Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan
The Global Fund for Children/ Charlesbridge, 2009.
Following on from The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, about a librarian who risked her life to save books from Basra’s library during the war in Iraq, Jeannete Winter turns her attention to Afghanistan in this, her latest book. Dedicated to the courageous women of Afghanistan, Nasreen’s Secret School is based on a young girl’s encounter with loss and intolerance during the Taliban regime, and how attending a secret school for girls helps her regain hope.
When soldiers take Nasreen’s father away, her life starts to unravel: her mother leaves to go look for him, and so great is Nasreen’s pain, with only her grandmother left, that she stops talking. Forbidden, according to the Taliban’s rules, to attend school and to learn anything involving books and letters, she passes her days indoors, with no contact with the outside world. Eventually, against all odds and thanks to her grandmother’s foresight, Nasreen starts attending a secret school for girls: a one-room school functioning covertly in a private home. Little by little, as Nasreen makes a friend, learns to read and write, and finds history and adventure in the pages of her books, hope starts coming back into her heart: until, one day, she is finally able to talk again.
An author’s note at the beginning of the book, including facts and statistics about Afghanistan before and after the Taliban seized control, helps contextualize the narrative and lets readers know that the country was, in a not so distant past, a culturally and artistically rich place that had a much healthier and more generous attitude towards education and the rights of women.
Winter’s trademark art incorporates bright colors, folk-like motifs and images of doorways and windows to convey the power of knowledge and the possibility of transformation: from confinement to freedom, hopelessness to faith in the future. “Nasreen no longer feels alone. The knowledge she holds inside will always be with her, like a friend,” concludes her grandmother. Nasreen’s experiences stand for those of many other Afghani girls, and her secret school for the countless schools which sprang up throughout the country in defiance of the Taliban regime. Although Nasreen’s Secret School may not be an easy book to share with young children, it is definitely an important one. One which rewards those willing to venture into its uneasy waters.