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Saints and Misfits—a William C. Morris Award finalist and an Entertainment Weekly Best YA Book of the Year—is a “timely and authentic” (School Library Journal, starred review) debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

There are three kinds of people in my world:

1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.

2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.

Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.

But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?

3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

Like the monster at my mosque.

People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.

Except me.

Saints and Misfits MISFIT
I’m in the water. Only my eyes are visible, and I blow bubbles to ensure the rest of me stays submerged until the opportune time. Besides the lifeguard watching from his perch, there’s a gaggle of girls my age patrolling the beach with younger siblings in tow. They pace in their flip-flops and bikinis, and I wait.

The ideal time is when no one’s around and no one’s looking. But right now there’s a little girl cross-legged on wooden bleachers peering at me from beneath a hand held aloft at her forehead, a smile on her face. I can’t tell if the smile is a result of how long she’s been watching me bob here in the water.

To check whether she’s staring, I test her with a long gaze to the left of the bleachers, where Dad and his wife Linda are barbecuing. Their oldest son, Logan, round and berry-brown from a day in the sun, is digging a hole nearby, while the newest addition, Luke, lies on a quilt wearing a swim diaper.

Dad said I’d love it here because the beachfront cottage they’d rented was one of the only two Cherie and Ed had let out this weekend. Secluded. Serene. Safe.

Ha. Cherie and Ed forgot to mention that the beach portion doesn’t actually belong to them and is public property at all hours of the day. Party central.

I look back, and, hallelujah, the girl on the bleachers is gone. There’s also a lull on the shore now. The lifeguard’s turned to talk to someone behind him, and the beach girls are on the far right, peering at a sand castle.

I stand and cringe at the sucking sound as my swimsuit sticks to me, all four yards of the spandex-Lycra blend of it. Waterfalls gush out of the many hems on the outfit, and, as I hobble out of the lake, more secret pockets release their water. I’m a drippy, squelchy mess, stumbling toward Dad and Linda, picking up tons of sand as I move. I refuse to look around in case I see someone, everyone, watching me.

Maybe my face reveals something, because Dad starts right away.

“Janna, why do you have to wear that thing? You could have said, No, I’m not wearing your burkini, Mom.” He waves around long tongs as he speaks.

“Mom didn’t get it for me. I ordered it online.”

“I saw her hand it to you as we were packing the car.”

“Because I’d left it on the hall table, Dad.”

“It’s her kind of thing. What’s wrong with the way Linda’s dressed?” He snaps the tongs at Linda. She’s wearing a one-piece, just-had-a-baby, flouncy-at-the-hips number, and, really, I’d rather be in my burkini. It’s black and sleek. Sure, when it gets wet, you kind of resemble a droopy sea lion, but at least it isn’t pink and lime green like Linda’s swimsuit is.

“Linda, you look great.” I smile at her, and she smooths out her flounces.

“Too bad you’re not her size—she could have lent you one of her suits, right, Linda?”

“Dad, I won’t wear it. I’m a hijabi, remember?” I take a plate and add a piece of chicken from the platter.

“At the beach? Even at the beach?” Dad’s gesticulating again and looking around—for what, I don’t know. When he spies a woman unfolding a lounge chair nearby and starts talking louder, I realize it’s for an audience. He wants an audience while he rants at me.

Maybe I should’ve listened to Mom and not come. My first vacation with Dad’s family since my parents split when I was eleven and it’s like I’m a visitor among the earthlings frolicking on a beach in Florida.

Before this, I’d only spent the odd weekend here and there with Dad at his house in Chicago. I was “Daddy’s princess” back then.

The woman in the chair listens intently as Dad lectures. Linda’s got a hand on his arm, and it’s traveling up to his shoulder with a firmer grip, but he’s still talking.

“How come you have to hide your God-given body?” He turns a few burgers over. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and red shorts over his God-given body. “It’s not me who forces her to dress like that, that’s for sure.”

The woman looks at me, then at Dad and opens a book.

Linda places a hand on my glistening black back and hands me a can of pop. “I’ll get you a burger when they’re done,” she whispers.

I move to sit on the bleachers before I realize the beach girls are sauntering this way again. I’m a swirl of sand art against a black canvas.

I duck under the wooden slats of the seats. Cradling my plate on crossed legs, I flip back the swim cap that’s attached to my suit and undo my hair. Sand trickles down with the beads of water. Some of it falls onto my chicken.

Flannery O’Connor, my favorite author: That’s who I need right now.

