Intertwined portraits of courage and hope in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Najmah, a young Afghan girl whose name means "star," suddenly finds herself alone when her father and older brother are conscripted by the Taliban and her mother and newborn brother are killed in an air raid. An American woman, Elaine, whose Islamic name is Nusrat, is also on her own. She waits out the war in Peshawar, Pakistan, teaching refugee children under the persimmon tree in her garden while her Afghan doctor husband runs a clinic in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
Najmah's father had always assured her that the stars would take care of her, just as Nusrat's husband had promised that they would tell Nusrat where he was and that he was safe. As the two look to the skies for answers, their fates entwine. Najmah, seeking refuge and hoping to find her father and brother, begins the perilous journey through the mountains to cross the border into Pakistan. And Nusrat's persimmon-tree school awaits Najmah's arrival. Together, they both seek their way home.
Known for her award-winning fiction set in South Asia, Suzanne Fisher Staples revisits that part of the world in this beautifully written, heartrending novel.
Under the Persimmon Tree is a 2006 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||343 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Suzanne Fisher Staples, a former UPI correspondent, is the author of many acclaimed books for young readers, including Shiva's Fire, Dangerous Skies, and the Newbery Honor Book Shabanu. She lives in Nicholson, Pennsylvania.
Suzanne Fisher Staples
It’s been many years since I left my newspaper job for the somewhat less predictable world of writing books. Still, most mornings I wake up and thank my lucky stars that I no longer have to pull on pantyhose, only to fight traffic on the way to the bureau; that I can walk the dog in the orange grove after lunch and finish the newspaper; that I spend my days making up stories and talking with children, not dealing with irascible news editors, slippery politicians, and oily flacks.
I grew up loving books. My grandmother read to us every day and bribed us with stories to help in her rock garden. There, among the bleeding hearts and irises and peonies, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always written: journals, letters, school papers, essays, and, when I grew up, news reports.
But I could never imagine writing a novel. Whatever could I write about that would sustain anyone’s interest for two hundred or more pages?
The answer never occurred to me until I went to Pakistan. There was something about the camels, the ancient stories and blue-tiled mosques, and people who build shrines where a beautiful poem was written, that set my heart to singing. And there was something about our ignorance here in the West about Islamic people that made me know a story about this place needed to be told. And so my writing career began with Shabanu and Haveli.
After I left Pakistan, I wondered whether I would ever find anything that fired my soul as the people of the Cholistan Desert had. I returned to America somewhat apprehensive. It’s easy to be sparked by the exotic places of the world. But what about finding inspiration in the familiar?
And then I settled in a small and beautiful corner of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. There on the Chesapeake Bay, the mud and the pines and the grasses and the water and all the things that live in and among them spoke to me like characters in a book. I began to see the exotic everywhere.
While I was living in Asia, I thought of the United States as a place where the phones and the political system work, and people are tolerant of each other. When I came home I found that some things here were worse than all the poverty and sickness and intolerance I’d encountered in Asia. I met two children who lived on the farm next to our property on the Eastern Shore, one black, one white. Their friendship was based on fishing and swimming and exploring the woods and the creeks. As they approached adolescence, their families began to steer them away from each other. From then on, their stories fell into two distinct patterns. The white boy went to a private school. The black boy was later killed during a dispute over drugs. For all the beauty of the Eastern Shore, racism was one of its healthiest institutions. People were so familiar with it they couldn’t see how heartbreaking it was. And that was the genesis of Dangerous Skies.
My husband, Wayne, and I live in the hills of Tennessee, where we love to hike and canoe and watch the eagles soar over valleys that are shrouded in pale blue mist. I know now that the world is wondrous and wide, and I hope I will never cease to be moved by places and people who give rise to ideas for stories. Because stories are the most important thing in the world. They teach us how to live, how to love, and, most important, how to find magic wherever we are.
Suzanne Fisher Staples was born in 1945 and grew up beside a lake in the hilly farmland near Scranton, Pennsylvania. She worked as a news reporter in Asia for twelve years, serving in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka with United Press International. She also worked in Washington, D.C., as an editor at The Washington Post.
