While inviting comparison to Judy Blume’s seminal Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, this likable tale of an Indian-American girl who fears drawing attention from those hostile toward Muslims focuses on the social consequences of religious identity, rather than faith itself.
With Ramadan fast approaching, Sister Khan asks Aliya’s religion class to set Ramadan goals and write about what they learn. She expects Aliya to fast not just weekends but weekdays. (Aliya’s loving, supportive family leaves the decision to her.) Like Margaret before her, Aliya pours out her worries and frets over her late puberty in letters to Allah. Her friend Amal has gotten her period and started covering her head. Asked to befriend a Moroccan girl at her public school who wears hijab and fasts during Ramadan, Aliya’s first annoyed, then intrigued at how Marwa finds a place for herself without sacrificing her religious principles. If the downside of open observance is clear to readers, the beliefs and intentions underlying these religious observances, especially hijab, are not. Hijab’s part of her, Marwa says vaguely. “I feel natural in it.” For Aliya’s mother, who doesn’t wear it, “hijab is a symbol of modesty—a good symbol but a figurative one.”
Omissions aside, Zia’s gentle message—that Muslims come from many cultures whose observances differ, while the long shadow of 9/11 hovers over all—is timely and beautifully conveyed. (Fiction. 8-12)