28 September 2016

Books I Love: Habibi

Naomi Shihab Nye
I first read this book
during my senior year of college in 1998

I first learned about Naomi Shihab Nye from a poetry reading she gave at Texas Lutheran University, the college I attended. During her presentation, she read a poem about Shiner, a small town in central Texas that was ten miles from my own hometown.

At that point in time, lots of people in Texas had never heard of Shiner (although that has changed now due to increased marketing of Shiner Beer), so it was quite a shock to hear a poet mention it. After the reading, Nye was signing books, and I went up to her and asked if she had ever been to my hometown. She said, "No, but I want to live there for a year."

This baffled me. Like people from small towns often do, I thought my hometown was the dead end of the world. Who in their right mind would want to live there?

But I was also baffled for another reason. Why would anyone want to live somewhere for only a year? Why go to all that trouble to move if it's only temporary?

I remained fascinated by Nye, however. Something about her poetry combined with her amazingly open way of seeing the world intrigued me.

While I was attending my first Texas Library Association conference (technically the exhibits only) in San Antonio, I spotted a children's book with a gorgeous cover. Seeing Nye's name on it meant I had to read it. As it was a finished book and not an advanced reader copy, I paid for it and took it back to my college apartment to read. What a wise decision that was!

Habibi is inspired by Nye's own childhood when her family moved to Jerusalem to be closer to her paternal grandmother. It is a beautiful story of an American girl learning about her cultural heritage, her family, and herself while far away from the life she is used to living.

Each chapter begins with these poetic sentences that are simply perfect. I wish I could write like that. I wish I could think like that. I'll never be a poet, but I do love to read it. Habibi is prose, but it reads like poetry. It's nothing less than beautiful and has stayed with me all these years.

Books like Habibi make me think there could be a more peaceful, tolerant future for the world. People like Naomi Shihab Nye make me think that, too.

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