This 320 page book featuring an Iranian American lead written by an Iranian American is a coming of age story written on an AR 5.2 level, that I don’t think most reading this blog would want their child to identify with. It is an OWN voice book from what I can gather in the author’s interviews online, and sure many Muslims definitely receive the label of “Muslim” more from others than from their own self identity, but I don’t know that many would want their children seeing themselves in the main character who runs away from home, hangs out in bars getting drunk, picks up girls as a challenge, and basically tells one lie after another, especially while being completely endearing and quirky and someone you really find charming.
Sakeet Ferdowsi aka Scott, is an only child of Iranian immigrants who really love him and want him to do well in life. The story opens with 16 year old Scott chatting with his dad at McDonalds about his lack of direction, his lack of interest in his summer internship, and his parents leaving him alone for the summer as they journey to Iran. Sakeet’s dad tells him of a professor at Georgetown University who writes about “grit” and how grit, not wealth or IQ is the greatest predictor of success. With a track record of not seeing things through, Scott is told he needs to find some grit and some direction in life. Drawn to this idea, Sakeet lasts a few days at his mouse poop research internship before become obsessed with grit, jumping on a greyhound bus and heading from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. to get help face-to-face with Professor Cecily Mallard.
On the bus, he tries to position his backpack to prevent having a seatmate, but a college girl, calls his bluff and forces him to chat with her. Fiona is not like most people with her free spirited ways and her love of crossword puzzles, and with her now in his life, Scott’s four week DC adventure is set to be memorable.
While in DC Scott learns a lot about himself from the people he meets, the situations he finds himself in, and in general the freedom from his parents. He is mistaken as a college student and keeps the ruse running to everyone he meets outside of Fiona, Professor Mallard, and Trent. Trent saves Scott after he crashes a stolen bike (he didn’t know it was stolen) and is being chased by its owner. They quickly discover they both know Fiona and the big hearted southern helps Scott get a fake ID to get in to bars, and a job working behind the bar to pay for his time in DC. Trent dreams about working with his favorite senator, which is a big part of the climax, as is the fact that he has been cut off by his well-to-do family because he is gay. Throw in an ultra conservative “girlfriend” who Sakeet picks up on a dare at the National Zoo and Sakeet to discover if in fact he has grit.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book reads really easy and smooth, hence the middle grade AR level, but I don’t think any elementary kids should read it, or even middle school for that matter. As a coming of age book, early high school would probably be the best fit, but with such a focus on drinking and bars, and sex I kind of feel like the rave reviews are coming from adults who find the antics quaint and idyllic as a way for Scott to grow, not as something they would want their own child to identify with. Online reviews praise the person of color protagonist and the Muslim representation, but really I don’t find either of them overtly influential in the story. Yes, Scott is straddling two worlds as a child of immigrants and must balance parental expectation with his own mysterious wants (he doesn’t know what he wants), but I don’t know that culture or religion shape him other than his parents not letting him go to overnight camps growing up.
When he is called a terrorist by a drunk guy, or dumped by a girl for being Muslim, he takes it, he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t let it really rile him either. At one point Scott amends Fiona’s statement of calling him a Muslim. “‘ish,’ I said. ‘A long time ago I asked my parents what religion I was, and accepted what they told me. Haven’t gotten around to reevaluating it or whatever.'” Other’s call him a Muslim, but I don’t know that he every really says it himself, which ironically I kind of appreciate. In a few phone conversations with his parents he says “Salam” or “inshaAllah,” but there is no Islamic practice or conscious or even expectation in the book. I think for readers they will respond to Sakeet and his faith based on where they are in life. For Muslims, they may find such a careless label frustrating and belittling, or possibly relatable. Non Muslims may understand Sakeet’s practice means Islamic rules are not followed, and those that do follow them more “extreme.” Islam is fluid and we are all flawed, so I don’t expect a fictional or real character to be perfect, I’m just pointing out what my concerns would be to have this book in an Islamic school library. As a reader, I appreciated that the author had the character articulate that he is Muslim-ish only, and have other people call him Muslim and have him not constantly use his faith and culture to set himself apart. He is fallible and growing and he has a lot of parts to his persona not just these markers. Incidentally the parts he is exploring and questioning and learning about himself as he looks to his future don’t involve Persian culture or Islam.
Alcohol, getting drunk and hungover, cursing, some violence, theft, nudity, kissing, talk of sex, sexting, talk of making out, a gay character, lying, drug addiction, getting high.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection because of the themes and inconsistency of values, also because of the inconsistency of topics and writing style.
Author’s website: https://www.arvinahmadi.com/
Interviews with author: