It’s been a wonderful, but incredibly busy semester around the LAII! I’m a little behind in getting out our monthly book reviews, but I finally have some time to get caught up! Here’s my review of April’s featured novel.
Written by Ann E. Burg
Published by Scholastic Press, 2013
Age Level: 10 and up
a secret dream.
She wants to go to school
and become a doctor
with her best friend, Julie Marie.
But in their rural village outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti,
stand in Serafina’s way–
and Manman’s worries.
More powerful even
than all of these
are the heavy rains
and the shaking earth
in ways she never dreamed.
At once heartbreaking and hopeful,
will leave a lasting impression
on your heart.
Burg’s novel-in-verse is perfect for younger students. As we’ve said with almost every novel-in-verse we’ve read for Vamos a Leer, this is a great format for developing, struggling, or hesitant readers. All of the white space on each page keeps readers from being overwhelmed. The dialogue is simple which minimizes any frustration for a reader trying to track who is talking. But it’s not just the genre that makes is a good choice for younger students. Haiti’s history is both traumatic and violent, some of which continues to manifest in the present. For those of you familiar with other young adult novels like Krik? Krak! and In Darkness, Serafina’s Promise may seem like a fairy tale version of life in Haiti. While Burg alludes to the traumatic history, it’s not nearly as explicit as in some of the other above-mentioned young adult novels. While this can certainly be a critique of the book, I also think that this is one of the reasons it can be useful in the classroom. Novels like In Darkness and Krik? Krak! are excellent resources for both the teaching of quality writing and realistic portrayals of life in Haiti. But we can’t use these books with our elementary school students. For most of these students, even if the reading level isn’t too advanced or the books are used as read alouds, the themes aren’t appropriate. Burg provides a novel about Haiti that we can use with younger students. She allows us to introduce these students to Haiti so that they can learn about a country rarely mentioned in our classrooms and begin to think about what life might be like there.
One of the more powerful pieces of the novel is in the experience the reader can have in comparing his or her life with that of Serafina. Serafina’s circumstances are so different from what many of our students are familiar with in the U.S. Things that many of us take for granted in our daily lives in the U.S., are not remotely available to Serafina, her family, or her neighbors. While our education system in the U.S. is anything but perfect, schooling is available for everyone. It’s important for our students to realize that education is not a guarantee in other countries. In Haiti the cost of an education is something that many cannot afford. Students need to reflect on what the ramifications are when a country doesn’t provide education for its entire population. What does it mean if many are left illiterate? How does the lack of an education affect the quality of one’s life? Would our students work as hard as Serafina does in order for the chance to go to school? While Serafina’s childhood will be difficult, if not impossible, for many of our students to truly grasp, it’s important that they try. They need to imagine a life without TVs, video games, cell phones, electricity, or even running water.
A more universal theme in the novel may be the family dynamics and relationships. While Serafina is close to both her father and her grandmother, she struggles to connect with her mother. Relationships, especially those with family members, can be complex. As Serafina realizes, some of her inability to understand her mother is related to her mother’s fearfulness and anxiety that comes from her own traumatic childhood experiences. A discussion around the nature of the family’s relationships in the novel can provide the space for students to think about and possibly share connections that they see to their own lives. I also really appreciated the way Burg wove in explicit discussions of emotions. As I’ve talked about before, emotions are something that we discuss far too little in our classrooms, especially when we consider how much they influence the ways in which we process our experiences. Serafina experiences a wide range of emotions. Burg addresses not only the positive ones such as happiness, joy, and hopefulness, but also the ones we are less likely to address in classroom discussions such as anger, frustration, and jealousy. I found her use of “angry bees” to be a potentially powerful way to model for students one way to process emotions through creating a metaphor to describe the way their emotions make them feel.
While Burg may not explicitly address the more violent aspects of historical and contemporary life in Haiti, she does allude to these things, which provides the teacher the opportunity to delve deeper. Serafina’s struggle to understand why they learn French instead of Creole in school is one example of this. Serafina knows that the French conquered Haiti, and she questions why they continue to learn in the language of their conquerors instead of Creole, the language the majority of people speak. This creates a way to open up a discussion about conquest and colonization and the contemporary ways in which people continue to be colonized.
While it may not be as realistic as other young adult novels set in Haiti, it’s still a novel I’d recommend for the classroom. Not only does it provide an age appropriate introduction to Haiti, but it does this through a strong protagonist who is a female of color, something that is sadly still lacking in much of our classroom literature. In the end, Serafina’s Promise is a message of hope in contrast to the harsh reality of life in Haiti.
Our complete educator’s guide is available here.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:
If you’re interested in learning more about the author, check out her website.
If you’re interested in hearing what the author herself has to say about the book, check out the following guest post:
Lastly, here’s a video to accompany the novel: