Shabanu – Suzanne Fisher Staples

shabanuReading level: 7.6
Lexile: 970
Series: Shabanu book 1
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Life is both sweet and cruel to strong-willed young Shabanu, whose home is the windswept Cholistan Desert of Pakistan. The second daughter in a family with no sons, she’s been allowed freedoms forbidden to most Muslim girls. But when a tragic encounter with a wealthy and powerful landowner ruins the marriage plans of her older sister, Shabanu is called upon to sacrifice everything she’s dreamed of. Should she do what is necessary to uphold her family’s honor—or listen to the stirrings of her own heart?

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind was a truly eye-opening and beautiful read. I bought my copy at some library book sale because it features a “diverse” family, different from the white American norm. And it really was different in the best ways; it made me think about my own culture and what is moral and right to those of us who come from different backgrounds.

As an anthropology major, I’ve learned to open my mind to arranged marriage and polygamy, both featured in Shabanu. It’s great when she wants to marry the boy her parents arrange for her, but then we also side with her when she doesn’t want to marry a much older man who already has several wives. It was all fine when Shabanu wanted to marry the first boy, but the second arranged marriage seems unfair, which paves the way for classroom discussion. There are some great articles out there (can’t remember where, of course) that discuss arranged marriage and how many women love it, because who better to find a great man than wise parents? After all, finding a good man is hard work.

What bothered me the most was the forced and accepted submissiveness of women. However, as I learned through my major, even though women of various cultures are expected to be “submissive,” they can have a lot of power. This could be discussed by students as well, especially after reading other sources about how much power wives have over their husbands, other wives, and their children. The violence of the father and the obedience of the mother still made me squirm with my liberal, western ideals.

Shabanu is also put in the impossible place of having to choose whether to be miserable her whole life and marry the older man or to run away and risk her sister’s life. If she marries the man and he loves her, the other wives will be jealous. If he doesn’t love her, then she’ll be unhappy for sure. Here is a young girl having to make adult decisions that no human should have to make.

The language of the book itself is beautifully-crafted. There are many Pakistani words that would be difficult for low readers and ELLs whose native language is not Pakistani or a language similar to it. For this reason, this book is not ELL friendly unless it were taught as a whole-class novel and scaffolded appropriately.

This book contains many “adult” topics such as a part where camels breed, Shabanu thinks about how she and her sister’s breasts are developing, and her monthly bleeding. There’s absolutely nothing graphic, but some of these topics might be enough to upset a parent, especially if the book is read by a middle schooler. My policy: if students read something that makes them uncomfortable, they can stop. Also, if we took out all the books with anything “inappropriate” or “adult,” then there’d be no books in the classroom beside picture books.

Oh, that ending. It tore my heart out with each turn. Shabanu is the first book in a series, so I might just follow her story when I can find the other books in the series.

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