Flannery would take me away from here and deposit me into her fictitious world crawling with self-righteous saints and larger-than-life misfits. And I’d feel okay there because Flannery took care of things. Justice got served.

I forgot to pack her gigantic book of short stories because everything was last minute. I’d wanted to escape so badly that when Dad mentioned this trip with his family, I’d asked, “Can I come?” without thinking.

Mom had tried to put her foot down about taking a vacation right before exams, but, luckily for me, my brother Muhammad is home for the summer from college. He talked her into letting me come. She listens to practically everything he says.

If it had been only me telling her I needed to get away, far away from Eastspring, she would’ve talked over me.

She didn’t know I had to get away from a monster. And the truth is no one can know.
Reading Group Guide for

Saints and Misfits

Misfit in Love

By S. K. Ali

About the Books

What happens when a person everyone thinks is a saint commits a monstrous act? In Saints and Misfits, Janna Yusuf, an Egyptian and Indian American teen, asks herself this after her friend’s cousin sexually assaults her at a party. She struggles to share her truth, fearing no one will believe her and that non-Muslims will co-opt her experiences to fuel Islamophobia. When her attacker tries to publicly shame her for crushing on Jeremy, a non-Muslim white boy, she begins unraveling the righteous rage she’d repressed. Janna navigates her feelings toward her faith, learning what she values in relationships and accepting support from the true “saints” in her life.

Two years later, in Misfit in Love, Janna is still healing from her assault and renewing her ability to trust, accept love and community, and find her place in the world. Her beloved brother, Muhammad, and future sister-in-law, Sarah, are getting married! What starts as a plan to confess her feelings to her crush before heading off to college becomes an exploration of intracommunity issues regarding anti-Black racism, prejudice, and discrimination in Muslim spaces.

Discussion Questions

1. Both books open with scenes of Janna swimming in a burkini at her dad’s house. Discuss the symbolism of this choice by comparing the scenes.

2. Contemplate how Janna defines a saint, a misfit, and a monster. Is it possible for someone to be all three? Use examples across both books to explain your response.

3. Janna thinks of Sarah as “the most perfect Muslim girl,” judging her before she even gets to know her. Describe how the saint/misfit dichotomy can be harmful to girls. Think about how the women and girls in the books are portrayed to justify your conclusions.

4. Mr. Ram tells Janna, “‘Why we do an action is what determines its quality. A quality action or not . . . because when we just do things without a why, we become husks. Easily crumpled, no fruit inside.’” Using examples from the book and real life, break down Mr. Ram’s advice. What does he mean? Similarly, if a person has a good “why,” or intention, but their actions cause harm, is that harm erased? Explain your answer.

5. At the mosque open house, Mr. Khoury presses Muhammad on why it’s such a big deal that Farooq “memorized what he doesn’t understand.” Shortly before, Janna found some protection from Farooq by hanging around Mr. Khoury’s “fake booth,” noting the irony of the situation. Explain the irony.

6. After learning that Farooq will lead Ramadan prayers, Janna has flashbacks of the assault and asks herself, “Why do I have to bear his evil in me? It’s his evil. So why is it me that’s hurting?” Look up rape culture and victim blaming. In what ways do you think these terms relate to how Janna feels in this moment?

7. After Janna suggests that Sausun speak up about what’s happening to her sister, Sausun shoots back, “‘You have no idea about the world, do you? . . . I mean, I could ask you, Why’d you keep quiet about your thing? Tell the world about the bastard yourself.’” Using examples from the book, list the reasons why Janna keeps quiet about Farooq and how she grows empowered to voice her truth throughout Saints and Misfits.

8. We learn that Janna’s parents are divorced as she compares life before and after the separation. She doesn’t learn the full story of why they divorced until Misfit in Love. She often expresses that she isn’t included in her mom and brother’s team because she is “too young.” This seems accurate as she is older in the second novel, and they openly discuss more mature topics together. Do you think it was fair for Janna’s parents not to include her? Do you ever feel you’re treated like you’re too young to understand? Are there topics you don’t feel prepared to discuss? Explain your answers.

9. How has Janna’s parents’ relationship impacted her understanding of trust, love, and faith? Use examples from both books to support your answer.

10. Janna loves Flannery O’Connor because justice is served in her stories. How do you define justice? Is there a conflict in Misfit in Love that deserves justice, and if so, how would justice be served? Explain your answers.

