Mama’s Nightingale tells a serious but hopeful story about Saya, who is separated from her mother. Stirring illustrations and a tender tale show the human side of immigration in this picture book by Edwidge Danticat, who herself grew up in a family that was separated for years by immigration. Danticat’s book is dedicated to those young people like her main character, Saya, who are dreaming of the day when their family will be reunited.
For Saya, the reason for her mother not being home is that she doesn’t have the right papers to stay in the United States and so she is being held in an immigration detention center. Every night, Saya’s father writes to the mayor and to other politicians, as well as to judges and to reporters about their situation. No one ever replies. Every time, Saya and her father visit the detention center, the question arises as to when her mother can come home. No one has any idea. After one particularly emotional visit, Saya’s mother begins to mail tapes with stories she reads or makes up for Saya to hear. In response, Saya writes her own story. Her story changes the family’s future.
On the serious side, through her honest storytelling, Danticat provides real faces to the debate over immigration. While Saya’s story is fictional, it is inspired by real events. The author herself and her brother were separated from their parents for most of their childhood due to not having the right papers. She is not alone in her experience. According to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed and deported. In Mama’s Nightingale, Danticat has painted a poignant portrait of the difficult situation in which immigrant families often find themselves and given them a voice.
On the hopeful side, Saya finds comfort in the bedtime stories her mother records on cassette tapes and sends her. Saya and her father even listen to them together. In addition, her father faithfully cares for her, offers her advice, and tucks her in at night. Although his sadness is readily apparent, he never allows it to hinder him from his important role as a parent to Saya. When Saya responds to her mother with her own story, she also discovers the power of words. Readers will appreciate reading of how Saya’s story results in her mother being released. Finally, artist Leslie Staub tempers the upsetting circumstances with bright of colors and whimsical objects from the stories Saya’s mother tells.
Mama’s Nightingale is a powerful story. Young people in a similar situation will take comfort in Saya’s story. For those young people not impacted by immigration, Mama’s Nightingale makes a great discussion starting point. So many questions can be addressed such as: What are the right papers? Why doesn’t Saya’s mom have them? How can the proper papers be obtained? Why do immigrants need papers in the first place? Mama’s Nightingale is a tale that will make a difference in everyone who reads it.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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