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Saints and Misfits
We are pretty random when we divide up our reading each year — sometimes there are books that we latch on to because “that seems like a Sarah/Karyn/Joy type book,” but that’s fairly rare. More often, it’s just an up-in-the-air kind of thing…and it generally works out. For whatever reason, I am pretty sure I am getting all the exciting and fabulous debuts this year. (Just my perception, of course, my fellow bloggers might disagree!) I don’t envy the Morris Committee their work at all, because this time around some of the reads I’ve been most excited about have been debuts. And guess what? We have another one today! This particular debut got three stars, and is one that I relished.
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
Simon & Schuster, June 2017
Reviewed from an eBook
So there’s a lot going for Saints — a convincing first person narration, a relatable main character who happens to be hijabi, a girl surrounded by a living breathing community at home and at her mosque. In some ways, this is a book that reminded me heavily of The Hate U Give. In our post there, Joy pointed out how elegantly and carefully Thomas worked to provide both a mirror and window reading experience. Ali does the same here; we are privy to Janna’s thoughts and relate to her while we also get just enough context to understand culturally what’s going on — Ali gives us enough information, for example, to know when a greeting is drawing someone in or pushing them away.
(I have a lot of wonderings about that. I recognize it as a nearly-invisible skill, one that a discerning committee will appreciate. But I also wonder about when writing for the broadest possible audience won’t necessarily mean writing for the whitest, most Christian audience. What will books be like when their authors don’t have to dance in high heels and backwards to make their art, you know? These are not necessarily questions that the Printz Committee, or a Printz speculation blog, will be able to answer, but they are still big and important questions, and we [and the Printz award] will be better off if/when we grapple better with these issues.)
In any case. We are inside Janna’s head, and she’s definitely a believable 10th grader. She’s driven and hard-working, she’s serious, she’s a good friend, and she’s definitely into foreheads — all understandable stuff. The decision to tell this story in first person gives it a lot of strengths — this is how we get such seamless cultural clues to help us put the nuances of the story together. It’s also how we get such a respectful look at Janna’s religion and religious community. (There are a lot of parallels here with Hush, which is another rare book that takes religion and religious communities seriously enough to both love and critique. And though Serpent King gets/got a lot of love for its handling of religion, it exclusively looked at individual religious beliefs, not the complications and gifts that being part of a religious community provides. Of course, religion at all in YA fiction is rare…but I’m always more intrigued when a writer chooses to look at the bigger picture when possible. I DIGRESS, of course.) This first person narration also gives us insight into the ways that Janna is a young teen, and is just starting to grow into herself and into a more cohesive understanding of the world.
Janna’s religious community was so vibrantly detailed. And I loved that this is a book about girls and their rage and their ambition, which is not always something we associate with any kind of religion; that felt wonderfully subversive while also totally accurate. And while there are moments of microaggressions and some of the characters are clearly shaped by their experiences of Islamophobia, that’s not the point of this story; this casual sort of representation is super important and really fabulous. Ali uses Janna’s religious community to eloquently show that there are many different experiences and understandings of how to be a Muslim.
So are there things that will take it off the table come ALA? I think there are just a few minor things that may loom larger as conversation gets more and more particular. Some of the plot points get dropped as Janna gathers her strength, attention, and courage to confront Farooq. For example, Muhammed’s and Sarah’s relationship is super intriguing, but their part of the story is really dropped near the end. Actually, this whole book makes me want an entire series set in Eastspring, pls. I want to know what’s next for Muhammed, especially what’s next for Saint Sarah, what Sausun will do for her sister, what Tats will do next, how things will go for Janna, for Nuah, will Janna’s mom find a fun date? I WANT TO KNOW!
The biggest issue I found was slightly erratic pacing. Although it’s a fast read with short chapters, the plot itself is a little slow to get started. And things are either moving too slowly or too quickly throughout the book. Fizz, Muhammed, Sarah all had plenty of page time, but never quite had a direct, strong impact on the narrative. Sausun and Soon-Lee both dropped into the narrative, but needed a little more time to develop.
This is a strong read, but I’m not sure it will go all the way at the Printz table. I’m super (SUPER) curious about how the Morris will stack up this year, too. I would say that Saints has a real shot in that field…but you never know. What do you all think?
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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