My YA tendencies usually lean towards books aimed at older teens that contain a bit of grit, but occasionally, I’ll pick up one aimed at the younger side of the YA spectrum. Head Over Heart is one of these books (I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review). The story focuses on the life of Zeyneb, a young Muslim girl going through the challenges of becoming a teenager in a busy and diverse London school. She is now of an age where she needs to make lots of big decisions – between family, friends, and boys. It’s a book a lot of young girls will be able to relate to, even if they don’t have to make the exact same choices as Zeyneb.
Family is very important in Zeyneb’s life and culture. Family comes first – at all times – at least according to her parents. But Zeyneb has other things pulling her attention. First there’s her best friend, Kelly, who comes from a single parent home and doesn’t understand the extreme demands put on Zeyneb by her family. Then there’s school and where that’s going to take her in just a few short years. Will she go to university for an education or follow in her sister’s footsteps and get married and have children. And then there’s Alex – the boy that sends her heart a flutter. The boy she is most definitely not allowed to have fluttery feelings about. And her decision about a headscarf. What she chooses in each of these scenarios is going to directly influence each of her other decisions.
Zeyneb thinks that her biggest decision is her headscarf. And in a way it is. Whether or not she chooses to wear one is important in her family and her culture. Her mother wears one but her sister and grandmother don’t. The signals she’s receiving are mixed. This is more than a fashion statement. It is a personal statement – even if Zeyneb doesn’t think it is. She doesn’t really understand the extent of her decision until she starts talking to her friends. Kelly and Alex both assume that Zeyneb won’t wear one. They don’t think she’s ‘that kind of girl’ – close minded, reserved, subservient. This is how they see women who choose to wear a head scarf. Zeyneb doesn’t know if this is how she sees the decision. For a while she thinks that maybe they’re right. Maybe this decision will make her into exactly that kind of girl. But through family members and a college recruiter, she learns that not everyone thinks this way. Wearing a headscarf doesn’t mean she’s closed minded. It means she’s made a choice for herself. Zeyneb knows that that in the end, this is her decision, no one else’s, but whatever she decides, she is actively making a choice that will influence the way other people see her.
At first, this seems like a very specific decision for a very specific girl, but it’s more than that. Zeyneb is at an age when decisions start to mean more. Seemingly meaningless choices can drastically change the way a person is treated. Clothing choices can determine if you’re popular, nerdy, slutty, a zealot – just to name a few. The accuracy of these beliefs is unstable and often untrue, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they exist. With so much confusion and change raging through the physical body during these years, it’s just easier to make the other decisions simple. Teenagers are selfish beings. It’s in their genes. For a few years, they are the centre of their own universe and everyone else is judged by whatever ideals they have established.
Zeyneb is forced to confront this fact when she can’t take the time to see things from Kelly’s perspective. She is so caught up in her own choices that she doesn’t realize the people around her are going through the same choices and confusion. Kelly is a straightforward kind of girl. She seems like she has it all figured out, but it isn’t until Zeyneb accuses her of never understanding that Kelly finally tells Zeyneb to open her eyes. She’s portrayed as the modern, strong willed girl. The opposite of Zeyneb, who is quiet and shy and uncertain. She’s set up to seem like she has it all together, but she’s just as susceptible to being judgmental and troubled. She’s the counterpart. She is experiencing a family life that is so foreign to Zeyneb’s that seeing the two girls interacting with the opposing family would have been a simple way to grow both of these characters. I wish their relationship had gotten a little more time in the book. We have a few scenes with them together, but so much of Zeyneb’s time is spent alone.
This is one of my criticisms of the book. I wish Zeyneb’s interactions with people had felt deeper. The most honest discussion happens between Zeyneb and Zehra, a woman she’s met only once. I know Zeyneb is having a difficult time making her decision, and she might not want to talk about these things with her friends, but their conversations just feel a little shallow. If there’d been a few more times when she’d gotten together with Kelly and just had ‘girl time’, it would have created a better foundation for Kelly’s life and therefore her relationship with Zeyneb.
Zeyneb also tells the reader about a lot of things that have happened in her family that have caused conflict, but until her cousin tattles on her for being at the fair with Alex, we don’t really see any of these. I would have maybe liked to have seen a little something to show how the family reacts to things before this. As it is, we’re going in with only a teen’s description of what’s happened in the past. I don’t know if this would have helped, but it may have helped with the shallowness of the story. At times it felt a little too simple, even for its age range.
There are lots of choices that need to be made in teen’s life. Zeyneb’s are no greater or fewer; they are simply different. This book is a good read for young readers. Girls in their pre-teens. For older readers, it may feel too simple. There’s a lack of depth to the secondary characters that fails the book and never really allows you to embrace the relationships. It was a quick, easy read that I would recommend for girls transitioning from elementary to junior high. A lot of teen books deal with the dark side of being a teen. The super hard moments – sexuality, body image, bullying, etc. This book gives young girls who haven’t necessarily reached those moments something they can relate to.