Amal Unbound: A Novel by Aisha Saeed.
Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Realistic fiction, 234 pages.
Lexile: HL600L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 6.0 points) .
Twelve year old Pakistani Amal dreams of being a teacher someday. When family circumstances force her, the oldest daughter, to stay home for a while, she is disappointed but finds a way to go on learning. But when an incident at the market leads to indentured servitude, are her dreams lost forever?
As soon as I saw the ARC review over at Huntress of Diverse Books, I knew I’d be buying this book. The gorgeous cover was a lure, of course, but also I was extremely curious how Saeed managed to write a book about indentured servitude appropriate for middle-grade readers.
Some topics are difficult to write about in general, let alone for such a young audience. But I’m happy to say that Saeed was entirely successful and has constructed a book that is not unrealistic but still incredibly hopeful. Although I haven’t yet, this is one I wouldn’t mind reading out loud to the entire family.
Spoilers | One aspect I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is that Amal’s mother suffers from postpartum depression. I don’t know of any other children’s book that deals with postpartum depression, which is unfortunate as older siblings are affected. It’s never named as such (reasonably since Amal wouldn’t know the term) but it’s clear through the events that occur and comments by her family members that Amal’s mother regularly experiences depression directly after each birth. That’s why Amal first has to stay home, and how she makes the mistake that leads to her servitude.
Spoilers | Amal’s father says “None of this would have happened if you hadn’t decided to stop functioning. Children were running this home. What else could we expect?” (page 65). This is not directly challenged. On the other hand, her mother blames her father for taking the secret loan which got them into this mess. The girls’ education is their mother’s dream, and their father doesn’t seem to understand or care how important learning is to Amal. However even though they are fighting and distraught about the situation, overall her family have strong, realistic connections. | End of Spoilers
The novel is realistic about the attitudes towards women and the issues of poverty. Amal’s family is actually well-off compared to others in their village. They own land and have a live-in servant. However they are not immune to financial setbacks and are still in the power of the wealthy landlord who owns most of the village.
At first I was angry that the incident with the landlord’s son is seen as Amal’s fault. But as I read more and reflected on similar books, I realized Saeed was commenting on the power of agency. Another author might have chosen to portray the situation as the inexorable crushing power of poverty, but Saeed remains hopeful. Even at the bleakest moments, Amal retains some power of choice, no matter how small, and exercises it for good.
Literacy and education are hugely important in the story and most characters understand how important they are. Since the story is told from Amal’s first person point of view, Saeed is able to give her internal commentary on topics like poverty, humanity, education, and equality even when Amal is not in a position to speak her mind about those subjects.
Some children might be affected by this book and need to walk through it with adult guidance if they are very sensitive, but the difficult subject matter was handled appropriately and Amal radiates hope even when her circumstances are dire.
The afterword in particular was very interesting to me. Saeed was inspired to write this by the real life story of Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzi. I didn’t make the connection until reading the afterword, but this book would make a great companion to the YRE of I Am Malala, whether at home or in the classroom. This could also be an interesting read for students studying slavery or sharecropping in US history as Amal specifically calls out practices designed to sink families into debt and further poverty.
I cannot recommend this book enough to both parents and teachers. Amazing read.