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Under the Persimmon Tree
By SUZANNE FISHER STAPLES
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Suzanne Fisher Staples
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNAJMAH Golestan Village, Kunduz Province, Northern Afghanistan October 2001
The day begins like every day in the Kunduz Hills, following the rhythms of the sun and moon. Before first light-even before the first stars begin to fade-my mother tugs at my quilt.
"Get up, sleepy one," she says. "It's time to light the fire!" I feel as if I've just gone to sleep. How can it be time to begin another day so soon after the last one has ended?
Mada-jan leans then over my older brother, Nur. To him she says, "Get up, sleepy one. It's time to get water so that I can make tea!"
Nur grumbles, and the quilt rustles as he turns over. But Mada-jan does what she always does when we try to ignore her: she yanks the quilt up from the bottom and tickles his bare feet with a piece of straw. The quilt makes a popping sound as Nur kicks out. But Mada-jan is quick to get out of the way-despite her belly, which is enormous with my unborn brother. I am sure it's a brother because my mother has been well and happy throughout her pregnancy. I have named my unborn brother Habib, which means "beloved friend." I know Habib will be my friend, unlike Nur, who teases me mercilessly.
Before Nur goes out the door, he picks up the nearly empty water tin andflicks a few drops into my face. It's icy and chases away any thought I might have of sleeping a few minutes longer.
"If the rooster is up, so must the hen be up," he says, and his hand sloshes again in the water.
"Nur, stop playing!" Mada-jan says. "Najmah, get up!" She tugs at my quilt again. "After you fetch firewood you must feed this bukri," she says, motioning to the brand-new baby goat that stands on quivering, sticklike legs near the head of the cot where I sleep. She was born yesterday, and her mother won't feed her.
I hold out my hand to the kid, who nuzzles the underside of my fingers, butting my palm with her nose. Then I throw back the quilt and reach for my shawl. The autumn morning air is chilly, and I savor the cool, knowing how hot it will be before noon.
"Baba-jan is already milking the goats, and when he gets back he'll want his breakfast," says Mada-jan, folding my quilt so that I can't change my mind and crawl back under its warmth. At the thought of the milk my father will bring, my stomach grumbles.
Outside, Nut finds the pole and ties the ghee tins to either end of it with goat sinew. He hoists it to his shoulder and waits for me to walk with him to where the path leads down the hill to Baba Darya, the little stream at the bottom. Baba means "old man" as well as "father." We call it "Old Man River" because its thin ribbons twist together like the wisps of an elder's beard.
"I saw a leopard's pug marks in the dust here last night," Nur says, just as we reach the fork in the path that will take me to the woodpile and Nur to the Baba Darya. I hesitate where the two paths split.
"Nur!" Mada-jan says, her voice low with warning. Knowing Nur very well, she has stepped outside the door to listen. "Stop trying to scare her! Najmah, you know there are no leopards here. Now hurry, you two!" Still I hesitate.
"Really!" Nur whispers. "They were this big!" He holds his fist up so I can see it in the creeping light of the sunrise. "It must be a very large leopard." Then he turns his back and walks, humming, down the hill toward the Baba Darya, the tins bouncing from the ends of the pole across his shoulder.
My heart hammers, and I want to run back to the house, but I know Mada-jan will be angry. I turn and run as fast as I can, all the way to the woodpile. There I spread my shawl on the ground and pile several armloads of wood on top. I feel a tingling along my spine the whole time. I think I see yellow eyes gleaming in the dark to the side of the woodpile. I'm sure I hear a low growl.
"Nur was only teasing," I mutter under my breath. "Nur was only teasing." But I really am convinced a large animal with long, pointed teeth is waiting to pounce on me. I am terribly afraid of leopards, although I have never seen one in my life. Mada-jan reminds me of this every time I complain that Nur has told me he's heard one roar. When the shawl holds as much wood as I can carry, I bind up its corners into a knot and heft the bundle onto my head, then hurry back up the path under the heavy load.
Usually Mada-jan fetches the wood, leaving me to make naan inside our mud-brick house, because she knows I'm afraid. But Habib, who will arrive in just a few days, keeps her off-balance when she walks along the steep, narrow paths. My father worries that she'll tumble down to the bottom of the hill, and so he has asked me to put aside my fear to help my mother. I feel proud that I can do it, even though I am afraid.
