I love the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye, so when I needed a book set in the Middle East for my 2016 Reading Challenge, I chose this novel by her. Afer is a 3rd-grader who lives in Muscat, Oman and is leaving soon to travel with his parents to America. (His parents are pursuing doctorate degrees in Michigan.) Resisting the idea of moving away for 3 years, Afer refuses to pack anything in his suitcase. His grandfather, Sidi, takes him on small trips around their town and helps him see that traveling and then coming home again is not a bad thing. They visit the beach, camp in the desert, ride on a fishing boat, and even sleep on the flat roof of Sidi's house one night. All along they are also making memories of their time together.
There is nothing tragic or awful about this story, but it will make you feel the sadness that Afer and Sidi feel about their separation. It is a wonderfully told tale of the love between a boy and his grandfather, and also about leaving your hometown to see other places in the world. Afer loves the sea turtles that come to the beach nearby and lay their eggs. He marvels at their ability to go out to sea and always find their way back. His grandfather reminds him that he and his parents will also be coming back, and that Sidi will be waiting for them.
The descriptions of the city and all the places in and around it make you feel as if you are there. You can picture the moon "orange and full, like a big fat juicy melon"shining down on them as they have their sleepover on the roof. And when Afer goes to bed and begins "pressing his face into the pillow that smelled like sun and air," you can almost smell the fresh breeze clinging to the pillowcase. But the descriptions of their feelings might make you cry. Afer "wished he could tell Sidi, you are the king of my heart forever...I cannot stand the thought of being far from you, ever, ever, ever." Yet he doesn't say it, because he knows it will make Sidi sad to hear it. His grandfather is feeling the same way, and during their sleepover he had said, "Aref, I'm going to miss you terribly, you do know that?" Aref knows is must be true, because Sidi generally said only positive things, so this was "a rare comment from his happy tongue."
For those who enjoy stories about family relationships, this is a great book about a child and a grandparent who love each other and enjoy each other's company. For those looking for books that share cultures from other lands, this does a great job of showing how the new is mixing in with the old in Oman and weaving in details like the fishermen using nets to catch sardines from their small fishing boats, vendors selling paper cones full of roasted almonds, or the dust swirling over the desert outside the city. And it would be a good story to read with a child who is nervous about moving to a new place, or to recommend to someone who enjoys stories that highlight the pleasures of doing simple things together with a loved one.