Skunk Girl, by Sheba Karim
If I had ever actually watched an episode of My So-Called Life, I'd probably be tempted to compare this book to it. Partly because it's set in the '90s; partly because it reads like threaded vignettes more than a straight-up novel; partly because, at times, the perspective feels more adult-looking-back than it does straight-up-teenager? (BUT AS I'VE NEVER SEEN MY SO-CALLED LIFE, MAYBE THERE ARE NO REAL SIMILARITIES?)
Skunk Girl is about Nina Khan, the only Muslim Pakistani-American girl in her junior class, and—now that her sister's graduated and off at college—her entire school:
Principal Young announces that for the first week of school we're allowed to eat lunch on the lawn outside the gym, as some kind of special treat. Even outside, the cafeteria groupings apply. Most of the black kids and the handful of Latino kids sit in one area while the white kids take up the rest of the lawn. The few other minorities, like me and Steve Chang, a freshman whose parents own Ming Dynasty, sit on the white side.
There are two major difficulties in her life: Living up to the perfection that is her older sister, and body hair.
(There are other things, too, of course: Her longstanding difficulty with Serena, the Queen Bee of her class; the isolation and frustration that comes from being friends with girls whose parents aren't as strict about social stuff, like parties and sleepovers and even talking to boys; her crush on the new boy in school; the fact that Serena is DATING the boy she has a crush on; the two-worlds feel that comes along with being a first-generation American; and so on.)
But back to the body hair. You know me—I'm pretty well-versed in the YA. And not half-bad in the middle grade. But the only other book that deals with female body hair—for either age category—that I can think of off the top of my head is Karma Khullar's Mustache. (I hope I'm wrong and that there are more out there? I'll do some poking around after I write this.) And Skunk Girl deals with it in depth—not just Nina's feelings about it, her embarrassment and the stigma attached to it, but with discussions around bleaching, waxing, and electrolysis.
For that honesty alone, it would be a stand-out.
But it's also smart, funny, and warm.
It deals with friendship and family and crushes and with finding your way. And it's one of my favorite sorts of stories—rather like a lot of Sarah Dessen's work—in that Nina and her friends have known each other for what feels like forever. They have years of shared memories and experiences and jokes, and they use a lot of shorthand in their communication, sometimes physical, sometimes verbal.
I love that.
It's about a girl who loves and respects her parents, who is largely happy when she's with them:
My mother throws a giant paper clip at him and he tickles the bottom of her chin with it and she smiles. I like it when my parents are cute like this. It makes me happy that they found each other, or, rather, that their parents chose them for each other.
But despite that love and respect and happiness, she, like so many teenagers, still does a whole lot of Internal Eyerolling and definitely knows she doesn't want to follow in their exact same footsteps:
"And what if I told you that he was one of my friends? What is the big deal about having friends who are boys?"
Now it's my father's turn. "Nina, I know it is not easy to hold on to your Muslim values in this society, but if you lose sight of what is right and what is wrong, and start behaving like Americans, you'll end up on the streets, on drugs, and a prostitute." My father is serious when he says this. Whenever he talks about what will happen if I let go of my Muslim values I always end up being a street hooker on drugs. It is so preposterous that you can't even argue with it.
So, long story short: It's a pretty great book.
A pretty great book that is ALMOST TEN YEARS OLD.
BACKLIST, BACKLIST, BACKLIST: NEVER FORGET IT, ALWAYS KEEP EXPLORING.
Previously: That Thing We Call a Heart