I sit outside the curtained front doorway and make a small pyramid of kindling inside the mud oven. Mada-jan brings out the basket that holds the pads of dough she's made and skewers each piece on a hook that she suspends through a hole in the top of the oven. The goat kid butts insistently at my shoulder, wanting to nurse. A few minutes later I hear Nur huffing under the weight of the water as he climbs the last few feet from the Baba Darya.
And only a moment later Baba-jan comes whistling down the path that leads from the pens that hold our sheep and goats at the base of the foothills of the Hindu Kush. He carries a large pail of milk. The light is a pale green behind the snowy mountain peaks that hover over us, and a few morning stars still float there, waiting for the sun to send them on their way.
"We're going to have to take the sheep and goats farther up to feed," Baba-jan says, sitting down cross-legged in one fluid motion. "The hills are parched, and there isn't enough for them to eat." Usually the rains come in spring and summer, and the hills lie curled on themselves, soft and brilliant, like giants sleeping under a green carpet. Now they seem flatter, gray and misty with dust, just as they do in the dead of winter.
But still our farm feeds us. Twice a week Nur and I make many trips carrying the ghee tins up and down the hill to the Baba Darya, which now moves slowly like a baba, too, since there is little water in it. We carry them to the plot where my father grows vegetables and fruit for the market, and flowers for my mother. Baba-jan carefully pours tin after tin of muddy water in a thin stream between the neat rows of apple, apricot, and almond trees.
We shiver in our shawls as we sit on the dark red Turkoman rug outside the curtained front door of our house, eating gruel with goat's milk and bread and sweet green tea. As I eat, I dip my finger into a cup of milk and hold it out for the kid to suck at greedily. The sun rises, and Baba-jan asks Nur to come with him to the plot.
"You can look after the flock yourself, can't you, my little sugar beet?" Baba-jan asks me. His face is scored with lines from working in the hot sun and worrying about the parched crops and grazing lands. I don't want to say that I am afraid to go into the hills by myself, so I nod dumbly. "Good," he says. "Nur can carry water more quickly than you can, and I don't want your mother up in the hills when the baby could come at any time."
I want to tell him that I can carry as much water as Nur, who is not much bigger, and as quickly, too. I am tall, like Mada-jan, and strong like Baba-jan-Nur is thin like Mada-jan and short like Baba-jan. But I bite the inside of my cheek and say nothing.
Mada-jan and I pick up the remains of the food and store it in baskets. We roll up the rug where we sat to eat and bring it inside. Full of milk, the kid curls into a little pile of fur and bone and sleeps just inside the doorway. After we have swept out the house-chickens scattering in a frenzy of angry clucks before our twig brooms-Mada-jan hugs me to her awkwardly, because Habib comes between us.
"You are a good and brave girl," she says, stroking my face. I don't feel brave, but I don't trust my voice to speak, and so I nod as I did to Baba-jan. Mada-jan tucks a sack of dried apricots and small sulaiman raisins and almonds into my pocket, smiling her gratitude even as she nudges me out the door. "I will look after your little bukri for you," she says. "She'll be fat by the time you return."
I lead the sheep and goats up the path to the hills behind the village. Wooden clappers make gentle thunks and plinks against the insides of the bronze bells tied around their necks.
We live simply but we have plenty to eat: apples, nuts, apricots, pomegranates, and persimmons from the orchard, vegetables from the garden plot, wheat for bread, eggs, goat's milk-and honey, too. For special occasions Baba-jan slaughters a goat. And the hills are peaceful, although Afghanistan has been at war since Baba-jan was a boy. The mujahideen control the northern part of Afghanistan, and they leave us alone. We give them wheat and vegetables because Baba-jan says they need help to keep the Pashtun talib out of Kunduz.
Usually I spend my days tagging after Nur as we watch the animals graze among the hills. Every year during the hot season, when the sun burns the grass to the roots, we take the flock higher into the hills, so far up that eventually it is too far to come back, and we sleep there under the stars at night. Baba-jan taught us to find al-Qutb, the star that never moves, at the end of the handle of the water ladle. He told us that al-Qutb means "hub," like the hub of a wheel, and the other stars move around it. He knelt by my side and told me to make a fist, and then to point the second knuckle at the star.
