I shall begin this blog post with another admission: When I see a woman or a girl wearing a head scarf wrapped in that distinctive way, I am inclined to think that she is a victim of a male religious rigidity that finds women's hair to be so sexually tempting that women must be responsible for men's behavior. (I have an equal opportunity bias: I think the same thing about Jewish women who wear wigs.) (Please note that I don't think terrorist.) Randa Abdel-Fattah wants me to think again. And I did, after reading Does My Head Look Big in This?
Its (Australian) spring 2002, and Amal Abdel-Hakim is just about to begin the last semester of year 11 (junior year?) at her elite private school in Sydney (Melbourne?). She's been thinking all during her break about wearing the hijab full-time, and -- inspired by Jennifer Aniston's rendition of "Copacabana" on Friends -- decides to take the plunge. Amal stresses to us that this decision is a reflection of her own maturing Islamic faith, that she was not forced by her father and hijab-wearing mother. The novel sees us through the rest of her school year as friends, family, teachers and mean alpha girls all adjust to Amal's choice.
Abdel-Fattah presents Amal as no different from her classmates -- she inhales pop culture, dishes with her BFFs, obsesses about and flirts with the cute boy, pushes at the non-religious limits her parents set for her; she just wants to have fun. There are a few minor dramas, some life learning occurs, and Amal emerges more confident in her decision.
The librarian in me says "yes!" there is a place for a book that presents Muslim teenagers as "normal" teens, except they dress a little differently (I know that's why I bought it when I was purchasing audiobooks for my library). The cover doesn't shy away from its subject as some book covers appear to do when portraying nonwhite ethnicities. How delightful to have a book about Muslims that is not about terrorists or refugees or something equally horrific (this book mentions the 2002 suicide bombings in Bali, but only in passing). Alas, underneath these reasons lies a not very interesting book. Amal is a cardboard symbol -- she stands for stuff (Muslim women, smart girls, pop culture fiends, etc.), but I don't believe any of it. She's giving me a lecture; a mildly amusing one since Amal is a bright, funny young woman, but it's a lecture nevertheless.
I think the book fails most profoundly in its depiction of religious faith: Amal is constantly telling me how important Islam is to her, but it gets slipped in with the chatty, girly references to lip gloss, Jennifer Aniston, Everybody Loves Raymond (did teenage girls actually watch this?), and the sexy forearms of crush Adam, and I never felt that it was nearly as important to her as those things. Except on the most superficial level (cue the part of the lecture about how the hijab is a way that a Muslim woman shows her respect for God), I really don't understand why Amal chooses to "shawl up" full time. (For an example of a novel that does help me to understand faith: I utterly believed in the faith lived and expressed by Ronald Earl Pettway in Days of Little Texas.)
Does My Head ... was originally published in Australia, and the audiobook hails from there as well. Rebecca Macauley reads, and she brings to the first-person narration the appropriate peppiness, teen vocalese, and sincerity. I had no problems tuning my ear to the Australian delivery (a problem I've occasionally had in the past), so I didn't spend the first disc going "huh?" I noticed the last time I listened to her Macauley had some narrator tics that annoyed me, but I didn't hear them on this book (maybe my "Odyssey ears" are finally calming down). She is consistent with the book's many characters, and considering she's got to create seven different teenage girls, I think she does pretty well. I do like the way that Macauley's vocal mannerisms and accent firmly place this book in its Down Under location, it would simply not have been the same if it had been read by a Yankee. I'm glad that Bolinda continues to sell its books in the U.S.
This book is a nominee for the 2010 Young Readers' Choice Award. I can't vote, but if I could, it would be Arnold Spirit Jr. hands down!