CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 23 . . . . February 17, 2012
The Paper House. (Orca Young Readers).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2012.
108 pp., pbk., $7.95.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Crystal Sutherland.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Everything was so different in Kiberia. The noises were louder and the smell stronger. Flies hovered above trenches of mucky water. Garbage lay everywhere. Packs of dogs roamed the alleys, barking and howling, rooting for food and getting in snarling fights. Flocks of birds scavenged through the garbage dump and sat in noisy rows on the power lines above the railroad tracks. Fires sometimes destroyed whole rows of shacks. Gangs threatened old people and women and little kids.
Safiyah was often woken in the middle of the night by shouting, crying and terrible screams. “Go to sleep,” Cucu would say as she stroked her back. “It’s none of our business.” But still Safiyah lay wide awake for hours, weeping quietly into her blankets as she remembered how safe she had felt back in their village, when her mother was still alive.
Imagine being 10-years-old: imagine being 10-years-old and, having been forced into living in a slum, being the sole caregiver to your sick grandmother, your only living relative. Safiyah doesn’t feel it’s fair that she isn’t able to go to school because, while school is free, she would first need to buy her own uniform. She can barely find enough money to buy food for her and her Cucu (grandmother), let alone new clothes. All she has left are a bracelet her mother gave her before she died, the clothes on her back, and her Cucu. Safiyah’s tries to be brave for her Cucu, but she is worried about her: Cucu has been coughing up blood for a long time, and Safiyah can’t let herself think about Cucu dying.
Safiyah spends her days the same way many children in her village do – at the dump looking for scraps of metal she can sell so she can get food for her and Cucu. On one trip, she isn’t able to find any scraps to sell, but she does find some colourful magazines that will be fun to look at and which might even look good on the walls of their house. Safiyah is ready to go home with her magazines when another child, Chidi, decides he wants her magazines (only the pictures of cars!). Just when Safiyah thinks she’s really gotten herself into trouble, an older boy comes along and helps her. She’s thankful, then scared when she recognizes the boy – Blade, the ring-leader of a very dangerous gang. She’s worried about Chidi, but runs away while she still can. Cucu would be very angry if she knew Safiyah talked to Blade, even if it was necessary if she wanted to get out of a very sticky situation.
Safiyah didn’t like keeping this secret from Cucu, but she didn’t have to do so for long: Blade appears one day, upsetting Cucu and dragging Safiyah down a narrow ally without explanation. Safiyah is terrified, but surprised when she finds out Blade’s mother is a nurse at the hospital, and Blade brought Safiyah to his home, not to force her to join his gang, but so that his mother could help Cucu. Safiyah is shocked when she’s told Cucu can stay in the hospital for free and that she can stay with her. Blade’s mother does not like hearing about the reputation her son, whose name is actually Rasul, has created for himself as a gang leader (perhaps he created the rumor for self-preservation?). He certainly doesn’t seem like the violent gang leader people believe he is; even Cucu is starting to change her opinion of him! Sometimes it takes a while to realize someone is your friend, and sometimes you don’t see that a friend is trying to help.
Before Safiyah went with Cucu to the hospital, she had started decorating their house with pictures from the magazines she found at the dump, but on the outside. Her friend Pendo, who is fortunate enough to be able to afford a uniform and attend school, told her teacher about Safiyah’s idea and was given paste and scissors for her and Safiyah to use for the project. While Safiyah was in hospital with Cucu, Pendo thought Safiyah would be excited to come home to a beautifully decorated house. To Pendo’s disappointment, Safiyah is enraged to find her house covered in pictures with no pattern. Pendo thinks it looks perfect, but Safiyah cannot believe Pendo doesn’t understand what is wrong: she was creating a story, not just ‘slapping pictures where they looked nice’. She can’t explain what’s wrong with Pendo’s collage, and Pendo doesn’t want to listen anyway.
When Cucu finds out what happened, she tells Safiyah that she is very lucky to have a good friend, and that she should apologize for her behaviour Safiyah doesn’t think Pendo or Cucu could ever see what she really was trying to do: create the story of how she came to live in Kiberia. She understands what Cucu is telling her though: friendships are too valuable to lose over a misunderstanding. She’s practicing what she’ll say to Pendo when she comes home from school when Pendo appears with a strange man, her teacher. Mr. Littlejohn is very interested in Safiyah’s project, and he promises any supplies Safiyah will need to finish her project. When it’s complete, a photographer comes to take pictures, and Safiyah tells the story that inspired her art, pictures from colourful magazines manipulated to create her sad and happy story of leaving her home, losing people close to her, settling in Kiberia, and finding friends are as important as family.
The story brings a lot of attention to Safiyah, Kiberia, and the stories of loss and friendship so many of Kiberia’s people share. Safiyah is given a scholarship to go to school, and classes at an art college. Safiyah’s life has finally begun to look like the life she wanted so much, and all of Kiberia shares the pain of her story, and the joy of her success.
The Paper House deals with a number of difficult subjects, including life in African slums, poverty, illness, and struggle; it is also a story of friendship, resourcefulness, and the importance of community. The difficulties experienced by Safiyah are described in detail, but never become more than she can manage with the help of those around her, even when she doesn’t see those people as friends. The story moves quickly and will keep any reader engaged, moving from the problems each person faces and the steps they take to overcome them. The story of life in a slum could be overwhelming as nothing comes easily, but Lois Peterson has done an excellent job bringing common problems faced by individuals who find themselves in such situations while leaving the reader feeling that, with help from people near and far away, anything can be overcome. A wonderful story about the importance of community which will raise the awareness about the conditions some people must endure, and how a situation, no matter how dire, can be changed if you really want change.
Christina Neigel is an instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley’s Library and Information Technology program.
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