A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Genre: Young Adult
Maturity Level: 5
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It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea was everything I was expecting it to be, and then so much more. It was like The Hate U Give meets Eleanor & Park. I felt all of the feels, but I also had to walk in the shoes of someone completely different than me. I swooned, and I also examined my own privilege. This book was everything, and everyone in America should read it.
I honestly don’t even know where to begin. I’ve read books about social change, books about minority groups, but I think this might be the first (serious) book I’ve ever read about an American girl who chose to wear a hijab. I couldn’t believe the abuse and bullying Shirin endured from the teens and adults in her community. What’s worse, I know from people in my own past that this is in no way exaggerated for effect.
The biggest surprise for me was how … normal Shirin was. I think, perhaps, when we have these books that are marketed largely based on the social change aspect, we see the main character as an idea rather than a person. Add to it that for the first several chapters Shirin mostly communicates anger and frustration at her situation, I was completely shocked the first time she brought up something as completely normal as break dancing or AIM. She very quickly moves from the role of angry-minority-educating-the-reader to the role of regular-teenage-girl-who-just-happens-to-wear-a-hijab.
And geez, did I love Shirin. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to tell the reader how she felt. I loved that she had no idea what anyone around her was thinking. I loved that she loved her dad. I loved that she listened to music during class. I loved that she bought break dancing VHSs from the secondhand store. I loved that she continued to wear a hijab when it would have been easier to take it off. I loved that she had no idea she was falling in love.
Yes, this is a love story. Mafi, let me say, writes YA kissing scenes as well as anyone in the business. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve ever been as attracted to anyone as Shirin is to Ocean. Their chemistry was electric. And Ocean … You’ve never met a teenage boy as steady and determined as Ocean. This is one of those YA books that I know people probably complained the characters didn’t act or talk like actual teenagers, but screw them. Ocean was exactly what Shirin needed in order to learn to see the world as complexly as I learned to see her.
The ending! The ending was perfect.
But y’all, this book wasn’t easy. At one point I was so angry that I had to put it down and walk away. Shirin is bullied in a way that was more intense and realistic than anything I’ve ever read before. And honestly, my anger was half directed at myself. Because I realized that when I was in high school I wouldn’t have understood why it was such a big deal. It made me wonder how my own attitude contributed to the negative experience of my Muslim peers. It made me wonder if I ever asked something idiotic and ignorant. It made me wonder if I saw these young women as people. And I was forced to conclude that even if I didn’t make things worse, I certainly didn’t make them better.
Thank you, Tahereh Mafi, for making teenagers better.
Guys, you have to read this book if you haven’t, especially if you’re American. It will change the way you look at the world, and it will change the way you look at people. Plus, it’s sooooo romantic. Win-win all around.