Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Nasrin Khosravi,
A New Life
Groundwood Books, 2009.
Award-winning Canadian author, Rukhsana Khan (The Roses in my Carpets, Wanting Mor), draws on her own Muslim background as a child who grew up in Pakistan and later emigrated to Canada to develop this unique but universally appealing immigrant story of eight-year-old Khadija, and her older brother, Hamza. The book’s illustrator Nasrin Khosravi, winner of the Noma Concours Grand Prize in 2000 and a Hans Christian Andersen Award nominee, also has insight into the immigration experience for young people, through her children, when she emigrated to Canada from Iran with her family. A New Life is a revised edition of Coming to Canada (2008), which Khan and Khosravi were commissioned to write by the Canadian government for distribution through schools and reception centers to all immigrant children in Canada.
Narrated by the young Khadija, she and Hamza experience the challenges of a new school life - teasing, bullying, cultural integration. She sees her father's hard work to change his job from a taxi driver back to a semblance of his earlier life as he gets his teaching credential. She treads the pathway between her family's past and future and eventually experiences her own success in school: a turning-point being the day her teacher provides her with some bilingual books.
The illustrations beautifully depict scenes from the story in a dreamlike, romantic style. While they may not be concrete enough to illustrate complex social situations for some young readers, their echoes of Eastern cultures will be reassuring and particularly evocative for the book’s originally intended audience of immigrant children – and will help western readers to gain a glimmer of insight into a different culture through familiar subject-matter.
A glossary in the back provides both linguistic and cultural explanations; a map would also have been useful. As a middle-reader, using short chapters, A New Life serves pre-teens well, allowing readers to engage with sometimes difficult social issues and the complexities of a young person's social world through the lens of a young girl. Readers are also likely to ask further questions about the situations Khadija encounters: why does her family start their life so poor? Why do the immigrant families live together in the same building? How do her family’s customs run alongside the customs in their new country? How does this story relate to my school experience?
A New Life is a welcome addition to Western immigrant literature for children. Khan draws readers into her story through sympathy with Khadija, to the point that they are also able to empathize with some of the challenges of being an immigrant – whether or not they have direct experience of this complex situation themselves. Children who want to know will be rewarded, as A New Life is both a window and mirror between cultures.