11. Consider Janna’s description that she’s “dangling in the wind” between her family’s differing views on Islam, the societal pressures she faces in wanting to be beautiful and liked by her crush, the microaggressions she receives from Tats and Lauren when Jeremy sees her hijabless, and the trauma of her assault. Tats yells, “‘Stop getting mad at me when you haven’t figured it out yourself.’” Put yourself in Janna’s shoes: Have you ever had moments of doubt or contradictory feelings toward your family, faith, and/or culture? What description would you use to explain these feelings? How do these external demands impact us internally?

12. In a shining example of how patriarchy and misogyny can manifest anywhere, Farooq creates a narrative that Janna is “straying” from Islam while maintaining that he has done nothing wrong. Why are his actions hypocritical? What do you think he hopes to achieve by judging Janna on social media and spreading the video of her talking to Jeremy? How do his actions affect how Fizz and Aliya react when Janna tells them Farooq assaulted her?

13. Janna often muses about how powerful wearing niqab is and admires the Niqabi Ninjas. Then she discovers that one of their rants about “Doormats and Other Losers” is about her! Pair up with a partner and discuss your reaction if you were Janna watching the video. How would you feel? What would you have done? Do you think the Niqabi Ninjas had a point? Be prepared to share your responses with the group.

14. Both books expose the aftereffects of trauma that continue years beyond the incident and after Janna has gone to therapy. In Saints and Misfits, Janna notes she has been “cocooning myself in that vacuum of numbness,” even when “the knowledge must have been simmering under the surface of my thoughts.” Find examples in both texts of how Janna is affected by her assault and contrast the effects over time. How are Janna’s reactions and methods for coping different in the two books?

15. Janna is excited about telling Nuah that she likes him back. Since they both follow Islam, she understands they must follow rules, “but the rules will still lead to us being together.” This seems different from how she felt about crushing on Jeremy, which was a “train going nowhere.” Thinking about the struggles Janna went through as she figured out where she fit in, talk about her growth both in maturity and in her relationship to her faith.

16. Why do you think Janna is so scared and anxious about change, including the idea of her mom remarrying and everyone pairing up without her? Provide examples from the text to justify your response.

17. Janna’s mom tells her, “‘People who are exclusionary want to preserve what they have. That they think others will take it all away from them.’” Janna struggles to place this advice in the context of prejudice and racism because she can only think of herself as exclusionary by not wanting her mom to remarry. What are the dangers of removing race, religion, ethnicity, and culture as contexts for racism and prejudice? Why was Janna mistaking her understanding and making it about herself a problem? Explain your conclusions.

18. Janna clings to the outrage she feels at her dad’s blatant anti-Blackness and prejudice, and eventually realizes the outrage was an excuse to avoid confronting her own privileges. Free write for five minutes about your personal identities. Think about a time when you have either witnessed discrimination or perpetuated it. Challenge any defensive feelings that may come up or the desire to point the finger at someone else. You can also write about a time when you experienced discrimination. Did anyone step in as a bystander? How did you want to be supported?

19. Janna is confused by the contradiction that her dad, “who has felt the effects of prejudice himself, is dishing it out now too.” She speculates it’s because anti-Blackness is ingrained in their cultures and feels sorrow that “Nuah understood instantly how he was perceived—and in a space that should have been safe. A Muslim space.” In what ways is anti-Blackness ingrained in your culture? How can you combat anti-Blackness and commit to anti-racism? What are some examples from the book that can be replicated in real life?

20. When Auntie Rima acts “culturally superior” toward Janna, Haytham’s immediate promise to rectify the situation inspires her. Janna thinks about the people in her life who don’t back down from injustice and how they give her courage. Who is someone that pushes you to be brave and confront injustice? Share with the class.

21. What were your reactions to Janna and Nuah finally being open and honest with each other? How might the story have changed if they had communicated clearly from the beginning? Do Janna’s feelings for Nuah, such as considering him “the rainbow in my heart after the storm,” make sense? Explain your answers.

22. What does Janna learn about herself when she asks Tats if she knows about the Bechdel Test? Discuss how her perceptions about boys and needing to be partnered changes over the course of Misfit in Love.

Extension Activities

1. In 2011, France passed the first public ban of full-face veils, including niqab and burqa. More countries across Europe, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland, followed suit. In response to criticisms of the policies being rooted in Islamophobia, supporters claimed face coverings were a security risk and sexist toward women. As discussed in Saints and Misfits, wearing a niqab, burqa, and a hijab is completely a woman’s choice and a commitment made for many reasons. Sarah leads a session at the mosque on “the powers of being free of societal beauty judgment,” in response to dressing modestly. Upon learning Sausun has chosen to wear niqab, Janna feels at once intimidated and impressed, stating, “Basically, she looks like she’s excused herself from the proceedings of life’s unnecessariness.” Using examples from the book and your own experiences, write a reflective essay on societal beauty standards and how they are informed by gender, race, culture, and religion.

