Girls from Arab and Israeli families meet in Austin writer's 'Wishing Upon the Same Stars'
Yasmeen wonders if she’ll ever fit into her new life in Texas.
Back in Michigan, there were plenty of other Arab families and friends, confidantes who ate the same kind of meals and whose parents shared the same furrowed brow as they watched the news.
But that’s not at all how it is in San Antonio, where her family has moved for her father’s job, and where Yasmeen’s grandmother has come to live from the West Bank after her home was destroyed. And one of the few true friends she’s made has to be a secret, since Ayelet’s family is Jewish.
Inspired in part by her own experience as a woman from a Palestinian family married to a Jewish man, Austin writer Jacquetta Nammar Feldman shares Yasmeen and Ayelet’s story in her debut middle-grade novel, “Wishing Upon the Same Stars” (HarperCollins, $16.99).
She illuminates the complex politics of both girls’ families right along with the social strata of middle school. It’s an age-appropriate look at the families whose heritage is rooted in a fraught region. But it’s also a contemporary tale of fitting in, relatable for any student who’s struggled to find their place amid cliques.
“It’s all about changing attitudes … and being brave enough to know how someone else feels,” Feldman said. “I feel like knowing — and the desire to know — can change everything.”
Feldman, an avid poet, started taking classes at The Writing Barn in Austin in 2018, intending to eventually write picture books rooted in her verses. A poem based on childhood memories of dancing as a middle-schooler at her Maronite church served as a springboard to something more.
“So I started writing this poem about this girl that was kind of me, and kind of not me, and that became the story of Yasmeen,” she said. “The story took on a life of its own.”
Cue more classes — in novel-writing this time — and over the next few years Feldman drafted what became “Wishing Upon the Same Stars.” Yasmeen and Ayelet find each other through math club, which Ayelet’s father coaches. The two bond after Yasmeen’s initial foray into the popular Sapphires group dissolves amid racist texts from head mean girl, Hallie.
“In the span of five minutes I’ve learned more about Ayelet Cohen than our nearly two months at the bus stop,” Yasmeen thinks in one passage. “I’ve learned that her dad is funny and embarrassing, but that it really doesn’t bother her. I’ve learned that her little white lie is that she doesn’t like math. And I’ve learned that she thinks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like me.”
Yasmeen’s circle of acquaintances at school also offer a window into other communities’ experiences. At first, Yasmeen doesn’t understand why classmates Esme and Carlos are so upset about their class trip to the Alamo. When Carlos tells her sometimes they and other Mexican students feel like they don’t belong in Texas, she asks why.
“It’s not just history, Yasmeen, it’s happening now, too! So many people like us want to come to America, but they can’t because they’re not wanted!” Carlos yells. “After what you told us about your family, I would’ve thought you of all people would understand!”
The heart of the book, though, is Yasmeen and Ayelet’s friendship. It channels the bond Feldman developed with her now-husband when they first met, she said. Initially, she wasn’t sure she wanted to share the manuscript.
“Maybe this is just for my family, maybe this is just for us,” she’d thought.
But then she mulled the decades of her marriage that joined Palestinian and Jewish families. It’s been hard, she said, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been good. Putting a story out into the world centered on curious, empathetic young people felt like a small step in the right direction.
“How are we going to reframe it for ourselves that we understand that we have something better to share eventually, that you can have that idea of one day, maybe we’ll find a way to bridge differences?” Feldman said. “It’s very idealistic, I know, but I have a very firm belief that you have to move forward with any steps you can, and if that step is in fiction, in a book for middle-grade children, then that is a step we’re taking.”