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3 (+3) on a YA Theme: Compelling Female Protagonists Who Happen to be Muslim

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Jessica Pryde

Contributing Editor

Jessica Pryde is a member of that (some might call) rare breed that grew up in Washington, DC, but is happily enjoying the warmer weather of the desert Southwest. While she is still working on what she wants to be when she grows up, she’s enjoying dabbling in librarianship and writing all the things. She can be found drowning in her ever-growing TBR and exclaiming about romance in the Book Riot podcast (When in Romance), as well as on social media. Find her exclamations about books and pho on twitter (JessIsReading) and instagram (jess_is_reading).

When you think of contemporary fiction, particularly in young adult literature, many people might come up with similar images of a main female character: white, anglo-Christian (if religious at all), classically pretty (but doesn’t know she is), more often than not suburban–or at least middle class. If she isn’t middle class, she’s probably a girl from a working class family who has to take care of younger siblings and work super hard to keep her grades up so she can keep her scholarship/stay in her honors program/go to a good college and end the cycle.

Obviously, the above is just a stereotypical outline (though based in truth) of what contemporary YA looks like. Authors have been taking strides for years, however, to present the rest of the picture. Last week, Kelly took a look at a few fabulous books (with fabulous covers) about black teens across the world. These were strong young people who had their own stories to tell, and reflected an image that many of us had to ceaselessly hunt down when we were younger.

How about another one of those that’s expanding?

The nonfiction I Am Malala and thrillers like The Reluctant Fundamentalist are sometimes the only semi-current images of young Muslims we really have direct access to. But what about the fun, everyday antics of your average teenager who happens to be Muslim?

We’ll start with an older book that is totally worth checking out.

Cover of Does My Head Look Big in This?Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Somewhere in the wilds of Australia, we encounter Amal Abdel-Hakim. She’s an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian. “That means I was born an Aussie and whacked with some bloody confusing identity hyphens,” she says. While watching Friends on the treadmill, she comes to a decision: she’s going to wear the hijab. Full time. This is a story of a girl of immense faith who makes a decision and sticks with it, while still having to go through the daily woes of high school, including everything from crushes to grades.

(Abdel-Fattah’s other YA book, Ten Things I Hate About Me, is nothing to sneer at, either.) 

Cover of She Wore Red TrainersShe Wore Red Trainers by Na’ima B. Robert

She Wore Red Trainers alternates points of view between Ali, a down-on-his-luck pretty boy whose family has to live in London for the summer, and the goal-oriented Amirah, who has no plans to get married or be held back in her dreams of Uni and a great job. As the weather changes, the story wends its way around the two as they move around each other in the days of summer and beyond.




Cover of Written in the StarsWritten in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

This book comes out March 24th, and it looks both darling and tragic. The right parts of Romeo and Juliet–two people who love each other even at the disapproval of her family–meet the clash of traditional conservatism and youthful desire. Naila is given relative freedom when it comes to living in the United States; she doesn’t have to cover her head, she can study what she wants. But no boys. She will be married based on her immigrant parents’ traditions: to whomever they decide. Guess nobody told her heart.


One of the additional benefits of reading stories like this is the chance to learn about an experience most of us have only seen on the periphery, if at all. Even then, experiences can be completely different–the teenager who emigrated to the US with her family from Saudi Arabia is going to have a different experience than the American teenager who decided to convert at 17. But with stories like those above, we at least get to look at a few individual experiences of different kinds of young Muslim women in the world.


I had a really hard time narrowing this down to the three that I really wanted to talk about, so here are three more:

Cover of Ms. Marvel, Volume 1Bonus: Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

I wouldn’t include this in the actual “3 on a YA Theme” because I (read: publishers) don’t consider Ms. Marvel to be strictly YA. It does, however, feature a teenage, female, Muslim, AWESOME protagonist who not only has to deal with coming of age in an environment that can be openly hostile to Muslim-Americans, but also, hey! She has powers she doesn’t understand or really know how to use properly.

 Also, the importance of seeing a brown face on the cover of a Marvel comic is huge. Even if she only has half a face.


I Love I Hate I Miss My SisterBonus 2: I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn

Kelly talked about it in last week’s Buy, Borrow, Bypass, along with a couple of other very intriguing reads.







Cover of Scarlett Undercover Bonus 3: Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett is an American Muslim teenager who solves crimes a la Veronica Mars (seriously, all I keep hearing about this one is Veronica Mars. It had better deliver). The fact that she is Muslim is very high on the list of items in the bullet list for her, which leads me to believe it might have some integral part in the plot, instead of a simple feature of her ethnic and religious background. We’ll see what happens when this one comes out in May.




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