A Very Large Expanse of Sea
I generally read young adult fiction purely for entertainment value; sure, I surf a few waves of teenage nostalgia, and I laugh or feel sad alongside the main character, but ultimately I rarely pick up a YA book looking to be enlightened. This is not the case with Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea, a novel that provides the same tropes and teenage drama one would expect in a typical YA novel but which adds a new and very important layer of complexity to the genre: diversity.
With A Very Large Expanse of Sea comes the perfect blending of a bildungsroman and a lesson in empathy and understanding a range of perspectives. The main character, sixteen-year-old Shirin, lives in a post-9/11 world facing the struggles of both teenage life and being a hijab-wearing Muslim. She is an outsider in every sense of the word, yet her authentic voice – from her steadfast confessions of love for Harry Potter to her disdain for her high school’s blind obsession with the varsity basketball players – endears her to the reader. Shirin faces racism and discrimination for her choice to wear the hijab, and these challenges are heightened when a romance begins to blossom between her and the star basketball player, Ocean.
Though the plot follows the same general arc as any other young adult book, Shirin herself and the voice she brings to the story sets A Very Large Expanse of Sea apart from the rest. She is funny, insightful, and a refreshingly genuine narrator to follow. And though her tale is fictional, the hate and discrimination she encounters are not; it is heartbreaking to read but nonetheless vitally important. Particularly for younger generations, stories from diverse and authentic voices such as Shirin’s are so critical for crafting a more open-minded and tolerant society, and Mafi has crafted a beautiful example for writers to follow.
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