The Turtle of Oman, by poet Naomi Shihab Nye is a beautiful, quiet book about a young Omani boy and his family as they prepare to move to the United States, where his parents will attend graduate school.
Aref is bereft at the thought of leaving his home, his friends, and most of all, his grandfather, Sidi. Aref and Sidi are “a Team of Two,” who, “even when they weren’t doing anything special… pretended they were.”
As Aref’s mother is busy packing and preparing their house for cousins to live in for the three years they’ll be gone, she has little time to comfort Aref, who puts off packing and frets about life in the United States. But Sidi, who “always had time for Aref,” takes him on several adventures. These outings distract Aref from his sadness over leaving his “only, number, one, super-duper, authentic, absolutely personal place.”
Aref and his family have a tradition of playing “Discovering Something New Everyday.” They make lists, recording their discoveries: “In your notebook, you wrote down new ideas or even scraps of new information. Nothing was too small.” Each family member constructs lists in their own way, and about topics that interest them. Sidi (who doesn’t make lists; Aref writes down his lists) specializes in geographic information, Aref’s “specialized in animals, his favorite topic.”
Through these lists and Sidi’s and Aref’s adventures, readers learn much about daily life in Oman. Nye’s ability to depict Aref, an ordinary boy, in this exotic location where life is familiar yet so different, seems effortless. Her prose is lyrical throughout, and lines like “your thoughts made falcon moves, dipping and rippling, swooping back into your brain to land,” add depth to Aref’s personality.
In an interview with Roger Sutton, Nye explains that she became interested in Oman as a child after seeing a National Geographic story about the country. She also talks about her longing for a time when people had “less stuff, less clutter, less things in a day, but better relationships with those things. I wanted there to be some sense of that with Aref and Sidi.”
The slow art of The Turtle of Oman is a lovely addition to realistic middle grade fiction. It is an ideal read aloud and will introduce students to a part of the world and a culture they may know little about through the story of a boy they will instantly recognize.