This 345 page contemporary book is brand new from Scholastic and isn’t yet in the AR database, it is billed as appropriate for ages 12 and up and is probably pretty accurate. The cover, in my opinion, is rather a disservice for the audience. The book would appeal to girls and boys, and isn’t really about school drama, which is the vibe I got from the cover. The story is actually pretty deep and thought provoking, on a wide range of issues facing many young adults today.
Told from Stella Walker’s perspective, the book opens with her and her friends, Ken and Farida, reviewing old movies. Farida, an Iraqi immigrant, is constantly pointing out the stereotypes, tropes, and bias they engage in regularly and see depicted around them. She is constantly nagging her friends to recognize their privilege and check it. Stella tries to get it, but it’s not that easy. Nor are the obstacles that the book explores.
Stella’s parents are vets, and her brother, Rob, has just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan and is suffering from PTSD. Additionally, Rob’s best friend commits suicide and yet, Stella’s family doesn’t involve her in the conversations and concerns, and as a result she doesn’t talk to her best friend Farida. This tension is amplified when Farida wants to run for class president, but her parents advise her against it, as Islamaphobia is on the rise with the mayor, up for re-election, spouting hate speech, and his son, already in the race to lead the school.
Stella, as a result, is convinced to run with the help and support of her friends. All should be going well, but in a desperate attempt to get Rob out of the house, a trip to the mall to watch a movie results in Rob sticking up for a Sikh kid being bullied, and breaking the instigators nose. The police are called in, and the real drama of the book takes center stage, as social media, a bigoted mayor, and a family’s member friendship with a Muslim paint Rob as a radicalized terrorist. The Walker’s house is vandalized and Farida’s family’s restaurant is suffering and the mayoral election and class office election will all require some tough decisions and insights into honesty, framing, perseverance and friendship.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I don’t think I was expecting the book to explore so many topics and to do it, in a rather real and raw way. The arc of concepts covered provides a lot of juice and relevance and the quick pace, makes it a quick read. Some pages are letters written by Rob, a number of pages are the various police reports taken after the mall assault and the various points of view are great. It explores how media editing and framing can change a narrative to one side or another.
I love Farida, bless her, she is annoying and one-dimensional, but yet so relatable. She is the token minority that ties it all together and is the billboard representation of “other.” I can so relate to her, being the minority and the one that constantly had to be the gadfly on the masses.
The school election is a little cheesy and overly elevated in importance, but it is the catalyst, so while I wasn’t really invested in who won, I liked the concepts it brought to the forefront of the characters lives. The family struggles and retaking the truth and owning it, was the real strength of the book, and introducing kids to the horrors of war, returning from war, mental illness, the blind eye of politicians, the struggles of the VA, the power of the media, friendship, and concepts of patriotism, privilege, pride, suicide, and moving forward.
My biggest complaint is the awkward and forced romance. It isn’t even romance really. After the mall incident, Stella confides in a classmate, Adam, who comes over to see if she is okay and they hold hands and kiss. It is so out of left field and so awkward I would imagine for most readers, not just me the conservative muslim mama looking for books for my kids and their school book club. In all they kiss five times I think, and mentions them holding hands twice. It isn’t lamented or dwelled on, it just kind of boom, jumps in to the story and then yes, they kind of snuggle after the election results, which is a little more fitting (but still irritating). Rob meets a girl, and again later on when she comes to celebrate the plea deal its nice that she is there, but they talk like once and he completely falls for her, kind of intense and random. The discussions about letting someone in to your life and all is good, and more natural and they don’t kiss, but they do have “feelings” for each other.
There isn’t much about Islam other than that Farida is Muslim and that her mom wears hijab. Even the Islamaphobia is mentioned more for political and prejudicial purposes than as a segway in to understanding Islam.
Kissing (see above), suicide, war, violence. Beer is mentioned at the end when a college veteran gets one out of the fridge.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I really want to do this as a Middle School Book Club choice, yes I’m hosting those again. I need to talk to the school counselor about the kissing stuff. I think they can handle it, but I don’t know the kids well enough just yet, to verify this. Being it isn’t the Muslim characters, I can’t imagine it is any different from what they see on TV or in Disney Movies, but still, I can’t confidently say it will happen. Twelve and up is the non Muslim age point, I’ll have to think it over and update this once I investigate.