Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed, (May 2018, Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Kids), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-399-54468-2
Recommended for readers 10-14
Twelve-year-old Amal is a girl living in a Punjabi village in Pakistan. When she has a rough interaction with the village’s wealthy and cruel landowner, Jawad Sahib, he demands payment for her “insult” by taking her on as an unpaid servant to work off her family’s debt. Charged for room and board, yet receiving no pay for her labor, it becomes clear all too quickly that Amal may be doomed to spend the rest of her life there. Jawad antagonizes her, and other servants are initially cruel to her, but she finds some solace as servant to Sahib’s mother, who is kinder. Amal fears her dreams of education and teaching are gone for good until a Sahib family venture opens the opportunity for Amal to attend school – and possibly, give her the chance to regain her freedom.
Inspired by Malala Yousafszai and young women like her, Amal Unbound is a compulsively readable upper middle-grade story about indentured servitude, gender inequality, and the right to education. Amal is a bookish young woman forced to drop out of school when her sister is born. She’s angry at the reaction that the birth of a girl, rather than a boy, brings not only to her family, but her neighbors. Furious that women are valued less than men, and angry that she must put her own dreams on hold, she lashes out at the local landowner, who takes advantage of her family’s debt to get even with her. She refuses to feel powerless, which further aggravates Jawad Sahib; his mother Nasreen Baji intervenes on Amal’s behalf, but she’s still part of a corrupt system that lets her family keep indentured servants – essentially, slaves – as labor. Amal discovers that Nasreen Baji is in a gilded cage of her own, but does that excuse her own injustices? It creates a good discussion point; one of many readers will discover in the pages of Amal Unbound. Publisher Penguin has you covered with a free, downloadable discussion guide.
Aisha Saeed creates complex characters and a strong story that you won’t want to put down until you’ve turned the last page. I hope I get summer reading lists with Amal Unbound on them; I can’t wait to booktalk this one to my library kids.
Book Riot has a good interview with Aisha Saeed and Shehzil Malik, designer of that beautiful cover, that you should check out and add to your booktalk info. Amal Unbound has starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus, and is on my Newbery shortlist.