2. When discussing the portrayal of Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Mr. Ram, Janna sees the logic of Mr. Ram’s argument, but she keeps coming back to the fact that Caliban attacked Miranda. She states, “‘That bothers me more than Shakespeare maybe meaning Caliban to be a dark man.’” Mr. Ram responds, “‘So you don’t want to dig deeper, then.’” In groups of four, research the plot of The Tempest as well as academic sources that discuss Caliban’s race. Analyze the parallels between Saints and Misfits and Caliban, thinking about who he represents in Janna’s life, what Mr. Ram’s response means, and how his response might have changed if he had known why Janna could only see evil in Caliban. Research the term intersectionality, coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, and consider how Janna’s experience as a young Muslim woman of color might inform her understanding of Caliban. Be prepared to discuss your thoughts with the class.

3. Across both books, Mr. Ram and Amu are considered wise elders in the community who gift young people with life advice, ways to reflect, and a chance to shift perspectives. As a class, brainstorm questions and advice you would like to receive from elders in your community. Then identify an elder in your community, and conduct an interview using these questions. You may record the interview with permission or simply write down their answers. Work together as a class to compile a blog with the Q&As.

4. Layth pokes fun at Janna’s plans to study British literature under the belief that she is “‘supporting the man.’” Janna explains she is “‘studying it to take him down. . . . I want to take it apart, starting with the white man’s burden myth repeated over and over in our favorite classics, that we overlook all the time at school or wave away as being inconsequential to the greater contribution that these quote unquote ‘beloved’ authors make, but that ultimately cements in our consciousness the idea that we brown and Black people will never be consequential.’” Choose a British or American classic assigned in school and write an essay about how people of color are represented in the book, connecting the representations to present-day issues like xenophobia, settler colonialism, and racism.

5. The Niqabi Ninjas YouTube channel is a big hit within Janna’s community. Haytham reveals his nervousness about impressing Sausun, “‘Because she’s amazing. Her channel is amazing. The way she talks about Muslim stuff. And current issues. Even my non-Muslim friends watch and share it. She’s funny. She’s brave, and she doesn’t back down. So she has my mad respect.’” Working in pairs, choose a current issue you are passionate about and script a series of short videos, such as for use on Instagram reels or TikToks, informing audiences about the current issue, including calls to action. Be creative like the Niqabi Ninjas!

6. Misfit in Love explores not only romantic love, but also what it means to love yourself, to understand the role faith plays in love, and to accept that love is not stagnant. Janna learns love can also mean tough conversations like the ones she has with her father about his prejudice and those she has with herself upon realizing she “can’t be a person who only thinks about stuff. Who theorizes. Who makes a great world in my mind.” Janna opens herself up to love and realizes she is not alone. Juxtapose this with how she felt at the beginning of Saints and Misfits. Write a letter to yourself about how you define love and the role it has in your life. You can either choose to write the letter to your past self, thinking of a time when you felt alone and had to face a hard truth, or to your future self, considering advice you think you’ll need one day.

Guide written by Cynthia Medrano, Digital Services Librarian at Heartland Community College, and member of the 2022 Rise: A Feminist Book Project Committee.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or thebookpantry.net.
Photograph by Andrea Stenson

S. K. Ali is the author of Saints and Misfits, a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2018 William C. Morris Award and the winner of the APALA Honor Award and Middle East Book Honor Award; and Love from A to Z, a Today show’s Read with Jenna Book Club selection. Both novels were named best YA books of the year by various media including Entertainment Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. She is also the author of Misfit in Love. You can find Sajidah online at SKAlibooks.com and follow her on Instagram @SKAlibooks and on Twitter at @SajidahWrites.

  • CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children's Book Council)
  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List High School Title
  • Nutmeg Book Award Nominee (CT)
  • NYPL Best Books for Teens
  • High School Sequoyah Book award Master List (OK)
  • TAYSHAS Reading List (TX)
  • APALA Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature
  • Amelia Bloomer Selection List - TOP TEN
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults - Top Ten
  • ALA/William C. Morris Award Finalist
  • Isinglass Award Nominee
  • Land of Enchantment Black Bear Book Award Nominee

More books from this author: S. K. Ali

More books in this series: Saints and Misfits