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Middle grade fiction - Serafina's Promise

Perhaps you have read about the studies that demonstrate how reading can build empathy. Those studies usually use adults as subjects but anyone who has seen a child moved by a fictional story knows that reading can make us better people.


Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg offers young readers the chance to learn about life in another country where a child may have to plead to go to school rather than plead not to go as children in the U.S. may do.

In this novel in verse, a young Haitian girl and her family struggle with poverty as she dreams of getting an education to become a doctor. She is inspired to dream of a career in medicine because she greatly admires the female doctor who treated her baby brother when he was ill.

The story is beautifully told and there is a light touch despite the heavy subject matter. The Tonton Macoutes, a government-supported militia who used violence to suppress opposition, terrorized Serafina’s grandfather. Serafina looks up to the doctor even though treatment didn’t save the baby brother from death. And sadly, the next baby who comes along also suffers from malnourishment. Serafina even wonders if her desire to go to school and the money her family must sacrifice to pay her school expenses makes her at fault for the new baby’s illness.

I learned little about Haiti as a child; it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about how Haiti became a free republic, breaking the yoke of slavery only to find that prejudice kept the nation from prospering, The author weaves Haitian history into the story to give readers some understanding of why Serafina and her family work so hard yet remain poor. As her grandmother tells her—

“The flag remembers
what the world forgets.
We were slaves, but now we’re free.”

But Serafina is still a young girl and despite her family’s troubles, she has the concerns of someone her age. She has two friends, one to whom she is close and one of whom she is a little jealous. At one point in the story, it looks as if both of these friends are going to see their dreams come true, leaving Serafina behind but, of course, things are not always as they seem.

Serafina will need all of the bravery she displayed as she convinced her family that she should be able to pursue her dream of education when disaster strikes.

While the story is an engrossing way to draw young readers in and help them learn history, the book does go the traditional educational route at the end with the inclusion of a Haitian Creole Alphabet and Pronunciation Guide and a Glossary of Foreign Phrases. The author’s website also has information about how this novel aligns with Common Core standards. (
Jada Bradley
Jada Bradley
Jada Bradley applies her book publishing background to her work as a freelance writer/ editor and ELL teacher in the Washington, D.C. area.

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