The Power of Story: Nurturing Agents of Positive Change

For the most part, Americans had embraced the rich culture and traditions of their neighbors, especially their food. However, old fears and prejudices lingered and festered, as was revealed during the 2016 election.


In 1963, my father arrived from India with a scholarship to study engineering. Two years later he’d earned a graduate from the University of Minnesota just as the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 passed. Prior to this, immigration had been based on a quota system linked to national origin, favoring European immigrants. My father decided to stay and pursue the American dream, however, the chilly Midwest winters had him fleeing west for warmer climes.

When my sister was introduced to her class in the San Francisco Bay area, the boys greeted her with war cries as they played cowboys to her Indian. It took a while for them to understand that she was not the Indian Columbus had stumbled upon, but the ones he was actually looking for in his desire for wealth and spices from the East Indies. I grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and London, where I was lucky to have friends from different countries, ethnicities, and religions.

However, as I browsed library shelves, I didn’t see faces who looked, or practiced a faith, like mine. That’s why I started writing stories that would serve as mirrors for Muslim kids as well windows for children who’d never “met” someone of the Islamic faith. I chose to write about issues young readers were already aware of, but could learn more about, in a nuanced way—such as war, conflict, immigration, the plight of refugees, religion, and politics. My first book, Shooting Kabul, dealt with an Afghan boy fleeing the Taliban, then recently, Escape From Aleppo, about a Syrian girl, Nadia, facing the terrors of being caught in a civil war.

I thought I was done writing about the heart-wrenching situation in Syria when Shannon Hitchcock approached me to co-author a novel with her. I immediately connected with the story of a Syrian girl, Noura, arriving to the United States as a refugee, befriended by an American girl, Jordyn. In a way, Noura’s story was an extension of Nadia’s story, from my previous book. It provided an opportunity to explore what would happen to a Syrian family granted asylum in the United States. Noura’s story is an American story, similar to millions of other immigrants who come to America looking for a better life, as my father did.

I had never collaborated on a book before and after Shannon and I decided to work together, we had long conversations about our vision for the story. Both of us were surprised to learn that we were accountants by trade, and thus analytical and organized! We collected our thoughts and ideas online, using Google docs. In particular, we reflected on the tumultuous events occurring around us. Since the 1960s, the United States had changed greatly, becoming one the most racially and ethnically diverse countries in the world. For the most part, Americans had embraced the rich culture and traditions of their neighbors, especially their food. However, old fears and prejudices lingered and festered, as was revealed during the 2016 election.

We sadly noted the rise in intolerance, xenophobia, and racism affecting not only adults but also children. I suggested that we begin our story on the day of president’s Muslim Ban, which had struck a personal nerve with me as a Muslim-American. In addition to exploring themes of personal challenges the girls faced, of anxiety and PTSD, we wove in issues of the rise of extremism, colorful local politics, and climate change.

Despite all the adversities that Jordyn and Noura face, they become positive agents of change for their school and community, empowered by the tenants of the first amendment; the freedom of religion, speech, peaceable assembly, and petitioning the government. I hope Flying Over Water can serve as a messenger of peace and understanding, and that its characters, their voices and stories help young people develop empathy, embrace our shared humanity, and be agents of positive change.

Check out the companion piece to this article with N. H. Senzai's co-author Shannon Hitchcock.

N.H. Senzai is the author of Shooting Kabul, which was critically acclaimed and on numerous award lists. Publishers Weekly called it “hard hitting, emotionally wrenching.” Her second book, Saving Kabul Corner, was nominated for an Edgar Award. She is also the author of Ticket to India and Escape from Aleppo. Ms. Senzai lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her family. Visit her online at

This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story uplifts the stories of historically underrepresented groups specifically related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental abilities, religion, and culture. Hear from other speakers on this topic and download the Power of Story catalog at Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright, Aida Salazar, and more.



Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing