Maddie and Sayara meet the way many new friends do – enjoying their vacations. After their time together on the water slides and in the swimming pools, however, they return to vastly different worlds.
Maddie lives in an open society where the government does not enforce severe dress and behavioral restrictions. Sayara’s home, the Kingdom, denies women the right to choose their own clothing or drive a vehicle. Everywhere Sayara goes, she must be accompanied by a man. Sayara’s vacation is, in fact, cut short after her cousin is arrested for daring to drive. Maddie struggles to understand the differences between their societies and how the king of the Kingdom could allow these injustices that hurt her friend and her friend’s family.
As she chews over the situation, Maddie decides she must take action. Since her family doesn’t seem to understand the change she’s trying to bring about for her friend Sayara, Maddie decides to essentially go rogue. Using her distracted mother’s air miles, she goes to the Kingdom herself. She finds the Kingdom is far more complex and dangerous than she had anticipated, and soon she must worry about safety as much as justice. With the help of strangers and her friends’ determination, she continues her hunt for Sayara and her quest to correct an injustice.
The author wrote this book as a sort of introduction to cross-cultural politics for young readers. It’s a vastly complex issue, and as such, it’s hard to do it justice in a children’s novel. Although the story is careful not to name specific countries, it’s pretty easy to see the links between the U.S. and a real-life “kingdom” in the story.
Although Maddie’s courage is admirable, she is painfully reminiscent of other young people from advantaged societies who believe it is their easy right to correct the wrongs of another culture. This edge is dulled considerably by the wider cast of brave women from the Kingdom, without whom Maddie would have failed entirely. They have been working for change since the religious zealots took over their country, and they are both passionate and fierce. Maddie is clearly designed as a character with whom the target audience can empathize. That doesn’t make her less of a headache for older readers, but it does put her role in context.
The only caveat to that assertion is her interaction with the Kingdom’s highest ranking officials. She isn’t just courageous, she is rude. The story is meant to reflect the complexities of solving human rights issues across cultural lines, but Maddie does not demonstrate any real respect for the culture in general. Her status as a foreigner protects her, but the story takes huge liberties towards the end concerning how much a foreign child could get away with in the presence of another nation’s highest authorities.
All in all, the story is a good way to start discussions with young readers about a complex subject. The novel has its imperfections, but it would be impossible to write a perfect story about an issue we have yet to perfectly solve.
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