May 11, 2012

The Paper House

by Lois Peterson
Orca Book Publishers
108 pp.
Ages 8-11

Safiyah's ten years of life have been fraught with many hardships and tragedies.  She and her grandmother, Cucu, live in slums of Kibera outside of Nairobi, Kenya.  Her parents have both passed, her mother from AIDS, and now Cucu is ill and coughing up blood.  Fearful of losing the only family she has, and far away from her birth place, where the failure of the crops forced them to Kibera, Safiyah is determined to make improvements to their hut by repairing the holes that let the smoke and cold night air in.  In her daily scavenges of the dump, where she usually excavates those items which she can sell, Safiyah gathers old magazines with their glossy pictures of beautiful women, glamourous homes, fancy cars, and unfamiliar lives, hoping to use the paper to chink the cracks.

After repairing the walls, Safiyah selects magazine pictures to decorate the outside of the hut, using the scissors and paste shared from her friend Pendo's school.  The magazines are coveted by others, including young Chidi who tries to steal the magazines from her in the dump.  Fortunately for Safiyah, the infamous red-hair-dyed gang leader, Blade, comes to her rescue several times, while ensuring his cousin Chidi attends school regularly.  Although Cucu is vehement that Safiyah stay away from Blade a.k.a. Rasul, Safiyah reveals to him her fears for her grandmother's health.

This innocent admission to Rasul and her engagement with Pendo in the decoration of the house walls bring Safiyah to reognizing the efforts she must make in order to enrich her life with others.  As Cucu has reminded her, "Words are easy. Friendship is hard."  By embracing the help of others, without demeaning their efforts, Safiyah gets medical help for her grandmother and creates a work of art on the walls of their hut that brings even more blessings.

Safiyah's story of The Paper House demonstrates that, though the lives of children may be different, everyone has a way to connect with others and can benefit from these connections.  Safiyah learns that not everyone is as poor as they are but this is a lesson she needs to understand to elicit assistance.  Furthermore, although Rasul's family is obviously far wealthier than Safiyah's, the loss of Rasul's sister and the necessity for Chidi to become part of a new family indicate that anyone can experience tragedies and hardships.  With The Paper House, Safiyah makes her own luck, achieving a dream she believed impossible to attain, while endeavouring to improve the lives of others.

While I was not always sympathetic to Safiyah's reactions when she was upset (e.g., chastisizing Pendo for pasting the pictures on wrong when her friend only wanted to help), I cannot imagine the breadth of disappointment, fear, and unhappiness which pervades her responses.  Lois Peterson provides Safiyah with the demeanour of a child who must endure life, not embrace it, and so Saffy's less-than-considerate attitude may be more authentic even if less desirable.

The Paper House is a perfect read for sharing the lives of children in different parts of the world and providing a foundation of empathy upon which the supporting walls of understanding and caring can be built.

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