Fitting In

Just read Call Me Al, written by Wali Shah and Eric Walters. It’s a middle grade novel exploring the immigrant experience in Canada. Having spent the past seven years meeting with newcomers as an ‘English language facilitator,’ I can appreciate the challenges of adjusting to Canadian culture.  I grew up in an immigrant family and know what it’s like to live in two worlds. Call Me Al was told from an insightful and captivating young person’s perspective.


Wali Shah, author and spoken word poet

Wikipedia image

Like any young person, 13-year-old Ali desperately wants to fit in, hence his name Ali, becomes Al. This reminded me of an incident working in an after-school science program, a few years back. We had Syrian refugees in the grade three class and I was unsure of one boy’s name. “Just call him Mohammed,” one white boy shouted. “My dad says they all have the same name.” Like skin colour, names matter when you’re a kid … they can label you as different. 

While I didn’t have to deal with the challenges of racism, back in the sixties I had to deal with the post-war stigma of having German parents. My father had been in the Luftwaffe and still had a rough, military exterior. My mother … well, we dismissed her messed up past as too confusing … something I’ve tried to make up for with my novels. 

'Gangsta'-posing at Anita Daher's potluck
May, 2023
with the award-winning & prolific
Eric Walters

In Call Me Al, Ali needs to please his self-sacrificing Pakistani parents who expect him to become a doctor. Turns out that at 13, Ali has emotional and social needs that can’t be neatly resolved with perfect math scores. 

Without giving too much away, the novel ends with a compromise. I’m not sure every immigrant child’s story ends so neatly, so happily. But middle-graders might feel empowered by Ali’s story. It’s the kind of novel I wish I had an opportunity to read when I was an awkward grade eight kid, ashamed of her family and living in two worlds. 

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