Book Review: Amal Unbound

My twelve-year-old son joined a book club this year. Okay, that’s a bit of a laugh. I forced my son into a book club. Yes, I am the dentist with the kids with bad teeth, or more literally: the writer with a son who can’t stand the sight of the printed word. He is too old to still be a reluctant reader, he is an obstinate one. So, naturally, when a friend approached with a spot in a home school boys’ book club, I accepted for him.

book cover image from Amazon.com

Running on schedule with the school year (if we can call it that, this year—“schedule” or “school year”), the first book that Eamon read was Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. If you want to see an old review of that book, then go HERE. The second book was Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. Yes, it is already two months into our school year, and at the rate of a book a month, he’s already read Amal, discussed it, dragged a copy of it out to a park in the middle of a drizzle, and had a book-themed party with a gaggle of other boys (which involved Pakistani candy). When we got home, I asked my son what he thought of the book. (He doesn’t hate stories—he actually likes many stories and he is an auditory learner, so I sometimes let him do books on tape.) Normally a fan exclusively of boys in nature or fantasy, he surprised me when he said he liked the book. What did he like about it? The story, characters, and the language. (!)

Well, butter my biscuits.

I have always tried to read what my kids read. A couple years ago I fell behind on keeping up with my older daughter, but I still read some of what she reads. As for my son, I am still up to date. So, before he finished Amal, I also read it. To be honest, I’m not sure my review is quite as shining as my son’s. Not that it’s bad, either. I guess what I’m saying is I think the book is okay. I understand wanting to recommend it because it’s representative of a population, indentured servants in Pakistan, that you don’t find a dearth of children’s fiction about. In fact, under some circumstances, indentured servants in Pakistan fall into the trafficked people group, and this in an area where I have a lot of passion for exposing, educating, and seeking justice. I should be throwing this book at children, but I just couldn’t get that excited about it.

Why? I’m not exactly sure, but the story, characters, and language all fell flat for me. Again, not bad, but nothing gripping, magical, mysterious, surprising, beautiful, or even charming, quirky, all those adjectives I’m looking for in a book. It does educate while telling a story. It does paint a picture, draw you in, and then go through the stages of a plot. There are good guys and bad guys. Details. I dunno’.

Amal Unbound is a novel, the story of a girl named Amal. Amal is growing up in small town Pakistan, though that’s probably not what one would call it. She has friends, a family she loves, and school. Amal is a natural academic, and she wants to be a teacher one day. Her mother’s post-partum depression and social practices collide, however, forcing the eldest daughter—Amal—to quit school for domestic work. Still, she dreams and studies. But things go from bad to worse, and Amal has a chance encounter with the corrupt landlord which lands her in the clutches of a systemic power, an indentured servant with no chance of paying off her family’s debt. Trapped for life. And still she dreams and studies. There is a bit of a twist at the end, which feels to me like it comes too late to save the story, but it does come. (And it has been argued that this story is too idealistic, which it is, but it’s also a story for middle grades, so…)

Aisha Saeed, the author, is a Pakistani American writer and lawyer. She was inspired by Malala (and other things, I’m sure), the Pakistani activist who champions education for girls and who is the youngest winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. This book shines a light on the need for girls to receive an education as well as a need for people to keep fighting for education for all. Not everybody is handed an education, and there are children worldwide being stripped of the means to carve out a healthy, happy, and free life for themselves.

Sometimes when I am struggling with boldly saying what I want to in a review, I check to see what other people are saying. Amal Unbound is a New York Times bestselling book that consistently garners high reviews. This makes me wonder, what’s wrong with me? It took me less than five reviews to come across a reader who felt exactly as I do. The other reviewer was happy this book existed and that the world “is a better place” with stories like it, but “here’s the catch: Although I can praise the themes all day long, it doesn’t change the fact that the writing is only adequate, the secondary characters two-dimensional, and the events … somewhat dull.” Cristina Monica from Goodreads went on to sum it up: “A character-driven, realistic middle grades story that could have been more engaging, but that managed to bring forward and explore universal themes.” Yep. That’s pretty much what I’ve been saying. It contributes, but it’s not amazing writing. My son enjoyed it. It’s important, so lots of people are reading it.

Keep writing this stuff, people. Keep publishing it. Keep reading it.

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