Wednesday, September 20, 2023

A Pocketful of Stars

Bushby, Aisha. A Pocketful of Stars
September 5, 2023 by Carolrhoda Books ®
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Safiya parents, James Fisher and Aminah Al-Adwani, have been divorced for a while. She lives with her father, but her weekends are spent spending quality time with her mother, who is a lawyer. They usually have a good time, but after a recent weekend spent at a production of Rapunzel with her friend Elle, Safiya and her  mother have an argument. Saff doesn't care about the theater, and she's angry that she missed out buying tickets to a gaming convention her father offered to take her to because she had to go to the play. Elle loved the play, but Elle and Saff have had some difficult times because of the new crowd of students that Elle has befriended. After exchanging heated word with her mother, there's bad news a week or so later; her mother has had a stroke and is in the hospital in a coma. Safiya, of course, thinks that part of this is her problem, and tries to make her mother as comfortable as she can, going to her apartment to pick up a blanket and her favorite perfume. During one visit, she has a weird vision, and soon learns that these visions are glimpses into her mother's life in Kuwait when she was a girl. Her mother was involved in a small theater group with her friends, but her younger sister is angry that Aminah isn't spending time with her, and tells their mother, who doesn't approve of the play acting. When not visiting her mother, life goes on for Safiya. People give her pitying glances, and try to be supportive, but it's difficult. She tries to hang out with Elle and her new friends, but they are horrifically mean to others, including Charlotte. Safiyah calls out the bad behavior, which endears her to Charlotte and her friends, and she finds out that she has more in common with them than with Elle, who laughs off the bullying. Even as her mother's condition worsens and the visions increase, Safiyah is glad to have new friends who share her interest in gaming. The visions show her that her mother wanted to come to the UK to go to boarding school, and her grandmother didn't understand, which lead to a similar fight. The grandmother died when Aminah was studying abroad, and it turns out that she was also able to see visions of what was going on back home. Safiyah thinks that she can save her mother if she can get more of her special perfume, but it is not to be. 
Strengths: Readers of British middle grade literature will notice a very strong flavor of Jacqueline Wilson's or Onjali Q. Rauf's (especially in The Star Outside My Window) style of writing in this. While these authors all explore the trope of parents dying, there is a much stronger sense of agency and resilience in the protagonist's outlook that I enjoy. Yes, it's horrible that Safiya's mother has had a stroke. But life doesn't stop. Visits to the hospital occur in between school, eating dinner with her father, and even hanging out with friends. I loved these lines (from the E ARC): Losing someone you love is weird. You think you'll feel sad all the time, but sometimes that's not how it is. You find moments of happiness in between, like rays of light shining through on a cloudy day." What a much better message for young people than the US depiction of parents so distraught with grief that they can't get out of bed or take care of remaining children. Not only is that insulting, it makes for a boring story. A Pocketful of Stars combines the impending grief with friend drama as well as some magical realism that helps to explore the mother-daughter bond in a very interesting way. I'd love to see more exploration in middle grade literature about parent-child relationships instead of just killing them off. More relatable, and much more interesting. I'm sure my daughter could write an entire book about her 6th grade year, when she kept a cat in her closet, was grounded, and lost the opportunity to go trick or treating not because of the cat, but because I caught her flipping me off right as I was ungrounding her! 
Weaknesses: The trips into the mother's house in Kuwait were interesting, but I wanted a more solid process behind them, somehow. The rest of the book was so grounded in reality that I wanted to fantasy element to be more structured. 
What I really think: This is worth purchasing for Safiya's interactions with the bullying and her friendship with Elle alone. I haven't read anything else by Bushby, but I am certainly now intrigued as to whether she has any other titles available in the US. Definitely purchasing. 

Ms. Yingling

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