Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye & illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

By Maureen Tai, 24 March 2020

“Sometimes I think the world is a huge body tumbling in space, all curled up like a child sleeping. People are far apart, but connected.” – Mona

IMG_7342Mona is a little girl who lives in the United States of America. Her grandmother, whom she calls ‘Sitti’ (the word means “granny” in Arabic) lives far away across the seas, in a village in Palestine. Mona and Sitti inhabit different time zones, and they do not see each other often, but they think of each other a lot. This gentle and beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of Mona’s visit to Sitti’s homeland and of what the little girl learns about her grandmother’s life, despite neither of them being able to speak the other’s language. It is a story about family, and about forging human connections across geographic, linguistic, age and political barriers. It is a story for our fractured times.

Mona is a happy, thoughtful child with bright eyes and a ready smile. She is also politically aware as she includes “presidents” in her long list of things that stand between her and her grandmother: “miles of land and water … fish and cities and buses and fields … clotheslines and trucks.” Sitti’s serene and kindly face is framed by a voluminous white headscarf that hides her hair. Magnificent birds in flight are tattooed on the backs of her strong, capable hands as well as embroidered on her full, flowing gowns. Mona’s grandmother exudes warmth and wisdom as she reaches out to rest a hand on Mona’s head, calling her grandchild “habibi” (which in Arabic, means “darling”). In the lovely picture of their first meeting, the Arabic script for “habibi” is written across the dusky sky, merging with the birds who are returning to their nests for the night. It is a propitious sign.

The days that follow pass in peaceful togetherness. Mona accompanies Sitti to collect fresh milk from a neighbour’s spotted cow, passing fields where men in vividly patterned headscarves are bent double, harvesting lentils. Mona watches as Sitti bakes flat bread in a large outdoor oven, following a tradition that has been kept for at least a century. The little girl picks fresh mint leaves to add to the lemonade that Sitti makes using fruit from the tree outside her home. The two eat together, share the secret of Sitti’s hair colour, and tend to the laundry as they watch the women from the village bring jugs of water home, balancing the vessels on their heads. It is a rustic and unhurried existence, accentuated by the warm yellow, burnt sienna and marmalade orange tones of the illustrations that accompany the charming text, written by the accomplished poet and current Young People’s Poet Laureate, Naomi Shihab Nye.

By the end of her visit and despite the lack of a shared language, Mona has become close to her cousins and in particular, to her loving grandmother, who speaks to her through touch, affectionate gestures and shared moments. At least twice a year, my own children experience the bitter sorrow of parting from family who live far away, but leave with such priceless memories and secrets that we would have it no other way.

For ages 6 and up.




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