#vted Reads: All-American Muslim Girl

Are you there, #vted? It’s me, Jeanie.

On this episode of the podcast, we’re re-joined by one of the very first guests on our show, Jory Hearst. She returns to talk about All-American Muslim Girl, by Nadine Jolie Courtney. Jory shares her own journey through and relationship with Judaism, and the ways she found her own feelings and questions reflected in this text. But in addition to talking deeply and reflectively about religion, All-American Muslim Girl presents us with some powerful ideas about flexible pathways for learning, identity, and consent.

This. Is. A good one.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is #vted Reads: a podcast by, for, and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thanks for joining me, Jory. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Jory:  Hi, Jeanie, it’s so nice to be with you.  I’m excited to be back on the podcast because I got to do this once in the early phases of your podcast! It’s cool to see now you’ve interviewed all these like amazing famous people around Vermont and beyond, so I’m excited to be back.

I am a teacher at Burlington High School (in Burlington VT) currently. Although I have to admit that my first teaching job was with Jeanie at Green Mountain Union High School, where she was the librarian and I was in ninth grade English teacher.  But I am an educator, I teach reading and journalism and I do other things that at the high school. I always come back to books and I really love engaging with teens about young adult literature and also reading them myself.

Jeanie:  I think you were my second guest on the podcast.

Jory:  That might be right! I used to be on Green Mountain Book Awards I think when I first got interviewed by you. I’m no longer on the committee so, I do read more adult books now, but that was my connection to you back then.

Jeanie: Okay, thank you for all that.  So, before we start talking about All-American Muslim Girl, I just want us to be really honest that neither of us is Muslim. That we both love this book and we both want to talk about it and we want to do that well and gracefully, but we’re not Muslim.

Jory:  Yes, Jeanie when you asked me to talk about it with you, I was like I loved All-American Muslim Girl! And I was also like: I don’t think I’m the person you want to talk about it. And you said, well no, we can both love it and talk about it.

So yes! Part of what was really fun for me about reading this is I lived in Jordan for a little while: Amman, the capital, and also other places in the Middle East. Lebanon, for a little bit. Morocco. And there’s lots of references to things in here that were really fun. I studied Arabic for a while so there’s connections.

Also I am a Jewish American white human and not a Muslim American. So thanks for letting me put that out there up front.  I am not the authority on those characters’ lives, just an appreciator of her life.

Jeanie:  Yes. Well, same. I actually have way less experience than you do.  I am also white and of a Protestant background although definitely not practicing now. So we’re going to talk with deep appreciation about this book and listeners if we missed up we hope you’ll let us know because we can learn from that.

Jory:  Yes, thanks for saying that.

Jeanie:  Could you introduce us to Allie Abraham, the main character of All American Muslim Girl, Jory?

Jory:  Yes! So: Allie Abraham is a high school student. She lives in Georgia, in a sort of Atlanta suburb with her parents. Mo Abraham, her dad, is a professor and her mom — I think her name’s Elizabeth — she’s a cop. Allie converted to Islam when her parents got married.  Her mom was not raised in the Middle East or with the Middle Eastern culture.  And Allie, her real name is actually Aaliyah. And I love it.

At one point she says, “Our real name wasn’t Abraham, it was Ibrahimi.”

So her real name is Aaliyah Ibrahimi, but she goes by Allie Abraham.

And her dad, you know, he believes in the American dream. He’s the ultimate assimilationist in some ways, and has sort of rejected his Muslim faith.

But Allie is a high school student who has this new crush on this guy, Wells.  She’s fun, she’s likable, she gets really interested in practicing Islam — but kind of has to do it behind her parents’ back in this book.  And then there’s also this incredible subplot that her boyfriend’s dad happens to be this commentator on a conservative talk radio station or TV station.

So, there’s all this tension about Allie’s own kind of Muslim identity, and then this boy that she’s dating.

And I think it’s just important to state that her family is Circassian. This book gives a lot of background on it because I think even a lot of people in the Arab world don’t know this group. But they’re a group of Russian descent Muslims who now live in present day Syria. Mostly in Jordan.

