Recommended for readers 8-12
At home in the Congo, nine year-old Anaïs is the best English student in her class. She loves spending time at her grandmother’s home. She loves her family: her father, her older brother, Olivier, and younger brother, Jean-Claude, and her mother. But now, her father is in hiding, her older brother, stayed in Africa with their grandmother, and Anaïs, Jean-Claude, and their mother are living in a shelter in Crazy America. Nothing about the people or the language makes sense to her – why would anyone eat chicken fingers? Why do vowels change sounds with every word? – and she misses her home, her life before.
Written in the form of letters from Anaïs to her grandmother, One Good Thing About America, by Ruth Freeman, a teacher who works with English Language Learners. Motivated by her students’ determination and their stories, this is her tribute to them as much as it is a chance to create an understanding of the immigrant experience in America. Anaïs, her family, and her classmates and neighbors develop through the course of the story; experiencing sleepovers, mac and cheese dinners, Halloween, and even a frightening emergency room trip. We never get the full story behind Anaïs’ father’s trouble with the mining company, but readers understand the urgency of the situation: her father is in hiding, on the run, and no one that associates with him is safe. While Anaïs longs for her family to be whole again, she has the added challenge of learning a new language and making a new life in a strange country where nothing makes sense. She has good days and bad days; goes from hopeful to frustrated, and every reader will appreciate and understand where she’s coming from. Little doodles throughout the book illustrate new things Anaïs encounters, from the crunchy fall leaves that “make the sound of eating toast” to ice cream and pizza.
A list of English words Anaïs struggles with – what she hears, as opposed to what she learns – also helps readers understand the challenges our language and colloquialisms present to English language learners. Words in French, Anaïs’ native tongue, introduce readers to some new vocabulary.
One Good Thing About America is a good book for all communities. In our current socio-political climate, I daresay it should be a summer reading selection for middle graders (and their families). I suggest booktalking with Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again for excellent discussions about the differences within the refugee experience.