"As long as you know the stars, you will never be lost," he said. The Koran says that Allah gave us the stars to be our guides. "Everything depends on the stars. From them you can tell time and distance and you can find your way home." He told us many stories and showed us the shapes of animals and warriors and mythical beasts among the stars. Nur and I retell Baba-jan's star stories over and over again to pass the nights away from home. Baba-jan loves the stars so much that he named me Najmah, which means "star." He also gave Nur his name, which means "light," and we have learned to love the stars as much as Baba-jan loves them.
This is the first time I've gone with the flock alone. Walking up the hill, I am still afraid, but with the sun shining I find it easier to believe there are no leopards in our hills.
From the top of Koh-i-Dil, which overshadows our village of Golestan, people walking along the dirt tracks below look like insects. The donkeys, which carry rocks to repair the road in sack-lined baskets strapped across their backs, look like ants moving in a line.
Although it's been dry for months that never seem to end, the sky holds a promise of rain. Gray clouds have rolled in over the hills to the west, and they dance across the sun. A cool breeze blows. I rest on a large rock, watching the sun and shade play over the sheep and goats, when I hear a rumbling from below. At first I think it's thunder. I walk to the other side of the hill, away from the village, and from there I see a line of pickup trucks-a dozen or more-snaking their way among the rocks and ruts in the dirt tracks far below.
We do not often see automobiles and trucks. The mountain tracks are barely passable, except for camels and donkeys and horses, and people on foot. Our village is very far from a real metaled road such as the one that runs along the Kunduz River.
But everyone recognizes the black Datsun trucks as the vehicles of the Taliban. Everyone is frightened of the Taliban and the heartless Pashtun talib who enforce their rules. We have heard how they lock the people of entire villages inside their houses and burn them to the ground and how they slaughter men like goats, slitting them open and leaving their blood to soak into the ground. There are lists of things that are forbidden by the Taliban, playing music, laughing out loud, keeping a bird to hear its song in the morning, putting pictures of beautiful scenes on the walls, reading books, flying kites. We have heard that women wearing henna on their fingertips have had their fingers chopped off.
The Taliban have said the only thing people can do to enjoy themselves is to walk in the garden and smell the flowers. But ever since the Taliban came to power five years ago, there has been drought. It's as if Allah has banished flowers to punish the Taliban for the evil things they do to people.
I think of running down to warn the people of Golestan, but I'm not certain I can reach the village before the trucks. I turn to see that the sheep and goats are grazing peacefully below me, and decide in an instant. I half run, half tumble down the hill to the village.
When I am within shouting distance, the trucks are within hearing, and Mada-jan stands in front of the purdah draped over the doorway, shaking out laundry and hanging things over the legs of our overturned cots to dry in the sun. Each morning we drag some of the cots outside to make room in the house. The little goat kid nudges against her skirt, looking for more milk. When she hears the trucks, she straightens her back and arranges her blue chadr so that it covers her face against the gaze of the men in the passing vehicles.
Excerpted from Under the Persimmon Tree by SUZANNE FISHER STAPLES Copyright © 2005 by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book really puts you in the shoes of young people in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban.