And they have red hair. They’re known for their red hair and their horses, among other things.  Anyway! So her family, her dad, is Circassian and I don’t think Allie’s boyfriend Wells, had any idea she’s Muslim till she sort of comes out to him.

Jeanie:  There’s so many things I want to talk about there! And one is that the book begins, at the very beginning, with Allie on a plane. She recounts the story of being on a plane with her parents. And of her father being harassed because of his name, and then the way she intercedes and steps up to protect her father from the Islamophobia he’s experiencing.  Do you remember that moment?

Jory:  Yes, totally.  There’s a passenger on the plane who overhears him talking on the phone, speaking in Arabic. And he reports to the flight attendant, that this guy’s saying “Allah, Allah.” He just freaks out.  And this is in our post-911 world. So Allie stands up for her dad and her dad ultimately is sort of proud of her for it. But he was also sort of happy to just let it pass.

He’s like: you have to get used to this, this is just what we deal with.

And she was unwilling to do that right away.

You get this character who’s really likable and has that teenage fire which I always admire. That clear sense of justice that teens are so good at and the rest of us sort of lose over time sometimes.

Jeanie:  I’ve been thinking about this for other reasons but there’s this cost that she pays for her father’s assimilation, right?  He really puts Islam behind him, isn’t religious, doesn’t really identify in that way right and doesn’t want her to have to deal with the burdens of Islamophobia. Right?  And so, it pays off for him to sort of… assimilate, in a way. I don’t know if that’s the right phrase.

Maybe it’s that it’s easier for him to assimilate than to fight, but in turn Allie feels a sense of loss because all of her cousins and her grandmother and her family members speak Arabic.  And she can’t communicate with her grandmother very well, even though she loves her so much.  Allie feels the sense of like: how come all these other people know these things that I don’t know?

Jory:  I just, I think you’re spot on I just went back and look and I think I actually maybe mischaracterized that opening scene a little bit.  Allie does have a sense of justice and need to stand up for her dad, but I’m realizing what she’s really doing in this opening scene is she’s using the fact that she can pass [as non-Muslim] to make her dad seems safer.

She’s actually protecting him but in this way that actually sort of pains her. I think she feels that that sense of justice and indignation was real but she’s also feeling this like: I could protect him but it’s going to mean that I have to sacrifice that part of my identity. I’m just going to pretend to be a red haired white girl who’s not threatening and I’m going to use that to protect my dad. 

And I think in doing that you’re right, there’s some real sadness in that. I don’t look exactly like him and I don’t stand out as other even though he does, even though I feel that way inside.

Jeanie:  Would you read that a little bit of that section?

Jory:  I know I’m just trying to find it.

All-American Muslim Girl: "I could hear the other person’s inner monologue thinking the daughter and the wife don’t look Muslim but the dad, I -- this is Ali, I stand up slowly, no sudden motions.  Here, daddy, I say, pulling gently on his arm, why don’t we switch seats?  You can sit next to Mommy.  I never call her mommy.  Wordlessly he stands up in slides into my seat.  Please sir, I say, I called to the man who was accused my father gestering my palm up toward his empty seat, after you. He walks down the aisle frowning and avoiding eye contact.  So sorry for the confusion sir, my grandma is so silly I say, smiling as I sit next to him.  Smiling is key.  It confuses them.  Anger and indignation that’s a luxury we don’t have.  I’ve been trying to get her to learn English for years.  The dad had been on the phone with the grandma that was why they were speaking in Arabic.  She should learn English but you know how it is right?  Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  He blinks looking back at me.  I’m sorry, you felt uncomfortable.  I’m still using my voice. Thank you so much for being understanding, sir.  It’s very kind of you.  Finally, he nods the flight attendant.  It’s okay, she scurries away relieved.  I want to slap him in the face.  I want to say, how dare you judge my father?  What gives you the right?  Instead, I draw from years of lessons and hold out my hand smiling, I’m Ali by the way."

Click or tap to enlarge.

Jeanie:  It’s all in that passage. What I can clearly see is who gets to be comfortable, who deserves comfort, and who doesn’t.  Allie has to contort herself and make herself all kinds of uncomfortable for this random passenger’s comfort in order to protect her dad from possibly getting pulled off the plane.

Jory:  Right.

