This 400 page middle grade retelling of Little Red Riding Hood bursts with Malaysian culture, magic, action, and adventure. The main character and her family are Muslim and hijab, duas, zikr, halal, Qur’an and salat are included throughout. The mix of legends and characters from Malaysian culture in building the fae world is not contrasted with religious faith, but assumed to both coexist without issue. The book is clean for ages nine and up and the only concepts worth noting are some intense life and death situations, close male and female friendships, dementia, and the element of fantasy. The book is set during the Covid-19 pandemic which will ultimately date the book as it doesn’t convey the tone for readers unfamiliar with the curfews, social distancing, controversies, and masking. Those who have just lived through it, will not need the framing, but in a few years I do fear that the book will be lacking in fully understanding why the tourists, parents, and markets are so absent. As with all of the author’s books there are also dated pop culture references, that slow the narrative down for today’s readers. The book grabs you from the start and the second half flies by smoothly, but the middle quarter is a bit slow as the world building is not robust, and the reader is thrust into a magical world that is just accepted without pause, and the reader is asked to accept it at face value as well.
It is Hamra’s birthday, but the independent 13 year old is not being celebrated- everyone has forgotten: her mother is a front line worker, her father helping those with limited resources, and her aging grandfather and her are left to care for her memory slipping grandmother. When Hamra, Little Red, storms off to the jungle to collect some herbs, in an act of spite, she defies the rules drilled in to her 1- Always ask permission before you enter. 2- Don’t challenge what you can’t even see. 3- Never use your true name. 4-Never take what isn’t yours. 5-If you hear someone calling your name, never, ever look behind you. She also doesn’t listen to the regular reminders to tie her shoes. Simple rules, that when broken set the story in to motion. Along with her best friend Ilyas, the two will strike a deal with a weretiger for their transgressions that takes them on a journey to try and save Opah, themselves, and prove their quest a success. The characters they meet, the clues they unravel, the legends they understand, and the scenic islands they explore are as lush as the love Hamra has for her family and the drive she has to return home safely.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love the way Islam is truly part of the characters, and a natural extension of how they see the world and act within it. I wish there was stronger world building blending the world of the known and the fantasy for the reader. The writing of the Malaysian setting is beautifully unapologetic and I love that there is not a glossary or overly explained descriptions, it is immersive and I appreciate that, but the framing of the two worlds I felt was a bit disjointed and needed some fleshing out. At times it feels more telling than showing in detailing the depths of the legends or the superstitions that are true for the story. I did enjoy the characters’ quirks and stubbornness, there is not a lot of arc and growth, but with the intensity of the adventure and culture, I didn’t feel it lacking in development. For much of the book I didn’t quite appreciate the Covid-19 framing, but by the end I understood that it was a way to have the tourist spots void of people, the parent’s out of the way; a little more development though would have had the uncertainty of so much more fully realized.
Fear, trickery, danger, loss, death, music, musical references, dammit is said. There is some violence, close male and female friendships, and a possible trigger of dementia in a loved one. There is myth, legend, magic, fairies, fae, and fantasy, if you are ok with the concepts in general the presentation is clean even with mixing religion and these concepts. If you are uncomfortable of fantasy and Islam coexisting, this book draws the two worlds very close.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I have taught two of her books in middle school book club discussions, and I would teach this one as well. It is enjoyable to see Malaysian Muslim characters so confident in their identity and having adventures that are enhanced by their faith and culture while focusing on larger themes of friendship, family, forgiveness, and adventure.
The book comes out in March of 2023, I’ve preorderd mine HERE and I hope you will as well.