My teacher made me read this and i loved it. It was soooo sad at first, and in the beginning but once u read chapter after chapter, u wouldnt want to put it down. BEST BOOK EVER! In the ending it was soo suspinseful. They need another book
War in Afghanistan Deranging Ordinary Life: An Afghan Girl and an American Woman This story opens with Najmah being woken up in her home in northern Afghanistan by her mother: "The day begins like every other day." The setting is quickly drawn in colorful detail as the family members attend to home and farm activities; Najmah takes their sheep and goats into the hills to graze. When she hears and sees Taliban vehicles, she hurries home to find soldiers there. They accuse the family of having offered aid to the mujahideen, raid the family's stock of food, then roughly carry off Najmah's father and brother. Meanwhile, Nusrat, an American woman who has become Muslim, is married to a Pakistani doctor, and has adopted Pakistan as home, is visiting her in-laws in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan, wondering why she hasn't heard from her husband (who is off treating war victims) for weeks. Najmah and Nusrat's stories continue in alternating chapters. After Najmah's mother and new baby brother are killed in an air raid, Najmah, disguised as a boy, undergoes a dangerous journey that eventually brings her to the small school that Nusrat holds under a persimmon tree in her courtyard. As their separate stories converge, the girl and the woman are both waiting and searching for missing loved ones. When answers come, they are not easy or happy ones, and Najmah and Nusrat must decide what to do next. While it seems like these friends could stay together and offer each other ongoing support and companionship, ultimately they decide to go separate ways again. Suzanne Fisher Staples succeeds in painting pictures of how ordinary life in Afghanistan is deranged by war, and of how victims must struggle to re-arrange their lives. Dari words are sprinkled throughout (readers can consult the glossary at the back, although the words are understandable in context.) It is sometimes confusing having parallel stories unfold in alternating chapters, and I found myself wishing at times that the names of the two main characters didn't both start with N. But Najmah and Nusrat are both interesting people and getting to "know" them definitely helps to personalize the abstractions of the civil war in Afghanistan and how it has spilled over into Pakistan; in this sense, I would say that the book is educational for American readers. I liked the book, and enjoyed the location-specific details relating to geography, food, clothing, language, and Islamic customs. Some parts are very sad, although the really tough stuff is given a light touch. (For example, one of the "telling" details which hinted at tragedies without being too explicit was the mention of the market stall that sold single shoes for amputees.) One gripe is that Najmah's greedy uncle seems like a caricature. The author apparently needed a villain to hold the plot together, but didn't succeed in making him realistic, so his role in the story is a weak link. And the style of the final paragraphs is a little odd – it's basically commentary by the author about the difference between "happy" and "good" endings. It's respectful of displaced Afghans like Najmah wanting to return to their ancestral land. Yet I found it somewhat patronizing to be told so explicitly why the characters made the choices they did at the close of the story.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in Afghanistan during 9-11? If you have, then read Under The Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Under The Persimmon Tree is a book about a young girl, Najmah, who lives with her family in Kunduz in a city called Golestan. Najmah is living a normal life in Afghanistan until one day her dad, Babajan, and her older brother, Nur, are taken away by the Taliban to help fight in the war. Later, while she is returning home, she is hillside and the ground starts to shake and suddenly, she sees her mom run back into the house with her newborn baby brother, Habib. Bombs cause Najmah to be covered with rocks and also the house collapses thus killing her mother and brother. Now Najmah is on a journey as she must find her brother and father so they can be reunited. The other story in the book is about an American woman named Nusrat, that has converted to Islam and moves to Afghanistan with her husband, Faiz in order to help his country. Faiz assists as a medic and must travel to all different places and Nusrat starts a school in a refugee camp to help teach the Afghan children. Nusrat wonders if she will ever see her husband again. I was able to read this book for a class in 6th grade and I liked this book because I like realistic fiction and the book gives you insight into what it would have been like to be in Afghanistan during 9-11. I would recommend this book to any kids 11 and older who can handle emotional, realistic fictional books, and who are interested in Afghanistan or 9-11.
Since all of the other reviews have already given a short synopsis of the book, I will just offer some ideas for teachers. This book offers a relevant and authentic look at the life of an Afghan girl post 9/11 trying to survive some very traumatic events in her life, and an American woman in Pakistan with her husband who is a doctor running a clinic in Afghanistan. The author alternates chapters for each character's story. The author was a news reporter covering Afghanistan and Pakistan and also worked in the same region on a women's literacy project, so her familiarity with the culture makes the book very authentic. The story allows readers to understand what it feels like to be on the Afghan side of the war. It also clears up some stereotyping about the Islam religion. Reading and education played a important role in this book. As a reader, I was disappointed with how the author ended the book. It just seemed to end without much detail. However, as a teacher, this ending lends itself very nicely to a writing assignment where the students can write their own ending for the two characters. Girls will probably relate to this story more than boys. I would definitely recommend this book for use in a middle-school classroom.
