Jamila has fled her home in Iraq to live in Australia, a new school, new friends and a new language makes life complicated. Aside from all of this she is desperately missing her father (Baba) and her best friend Mina who are both still in Iraq.
She tries to fit in at school but it’s hard when Jamila feels so different. When her new teacher Miss Dana asks her to tell the class a few things about herself Jamila doesn’t know how much to share – should she tell them that she had to leave her home because it wasn’t safe for her to stay?
It doesn’t help that her mother often calls Jamila home from school to help her with appointments, shopping and looking after her younger brother Amir. Her mother is struggling with the language, looking after the two children alone and is desperately hoping that Baba will arrive in Australia soon. As a news journalist, Baba has been covering the war in Iraq and is now in danger. He has already been taken away once by the police ‘Baba was taken away by angry men. The sight and smell of his dark and scary prison cell hovered in her mind.’
In Baghdad, Jamila was the best in her class at English but in Australia she is struggling to keep up. In Iraq she had lots of friends but now even though she tries to make new friends, she feels more alone than ever. However, when Jamila hears about the school choir her spirit soars, she loves to sing and write her own songs. Mina called her a songbird and her new friend Eve – who also loves to sing – agrees that Jamila is a gifted singer.
Finally, Jamila feels like she is starting to belong but when she decides to take things into her own hands to hide her differences and break the rules, she crosses a line that brings consequences but also encourages change and understanding.
This is an inspiring story about a young girl that has her life turned upside down and is forced to deal with harsh realities and the loss of her home and identity. Written by Australian author Ingrid Laguna who has also written the moving memoir Serenade for a Small Family, it’s clear that she has insight through her work as an English language teacher, into the hardships that refugee and migrant children have to deal with regularly. The book also includes a significant amount of Arabic and a glossary that provides kids with the meaning for each of the words that Jamila and her mother use.
Reading Songbird together is a great way to start conversations with your children about topical issues, refugees, and to help create understanding around differences in culture and family. With themes around family, community and belonging, the book is also about finding what you’re good at and having the courage to pursue it. If your child read You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel Magied earlier this year or Amal Unbound last year then Songbird could be a great new book for them to delve into.
Ingrid Laguna is a writer, teacher and musician. She lives in Melbourne and teaches English to children and adults from all over the world, many of whom have refugee backgrounds. Songbird is her first book for children.