BLOG TOUR: Listen, Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Puffin Books
Listen, Layla is a book I enjoyed on so many levels. It’s a story about the search for identity and the struggle for autonomy that so many young people experience. It’s a tale of teamwork, the importance of family obligations, and thinking of the greater good instead of individual gains. It also explores the immigrant experience, what it feels like to be a Muslim in a Western country, and the prejudice that is regularly encountered.
Layla is a 14-year-old Muslim who was born in Sudan but now living in Brisbane. She’s a dedicated inventor and the star of her school’s Grand Designs Tourismo team. When she wins the opportunity to represent her team on the first-ever Special International Invention Tour, it feels like her dreams have come true. This is a life-changing chance to travel all around the world meeting eminent inventors. Unfortunately, this exciting news coincides with Layla’s grandmother falling ill and her whole family returning to Sudan. Suddenly, Layla’s chance to go on the tour and her place on the Grand Designs Tourismo team are in jeopardy. Even worse is her parents being angry with her for being so focused on herself and her ambitions during a family crisis. Layla feels like a foreigner in the country of her birth and begins to question where she truly belongs, if anywhere. Meanwhile, the consequences of a dysfunctional government and the effects of insurrection are having an impact on her too.
Readers are taken on a fascinating journey from Australia to Khartoum and into the heart of political unrest and its, often fatal, consequences. After being previously ignorant of Sudan and its history, I enjoyed learning about the Kandakaat, Nubian queens who ruled the country thousands of years ago. It was interesting to discover that Sudan had even more pyramids than the Egyptians, but depressing to learn how they were plundered by the Europeans. I’m ashamed to admit I was completely unaware of the Sudanese revolution of 2018 and the subsequent return to democracy after 30 years of a dictatorship.
Despite this book tackling serious subjects, the tone is light-hearted, there is lots of humour and Layla is a typical teenager. This is a wonderful book for young Muslims who will see themselves in Layla. It’s ideal for opening the minds of Western children as it helps familiarise them with different cultures and demonstrates that we’re essentially the same. It encourages empathy with immigrants by taking readers into their homes and families and showing what they might have left behind too. There’s also lots of Arabic words throughout the text and an extensive glossary which is brilliant for anyone looking to expand their vocabulary.
In addition to all of this, Layla is a magnificent character. She’s a fantastic example to young girls, especially with her interest in STEM and how this defies gender stereotypes. I love how determined and self-confident she is, and her knack for getting into trouble. Her many witty exchanges with adults are hilarious – not just because of what she says but also because of what’s said to her. I actually laughed out loud when she was looking for the WIFI code at the hospital and at the receptionist’s response. Layla goes on a remarkable journey of self-discovery and growth, as well as across the world, and the reader enjoys every minute. I was delighted to discover there’s a previous book called You Must Be Layla. I hope there’s even more “lush Layla goodness” (to quote Layla herself) soon.
About the author: Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-born Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate with a background in mechanical engineering. Yassmin founded her first organization, Youth Without Borders, at the age of sixteen, published her debut memoir, Yassmin's Story, with Penguin Random House Australia at age twenty-four, and in 2019 followed up with her first fiction book for young readers, You Must Be Layla, which she is adapting for screen. She was also selected for the 2020 Soho Theatre Writers' Lab in London, as well as for the prestigious 2021 Australia Council Keesing Studio Writers Residency in Paris. An advocate for the empowerment of women, youth and people of colour, Yassmin has been awarded numerous awards for her advocacy, including the 2018 Young Voltaire Award for Free Speech. Yassmin has travelled to over twenty countries speaking to governments, NGOs and multinational companies on a range of topics including unconscious bias, resilience and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, 'What does my headscarf mean to you?', has been viewed over two million times and was chosen as one of TED's top ten ideas of 2015. Yassmin's critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including the Griffith Review, the bestselling It's Not About the Burqa and New Daughters of Africa. Her words can also be found in publications like the Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New York Times, The Independent and Glamour. Yassmin's broadcasting portfolio is diverse: she presented the national TV show Australia Wide, a podcast on becoming an F1 driver and created Hijabistas, a series looking at the modest fashion scene in Australia. Yassmin is a regular contributor to the BBC, Al Jazeera, TRT and Monocle 24, and has co-hosted The Guilty Feminist. Outside advocacy, she worked as an engineer on oil and gas rigs for four years and is an internationally accredited F1 journalist.