The Word For Friend
The Word For Friend
When her mama left, the teacher spoke Kemala’s name in a friendly voice. Kemala was shy at first, but soon she was telling the class all about herself. It took two and a half minutes.
When she was done, the room was quiet. Some kids giggled. No one had understood her words.
Kemala’s tummy went all fluttery.
She curled into a ball and pretended she was alone.
Moving to a new country can be exciting but also intimidating. When Kemala starts her new school in a new country, all her excitement turns into embarrassment because she cannot speak nor understand the language her classmates speak. Not even mama’s warm hug can comfort her loneliness, the loneliness of feeling full of words but unable to be understood in a crowd. So she stays away from other kids and hides up in the tree – that’s where she meets Ana and gradually develops friendship over a shared love of paper puppetry. Kemala and Ana discover that the connection between them grows beyond language. And it seems, out of nowhere, language begins to sprout too! Kemala finds herself starting to speak in her new language, in pieces at first, and more fluent day by day. She loves making paper puppets and performing a shadow-puppet show. Most of all, she loves to do all of that with her friend, Ana.
The Word For Friend tells such a beautiful and sweet story about a young child and second language learning! The illustrations by Aidan Cassie paint the story with bright and gentle colors. As the creator of the story herself, Aidan helps the book achieve a working harmony with the variety of languages, texts, images and colors. The use of Esperanto as Kemala’s new language was a masterly choice by Aiden because it is not associated with any particular country, and so readers can related to the story no matter where they are in the world. Also, it probably feels like a foreign language to most readers even if they speak the societal dominant language in real life. Adding to the uniqueness of the book is a list of Esperanto translations at the end to help readers better understand the conversations in the story.
When we first moved to Canada, my daughter was scared of daycare, and, after multiple conversations with her, I discovered the “monster” at daycare was English. Like Kemala in the story, my usually talkative daughter was not able to express herself in the new language and, also like Kemala, her days became brighter when she met her best friend who shared the same home language with her. Transitioning to a new country is not easy for anyone, particularly young children. If there was a cure to this challenge, it must be a relationship and connection. A friend can make a big difference.
I highly recommend this work to classrooms, community libraries and homes. The timely message this book carries can spark many meaningful conversations and reflections on the topics of immigration, languages and relationships. Like the author who writes on the first page, “for all the brave kids who done what they once thought undoable”, I hope all the young immigrant children can acquire strengths from this story.
Emma Chen is a Ph.D. student at the University of Saskatchewan where her research focuses on immigrant children’s heritage language education.