Aliya is a young Muslim Indian trying to navigate the 5th grade. She struggles with lessons from school and Sunday school, with being a fraidy-cat, with not standing out. She starts really questioning things when Marwa moves to town. Marwa is so self-assured whereas Aliya is always scared to stand out. Marwa wears her hijab with confidence, it is just part of who she is; Aliya can’t keep hers on her head during prayers and wouldn’t dream of wearing it all the time. The girls might come from different cultures but their religion brings them together and allows Aliya to become more confident in who she is. She starts writing letters to Allah. At first they are complain-filled pages, but soon she is working on getting out of the hole (as her mother tells her). She starts standing up for herself and becoming more confident in who she is. Aliya is surrounded by a multi-generational family who helps her with her questions and explorations. She also has good friends both at school and at Sunday School.
I respected the fact that Zia didn’t shy away from the hard questions and the discrimination that many Muslims face after 9/11. She illustrates how it affects everyone at every age and how their is no real reason for it. I enjoyed the glimpse into Muslim life since I really have no first-hand knowledge of the religion or its practices. I thought it was great to illustrate that Aliya is really no different than any of the other kids in her class. She may be Muslim, but she still worries about bullies, boys and being popular just like everyone else. I think we sometimes forget that not being Christian doesn’t make you un-American; it just means you practice a different faith. On the inside we all worry about the same things no matter what age we are. A great lesson for readers of any age.