Thursday, September 20, 2007

Does My Head Look Big In This by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. 2007. Does My Head Look Big In This?

I have mixed feelings about Does My Head Look Big In This? My enthusiasm for the novel was not particularly consistent. (I liked the first third, I really liked the middle third, and I loved the last third.)

Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is both your typical and untypical teen. As a Australian-Muslim-Palestinian, she feels she got "whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens" (5). To question one's identity is fairly typical--very standard--in YA literature. To deal with questions of race, prejudice, and faith is again fairly typical. But in most cases the race and faith in question is not Muslim (and Middle-Eastern). Hence why she is both typical and untypical. This makes the book good, but at times difficult to evaluate. Amal is a character that at the same time wants to be like everybody else, but she wants to be seen as special, unique, and one-of-a-kind. She wants to not stick-out in a crowd as being 'the Muslim' yet she is very proud of her culture, her religion, her faith. She wants to have it all. She doesn't want people to point, stare, and laugh. But she wants to be noticed. She wants to stand out. Again, I think that all teens--all people--go through a stage where they feel that the whole world is looking at them, staring at them, evaluating them, critiquing them, judging them, laughing at them, etc. I think every teen has the feeling that everyone is noticing them--watching for all the little flaws, waiting for them to make a mistake, etc. This sense of heightened awareness and the feeling that everything they do is more important that what it actually is. It is like going through life--your whole day, your whole week--like every moment could potentially be your most embarrassing moment ever. [Does that make any sense at all? What I'm trying to say is that they might be *imagining* the world is laughing at and judging them when one is really paying that much attention.]

Amal is ready to wear the hijab. Inspired by an episode of Friends, where Rachel braves the crowd to perform Copa Cabana after an embarrassing walk down the aisle, Amal has made her decision. Her first day of school--in what is essentially her junior year in high school--will be the first day she'll wear the hijab (and be covered) in front of her classmates at McCleans Preparatory School. What the book does not mention until halfway through--and what really makes a difference in appreciating the novel--is that this school year is 2002. It has only been a year since the 9/11 attacks in America. (That anniversary is covered in the novel.) So this is when tension--global tension--is at an all-time high. This attack is still fresh, the wounds still on the surface. There has been no healing. So prejudice is in many ways more out in the open than one would naturally expect.

Amal doesn't know quite what to expect from her classmates--boys and girls--she doesn't know if she'll be teased, laughed at, ridiculed, called-names, etc. For the most part, her close circle of friends accept her. They're proud of her. Embrace her with open arms. It takes the rest of the class a few more days--to get used to this new image--before they're minds are made up one way or the other. But let's just say her circle of friends expands through the year, it is not that they're not kids who give her a hard time--there is the typical bully who likes to slander and ridicule and mock all the lowly students she deems unworthy--but she finds a great support system.

But this book is about more than being a Muslim. It is about being a teen. It is about being not quite grown-up and having growing pains. Of wanting more freedom than parents are willing to allow. It is about friendships. Amal hangs out with her friends. All the time. Friends are what her world revolves around at times. And the book does a great job in fleshing out these characters and their families.

So the issues faced are in many, many ways that of a typical teen. She is a teen with problems and issues that most kids can relate to and understand. But she is unique too. It's all a balancing act between being 'just like everyone else--especially your friends' and 'being yourself.' Which again I think is fairly normal stuff. At times Amal seems mature, and at other times immature. Sometimes she seems wise, sometimes she seems foolish.

Anyway, what annoyed me at times was Amal's behavior. At times she was disrespectful to her parents and to authority figures in general. And the same things that annoy me about other teen heroines--such as Georgia Nicolson--annoy me about Amal. She can be at times a bit whiny in spots. She can be disrespectful and sarcastic in her narration. But overall I do like her. And I did enjoy this book.

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