Jeanette Winter has yet again succeeded in creating a visually stunning and deeply meaningful picture book that looks at current issues so that children can begin to understand them.  Much like her earlier books, “The Librarian of Basra” and “Wangari’s Trees of Peace,” Winter’s “Nasreen’s Secret School” tackles an difficult topic and makes it accessible.

The book is narrated by Nasreen’s grandmother, who wants Nasreen to experience the joy and wonder of going to school to learn about the world.  Unfortunately, as the narrator observes, “The Taliban soldiers don’t want girls to learn about the world, the way Nasreen’s mama and I learned when we were girls.”  Winter should be praised for explaining that women once had greater freedoms, which they lost under Taliban control.

After Nasreen’s father is taken by soldiers and her mother goes in pursuit of him, Nasreen ceases speaking and smiling.  Her grandmother learns of a secret, underground school for girls, and takes the risk of enrolling Nasreen.  While Nasreen “stayed inside herself,” she still continues to attend.  Finally, months later, she begins to open up to one of her classmates. 

The book works on many levels and could add greatly to a classroom or school library.  When Nasreen begins to embrace learning, the narrator observes that “The knowledge she holds inside will always be with her, like a good friend.”  Such a statement could help encourage students who are resistant learners, to see just how powerful learning can be.  Classes could also discuss why the Taliban might choose to limit education for girls and women, to get at how that power might be feared. 

By studying Winter’s illustrations, students could discover details that shape life under the Taliban.  For example, Winter shows boys and men walking the streets openly and freely, while Nasreen and her grandmother must sneak to the school.  While she makes no overt mention of clothing rules for women, she shows the grandmother wearing a burqa and Nasreen wearing a head scarf when they go out.  Yet when Nasreen is reading or talking of the world with her grandmother, her head is uncovered, as if open to the wider ideas of the world.  These subtle uses of illustration make the book a rich source for learning.

I would highly recommend “Nasreen’s Secret School” as well as Winter’s other books.  Children today are interested in the world around them and want to understand the problems the world is facing.  Winter is doing us a great service by explaining some of these issues in a child-appropriate, but not childish fashion.