A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Iranian American author Tahereh Mafi (Whichwood), is a fiery, relatable, quasi-autobiographical novel of being a post-9/11 Muslim high school sophomore. Main character Shirin wears a hijab, swears like a sailor, loves breakdancing -- and against all odds, falls in love with the most popular, good-looking basketball player in her sports-crazy school. His name is Ocean (hence the title), and he feels the same about her. There's quite a bit about the harmful effects of prejudice and stereotyping -- and how to overcome your own bias and see things as someone else does, which forms a positive contrast to the barrage of hateful or clueless behavior from many teens and adults. There's lots about the experience of growing up as the child of refugee immigrants and the struggle to be and be seen as yourself without all the baggage others put on you. Frequent strong language includes "f--k," "s--t," "d--k," "goddamn," "Jesus Christ!" and more. There are numerous make-out sessions and sexual banter. Shirin and other Muslim kids suffer constant prejudice, bigotry, and threats of violence. Bullies attack her in freshman year, knock her down, and try to rip the hijab from her head.
What's the story?
It's 2002, and 16-year-old Muslim teen Shirin's planning to get through the school year the same way she's gotten through school for years, by not engaging with anybody -- but A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA, in the form of Ocean, her lab partner, intervenes. Thanks to her striving, upwardly mobile parents, who fled Iran for the United States and never stop working, she's in a new town and a new school every year anyway, so it's not like there's any point making friends. In the wake of an incident at her last school, when 9/11-inflamed hooligans threw her to the ground and tried to rip her hijab from her head, only to go free when a cop essentially said she asked for it, not engaging seems like a really good plan. But then her brother Navid, the popular one, recruits her for a breakdancing team. And she and Ocean fall in love, leading to many misunderstandings between them and a lot of hostility from others.
Is it any good?
As she herself suggests, this heartfelt, poignant, bitterly funny tale of a foul-mouthed Muslim teen trying to survive post-9/11 high school is the book Tahereh Mafi's been trying to write all along. Confronted with A Very Large Expanse of Sea, i.e. her lab partner and unexpected love interest Ocean, narrator Shirin learns quite a bit about overcoming some of her own prejudices as well as surviving those of others. In the process we learn a lot about Muslim daily life and culture -- and what it means to different people. In addition to a lot of crude language, there are many life lessons and unexpected sweet moments, as well as a growing sense of empathy with troubles other than your own.
"People had been s---ting on me for having the wrong name/race/religion and socioeconomic status since as far back as I could remember, but my life had been so easy in comparison to my parents' own upbringing that they genuinely couldn't understand why I didn't wake up singing every morning. ... When I was a kid and would tell my mom that people at school were mean to me, she'd pat me on the head and tell me stories about how she'd lived through war and an actual revolution, and when she was fifteen someone cracked open her skull in the middle of the street while her best friend was gutted like a fish so hey, why don't you just eat your Cheerios and walk it off, you ungrateful American child."
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about prejudice and its effects in daily life. Have you seen verbal and physical abuse, like that in A Very Large Expanse of Sea, used against people that others don't like? What do they do? How do their victims cope?
Can you think of any other examples in history where some event like a war caused people to behave badly to those with whom they've previously lived in harmony? How did it turn out?
How do you think the challenges Shirin's family faces compare to those faced by immigrant families you know?
- Author: Tahereh Mafi
- Genre: Emotions
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts, Arts and Dance, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, High School, History, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: HarperTeen
- Publication date: October 16, 2018
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 13 - 18
- Number of pages: 320
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
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