Book Club · Culture

Maddie & Sayara: Kidlit Meets Activism

When Maddie meets Sayara on vacation, they become instant friends – bonded through their similar attitudes towards life. But despite their similarities, Maddie and Sayara come from two different cultures with two very different attitudes towards girls. While Sayara struggles in her home country with the unfair laws that recently landed her cousin in jail, Maddie makes up her mind to help her through any means necessary.

Maddie & Sayara, at its heart, is an ambitious novel. It’s embedded in an important political, cultural, and religious message that even adult books find difficult to tackle. And while I appreciate its ambitiousness, that is possibly its greatest failings. The book’s core consists of a criticism of the different cultures that Maddie and Sayara embody. Maddie, born and brought up in the West – and heavily implied to be from the United States – enjoys freedom that she takes for granted. On the other hand, Sayara is from the “kingdom,” which follows all of the rules and regulations of Saudi Arabia, eg. disallowing women from driving, enforcing modest dress codes, etc. Yet, despite the obvious allegories the book presents to us, it doesn’t fully engage with this kind of criticism. Instead, everything – from geographical location, to culture, to religion, is vague.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with not prescribing specificity to these things, in a book that is focused on critiquing it, it seems almost cowardly to not fully engage. It’s particularly problematic as it embodies a vaguely oriental view of the world. The book decidedly splits itself into one and the other, and with Maddie as our protagonist and narrator, Sayara and her culture easily becomes the other. In a world where non-Western culture is already interchangeable, this becomes thoroughly more problematic.

From my own personal experience, there have been many times when people have assumed that I am conservative, or follow the same rules as Saudi women, simply because I am Muslim. Despite the fact that I am not from Saudi Arabia. Because Muslims, and brown people in general, are rarely given voices in the media, people are only exposed to certain stories. For Muslim women, this story has become that of the subjugated Saudi woman, who has little to no rights. And while I have no issues with exploring a story of Saudi women, I do take issues with a story – that is supposedly trying to raise awareness of the inequality that exists in certain parts of the world – that continues to perpetuate this conflation of non-Western culture, and the erasure of Muslim women who are not Saudi.

The book also, unfortunately, falls victim to the white saviour trope. While the book is called Maddie & Sayara, it is only Maddie who is given importance in the story, with Sayara becoming more of a plot device than an actual character. Not only does Maddie risk her own life and do dangerously naive things to “save” Sayara – a girl she has known for only a few weeks – but she also continually risks the lives of others. This wouldn’t be an issue, if the book didn’t constantly try to bring up the fact that those in the kingdom who are not part of the royal family, or not citizens, face more hardship. Yet, we are meant to ignore that Maddie continues to put the lives of these same people in danger. In fact, most of the story would not have happened, if normal people of the kingdom, and non-citizens, weren’t continually risking their lives for Maddie – a thirteen year old foreigner girl they barely know. Moreover, despite the women and girls of the kingdom protesting against the driving ban, and for their rights for many years, they are never acknowledged, and instead hushed up as soon as possible. Yet Maddie’s arrival in the kingdom eventually leads to her getting an audience with the prince to plead her case. So despite the novel promising to be about two friends who discover the unfair differences in their culture, it becomes the story of Maddie – a white Westerner trying to “save” Sayara, who rarely appears in the book other than to plead her victimhood.

For a book rooted in some of the stark realities of our own world, Maddie & Sayara reads too much like a fairytale. This is unsurprising considering the scope of the novel – trying to undertake all of the struggles that Saudi women face in just a hundred and something pages. But it is disappointing. There aren’t a lot of books that aim to make kids and young adults more compassionate about other cultures, and in a lot of ways the book is quite informative about the unfair laws that Saudi women do face. It’s just unfortunate that the book was unable to tackle this head-on, or with the nuance and understanding that it deserved.

Disclaimer: This book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Maddie & Sayara will be published on 7th September, 2017

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