when stars are scattered

In 2018 I started volunteering at an immigration legal aid clinic. I wanted to find a way to help, and I needed to focus on positive change rather than my rage over how the US treats immigrants. Sometimes a happy side effect of helping others is that you see yourself more clearly, too. Soon after, I went back to school to become a teacher. And now I’m evaluating graphic novels about immigration to share with my students! The important things circle around (if you're paying attention!). This brings me to today’s book review: fantastic middle grade graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. Omar’s story is poignant, relevant, and beautifully illustrated: it’s well worth the read!

when stars are scattered by victoria jamieson and omar mohamed book cover
Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.

Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to
New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.

Meet Omar and Hassan, brothers who live in Dadaab, a huge refugee camp in Kenya. Forced to flee Somalia’s civil war when they were little, now every day in the camp they follow the same routine: pray, wait for water, clean the tent, and play. When Omar is offered the chance to attend school, he must balance his dreams with what he always thought of as his future: caring for Hassan, who has medical needs and does not speak, and waiting for their mother to find them. Omar loves school, but he worries that his thirst for learning means abandoning Hassan.

When Stars Are Scattered is a heavily autobiographical graphic novel about former refugee Omar Mohamed’s experiences as a young boy and teenager, illustrated, fictionalized, and co-told with celebrated graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson. At its core, When Stars Are Scattered is a story of two very different brothers growing up together, and the ways that they learn to trust each other and those around them. It’s also a story of experiences in a refugee camp, the privation of daily life and vanishingly small chances of resettlement, and how hope and despair can develop side by side. And lastly, it’s entertaining, bittersweet, and deeply authentic. I have read several refugee and immigrant graphic novels recently (The Unwanted, Illegal, Escape from Syria, Alpha, Undocumented), and this one is the most personal and accessible I have found. I think my students will eat it up.

The book is organized into three parts, or time periods: childhood, early teens, and late teens. At the end of the book Mohamed and Jamieson share real-life photographs of Omar and Hassan and others mentioned in the narrative, and add a small epilogue to tell you what happened “after the story.” This will please any reader who likes resolution to their stories, and it offers parents and educators a chance to connect Omar’s story to news stories and laws around immigration today. In addition, Mohamed and Jamieson discuss how they met and decided to tell Omar’s story together – interesting information for aspiring writers!

I want to touch on what I found most impressive about the book: that it is deeply personal, literarily valuable, and also offers a big picture view of refugee camp life that children and teens will relate to. Managing and balancing these three elements takes enormous talent and speaks to Jamieson and Mohamed’s skill. When I told my uncle about this book yesterday, he said, “That doesn’t sound like something that kids would just pick up on their own!” And if it was just the subject matter, he’d be right. But this is a story is told with heart-wrenching honesty, in an accessible and enjoyable format, and readers of all ages will root for Omar and Hassan to finally find “home.” I can see myself using When Stars Are Scattered as an additional reading suggestion when I teach The Odyssey in parallel with immigrant journey photo essays, and recommending it as choice reading to any of my students, full-stop.

Really quick before I wrap up, let’s talk about the art! It’s very colorful, and in Jamieson’s regular style (slightly rounded heads that are bigger than bodies). The focus is on human figures rather than landscape, and because there is so much story packed into the book, most pages are full of traditional comic panels. The occasional full-page illustration helps moderate the pacing. Visual and text elements that wouldn’t be immediately recognizable to an American audience are explained either in footnotes or as part of the story. As always in a graphic novel, the illustrations make or break the book. The book is fantastic, ergo… the art is perfectly suited to this story!

In all, When Stars Are Scattered is an engaging and necessary addition to any graphic novel library. Omar’s story (and all refugee and immigrant stories) is relevant for young people, and Jamieson and Mohamed have crafted a tale that will entertain, inform, and melt readers’ hearts.

Recommended for: all fans of graphic novels and comics, but especially the 10-15 year old crowd, readers and curators interested in a personal story of refugee life, and anyone who leans towards the nonfiction section when they get to pick their choice reading.

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