Article
Elizabeth Zunon
Amira’s Song

A girl’s love of music connects her to her family in this poignant story by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Featuring a character created by Gia H. of Hudson, Ohio, the winner of this year’s Create a Character Contest!

By Nora Raleigh Baskin
From the May / June 2018 Issue
Lexile: 790L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50

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 As you read, look for what Amira realizes about the true power of her singing.

Amira sang in her bedroom, standing at the edge of her rug where it met the wood floor. It became a stage where she could look out to an imaginary audience.

“Your music is so loud!” Jibril burst in, letting the door hit the wall. “I told you I was trying to study.”

Everything disappeared. The stage and the sound of the applause vanished. Even the microphone in Amira’s hands turned instantly back into a hairbrush. Her face burned with embarrassment.

“Can’t you knock?” Amira asked.

“I can,” her brother said. “And I did. You didn’t hear me.”

“Sorry,” Amira said, because she knew Jibril really did try to give her privacy. After all, it was his room too.

Jibril got the books he needed, but before he left the room, he turned around. “You do have a great voice, you know,” he told her.

Amira wasn’t sure which was worse: getting caught singing at the top of her lungs, or being told she was good at it. In a funny way, her brother’s compliment scared her, even as it made her heart thump with possibility.

It wasn’t just the way the music filled her up, the way it rose from her feet to the top of her head. It was the way the lyrics sounded, like they had come right from her life, from her own memory. I do want to be a singer, she told herself, and she sat down on her bed knowing it would never happen. Singers can’t be afraid to sing in front of real people, and Amira was.

No, better to concentrate on her school project, International Day. Each fifth-grader had to choose a country, provide information, decorate his or her table, and, on the night of the big event, make a presentation to anyone who stopped by.

Amira thought back to when Mr. Veitro had given the assignment that afternoon. Everybody had called out their country: China. India. Ireland. The Philippines. Some people wanted the country their families had come from. Others seemed to choose a country just because they liked the food or the soccer team.

“Amira, can I count on you for Syria?” Mr. Veitro asked, but he was already writing it down.

Everyone knew that Amira and her family had emigrated from Damascus. That was six years ago. But Syria was so often in the news now because of the war there. People were interested, and they asked Amira questions.

Was your house bombed? No.

Did you see the war? A little.

Can you speak Arabic? Sort of.

Do you still have family there? Yes.

Some of Amira’s memories of her life in Syria were fading. She couldn’t remember much about her old room—except that it was bigger and she didn’t have to share it. Or about her house—except for the magnificent backyard garden and the ancient fig tree with its thick, gnarled trunk.

But one memory still filled her heart: her grandmother’s love.

Her grandmother was the first one to sing with Amira. When Amira sang with her grandmother, her voice felt strong. They would sing folk songs and pop songs and lullabies.

The night before she and her family left for the United States, Amira couldn’t sleep. Her grandmother sat by her bed.

“But why can’t you come with us?” Amira had asked.

“It’s not that I can’t,” her grandmother had told her. “But this is my home. I will go stay with my sister, and if you don’t come back soon, I’ll come to you. Soon.”

They talked on the phone almost every month for a year, and Amira always asked her grandmother the same question. When is soon? When the call came telling Amira’s father that Tayta had died, no one spoke. Their grief was heavy with the regret that she hadn’t come with them.

“I picked Syria,” Amira told her family at dinner.

Her father nodded with approval.

Her mother smiled. “Do you need any help?”

Jibril looked up from his plate and shook his head, but ever so slightly, so that only Amira could see him.

In Damascus, they had been doctors, but here, without licenses, Amira’s mother was a medical assistant and her father worked in a research lab. They both spent long hours at work. Asking her mother to put more time into an activity that wasn’t even going to be graded would be asking too much.

“No, I’m good,” Amira answered.

In class, Mr. Veitro gave them time to do research. Amira went on the computer and wrote down some facts about Syria’s history, geography, and its many different languages and religions. But there was a lot about the war, and some of that was too painful to read.

Mr. Veitro suggested that students make a special food from their country. So the day before the event, Amira cut up pita bread and made hummus. She roasted the chickpeas and the garlic, and as she did her best to mash it all up by hand, she sang to herself a traditional Syrian song her grandmother had taught her.

No one else was home, and she sang it over and over. She sang really loud, until she could almost hear her grandmother’s voice joining in. For a second it sounded so real, felt so real, she actually whipped around to look behind her.

“Tayta?” Amira said, but of course no one was there. She dipped her finger into the bowl of hummus. It tasted perfect.

