by Linda Sue Park
In my quest to find diverse titles to add to my elementary classroom library, I read articles and wound up having intense conversations about the need for diverse books with educators across the country. The general consensus was that we needed to challenge ourselves to read books that opened our minds to other cultures and ways of life. My challenge began with the book, A Long Walk To Remember by Linda Sue Park.
I began reading as one of my students would, with a pack of sticky notes and a pencil by my side to jot down anything that stood out to me. This story is based on a true story and is a dual narrative told in two settings- one in Southern Sudan, 2008 about a young girl, Nya, and her family, and the other in Southern Sudan, 1985 following the life of a young boy named Salva.
Nya is an eleven year old girl who must walk a great distance 8 hours a day to get drinkable water for her family. Nya and her family are of the Nuer tribe. "Her tribe, the Nuer, often fought with the rival Dinka tribe over the land surrounding the lake. Men and boys were hurt and even killed when the two groups clashed.So Nya and the rest of her village lived at the lake only during the five months of the dry season, when both tribes were so busy struggling for survival that the fighting occurred less often." (page 26)
Salva is a fortunate boy whose father is a successful man and worked as a judge in their village. Salva and his brothers were able to attend school, and his sisters stayed home with their mother learning how to take care of a home. The family had cows and the boys would also help with their care.A war had started a few years earlier as rebels from the southern part of Sudan were fighting against the government for religious freedom. "Most of the people who lived in the north were Muslim, and the government wanted all of Sudan to become a Muslim country- a place where the beliefs of Islam were followed." (page 6) Salva's life took a terrible turn one day while at school and gunfire rang out bringing the war to his land and forever changing his life.
As I read, I thought about my fifth grade students, just a year younger than Nya. Questions flooded my mind such as: How might they respond to her story- walking long distances merely to get enough clean water for her family? What would they think about Salva's plight? How might global awareness impact young minds? Would my students be able to empathize with Nya? With Salva? The impact this story had on me as not only an educator, but a wife, mother, and sister, was shocking. If I was so moved, how might this affect my students? Then I began to consider how important it is for students to care for what goes on outside of their town, city, state, and country. Might this awareness help develop young minds toward compassion, understanding, and service to others? At the very least, students may gain a deeper appreciation for what they have.
Salva's journey leads him to the United States to a foster family. As I reached the point of his entrance into the U.S. and his introduction to his new family, I was overcome with compassion as he adapts to his new world, a world he has never experienced. I thought of the students I have had that are ten years old learning a new language and a new way of life coming to America. The English language- I am not sure we truly understand how difficult it is to learn. The amount of effort and desire that is necessary to be able to communicate on a basic level, let alone navigating the intricate slang, and informal language and dialects.
This story is beautifully written and the twists and turns of both lives at times took my breath away. The dual narrative is amazingly brought together in the end. As I finished the last page of the author's message, I sat quietly in reflection of the power of this story. There is always room in our hearts and minds to read and learn about the world around us- no matter what age we are. As an educator, I have a renewed commitment to find stories representing all people, all children, in hopes of offering my students characters that mirror their lives, as well as a window into the vast world in which we share. I am continuing my diverse reading and will share many more books, but for now I highly recommend this wonderful story.