Today’s post features two novels — one YA, one middle grade. Each has an Iranian or Iranian-American main character.
My first introduction to Iranian culture and history was when I read the graphic novel Persepolis. At that time, I only knew of Iran as a harshly ruled, conservative Muslim country. In America we often hear Middle Eastern countries talked about as if their culture and governments have been static for centuries. Learning about the Islamic revolution exposed me to how dramatically a country’s politics and daily reality can change in a short time period. That’s something worth remembering in our own nation…
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher’s description: High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.
My thoughts: Good teen novels, such as this one, are like candy. Sweet and not too complicated, so you just want to keep eating/reading. Leila’s voice is funny and real. Although this is a coming out story, I like that it starts with her already knowing she’s gay and seeming pretty comfortable with it — at least for herself. Sharing that part of her identity with private school friends and Persian family is another thing. At the same time, Leila is figuring out other parts of who she is, like what her interests are and how she can measure up to her premed sister in the eyes of her father.
Enmeshed with Leila’s coming out and coming of age narrative are the swirling drama of crushes, dating and friendship that all teens experience, and there are interesting twists in how those storylines develop. Granted, I saw the twists coming, but that they surprised Leila was believable. Some of the characters are a bit stereotyped (e.g. the vegan stage crew feminists), but part of that is tied into assumptions Leila makes about her classmates. Everyone in this story has more going on than meets than eye.
In sum: a fun YA read with a distinctive voice.
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Publisher’s description: Zomorod Yousefzadeh is the new kid on the block . . . for the fourth time. California’s Newport Beach is her family’s latest perch, and she’s determined to shuck her brainy loner persona and start afresh with a new Brady Bunch name—Cindy. It’s the late 1970s, and fitting in becomes more difficult as Iran makes U.S. headlines with protests, revolution, and finally the taking of American hostages. Even mood rings and puka shell necklaces can’t distract Cindy from the anti-Iran sentiments that creep way too close to home. A poignant yet lighthearted middle grade debut from the author of the best-selling Funny in Farsi.
My review: This novel is an interesting way for a young person to learn a little about the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Iran hostage crisis in the 1970s. It’s told from the voice of a Iranian middle-schooler seeing those events unfold from her current home in California. During the first quarter to one third of the book, I thought the conversations Zomorod/Cindy had with those around her were a bit inauthentic, largely because it was a lot of expository telling about Iran and Iranian culture, rather than showing through plot developments. The pace did pick up later on, though. As you might expect, there are themes of friendship, kindness and acceptance of others woven throughout this story.