That night, Amira tried to convince her parents that they didn’t have to come to the school event. 

“No, we insist,” her father said. He kissed the top of her head. “Mother and I will be there around 7:30.”

Nothing could have prepared Amira for what she saw when she walked into the gym. The entire floor was taken up with long tables, each one covered in fabric matching the color scheme of a country’s flag. India was one of the most colorful and took up two tables. It looked like Divya’s entire family was standing there waiting to answer questions, all dressed in traditional Indian outfits. They had one table laid out with hundreds of samosas. On the second table, spread like a delicate mosaic, were tiny cups of individual spices.

At the China table, there were spring rolls and intricate paper cut-outs of mice, goats, horses, and snakes. Canada had a big platter of pancakes and a huge jug of maple syrup. Nick’s mom, behind the U.K. table, was giving out cupcakes decorated with the British flag. The Philippines table even had a roof of dried grass.

Amira set down her plastic bowl of hummus and her paper plate arranged with triangles of pita bread. She stood her poster board on the table and slumped down into her chair. She dreaded having her parents come and see what a terrible job she had done, how poorly she had represented Syria, her homeland, her family heritage, her grandmother’s memory.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jibril said with a reassuring smile. “I’ll go wait at the entrance for Mom and Dad so they’ll be able to find you.”

Amira nodded.

A few people admired her homemade hummus, politely listened as she went through her presentation, smiled kindly, and quickly moved on to Ireland, where a family was giving away potato chips, green apple juice, and shamrock stickers.

Maybe she’d luck out and Jibril would talk her parents out of coming inside at all. It was everything Amira could do to keep from crying. Instead, she closed her eyes and began to quietly hum to herself the Syrian melody her grandmother had taught her.

Then, ever so softly, she began singing the words. It was so loud in the gym that when she started singing, she couldn’t even hear her own voice. She kept her eyes squeezed shut and imagined not that she was onstage, but that she was in the kitchen with her grandmother. Amira’s full voice vibrated in her chest, and when she drew in a breath, her body felt whole. It was as if her grandmother was with her, singing each Arabic word, both holding her and lifting her up. The last stanza was the hardest to get right. It jumped up a whole octave. But it was the part that felt the best to sing. It was like climbing a ladder and not falling from the top, but flying through the air.

When she finished, it was the silence that startled Amira—the entire room was now completely quiet. Then the thunderous clapping, and then the cheers.

“Bravo, bravo!”

“How beautiful!”

“Where did you learn to sing like that?”

How long had they been listening? How long had she been singing?

Mr. Veitro was wiping his eyes with a tissue. “Amira, that was incredible. You captured the true meaning of this whole project with your voice.”

She didn’t have time to be embarrassed. Or afraid. She didn’t have time to do anything but beam. And there in the crowd, smiling right back at her, were her mother and father and Jibril, their eyes shining with tears. 

Meet the “Create a Character” Team!

Why did you choose this character?

Amira seemed to be saying something just to me: to my concerns about the world, to my personal interests, and then to that magical something you can’t quite put your finger on.


What did you find fascinating about Amira?

Her desire to be a singer. I wanted to be a singer so badly as a kid. But I got so horribly nervous onstage that I decided to be a writer instead. That way, I can send my thoughts and emotions out into the world without having to be there.

What made you think of the character of Amira?

My parents were Syrian immigrants, and I have family that still lives in Syria today. I am very proud of my Syrian heritage and wanted my character to be as well.


What advice do you have for other young writers?

I really enjoy writing stories because I think it is cool to see a story unfold. My advice would be to use information from your own experiences and history. You also have to use your imagination and creativity.

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More About the Story

Skills

vocabulary, inference, problem and solution, character’s motivation, plot, how a character changes, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning/Purpose

On one level, “Amira's Song” tells the story of a girl who loves to sing but has stagefright, and how the memory of her grandmother in Syria helps her overcome her fear. On another, it provides readers with insights about the experience of moving far away from your homeland.

Structure

The story is told in the third person and includes the main character’s thoughts and memories. It is mostly chronological with one flashback from Amira’s life in Syria.

Language

The article includes some higher-level words, such as emigrated and heritage. It features sensory details and includes some figurative language.

Knowledge Demands 

Background knowledge of Syria and immigration will aid comprehension but is not required. Students will need to make several inferences to fully understand the story.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features/Set a Purpose for Reading (3 minutes)  

  • Point out that this story is the result of our Create a Character contest. Direct students’ attention to page 15 so they can “meet” author Nora Raleigh Baskin and 11-year-old Gia Hilal, our contest winner. 
  • Ask a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 11. 
  • Preview the questions in the margins.

