Rising seniors Jamie Goldberg and Maya Rehrman were once childhood friends who reconnect when Maya’s mother signs her up to canvass for a political candidate, Jordan Rossum. Jamie’s cousin Gabe is a muckety muck in the Atlanta campaign, and his little sister Sophie is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Maya’s parents are getting divorced and her best friend is mentally already at college (and finally moves there and officially leaves her behind). As she and Jamie grow closer, her mother’s bribe of a car in exchange for volunteering falls to the side.
It’s not surprising that Jamie and Maya fall for each other, though it takes Maya longer to realize it. I loved the subplot with Sophie’s sexuality, and how Jamie handles it. I loved everything about Jamie, except that he seemed a little *too* perfect. Albertalli, I assume, wrote the Jamie chapters, and Saeed wrote the Maya chapters. One thing that bothered me about Maya is that she was not up front with Jamie about her not being able to date. Though on balance maybe it was more of a reflection of how deeply in denial she was about her feelings for him. In the Jamie chapters, it is clear how much she is flirting with him, even if she thought of him just as a friend. It reminded me of Does My Head Look Big in This? in which the main character sticks to her convictions to wear hijab and not to date. But then, those are her convictions, whereas in Maya’s case it’s her mother’s conviction that she’s trying to follow. Maya also doesn’t wear hijab, but her mother does, and the proposed passage of a bill to ban head coverings while driving really ramps up both her and Jamie.
Social media and white supremacy both play big roles in this story. Rossum’s opponent is the one sponsoring the bill, and his supporters vandalize cars with Rossum bumper stickers by putting their own over them, which are impossible to remove or cover up. But Jamie and Maya figure out a clever way to deal with them. Jamie’s grandma, inexplicably some sort of Instagram celebrity, uses her platform to promote Rossum. At one point, someone posts a photo of Maya and Jamie, and there’s also a campaign video of them, that garners a lot of comments, both negative and positive. Teens today have quite a lot to deal with in terms of internet harassment, it’s really very troubling to me. But Jamie and Maya manage to get through it and the ending is sweet and hopeful, but also realistic. Jamie even overcomes his immense self-consciousness and makes a sweet speech at his sister’s bat mitzvah party. Another interesting note is that their father is largely absent from their lives, and they are largely okay with it.
Xiomara, age 15, is many things: defender of her sensitive twin brother, writer and budding slam poet, Catholic-about-to-be-atheist. Her mother, a fierce Catholic with a tough life history, sees Xiomara’s body taking shape – literally, curves – and tries to force her into what she sees as “safe” but in reality looks a lot like body shaming. When Xiomara gets a crush on her lab partner in science class, she knows she has to hide it from her mother.
My heart broke for Xiomara. I’m sure her mother thinks she’s doing the best thing for her, but from Xiomara’s point of view, it’s wholly unfair. It’s a kind of slut-shaming that reminds me very much of my own early adolescence, when a girl in my fifth-grade class developed earlier than everybody else. There were rumors that she had her period, that she was dating boys in the class, basically that she was acting promiscuously, based solely on her appearance. I realized as an adult how hard that must have been on her, and I see it in Xiomara too – just because she’s got this fully developed body doesn’t mean she knows what to do with it, wants to do those things, or wants the attention it brings.
I loved watching Xiomara, or X as she prefers in writing poetry, develop emotionally. She comes into her own about religion, slam poetry, and her brother’s sexuality, not to mention her own.
Faizah is in awe of her big sister Asiya on the first day Asiya wears hijab to school. They pick the proudest, bluest blue for her first hijab and it serves as a beacon for Faizah to find her sister in tough moments. Asiya gets bullied by a boy in her class, and the endnotes reveal that this reflected Muhammad’s own experience (even featuring her own sisters’ names as the main characters). I also loved the mother’s remembered advice when the teasing starts, as a way to stay strong. As a prominent Muslim celebrity, Muhammad felt strongly about using her voice to advocate for and include Muslims and people of color in a new children’s book. This is a wonderful #ownvoices addition to any library, public or personal. I am looking forward to using it in another storytime about different cultures’ cloths.
Leila is from Pakistan and takes us on a very sensory visit to her Naani’s (grandmother’s) house, with smells of curry, the clink of bangle bracelets, and the lovely soft feel of her grandmother’s many vibrantly colored scarves. Leila isn’t sure she likes her knobby knees and skinny arms, but she loves how being with her family makes her feel about herself.
Mina and her grandmother are inseparable and this autobiographical picture book is just one big love note to her grandma. In addition to describing the basket delivery system they rigged up from their third-floor apartment and helping her grandma make her chadors, Mina also remembers their neighbor Annette and her grandma, who are not Muslim, but who are great friends to them. Mina and Annette also discover that their grandmas pray for each other.
