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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Visiting family in Iran, an American kid finds acceptance & connection

This is the first in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to Jessica Storch and Greg Symon at Frankford Township School, Branchville, NJ.

Adib Korram’s Darius the Great Is Not Okay has a faraway setting and interior goals. Awkward, unconfident Darius is a “fractional Persian” — his mom is Iranian, while his blue-eyed dad is not — and he accompanies his parents and younger sister on a trip from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. Darius’s grandfather is there with a brain tumor, and there Darius discovers friendship, an ancestral culture with great food, and a sense of belonging and mattering for the first time in his life.

It’s not a novel of dramatic events. Darius makes a friend in Yazd, the family meets relatives and neighbors and eat a lot, they visit sights, some painful things happen, and Darius is sorry to leave. But on the inside the story grows deeper and more meaningful. Khorram conveys a culture in its place — a Zoroastrian, Muslim and Bahá’í community in central Iran — in a really human, unromantic way; at the same time, he gives us an experience of gradually letting down your personal walls.

Darius struggles with depression. When we meet him, he’s bullied at school and he’s defensive and isolated. Then Yazd doesn’t overwhelm him; he sees it mostly as a place with plain, low buildings the color of khaki, and with some people that he likes and some he doesn’t. But people start to reach out for the unconfident kid, and Darius finds himself fitfully, awkwardly, then generously opening up. That doesn’t happen without setbacks. But it happens.

It’s a good story. The author aims to share the experience of depression, stripping it of shaming and easy answers; this works well, and he includes some resources at the end. I also loved how Khorram makes a very different culture both distinctive and ordinary — the food is exotic and appealing, but the people are just people, some small-minded but most kind and generous. When Darius makes a friend who has a deep struggle too, their opening to each other is not simple. Neither is being Persian; he doesn’t even speak the language. But as he learns to embrace more of who he is, depression and all, we see and feel — and understand, in the end — that there’s a whole lot more he can be.

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