This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date. I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her. The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat. I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.
Amal lives in a small Pakistani village. The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter. The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong. The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled. Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between. It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position. As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school. This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher. Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market. Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to. Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family.
In many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.
Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be. As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost. And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own. At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy. The mom even apologizes to the dad about this. The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it. The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it. I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden. This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.
I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental. There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture. Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more. There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions. The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture. Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.
The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well. At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note. I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view. I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book. It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed. A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.
The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer. For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.
There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped. There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study. There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.
Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/
Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html
Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf