This middle grades magic realism novel draws you in and pulls on your heartstrings pausing only to offer pointed commentary on friendship, self-awareness, and self acceptance. Oh sure there were parts that seemed a bit repetitive and parts I had to read again because the continuity was just off enough to have me confused, but the book has power, and especially for a debut novel I was blown away. Well, actually I was in tears, and thats a pretty strong emotion to be felt in 246 pages, so be impressed. I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim, she was born in Bahrain and has lived in Kuwait amongst other places. The main character, Safiya, experiences her mother’s memories in Kuwait where Eid and the Athan are briefly mentioned and a few characters wear scarves. There are culture rich Arabic names, but no religion is mentioned outright. Saff has Christmas money, eats pepperoni, a side character has a boyfriend and they kiss, and there is just a touch of magic to tie it all together.
Safiya’s parents have been divorced for a few years, and when she chose to live with her dad, her Saturdays became one-on-one time with her mom. Her mom, Aminah, is a lawyer from Kuwait who can chat with anyone and everyone about anything and everything. The complete opposite of video game loving Saff who struggles to find her voice, and has nothing in common with her articulate, headstrong, independent, theater loving mother. The two rarely get along and after a particularly intense fight, Safiya decides to not spend Saturday with her mom, but rather head out with her best friend Elle and new year eight friends at the mall. When her dad tells her to come home asap, she knows something is up, but could never have imagined how life altering the days events are about to become.
Aminah is in a coma, and Safiya is full of regret and fear. As she sits next to her mother’s hospital bed and drinks in her perfume, she is drifted to a far away land filled with a crumbling house and a magic like quality. Approaching this oddity like her favorite video game, she explores her mother’s memories, and finds a girl not so different from herself. As reality and magic merge in young Saff, she begins to sort through her feelings toward her mother and come to peace with what she has to do and endure and overcome.
In the process of handling her life-changing home situation, Saff, also finds the strength to call out cruel acts from classmates, find her voice, and cut out toxic friendships while cultivating supportive ones. The journey on both fronts will have readers cheering for Saff while wiping away tears.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love the quick pace and rawness of the characters. Grandma, mom, and Safiya all say and do things they regret while hot and angry and have to learn the consequences and humbling that needs to occur to fix what their words have broken. No character is completely good, nor completely bad, and in a middle grade book that is powerful. Each one has relatable qualities that really make the book memorable.
Safiya has to really work out what is going on with her best friend, Elle, and what she is willing to accept and what lines she is not willing to cross. The character’s maturity is inspiring, and I love it. She doesn’t fancy boys (yet), and doesn’t see liking boys a sign of maturity. She doesn’t want it forced on her, and she doesn’t want to give up things that she enjoys just to “fit in.” The fact that she can articulate how Elle is a chameleon blending in to her surroundings where she is just a plain old lizard is wonderful.
I enjoy the magical trips to Kuwait. They don’t show much of the culture, but what is revealed is lovingly conveyed. I like that it did acknowledge that Aisha knows Arabic, but struggles a bit to read it. I would have loved more Arabic words sprinkled in, but at least it accounted for the linguistic abilities as it jumped between countries. The book is set in England, so some of the concepts or phrases might need a bit of explanation for younger American readers.
I wanted more information about the backstories just beneath the main story line. How did Safiya’s parents meet? Was the divorce amicable? Did her dad have any family around? How did Aminah leave for England at such a young age alone? How come Saff never visited Kuwait? How come Saff didn’t know about Aminah’s friends? How did the friends take Aminah leaving? Why didn’t they just email her the invitation? Why did they still have it? How did the girls meet in the middle of the night? I know that the book is middle grades, but just a bit more would have helped some of the holes feel shallower, and the overall story details more polished.
Teasing, death, boyfriend, kissing, illness, verbal fighting. Nothing middle graders can’t handle, although the mom is kind of terrible to Aminah at the beginning.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think this would be an awesome fourth or fifth grade book to read and discuss. I don’t do a book club for that age, nor do I have children in that age group at the moment, but I am planning to suggest it to teacher friends I know. The book would appeal to boys and girls, but I think girls especially those going through friend dramas and girls butting heads with their moms will really benefit from this quick memorable read.