Jeanie:  And I think it’s really common in memoirs of any Arab-Americans or you know, that there often is an airport scene and it’s often in the beginning.  And I think that you know, it just speaks to the airport.  After 9/11, the airport really became this kind of intense and scary place where there was this really obvious barrier of like, you have to be on guard here more. The airport really became the center of heightened fear.  And I don’t know a single person from the Middle East who hasn’t had a number of airport horror stories.

And the fact this book opens with that is both an invitation for those who haven’t read this enough, haven’t read about these kinds of characters enough, to realize how scary that moment is.

I remember when I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan I started taking Arabic. It was 2004 and I remember I had my Arabic textbook with me, flying home from Michigan to Vermont and I got pulled for a random security check.

And I remember all my friends were like: why would you ever have taken your Arabic textbook out at the airport?

And I was like, I don’t know, I didn’t think about it. Right? I’m a white girl from Vermont. I was trying to study my homework. Anyway, I got pulled, and I had to go to this other security room and they said it’s just a random screening. But it took 30 minutes. I almost missed my flight.

It wasn’t scary; nothing bad happened. I feel really lucky.

Jeanie:  “Random screening”, yes.

I just saw a report maybe last week that while we think that Vermont is above these things, it turns out that the rate of people getting stopped by police officers on the road is still disproportionate.  And so, we have our own kind of moments like that.  They’re just different.

Jory:  Yes, absolutely.

Jeanie:  I don’t know if I’ve ever been stopped by a police officer in Vermont.  No, that’s not true.  I have and I deserved it.

Jory:  Yes.

Jeanie:  Anyway, there’s way more to Allie’s story than that. One of the things is that she begins to get curious about Islam. She’s reading the Quran.  She’s going to an Islamic study group.  And she starts raising money for an Islamic charity with another girl in her school.

And what I kept thinking about when I was reading this book was flexible pathways! Like, she is doing so much work outside of her schoolwork and so much learning and history and it’s, you know, she’s just doing all of this stuff and I wanted her to get credit for it.  It felt credit-worthy.

Jory: In my teacher brain, I’m excited for her because I think she’s working really hard to figure out what is important to her.  And I think she’s just really adding depth and meaning to herself and her life, like in all the ways.

And I think my favorite part of this book hands down, is her discovery of Islam and her sort of teaching herself.

She’s worried to tell her dad about it because he’s so clearly kind of rejected Islam? In sort of this need to sort of fit in Georgia and assimilate and be Mo Abraham, and he finds religion to be really unhelpful. He’s very skeptical of it.  And so, even though her grandma, her Teta, is very religious and she loves that about her but her dad’s really rejected it.

And so, she does all this stuff: she finds a Muslim study group of girls and she starts going and she doesn’t want to tell her dad and she gets a Quran and she doesn’t want to tell her dad and I mean I sort of love that — it’s this really big deal.

Anyway, it’s such a beautiful, really soulful exploration of trying to find meaning and make sense of life through religion.

And anyway, so I think that’s my great part of the whole book is just sort of her exploration of religion.

Nadine Julie Courtney does such a — I think does such a great job of explaining a lot of stuff in this book like she really, she explains what it means to be Circassian.  She explains what Islam is.  She explains all these philosophical debates between women and Islam and how do you make sense of the Hadith and the Quran with as a woman and all of this stuff.

And also it’s not didactic you know? This book is still really fun to read.  It’s enjoyable.  It’s not — to me it wasn’t heavy handed at all even though there’s actually a lot of reader education that’s happening, I think very intentionally, through this book.  She walks that line so brilliantly of staying fun and romantic and page-turning and also being an intro to Islam.

Jeanie:  I wonder as I read it, Jory, because it felt to me like this book was seeking to educate me.  And I am somebody who doesn’t know much about Islam, the target reader for this.  What I mean by that is you know, I grew up Protestant and I think if you grow up Christian in this country it’s very obvious that Christianity is plural: that there are lots of different ways to be a Christian.

You can be a Catholic. You can be an evangelical.  Or you can be Baptist. You can be Lutheran. And Nadine Jolie Courtney does a really lovely job of painting this plural picture of Islam that we don’t often see in the media. Or that challenges the stereotypes of I think a majority of the American population.

