Every once in a while a book completely surprises you. “It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel,” by Firoozeh Dumas, was one of those books. I had heard about it in an article in Time Magazine referencing the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement which I have followed for some time. The book sounded like a fun read and I was thrilled when I managed to get a library copy over the summer.
The premise of this book is that Zomorod Yousefzadeh has just moved to Newport Beach and is trying more than anything to fit in. Zomorod is an 11 year old Iranian girl whose father works for the oil industry and their family has had to move many times in the US as well as in Iran. She goes so far as to go by the name Cindy, since her given name is difficult to pronounce as well as “different.”
As the book starts out, it is mainly about being how challenging it is for Cindy and her family to fit in with Newport Beach life in 1978. Cindy is an avid reader and constantly looking out for her mother, who seems to be very lonely living in the United States. She struggles with the fact that her name is hard for everyone to pronounce, her mother only speaks Persian, and the foods that her family eats are not like everyone else’s. The idea of being different is a common theme in children’s literature, although having the main character be Iranian definitely sets it apart.
What sets this book apart from other coming of age stories is when it started to bring in the Iranian Revolution. Most middle school kids know nothing about when the Iranian shah was overthrown and the events that unfolded after that. I will be the first to admit that I am not all that knowledgeable about that part of history, and this book was like a lesson in what happened in the late 1970s.
When the Iranian Revolution hits and the subsequent hostage crisis, Cindy’s family deals with the fallout of being Iranian in the United States. Her father loses his job due to the political unrest, her teachers want her to be able to answer questions about what is happening in her country that she doesn’t have answers to, and some people start to treat her poorly and play nasty pranks. This was true to what was happening in the late ’70s, but it also felt too close for comfort to things that are going on in this country right now.
The book continues to go between the political issues abroad and social issues for Cindy’s family in the United States. There are so many wonderful aspects of this book. Whether it be the free history lesson of a period that many adults don’t fully understand, the true to life notions of trying to fit in when your customs and background are different from those around you, or wanting to be the hero of your own family when they start to face their own struggles, this book has a little bit of everything and it is handled with humor and heart-felt emotion.
Through it all, Cindy keeps in mind advice from her father: “Kindness is our religion and if we treat everybody the way we would like to be treated, the world would be a better place.”