Updated: Oct 20, 2022
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, ‘A Very Large Expanse of Sea’ written by Tehera Mafi, famously known for her ‘Shatter Me’ book trilogy, portrays the life of 16-year-old Shirin, a Muslim girl making her way in post 9/11 America. The books tackle many themes, chiefly bigotry and Islamophobia. It also diffuses the topic of an interracial love story.
The book follows two young people, both completely different in terms of their race, creed, and sex, navigating their way through high school, while trapped by a society that strips them of any real power.
Shirin and her family have moved around numerous times over the course of their lives. As a teen wearing a hijab in 2002, switching towns every few years doesn’t wipe away the danger that follows her. Bullied, mocked and humiliated for her appearance, Shirin has had a tough time figuring out how to be herself, without hiding her true identity in the interest of safety. The only way she can channel her frustration is through breakdancing. Shirin’s breakdancing humanizes her, adding a light, airy touch to such a heavy book. Alongside her brother Navid, and her good friend Mafi, the three learn to understand the ins and outs of high school by staying true to their culture, incorporating their passion in breakdancing.
Then Shirin meets Ocean; a popular, arrogant, and entitled boy. Most significantly, he is caucasian. Ocean and Shirin are polar opposites, and not only in their appearances. However, Ocean is drawn to her and keeps hoping to be more than just friends. Shirin, on the other hand, is trying desperately to fit in at her school and she doesn’t want Ocean to be harassed for getting involved with a Muslim. The question to ask is: which will win out, self-preservation or love?
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is young love at its most gut-wrenching. Though it takes place in the past, it is timeless in its themes of racism and fitting in, continuing to affect readers of all ages long after they’ve closed the book. This book made me laugh, cry and sympathize with Shirin. She is a powerhouse; staying confident in her skin regardless of the comments that get in her way. For those interested in being put in the shoes of someone experiencing racism first hand, this book will do just the job.