Monday, April 19, 2010

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

I did that thing again where I sent the book off to someone else to read before I was able to write the review. In fact, I finished the last four pages as everyone else was setting up for a meeting, ran the book inside to the co-op student, and ran back outside to the meeting. Unfortunately I think those last four pages didn't sink in as well as they could have and I can't remember for the life of me how this book ended.

Which is okay, actually, because it was far more the journey than the ending with this one. When the book gets returned I'll read the last chapter again, and that's fine.

Amal is a sixteen-year-old Australian-Palestinian Muslim. She attends a prestigious (and snooty) private prep school, gets good grades, has good friends, has a few enemies, and is deep in the throes of a crush on her chemistry bench partner Adam. And now she's decided to wear the hijab full-time.

And that's basically it, for a plot summary. What you will miss from that is just how engaging and smart and funny a narrator Amal is. This book is told in first person, and present tense -- which I almost didn't even notice. Once I did notice it was all present tense, I thought, "really?" and flipped back a couple of chapters, and sure enough, the entire thing is. It works perfectly -- it's like Amal and I are sitting and having a cup of tea and chatting and she's telling me this story. And I love Amal. She's a pitch-perfect teen: occasionally very immature, occasionally very mature, most of the time a regular teenager dealing with things in a teenager way. She has a wicked sense of humour and is sharply observant, but not preternaturally so. She's usually on top of a quick comeback if someone says something completely idiotic, although every once in a while she's struck speechless and ashamed, and that makes sense too, even if the reader desperately wants her to say something snappy and make the other person look like the idiot they are. She's an interesting mix of superficial and dramatic, and deeply convicted. Her voice made this story for me.

I picked the following short passage to quote because it was something I recognized. I'm not a teen anymore by any stretch, but I still do this to myself every once in a while:

I get so caught up in my daydream that my eyes start to go fuzzy and my skin all prickly. It's only when I feel my throat choking up that I snap back to reality.

There were a lot of quotable bits in this book. I meant to get more -- but then I gave the book to someone else.

I'd recommend this book just for Amal, and already have in some cases. But this book is a good read for more than that. Being someone who has no acquaintances who wear the hijab, my exposure to this particular religious garb is extremely limited. Actually, if we're honest, my exposure to anyone who is not Christian or agnostic or atheist is very limited, and the only people I know personally who dress or do things differently due to their religion are the Mennonites who frequent the library, and some of the Mennonite kids I went to school with. So just on that basis, this book was an eye-opening read for me, because I know so very little about Islam. It had never really occurred to me in any meaningful way that someone might wear the hijab because they wanted to; I always thought it was something that was expected of, perhaps forced on women by culture or tradition. Was I ever wrong. In some cases, of course, that is what happens -- but Abdel-Fattah attacks and shreds that particular notion in Amal's case. And I completely relished the whole experience of learning something new with this book, and (I hope) gaining a better understanding of an expression of faith that I had no familiarity with before.

And here: I was about to write "gaining a better understanding of a group" but thought better of it given that a lot of this book is devoted to making it clear that "groups" don't really exist in a way that can be generalized about. Even within communities identified by culture or tradition or religion or geography there can be major differences. And I know this, but it's easy to be lazy and generalize and I'm going to be even more on the lookout for that bad habit within myself now.

As one might expect, this book does occasionally drift into "issues" territory -- every once in a while there is a clear "that's not what Islam is about" moment or, in the case of one of Amal's friends, a lot of "thin is not equal to beauty." In these cases, sometimes the book edges from being fun and educational to being a bit preachy. But overall, this book avoids that territory quite well. And one thing that wasn't an issue, something I really, really appreciated, was Amal's relationship with her parents. Her parents are present, supportive, kind, intelligent, and they love Amal to bits. And she returns that. She has her typical teenage issues with her parents -- but it's really nice to see a teenager with a healthy, loving relationship with her family represented in a YA book.

I want to recommend this book to every teen girl I know. Some might be uncomfortable with the idea of the religious theme, but don't be: the execution is deft and I never felt like the book was trying to convert me. In fact, anyone of any religious feeling at all will almost certainly identify with Amal's struggles no matter what your denomination, and anyone with no religious feeling will not feel crowded. And if you're not a teen girl, read this anyway. You might find some of the drama a little over-the-top, but you might recognize your teen self in it; and you'll almost certainly end up looking at the world a little differently than you did when you started. It's not a perfect book, but it's a good one, and well worth the fun read.

13 comments:

Nymeth said...

"And I know this, but it's easy to be lazy and generalize." So true. I love that books constantly remind me not to.

