Omar Rising is the latest middle-school book from Aisha Saeed, featuring twelve-year-old Omar as he fights for justice at Ghalib Academy, an elite boarding school in Pakistan.
Despite having stayed at Ghalib over the previous summer, Omar is overwhelmed by the opulent campus. There’s a dining hall, soccer field, library, rec room, and walking paths. But Omar quickly realizes that he won’t be able to enjoy any of the luxuries in the Ghalib campus. As a scholarship student, he’s not only expected to maintain an A+ average in every subject, but is also required to complete five service hours a week while doing so. Worst of all, he’s not allowed to join the soccer or astronomy club, which he’s been waiting to join since the summer. As Omar struggles to keep up, he notices that none of his peers are held to the same standards that he is. Inspired by the artist and female rights activist Shehzil Malik, Omar decides to stand up for himself and rebel against the system that put him in Ghalib but is now doing its best to throw him out.
Omar Rising features a primarily Arabic characters and a corrupt school system as well as teachers that, frankly, have it out for their students. While this combination may seem too mature or complicated for middle schoolers, this novel perfectly packages real-world themes into digestible, easy-to-understand portions. Readers won’t just find themselves sympathizing with Omar, they’ll find themselves empathizing with him. It’s pretty easy to see yourself in Omar; he’s smart, a soccer-fanatic, sanguine, into science, and artistic. The poster child for childhood.
The rest of the characters are similarly likable. Kareen and Naveed, Omar’s roommates, add levity to each chapter. Similarly, Omar’s peers and soccer buddies, Humza, Jibril, and Marwan, give a more detailed glimpse into what the rest of the school looks like; carefree and preppy. Meanwhile, Omar struggles to keep up with his studies and manage his five weekly hours of chores, as he points out on pp. 80-81:
“There are so many people who keep this school running. Gardeners. Cooks. Maintenance people. … They don’t need us to do this work. They just want to make sure we remember our place.”
Without delving too deep into the fact that he’s at the bottom of the hierarchy, Omar still delivers a poignant, impactful statement. This is only a small example of Omar’s emotional narration. Keeping pace with a fast-paced story, the middle-schooler’s monologues effortlessly switch from discussing soccer practice to elaborating on the pressure to succeed at Ghalib academy.
Omar Rising is an impactful and realistic novel, a call to action for any middle-schooler who has ever felt like an outsider. Through Omar, readers are educated about life in Pakistan and are inspired to make a difference in their own communities, just like the protagonist. The book is a reminder of how powerful resistance can be, even in the face of a system designed to create and widen inequalities. Overall, Omar Rising is a novel rooted in change and justice but still easily relatable to kids, perfect for young activists and innovators.
Congratulations to Connie Saunders who won DAISY AND THE MONA LISA.
Don't forget to check out other great Middle-Grade books on Greg Pattridge's MMGM blog.