The vivid and compelling story of a young girl fleeing Afghanistan with her family and their journey to Australia. Inspired by a true story.
Mahtab was empty. She felt hungry.for water, for her father, for her grandmother, her aunts and uncles, for the trees in the back yard, the cabinet on the wall, the silver and glass objects so lovingly collected, for her mountains, the jagged peaks that cut the sky.
Her father was dead. She felt sure of it. She was just a speck of dirt on the floor, drifting through the gap between the boards, falling to the ground.
Mahtab and her family are forced to leave their home in Herat and journey secretly through the rocky mountains to Pakistan and from there to faraway Australia. Months go by, months of waiting, months of dread. Will they ever be reunited with their father, will they ever find a home?
This compelling novel by one of Australia's best-loved children's authors is based on the true story of one girl's voyage to Australia with her family.
'An important, eye-opening book.' Deborah Ellis
'Kept me turning pages and holding my breath.an amazing story that me and all of my friends love.' - Inez, 12
More books by this author
Libby Gleeson AO is a popular and highly acclaimed writer who has published over twenty books for children and teenagers, including Eleanor, Elizabeth, I Am Susannah, Dodger, Love Me, Love Me Not and the Hannah series.She has been shortlisted for the CBCA Awards thirteen times and won an award three times: in 1997 for Hannah and the Tomorrow Room; in 2002, with illustrator Armin Greder, for An Ordinary Day; and in 2007, with illustrator Freya Blackwood, for Amy and Louis. The Great Bear (with Armin Greder) won the Bologna Ragazzi in 2000, the first time an Australian title has won this prestigious award. Her most recent publication with Allen & Unwin is I Am Thomas (with Armin Greder), published in 2011.
Libby has been a teacher and lecturer and is active in writers' organisations, chairing the Australian Society of Authors 1999-2001. She is currently a director of the Public Education Foundation and of The Copyright Agency Limited, and chair of WestWords, the Western Sydney Children's and Youth Literature project. In 2007, Libby was awarded membership to the Order of Australia for her services to literature. See also Libby's website: www.libbygleeson.com.au
Awards:Short-listed, Speech Pathology Book of the Year Awards, 2009
Publisher:Allen & Unwin
Imprint:A & U Children
Pub Date:May 2008
Format:Paperback - B format
Age:9 - 12
A note on engaging with contentious issues
Engaging students with contentious issues and modelling appropriate ways of framing understanding and participating in debate can be of benefit. Indeed, the General capabilities of the Australian Curriculum invite teachers to delve into this territory, within the Critical and creative thinking, Ethical understanding, and Intercultural understanding capabilities.
It may be helpful to set out a contract of expectations before engaging with the study of the issues presented in this unit. All members of the learning community should work together to generate this contract, the detail of which may evolve from class discussion led by the teacher, or by students working in small groups. The exact format of this activity will depend on the previous experiences and relationships established between students and the teacher.
It is suggested that this contract centre around:
- Safety – we should be safe to express our opinions
- Respect – for the individuals affected by this issue, and for each other in presenting opinions
- Listening politely – structures may be put in place to facilitate this
- Valuing diversity – appreciating that all experiences and views contribute to a cohesive whole.
The Global Education website has additional notes and resources to support the teaching of controversial issues.
Pre-reading: Activity 1
How diverse is your universe?
In this game-oriented activity, students are invited to consider their own cultural background and identity, and question the interactions that they have in their daily lives.
- 1 plastic or paper cup (per student)
- Coloured beads or icy pole sticks
This activity can be conducted as a whole class or in smaller groups (e.g. table groups). Students are seated in a circle, each one starts with an empty cup. The supply of beads or icy pole sticks is placed in the middle of the circle. The teacher explains that each colour represents a different cultural background (for example, Anglo-Australian, other European, African, American, Middle Eastern, Asian, etc.). The exact categories elected will depend on the cultural backgrounds that comprise the school and local community. The teacher reads a number of statements, and the students select a colour to show their response, placing their beads or icy pole sticks into their cups.
The statements are as follows:
- Pick the colour that best represents your own cultural background
- Pick the colour that best represents each of your parents
- Pick the colour that best represents your closest friend
- Pick the colour that best represents the last person that you interacted with outside of school and not in your family
- My neighbours (at home) on either side are…
- My GP is…
- My dentist is…
- My school principal is…
- The people in my social circle are mostly…
- The author of the last book I read was…
- In the last movie I saw, the people were mostly…
- The people in my favourite TV show are mostly…
- My favourite food comes from…
- The person I most admire or who has had the biggest impact on my life is…
- My favourite musician or band members are…
After the teacher has read all the statements and the students have filled their cups, they are asked to look in their cup and describe what they see. The teacher may ask the students to write a paragraph of reflection in response to this activity.
This activity was adapted from the resource found in the Diversity Resources Activity Guide.
A great complement to this activity may be found in the following resources produced by SBS:
- How Diverse is my Suburb? Using this online interactive, students can discover how diverse their suburb or town is, in categories including ancestry, age, food, religion and birthplace.
- Where Australia’s immigrants were born. This interactive map presents, in colour-coded format, the origin of Australia’s immigrants by geographical area, using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 Census.
Both of these interactive resources could be used in classroom activities to generate discussion or in more depth. Students may summarise or graph the data pertaining to their suburb of residence, providing ample scope for links to the numeracy capability and cross-curricular inquiry in Mathematics and Geography.
Pre-reading: Activity 2
Class discussion and mind map
Using the stimulus material of the UNHCR poster ‘Spot the Refugee’, students complete an analysis of its message. A thinking routine such as Think, Puzzle, Explore; or See, Think, Wonder may help students organise their thinking.
