Review by Claudine Yip
Tundra Books, May 2022
279 pages, Hardcover, $23.99 CAD, 978-0-7352-7149-4
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7
Middle Grade, Historical Fiction
When a bad thing is happening, parents think the best thing to do is not talk about it. Everyone is too scared to mention the elephant in the room, the annoying uncle or the war on the horizon. They think that if they talk to us openly about the bad thing (that has happened or is happening or will happen), that somehow the bad thing will get bigger. Expand. Instead, they don’t see that conversation could lighten the load, turn the elephant into a butterfly, build a path towards peace.
Burgeoning poet and eleven-turning-twelve-year-old Mona Hasan has an opinion about everything, so it’s only fitting she has a diary to record all her thoughts. And in 1991, with a seventh-grade boy who might actually like her, her mother’s first pregnancy in eight years, and the Gulf War creeping closer and closer to her home in Dubai, there’s plenty of fodder for musings. Spread out over a year and told through Mona’s hilarious and emotive diary entries, The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan is a vibrant story that depicts the ripple effects of a war amid the immediacy of the pre-teen experience.
So much of this novel’s heart comes from the multitude of characters Mona encounters through the year. The transitions from school in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, to summer break in Islamabad, Pakistan, to a new start in Halifax, Canada, bring new waves of characters with each season. Some of my favorite moments in the novel were during Mona’s time living at her paternal grandmother’s home in Pakistan with her five cousins and other extended family. From belting Pakistani pop in the car with her uncles to eavesdropping on her aunt’s romantic pursuits, or squishing onto a single kids bike with three other cousins and her sister, what stood out to me was the familial joy that encompassed the setting. Moving to Canada right after Mona returns home only emphasizes the Hasan family’s loneliness in a small(-minded) town. The sense of community from her family and friends that the harsh Canadian winter strips away is all the more heartbreaking because of the contrast.
What struck me most about the book was Mona’s relentless optimism. Despite always being a bit of an outsider, be it from wearing knee-high socks instead of full-length tights, living in air-conditioned Dubai instead of Pakistan with the rest of her cousins, or being the new kid (of colour) in school, Mona marches through life utterly confident in her skills and what she has to offer. While her desire to be the best and be seen as the best sometimes brings hardships in her life, like not being able to share the realities of her new life in Canada with the best friend she left behind, Mona also shows her growth in quieter moments, with the gentle guidance and the wise words of those around her who love her. Mona’s diary allows readers to witness the full range of her character in a delightful mixture of prose and poetry, including those moments of personal reflection and wisdom, and presents an impressive and ever-evolving vocabulary with it.
Fans of unapologetic female protagonists will find The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan a pocket joy in an endlessly messy world. Despite updates about the war and eavesdropping on her parents’ whispered arguments for and against immigration, what continues to grip Mona—and the reader—the most are her everyday joys and annoyances: cliques, crushes, chores, and more. Her struggle to fit in amongst her peers, fluttering feelings of first love, or disagreements with her parents: these are what inspire the most poems sprinkled throughout her diary entries and comprise what is special and relatable Mona’s life.
Claudine Yip is a recent BFA graduate who studied Creative Writing with an Art History minor at UBC. She is currently drafting her way through a YA contemporary novel and sporadically blogs about food as an excuse to post all the pictures she takes at bubble tea shops. Visit her at @cyieat on Instagram and @claudineyip on Twitter.