Jory: You and I are on the same page, Jeanie, because I have just turned to page 138 and I loved this.  I thought it was really interesting and fun.  So, Allie’s friend Dua from school takes her to this Muslim study group. And at it, all of a sudden Allie just bursts into tears, right?  And there’s this great scene after this.

All-American Muslim Girl

 

Then they kind of move on? But she kind of gets this idea that like everybody has a back story.  It’s not so simple.

All of us sometimes feel like imposters and not just that but that there’s a lot of ways to be Muslim and she learns from these girls that you know some of them, there’s this whole very fun section around like, what is halal dating? Halal being the Arabic term relating to dietary laws. It’s halal not to eat pork, or it’s halal not to drink alcohol.  Sort of Islamic rules around food but that word can also be used around other taboos.

So, they talk about halal dating.

And halal dating is like definitely no sex, probably no kissing.  Maybe no hand-holding but then each of the girls have like slightly different interpretations of what halal dating means. And for Allie, she decides to really navigate for herself with Wells:  I’m going to hold his hand.  We’re going to kiss and that’s okay because it feels really good. I want to be careful and protect myself but I still want to do those things.

Each of her friends have sort of slightly different interpretations of that. And that’s normal! And okay! This group of women really embody beautifully all those ways to be Muslim.

Jeanie:  Right.  They’re all pursuing their own questions. Can I be gay and Muslim?  Can I be a feminist and Muslim? When am I co-opting the sacred text and when am I living as a liberated Muslim woman?

Jory:  Yes, yes, exactly.  Can I read another part?

Jeanie:  Please! Just tell me the page number.

Jory:  Okay. Page 176. They get into talking about whether Islam is fair to women. And they have a really powerful discussion about: how much power women really do have in Islam?  And that like a country like, Saudi Arabia maybe isn’t a fair ticket for that, and wearing hijab can be a really liberating thing.

Anyway, because their conversation is among friends and they’re all trying to figure it out, maybe this is me as an adult — being like, a boring adult — but I was really compelled by this conversation.

As a 35-year-old Jewish woman I’m still trying to figure out these questions with my Jewish female friends around like:

  • What does it mean to be Jewish?
  • How can I be Jewish but also fit in in the U.S. and be a woman?
  • When do I decide to do Jewish things?
  • When do I do things that maybe are just like other cultural things?
  • Does that make me still Jewish? Too Jewish?

And I think that’s just like the nature of trying to find your place in religion. Constantly doing that. Anyway, I wish I could hang out with them because they’re just so thoughtful.

Jeanie:  I’m going to start with this: this morning I watched an outtake from Saturday Night Live. It was Dan Levy — who I adore — and a bunch of the other characters talking about the It Gets Better campaign ,which was queer adults talking to queer young people about how much better life gets as adults?

Jory:  Yes, yes.

Jeanie:  So, essentially the whole thing it cracked me up about was, yes, it gets better except you know… we still have the same problems. It’s that idea of the model minority.  If you’re suspect at all, if you’re sort of a marginalized group, you have to be upstanding all the time. Don’t disgrace the group, right?  You have to put on that united front.

Jory:  I think you’re right.  Allie and all of her friends in this Muslim study group, they love Islam. They love being Muslim. And when they’re out in public they feel like they have to be the united front. I mean that’s what they’re saying here, right?  And that really resonated with me.They want to just show that Islam is beautiful and good. But! When it’s just them talking? They have all these questions, too, where they’re confused about things, or they’re like, is it okay to do this? 

And I love that. I love that they have found a space to let down and to get to like actually have that conversation.

In Berlin [VT] tonight I have a number of Muslim students who I know are practicing and get to talk to each other.  But in other parts of Vermont if you were the only Muslim student, if you were practicing and proud of it you wouldn’t have anyone to get to process the stuff you’re actually questioning because you probably might spend all your time trying to exert this space of like, pride.

Jeanie:  It’s like, you have to be invulnerable in public, but you also need places to be vulnerable. And to question.

Jory:  Yes! Yes.

