Study Guide

The Orange Houses Themes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    What does it mean to be free? For Fatima, freedom is what awaits her in America. The only problem? When she gets to New York, she finds that not everyone is pulling out the welcome wagon. Mik hears about new laws being passed about informants and police dealing with illegal immigrants—and while she's initially indifferent to the news, before long, she's downright angry. She wants Fatima to stay in America and hates that her friend's freedom is threatened.

    <em>The Orange Houses </em>asks us to think about what it means for characters to be free, and ultimately, what that freedom is worth, and what cost is comes at. 

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. When do you think Mik starts caring about the immigration laws she hears about on television? Do you think it's fair that Fatima gets deported?
    2. What does freedom mean to Fatima? What does her reaction in the detention center tell us about how she views her freedom?
    3. Why is the Statue of Liberty so important to Fatima? What's significant about the mural the girls paint of the famous landmark? 

    Chew on This

    For Fatima, freedom is limited since she is in the country illegally. She does not get upset when her freedom is taken away from her, because she knows that she was trapped in America to begin with.

    None of the characters really find freedom in <em>The Orange Houses</em>. They are all trapped in one way or another, but not all of them realize it. 

  • Friendship

    In case you missed it, there's one big relationship in <em>The Orange Houses: </em>between Fatima and Mik. These two gal pals quickly become best friends, talking about family, love, war, freedom, and a whole lot of other heavy hitting topics. In fact, Mik even wants Fatima to accompany her to the doctor and talk about her hearing aid options, a topic Mik generally avoids discussing, even with her own mom. The friendship that these girls form runs deep, propping them up in hard times and staying with them even after they're torn apart. 

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Is it better to have friends or fly solo in The Orange Houses? When do friends get people in trouble?
    2. How does Mik's friendship with Fatima differ from her friendship with Jimmi? Why does her mom hate her hanging out with Jimmi so much?
    3. Jimmi claims the Statue of Liberty mural is the most beautiful thing because of what it represents about Fatima and Mik's friendship. What do you think he means by this? Do you agree with him? 

    Chew on This

    Although friends are great to have around, they provide opportunities for pain and heartache for the characters in The Orange Houses.

    The Statue of Liberty mural is special because it shows us just how close Fatima and Mik have become—their friendship is a source of freedom for each girl. 

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Raise your hand if you've ever wondered: Are we really born this way? Can I blame my childhood (and my parents) for everything I don't like about myself? How much do things like war and violence change people? Yep, we thought so—it's part of human nature to think about these big head-scratchers once in a while.

    The Orange Houses makes us ask ourselves these questions to think about what's happening to Jimmi, Fatima, and Mik in their everyday lives. Jimmi thinks about this stuff all the time, searching for the meaning of life, while Mik grapples with a private life versus one that includes other people and Fatima quests for freedom. The question is, then: Do any of them find answers? 

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Jimmi wants to know if life is worth living. What conclusion does he reach? Is his life worth it to him in the end?
    2. Do you think the war is to blame for Jimmi's addiction to drugs and his depressed state? How much does he blame his experience overseas for his troubles?
    3. Jimmi writes on his arm "the essence of the is." What do you think that means? How does it connect to his philosophy on life? 

    Chew on This

    <em>The Orange Houses </em>suggests that all people are born the same, but are shaped by their different experiences.

    Jimmi actually wants to keep on living the whole time, but he only realizes how much he values his own existence when it's under attack. 

  • Suffering

    You might think the fact that Mik is hearing impaired is no big deal. After all, she doesn't like people treating her differently because of it, and she makes a point of <em>not </em>improving her hearing with swanky new aids when she gets the chance.

    But we think her suffering <em>because </em>of her lack of hearing is really important to her character and <em>The Orange Houses</em>. Why? Well, for starters, she makes a big deal about it herself. The fact that she wants people to know she chooses not to hear sometimes by switching her hearing aids off tells us a lot about her. Plus, we can't help but notice that she does get bullied and mocked at school simply for being different. Mik may act all cool, in other words, but we think she's hiding from a world of hurt deep down.

    And that's just Mik. Fatima and Jimmi suffer in their own ways, too, each shouldering burdens as the story unfolds.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why do you think Mik doesn't want newer, improved hearing aids? What advantages does she see to her old ones?
    2. Does Mik suffer because she is hearing impaired? In what ways does she enjoy her limited ability?
    3. How does Mik try to limit her suffering through her hearing aids? Why does she like them on mute so much?
    4. Does Mik's attitude toward her hearing aids change over the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Mik suffers more when she can hear and her hearing aids are on.

