The last thing Meli Lleshi ever dreamed of – or wanted – was to leave her home. An ethnic Albanian, the lively teen knows that generations ago her family lived elsewhere. But as far as she’s concerned, her lovely old town on the banks of the Drin River in Kosovo is the only home she could ever want.
Yet even as she carries on with her life – going to school, giggling with best friend Zana, watching the storks return from Africa and the cherry trees blossom in the spring – she can’t help being aware that things are changing around her. Her Serbian neighbors no longer shop in her parents’ store, and her little brother is becoming obsessed with the idea of armed rebellion.
Then, one day, she draws a picture of her teacher, giving him the nose of a pelican. It seems to Meli that the trouble starts at that moment – and then never ends.
Her brother temporarily disappears and her family is pulled deep into a knot of fear. Soon, they leave their home, first for exile in the countryside and then – when it becomes apparent that they are not safe even there – they must finally leave the country.
Katherine Paterson (author of “Bridge to Terabithia”) says she was inspired to write The Day of the Pelican when she got to know a family of Albanian refugees living in Vermont. It is in Vermont that the fictional Lleshis land as well, although en route Meli must endure hunger, loss, fear, and a multitude of adult-sized woes.
“The Day of the Pelican” does double duty as both a gripping read and a lesson in compassion and global conflict. In her quiet way, Meli is a hero, and teen readers safe from conflict themselves may marvel at her humanity.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.