The power of own voice books is that while you may not agree with everything presented, you appreciate that it is being presented. This 417 page high school young adult book is authentic and relatable and regardless of if you agree with the characters’ approaches, decisions, and understanding, you see and learn something about fictional characters that feels so real that you hopefully will find yourself in “real” life being a bit more understanding, kind, and accepting.
Allie is 16 and with her red hair and fair skin, she can pass for an all-American teen. The only child of a college history professor and child development psychologist her family moves around a lot, but her dad’s extended family congregates in Dallas, and that is the anchor of family and love that warms the book. Allie’s father Muhammad aka Mo is Circassian and his family speaks Arabic, including Allie’s grandma, Teta, who doesn’t speak any English. Allie’s mom is a convert, but neither practice religion, and while Allie’s mom appreciates it, it is an incredibly hands off topic for Mo. And Allie, well, she doesn’t speak Circassian or Arabic and knows nothing of Islam, and reinvents herself in each new school and city she finds her self in.
With Islamaphobia on the rise and Allie using her white privilege to neutralize a situation on an airplane, the reader sees as soon as they start the book, that Allie has a lot of skills to read people and understand how to handle complex situations, but that she hasn’t yet found her self. As someone who can blend in and transform, the book is her journey to understand her heritage, her beliefs, what she wants in life and move toward finding her voice. Much like Randa Abdel Fattah’s books which often turn the narrative from a Muslim girl rebelling against her faith and parents, this book has a young protagonist rebelling and turning to her faith. The book seems to stem from a auto biographical place and the journey of learning about yourself, accepting yourself, and growing is universal.
Desperate to learn about Islam, Allie starts reading the Quran and hanging out with Muslims. While she knows Islam is not a monolith as she has family who cover, some that don’t, some that pray, some that don’t, some that fast, parents who drink, she still feels on the outside when she begins meeting with some Muslim girls at their weekly Quran study group. As she gets to know the girls, she realizes how truly different Islam is for all of them, and how their experiences shape their views as well. There is a convert, a black Muslim, a lesbian, some girls that cover, some that can’t read Arabic, some that find praying behind men misogynistic, some that feel unmosqued, they listen to music and read horoscopes, and Allie has a boyfriend.
Allie’s boyfriend, Wells, isn’t just incredibly cute and sweet, and accepting as he learns about Allie’s faith and her journey to understand it, but he is also the son of a cable shock jock toting that refugees should be stopped, and Muslims banned, yeah it is complicated. As Allie learns more about who she is, she finds her self lying to everyone, and as she finds the courage to speak her truth, she must accept the consequences it has on those around her that she cares about. Interwoven is a beautiful story line about her and her Teta’s relationship that is heartfelt and genuine and emotionally taxing when tragedy strikes.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that this book exists, and that it is written for Muslims and non Muslims alike. I think non Muslims will see that there are all types of Muslims, and we should be reminded that everyone has their own tests and is on their own path. Paradoxically I love that it isn’t preachy, but desperately wish there was more emotional connection to Allah swt and RasulAllah, because honestly its a gaping void that makes some of the story fall flat for me. I get that Islam is different for everyone, but while the book pushes so much that Allie wants to know about it to connect and fit in with her family, I feel like there isn’t much “spirituality” to her approach which kind of makes someone accepting religion seem lacking. Her approach to prayer and fasting is almost robotic, and yes she says she likes it, but there isn’t any emotional resonance in her perhaps having an internal dialogue with God, or crying out to Him when her grandmother is in the hospital, instead it is read this passage from the Quran, or say this prescribed supplication, which makes her conundrum about her boyfriend, seem arbitrary. Allie’s non believing, non practicing parents seem to have a softer spot for God, as Allie’s mom says something to the effect of it is hard to stop believing once you start, and Allie’s mom asserting multiple times that while she doesn’t practice she converted for herself, no one else.
I also kind of struggle with the attempt of getting every type of Muslim in the book to show that there isn’t a good Muslim bad Muslim dichotomy to the larger audience, but as a result seems to make the point that Islam can be changed to fit today’s world and that line makes me a bit nervous. It is fiction, it is quite possibly the author’s own experience, but I felt like the part of continued growth and working to follow the tenants of Islam got left out. We all have our tests, and we all sin, but to just say ok, this is me and this is my Islam and stop there, halts the journey and character’s arc rather abruptly.
I love that the book really does a good job of laying out that there are problems, misogyny, racism, stereotypes, everywhere, not just Islam or religion, but in societal structures too, it is really shown across platforms and very seamlessly. I like that a fair amount of side characters are fleshed out, and compassion extended even when opinions differ. There is a lot of acceptance consistently shown from the characters and those that don’t show it are called out on it as well.
I wanted more on Allie’s dad though, to know what exactly his religious complexity entailed, I felt like I missed something, maybe I did, but just to say his relationship with religion is complicated or complex, left me wondering and wanting for details.
As it seems with so many of these YA books with female Muslim protagonists, the non Muslim boyfriends are absolutely amazing with their understanding, and patience (think A Very Large Expanse of Sea, The Lines We Cross, The Acquaintance), truly fictionalized high school boys, high five.
There is Islamaphobia, kissing, drinking, death, racism, sexism, LGBTQ characters and discussions. There is lying and talk of sex.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This book is a bit advanced for middle school, the concepts and the acceptance of those concepts might not be conducive to Islamic School book clubs of high school level either. That isn’t too say that kids can’t handle it or shouldn’t read it, but I think when presented from a school, it is assumed that you are endorsing an interpretation or practice of Islam, and this book might push that for some.
There aren’t a lot of author interviews or teaching guides, online, but if you do choice to read and discuss, you will be fine, there are a lot of layers, a lot to celebrate, and a lot to relate to in Allie’s story.