The Green Bicycle

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Green Bicycle Book Poster Image
Funny, poignant, cheer-worthy tale of spirited Saudi girl.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Daily life in Saudi Arabia, as seen by an independent-minded 11-year-old girl, will be a constant revelation to most Western kids, who will find a lot to think about here. Issues such as religion-based government, strongly enforced gender roles, and extreme conformity to conventional norms get very personal, which will lead to interesting discussion. There's a lot of detail about Islam and the Quran and how they're integral to everyday life. There's also some explanation of the region's history and pop culture, which seems to thrive under the radar of the religious police, appearing in small moments, such as when the mall vendor tells Wadjda he doesn't want to buy her bracelets because he can get thousands for the same price from China.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about never giving up on your dreams, finding your own way, standing up for your loved ones, and empathizing with those less fortunate than you. Also that people are kind, mean, or sometimes both. And even when life is treating you really unfairly, help can come from the unlikeliest sources.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Wadjda is no goody-two-Chucks: She has a thriving business in forbidden mixtapes and bracelets at school till she's busted, makes a lot of snarky remarks to adults, plays a role when older girls get into more serious trouble, and doesn't stand up for them when she thinks she should. But she also works hard, loves her parents, is a loyal (if manipulative) friend to Abdullah, and is relentless in pursuing her goals, no matter who laughs at her or stands in her way. Eleven-year-old Abdullah is a champ, allowing Wadjda to involve him in her loony schemes, teaching her to ride his bike and, even, against his better judgment, escorting her on a mission to a bad part of town -- and then stepping up to save the day. Wadjda's mother is strong and protective in a culture where she has no value because she can't produce sons and is trying to do right by her daughter.

Violence

Much of the violence here is emotional: A girl's life constricted because she's a girl, a wife dumped because she can't bear sons, teachers and a school system whose main goal seems to be bullying girls into conformity and submission. In one passage, Abdullah talks about how dying for Allah isn't supposed to hurt.

Sex

This is puritanical Saudi Arabia, so there's little more than flirtatious banter in the tale (between married people), and girls aren't allowed to touch the Quran if they're having their period. A girl sneaks off for a car ride with her boyfriend, is promptly busted by the religious police, and is confined to her house till her family can marry her off. A classmate of 11-year-old Wadjda gets married but continues to come to school. Two hip, fun-loving older girls are falsely accused of lesbianism. Male construction workers leer and shout crude remarks to Wadjda as she walks by the building site, which she finds strange and scary. Everybody in town seems to know the story of how, in her teenage days, the school's straitlaced principal was involved with a boy who narrowly escaped from her bedroom when her family interrupted the tryst. Wadjda is told girls aren't allowed to ride bikes, because, among other things, they won't be able to have children if they do. Also, bikes are a threat to "purity," causing Wadjda's mom to freak out when Wadjda's bleeding (from a skinned knee) after a bike mishap: "Oh, thank God it's only your knee! I can't imagine what we'd do if the fall had harmed your virginity."

Language
Consumerism

Wadjda loves her Chuck Taylors and has a thriving business selling mixtapes of Western artists such as Justin Bieber and Beyoncé to her classmates. A classmate gets in trouble for having a Twilight backpack.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Green Bicycle, Haifaa al Mansour's book version of her acclaimed film Wadjda, is the story of a spirited 11-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia, which is not the easiest place to be a spirited girl. Her best friend's a boy, he has a bike, and she wants one so they can race, but she quickly hits the wall of restrictive gender stereotypes that forbid girls to do any such thing. Meanwhile, her father's being pressured to take a second wife because Wadjda's mom can't bear sons. There are a lot of positive, uplifting messages here about family, friendship, loyalty, hard work, determination, and following your dreams and also some fleshing out of culturally significant details from the movie. The window into daily life in present-day Saudi Arabia will be a revelation to many Western kids, from the practical difficulties of commuting to work when you're forbidden to drive because you're a woman, to a Saudi stock-market crash that wiped out many people's life savings.

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What's the story?

In present-day Riyadh, the fast-growing capital of Saudi Arabia, 11-year-old Wadjda stands out from her classmates, especially for her much-loved Chuck Taylors that serve her well running around town with her BFF Abdullah. When he gets a bike, she wants one, too, so they can race, and she quickly sets her heart on a beautiful green bike that just turned up in a local shop. She soon learns that Good Muslim Girls aren't allowed to ride bikes, whatever girls do in those Western magazines. She refuses to take no for an answer, setting to work to earn the money to buy her dream bike. When she's busted at school for selling bracelets and mixtapes of forbidden Western music, she's determined to win the prize money in the school's Quran contest.

Is it any good?

This book treatment of the movie Wadjda offers a cultural epiphany to many Western readers about daily life in Saudi Arabia, especially resonating with kids who have non-stereotypical interests. Readers will root for Wadjda, laugh at her snarky remarks, feel her pain as the story progresses, and be left with lots to think about.

As a book, THE GREEN BICYCLE often fleshes out, at some length, the movie's quick visual details, as in the backstory about the late crooner whose songs Wadjda's mom loves to sing, or explanations of how women cope with various restrictions, such as being at the mercy of a cranky driver or a mean mother-in-law. This sometimes bogs the story down just a bit, but it pays off in a better understanding of life in a different culture.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories of kids living in other countries. Does learning about their experiences make you look at your own world differently?

  • Do you think you'd like to live in Saudi Arabia or at least visit for a while? What would you really want to check out? What would you miss about home?

  • Among your own friends and classmates, are there rules (official or otherwise) about what girls and boys are supposed to do, how they're supposed to behave, and the like? Are there any differences? How do they compare to the rules for Wadjda and her friends?

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