Harpreet loves his colorful patkas (cloths used to make Sikh turbans) – until his family moves across the country, away from the beach and to a place where it snows. Now all he wants to wear is his white patka because he doesn’t feel like celebrating or having courage. But when he makes a new friend, he returns to his old self, and his old interest in expressing himself through his patka’s color.
When she was ten, Ruth Behar broke her leg in a bad car accident and was laid up for almost a year in a full body cast. This is a fictionalized account of that time, mostly made of her fuzzy memories and some embellishing to make it a slightly happier story than it was. (Reading the author’s note was very interesting!) Most interesting to me were how much she changed as a result – when she finally gets to go outside, she’s not soaking it in and begging to stay out, she is begging for the safety of her room and her bed. When she finally finally finally gets the cast off (after a couple of false starts that extend her time laid up by more than double), she is too scared to try to walk again. Her process of overcoming that fear was also fascinating.
Ruth describes her various friends, including Ramu (whose kid brother falls out of a window to his death and the rest of the family, overcome with grief, moves back to India) and Chicho, a lovely and possibly gay artist from Mexico, who is very kind to Ruth and her family. She describes Danielle from France who appears to be a fairweather friend but in the end comes through and they become quite close. Ruth’s mother sacrifices the most for her and bears the brunt of the emotional toll, which was also quite interesting to read (as an adult; I don’t think that would hold much interest for kids). Ruth and her brother Izzie (Isaac) are quite close as well and rarely fight, and she gets a teacher/tutor who not only helps her not fall behind, but with whom she advances to a 10th grade reading level after just graduating from the ELL class.
The other interesting thing to note is that Ruth and her family are Jewish and Cuban, the history of which plays a decent role in the story. I’m glad to encounter more books of Jewish people of color because theirs are narratives that outsiders don’t get to encounter too often and which are quite different from the white/Ashkenazi Judaism as most Americans probably think of it. Through Ruth’s healing, you can see the seeds of anthropology starting to grow; she is now an anthropology professor and has explored her own “Juban” roots through work like the documentary Adio Kerida and the book An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba.
This novel-in-verse is narrated by seventh grader Jude who moves to America with her mother. They leave behind her father, who refuses to leave his store in their seaside tourist town in Syria, and her college-age brother, who has gone off to fight the government (presumably making him part of ISIS, aka ISIL, though it is never explicitly stated). Jude and her mother move in with her mother’s brother, Uncle Mazin, his white wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Sarah, who is a year older than Jude. Sarah and Jude have a complicated relationship; Sarah is very preoccupied with fitting in and not being “weird,” which Jude is. Jude is simultaneously very aware of her outsider status and also not as worried as Sarah about the ways in which she doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t, for example, let it stop her from befriending other outcasts like Miles and Layla. Jude is upset that her letters to her best friend, Fatima, back home go unanswered, and finally finds out the reason why – Fatima and her family have fled to another country (Lebanon maybe?) and are unreachable. Jude finally finds her way in America, learning English, getting through to Sarah, getting closer to Miles (whom she describes as a ‘very cute boy’ and nothing more romantic than that happens) and landing a part in the school musical. There is an incident of Muslim extremist violence that changes the way people look at Jude, her family, Layla’s family, and their community, but it is also not specifically named as any one historically accurate attack. Her mother has a baby (she was very early on in her pregnancy when they left) and that fleshes out the rest of the plot, plus a small fight with Layla. Oh, and Jude starts her period, which means she also starts wearing hijab, which is also received in a variety of ways, especially within her own family, which was interesting. Overall a lovely, mostly gentle, not-quite-refugee story, with a young woman full of heart and confidence at its center. (It is also worth noting that, though Warga is Middle Eastern, she is not Syrian, so this story is not technically #ownvoices.)
When I first finished this book, I would not have given it 5 stars, but after pondering it for a while, I overcame most of my beef with the nonlinear way in which the story is told. Claudia tells the story of the disappearance of her best friend, Monday Charles, and how she discovered what happened to her. I normally really dislike nonlinear narratives but Jackson executes this one, if not flawlessly, then at least brilliantly. Chapters are titled The Before, The After, A Year Before the Before, Two Years Before the Before, and then a series with month titles, moving presumably through one of those years/times, though it is unclear when. When I finished reading, I felt like I still didn’t know a lot and had a lot of questions, so I went back through and re-read just the After chapters in order, and things made a lot more sense. And Jackson had to tell the story in that way in order for you to really experience how Claudia experienced the story. I’m reluctant to give away too much of the story because Jackson’s reveal of the plot is excellent, but I will say that my poor sensitive soul was WIRED reading this too late at night, so tread gently. Once I got into it though, I devoured it, so maybe devote a weekend day to it. I will also say that I was extremely glad to read that part of Claudia’s (and others’) healing at the end included going to therapy.