The Green Bicycle is a middle grade novel based on the feature film Wadjda—the first Saudi Arabian produced film directed by a woman. The director, Haifaa Al Mansour, is the author of the book. I haven’t seen the movie, but I can say that sometimes when books are based on movies (instead of the other way around), they feel incomplete or are paced awkwardly. Not so here. This novel is really well-written, with short chapters that keep the plot moving.
Eleven-year-old Wadjda is not interested in doing what she’s supposed to do. She’s a rebel, an entrepreneur, and more than anything, she wants to buy a new green bicycle she’s spotted at a shop so she can race her friend Abdullah. Two problems. Girls are not supposed to ride bicycles, and the bicycle costs 800 riyals—an enormous sum that Wadjda doesn’t have.
My favorite thing about this novel is Wadjda’s character. She is such a refreshing representation of an Arab girl. She’s brave, thinks for herself, and has a big heart. This novel is full of girls and women who are struggling to find their place in a society with very little wiggle room for difference. Wadjda demonstrates empathy and even comes to the rescue a few times, but she also challenges the status quo in her heart. She’s not afraid to question the way things are. She’s also stubborn and ambitious; obstacles in her path are challenges she’s excited to conquer. From the first moment she sees the bike, she wants it, and while the price tag is discouraging, she won’t be discouraged. She comes up with a plan to use her business sense to make the money herself.
Unfortunately, there was so much else that I disliked about this novel. The first thing is that this book falls into the category of “the-character’s-biggest-problem-is-her-faith.” This category is problematic on its own, and it’s even more problematic given the dearth of fair representations of Muslims and Islam. To be perfectly clear, the problems Wadjda faces are in reality “I-live-in-Saudi-Arabia” problems and are unrelated to her Islam. But the book doesn’t make that clear.
And that’s the second big problem I had with this novel: I disliked the way the book dealt with the setting. While I do believe that settings should be honestly portrayed, there is a difference between honestly portraying the negative parts of a setting and taking your feelings about a country out on your portrayal. Al Mansour’s portrayal of Saudi Arabia felt like a vendetta. After reading the book, I could not name one positive thing about the country, and that just can’t be right. And I’m not saying it’s the author’s job to put a spin on the country, but I do think that the negative portrayal of the country is excessive enough that it gets in the way of Wadjda’s story. For example, of her mother’s two subplots, I liked the work subplot, but thought her marriage subplot should have been cut. Wadjda’s mother marriage actually had very little to do with Wadjda’s story. It came across to me as an attempt to throw as many oppressed women into the novel as possible.
I’m still holding out for a book set in Saudi Arabia that I can really love. Please send recommendations my way!
If you’ve read this book or seen the movie, let me know what you thought in the comments! I’d love to hear!
And here is the movie trailer.