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Book Review: The Spirit Within Club by Sahar Sabati, Reza Mostmand (Illustrator)

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I’m not too used to reading young adult literature, not having any young ones in the house anymore, so I was surprised when Spirit Within Club by Sahar Sabati showed up on my doorstep. Not sure what I was getting into, I plunged into the engrossing and delightful tale of several 10-year-olds who hang out together and form a sort of spiritual after-school club that embraces all religions. There is a Muslim member, a Buddhist, a Christian, one child who might be Hindu (although that’s not entirely clear), a Bah’ai — and the rest of the members aren’t specifically labeled with any religion. They just all get along because they recognize each other’s “spirit within.”

Not at all an in-your-face religious book, Spirit Within Club examines various moral issues that face the young protagonists and then sets them to finding a purposeful answer that pleases the soul. One girl shoplifts and then has to face the consequences of her guilt. Another is physically sick constantly, and finds himself hating the world for making him unhealthy. Another turns her back on prayer until her mother offers her a way to “fake it till you make it.” The group arranges a serious Christmas celebration (although they are not all Christians), and finds out it’s on the same day as the school Christmas party, so no one comes to their gathering. They come in for a lot of ribbing from their school mates. What to do? What to do?

The minor tragedies and sometimes big disappointments that the Spirit Within Club members suffer all mirror the big problems that adults bear. In many ways the book is a primer for what kids will encounter when they grow up. So, it’s a little instruction book on life in many ways. A good one with great pointers, too —  and no one is talking down to the children.

Probably the best part of Spirit Within Club is near the end where the club learns what it’s like to devote their lives to service. After helping young Zeke, the member with the chronic illness that is never spelled out, they read to all the sick children in the hospital and learn what it’s like to help the nurses and care for those less fortunate than they are. They even learn that a brusque nurse named Carolyn is not as evil as they thought. They discover her devoting her time off to helping children in need. Next, they sell chocolate to help kids who are the victims of a faraway disaster. It’s a big stretch, for this takes place during a time when they have exams and they learn to study and sell the candy in shifts. It all works out and they feel better when the money is raised.

One student realizes that when doing service work you actually make yourself feel better. That’s the big secret, says Saba, an adult who has been advising the kids. You don’t get into service work to get that glow inside yourself, that’s never the point. But it happens anyway. And all the members of the club find out it happens to them.

The way Sabati wrote Spirit Within Club trades off point of view between different characters, and the reader has to guess who’s talking. It’s sometimes a bit of a puzzle, but mostly a lot of fun because the clues are usually on the first page of the chapter. Probably the most amiable narrator is Arwen, a male soccer player who sometimes plays it fast and loose with his grades, but never lets his soccer team (or his mom) down.

Bravo for this lovely, slim volume that should sit under the Christmas tree for all young readers. It’s about 10-year-olds but is appropriate for ages as young as eight. One warning: It’s published by a British company and some of the Britishisms may sound a little strange to American children. There aren’t many of them, however.

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