A lot of aughts-era YA doesn't age well. It's rife with slut-shaming and outmoded (but very much the mindset of the times) ideas about gender roles; there are jokes that age badly and come across as offensive; and the shallow and superficial nature of raunch/party culture can make the teenager characters feel extra shallow and superficial. But that's the period I grew up in, so I sort of have a bitter nostalgia for it. I don't miss it and I would never go back to it, but reading about that time period makes me remember when I was young.
Amal is a great heroine. She's bratty and sarcastic, but she has a (mostly) good head on her shoulders. At her heart, she is kind and wants the best for her friends and the people she loves. Her parents are very liberal in their practicing of Islam and the decision to wear the hijab is her own decision because she wants to take her faith to the next level. In the beginning, she's hyper-conscious about the social ramifications of the decision though, especially with how her friends and schoolmates will respond to her now, in the post-9/11 climate (the book is set in 2002). Other conflicts involve dealing with romantic feelings when her religion doesn't really allow for premarital PDA and the different strictness with which some people adhere to religion (Amal's friend, Leila, has an incredibly strict mother who wants her to drop out of school and get married, asap).
The book is incredibly, wonderfully diverse. Amal and her family are Palestinian. Her friend, Leila, is Turkish. Her school friend, Eileen, is Japanese. Their white friend, Simone, is plus-size. Amal's sort-of love interest, Adam, is Jewish. Racism is discussed pretty heavily and I saw some younger readers saying that what Amal experiences feels unrealistic, but given when this is set, it really isn't. A lot of what people say online now, in the grossest parts of Twitter, they used to feel comfortable saying to your face. Post 9/11, there was a LOT of Islamophobia and it was incredibly toxic for Muslim people (just look at some of the FOX News articles from that time period, if you can stomach it). I also saw some people taking issue with the fatphobia that Simone has internalized and I'm sorry to say that that was pretty accurate, too. Body positivity was just a glimmer in feminism's eye in the aughts. It's part of the reason I can't read a lot of chick-lit published before 2010 anymore. Her hatred of her own body and the way she hurts herself to be skinny (in this case, smoking) was basically condoned by society, whether it was fashion magazines, women's fiction, or movies like Bridget Jones.
I really liked the book. I think it holds up well and has a good message. I loved the dated pop culture references, like MSN chat, Jessica Simpson, Craig David music, and Big Brother (the TV show). DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? has the same sort of humor as the Georgia Nicholson novels or old school Meg Cabot books. There are some problematic elements but for the most part, it still holds up, because it feels like such a raw and unflinching portrayal of what times were actually like back then, and also because the heroine is just so fully and unapologetically herself. I'll definitely have to read more from Ms. Abdel-Fattah because I love the voice she gave her heroine, and I kind of feel like it's probably hers, too.
4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars