All-American Muslim Girl is a 2019 YA novel by Nadine Jolie Courtney. This book was one of my random Barnes & Noble finds while perusing the shelves in the store the other day. (Don’t worry; I didn’t stay long and I had my Scholastic “I ❤ Reading!” mask on.) One fleeting glance at the blurb and a sweep through the opening page, and I knew I’d found “the one” going home with me. This book was exactly the YA #OwnVoices pre-Covid contemporary escape I needed going into the holiday season and day 14 billion of the pandemic.
Allie (short for Alia) is our 16 YO protag. She’s Circassian on her dad’s side and American on her mom’s, so she doesn’t “look” Muslim and can often “pass” as white. That, combined with the fact her dad has pretty much renounced his Muslim heritage in favor of secularism, leaves Allie feeling not quite like the basic white girl she pretends to be at school, yet also hardly fitting in with her own Muslim relatives, either. Just when Allie’s crush, Wells, starts to turn into more than just a friend, Allie feels called to start learning about her family’s faith. It doesn’t help that dating is mostly prohibited (haram) in Islam, AND that Wells’s dad is basically the Sean Hannity/Tucker Carlson/Rush Limbaugh of a conservative, Muslim-hating news outlet. Double whammy.
While the blurb and the beginning of the story might lead one to believe it will center on Wells and Allie’s forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet romance, it was a refreshing surprise to discover this book is, at heart, about faith and family. My favorite element was the friendships between the girls in Allie’s Qur’an study group and their painfully honest discussions about the complexities of Islam, patriarchy, and feminism. The reader learns alongside Allie as myths about Islam are dispelled and beautiful, uplifting aspects of the religion are showcased. Wells’s character definitely takes a backseat as more of a background supporting role while Allie tries to navigate issues of personal identity and what it means to be both a Muslim and an American at the same time. But perhaps the biggest part of the story is Allie’s parents. They’re a superclose family unit at home, constantly supporting her in the best way they know how. While Allie’s dad is miffed that she’s choosing to openly embrace the stigmatized religion he’d always tried to shield her from, we can see where he’s coming from and it makes his relationship with Allie all the more endearing.
If I have one criticism, I feel like the backstory of Wells’s parent’s could’ve stood to be more fleshed out. I would’ve liked to have seen Wells’s dad be someone other than a villain. We all know white men of a certain age who spew out racist talking points in one breath then would give you the shirt off their backs in the next. People are complicated. As much as we might disagree with someone’s politics, the real world is more nuanced than Jack Henderson’s character. I thought that maybe this would be a story about both sides coming around and seeing eye to eye, but I’m naive. America’s too polarized for that story right now. Instead, this is a story of Allie learning how to stand up for herself, speak up for her faith, and accept that not everyone is going to be accepting.
In many ways, All-American Muslim Girl is the American version of one of my favorite Aussie books, Does My Head Look Big in This? Above all, it’s a heartwarming, honest, educational, well-written and timely tale about identity, imperfection, faith, and family. And people of all faiths can, hopefully, relate to that.