The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama

Values: Peace, Happiness and Compassion.

This junior graphic novel is a stunning tale about friendship, confinement and inner beauty. The author, Chiara Mezzalama, has based this story on her own childhood when, in 1981, her family moved to Iran after her father became the Italian ambassador there. Chiara tells of the war-torn city of Tehran and also the stark contrast of the walled palace and gardens where she and her family live. Descriptions of pomegranate trees, an ancient pond and playing happily with her brother juxtapose with the destruction, violence and hardship (the ‘city monster’) outside. The illustrator, Régis Lejonc, conveys this perfectly with luscious greens on one page and angry reds and blacks on the next. The story really opens the reader’s eyes as to what it may have been like to grow up in such an environment – Chiara writes emotively of happiness, loneliness, surprise and friendship.

The story unfolds as one day a young, local boy - Massoud - jumps over the wall into the walled garden. Despite not speaking the same language, Chiara and Massoud form an unlikely friendship – playing games and swapping gifts. It becomes their secret and the worlds of Inside-Outside at last collide. Long after Chiara and her family have left Tehran and the war is over, Chiara wonders what ever happened to Massoud.

I haven’t ever seen a book like this. It is grown up and yet accessible to children. It is dark and yet light. It is mature and at the same time simple. Both the history of the war in Iran and the author’s own history are what makes this book really special. There are so many Values that can be woven into this book, and so I have just chosen a couple to highlight.

Firstly, I would discuss the Value of peace. War and suffering are conveyed boldly in this graphic novel through both words and illustrations. It is also interesting to discuss with children how Chiara and Massoud’s experience of living in Tehran at the time might be different. In the story, it is implied that Chiara is somewhat protected from the war by the wall that separates her house from the rest of the city. But what does it mean to live peacefully? How might her parents feel when gunshots wake them up at night? What impact does war have on civilians? Obviously, these are deep questions and you would have to consider how and when you use this book sensitively.

I would also use the story to highlight compassion. Chiara and Massoud have little to offer each other for presents for different reasons, and yet they strike a friendship based on storytelling, play and offering a simple gift to each other. You could talk to the children about what it means to be compassionate and whether Chiara and Massoud ever really understand each other’s lives. It would be interesting to gather ideas for how the two friends show compassion towards each other, and how this differs to how Chiara’s mother (for example) shows her compassion.

This book could also be an opportunity to look at the Value of happiness. Happiness is a hard value to discuss in some ways because children tend to simplify it so much. It can be seen in a more complex way in this book, though. Chiara lives in a beautiful house and plays with her brother. But they don’t have any friends and their parents buy them a puppy as a way of keeping them happy and entertained – which works, for a short time. Still Chiara feels a loneliness and a sense of longing for the outside world though. When Massoud appears, he brings a change into her life and this creates happiness as the new friends play together. We see Chiara’s mother go through different states of happiness – at first, the reader could infer her happiness and she stands with Chiara’s father and they watch the children play in the garden. Eventually though, her mother becomes sad and angry at the situation. The gunshots, confinement and worry all contribute to her change in mood and it may be interesting to see if any of the children can pick up on this.

This is a highly-charged book and one that I believe every reader will interpret differently. The power of reading! It is one to consider carefully before sharing, but it is so powerful and emotive that it earns its rightful place on my Values bookshelf. The illustrations were also nominated for the Kate Greenaway awards for 2021. If you want a copy, you can find yours on the Book Island website.

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