Nicole Brinkley

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Aniana del Mar knows how to keep a secret. At her papi’s insistence, Ani keeps her swim meets and the medals she wins hidden from her mami, who fears the water after a hurricane destroyed her home and killed her brother. So when Ani’s body starts to ache, her joints swelling and her limbs radiating with pain, it’s not a difficult decision for Ani to keep it all a secret in order to continue swimming.

But then one morning, Ani wakes up in so much pain that she cannot move, and her life changes irrevocably. To help her doctors understand what might be happening, Ani must reveal to them—and to her mami—the truth about swimming. After Ani is diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), she feels as though she’s losing her swim team, her ability to focus in school and her mami’s trust. She clings to her hope of getting back in the water, but how can she convince her family to let her swim again when all they seem to do is worry? 

Characters with chronic pain are underrepresented in children’s literature, and in Aniana del Mar Jumps In, Dominican American debut author Jasminne Mendez offers a welcome addition to this small but growing group. The novel has many strengths, including Mendez’s excellent portrayal of Ani’s family and skillful juxtaposition of Ani’s religious mother with her more spiritual godmother, but it shines brightest in Mendez’s approach to writing about Ani’s JIA.

Ani’s initial realization that her aches aren’t typical, her choice to conceal her pain and the spiraling effects of that choice all offer realistic glimpses of what it’s like to deal with chronic illness at a young age. After her diagnosis, Ani struggles with the disconnect between how everyone around her treats her—as someone who is courageous but fragile—and the fact that she views herself as a girl who isn’t brave, but just “managing [her] life now.” Her realization that she’ll never be able to return to being “Old Ani” is reassuring and empowering. In a poem titled “New Ani,” she reflects, “New Ani knows that this is her body and she can / decide what to do with it. // New Ani is learning that she is strong enough, / like Galveston, to survive storm surges and sea sickness.”

Mendez conveys all of this through clever, accessible narrative verse. She makes creative use of added space between words, lines and letters (l i k e  so), as well as capitalization (“DriBbLe CrOsSoVeR / SHOOT!”). Young readers will not only immediately recognize many of these techniques from their own text messages but also be able to easily replicate them within their own poetry. For those especially eager to try their hand, Mendez includes a short guide to the various poetic forms she employed.

Aniana del Mar Jumps In will be enjoyed by aspiring poets and readers who like moving novels in verse such as Jasmine Warga’s Other Words for Home and Andrea Beatriz Arango’s Iveliz Explains It All. It will strike an even deeper chord with any reader who, like Ani, has experienced chronic pain—even if they try not to let it show.

Debut author Jasminne Mendez offers a welcome portrayal of a young protagonist navigating chronic pain in this accessible and empowering novel in verse.
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Second-generation Syrian American Khadija Shaami lives to buck the expectations of others, especially her overbearing mother. She loves driving her huge, luxurious Mercedes-Benz G-wagon, has decked out her bedroom with Syrian flags and artwork and is the only Muslim girl who boxes at her gym. Leene Taher, a refugee from Syria, seems to embody all the stereotypes Khadija wants to defy. Leene is a respectful, diligent daughter who’s grieving the loss of her father and brother while trying her best to fit in and make friends in a new country. When Khadija’s mother invites Leene and her mother to live with them and all but insists that the girls become friends, both are positive that it will never happen.

Yet as time passes, Khadija and Leene realize that their differences might be useful to each other. Khadija can help Leene find her place in America, and Leene can help Khadija placate her mother and earn permission to travel abroad next summer. But as the two begin to reveal their secrets to each other, an opportunity arrives that could heal their families and cement their friendship—if they’re brave enough to pursue it.

The Next New Syrian Girl is a heartbreaking but hopeful story about two girls trying to do right by their families while finding their own independent paths. Syrian American debut author Ream Shukairy balances moments of joy—scenes at Khadija’s boxing gym, shared rides in the car that Leene dubs “the Tank” and a particularly funny reference to popular professional wrester John Cena—with weighty themes, including grief, depression, suicide, racism and war.  

The book’s brightest light is Shukairy’s depiction of how Khadija and Leene embrace their identities and come to value their unique passions and dreams. Their distinct voices flow well together within the novel’s dual-narrative structure, offering portrayals of two young women who refuse to let simplistic definitions rule their lives. This refusal is often literal, as Khadija frequently offers up dictionary-style vocabulary explanations before countering them with her own perspective, and Leene is equally fascinated by the concept of semantics, “the meaning of words based on context.” 

The Next New Syrian Girl could be more consistently paced—it’s front-loaded with repetitious details and races through its back half—but the large cast of supporting characters provides ample rewards. Standouts include Khadija’s emotionally complex mother and her kindhearted crush at the gym. Shukairy skillfully illuminates the many ways that Khadija’s and Leene’s lives are shaped by the presence and the absence of loved ones, and these dynamics lead to rich contrasts throughout. 

For readers who enjoy heart-wrenching, character-driven novels, The Next New Syrian Girl establishes Shukairy as a new author to watch. 

Ream Shukairy’s portrayal of two young women who refuse to let simplistic definitions rule their lives establishes her as a new author to watch.

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