Jeanie:  One of the reasons I thought about talking to you in particular about this book is because I know you’ve had your own journey with Judaism and that it’s something you — I guess I don’t know if you’d use this word but — reclaimed, as an adult.

Jory:  There were a lot of ways I felt like I really connected to Allie, even though we have many differences.  My parents aren’t the same religion like hers weren’t. My dad was not Jewish.  And my mom’s parents, like, Allie’s dad, my mom’s parents had really rejected their Judaism in the name of The American Dream. They wanted to assimilate. They wanted their kids to have all the opportunity, they celebrated Christmas, they stopped speaking Yiddish. All those things.

So when Allie talks about how she and her dad, their favorite thing to do is go look at big beautiful houses and imagine the American lives that people have in them? That remind me of my grandpa.

I think there’s probably a lot of Americans who may not be Muslim who might really connect to the way her dad has embraced — or tries to embrace — this country.

There’s that scene that maybe connects to what you’re saying on page 170. It’s the first time Allie really prays.  She does the full prayers and she does it with her friend and they make wudu, you know, the washing of their hands and their feet?

She says, afterward, “Honestly, I didn’t expect to like praying so much. When I’m done my head feels clear and my anxiety is just like, gone I say.  And I prayed at home a few times and started reading more of the Quran too I’ve got a ton of homework so, it’s kind of hard to keep up but I’m doing my best.”

And I don’t know. I have a real sense of that too. Like, I didn’t expect to like praying so much either but there’s this sort of ancient call that I feel in it.  And I think it’s cool to see that in a teen novel!

Jeanie:  Well, what really ends up happening is Allie ends up having to make choices again and again about how she wants to show up in school as her authentic self.

She is this really popular kid, she’s dating this popular guy and she doesn’t “look at all Muslim”. Then she starts wearing… does she wear a headscarf or hijab?

Jory:  She wears a hijab one day with her friends to school. She wants to just like, try it out and it’s way more attention than she ever wanted or expected. But I think there’s also a pride in doing it for her.  She ultimately decides I don’t think she doesn’t keep wearing it but, yes, you’re right.  She tries it during Ramadan; I think it’s one of the first days of Ramadan she decides to wear the headscarf.

Jeanie:  And she has all these moments where she’s like: do I come out?  It’s Muslim or not?  She gets an app on her phone that tells her when to pray and it goes off and then she’s very flustered.

There are all these moments where she’s like, do I want to fit in?  Do I want to conform or do I want to be my authentic self?  And I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  I’ve been really noticing the way kids are showing up and their different identities. You and I have that experience when we were at Green Mountain and kids started coming out not just as queer but as trans.

And I think we were both pretty inspired by the way that kids were showing up as their full selves. Kids in middle school really want to conform they really want to look like everybody else.  They want to wear the same clothes they want to be like everybody else.  And it’s got me wondering as I see kids around the country celebrating their differences:  Do we teach them that?  Do they learn conformity in school or is that in their developmental nature?

I don’t know that we can answer that question but it made me wonder: what might we do in schools to create an environment that values diversity and difference? And not just in name but like… deeply values our differences.

Jory:  Yes, such a good question, Jeanie.  I’m thinking about it as you ask it and the first thing that comes to my mind is just that, I don’t know that I agree with you that teens want to conform. I think teens want to be liked by their peers for the most part, right?  We want to have friends, we want to be liked, we want to feel included we want to feel like we belong.

Jeanie:  Belonging is so crucial, yes.

Jory:  You want to be part of something, right? So I think conformity is not the only way to belong but it’s maybe the easiest route to belonging.  And so as a culture we’ve prioritized conformity even though belonging doesn’t necessarily mean conforming.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Jory:  Allie has this really sweet relationship with Wells, this boy whose dad is a jackass, right?  And Wells himself has a really hard time with his dad.  Yet Wells is really supportive of Allie. When she sort of comes out to him as Muslim, she’s really nervous about it, but he’s really accepting.

He’s like, well, are we allowed to still hold hands or am I allowed to kiss you?  You know: asking for consent.  He’s trying to learn the boundaries.  He says like: tell me what it means to be Circassian?  I’m really curious.  You know, he shows up as this curious participant. And again, that’s an example of creating belonging by listening and being curious. Not about conformity at all.

