Book review: Saints and Misfits

There are three kinds of people in 15-year-old Janna Yusuf’s life: saints, misfits, and monsters.

Saints make the world a better place, like Janna’s elder-care charge, Mr. Ram, and her too-good-to-be-true prospective sister-in-law Sarah Mahmoud. They can be a little intimidating.

Misfits are people like Janna. Whether she wears her burkini at the beach with her dad’s new family, hangs out with her “famously pious” friend Fizz, or crushes on white, Christian, senior Jeremy, Janna feels like “a visitor among the earthlings.”

But Janna’s most worried about monsters. Fizz’s cousin Farooq is one of those. A “beacon of light for all youth,” Farooq is adored by everyone: Fizz, Jeremy, even Janna’s uncle, the imam of the local mosque. Nobody knows that Farooq attempted to rape Janna in Fizz’s basement. Nobody notices him watching her, brushing up against her, looking for ways to get her alone.

Janna decides to stay quiet, keep to herself, stay below Farooq’s radar. Who would believe her word against his, anyway? When an “ocean of anger” crashes inside of her, she can’t help but wonder, “It’s his evil. So why is it me that’s hurting?” As her attempts to get to know Jeremy backfire in a spectacularly public way, Janna has to decide what’s most important: hiding from the monsters, or learning from the saints.

Serious themes are handled with a light touch, mostly because of Janna’s ebullient character. Janna is funny, nerdy-cool (she adores Flannery O’Connor), and modern in her American interpretation of an ancient culture (she chooses to wear only black hijab with her jeans, not colors or flowers like Fizz or Sarah, because she’s a little bit badass).

Janna interacts with a diverse set of characters: her Ethiopian, Muslim mom reentering the dating scene; her secular, capitalistic Indian dad’s daily inspirational emails; poetry-loving, Hindu Mr. Ram’s recitations; her school friends Sandra, Tatiana (Tats), and Soon-Lee; and her mosque friends like Sausun, who sports Doc Martens with her niquab. Like most teens, Janna tries on different identities in her quest to discover who she really is, and her exploration is relatable and engaging.

As a white, non-Muslim reader, I appreciated the casual elucidations of Muslim life, which never felt overexplained for readers already familiar with the culture. Characters, settings, and details are treated with such care that anyone who has spent time in a multigenerational, religious-based community will find Janna’s familiar (potlucks, fundraisers, and Quiz Bowls, oh my!).

Kids of all faiths and cultures deserve to find themselves in books, and Ali has achieved something particularly special in this one: a character (and community) that is relatable, empowering, and enlightening for all readers. I highly recommend getting to know Janna and her friends.