Flying Over Water

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Flying Over Water Book Poster Image
Refugee friendship tale has strong tolerance, faith message.

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Kids say

age 8+
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Flying Over Water is packed with details that make current events deeply relatable and highly personal: 12-year-old boys in Syria are tortured and killed for writing anti-government slogans; a dad who owned a hotel in Aleppo is thrilled to get a job as a bellhop in Tampa. Food plays a large role (especially a potluck at the mosque, with foods from all over the world -- and readers may want to try making some of the dishes. Jordyn loves fish and Noura loves birds, and they share their enthusiasm and a bit of scientific info about their beloved creatures. Religious faith is important in the lives of many characters, and there's discussion of different beliefs and practices. A social studies teacher offers ideas to consider, insights into history, and an assignment about immigration results in a lot of information being shared about the process.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of friendship, family, appreciating and respecting differences. Perseverance, hard work, and cutting each other slack. Also overcoming hardship and trauma to get on with your life and goals. Teamwork and working together in a way that everyone's talents and interests get to shine. Fred Roberts' lesson about finding the helpers in times of trouble is mentioned, and its spirit is strong in the story.

Positive Role Models

Both tween and adult characters here are dealing with a number of heavy issues, especially Noura, traumatized by the death of her best friend and the loss of the life she'd known, and Jordyn, whose family is crushed by grief in the wake of her mom's miscarriage. Both of them get a lot of support from their own inner resources, their religious beliefs, and supportive family, teachers, and friends. A couple of negative, hateful kids prove to have awful parents, one dad is always explosively angry and the other parents are so tied up in their work they have no time for their kid.


The Alwan family fled Aleppo when their once-comfortable life was destroyed by bombs -- Noura's brother's face is scarred from a bombing that injured them both -- and spent two years in a refugee camp. Noura's best friend drowned when a smuggler's boat sank. In Florida, the family  is on the receiving end of a lot of hate: protesters and talking TV heads shout hateful slogans about Muslims; an arsonist torches the local mosque; a mean kid destroys another kid's art project, while another makes a cartoon poking fun at Noura's hijab. Mentions of atrocities including mass murders of political prisoners by Bashar al-Assad.


 A kid's mean cartoon about another's first bra is frequently mentioned but never described in detail.


Occasional "kick butt." Noura's father reproves her brother for bad language when he calls Bashar al-Assad "that dog who killed his own people and destroyed Syria to keep power" because "Baba did not approve of bad language, even for an evil monster like the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad."


Occasional scene-setting mentions of brands, including Publix market, Cheerios, Thomas the Tank Engine. English learners find Google Translate helpful, and Google Images is important in doing research.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Flying Over Water is an earnest, relatable, information-packed story of the friendship between two 12-year-old girls. One of them, narrated by N.H. Senzai (Escape From Aleppo), is Noura, a Syrian refugee whose family is granted asylum in Florida and arrives in early 2017 to protesters and a newly announced presidential travel ban on people from Muslim countries. The other, narrated by Shannon Hitchcock, is Jordyn, a competitive swimmer, whose church has taken on responsibility for helping Noura's family get settled in. Both families are dealing with tragedy and loss -- Noura's best friend in Syria drowned in an attempt to reach Europe, and Jordyn's mom has recently suffered a miscarriage. Along the way they encounter haters -- some of whom seem to be merely angry jerks, and others more complex, like Jordyn's friend whose brother was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan set by "those people." The local mosque is torched, and it seems unlikely the perpetrator will be brought to justice. But there are a lot of helpers, too. There's much historic detail about life in Syria and the conditions in various times and places that have caused people to flee their homes. Some descriptions of bombings, political murders, and massacres in Syria. Strong messages of religious tolerance, teamwork, and respecting one another's differences. An interfaith prayer/meditation space in a middle school is important to the story, and a potluck at the mosque finds Muslims from all over the world sharing fellowship and amazing food.

User Reviews

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Teen, 17 years old Written bymae91511 February 2, 2021

so good

I love this book easy to read fun this book is great.

What's the story?

It's early 2017, and the Alwan family is FLYING OVER WATER -- the Atlantic Ocean and Tampa Bay -- to their new home in Florida, where they've been granted asylum after two years in a refugee camp. Back in Aleppo, the family owned a luxury hotel, long destroyed in the bombing that took everything they had and left many scars. Now, they land in Tampa, to a welcoming party from a local church and a screeching crowd of protesters chanting anti-Muslim slogans in support of the presidential travel ban announced that very day. Twelve-year-old Noura, like the rest of her family, is overwhelmed, grieving, and traumatized, but determined to make the best of her new life. Her classmate Jordyn, a 6-foot-tall competitive swimmer whose family is dealing with grief of its own, signs on to help her get settled. As the girls navigate a turbulent, sometimes hate-filled world in their middle school and beyond, their growing friendship helps sustain them, as do a lot of thoughtful, helpful adults.

Is it any good?

N.H. Senzai and Shannon Hitchcock collaborate on an earnest, diversity-rich story of a Muslim family from Syria, the community that welcomes them to Florida in 2017, and others who definitely don't. Flying Over Water presents 12-year-old main characters Noura (narrated by Senzai) and Jordyn (narrated by Livingston) as complex, relatable characters dealing with terrors and tragedies of their own who gain strength and insight from their growing friendship. Food, and regional cuisines from around the world, are important in building connections and community in the story. Tolerance and respect for one another's different traditions and beliefs are a big message, in lively scenes from daily life -- for example, a great scene involving no drama whatever about Noura's burkini during a swim lesson. Along the way, especially in the wake of class projects on immigration by middle schoolers, there are comical  breakthroughs in cultural understanding, as this, in the wake of a Cuban American girl telling how her grandmother's family had fled Cuba to escape Castro's ban on religion:

"Penny said, 'I didn't realize Castro had banned Christmas. I'm not religious. but we still have a tree and presents. Who wouldn't like a tree and presents?'

"'A Communist,' said Lea."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the refugees in Flying Over Water. Why are there so many of them fleeing so much trouble around the world? Do you know anyone who's had to leave their home and go live in a new place because their old home wasn't safe? What was it like for them, and how did they get through it -- or are they still struggling?

  • Fred Rogers advised that when things are dark and trouble at its worst, you should "look for the helpers" -- people trying in their various ways to make things better. Who are the helpers in Flying Over Water, and how do they help?

  • Do you think it's easier today for people to learn a new language when they have tools like Google Translate?

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