long pedigree in writing and illustrating empathetic picture books from many diverse regions, which makes her a wonderful choice to tell Nasreen’s story.
For another book by Jeannette Winter about girls’ education and brave children in Pakistan, see Malala/Iqbal: Two Stories of Brave Children (Beach Lane Books, 2014):
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!