CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 13 . . . . December 1, 2017
Fifteen year old Syrian immigrant Sadia Ahmadi is crazy about basketball. Chosen for her Winnipeg high school's co-ed tournament team, she struggles as her best friend Nazreen ditches her hijab to fit in, her teammate Josh seems to want to be more than friends, and she is assigned to be translator and host to bewildered Syrian refugee Amira Nasser. Wearing Nazreen's hand-sewn sports hijab, she is set to be a star of the tournament until the referee challenges her uniform choice as being against regulation. Her teammates and schoolmates express outrage and defiance, convincing all but one team to waive the rules, leaving Sadia choosing to sit out that game to avoid forfeit. With Sadia in the final playoff, her team wins the tournament, deftly changing their postgame party to one more acceptable to Sadia's parents.
Reminiscent of Randa Abdel Fattah's excellent Does My Head Look Big in This?, Sadia is a timely, quintessentially Canadian, and highly relevant exploration of what it means to be Muslim and Canadian in the teenage years. Writing with a view to appealing to teens of both genders and all backgrounds, Nelson puts the ball games in the foreground, reflecting this generation's navigation of complex cross cultural issues with the simplicity and forthrightness of teambuilding and common goals. A teacher-librarian, Nelson also sets these struggles squarely within the realm of curriculum, with global issues teacher Mr. Letner acting as both basketball coach and inspirational educator.
Sadia's struggles are at once the same as those faced by all female teens in YA novels and different because they focus on the meaning she derives from prayer, modest dress, and faithfulness to family. Sadia's relationship with Nazreen is complex, the gap between them growing as they choose different paths to social acceptance and then shrinking as they find common cause in defending Sadia's right to play. Sadia's family, too, goes through familiar conflicts over freedom, responsibility, and tradition, but with twists experienced more acutely in immigrant families. Sadia's brother, Aazim, struggles to find a way to hide his acting activities from parents who are pushing him into medicine until Sadia forces the issue by tricking her parents into seeing the play Aazim is starring in.
On occasion, a few story twists might seem too good to be true. When Sadia confronts Josh about not being able to date boys, he tells her, "I like you. Knowing we can't go out doesn't change that." And teammate Jillian is so anxious to include Sadia and Nazreen in their celebrations that she ditches her planned wild party while her parents are away for a more staid restaurant dinner. But the easy flow and strong writing of this book make these believable, evoking strong sympathy in the reader.
This book comes at a time when it is most needed, offering a powerful and positive antidote to knee jerk racism and social media fuelled culture wars. It is also a remarkable example of a talented author finding a way to speak, through research and experience, in the voice of someone with a different life experience. But moreover, it is a compelling, tightly written, and keenly heartfelt story with a classic identity conflict in the midst of flawed humanity. That the humans in this story are, on balance, overwhelmingly tilted towards acceptance, empathy, and insight says as much about contemporary Canadian teens as it does about the sheer convincing narrative that Nelson weaves. Sadia may be a little too perfect at times, but it hits the mark.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and Past President of the Ontario Library Association.