Nasreen’s Secret School made me cry. It’s the true story of the power of a grandmother’s love to restore hope and healing.
The book, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, was number nine on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books in 2015. (The 2016 list hasn’t been released yet.)
As a new grandmother, though, I adore the story. How could I not? The narrator is Nasreen’s grandmother, an old woman who lives in Herat, “an ancient city in Afghanistan.” She loves art and music and learning. She loves her family. She wants her granddaughter to learn about the world, “the way Nasreen’s mama and I learned when we were girls.”
But Herat has changed since Nasreen’s mama was a girl. Soldiers have come. Art and music and learning have been suppressed. Girls are no longer allowed to go to school.
Worst of all, the soldiers came and took Nasreen’s father. Her mother went out to find him and never came home. Nasreen and her grandmother waited. Nasreen fell silent.
How could her grandmother help her? She heard about a secret school for girls. Perhaps the school could distract Nasreen from her sorrow. Perhaps she would make friends. Perhaps, by opening the windows of her mind, the school could restore hope to the silent girl.
It’s a beautiful, powerful story. So why has it been challenged, and even banned, so many times?
Complaint Number One: Bad Things Happen
Most of the complaints fell into two categories. The first is that bad things happen in the story. Soldiers come, and Nasreen’s parents disappear. Those are evil things, truly. But evil things happen in the world. And children need stories where evil is overcome by good.
We have to remember, as G.K. Chesterton famously said, that children know that dragons are real. That’s why they need stories. Stories tell them that dragons can be killed.
Children need fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella. They need stories like Silent as a Stone (about St. Maria of Paris) and Passage to Freedom (about Chiune Sugihara). And they need books like Nasreen’s Secret School.
Nasreen’s Secret School is gently told. Nasreen’s grandmother is gentle, strong, and brave, and the story reflects her gentleness and her courage. In her telling of the story, there is no agitation, no panic. There is only love, and hope.
The story is meant for children in third through fifth grade. I think it’s entirely suitable for children that age and older. And, honestly, I don’t think I’d shy away from reading it to most first or second graders, either.
Complaint Number Two: Islam
The other complaint made by people who have challenged Nasreen’s Secret School is that it encourages the reading of the Koran, and it promotes Islam.
It’s true that the people in the story are all Muslim. It’s a true story, and I appreciate the fact that Winter doesn’t remove their faith or make them into something that they’re not. But I honestly can’t wrap my mind around the idea that someone who had read the book would think that it promotes Islam.
The girls at the secret school do read the Koran, once in the story. They do this when the soldiers come to inspect the school. Girls aren’t allowed an education, but they’re allowed to read the Koran. So they read the Koran, not out of piety, but as a ruse.
And Nasreen’s grandmother does, once in the story, breathe a brief prayer for her granddaughter. And she does say, once, “Insha’Allah,” which means God willing.
That’s it. That’s the entire religious content of the book.
What the Book Promotes
If Nasreen’s Secret School encourages anything, it encourages education. It promotes the idea that girls should be educated, too. It is filled, start to finish, with the love of learning.
And it is filled with a grandmother’s love.
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