Review Blog

Mar 14 2019

You must be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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Penguin, 2019. ISBN: 9780143788515.
(Age: 12+) Highly recommended. Themes: Identity, Diversity, Resilience, Moral values, Bullying, Humour. Layla is a very loveable character, full of fun and enthusiasm, highly intelligent, but a person who sometimes lets her spoken words run faster than her thoughts, and then she finds herself in trouble for being too brash. It's hardly a good thing on the first day at a prestigious new school, to put your teacher offside, apologising for yelling because you're used to deaf people, and going on to say elderly people could still be beautiful! Her first day is a disaster, and it ends up with her being suspended before she's even started, because she head-butts the school bully who happens to be the son of the Chair of the school board.
Layla's dreams of being an adventurer and amazing inventor, look doomed from the start. But she is not a person to give up at the first set-back. She knows that she can come up with a brilliant idea that will win the Grand Designs Tourismo competition and re-affirm her scholarship status.
There are some really lovely positive messages in this book: the value of an encouraging teacher, warm and loving parents who provide sound moral and spiritual guidance, the importance of standing strong with true friends, sharing laughter and fun. Layla continually strives to find the right path, find her inner strength, and respect the values of her Muslim religion. Amid the jokes and funny situations, there are some very poignant moments - of an Aboriginal teacher describing the oppression of her people, Layla's own Sudanese family facing racial discrimination, and the sadness of another child struggling with their sexual identity. The way that Layla thoughtfully considers these issues and tries to develop her understanding leads to overall messages that are very positive and life affirming, embedded in a fun easy to read novel.
The novel provides insight into the lives of migrants trying to fit into the dominant culture but still retain the cultural values and beliefs important to them. The daily Muslim prayer rituals are just a natural part of the events of each day, favourite traditional meals are relished, and common Arabic words and sayings are a part of the day-to-day family conversation, supported by a glossary at the end. These things are not the focus of the novel, they are part of the ordinary backdrop, the focus is the issues that all teenagers grapple with, dealing with problems and embarrassments, finding personal values, and trying to work out what they want to do in life. It is a really worthwhile book to offer young readers.
Helen Eddy

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