Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book Review: Does My Head Look Big In This?

I read another book by this author (similar themes too, teen girl trying to find her identity as an Australian Muslim), Ten Things I Hate About Me and didn't like it that much. More than anything else I just couldn't empathize with the protagonist and decided this was probably an issue I had with the author's style and decided not to try out this book at the time. Recently however I came across it at the library and decided to give it a whirl after all, mostly because I couldn't remember the last time I'd read a book with a Muslim POV and wanted to balance out what I read a little more. And I still can't think of any other books with a Muslim POV other than these two and a few variants on 1001 Nights I've read over the years. It's true that I don't come across a lot of YA where the protagonist is very religious at all but I recall reading a lot of books like that as a kid in middle school and all of those had either Catholic or Jewish POVs.
So the short of the long of it, I think authors need to get more creative (again) and not be afraid (of your audience, I can understand the messing up part) of putting minorities or people with minority views front and center.

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abel-Fattah
 I think the cover works well even if I'm a little puzzled at the proportions they used for it. Not sure what would've looked better and it certainly does grab the eye, guess it's just strange to see a wall of text on the cover instead of the text being overshadowed by the picture.

Summary: Amal is an Australian-born, Muslim Palestinian who starts off the book by deciding to wear the hijab (the traditional female hair covering) full time. The book is about her troubles actively presenting herself as a Muslim in the public and the teenage trouble all her other friends are having, prep school friends and Muslim friends alike.

The Good: There are certainly a huge variety of Muslim characters in the book and no two are alike. You really get to see a wide variety people that way, those who follow everything that they grew up with no question, those who try to embrace a new culture while forgetting the old, and those who try to stand in the middle and be one person with many different parts. That could easily translate into almost any setting where someone of a (at least partially, remember that Amal is an Australian) different culture is trying to stay true to themselves while discovering who they are. I did really enjoy the scenes with Amal's Greek Orthodox neighbor as well and seeing her grow and forgive as the story went on. I've heard so many stories over the years of split families and so few of reconciliation that it was uplifting to see someone who took their head out of the sand and moved forward.

The Bad: Again, I didn't find it that easy to relate to Amal. It honestly had nothing to do with her culture or her reasons for wearing the hijab, it was all the "normal" high school activities that alienated me. The nonstop obsession over clothes/general appearance and boys I found tiresome, probably because I had been the exact opposite in high school but plenty of authors manage to write characters that a completely different person can relate to. She felt like a shallow character and when I was poking around for reviews afterwards some people noted that, despite Amal's choice to wear the hijab she put a ton of focus on outward beauty which is counterproductive*. As a side note, that was the strangest debate scene I have ever seen in a work of fiction. The way it was done actually reminded me of a tournament style shonen manga** and I can assure you, debating doesn't work like that.

I don't want to say this was a bad book or even a meh book because I didn't relate to the main character in the slightest but that's the thing, I couldn't relate. The book is actually rather slice-of-life and maybe even if had been more central plot focused (like, even though Amal has to deal with stuff because of her choice it didn't seem like a big deal most of the time and big scenes felt smaller because of all the different areas the author was trying to focus on) I might've liked it more.

*This had crossed my mind while reading it but didn't quite click until someone else said it.
**You know, the kind where the character is plenty strong in the beginning but gets so ridiculously strong and just barely manages to win each time you wonder how they survived in the first place?)