I loved this book so much that I’m splitting the conversation into two parts—the non-spoiler review that follows, and a spoilery discussion of the book, which you can find here.
Saints and Misfits, by S.K. Ali, is the book that I’ve been holding my breath for since I was fourteen years old. It perfectly captures what it’s like for Muslim teens growing up in America—trying to practice Islam when they’re still sorting out what the shape of that Islam is and how it fits together with the rest of their life.
The novel opens with Janna Yusuf in the water at the beach, scanning the coast to choose the perfect moment to come out—when no one is paying attention to her and her awkward burkini. She emerges, water squelching out everywhere and the black fabric getting covered in sand, only to be berated by her dad, “Janna, why do you have to wear that thing?”
It’s the perfect moment to describe the American-Muslim experience—young people caught between all kinds of rocks and hard places. Janna’s parents are divorced, and she is on vacation with her dad and her stepmom. He wants to know why she can’t wear a one-piece like the one Linda is wearing; Janna explains to her dad, “I’m a hijabi, remember?” Janna is caught between her dad, on the less-practicing end of the Muslim spectrum, and her mom and brother, who agree on everything.
This book is a riff on the high school social class system: geeks, jocks, preppy, nerds, emo, etc. But in Janna’s Muslim version, there are saints, misfits, and monsters. She is a misfit, and she is dealing with a monster.
Janna, who is a sophomore, loves Flannery O’Connor and photography; she works part-time as caretaker for an elderly Hindu neighbor, Mr. Ram. Like many American-Muslims, she has two best friends. Her best friend at high school, Tats, encourages her to pursue a relationship with her crush—Jeremy. Her best friend at mosque, Fizz, is a saint—a member of the prominent and pious Noor family. But Fizz’s cousin Farooq, memorizer of the Quran and the community’s favorite teen, is a monster. The plot follows Janna’s real life: she has finals at school, gets involved in a quiz bowl competition at her mosque, and tries to make good choices that are true to who she wants to be.
True to YA form, this book deals with serious issues like stalking and sexual assault. It also deals with family, culture, religion, divorce, academic integrity, and interfaith relationships.
Saints and Misfits captures the unfortunately judgmental side of Muslim communities in the US. “Saints” are a real thing in our communities—the Quran-memorizing youth who lead activities at the mosque and are lauded to the skies by adults. Ali scrapes at the veneer of piety (a hijab or a beard) to show all of her characters as human beings, trying hard, and making mistakes as they go.
One of the things that I really loved about this book was its representation of niqab. Sausun, a fellow quiz-bowler, starts wearing it partway through the story, and Janna’s description of it was spot-on for me. To begin with, Sausun is a black robe and Doc Marten-wearing passive-aggressive vegetarian, who is incredibly smart and doesn’t take anything from anyone. In niqab, Janna describes her as “elegantly aloof” and “like she’s excused herself from the proceedings of life’s unnecessariness.” They are about to appear on local television, and Janna says, “My niggling admiration for Sausun blossoms as she casually waves away the makeup people, like some diva ninja.” What I love about this description is that Sausun’s niqab is a part of the way she expresses herself; it accentuates the Sausun in her. Instead of covering her up, it’s bringing her out.
Another element that I thought was fantastic was the Dear Imam column that Janna edits for her uncle, who is the imam at the mosque. These columns were a great way to talk about Islam, without talking about Islam. They were both a description of everything that is beautiful about Islam and a sharp indictment of everything that is wrong with our communities. For example, “Dear Imam, is it permissible to eat llamas? And Dear Imam, are we allowed to pray in a barn if there are pigs nearby?” versus—
Dear Imam, I love to wear non-Muslim clothes. Especially the fashionable ones from the mall . . . But my brothers, all three of them, they dress Islamically . . . How do I change and become more pious like them?
Answer: First, let me commend you on your interest in following Islamic precepts in your life. However, I did not know, until I read your question, that clothes have a religion . . .
Saints and Misfits has a lot of subplots, but Ali skillfully weaves everything together to represent one life—Janna Yusuf. Her characters are real enough that this is not a book at all in my mind, but a neighboring mosque and its community. I’m thrilled to finally see a realistic representation of the teen American-Muslim experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in YA.
If you’ve read Saints and Misfits, you can read my spoilery discussion here.
Saints and Misfits is published by Salaam Reads (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) and you can buy a copy here.