Note: This book review contains spoilers! If you usually read books for kids, I’d suggest reading Golden Girl first. If not and you don’t mind spoilers, continue onwards!
Though a novel-in-verse and a quick read, there is a lot to be said about Reem Faruqi’s Golden Girl. Eleven year old Aafiyah has a habit of “borrowing” things she likes from other people, and sometimes not returning them, like her best friend’s lipstick, or her teacher’s suncatcher that offers rainbow prisms in the sunshine.
But when her father is wrongfully accused of something and subsequently detained in Pakistan after their family’s travels, things get a lot more difficult. Though Aafiyah is trying to quit her “borrowing,” with money tight in the household, she plans to use her habit to help her family out of the predicament, by stealing her best friend Zaina’s sister’s jewelry for her engagement.
Of course, with this comes unintended consequences. Aafiyah has to deal with getting caught, potentially losing her best friend, reckoning with Allah on what is right or wrong, and figuring out how she feels about herself as well.
Ultimately, Aafiyah finds ways to be honest and work to accept parts of herself, as well as being vulnerable with her best friend to show her she really does value her friendship and working out ways to manage her desire to “borrow.” Luckily, the book ends with her father being able to return home, a joyous moment for Aafiyah and readers alike.
Throughout this story, Faruqi weaves complex experiences of Aafiyah growing up; from the way her physical body develops and how others interact with it, to how adjusting to a lesser-income lifestyle influences the way they live (her grandfather deals with cancer and lawyer fees are high for trying to get her father proven innocent, which leads to money being tight). Let’s get into the themes and the threads of this novel that make it special.
Let’s Break It Down: What are Some Major Themes in this Book?
Aafiyah is in middle school, which of course is a time when girl’s physical bodies are developing. Faruqi writes about the awareness that girls on the cusp of teenhood have about their changing bodies, and about how they’re aware others interact with them differently because of it. Aafiyah longs for the ability to look like she’s older, often comparing herself to her best friend Zarina—though, whom she loves dearly, she is still envious of–how Zaina’s skin turns golden brown during dark, how she purses her lips a certain way to talk to boys she likes.
It also shows how this discomfort and often unwanted sexual attention come at young girls from a young age. For example, when playing tennis, one of her partners named Connor throws her serves that hit the net repeatedly so she’d have to pick up the tennis balls. He tells her it’s because he “likes the way she bends.”
Another thing that Aafiyah’s character deftly notes is that Connor is like a butterfly–beautiful from the outside and someone that people take notice of. Even so, this beauty doesn’t match his insides.
There’s a passage that exemplifies the general idea of how men interact with her in the novel:
Muslims are supposed to
lower their gaze,
but I think
the boys and men
Making Bad Choices with Good Intentions
Throughout the incident with her dad, we see warring desires of goodness in Aafiyah. On the one hand, she knows that stealing things is not okay, but on the other hand, stealing Zaina’s sister’s gold is Aafiyah’s way of trying to problem-solve dilemmas she sees in her home. She sees her mother taking on a job, losing amenities like driving in cars to class, and being stressed about bills. Trying to figure out what is okay and is not as a young child is difficult, and Aafiyah’s dilemma exemplifies that. It also shows how humans justify making not-so-smart choices when they have warring value sets. These passages stood out the most to me in terms of this idea:
is to help Abba.
Is to help Dada Abu.
is to help Mom.
Notice the repetition in here, as if Aafiyah is trying to convince herself that this is okay.
THINGS THAT KEEP ME UP AT NIGHT
- We Need Money
God knows Zaina’s family is fine.
I’m really a good person,
my bad deeds
Reader’s feel for Aafiyah, because we know that she’s not a bad kid or a bad person; she just doesn’t know any other way to help her family, and she wants to help them out.
Commentary on Friendships and People
There are two relationships with Aafiyah that I want to highlight here: first, with Ibrahim, a Muslim boy that Aafiyah plays tennis with, and then of course, her ride or die, Zaina.
Initially when Aafiyah plays tennis, she starts categorizing people into moths and butterflies in terms of how they show up in their life — bold and beautiful like Connor (initially), or a bit more muted. She puts Ibrahim in the moth camp, because he kept to himself a lot, but throughout the season, you see her slowly changing her mind:
WHEN THE MOON GLOWS
Imran sometimes goes for Isha.
Sometimes he will nod at me
even though I'm not on the courts anymore.
Do you ever talk? I ask him.
I’m a man of few words.
A laugh tickles my throat,
Imran knows the Muslim rules—
boys and girls
I like playing with Imran
because I get to focus on the game
and just the game.
See the nod to how she has to think about more when she’s playing with Connor?
After winning the game, one of their players mentions how Imran and Aafiyah look cute together, but Imran shakes it off and gives her another racket high-five. This is when Aafiyah realizes something:
It’s a funny thing
about getting to know people.
The ones you thought
seemed so much like a moth
suddenly seem like a
Throughout this experience, Aafiyah realizes that sometimes you can’t see the specialness of a person immediately–and that you can find beauty in them, and appreciate them, once you do.
Now About Zaina…
In the author’s note in the back of the book, Faruqi writes that though initially she wrote Aafiyah not getting caught, she changed the storyline because she wanted Aafiyah to learn how to “have a difficult conversation, and to learn how to repair friendships” (p. 312).
I respect this choice because these are some of the hardest things that humans have to do, right? Repair our relationships. Fix our wrongs and have difficult conversations with people we love. Aafiyah is a middle schooler, and she gets in trouble— but she figures out a way to work through it with her family’s help—and that’s amazing!
I see her: taking guidance from loved ones, reflecting on her relationship with her best friend and sending a letter to Zaina explaining how she’s only ever shown Zaina her happy parts, but not any of her hard parts, being understanding when Zaina wonders if she can really trust her and returning everything she stole from Zaina, and taking strides to make sure she’s not tempted to do so again, like trashing her bag and wearing things without pockets to her friends’ house. Aafiyah puts the effort into becoming the person she wants to be, and it shows. It’s bigger than Zaina, too. It’s about who Aafiyah wants to be. She even realizes ways to keep her hands busy in other ways (photography, crochet that her mom teaches her).
Though a book of fewer words, Faruqi’s story still takes a deep dive into the complexities of the human experience. There’s depth in here that many who don’t read middle grade novels would be surprised to find, tucked into pages interspersed with Weird But True! facts and words that pack a punch even though they’re just a few lines. From commentary on growing up as a Muslim girl, to how your perceptions of others can change, to having tough conversations and making better choices, Faruqi offers a story that makes you think, but that also makes you proud of Aafiyah. All the while told in beautiful prose, like a beaded banner, each part more beautiful because of the way it’s strung together.
-Anita Patel is a Youth Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.