When I moved to the contiguous United States at the age of 7 from Puerto Rico, I did not speak English. I still remember my first day in a second-grade classroom, where I was the only Hispanic student and no one spoke Spanish. I went up to the teacher and told her I had a stomachache, holding in my stomach in the process. It was my first day of school in a country where I did not speak the language. No wonder I had a stomachache!
She shrugged and told me that she did not speak Spanish. Although patience, empathy—and close attention to gestures and facial expressions—can go a long way, the classroom teacher did not even make an effort to understand. I went back to my seat, feeling dismissed and unheard. What I would have given to have had a friend like the narrator of The Day Saida Arrived.
In this touching picture book by Susana Gómez Redondo, a girl named Saida has come to a new (unnamed) country where the narrator notices that “it seems as if she had lost all her words.” Saida’s silence and tears move the narrator to look for her new friend’s words in every “nook, cranny, corner, drawer, [and] seam.” It turns out that Saida is from Morocco, and she speaks Arabic. Saida has not lost her words, the narrator’s father explains. She only has different ones. “In Morocco, yours wouldn’t work either,” he tells her.
The narrator takes it upon herself to help Saida learn the new language, and in turn, to learn Arabic from Saida. The two friends begin sharing words with one another, in both English and Arabic. The narrator marvels at the beauty of Arabic script, and thinks it’s “fun to read starting from the end” (Arabic, of course, is read from right to left). Together, the girls find “words of every shape, sound, and size.” Some are used every day, while others come and go with the seasons. They share stories and snacks with their words, and giggle when the letter sounds get a bit “muddled up and stuck in their throats.”
After a while, Saida’s mouth readily forms around the new words, but the two friends continue to learn from one another. After all, one day they plan to travel to Saida’s native Morocco together, and they must be prepared for all the new words that may await them.
The illustrations by Sonja Wimmer really elevate this book into a broader sensory experience. Wimmer embeds English and Arabic words throughout the book, making them part of the text. The Arabic words are written in both in Arabic script and transliterated English so that the reader can learn new words along with the narrator.
This is a beautiful book about friendship across language and cultures, and how the words we share (that is, how we speak to one another) can bring us together, or separate us further. Originally written in Spanish and set in Spain, translator Lawrence Schimel has made it so that children in English speaking countries can also learn how to be a friend to new students that speak other languages. As mentioned above, it just takes some patience and empathy—and maybe some gestures and some drawings, as our two friends demonstrate.
Written by Susana Gómez Redondo
Illustrated by Sonja Wimmer
Translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
Blue Dot Kids Press, 2020
Originally published 2012, TakaTuka
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.