First Lines: We always seemed to be moving, always for the better, always to make our lives better, whatever. I couldn’t keep up with the emotional whiplash. I’d attended so many elementary schools and middle schools I couldn’t keep their names straight anymore but this, this switching high schools all the time thing was really making me want to die.
Let me just say this before we get started: I’m old enough to remember, vaguely, what it was like after 9/11 (a pivotal moment for Shirin, our main character). And, even though I’ve read books about 9/11 before, this was from a completely different perspective and I was alternatively fascinated and terrified. I loved that it would be a new perspective, but I was terrified that it either wouldn’t live up to my expectations or that it would rock my world more than I could handle.
It’s 2002, less than a year after 9/11 and sixteen-year-old Shirin, a Muslim-American, is tired of being stereotyped. She is not a terrorist. She was born in America so she can’t “go home” to the Middle East. The rude stares, comments, and physical violence never stops, all because of her race, her religion, and the hijab she chooses to wear every day. So she’s built up her walls and refuses to let anyone past her snarky defenses except her brother Navid. To unwind, she spends her time listening to music and break-dancing in her brother’s crew. But Ocean James changes everyone. It seems like he’s the first person to actually see her in…well, ages. The fact that he comes from an entirely different world than hers terrifies Shirin. And it’s been so long since she’s let down her walls that she isn’t sure she knows how to.
This is the book I have been waiting for.
It started months (if not years) ago when my friend, a woman of Persian descent with two young teenage daughters, was looking for cultural YA books that they could read. She wanted something clean (her girls balk at anything too mature–one refused to watch It’s a Wonderful Life because the pharmacist abuses young George Bailey) but she wanted it to talk about diversity.
I can finally tell her I’ve found it.
Shirin likes to be invisible, but she won’t be the welcome mat that you walk on. She’s just learned that as a young woman of color who wears a hijab that it’s better to avoid notice. Those who don’t notice you can’t target you. But when someone does come at her, she knows to just let it roll off her. People are jerks and Shirin is happy to be a jerk back to them.
Ocean is pretty opposite of her. Happy-go-lucky and popular, Ocean has never dealt with the kinds of abuse Shirin faces daily. So he feels hurt every time Shirin puts up a wall toward him. She doesn’t understand why he’s talking to her–what’s in it for him?–and he doesn’t understand why she thinks he has ulterior motives.
This book is all about what makes us different, whether it’s Shirin or Ocean or even some of the other characters. (I’m particularly fond of Jacobi, one of Navid’s friends.) Sometimes those differences make us special and sometimes they make us a target. But this is about understanding why people belittle others, why they fear those who stand out. And it’s awesome.
I can’t even pretend to know what it was like being someone like Shirin in 2002, when the hate rhetoric was so fresh still. The stuff people say to her…it’s awful. And I know it can’t be all made up. It feels far too real for that. Even when it hurts the most, you know that most of this is based on something that happened to someone. There’s just this honesty about it that feels like Mafi is sharing her own story, in a way. And I’m glad we’re finally in a place where this book is not only accepted by seems to be garnering some pretty spectacular attention.
And for those of you (like me) old enough to remember what technology was like pre-2005ish, this is a total blast from the past and I found it hilarious. Things like VCRs, AIM, even the fact that every single text message cost money. I’d forgotten about some of this and I was totally giggling to myself about it all. I had dial-up flashbacks.
This book was so moving and perfect. And for anyone who does have Persian/Muslim family members or friends, I think it connects in a different way. This was a delight.