    Mik suffers more when her hearing aids are off and she can't hear. 

  • Foreignness and the "Other"

    One of the things that terrifies people about Fatima in <em>The Orange Houses</em> is the fact that she's foreign. Not only that, but people suspect she's a terrorist. Why? It's not based on her actions or personality—nope, this is strictly about her appearance. The fact that she wears a headscarf makes people wary of her, even though she's one of the nicest, most generous, and bravest characters in the book. So though it's true what they say—you can't judge a book by its cover—people judge away anyway, writing Fatima off just because she doesn't look quite like them.

    While Fatima comes from another country, though, don't think she's towing the otherness line alone. Nope, Jimmi as a vet and an addict resides decidedly outside the mainstream, and Mik with her hearing difficulties—and difficult relationship with hearing—also remains at the periphery. While this is sort of tough to realize, what the book accomplishes is a pretty detailed portrait of the outskirts, calling readers' attention to just how many people society casts out.

    Questions About Foreignness and the "Other"

    1. How does The Orange Houses deal with racial difference? Why do we never learn where Fatima is from? How does that play into our opinion of her?
    2. Does Fatima's foreignness connect to Mik's hearing impairment in any way? How are they both "the Other"?
    3. Why is immigration a hot-button issue in the book? What is so concerning to everyone about turning Fatima in? 

    Chew on This

    In <em>The Orange Houses</em>, foreignness matters more than personality and principles.

    In <em>The Orange Houses</em>, foreignness only matters to people who don't know the characters—true friends see beyond superficial differences.  

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Life is so tough for Jimmi in The Orange Houses that the normal coping mechanisms—friends and family—can't keep up. So where does he go for relief? Drugs and alcohol. They numb his pain… but they also disconnect him from his life. Jimmi eventually realizes that he has no friends or life to speak of, and he even gets to the point where he wonders if life is worth living. Still, though, he turns to drugs to soothe his pain, called back by their numbness even as he watches them destroy his life.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How do drugs and alcohol affect Jimmi's perception of life? What is different about him when he's not on drugs?
    2. Why does Jimmi refuse drugs at the hospital, but then go looking for a dealer? What is his fear about taking drugs?
    3. NaNa says only Jimmi can help himself at this point. Is this true? Do you think Fatima and Mik do enough to help Jimmi with his drug problem? 

    Chew on This

    Jimmi uses drugs to try to numb himself and escape his troubled life.

    Even though Jimmi tries to get rid of his drug habit, he can't because he's depressed without the numbing that comes with the drugs. 

  • Language and Communication

    How would you communicate if you couldn't hear? Or if your voice sounded strange in your own head? What about if you didn't know the language everyone was using around you? <em>The Orange Houses </em>asks us to think about how language works, and what happens when it breaks down—just because someone can hear doesn't mean they are listening, after all. And on the flip side, just because people don't share much language doesn't mean they can't forge meaningful connections. 

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What would be different if Mik communicated in a different way? How do her outdated hearing aids affect her ability to converse when she wants to?
    2. Mik doesn't speak very much in the beginning. Why? What changes to make her speak more often?
    3. Fatima taught herself English, French, and sign language (after learning her own native tongue). Why is she so interested in language? How does it help her connect with Mik? 

    Chew on This

    Mik uses her hearing aids as an excuse not to talk to people. It's not that she can't communicate, it's that she doesn't <em>want</em> to.

    Fatima learns languages so she can know more about different types of people and blend into the crowd.

  • Injustice

    After reading The Orange Houses, we won't be complaining about the tiny things anymore—nope, not when Fatima, Jimmi, and Mik have real problems to deal with. It's easy to sweat the small stuff when living in a privileged world where a wrong Starbucks order or an old iPhone count as major annoyances, but for our main characters, these sorts of problems are the stuff that dreams are made on. After all, these teens have to deal with immigration police, war, bombs, hearing aids, and stuff we've never experienced. Though we hate to say it, when it comes to injustice, they've got it down pat.

    Questions About Injustice

    • List all the injustices you can find in the book. Who experiences the most? Who experiences the least?
    • How do the characters deal with injustice? What's different about Fatima's and Jimmi's perspectives on injustice?
    • Do you think it's fair when Fatima gets deported? In what way is our feeling about her treatment based on the fact that we get to know and love her as a character?

    Chew on This

    Fatima and Jimmi both experience injustice, but Fatima doesn't allow it to change her positive outlook on life. 

    At first Mik and her mom want to ignore injustice and hope it goes away, but they soon figure out that injustice is all around them.