A Very Large Expanse of Sea
By Mary Eisenhart,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Muslim teen busts stereotypes in bitterly funny school tale.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Shows what the U.S. was like in the wake of 9/11, emotions and day-to-day realities, especially about prejudice, hatred, and general cluelessness about other people. Lots about Persian culture, breakdancing and its roots, as well as references to books such as Harry Potter. Also bits of Farsi dialogue, translated.
Strong messages of family, friendship, tolerance, diversity, kindness, and choosing to overcome ignorance -- your own, and other people's. Also the ability of music and shared interest to bring people together.
"The energy was palpable. Music was reverberating against the walls and ceilings, the bass pulsing in my eardrums. In here, people didn't seem to care at all about me; no one looked at me, eyes merely glanced off my face and body as they scanned the room. I didn't know why it suddenly didn't matter what I looked like, why my appearance garnered no reactions. Maybe it was because the self-selecting demographic in here was different. I was surrounded by diverse bodies and faces; I was hearing Spanish in one ear and Chinese in the other. We were white and black and brown brought together by a single interest.
"I loved it.
"Somehow I knew, in that moment, that all that mattered in this particular world was talent. If I were a decent breakdancer, these people would respect me. Here, I could be more than the settings applied to my life by society.
"It was all I'd ever wanted."
Positive Role Models
Shirin and Ocean both have to deal with a lot of pressure, expectations, and stereotyping in their lives, and don't always behave in ways adults would consider wise -- e.g. cutting class, making out in a public spot, getting into verbal and physical fights. But they develop a deep trust and unselfish concern for each other that gets them through a lot of obstacles. Shirin's survivor-striver parents are warm, caring -- and not actively involved in their kids' lives outside the home because they're always working. Her brother Navid and his friends offer wisdom, support, and tough love.
Violence & Scariness
Shirin and other Muslim kids suffer constant prejudice, bigotry, and threats of violence. In the wake of 9/11, a bunch of bullies attack high-school freshman Shirin, knock her down, and try to rip the hijab from her head; the cops don't arrest them, pretty much tell her she asked for it, and suggest that she might be an abuse victim (because she's religious) and should call Child Protective Services. Her parents have survived terrible hardships and atrocities en route to America. A teen punches his coach.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Sexual banter. Numerous make-out sessions, including one in front of a lot of people, with intense kissing but not much more. In one scene, a teen couple is kissing, she accidentally touches him under his sweater, and they're both so startled it breaks the mood a bit.
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Shirin's polite mom would like her to stop swearing, but she doesn't. Profanity and crude language on most pages, including "f--k," "s--t," "crap,", "dick," "ass," "damn," "hell," "goddamn," "Jesus Christ!" etc. Haters use similar expressions in expressing their prejudice and what they think other people should do.
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Products & Purchases
Occasional mentions of products, such as iPod, Cheerios, Nissan. Also vintage TV shows, such as Matlock. Frequent references to Vogue and fashion designers, such as Alexander McQueen.
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.
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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
- 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
- Last updated: January 13, 2020
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