book review and a pairing: Amal Unbound


title: Amal Unbound
author: Aisha Saeed
date: Nancy Paulsen Books; 2018
main character: Amal

Review based on an advanced copy.


Among the 14 facts about Aisha Saeed on her website are the facts that she’s worked as a lawyer and an elementary teacher, she speaks three languages and she’s a fantastic air hockey player. And, she loves to write. When interviewed by Publishers Weekly about what inspired her to write Amal Unbound, Saeed explained that the first inspiration came from Malala Yousafzai, but she continued to think about young people who don’t always get noticed for what they do. “It’s important for us to think about the people who perform brave acts who will never see their names in a headline. From that premise, I started writing about Amal. I wanted her to do something brave, something people wouldn’t know about, but that would be equally important [to Malala’s real-life advocacy of education for girls].”

Amal, like Saeed is of Pakistani descent and, Amal’s story in placed in a fictionalize town similar to Saeed’s ancestral home. I would imagine that Saeed loved learning every bit as much a Amal. Amal loves it so much that she wants to become a teacher. But, as she leaves her classroom on the day we meet her, we find out that this will be her last day in that school. What will happen that keeps her from returning?

On her way home from school, she has a forbidden meeting with Omar, a family friend but it’s cut short by her mother going into labor. She gives birth to yet another girl. The family has no sons, only daughters and Amal’s mother sinks into a depression because she really wanted a son. My western gaze may judge this as devaluing girls however, those inside the culture know there are many ways in which women and girls are valued. Here, the family had so many girls who would fill specific cultural roles, that they wanted a son. Amal’s mother is unable to perform any of her usual household duties and Amal is required to help out more.

Amal’s father is a business owner however, he must pay rent to the landowner, Khan Sahim, who controls the local wealth. He reminded me of mob bosses or land owners to whom sharecroppers paid their dues. Some similarities do exist across borders.

Despite the condition in which Amal eventually finds herself, she still likes to learn. Here in a country where girls often don’t receive the same formal education as boys, Saeed creates a young girl who establishes her own agency by reading the world; by acquiring information from the people, events and situations around her. While Khan Sahim is a powerful despot in the village, he’s disempowered in the story in the way Saeed delivers only his weaknesses to the reader. While there are several male characters who do stand out in the story, it’s the relationships between the women tha


t are the most effective. Here, the women are valued.

You’ll definitely be drawn into Amal Unbound by the gorgeous cover. Amal’s endearing character and the hope you’ll feel for her through some very harrowing situations will make this a book you’ll long remember. This is a great addition for school and public libraries.

Pair this book with an interactive Mendhi activity. Begin by learning about the artwork on the cover of the book. [You’ll love the graphics on this page!] Research with your students to learn about the art and history of henna tattoos. Perhaps you can invite a local henna tattooartist to your class. Use a site such as this for students to practice simple designs either on their hands or on cardboard cutouts. If you plan for students to get henna tattoos, be sure to get permission slips from parents beforehand and have the students do skin tests before creating a larger design.

Saeed’s first book, Written in the Stars was listed as a best book of 2015 by Bank Street Books and a 2016 YALSA Quick Pick For Reluctant Readers.