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I heard about A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi months ago, and when I saw it on a list of must read books for YA I was intrigued. It’s about Shirin, a 16 year old American girl who is also an Iranian Muslim. She wears a head scarf and is subjected to the fear, prejudice and racism of others in the aftermath of 9/11. In her new school she meets Ocean, an all-American boy who seems to see her for who she is and not what she looks like. Can they be together, or will outside forces tear them apart?
The official description:
It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments–even the physical violence–she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her–they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds–and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
One of the reasons I love books is that they have the ability to draw you out of your own world and see things from a perspective that you never would otherwise. This book does that. I sped through it. I was appalled that some of the things happen at all. And appreciative that some of them would have very different outcomes today in the age of cellphones and video cameras.
The racism, prejudice and fear exhibited by characters young and old is astounding, but realistic. I want to say that times have changed, but with these same things showing up on the news daily, it is sad to say they haven’t.
At first the tone and pacing of the writing was annoying in it’s juvenility. But then I quickly reminded myself that duh, it’s meant to be for juveniles, not adults, so I didn’t mind.
The way it’s written, I felt like I was just hanging out with Shirin, and she was telling me what her sophomore year in high school was like. Not stream of consciousness exactly, but as a great story teller. She knew what parts to skip and which ones to focus on to help me get to know her story.
The main characters we’re pretty well fleshed out and had some depth to them, which is always good. But there were also some characters that existed just to provide some drama at times.
I, as a white woman who grew up as a member of the majority religion in a non diverse state, obviously have no personal experience with this. The only Middle Eastern person I knew was my best friend. She was also Catholic, and the beloved valedictorian; so I got no education in the complexities of race, racism or what it’s like to be misjudged because of fear. That is the reason books like this need to exist. To educate the privileged. One of the profound passages is this:
“I tried to tell him that the bigots and the racists had always been there, and he said he’d honestly never seen them like this, that he never thought they could be like this, and I said yes, I know. I said that’s how privilege works. He was stunned.”Shirin, a Very Large Expanse of Sea
This book draws you in and makes you want to know what will happen next, because there is something heart pounding in either it’s awesomeness or in its awfulness whenever characters interact.
Read this book. It was an education. And also a reflection on what it means to be human, the feelings of first love and the profound affect we have on each other for good or bad.
Age Range: I’d say grades 8+, but possibly for advanced 12-13 year olds.
Side note, there is a fair amount of swearing, mostly by Shirin, so proceed with caution.
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