Vocabulary (15 minutes)

  • Show the vocabulary slideshow and distribute our vocabulary activity to preview seven challenging words. 
  • Vocabulary words include lyrics, emigrate, gnarled, licenses, hummus, mosaic, and heritage

2. Close Reading

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Read the story aloud as a class, or play our audio version as students follow along in their magazines. 

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Have small groups read the story again, pausing to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. They can then respond on their own paper. Answers follow. 
  • Ask students to write their own questions in the blank bubble on page 14. 
  • Discuss the critical-thinking questions

Answers to Close-Reading Questions

  • Character (p. 11) Amira daydreams about being a famous singer but feels embarrassed when someone actually hears her singing. 
  • Inference (p. 12) Jibril’s compliment makes Amira feel she has a chance to make her dream of being a singer come true. Following that dream requires performing in public, which feels scary. Amira might think that it’s easier to decide she’s no good at singing so she can avoid the risk of failing at it. 
  • Problem (p. 12) Amira’s conflict is that she wants to be a singer, but she is afraid to sing in front of other people. 
  • Character (p. 12) Amira’s memories of singing with her beloved grandmother cause her to think of making music as a joyful and powerful activity. 
  • Character’s Motivation (p. 13) Amira says she doesn’t need help out of consideration for her parents. She knows they don’t have much time or energy after working long hours. This section shows that Amira’s parents were doctors in Syria but had to take less prestigious jobs in the U.S. 
  • Inference (p. 13) While making the hummus, Amira sings a song her grandmother taught her. This helps Amira feel connected to her grandmother, almost as if she were actually there. Amira probably thinks the hummus tastes perfect because she relates the experience of making it with her adored grandmother and her Syrian roots. 
  • Inference (p. 13) You can guess that when Amira sees all the colorful tables covered with food and other items, she feels that what she has prepared for International Day is not good enough. 
  • Character (p. 14) Without the two exchanging any words, Jibril understands that Amira is worried about her presentation and tries to reassure her. This shows that brother and sister understand and care for each other. 
  • Plot (p. 14) At the beginning of the story, Amira imagines herself on a big stage singing to a cheering audience. At the end, she thinks about herself and her grandmother singing alone together in the kitchen. This helps Amira feel safe, and she sings with confidence and skill. 
  • Inference (p. 14) When Amira beautifully sings a song from her life in Syria, she helps others understand some of what is special about her country.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • Why is singing important to Amira? What does she realize about it? (character)
    When Amira sings, she feels “filled up” by the music and relates to the lyrics as if they had come “from her own memory.” Singing also reminds her of her grandmother. Their singing together in Syria made Amira feel strong-voiced and well-loved. On International Day, Amira realizes that singing connects her old life in Syria with her current life in the U.S. 
  • How do Amira’s feelings about singing in public change during the story? (how a character changes)
    The story begins with Amira daydreaming about singing in front of applauding fans. In real life, though, Amira is afraid to sing in front of anyone, even her own brother. When Amira sings on International Day, she imagines that only her grandmother is with her, which helps her feel supported and confident. As a result, she is able to perform beautifully in public, appreciated by a clapping audience—as if her daydream has come true.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Character

  • Have students further explore how Amira changes by using our character activity
  • Writing Prompt: Although there is no writing prompt at the end of this story, you could ask students to write a short essay responding to the question in the Up Close box on page 11.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Work with students to identify character traits for Amira and for Jibril. Ask students to brainstorm words that describe each, making a list on the board. Help the group choose one trait from their list for each character and find where in the story that trait is demonstrated.

For Advanced Readers

Have students read “My Priceless Treasure,” the second article of our paired texts. Prompt them to write an essay comparing Amira’s and Lauren’s memories of their grandmothers and how each honored these memories. 

For ELL Students

This story may inspire your ELLs to share information about their countries with their classmates. Ask them to complete sentence starters such as: My family is from the country of ____; my favorite food from my country is ____; a song from my country that I like is called ____; one thing I miss about my country is ____. Students may add pictures, either drawn or found online.

Story Connection

Our October/November 2017 nonfiction feature makes a great pairing with this story. “Out of the Shattered Land” is the true story of two brothers who escaped war-torn Syria to start a new life in the U.S. Ask students to compare Cedric’s and Francois’s experiences with Amira’s.