In whole class discussion, ask students to think about the message the poster is trying to convey? What kinds of persuasive techniques can they identify? How is the language used to position the audience (e.g. They have nothing; refugees are just like you and me).
What are some of the reasons to value cultural diversity? What advantages does a culturally diverse community offer us? Summarise the students’ thoughts using a whiteboard or interactive whiteboard/touchscreen. If students are equipped with 1:1 technology, they may summarise the mind map using an application such as bubbl.us or Popplet.
Pre-reading: Activity 3
Exploring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
This activity is particularly suited to stronger groups of students and not all activities are essential to the unit. Undertaking this activity should be based on the teacher’s judgement.
Exploring the UNDHR and the CROC at this stage of the unit should provide students with the necessary background and context for later activities concerning an evaluation of the treatment of Mahtab and her family.
Start by brainstorming the following questions:
- What does it mean to be safe?
- What do you need to be safe, healthy and develop to your full potential?
- How can we protect the rights of people – adults and children – to be safe?
Then students will work collaboratively to determine their final lists. Using the Multiply and Merge co-operative learning strategy, they will individually list eight things that are needed to be safe, healthy and develop to your full potential. Each student will then pair up with another student, needing to reduce lists of 16 back to eight, reaching consensus on what is common, what to keep, and what to discard. They will then join with another pair and repeat the process. Each group of four will then report back to the whole class, in order to generate a final list of eight.
The students may then explore the agreements in more detail, with close guidance from the teacher. There is a simplified version of the CROC. There are also a number of useful videos on YouTube, produced by reputable organisations such as UNICEF and Amnesty International, such as What Are Child Rights?and Everybody – We are all born free. There is also an excellent picture book about the UNDHR, also titled We Are All Born Free.
When students have learnt more about the CROC and the UNDHR, they may be asked to complete the Colour-Symbol-Image Thinking Routine, either individually or with a partner, to show their understanding. The CSI routine requires students to determine a colour, symbol and image that best represent the idea or concept they are exploring, in this case, ‘human rights’.
A visual display of student responses to this activity, including their lists of rights and the CSI representations, would be a powerful thinking prompt as they progress through the unit.
Personal response on reading the text
Analysing the title and cover
From the outset, we are positioned to view the subject of this story as an ‘other’. The image on the cover shows a partially-obscured face, which seems to be covered by a ragged green headscarf. There is a bead of liquid (sweat?) on her nose, and her visible green eye stares intently at the reader. We are informed by the title that this is ‘Mahtab’s Story’. The reference in the third person to the protagonist, whose name may be inferred to be of Middle-Eastern origin. Students may use the the Cover analysis resource document (PDF, 275KB) to make observations about the title and front cover.
Reality and fiction
The cover tells the reader this is ‘inspired by a true story’. By blurring the line between reality and fiction, the author succeeds in gaining the reader’s sympathy for Mahtab throughout the story. Ask students, as readers, do they prefer reality or fiction? What are the conventions of stories that are based on reality? What are the conventions of stories based on fiction?
As they progress in their reading, the teacher may generate discussions regarding the veracity of the accounts given in the text, their plausibility and reliability. At this stage, students could compare the fictional accounts in the novel to other non-fiction texts about comparable refugee experiences, to make their own judgements.
This may lead to some discussion of the ethics of an author presenting a fictional narrative which takes licence with the lived experience of others. Recent literary debate in Australia centres on the rights of authors to write about experiences outside their own realm of experience and cultural identity, and these questions are worthy of inquiry. Articles such as Ariella Van Luyn’s Lionel Shriver and the responsibilities of fiction writers for The Conversation may be a starting point for teachers wishing to inform their own thinking on these issues.
Plot and location tracking
As students read the book, they should be encouraged to track the plot development and locations represented within the narrative. This could be done on a BLM world map or on Google Earth. Students should be encouraged to make links between the different locations in the novel and Mahtab’s state of mind and relationships as she undertakes her journey.
Outline of key elements of the text
Publisher Allen & Unwin has produced an extensive set of teacher’s notes, including a summary of the plot.
The protagonist of the novel is a young girl named Mahtab. As the plot progresses, Mahtab must increasingly call upon her inner resourcefulness and bravery to endure the difficulties she faces. Other characters in the novel include Mahtab’s siblings, Farhad and Soraya, her parents and extended family, as well as her best friend Laila. Later in the unit, there are activities that involve students reflecting on character after a close reading of the text.
Themes of the novel include:
- Refugees and asylum seekers
- Bravery and resilience
- Family bonds
Rather than outlining these themes to students from the outset, an inductive strategy may be used in the classroom, whereby students explore and analyse the ideas emerging through their reading.
A useful thinking routine for uncovering ‘big ideas’ is Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate. In this activity, students work in groups to initially brainstorm all ideas they think have been presented in the work. They then sort the ideas by positioning them on a graphic organiser, with the central ideas in the middle, and the more abstract on the outside. Connections are made between ideas, before students elaborate on and explain the ideas they have generated. At this final stage, the teacher may require that students provide quotes and evidence from the text.
4. Chapter questions
A set of chapter questions (PDF, 125KB) has been developed for those inclined to use these to support and monitor student progress through the text.
Another approach is to have students write their own comprehension questions. Assign students a chapter each (there are 14 chapters and an epilogue). Have them write three to four questions for their assigned chapter. The number of students allocated to each chapter and the number of questions they produce will depend on the class size. Students can send their questions to the teacher, who may then collate them into a Word document for redistribution. Alternatively, the teacher may wish to use an online tool to construct a quiz using questions, such as those provided by Kahoot or Socrative. It should be noted that Kahoot allows live participation and multiple choice responses, whereas Socrative allows short answer responses and the teacher can produce a report of student responses.