Saints and Misfits Book Cover
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster
Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her. An Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box. And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster... one who happens to be parading around as a saint... Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tightknit Muslim community think of her then?
Adapted from: GoodReads

Many of us take for granted the fact that we see ourselves so often and easily in media and popular culture. Growing up I never had to look all that far for a strong female character who looked like me. Sure, there may have been certain issues from time to time, but the point is that the options were there. For my friends of colour however, it wasn’t that simple, and I find that fact to be very frustrating. I want all my friends to see themselves in media and popular culture in the same way I was able to see myself, and so though we still have massive work to do, it makes me really happy to see how many more diverse, own voices stories are being published. Not only are they being published, but they are being published to great success, breaking down stereotypes that “those books don’t sell”. This all brings us to Saints and Misfits.

Meet Janna

The book follows Janna, a teenage American Muslim girl living with her brother and mother. What’s interesting to me is off the bat, we have this juxtaposition of “western” and Muslim values when Janna wears a burkini to go swimming. Her father watches unhappily, worried that people will believe he’s forcing her to wear it. The reality is that Janna has chosen to wear the burkini, and has much agency throughout the story. I saw her father’s reaction as a reflection of the fear that western judgements can create for people who are seen as different. The covering of a women’s hair and face is often seen in western societies as a tool of oppression, but Saints and Misfits shows how the very opposite can be true; many women in the story use them to control society’s access to their image. This is something that is explicitly discussed in the story at a couple different points. I think this is a great entry point to challenge your views of religious clothing choices.

Familiar, relatable themes

Then there is the story itself. Janna’s story is one that will resonate with many women as it deals with first loves, friendships and family relationships. On a more serious note, it also looks at the aftermath of sexual assault. Though the story does talk about this, I think that Ali writes it in a very careful, non-graphic way, not going into too many details. Though I found it fine to read, some people may have issues with those scenes (of which there are two: an initial scene, then a confrontation later).

Connecting Cultures

As a non-Muslim woman, I found myself looking things up that I hadn’t heard of throughout my reading and as a result, I learned a lot. While you can never take one book as a blanket “this book represents all of this culture” statement, I think it’s important to have many different stories make up the fabric of your understanding of a culture. Ignorance breeds hate, and by having more and more stories like this, more and more people will be exposed to things that may be foreign or different from what they are used to. This is important, and I look forward to see what Salaam Reads (a Simon & Schuster imprint that focuses on Muslim, own voices stories) releases next.

Read the North

Go Canada, go!

And as if it were the cherry on the cake that is this beautifully complex and well-written book, S.K. Ali is Canadian! And not only that, she lives in my area. Because of this, I had the joy of meeting her twice in the past few months; the first was at an Indigo Chapters preview event, and the second time was at her launch party two weeks back. Each time I couldn’t help but share my awe; a full-time teacher who found the time to write a book, get it published, and do all the promo for said book during the most stressful time of year for any teacher: report cards. She truly is a super hero.

Beautiful cover

Finally, I need to do a quick shout out to that cover. It is beautiful and the perfect summer contemporary design. The colour scheme, the hella fashionable woman wearing the scarf on the front cover. Overall, fantastic design that will look great on your bookshelf. And as much as what’s inside a book is most important, the cover design is also something to think about. #DoItForTheBookShelf

Basically, go buy it

For real.