Sea Prayer

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Sea Prayer Book Poster Image
Powerful, heartrending letter from refugee dad to his son.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Shows plight of refugees, why people flee their homes. Name of Homs, Syria. Name of Alan Kurdi, the young boy who died. Details of prewar life in Syria: olive trees, goats, fried kibbeh. Details of war: people trapped in rubble, fleeing as a group. Nationalities of refugees: Afghans, Somalis, Iraqis, Eritreans, Syrians. Arabic words "inshallah," "souk."

Positive Messages

Refugees are people who had rich lives before war and destruction. They love and try to protect their families. In the Old City there was "a mosque for us Muslims, a church for our Christian neighbors." The mother’s spirit whispers that if people saw "Even half of what you have. If only they saw, they would say kinder things, surely." The son is precious cargo.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Father recalls and shares with son the happy details of their old life. He tries to lead them to safety. He comforts his son and tries to assure him that they'll be OK, though he himself is afraid they won't. The mother watches over them, though she has died.

Violence

Mentions of bombs, starvation, burials, blood, rubble, the boy's mother who's died. Art shows cities smoking and destroyed, and waves of refugees on the march. Text at end mentions child who drowned.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sea Prayer is by Khaled Hosseini, the acclaimed best-selling novelist for adults (The Kite Runner) and Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency. He wrote this to mark the anniversary of the death of the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up in Turkey, and he dedicates it "to the thousands of refugees who have perished at sea fleeing war and persecution." Author's proceeds will be donated to refugee aid. In the book, written for "all ages," Hosseini assumes the voice of a father talking to his son as they wait to flee in a boat. Though first he talks about a happier time, he then references bombs, starvation, burials, blood, and the mother who's died, though it's not specified how. As the father looks out on the dark night sea, he prays that "inshallah" ("if Allah wills it"), the sea will spare his son, recognizing that he's precious cargo.

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What's the story?

SEA PRAYER opens with a father describing the happy details of his youth in Syria, sharing them with his sleeping son. "But that life, that time, seems like a dream now, even to me, like some long-dissolved rumor." Because when war came, "the skies spitting bombs," the two had to flee. They're now on a "cold and moonlit beach" with other refugees, and while they wait for a boat they hope will deliver them to safety, the father offers up a prayer to the sea to protect his young, vulnerable son.

Is it any good?

This slim, masterful book flows from the heart, mourning a city reduced to rubble and a childhood lost to war, while sending up a prayer that heaving waters will deliver a child to safety. Hosseini is a gorgeous writer, and he's chiseled and polished Sea Prayer like a gem, offering just the right sensory detail to evoke the pleasures of the old life. When he was a boy, he and his brothers spread their mattresses on the roof of their farmhouse, and woke "to the stirrings of olive trees in the breeze, to the bleating of your grandmother’s goat." In contrast, his young son knows "how a bomb crater can be made into a swimming hole." Now they wait in a crowd of other refugees, "the women worrying in tongues we don’t speak." And he reassures his son that "Nothing bad will happen," though the words are just "a father's tricks." The letter format, speaking directly to the son, gives the text a poignant immediacy.

Though the subject matter is adult, and text is written for "all ages," this book is accessible to older kids, and has the pleasures of a picture book. Turning the page provides rhythm; some text is isolated on a page for stronger effect. Illustrator Dan Williams paints the happy memories with light and color, but as they wait on the shore, the moody midnight blues of the sea and sky underscore the uncertainty of their journey.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the refugees in Sea Prayer. Why did they have to flee their homes? Where do you think they're going? If they arrive safely on the boat, what do you think will happen to them?

  • How was the city different before the war? What does the father remember from when he was young? What will the son's memories be?

  • Does the father remind you in any way of your own parent? How might he be similar? How is he trying to care for and protect his son?

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