"Are you sure it is okay to have those kinds of books in the library?" my colleague asked me in a hushed tone, while perusing several books featuring religion that I'd chosen for our annual eighth grade realistic fiction project. He then furtively glanced around to make sure no one outside of our group could hear our conversation. My other colleagues also voiced their concerns, nervously reminding me of another teacher who had recently been the subject of an administrative reprimand over a book she had given to a student that the student's parent had found extremely objectionable.
Every year the eighth grade students in our school complete a realistic fiction project in which they form small book clubs of two to three students, with each group reading the same book of their choice. This format allows the students to explore the book and its issues in depth. My part in the collaborative effort is to search for a wide variety of books featuring interesting and timely topics that I present in a series of booktalks to the students.
I had fallen in love with the book Does my Head Look Big in This by Randa Abdel-Fattah and decided, after realizing our group neglected to include titles that featured religious experiences, to include it in the books to be used for this project. The story centers on a Muslim teenager, Amal Abdel-Hakim, and the ramifications of her decision to wear her hijab all the time or to "become a 'full-timer,'" as she describes it.
"I can't sleep from stressing about whether I've got the guts to do it. To wear the hijab full-time. 'Full-timers' are what my Muslim friends and I call girls who wear the hijab all the time, which basically means wearing it whenever you're in the presence of males who aren't immediate family. 'Part-timers' like me wear the hijab when we go to the mosque or maybe even when we are having a bad hair day."
Amal's decision also inspires a wide variety of reactions from those closest to her. Her classmates and friends are surprised to see their friend, whom they thought wasn't really, "into the whole Muslim thing," wearing the head scarf, causing some to support her unconditionally and others to resort to making racist comments. Her school principal views Amal's embrace of her religion as a symbol of radicalism and defiance that could give the wrong impression to potential students. She adds to Amal's distress by mistakenly assuming that she is a victim, forced by her family to adhere to Muslim doctrine. Her moderately religious family is compelled to revisit the uncomfortable personal decisions they made to either embrace or deny their religious traditions in order to assimilate into their new, more secular country. Amal is taken aback by the intensity of the emotions the public expression of her religion stirs in others and within herself, but her courageous struggle brings results; it strengthens her determination to express herself, becoming an essential part of her self-identity.
I chose Amal's story not to purposely court controversy but because in my experience the best young adult books, the ones that captivate young adult readers the most, are often the very ones that fearlessly explore challenging and engaging topics. The provocative nature of those topics ignites conversations that are essential to the development of the critical thinking skills that adolescents require to become insightful and intelligent adults.
Still a Taboo
Religious beliefs stem from the most important and revered aspects of our lives, our family traditions, values, culture, and experiences. Young adult books that courageously take on this sensitive subject often invoke a uniquely personal and sharp response. Therefore, it is no surprise that books that dare to feature young adults and their exploration of their religious and spiritual identity are at the center of a deeply personal and passionate debate that has become so contentious that many simply find it easier to not speak of it at all. …