A Thousand Questions is a story of friendship, families, cultures and differences and it also provides some answers. It shows children that it is possible to build bridges across divisions in order to form friendships and that often people are in fact more similar in their hopes and dreams for the future than some may imagine.
Set in modern day Karachi, this story is told from the perspectives of two eleven year old girls, Maryam known as “Mimi”, daughter of a Pakistan born mother who is separated from Miami’s white American father and Sakina, the daughter of the cook in Mimi’s grandparents’ home. Mimi reluctantly accompanies her mother from Houston back to Pakistan, a country she has never visited before, to stay with her mother’s family for the summer holidays. It is there that she first meets Sakina.
Told as a dual narrative this is a lovely story featuring two likeable characters. Mimi is a curious girl, constantly asking questions, intrigued by an unfamiliar culture and dismayed by the poverty she encounters for the first time. Sakina is more reserved and quiet, less open about her feelings and works hard as a servant to help support her family. Yet both girls are hiding something. Mimi desperately misses her father, writing to him in her daily journal, and nurtures the hope that one day he will return and her family will be reunited. Sakina longs to go to school and gain a proper education. She has already failed the entrance test due to her low result in English but is determined to try again, something she has kept secret from her family. When the two girls meet they are wary of each other seeing only the huge gap between their backgrounds. However from this inauspicious beginning they gradually open up to each other and a cautious friendship develops. Over the summer this friendship will be instrumental in bringing about great changes for them both.
Saadia Faruqi has written this with great understanding and portrays life in Karachi vividly for the reader. I could visualise the city and the various settings and smell the delicious food as I read. The family relationships and the way in which these have influenced both girls are captured in both the dialogue and the unfolding events. The two voices telling the story are distinctive and relatable. Their concerns and interests, their likes and dislikes are all those of any eleven year old but what makes this work so well is the way in which the initial misconceptions and misunderstandings are gradually resolved and we witness how the girls gain an insight into each other’s cultures and this sharing dissolves the hostility and brings about understanding and friendship. This important message is conveyed within an exciting story told with humour and warmth. Without ever being didactic in tone Saadia Faruqi teaches her young readers a valuable and important lesson. Set against the backdrop of a national election the book feels relevant and timely prompting children to think about issues in society such as wealth, poverty, politics and corruption plus family and marriage.
In a week when the latest Reflecting Realities report has been published by the Centre For Literacy in Primary Education we are all aware how important books such as A Thousand Questions are. This would be a valuable addition to school libraries and classrooms enabling children to find children like themselves and discover children they think are different to themselves too. Best of all it shows how friendship can overcome differences through patience, understanding and kindness. A lovely book and very much recommended.
Thank you to Saadia Faruqi and Harper Collins for providing my preview. You can find out more about Saadia, author and inter-faith activist, and her other books on her website.