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Leora Tanenbaum

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The Next Best Young Adult Novel: 'Rebels by Accident' by Patricia Dunn

Posted: 08/15/2012 7:19 pm

We've hit that dreadful time in August when camp and teen programs are winding down but school hasn't started up. What can your kids do for the next few weeks that they'll enjoy and that will stimulate them to look at the world with a fresh eye? If you have a pre-teen or teenage daughter, give her a copy of Rebels by Accident by Patricia Dunn. Your only regret will be that she will devour this book in a day or two, and then you'll be stuck where you were. But at least then you can steal the book for yourself.

The novel, just out this week, follows a 16-year-old Egyptian-American girl named Mariam who is completely disconnected from her cultural-religious background. She couldn't care less about her parents' pasts in Egypt. To her, Egypt is a country of camels, pyramids, and veiled women. All Mariam wants is to wear clothes that don't make her "look fat" and to experience her first kiss.

Mariam is bullied at school -- the kids crack comments that her dad is in al-Qaeda and call her "towelhead" -- and her strict parents don't permit her to wear makeup or go to parties. Her best friend Deanna is also made fun of -- she has a physical deformity that renders her unable to smile -- but Deanna is tougher than Mariam and knows how to defend herself. One night Mariam sneaks out to attend her first-ever high school party, but she and Deanna land in jail when the party is broken up by police, who discover large quantities of marijuana. Mariam is so sheltered she hadn't even realized the other kids were smoking pot.

Horrified by their daughter's behavior, her parents send Mariam -- together with Deanna -- to Cairo for the rest of the school year. The two girls travel in January 2011 to live with Mariam's grandmother, Sittu ("grandmother" in Arabic). Mariam presumes Sittu will be even more strict than her parents, and that she and Deanna will have to endure months of boring educational activities and lectures about proper behavior. In fact, Sittu is hip and fun; she takes the girls to the mall, on camel rides, and to the Pyramids. Sittu is also plugged into Facebook and Twitter. She's a blogger who secretly supports the young protestors who are about to overthrow the corrupt government of President Hosni Mubarak. Soon after the girls arrive, revolution erupts in Tahrir Square, and they are caught up in the momentum.

The novel includes several frightening moments when Deanna becomes separated from Mariam during the violence, a revelation that Mariam's dad had been tortured as a young activist in Egypt, and a surprising development involving Sittu that makes this book unforgettable. By the end, Mariam embraces her heritage. And yes, she has her first kiss.

Patricia Dunn, a convert to Islam, was the managing editor of Muslimwakeup.com, America's most popular Muslim online magazine, from 2003-2008. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, where she received her MFA in creative writing. She decided to write Rebels by Accident after her son, an Egyptian-American, was hit on the head by other kids on the school bus and told, "All you Muslims should go back where you came from." When Dunn couldn't find any books for teens with positive Muslim role models, she created this one.

I caught up with Dunn by phone. I wanted to know how she managed to pull off writing a novel that is educational without being preachy, light without being flimsy.

With the glut of young adult novels centered on wizards, vampires, and science-fiction futuristic dystopias, I was refreshed to read your novel, which is not only realistic, it's grounded in current events.

There is value in those types of novels, but I think there's interest in stories with real kids having real adventures. Plus, it's essential to have historical perspective. When I was a kid, I learned about other parts of the world through books.

I like books in which the hero has to overcome some sort of struggle and goes through the experience of finding out who he or she is. In this book, Deanna is judged because of her appearance, and Mariam is bullied because kids' assumptions about her and her background. Rising above the judgments of other kids is such an important topic.

Facebook and Twitter are so integral to the plot that I felt as if they are characters in the novel.

I became fascinated with Facebook. Young people are using it not only to talk about clothes and love but also about political organizing. I was in Nicaragua in 1986, several years after the revolution. The Sandinistas were still in power; they had a lot of popular support. I was able to watch them attempt to build the country into a democracy. I became disillusioned with the way American journalists reported on the revolution and its aftermath. I saw that so many important facts were obscured, changed, or sensationalized. I wonder how things would have developed had there been social media. Facebook and Twitter back then would have changed the way information was distributed. At the time, a fax machine was a really big deal. Think about what it would have been like had the Sandinistas been able to tweet.

When Deanna sees a teenage boy shot and killed in Tahrir Square, it's an intense moment. Do you worry that it could frighten some of your younger readers?

To be true to the story, I had to have violence, and for a middle-school-aged or high-school-aged reader, the level of violence is not inappropriate. Teenagers today are accustomed to violence in books and movies, and most of the time the violence has no real purpose; it's random. In this book, the violence is purposeful, and it's the reality of the situation.

There's a lot of romance in the novel. Every major character falls in love. Although it's a little hokey, I think you made a good move because otherwise this book could have become too heavy.

I agree, and it's a love story not only between girlfriends and boyfriends but also it's a love story between Mariam and Egypt, between Mariam and her grandmother, even a love story with Mariam learning to love herself.

At one point, Deanna flirts with the idea of covering her hair, although ultimately she decides not to. In light of the fact that non-Muslim Americans tend to be obsessed with hijab, could you explain your motivation for this scene?

I wanted to show that she loves everything Egyptian and wants to take on everything she associates with Egypt. But since she becomes so involved in the revolution, it would have been too much for the character to also cover her hair. The fact that she thought about doing it was enough. Besides, if she had actually started covering her hair, we would have gotten into that whole tiresome debate about whether or not Muslim women should do it in the first place.

As a young man, Mariam's father had been tortured in Egypt. What led you to create this history?

I know many stories of people who had been tortured under Mubarak's regime, including my son's grandfather. From a plot perspective, I had to explain why Mariam's parents were estranged from their country and why Mariam doesn't know anything substantive about her family's roots in Egypt. By creating a character who had been tortured and whose parents had then sent him to the United States, I was able to resolve these questions. Mariam's father never forgave his parents for making him leave Egypt.

Also, I've always found it interesting that there's so much we don't know about our own parents. Often we discover information about our parents through our grandparents, the way Mariam learns about her father's torture through Sittu.

Because of your own involvement in Islam, I was surprised that you downplayed religion. Your book is more about culture and politics than it is about religion.

I felt it was more important to do it this way. For a lot of people, Muslim or Christian or Jewish, their faith is mostly cultural and not religious. Plus, I didn't want to be didactic. I'm not trying to convert anyone! Mostly I just wanted to get across the point that there is no one "right" way of doing religious rituals. If the rituals bring you close to your faith, and give you fulfillment, that is enough.

How can teachers and parents use this book?

Teachers tell me they need a novel that gives students perspective about contemporary Egypt, not ancient Egypt. As a parent, I also strongly believe that it's important to have a Muslim Arab-American character who is not saved by the West. If anything, Egypt saves Mariam.

Rebels by Accident is available online and in independent bookstores.

 
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