“Sadia” by Colleen Nelson
Sadia Ahmadi, the title character of Colleen Nelson’s “Sadia,” a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards’ Young Adult category, is fifteen and, like many teenagers, trying to navigate an increasingly complicated world over the course of her first year in high school. She has recently begun wearing hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf that signifies modesty, and is dismayed when her best friend begins de-jabbing, removing her own scarf and wearing more revealing clothing at school. People on the street begin looking at her differently. She and her family are Syrian emigrants living in Canada, and she feels some guilt that they were able to leave before the refugee crisis reached its peak. A talented basketball player, Sadia also finds her hijab complicating her ability to play, possibly affecting her entire team when a discriminatory rule threatens to bench her during an important tournament.
Sadia tells the reader her story, admitting her confusions and conflicting emotions without allowing them to dim her view of her life or her love of basketball. After an encounter with a stranger who stared angrily at her in public and an argument with her friend over wearing hijab during her games, she muses that “There were lots of times when it would be easier to blend in…But then I wouldn’t be me.” This clear-eyed view extends to her classmates as well. Much of the story takes place in Sadia’s homeroom at school, where her teacher asks his students to depict their world through photographs. This assignment gives way to projects designed to help each other with daily struggles.
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Author Colleen Nelson’s realistic narrative style offers welcome insight into her Muslim girls’ lives while not flinching from their encounters with discrimination. Her background as a teacher-librarian informs the book as well. For teenagers, school is where their family backgrounds intersect with a microcosm of society; if their experiences with their classmates turn out to be as positive as Sadia’s encounters in the classroom and on the court, the world will someday shine more brightly.
Barb Riebe is a reference librarian at Billings Public Library and a Billings transplant who previously lived in Missoula, Wyoming and, briefly, Massachusetts.