Friday, July 30, 2021

The Star Outside My Window

Raúf , Onjali Q. The Star Outside My Window
October 3rd 2019 by Orion Children's Books
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Anjali and her brother have ended up in foster care with Mrs. Iwuchukwu after their mother has "left to become a star". The other children at the house include Ben, Travis, and Sophie, who was adopted by Mrs. Iwuchukwu and is quite confrontational with the other children. Anjali has always been interested in astronomy, and when she lived with her mother and father, had lots of books about the topic. When she finds out that the Royal Observatory is having a contest to name a new star that was recently sighted, she wants to enter the contest with her mother's name, because she is sure that the star is her mother. Then, she starts to worry that the "star hunters" will give the star the wrong name, so starts to plan with Ben and Travis to make their way to the gala celebrating this star and convince the people involved to give it the correct name. This takes a lot of planning, as well as a bit of subterfuge (sneaking in to use Mrs. Iwuchukwu's printer for a map), but on Halloween evening, the children take off. They plan to bike the 73 miles from Waverly, their village, through Oxford, Slough, and eventually to London and Greenwich, where the observatory is. Of course, they run into problems, from bike accidents to getting separated, but they make the gala just in time. Will they be able to convince the scientists, as well as the famous actress presenting the name, that Anjali's mother should be honored? And will Anjali and her brother get the help they need to deal with the reality of their mother's actual fate?

Fans of Jacqueline Wilson's work or Hennessey's The Echo Park Castaways will sympathize with Anjali's plight. There is a lot that isn't being said about the trauma that she and her brother experienced. Their father plays lots of "games", which seems to be how their mother protected them from the abuse she was suffering. There's moving furniture around, hiding, and making sure that everything is in place; activities that indicate the father was very controlling and violent at times, but that the mother shielded the children from much of this. Adult readers will pick up right away that the mother was killed by the father, but Anjali, and perhaps younger readers, don't acknowledge this right away. 

It's good to see a positive foster home and caregiver portrayed, although the difficulties with adjustment to the situation are not downplayed. Noah wets the bed, but Mrs. Iwuchukwi doesn't get mad. The children are provided with plenty of food, but there is only concern, not discipline, when Anjali won't eat. Anjali is also selectively mute at the beginning of the book, due to her trauma. Other realities of the trauma-based situation are realistically portrayed; Anjali has to talk to the police, with her foster mother there to support her. 

Young readers will be enthralled by the thrilling but ill-advised bicycle journey to London, and will be interested in the astronomy portrayed. Each chapter features a star, and constellations are discussed. I found it interesting that the children really did try to prepare well for the journey, but run into understandable difficulties. Persistence, however, helps them to reach their goal. 

Raúf has several notes about domestic abuse and its effects on young people, and has lists of resources that can help those affected. In addition to her books, which include Boy at the Back of the Class, she is involved in Making Herstory, an organization devoted to bettering the lives of women and girls. Reader who enjoyed Lewis' The Scarlet Ibis, Durrant's Little Bits of Sky or Running on Empty or other stories where the main characters have similar challenges will find this book about coming to terms with trauma informative and interesting. 

Like in Wilson's books, there is a bit of a disconnect for readers on this side of the pond. While the book is a length and level of difficulties meant for older readers (6-9), the character and the character's perceptions seem very young. US books about abuse go into slightly more (age appropriate) detail about what has occurred, but also show characters reacting to the situations in a way that shows they understand what has happened. Bradley's Fighting Words is a good example; Della and Anjali are about the same age, but Della confronts her situation with full knowledge of events instead of framing it in a more make-believe way. This seems to be a cultural difference between the US and UK. 

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