At 384 pages, this middle grades book takes on hijab, terrorism, Islamophobia, finding your voice, and fighting back. At times the book was insightful and smoothly written, at other times the voice seemed childish and the writing directionless. The inconsistencies don’t ultimately make the book good or bad for me, but rather very forgettable. I read the book over the span of three days, but honestly remember very little about the book without looking at my notes. The writing just isn’t particularly strong. I never connected with the main character, and no it wasn’t because I didn’t agree with her wearing hijab out of solidarity, I accept that people make the decision for a variety of reasons, somehow I just never felt sympathetic to her as a person, or found myself cheering her on. Her naivety vacillated too much for me to find her believable, and the pacing of the book made it hard to get revved up. I think upper MG and middle school readers will be a better fit for the book with hate speech, assault, school bans, concert, musical references, and alt right indoctrination. I think the book is worth shelving in a classroom/school library and I’m considering it for a book club selection, but I’m skeptical that the book would be finished, even if started, by most readers without some incentive to see it through.
Aaliyah and her friends are at a K-pop concert when a terrorist attack kills and injures numerous people. A Muslim takes responsibility and with it coming on the heels of numerous London attacks, Islamophobia is at an all time high. For 13-year-old Aaliyah, it is a stranger yelling at her mother in a parking lot, her best friend Lisa ignoring her, and her brother getting riled up in retaliation, that gets her to wonder why her mother wears hijab, when she started, and decide to start covering herself, in solidarity. As a result for Aaliyah there is now increased bullying at school which results in physical assault, and teachers turning a blind-eye. It reaches an all time high when a religious display ban goes in to effect. Still dealing with trauma from witnessing horrific violence, Aaliyah decides to push back. Finding her inner strength and finding allies in a few good friends, and a secret cat adoption, she finds enough motivation to keep her plugging forward against the growing hate in her world. When she finally finds her voice will it be enough to overturn the ban and save her brother? Nope, not going to spoil it. The fight is not a one-and-done, as anyone who has gone up against racism and systemic oppression knows, and this fictional book keeps that integrity and doesn’t give a happy ending, but rather hope and motivation.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that the Islam is centered in a consistent and empowering way. At times it is a perspective that I’m not completely onboard with, but a few pages later the insight is powerful and the messaging clear. I found it odd that Aaliyah doesn’t know when her mom started covering or why, or anything about hijab, it comes off very immature. The book keeps culture and religion separate, hijab a choice, and I like that it was Aaliyah who wants to cover even when her parents try to talk/force her out of it. I find it a little off that she doesn’t go to the mosque, but her father consulted with masjid folks when looking for advice for handling the alt right groups. She prays a few times in the book and it being mentioned is nice.
I like that the kids in the book think for themselves, and that the adults don’t have all the answers. I enjoyed the passages asserting why the family came to the UK generations ago and why they have stayed, is powerful. A few of the characters that are really strong at the start don’t ever get mentioned again. Which is fine, but I did wonder about Harpreet and why Yusuf’s friends weren’t contacted when Aaliyah was sleuthing about.
Loved the literary shout-outs, and the hypocrisy of allowing swim caps and hats but not hijab, but sigh, didn’t love the cat thread. I think I just don’t like fictional cats, I sound like a broken record. I think the inclusion was to show how much Aaliyah had to keep hidden in her life and how she needed comfort, but I don’t know, sigh, I found the contrast of tone jarring to the pacing.
There is a glossary at the end, and the definition of Hijab is a bit odd, highlighting Western and South Asian terminology and not the Middle Eastern or even global use of the Arabic word. I don’t know that the glossary is even needed as the book really tries to establish that the characters are a part of their society and don’t need footnotes and differential treatment, so the inclusion of a glossary for me, diminished the point a bit.
Assault, hate speech, bullying, fear, death, injuries, bombing, terrorist attack, lying, music, mention of a transgender/gender neutral student, a rainbow pin. sneaking out. Criticism of police, alt right indoctrination.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The book is unique in showing affects of the alt right and not having it all work out in an MG book. It shows the anxiety and fear that Muslims often feel and the determination of not becoming victims. It also does a good job of showing that something like a religious symbolism ban doesn’t just affect Muslims, but people of various faiths and culture, and thus when common ground is found, there are more allies that one often thinks. I think it could work for a middle school book club and undoubtedly the discussions would be great, but I am given pause with the main characters view of hijab as not being something in the Quran, but rather done in protest and in solidarity. I think once I see which kids are interested in book club I can gauge if it is something that we can work through and discuss or not.