Jeanie:  Yes.  So, you know a lot of the teachers I work with in middle schools are doing identity units where they’re really like, helping kids learn the language of difference.  You know, I had a teacher I work with who works with 4th and 5th graders.  And these kids in a small, rural mostly white small town in Vermont, didn’t know words like bi-racial, right?

So, they had to learn the vocabulary of difference. Learning the vocabulary of different ethnicities and races and gender identities and sexual orientations, I think allows make space for all the ways of being in a way that we don’t talk about. The way we do in literature, we talk about different perspectives and points of view.  What would it look like for us to embrace plurality the way the study group in this book does?

Jory:  That’s right.  Being American is not a monolith. And being a woman is not a monolith.  You know, that there’s all these ways that all of us don’t want to be put in our monoliths.

Jeanie:  Yes.  Yes. Let’s come back to Wells, because he’s also, in his way, struggling with: I am not my parents.

Jory:  Right.

Jeanie:  Which I think all kids are in some way.

I watched my own kid still struggle with that.  But there are some things, some values, some ways of being that my parents and I have in common, and there are others that we do not.

But for Wells, his dad is really more than just different than him, though.  His dad is really rigid and domineering and doesn’t really make space for the ways Wells wants to be different.  He has this very narrow notion of what Wells should be like. Wells’ mother on the other hand, is going to love her son no matter what.

And I thought about so many teachers teaching about the election or teaching about January 6th — the attempted coup on the capital. The insurrection. They’re holding this space where they’re teaching about this thing in ways that may be different than what kids are hearing from at home.

How do we make space for kids to navigate?

They’re coming to terms with their own understandings of the world and where they stand on important issues where they might think differently than their parents.  Middle school is where that’s starting to emerge.  But by high school, I’m sure you see kids showing up in ways that are similar to the people in their home and different.

There’s also a very convenient sweet ending.  You know, it’s a little bit YA novel ending where everybody comes together for a big party.  But, they are trying to figure out their parents and maybe are their parents going to change.  And if they’re not going to change or they still going to like their parents, and yeah. Anyway, lots of… Yeah.

Jeanie:  Do you want to read from that section?

Jory:  I was trying to see if there is something.  I think there are a couple things.

Jeanie:  What page were you on?

Jory:  I’m on page 412 and it goes on to 413.  So, Allie says:

People say being Jewish isn’t just about religion.  A lot of people are culturally or ethnically Jewish but not religious.  Despite what people say, Islam might be like that too.  No matter what culture or country you’re from or how diligent your practices or even if you’re somebody raised in the faith who walked away from it.  There’s still something greater connecting you.  You’re part of an ummah.  People think it’s solely religion but our shared experiences are impossible to escape.  They’ve invisibly shaped us.  They’re everywhere.

And this is her trying to understand her dad, right?  She’s like, he’s shaped by Islam.  He’s part of the ummah, part of our community even though he doesn’t know whether he doesn’t always want to be, right?  And then, Wells, so sweet.  You know, he says you make me believe big things are possible.  He says I love that about you.  And she’s, and then, right after she has this moment where she says, you know, she sort of realizes I’m in love with Wells, right.  And she says, I think I’m in love, I know I’m in love with Wells.  This is the top of page for 413.

And then, she says that’s the thing about love.  It’s not certain, it requires a leap.  It means stepping into the unknown and surrendering to something bigger than yourself against all obstacles.  Kind of like faith.  And I do, yes, it’s in really sweet reflection on being part, belonging, kind of like we’re talking like, this is her trying to figure out how to belong.  And, she nails it, ma’am, she’s doing a better job than most of us.  That’s why I love her, I’m like, oh, I could take some notes from Allie.

Jeanie:  Yes, totally.  I, you’re just, I read this book a while ago and you’re reminding me how much I loved her as a character, and how much I loved all the ways this book shed light on other areas of life, and how we live it, and how we show up in our life authentically.

Jory:  Yes.  And then, I have to say just for anyone listening at the end, the very end of the book ends with her dad bringing out this platter of mansaf.  Which, if you ever go to Jordan you have to eat mansaf. It’s like the Jordanian delicacy.  It’s this rice platter with lamb and the lamb is cooked in stewed yogurt. I can’t even begin to describe how decadent and rich, an unbelievable mansaf. At the end when they ate mansaf, I was like, oh my God, mansaaaaf.

