In Saints and Misfits, the first YA novel from Simon & Schuster’s new Muslim-focused Salaam Reads imprint, Toronto author S.K. Ali delivers a contemporary coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Arab-Indian-American girl named Janna Yusuf.
Janna has assigned the people in her life to one of three categories: saint, misfit, or monster. Janna sees herself as a misfit – a hijabi Muslim girl obsessed by turns with Flannery O’Connor and a non-Muslim boy named Jeremy. She finds herself caught on the fringes of her divorced father’s new family on the one hand, and, on the other, unable to crack the tight-knit unit consisting of her mother and older brother. When the saint in Janna’s Muslim community reveals himself to be a monster, she is unable to confide in anyone, both out of a sense of shame and the fear that no one will believe her. While the upsetting event is partly responsible for taking Janna’s voice, it also reveals that she hasn’t really been heard by the people in her life for a long time.
What’s lovely about Ali’s novel is its nuanced exploration of faith. Janna is at a point in her life at which she has begun interrogating her relationship to Islam. This allows Ali to meditate on what it means to be Muslim (spoiler: there isn’t only one way). Janna’s struggle to reconcile her moral and spiritual beliefs with the expectations of modern teendom will resonate with many young readers. It is also refreshing to see diverse characters within the Muslim community itself, from a scowling niqabi in Doc Martens to an African-American teen boy who tells corny jokes to a seemingly perfect young woman with a less-than-perfect past.
Ali writes with confidence, and her ability to get the reader to empathize with Janna is impressive. The steady pace will keep readers engaged as Janna wrestles with matters of heart and faith. Saints and Misfits is not a “Muslim story,” so much as a story about a Muslim girl, and it’s a strong debut from a promising new author.