Published by Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on June 13, 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Goodreads Synopsis: Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.
There are three kinds of people in my world: 1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose. 2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad. Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds. But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right? 3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Like the monster at my mosque. People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.
S.K. Ali’s debut novel Saints and Misfits is a beautifully written coming of age book about family, friendship, love, religious faith, and so much more. It’s also a book that focuses on the importance of not judging people, of not making assumptions about people you don’t even know based on how they look or how they’re dressed, or maybe even how religious or not religious they may seem. Saints and Misfits tackles all of these important themes and allows us to explore them through the eyes of a hijabi teen, Janna Yusuf, as she navigates her way through life in her high school, at home, and in her Muslim community.
For the most part, Janna’s life is just like many other teens. Her parents are divorced and Janna shares an apartment with her mother and her older brother, Muhammad. Janna, a sophomore in high school, is fairly popular at school, works hard to get good grades, and is also starting to become interested in boys. Outside of school, Janna keeps herself busy with a part-time job taking care of her elderly neighbor Mr. Ram and also by pitching in as a photographer and website maintainer at the mosque where her uncle serves as Imam.
Janna is also a young woman with two very big secrets that she is trying to keep hidden from her loved ones and her community: 1) that she is attracted to Jeremy, a cute non-Muslim boy from school and she’s afraid that her family will not approve, and 2) that while attending a party at her friend Fizz’s house, Janna is nearly raped by Fizz’s cousin, Farooq. Janna is traumatized and ashamed about what happened with Farooq but is afraid to tell anyone because Farooq is a very well- respected member of their close-knit Muslim community. She doesn’t think anyone will believe her. Janna’s experience is made all the more traumatic by the fact that Farooq seems to turn up nearly everywhere she goes, lurking in the background, almost as if he’s stalking her. Janna’s two secrets drive much of the book’s storyline as she must decide what to do about each of them. Will she choose to pursue her attraction to Jeremy and perhaps have to deal with the disapproval of her loved ones? And will she find her voice and speak out against Farooq, to let her community know that he’s not a man to be revered and respected, but instead, he’s really a monster?
There’s so much to love about Saints and Misfits, but I’d have to say my favorite part is the wonderful cast of characters.
Janna. I adored everything about Janna. She’s super smart, hilarious, a little bit snarky, and just an all-around likeable character, probably one of the most likeable characters I’ve read so far this year. As if all of that wasn’t cool enough, Janna is also a Flannery O’Connor loving book nerd! If I had gone to school with Janna, I totally would have wanted to be friends with her. I also found her voice to be authentic and I loved seeing the events of the story unfold from her perspective. Her journey to find herself and to ultimately decide what kind of person she wants to be is such a compelling one.
Muhammad. Janna’s older brother Muhammad is a great character too. He’s a typical annoying older brother at times, but he’s also just an all around good guy. He’s protective of both his mother and his little sister, and he’s also adorably head over heels in love with his girlfriend, who Janna has dubbed “Saint Sarah” because the girl appears to be perfect in nearly every way. (Janna learns that she’s wrong to make such a judgment about Sarah—that Sarah is human and has a past just like everyone else — but I’ll leave the details about that for you to discover on your own).
Sausun. After Janna, Sausun is probably my next favorite character. I loved Sausun because she comes across as kind of a badass. She’s tough, not easy to impress, and she wears a niqab accessorized by Doc Martens. She also hosts a hilarious YouTube show called Niqabi Ninjas, which she says she does to “lighten things up” so that people won’t be afraid of her and of other Niqabi (girls who cover their faces, in contrast to hijabis like Janna who just cover their hair). What I loved most about Sausun though was how she steps up and gives Janna the metaphorical kick in the pants that she needs to try to stand up to Farooq.
Nuah. Nuah is such a loveable character. I loved this guy so much. Janna meets him at the senior center where she takes her neighbor, Mr. Ram, every week. Where Farooq’s presence suffocates and overwhelms Janna, Nuah’s presence puts her at ease and whether she realizes it or not, she’s more herself around Nuah than she is around any another male we see her with in the story. Nuah is super sweet, always sees the bright side of things, and loves to tell jokes and be silly. He’s a big hit with all of the seniors at the center, and he also clearly likes Janna even though she doesn’t seem to realize it. As we learn during the course of the story, Nuah also is truly devout as opposed to the fake Farooq, who may have memorized the entire Quran but clearly has no interest in what it actually means.
There are also tons of really likeable secondary characters as well, like Janna’s uncle, who runs an advice column as part of his duties for the mosque. He sends his answers to Janna so that she can edit/proofread them, so we get to see them as well. He always has such warm and witty responses to the questions that are asked of him. You can’t help but chuckle when reading them.
In addition to the fabulous cast of characters, I also loved the realistic representation of the Muslim community. Janna’s community is close-knit and supportive, with everyone pitching in and helping wherever they can. I loved the positive depiction, which is so important these days when there are those who constantly try to demonize Muslims. Ali does a wonderful job of illustrating that the Muslim community is just like almost every community out there, and she does it in a realistic way. Yes, the community is positive overall and filled with caring people, but also like any other community out there, it has its issues as well, in this case the issue being Farooq.
Diversity. Saints and Misfits is overflowing with diversity in the most wonderful way. As I’ve already mentioned, the novel is set in a Muslim community and most of the main characters are Muslim, with both Hijabis and Niqabis being represented. On a side note, while I’m thinking about the different types of coverings that can be worn, one of the things I really loved about the book was how Ali illustrates that just like with any other religion, different people interpret the Quran in different ways and thus their practice of the religion is very individualized. Just like not all Christians are the same, not all Muslims are the same either.
But the diversity doesn’t end there. In addition to being Muslim, Janna is also half-Egyptian and half-Indian. Mr. Ram, the neighbor Janna cares for, is Hindu, and Ms. Kolbinsky, another elderly neighbor (who happens to have a crush on Mr. Ram!) is newly arrived from Poland.
That it’s over? Seriously. I adored Janna and her friends so much and would definitely be up for reading more about them, especially some of the characters that we just barely scratched the surface on. I’d totally be up for a standalone book on Sausun, Nuah, or even Janna’s brother Muhammad.
Saints and Misfits is an important novel because of the themes it explores and because of its realistic depiction of a Muslim community. What makes this book even more special though is that it’s not just an important read, it’s a beautifully written and engaging read as well, one of my favorites of the year so far.
I read an article in Entertainment Weekly this week about books that should be made into TV shows and Saints and Misfits was one of the books on the list. I actually really hope it happens because I think it with such a diverse and vibrant cast of characters, it would make for a very entertaining show.
RATING: 5 STARS
Thanks so much to S.K. Ali, Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, and Netgalley for the opportunity to preview this book.