Jeanie:  Well, I trust you Jory, because you are one of the best cooks I know. One last question for you.  How would you use this book with students? If you were to use this book with students, what would you do?

Jory:  I would just want to talk about God.

Jeanie:  It’s allowed to do that with students.

Jory:  That’s what I want to do.  Just in terms of.  I’d want to, I mean, you know, Nadine Jolie Courtney is funny to me because right before this, I went back to remind myself what else she’d written.  And if I’d read things by her.  Everything else she’s written is total pop, teenybopper, like dating books.  She is good at the formula of the meet-cute: the characters, the tension, people finding themselves and then finding each other. She’s got that down pat.

But, I don’t know that I would ever assign this book.  But I do think if I had a couple of kids reading it, I would be really interested to ask them, like, are you religious at all? How does that, you know, where does that fit into your life.  And how does that, is it important to you, etc, etc.  But, I sometimes, I know for me, I feel the absence of just talking about that greater connectivity to each other or the sense of belonging that a community can feel.

And it doesn’t have to be like Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu.  It doesn’t have to be even organized religion, but what do communities need to have, to sustain themselves, because I do think, I think there’s a lot of that in school that we, that connectivity piece, which to me honestly as an educator is kind of the work.  And, I would never want to frame it that way because we don’t talk about things in school that way.

But I do have to admit I’m often tempted to go to rabbinical school to become a better teacher.

If I could go and spend five years deeply looking at how do you build soulful community? I would be a much better educator because I would be acknowledging that like the connective tissue that exists in a classroom, and not because I want people to be Jewish.  I don’t care about Jewishness for them, or is, you know.  But, anyway, so I think this book offers an interesting way to kind of just let people even think about like, do you believe in something bigger than yourself, you know, she talks about that a bunch in here.  She sort of has this idea that, she’s part of something a lot bigger and it feels really good to be connected to that.  And I, yes, that’s what I’m most interested in here.

Jeanie:  That’s, I love that Jory, and it makes me want to ask kids the question.  What makes you feel connected.  And I think about myself, I don’t practice and he organized religion.  In fact, if I think about the soul work I do, it’s probably most associated with paganism or something.  It’s about being in the land, being out of doors, being connected with nature.  And that’s super important to me.  But like thinking about the discreet practices that make me feel connected and they’re not that different.  Their poetry and, reflection and, presence, being present.

Jory:  Yes.  Jeannie, I know you won’t have to know, you do all kinds of soulful stuff.  You’re always like lighting candles out by the lake and I don’t know calling in the spirits man, I know you.

Jeanie:  Don’t tell my secrets, Jory.

Jory:  Oh my goodness.  Okay.

Jeanie:  So, given this book about sort of soulfulness and finding yourself exploring maybe not even finding but looking for yourself and how to show up and be in the world.  Do you have any other YA or middle grades or adult books you would recommend readers interested in that kind of novel, a books, a text.  The one that popped up for me is Braiding Sweetgrass, which I think some of those essays could be perfect with young adult middle grades readers, by Robin Wall Kimmerer?

Jory:  I love.  Yes, I think that’s a really, I think that’s a great idea.  I think Jolie, you were mentioning it at the beginning, but, Darius the Great is not okay.  Is and it just happens to be another character from the Middle East, although from a very different you know, he’s Iranian American but also has one parent who is from Iran and one his father is a white man, lives in the U S.  And, that book is all about him.  You know, he and his family go back to Iran to visit his grandparent’s, and he asked, and they, and he rediscovers that part of his soul, that missing piece of himself in being in Iran, and feeling like.  Oh, I’m fitting this puzzle together because I’m honoring all the parts of myself.  So I think about that book.

Jeanie:  He calls himself Fractional Persian.

