Seraphina's Promise, by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic, 2013), travelled down to Austin with me today. I brought far too many books with me, with the idea that I would read them today and tomorrow morning, write notes for reviews, and then swap them. I am less rational than I would like to be. But I did manage to read Seraphina's Promise (which, since it was a book for younger readers told in free verse, is not saying much) and ended up in tears on the airplane (which, since I cry readily, also is not saying a tremendous amount).
In any event, Seraphina is a girl who wants desperately to go to school, and someday to be a doctor. It's a dream she shares with her best friend, Julie Marie, but it's a pretty tricky dream for two kids growing up in poverty in Haiti to make real. There is so much work to for Seraphina to do, helping her family...and with a new baby on the way, it just doesn't seem possible to save the money to pay for her school expenses. When a flood washes away their house, it ends up changing Seraphina's life for the better. Their new ramshackle house, built of bits of salvaged remnants her father finds, actually has room for a garden, and Seraphina's hard work coaxing the seeds along makes it possible for her to go to school for the first time.
But though Seraphina's brother is born safely, he's failing to thrive, and Seraphina is put into a heart- breaking predicament. Her first little brother died of starvation when he was infant, and she blames herself, for eating too much of the family's food. If this brother dies, would her school money have been enough to save them?
So she sets out to find help...and instead finds herself at the heart of the deadly Haitian earthquake of 2010.
Though the story might seem to be a litany of disaster, pathos and woe aren't the point. Sure, Seraphina and her family know inequity and injustice and plain old disaster and tragedy well, but Burg manages to make the pity of their situation real to the reader without making them pitiable as people. They don't spend time pitying themselves--they find joy in life and each other, and are determined to keep going as best they can, and to make what dreams they can (a baby who lives, a garden that grows, school...) come true.
I loved Seraphina, the character, and the only thing keeping me from loving the book wholeheartedly is a regret that Burg didn't make her geographical and historical context clearer. I went into the book cold, and it took me quite a few pages to realize I was in Haiti of three years ago, and I am reasonable well-informed. I recognized from the Creole and French that was somewhere that wasn't, as it were, Kansas, but it took a while for the shoe to drop. And though I am tempted to give this to my ten-year-old, I worry that without him knowing it is Real he won't be interested and moved the way I think he should be....
In short, I think it's a very powerful book, that might require adult guidance and teaching to make it reach its full potential. Although, that being said, I bet there are kids who would get the point even without ever having hear of Haiti. And maybe, by avoiding a statement of "This is book is set in Haiti," Seraphina's story gets to dodge all the preconceptions of that place that so many of us have...and we get to meet her without any built-in pity.