Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on August 10, 2021
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When Ms. Underwood asks if anyone wants to help Kyle, Zahra always volunteers. She loves spending time with Kyle—he’s creative and generous, and he makes the funniest jokes at lunch. But when Zahra’s other classmates start teasing her for helping him, she starts making choices she regrets.
I Can Help is a gentle, sensitive portrayal of reaching out, facing peer pressure, and learning from past mistakes. With thoughtful storytelling and poignant illustrations, this book will open discussions about choosing kindness in the classroom and beyond.
I Can Help is a story of redemption. Not a typical one and, if I’m honest, not as satisfying as I’d hoped, but an authentic one. It’s a story about how self-preservation can cause us to be less kind. A story about choosing to help others no matter the cost. A story about how there’s always a chance to the right next thing even when you can’t fix the last wrong thing. Reem Faruqi based the book on a similar experience from her childhood, so this is more than just a hypothetical. It’s real life. And it’s sure to invite discussion.
Told from the perspective of Zahra, the story follows her desire to help Kyle, a boy in her class with special needs. Instead of focusing on Kyle’s deficiencies, Zahra mainly talks about why she wants to help Kyle—he’s generous, funny, and kind. The two have a genuine and special connection.
But others in the class think Kyle is weird and make fun of Zahra for helping him. In a panic, Zahra decides not to help Kyle anymore.
“Zahra, I notice you aren’t helping Kyle today,” says Ms. Underwood.
I want to answer her, but I don’t want my mean voice to come out.
I blink the right amount of blinks so I don’t cry.
Now I know what you’re expecting. Zahra learns a lesson about helping others and about not giving in to peer pressure. She and Kyle return to being friends. But that’s not this story. Instead, we move forward to the next year and a new school. Sometimes I find myself looking for Kyle, even though I know he’s not here. But that experience with Kyle doesn’t sit right. Zahra resolves to be better, kinder. The book ends with her asking a new girl in class “Can I help you?”
It’s a beautiful story, even if it’s not what’s expected. It’s more real, and more sad than most children’s books, especially the kind that teach some sort of moral. Faruqi doesn’t play with the idyllic and idealistic notion that the past can be reversed. The best we can do is move forward. That’s a powerful thought, a weighty one, one that gives this book a depth that you just don’t see in children’s books. There’s so much conversation that could come from I Can Help. You can talk to your kid about peer pressure, about how to talk to adults about bullying, about special needs, about how to be a helper, about how to change a bad decision, the list goes on. I absolutely adored this story and will read it to my children until I think they truly understand it…and then we’ll keep reading it anyway.