Under the Persimmon Tree is a look at life in Afghanistan/Pakistan in the months immediately following September 11, 2001 through the eyes of two women. One is Najmah, a young Afghan girl left alone with her pregnant mother when her father and brother are conscripted by the Taliban. Her mother and the baby are killed during an air raid over their village a short time later. Now Najmah must travel to Peshwar to find her father and brother, and save their land. The other is Nusrat, an American teacher, convert of Islam, who came to Pakistan when her Afghan husband Faiz decided to return to his home to help those suffering because of the war. Their stories converge when Najmah is brought to Nusrat¿s home in Peshwar, where she teaches a school for refugee children. Together they seek answers about their families, and their future. This is a heartbreaking story, with a solid core of hope and strength. There is no happy ending, yet the future does not seem bleak. This timely and thought-provoking book is sure to be a contender for this year¿s Newbery Medal.
It s a grat bk t reid i lovd it u shold raed it. At
"Under the Persimmon Tree" is a great book, especially for those who would like to see how America changed the way Afghan people were affected. This story is mainly about a young Afghan girl, Najmah. The other part of the story is about the life of an American woman named Nusrat, who is in Pakistan while her husband sets up hospitals/clinics throughout the country. The book starts off very slow, only talking about how Najmah, her mother, and newborn brother wait for the father and brother(they were taken away and forced to work with the Taliban), farm, live a hard life, and are struggling to survive because of a drought. But in chapter five, the story takes a dramatic turn. Sadly, on Najmah¿s way home from letting the animals graze, American war planes started dropping bombs throughout their village. The only ones left in the village was Najmah¿s family, the rest of the village people left to take refuge. Unfortunately the mother and newborn brother were killed. This event left Najmah alone in this rough world. That¿s when she decided that she will not give up on her life. So throughout the story, the author, Suzanne Fisher Staples, shows you a first hand look on how Najmah searches for her brother and father. On her way, she meets Nusrat(the American woman that teaches), and together they teach the many young children at the small school by the persimmon tree, and search for their loved ones.
This book should be read by many people, especially teenagers, because it shows how different cultures act the same way we would in certain events. I think that this book could also open some people¿s eyes, because they will constantly think about how one nation affects many. You will also wonder about what exactly happens to Najmah and Nusrat (the book doesn¿t exactly say) in the end. In the end, Suzanne Fisher Staples definitely deserves a ¿standing ovation¿ for this book, and should continue writing about cultures different that ours, and continue to open the eyes of Americans everywhere.
at first, this book was really boring. but after chapter 5(i think), it gets really interesting!FYI, many great books start in a boring mode. i wish that there's a sequel of this book like what happened to nusrat and najmah. i love this book and became a bookworm!lol...now i admire the works of suzanne staples.
Under the Persimmon Tree is a story about a young girl who lives in Afghanistan named Najmah. Her mother is pregnant and her father and brother, Nur, are taken by Taliban to fight in the war. The families¿ neighbors are leaving to go live in camps. They tell Najmah and her mom to come but they couldn¿t. Najmah is afraid that her uncle will get the land, if she leaves the land. Her mom gets worried because Nur or his father hasn¿t written. She gets worried. The characters in the story are brave and will do anything for their family. Staples¿ characters are young adults who lost their mother and new born brother, also the father and brother have went to war. Najmah started by leaving with her friend her husband is also in the war, while waiting for father and brother to return. ¿Everyone recognizes the black trucks the vehicles of the Taliban.¿ This is saying when those trucks come down the road, it¿s a bad sign. Everyone knows those trucks, and if they don¿t either give them food or be taken to go to war. The author¿s writing is very exciting and sad at the same time. Making an adventure in the story, when the mother and new born baby have been killed and the father and brother are at war and have not written. The Persimmon Tree is a symbol where she can go talk and think. When someone keeps reading about the girl¿s life, puts themselves in the characters position. Under the Persimmon Tree is a very interesting story with bunches of adventures. You will be ready to rock your world!
I goy assigned to read this and i loved it was sssooo hard to put it down
This is such a boring book.I feel bad for her though. I wish her parents were still alive.Ive WAY read more better books.
Lol the funniest book ever haha jk