Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trying To Mix Old And New

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah is an ambitious book that I think would have been better served with a third-person narrator.

Amal is a stereotypical teenage girl protagonist in a contemporary teen school story. She and her two school friends (one of Japanese descent, the other a voluptuous young woman who believes she's overweight) are a traditional slightly outsider (but not so outcast readers won't want to identify with them) trio. They suffer at the hands of the school mean girl and her posse, obsess about boys, complain about teachers and preparing for standardized tests. You've read all this before.

What makes the book different is that Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian who has just decided to start wearing a hijab, or head scarf. Her personal story is interesting. The story of her second set of sidekicks from her old Islamic school is interesting.

The problem, I think, is that in trying to show that Amal can be Muslim and just like everybody else, we have to read a lot of the same old, same old in which she does, indeed, seem just like everybody else. I think getting rid of the first-person narrator could have helped eliminate that. Sure Amal's voice is often witty, but she's witty just like all those other teen girl main characters hoping to become the next Georgia Nicolson. I started skipping the school girl stuff very early on.

Though the material about Amal's Muslim family and their extended connections was far more interesting, Amal the first-person narrator sometimes told us factual information about her life as if she were part of a documentary. A couple of times while I was reading this book I thought that the material I was reading would have made a great Newsweek article. Again, I think that might have been avoided with a third-person narrator.

Does My Head Look Big In This? has a great concept and some interesting material. I just felt the book would have worked better if the concept and material had been handled differently.

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