MMGM and #IMWAYR (7/6/2020): When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending the graphic memoir When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed.
I honestly don't know if this review will be of much use, considering almost every blogger I know has already read and reviewed this book, but I'm still going to review it as well. When Stars Are Scattered is a memoir (except for some slight fictionalization) of the years Omar Mohamed spent as a child in Dadaab, a UN refugee camp in Kenya. As young children, Omar and his younger brother, Hassan (who can only speak one word and suffers from seizures) fled the civil war in Somalia and ended up in Dadaab with no other family. Dadaab is mostly a miserable place, where Omar and thousands of other refugees live in poverty and starvation, although he and Hassan are fortunate enough to have a kind fellow refugee named Fatuma step in to take care of them. When Stars Are Scattered captures Omar's struggles in attending school while looking after his brother, as well as the constant struggle to maintain hope for a better life in the future after years and years spent waiting. Omar (who now runs the organization Refugee Strong) worked with Newbery-Honor-winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson to create this unique and stunning graphic memoir.
When Stars Are Scattered is so absolutely amazing in so many ways that it is completely impossible for me to do this book justice in a review, but I'm going to try! First of all, it is impressive that this book, which so deeply pierces your heart and soul, never made me too sad to keep turning the pages. Part of the reason why is that both Omar and the other characters in the story have had to learn to make the best of the horrific lot in life they have been given in order to keep going, and that spirit of hope in the worst of circumstances permeates this entire novel. Omar and Hassan have an incredible bond in the story that helps them keep going; it's one of the best sibling relationships you'll find in any book, as they truly care for and love each other. Omar also finds joy in his friends (Jeri, Nimo, and Maryam, who, like Omar and Hassan, are kind and lovable characters) and in the occasional good things that finally come his way (which I don't want to spoil). This book is hardly a joyous book, but it is definitely a hopeful book, and that was enough for me!
When Stars Are Scattered definitely opened my eyes to the struggle of refugees. It's easy to think that, if refugees can get into a refugee camp, they'll be fine, but this book makes it clear that, while refugee camps are a good thing, they are also quite miserable. Here's an analogy I think we'll all understand: you know how you've been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the coronavirus to end so you can go back to living your normal, happy life? Well, refugees in these camps have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting to live their lives as well, only they're waiting with not enough food, no money, nothing more than tents over their heads, minimal education, bad medical care, and no parents (at least for Omar and Hassan), and they're waiting years and years and years!!! (I am not in any way arguing that the refugee experience is similar to the experience of privileged people right now; I just felt that the analogy made the idea easier to understand.) The only chance at a better life most of the refugees in Dadaab have is to wait for the UN bureaucracy (which moves as quickly as a snail stuck in molasses) to choose them for resettlement (which I assume the UN pays for, since most refugees are dirt-poor, and trust me, you don't even know what dirt-poor means until you've read this book).
It is excellent that this book is a graphic novel, because, as with another graphic novel I reviewed recently called White Bird, seeing the struggle of Omar and the other characters adds a layer of emotional depth that you would not get in a prose novel. Victoria Jamieson is just the right person for the job; although I haven't historically been a huge fan of her work (in hindsight, her book Roller Girl was a weirdly depressing read—I would argue far more depressing than this book!), she has an incredible talent that really comes through both for expressing vivid emotions and for showcasing numerous details in her drawings. There's so much detail in every drawing that it feels like you're living the story, and you can tell exactly how each character is feeling at any given moment—plus, unlike a few graphic novels I've read, Jamieson's style isn't disconcerting at all; it's cartoonish enough not to look uncanny or strange, even as it conveys an immense amount of reality.
Some other thoughts: The plot of this book is hard to explain, but it doesn't move slowly; I read this book in just a few hours, and there were no slow parts at all. I was also impressed by how Hassan's inability to express himself verbally never defines him or prevents readers from seeing his character. I somehow got this far and managed to ignore one of the most major points in the book, which is the value of education; seeing how Omar and other kids in Dadaab struggle to stay in school will definitely make at least some readers more grateful that they have the privilege of staying in school through high school. The book also makes sure to show how girls in Dadaab struggle even more to stay in school due to several factors, such as arranged marriages at young ages; I don't think I've ever been more horrified, ever, by any moment in any book, than when I saw one middle-school-age girl who had to leave school pregnant with a child.
It's amazing how I've written so many words and so utterly failed to capture the beauty and importance of this book. When Stars Are Scattered is one of those rare books that every single person on this earth (of any age) needs to read in order to understand the world around them. You can't call yourself an educated person if you know nothing about the 71 million refugees on this earth, and I am glad to have finally read this book and learned more about their plight. When Stars Are Scattered is an incredible reminder both of the horrible things that happen in this world and of the incredible ability of the human spirit to withstand them, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that you make sure to read this book!
Update (1/2/2021): My rating is: Stunning!
Update (4/15/2021): My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: