You know that feeling when you pick up a book that's about a truly underrepresented minority in YA (Young Adult) lit, and your hopes are SO HIGH but your expectations are SO LOW? That's how I went into listening to the audiobook of "A Very Large Expanse of Sea" by Tahereh Mafi.
From the get-go, I loved Shirin. She's a potty-mouth, withdrawn teenage girl who has BEEN THROUGH SOME STUFF. This survivor was assaulted in the wake of 9/11 for wearing a hijab, nearly killed. Dealing with the outside fear of her religion every day leads Shirin to the safety of solitude by the time high school hits.
Shirin is very interesting to me. As a high school teacher with a few Muslim students in my school, I sort of listened with the context of, "Is this what they go through?" Honestly, the book's events are very realistic without being over the top. Some crazy things happen, but they are not outside of the realm of possibility. For example, Shirin's love of breakdancing turns into a passion as she joins a breakdancing team. What an amazing catalyst for empowerment! (Side note: I remember the first time I saw women in hijabs playing roller derby. I cheered and may have shed a tear of intense pride.)
Conversations take place throughout AVLEOS that give the reader more information about what it's like to wear a hijab, why some girls wear them, and what the consequences are for not wearing one. Basically, any question you've secretly wanted to ask a woman wearing a hijab are addressed in the book in a natural way.
Overall, what I liked best about the book isn't the love story or the acceptance Shirin gains from her peers. It's simply an the authentic voice and experiences of Shirin. Anyone can read "A Very Large Expanse of Sea" and benefit from it. I have it in the high school library where I work and am committed to promoting it. My students have a lot of experience with Latino culture and Nebraska culture, but not with other cultures that are now being represented in our school. This book is a great way to acquire understanding both of what it's like to be a Muslim high school girl and to examine how the people around her react to her presence.
Mark my words:
YOU WILL SEE YOURSELF IN THIS BOOK.
Will you like what you see?