Nowhere Boy

Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
Nowhere Boy Book Poster Image
Riveting friendship tale set against terror, refugee crisis.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

World War II history and current events combine to shape this story. Refugee crisis resulting from conflict in Syria and the European responses to terrorist acts are central to the plot. Some Arabic phrases and words, French phrases and Belgian cultural influences, references to Muslim holidays and religious values. 

Positive Messages

Kids can be heroes. People can come together to help those in need. Strangers with kind hearts can save lives. The darkest, most challenging times can result in miraculous change. Keep faith because great things can happen. It's OK for boys to cry. Hope lives on when times are hard.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The adults in this book aren't very connected to the kids' lives, but the kids think for themselves in big ways. Max surprises himself and his family when he behaves heroically. Ahmed is grateful for the chance to go to school, and he works hard to better himself and his situation. 

Violence

Current events are detailed by the characters who live through them. The terrorist attacks in Paris of November 2015, which killed hundreds of people, occur while Max and his family live in Belgium. Ahmed is frightened of being accused of being a terrorist because of his ethnicity, gender. Ahmed describes bombings in Syria, including death of his mother and sisters. Ahmed's nightmares feature corpses. Images of refugee children washing up on beaches are described. Terror attacks in Belgium, leaving 32 dead and hundreds injured, result in lockdown, paranoia in Max's community. 

Sex
Language

"Suck," "sucks."

Consumerism

Marvel comics, Aquaman, Superman, Captain America, Carrefour, Ryanair, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Minecraft.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Parents and neighbors drink wine and beer on occasions when they're stressed out. Men in refugee camp are described as chain-smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Katherine Marsh's book Nowhere Boy examines themes of racism, fear of foreigners, terrorism, and global politics through the lens of 13-year-old American Max's and 14-year-old Syrian Ahmed's experiences. Big topics like fear of deportation, grieving loved ones lost because of war, and the triumph of beating the system mix with everyday middle school issues like having a mean sister and fitting in at school. There are explicit details of bombings (including those in Syria that killed Ahmed's mother and sisters) and descriptions of terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels, Belgium, in 2016. Ahmed's nightmares feature corpses, and images of refugee children washing up on beaches are described. 

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What's the story?

In NOWHERE BOY, a teen named Ahmed is escaping his war-torn country by boat, trying to reach the coast of Greece so that he and his father can enter Europe. Meanwhile, an American kid named Max has relocated to Brussels, Belgium, with his family, and has just been informed by his parents that he will not go to the English-speaking school that his sister is attending. He's going to be enrolled in the local French-speaking school without knowing any French. On top of that, he's going to be repeating sixth grade. Unhappily, he starts his school year with a leaky fountain pen and zero friends. Meanwhile, Ahmed is struggling to find a place to sleep in a new country. Their worlds are about to collide in a story of friendship that knows no borders.

Is it any good?

Author Katherine Marsh expertly interweaves urgent political topics and exciting adventure in this compelling story of two very different kinds of immigrants. Max is an American teen whose parents took jobs in Belgium and moved the family there. Ahmed is an utterly helpless teen refugee without a country. They are both grappling with an age-old question: Where do displaced people belong? Together, they courageously stand up for human rights, even if they break the rules. Their friendship is based on need, but their devotion is based on human kindness. The problems in Nowhere Boy are real in the truest sense of the word, as the plight of refugees and immigrants are in the news constantly. 

The only flaw in this engrossing story is that the adults are not very relatable. Ahmed's father is an exception, but Max's parents are distant and two-dimensional, and the teachers and other adults have agendas and float about like ghosts. Even real-life, self-involved parents have some characteristics that make them human. Max's parents don't feel real, which steals a little shine from the resolution at the end of the book. Still, Nowhere Boy succeeds by striking important chords of compassion, friendship, and hope in troubled times.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the current events in Nowhere Boy. How does war affect people near and far? Is Ahmed's story unusual? What do you think of refugees and immigrants escaping a country? Where do people with no home belong?

  • How is terrorism portrayed by news and media? Do you feel that one ethnic group of people are responsible for terrorist acts? Does it mean that all of those people are bad? How does Max struggle with his prejudices? What are your prejudices and where do they come from?

  • How have things changed regarding immigrants and refugees around the world? This book references the Jewish refugees from World War II who escaped Nazism. What are the arguments for a country accepting refugees? What are the arguments for refusing refugees? What are your views?

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