Awesome and very thoughtful review. I need to move this up the pile :)

Darla D said...

I keep hearing such good things about this - I need to move it up the pile, too!

Aarti said...

This is a FABULOUS review, Kiirstin. I know what you mean about there not really being "groups." And I love that Amal's voice was so true and strong. I will have to look into this book!

kiirstin said...

Nymeth - You're exactly right -- it is really good to have books to remind me to keep paying attention to my own thoughts and attitudes. I think I'm pretty aware of the challenges; it's remembering I need help with, and the best books remind me without chastising me.

Darla - This one is fun! It really won't take you long to read, I'm sure, is another advantage. Also, I am glad this is already on your pile ;)

Aarti - Thank you! I really did feel like I was hanging out with Amal. She's a great character, without being perfect, which is the best kind. Her strength as a character really helped to define my thoughts on "grouping" people; Amal fits into all sorts of groups, and defies the stereotypes of each. I hope you do read this, I'd love to see what you have to say in response to it.

Ms. Yingling said...

This and Ten Things I Hate About Me have been great to have for my Somali girls. This is one of the few authors where they can see themselves in the books, even if they sometimes struggle with the Australian setting.

kiirstin said...

That's something else I really appreciate about this book. It is a perspective that is sorely lacking in YA fic particularly, I think. We need more books like this; more set in the US or Canada would be ideal, I think. I do wonder why there's so little out there.

Phyl said...

This sounds wonderful! I must try to find it somewhere. I don't like present-tense narratives, and yet when they really work well, I don't mind them. So for that alone, I'm intrigued by this book. :-)

And then there's the other subject matter...

Hanging out in Toronto, I do run into a lot of women who wear the hijab, and many of them do wear it voluntarily. (In fact, just last saw an interview with a very educated, fairly feminist Canadian-born Muslim woman who had decided to wear it, shocking her family and friends.)

It's definitely something most people have assumptions about. And while in many cases those assumptions are probably right (the hijab being an instrument of women's oppression by men), in a great many instances they're also not. It took me a while to recognize the freedom of choice involved in those latter cases.

kiirstin said...

Phyl, it's just so foreign to me, in a lot of ways. Though often the Mennonite girls around here cover their hair with a bonnet; it just has never occurred to me to ask them about it. And actually, now that I think about it, I don't think I'd feel comfortable asking any of them (or anyone I see wearing a hijab, either) why they wear it; I would feel like that was rude. So having a book like this which educates without saying "it's like this for everyone" is perfect.

Rage said...

Hi , i found this book a few years back in high school. My eyes bugged out I grabbed it ran too a group of friends and we all freaked out. The librarian wasn't too happy but we were ecstatic. That was the first book I'd ever seen with a hijabi on the cover. (hijabi-someone who wears the hijab, it's a colloquialism though) Usually the only books that even get close to this are non-fiction religious materials. I loved Amal because she reminded me of what it felt like to make that decision. I was the only girl in my grade who wore hijab so i completely got how she felt. I just loved this book i could go on and on. It's inspired me to write my own YA.

Rage said...

Mis Y just saw your coment I'm Somali and Canadian! I loved it my friends loved it definetly keep bringing it up with your students. It's a wonderful feeling for a girl who loves to read to finaly find a character who she can relate to on a very personal level. I read just about everything from the classics to thrillers, literary fiction and manga's but this book will always mean a lot to me.

kiirstin said...

Rage, thanks so much for your comment! It's good to be reminded how lucky I am, that I have never had the particular problem of not finding characters who I can truly relate to. I think we must see more fiction from other perspectives published in Canada -- the sooner the better. This is still the only book I've seen with a hijabi (thanks for introducing me to the term!) as a main character for teens, and it seems to me that's ignoring a huge segment of our population! If you've got any suggestions for other books out there, please let me know...

It's funny, too, because I absolutely hate the "this book changed my life!!" trope -- books don't change lives, people change their own lives. That said, several months after having read this, my perspective remains changed and I see the world differently. So this book definitely changed something, and for the better. I think this book and others like it (if they exist) are really important for both giving young women a perspective they can relate to, and for bridging gaps between perspectives.

Rage said...

I'd suggest trying Naima Robert's book From Somalia With Love. It's about a Somali hijabi girl living in East London. Her father who'd been separated from the family during the war is finally found and coming to live with them. It affects the dynamics and the entire family reacts in their own ways. Naima also has another book out this month called Boys vs Girls. There really aren't too many of these kinds of books though.

kiirstin said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I'm going to look that up when I get to work and see if we have it. If we don't, I'm going to have to see if I can get it ordered.