In an interview with The Guardian, author Neil Gaiman said “a book is a little empathy machine,” and I couldn’t agree more. As important as it is for readers of all stripes to see themselves in literature (and it is very, very important), it is just as important for readers to see others, and experience lives and cultures different from their own. As Sal learns in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve been in their place. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? takes place around the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the message inside and the empathy it evokes are just as necessary today.
Teenager Amal, an Australian-Palestinian Muslim, has an epiphany one night watching a rerun of “Friends.” As a show of her faith, she decides to wear the hijab, the headscarf, full time. She does not make the decision lightly, and her parents counsel her to be very, very certain of her choice. Amal attends a strict private school where her choice of expression would not be appreciated. Throughout the year, Amal deals with prejudice (she is refused a job because of her hijab), teasing, an uncomfortable encounter with a crush, and pressure from her extended family, but Amal manages to find peace with her decision.
Abdel-Fattah describes Amal’s first school term as a “full-timer”: the sneers, the suspicions, the compromises and the benefits, and in doing so, presents the reader with well-rounded portrait of a teenager. Amal is by turns confident, self-conscious, defensive, proud, embarrassed and curious, just like every other teenager on planet Earth (and probably Neptune). Two of Amal’s best friends have issues of their own. Curvy friend Simone struggles with her weight, even taking up smoking in order to curb her appetite. Leila, a fellow hijab wearing Muslim, gets so fed up with her super-strict, super-conservative mother, who is constantly pressuring her to get married that she runs away, sending her family into a downward spiral. These are serious issues, and Abdel-Fattah treats them so. She never diminishes the importance of what her teenage characters are thinking or saying. This is a book that gets teenagers.
For Amal, her culture is not something that can be put away when it is inconvenient. Her decision to wear the hijab full-time affects all aspects of her life. As such, she often finds herself as a spokesperson for Muslims in general. She lectures her crush, Adam, about making excuses for others’ backwards opinions, saying, “I’ve got family friends who think all white people are drunk wife-bashers…Should I make an excuse for them? Oh, they’re allowed to think that. After all, they’ve never really had a conversation with a sober white person.” (Emphasis by the author.) Within her own family, she recognizes with sadness how much importance her Aunt and Uncle put on assimilating to Australian culture. “How can we be accepted and fit in if we’re still thinking about Palestine and speaking in Arabic? Multiculturalism is a joke.” Through these relationships and experiences, Amal realizes she is happier worrying about what she thinks of herself, her faith and her behavior, than she is about what others think of her.
Kirkus Reviews notes in a starred review how “[w]earing the hijab full-time shuts some doors, but opens others” and calls Amal “a bright, articulate heroine true to herself and her faith.” In another starred review, Booklist says the “first-person present-tense narrative is hilarious about the diversity, and sometimes heartbreaking” and points out how religion and culture are a part of the narrative, “[w]ithout heavy preaching… from fasting at Ramadan to refusing sex before marriage.” Does My Head Look Big in This? was a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year choice for 2008 and a nominee for the Young Reader’s Choice Award in 2010.
Readers who identified with Amal would also enjoy Abdel-Fattah’s Ten Things I Hate About Me, about a Muslim girl who tries to hide her culture by dying her hair, among other things. For some historical context, Zeina Abirached’s autobiographical graphic novels A Game for Swallows and I Remember Beirut tell about the civil war in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims, and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis tells about her experience growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Tehran. Both authors take intensely personal stories about their lives and cultures and make them accessible to many kinds of readers. For readers who simply want to know more about Islam, there is a wonderful book by Sumbul Ali-Karamali for middle grade readers called Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam.
Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Does My Head Look Big in This? New York: Orchard Books, 2005. ISBN: 9780439919470