Jory:  Yes.  Yes, that yes.  Exactly, good memory.  You think about, oh gosh, there’s so many, I mean we were talking about this before but, I was just saying you know, Juliet takes a breath by Gabby Rivera which I know you’ve also read which is a really, you know, it’s a book about this badass, bi-racial queer, character who’s taking on the world by going out to the West Coast to have this internship, and it’s, you know, similar to this book.  It’s the story that’s full of philosophy and theory and like background knowledge, like I felt like I got an education on like queer and feminist and sort of radical theory by reading that book.

And also, it’s about a character trying to find all of their missing pieces.  And, not all of them, I mean we’re not like, I am never going to find all my missing pieces, and most characters won’t either.  But even when you, even when you can relocate one piece, you know like, you just become that much more grounded like the thread to the earth connects you that much more deeply when you find that one piece to put in.  So I think that’s another book about finding a piece and fitting it in.  And as you’re saying it now, I’m thinking of like 700.

But you mentioned the poet X Jeannie before when we were talking about Elizabeth Acevedo.  That’s another book about, you know for a twin, you know a twin finding who, you know, goes to this Catholic school right.  Doesn’t she go to a Catholic.  Her mom, no, I think her mom is very Catholic, right?

Jeanie:  Yes.

Jory:  That’s the Catholic connection.  And she’s trying to find her place in Catholicism, which she has some connection to, but it also is like not.  It often makes her feel ashamed and bad.  And so she’s trying to navigate all those things and…

Jeanie:  Elizabeth Acevedo’s book, Acevedo’s books often and she wrote the Poet X, one of my favorite YA books of all time.  You’re mentioning all my bright spots story and all seemed to be about reclaiming your full self.

Jory:  Yes, or Yes, even if, or even just a piece more of yourself.  Like, getting you a little closer to feeling settled in your bones, yes.

Jeanie:  Those are great suggestions, the other one I would add is Patrons Saints Of Nothing.

Jory:  I loved that book so much and yes, I couldn’t believe it.

Jeanie:  That book is so good right because he’s Filipino American and he goes back to the Philippines.  And there’s something about this, it’s beyond religion but, ethnicity or a part of the identity that feels really important too.

Jory:  And I think what you’re.  Yes, it’s interesting this list I hadn’t thought about these books in quite this way but like, you know, being an American and I don’t know if Allie would agree with me in this book.  But, for me like, being an American, there.  We don’t realize it’s exhausting until you think about what you might have lost in the process of like becoming American, and for those of us like I would certainly be one who’s like past you know, I’ve become white right.  Like my roots have become white.  They didn’t maybe weren’t originally Jewish people were not white, but now they are.

And so, that like, all the things that you’ve lost.  And I think that my senses is like for people of color this is even greater, for so many more reasons, for violence and injustice on way larger scales.  But like, the amount of loss that exists in our culture is so massive and so grief filled, for so many people, for so many reasons, I mean, certainly Robin Wall Kimmerer and Braiding Sweetgrass, I mean just for Indigenous people perhaps for more than anybody else.

You know that, anyway, this this piece of Americanness which is so pockmarked and grief filled and, when all these teen books, you’re right, there’s this collection of books about people sort of reclaiming an earlier identity as, and bringing it into the mix of themselves.  And, that is what allows them to feel more whole.  It’s sort of an amazing, it’s not really, would be a really interesting set of, that would be a really interesting list to curate.

Jeanie:  Well, in that, what I’m thinking about is, you’ve posed these questions that for me could make great essential questions.  They are what makes you feel connected.  And then, this other one of, what does it mean to be American.  And perhaps, the enduring understanding that goes with that is being American is not a monolith.

Jory:  Yes.

Jeanie:  Oh, Jory, I’m so grateful for this conversation.

Jory:  Yes.  Thanks, Jeanie.  It’s a nice Sunday morning to spend with you, and my tea.

Jeanie:  And your tea.  Thank you for joining me.

Jory:  And just know again that I really do hope if we’ve mispronounced anything or if anyone listening felt like we did any, we misrepresented something or said, yes, I hope that somebody will let us know because I would love to make sure that we’re not.  In our excitement about Allie, and our love of her and this book, I don’t want anyone to feel like we missed a big cultural piece.

Jeanie:  Yes.  If we’ve harmed anyone, please be in touch.  We want to know, so we can get better, so we could do better.  Thank you, Jory.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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