By Nora Lester Murad
Crocodile Books, November 2022
Hardcover, 224 pages, US$ 19.95
Ages: 12-16 years
Reviewed by Natalie Jean
Nora Lester Murad’s young-adult novel Ida in the Middle is a work of fiction about 13-year-old Ida. Ida explores her identity as a Palestinian girl born in the United States. She grows up in the United States, attending a school where her classmates bully her because she is an Arab. They torment her and call her a “terrorist.” This makes Ida feel like an outsider. She is embarrassed about her heritage and starts to question where she belongs. Even after she transfers to a new school, thinking that she has found a sanctuary, it happens again.
After yet another violent escalation in Jerusalem, her Jewish and Christian classmates start a club to present pro-Israeli perspectives that are filled with misinformation about Palestinians and their demands for freedom, recognition, and safety. When Ida confronts the school principal about the one-sidedness of their arguments, he dismisses it and tells her she could start her own Muslim club. But Ida is the only Arab student at the school and other Muslim kids are South Asian. She also suspects that starting a club won’t stop her classmates from bullying her. Ida goes back to trying to be invisible.
Then one of her teachers announces that students will have to do a Passion Project to showcase something that they care strongly about. At first, she feels vulnerable because she is insecure and doesn’t want to be bullied anymore by her fellow classmates for sharing her passion. When she stress-eats, something incredible happens when she least expects it. She eats from a jar of olives that was sent by her relatives in Palestine and everything changes. She realizes that she has been transported to the life she would have had in Jerusalem if her family had never left.
Ida goes back and forth exploring life in Palestine and in the United States. She can’t help but reflect on how different her life would’ve been if her parents had stayed in Palestine. Ida feels welcome at her school in Palestine with a principal who is open to diversity and a different learning environment than her American school. But Ida has a hard time adjusting to who she is at her new Palestinian school and navigating new rules, teachers, and classmates. She misses her home and wants to go back but is no longer sure where “home” is.
As a girl Ida’s age with family in various parts of the world, I can relate to Ida’s difficulties. I know from my own family’s experience that many immigrants struggle with a sense of belonging and feel split between how they should feel and act in their birthplace, or the country of their family’s origin compared to their new home. For Ida, the search for belonging is complicated by the everyday realities of Palestinians living in neighborhoods where people’s houses are under threat of demolition. She worries about her family in Palestine. Yet, when she travels back to the United States she struggles and feels guilty about how sheltered and safe her life in America is compared to what her Palestinian peers experience. Something that surprised me was how location deeply impacts the way we think about our identity and our relationships to people and history.
I loved reading about Ida’s personal journey, one that spans continents and cultures, and is filled with surprises and discoveries. Ida in the Middle is a great book for those who want to discover how to integrate different parts of their identity no matter where they live in the world. It is a thought-provoking book that inspires young readers to explore their heritage and sense of self, belonging, and what makes a place become a home.
Natalie Jean is a 14-year-old girl who lives in Boston with her family. She loves to read young-adult novels, bake for her family and friends, listen to music, and play volleyball. She enjoys traveling and trying different foods. When she can, she visits her extended family in Europe and the Caribbean. She is heading to high school next year and plans to write a novel or a play soon. It will probably have baking recipes incorporated in the story!
Information about Ida in the Middle and resources for teachers who wish to bring Palestine into the classroom are available on the book’s website at www.idainthemiddle.com.