Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

Review by Lauren Hathaway

Salaam Reads, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, June 2018

336 pages, hardcover $25.99 (CAD), paperback $14.99 (CAD), 978-1-481-49925-5

Ages 14+, Grades 9-12

Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Fiction

I’m on the bus with Fizz, en route to the mosque open house. She’s telling me about Rambo’s addiction to Wonder Bread, a sure feline prediabetic indication, but I’m not listening. Being the handy friend she is, she twists herself to smack me with her laptop bag.
“Janna,” she says, holding tight to the strap overhead. “You’re not here. And you’re staring at that guy near the front.”
I’m not staring at the guy near the front, but I know why Fizz thinks so: He’s pretty good-looking; plus he falls into the admirable-forehead category. But I’m just having a zone-out moment, when there’s nothing going on inside but it feels good against the blur of noise on the outside. A comfy vacuum.

Fifteen-year-old Janna Yusuf can sort every person in her life into one of three simple categories: saints, misfits, and monsters. There are those who are holier-than-thou, like her brother’s fiancé, Sarah. There are the people who don’t quite fit in, like Janna. And then there are the monsters masquerading as saints, like Farooq: the boy who is revered by his community for his piousness but has also sexually assaulted Janna.

Saints and Misfits follows Janna as she experiences the complexities of teenage life—from her fractured family unit to her burgeoning romance with a cute (but non-Muslim) boy named Jeremy—all the while hiding the truth about her sexual assault. But when she becomes the subject of a social media smear campaign, spearheaded by none other than Farooq, Janna must decide if she is willing to speak up and expose the truth, even if it means risking her reputation.

This coming-of-age story is an important new addition to the #ownvoices movement. While popular media often perpetuates negative stereotypes of the Muslim community, Saints and Misfits is full of nuanced and dynamic characters that provide positive representation of the diversity within the Muslim community in America. Readers who have little or no familiarity with Islam will not be at a loss, either; Ali provides plenty of context that allows for people of all backgrounds to immerse themselves in the story and identify with characters.

One of the most endearing qualities of Saints and Misfits is the complexity of its characters and relationships. For example, Janna’s friendship with her elderly neighbor, Mr. Ram, is a sweet and meaningful exploration of how intergenerational friendships can infuse life with unexpected meaning and purpose. At the same time, however, there is such an abundance of characters in the novel that, ultimately, there is not enough space to fully flesh out their relationships with Janna.

Janna’s journey toward finding her voice is especially timely in the age of the #metoo movement. Janna’s decision to keep Farooq’s attempted rape a secret is driven partly by fear of not being believed by her community. It is an understandable concern since, all too often, victims of sexual assault are discredited or shamed, especially when the perpetrator is a trusted figure in the community. When Janna finally finds the strength to come forward and tell the truth, she is heard and believed, an outcome that is important for young readers to see as a possibility.

Janna’s story, which celebrates the power of reclaiming one’s voice,is sure to pave the way toward bringing more authentic, diverse authors to the forefront of YA publishing. Sincere, smart, and full of heart, Saints and Misfits is a must read for fans of contemporary YA fiction.

Lauren Hathaway studies in the M.A. in Children’s Literature program at the University of British Columbia and works as a tutor and pre-college advisor for middle school and high school students. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Lauren gets cold in 20°C weather and has an unhealthy obsession with cacti.

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