Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Content commentary: This novel contains a physical assault, which is processed throughout the book, and may be unsettling to some readers. It is nothing younger readers can't read, and it is powerfully done, but FYI.
Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Janna Yusef is smart and snarky, kind, and ...conflicted. She's navigating a new world, one where her father has married his administrative assistant and lives in a massive eight-bedroom house across town, one where her brother has changed his major and moved home from college for a year, and one where she's suddenly being inundated with the perfectly poised Saint Sarah, her brother Muhammad's fiancée - and organizer of the Fun Fun Fun Islamic Quiz Game. Janna isn't sure that this new world is all it's cracked up to be - she's wearing hijabi like her mother, but her father hates it. She's supportive of her brother changing his major at college, but she doesn't want him to move home, because sharing a room with her mother means no more privacy, ever. And Janna needs her privacy, especially as she fiddles with her graphic novel about the Prophet, daydreams a little about her non-Muslim crush, and seriously tries to figure out how to deal with the monster who has blighted her life ... and is circling, stalking her like prey.
Janna's keeping her head down, studying advanced math as hard as she can, but the sexist comments from the boys in the class against the only two girls, and the ways some students at her high school treat others, because of a birthmark or how quiet they are, just doesn't add up to the world the way it should be. At least Janna has Mr. Ram, the elderly man she walks to the Senior Center. He's always got wisdom about the world - even if Janna doesn't always have time to listen to it. And Tatyana listens - mostly, when she's not trying to Make Sure Janna gets what she wants out of life, which, Tats thinks, is her crush.
All Janna wants to do - sometimes - is run along under the radar, just keeping out of trouble, hanging with her friends, and admiring her crush on the sly. But lately, that hasn't seemed possible. Now, just when she needs her, Janna's best Muslim friend seems less friend and more faith, and her best non-Muslim friend is bent on managing her relationship with her crush's perfect forehead, and a mean girl named Sausun is friendlier than she thought possible. And now, Jeremy, the non-Muslim boy whose forehead she's been crushing on likes her back, and Janna realizes she hadn't thought things through beyond his perfect head. Muslim girls don't date... but maybe she's not as much of a saint as she ought to be? And, if she's not a saint, how can she figure out how to deal with the monster everyone calls a saint? If she calls him out, won't everyone look from him, to... her? And see how ashamed she is?
Conflicted, distracted, and nearly destroyed, Janna is a contemporary girl cherishing a traditional faith, and struggling to make sense of growing up, change, and a messy world.
Observations: Rudine Sims Bishop's "mirror books and window books" description is relevant to this novel, as non-Muslim readers will find both contemporary mirrors of their own life experiences inside, as well as mirrors into Janna's Indian-Egyptian culture, her modest clothing, and her faith practices, from the washing before prayer, to the right thing to say when someone dies. As Janna is fifteen, this book also falls into that little not-quite-middle-grade/not-quite-teen wasteland into which many books fall which are difficult for some publishers to characterize. Janna's story falls into YA because of her experience of assault, but she is otherwise a classic fifteen year old - full of weird impulses and funny thoughts; not too old, and not too young.
Janna has friends who are non-Muslim, but also people of faith. Hindu, like Mr. Ram, or open to anything, like her bestie, Tatyana, or even Christian, like Mr. Khoury. No one gets to swan through the world surrounded solely by Their People, even if they come from a fairly tightly-knit community. Janna, as her Amu - her uncle the iman - describes it, bobs through the seas of life with other souls, and the books spends time allowing her to have a critical perspective on people from other walks of life, sometimes complimenting her own, at other times, challenging it.
I was very impressed with Janna's explanation of wearing hijab, and exploration of niqab. No one's faith observance is going to be a cookie cutter same-as-hers experience, and Janna's observance is unlike her friend Fizz's, unlike her frenemy Sausan's, and also unlike her brother and mother's. Throughout the book, Janna is herself, imperfect, impatient, wrestling with her own impulses while contrasting them against what is against her personal rules and her parent's expectations.
S.K. Ali also gives readers the most horrifyingly accurate picture of the internal silencing which occurs after an assault that I've ever read. After the incident, the cognitive dissonance just swallows Janna, and she's frozen still in a moment that has long passed. This mirror resonated really strongly with me, and will with other readers who have experienced something horrible, and have struggled to move past the moment and go on. Other mirrors include Janna's crushes, her scholastic successes - and bombs - and the push-back she receives from racist teachers and sexist fellow students as she changes and grows organically throughout the story arc. A lot of this is part and parcel of the fabric of living life in contemporary times, and I think how Janna deals with them - how she thinks things through - is very appealing.
Conclusion: Goth-emo girls, fluffy floral girls, average, low-maintenance girls - all the girls are here, and quite a few of them are wearing hijab or niqab. SAINTS AND MISFITS shows that not every follower of Islam is perfect or some kind of misfit - that Muslims are real people, with real struggles, and though their communities are not perfect, neither are they the breeding grounds for insanity that some people seem to think they are. Full of wisdom, snark, and genuine emotion, this book deals with heavy, thoughtful topics in a way that is neither facile or heavy-handed, imparting a solid story with a big heart. Bring your tissues.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Overdrive at the public library. You can find SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. Ali at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!