When I first picked this book up from the library shelf I saw the bright cover illustration and assumed it was going to be a fun children's comedy targeted at boys.
Even the Goodreads summary is misleading:
'Jamal and Bibi have a dream to lead Australia to football glory in the next World Cup. But first they must face landmines, pirates, storms and assassins.'
So I opened the book and read the first couple of paragraphs:
"I'm Manchester United and I've got the ball and everything is good.
There's no smoke, or nerve gas, or sand-storms. I can't even hear any explosions. Which is really good. Bomb wind can really put you off your football skills."
In this opening scene Jamal is playing football with his friends, some maimed by landmines, among the rocket craters and unexploded bombs of an Afghani village.
With a charming sense of optimism and affection for his family and friends Jamal narrates the story of how he and his sister Bibi have to escape from Afghanistan because their parents have been running an illegal school for girls. They travel towards Australia as illegal refugees making friends and encoutering shocking dangers, while Jamal and Bibi dream of achieving fame as world class footballers and as a result gaining the approval of the Afghani government.
The success of the story derives from the linear simplicity of the plot and the talented storytelling. While Jamal tells us what is happening he also conveys an dessert landscape where there are no trees but instead burnt out tanks and landmines. And just the sight of his 9 year old sister outside without a veil is terrifying.
The story tackles all the unpleasant aspects of being an illegal refugee but manages to keep the narrative suitable for children with a straightword description of events as seen through Jamal's eyes, leaving the reader to understand according to their own knowledge. (I must admit that I was horrified when I realised that Jamal's mother was in the Afghani football stadium but hopefully children of the age of the target audience will not be fully aware of the significance of this event.)
Also the episodes are recounted in short fast-paced chapters. There is excitement and tension but little time to dwell on the horror before the story moves on.
However the author doesn't not hide behind euphemisms or avoid the facts so this book would also make an excellent basis for further discussions, allowing the adult to decide how much to clarify or explain the events described.
Most of all I enjoyed this book because of the relationships. Despite an appalling situation they cherish their family and develop friendships with other people they encounter on their journey.
This is one of the best children's books I have read in a long time.