“For inspiring empathy in young readers, you can’t get better than this book.” —R. J. Palacio, author of #1 New York Times bestseller Wonder
“Amina’s anxieties are entirely relatable, but it’s her sweet-hearted nature that makes her such a winning protagonist.” —Entertainment Weekly
A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel from the award-winning author of It’s Ramadan, Curious George and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.
Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.
Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.
“You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class.
I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.
“But you’re such a good singer,” Soojin insists.
I pause, enjoying the praise for a second. Soojin is the only one at school who knows I can sing, and she thinks I’m amazing at it. Every Tuesday we argue about the best contestant on The Voice and who deserves to advance to the next round. I can count on Soojin to end the conversation by saying that I’m better than most of the people on the show, and that I deserve to be on it someday. But what she doesn’t consider is that if by some miracle I was standing in front of the judges and live studio audience, I wouldn’t be able to croak out a word. I shake my head again.
“Come on, Amina. Just try it.” Soojin is a little louder now.
“Girls, is that chatter about you volunteering?” Ms. Holly stares at us from the front of the classroom with her eyebrows raised.
“Ouch!” I yelp. It’s Soojin’s pencil in my side again.
“Is that a yes, Amina? Should I sign you up for a solo for the concert?” Ms. Holly asks. “How about one of the Motown pieces from the 1970s?”
I sink lower into my chair as everyone stares at me and stumble over my words. “Um, no, thank you. I’ll just stay in the chorus,” I finally manage to mutter.
“Okay.” Ms. Holly shrugs, a frown clouding her face until Julie Zawacki, waving her hand like an overenthusiastic first grader, distracts her. Julie always wants the spotlight and tends to sing extremely loudly. It’s as if she thinks volume makes up for her lack of pitch. I always wonder how the math class next door gets any work done whenever Julie starts belting. But I still wish I had even half the guts she does.
“Remember, we’ve only got two months to prepare for the Winter Choral Concert. This is a big deal, guys,” Ms. Holly calls out as the bell rings and we file out for lunch.
“I can’t believe you didn’t sign up,” Soojin complains as we sit down at what has already become our usual spot in the lunchroom three weeks into the school year. “This is your big chance to finally show everyone what you’ve been hiding.”
I’m pretty sure that was what Adam, the judge with sleeve tattoos, said to the tall redheaded girl on The Voice last Sunday night, and I tell her that.
“I’m serious,” Soojin says. “It’s time to forget about John Hancock.”
Just the mention of that name brings back the memories I’ve tried to block since second grade: our class play about American independence. I was John Hancock and was supposed to say one line: “I will proudly sign my name in big letters.” But when it came time for the performance, I looked out into the audience, saw the sea of faces, and froze. There was this endless moment when the world grew still and waited for me to speak. But I couldn’t open my mouth. My teacher, Mr. Silver, finally jumped in and said my line for me, with a joke about how John Hancock had lost his voice but was going to sign his name extra big to make up for it. The audience laughed and the show went on while I burned with humiliation. I can still hear Luke and his friend jeering at me from the side of the stage.
“That was forever ago! We’re in sixth grade now. You need to get over it.” Soojin sighs as if my entire middle school future depends on performing a solo in Ms. Holly’s Blast from the Past production. I don’t let her see how much I agree with her and how badly I want the spot.
“Anyway, do you think I look like a Heidi?” she continues.
I have a mouthful of sandwich and stare at her as I chew, relieved that she’s changed the subject. I try to imagine her with a name I associate with Swiss cartoon characters or a famous supermodel—not my twelve-year-old Korean best friend.
“Not really,” I finally say after swallowing. “Why?”
“What about Jessica? Do I look like a Jessica?” Soojin picks carrots out of an overstuffed sandwich wrapped in white deli paper.
“No. What are you talking about?”
“I got it.” Soojin sits back and crosses her arms. She’s hardly reassembled her sandwich and it’s already half gone. No one I know eats as fast as Soojin. It’s one of the many ways we are opposites. I can’t ever finish my lunch, no matter how hard I try.
“Melanie! I totally feel like a Melanie, and I love that name.” Soojin flips her long black hair off her shoulder and acts like she is meeting me for the first time. “Hi, I’m Melanie.”
“What’s wrong with you? Are you feeling okay?”
Soojin pretends to pout. “Just tell me, who do you think I look like?”
“Soo-jin,” I say slowly. I put the other half of my sandwich back into my bag and pull mini pretzels out. “You look exactly like a Soojin.”
Soojin sighs again, extra loudly, just like she does when her younger sister pesters us to play with her. It seems like I’m getting that sigh more and more lately—ever since the start of middle school. “That’s because you’ve always known me as Soojin, Amina.”
“Yeah, that’s my point.”
“What’s your point?” I hear a familiar voice behind me and turn around. A small, blond girl is carrying a cafeteria tray and a jumbo metal water bottle with the words “I am not PLASTIC” on it. Emily. Her green eyes and tiny nose remind me of my next-door neighbor’s bad-tempered cat, Smokey.
“Nothing,” I say. I wait for her to keep walking to the other side of the lunchroom, where she always sits with Julie and her crew.
“What are you guys talking about?” she asks.
I wait for Soojin to answer, expecting her to say something to send Emily scurrying. Even though the cat gets my tongue when either Emily or Julie come prowling, Soojin never has any problem telling them exactly what she thinks.
But Soojin just says, “I’m thinking of new names for myself.”
“New names? That’s weird. Why?” Emily starts a stream of questions. And as much as I want Emily to leave, I want to hear the answers.
“It’s not weird at all, actually. My family and I are becoming citizens soon, and I’m going to change my name.”
“Wait. So that means you’re not even American?” Emily sounds offended.
“What?” I ask. There is no way I heard Soojin right. “Change your name? What for?”
Soojin smooths her hair, sips some fizzy juice, and takes a deep breath. “We moved from Korea when I was four, and we aren’t American citizens yet. But we are about to be, and I’m going to change my name. I just haven’t picked one yet.”
“Oh, I have the perfect name for you,” Emily volunteers. She plops down her tray on the table and smiles like she is about to spill a juicy secret. “Fiona,” she says.
“Fiona?” I snort. “As in the green ogre girl from the Shrek movies?”
“No. Fiona, as in my uncle’s Scottish girlfriend. She’s totally pretty.”
I flash Soojin a look, but she doesn’t notice. Instead, she actually seems to be pondering the name as if it’s a possibility. An ogre name! Suggested by Emily!
And then Emily suddenly starts to shove herself into the space next to me. I don’t move at first. But when she’s nearly in my lap and Soojin still doesn’t say anything, I scoot over to make just enough room for her. Then I lean across the table and stare hard at Soojin.
Why is Emily sitting with us?
Ever since before Soojin moved to Greendale from New York in third grade, Emily has worked extremely hard to be Julie’s best friend. Mama would say Emily was Julie’s chamchee, which means “spoon” in Urdu. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, except that it also means “suck-up.” And Emily has always sucked up to Julie, even if that means laughing really hard at her dumb jokes or chiming in when she puts everyone else down. And by everyone else, I mean mostly Soojin and me.
“Fi-oh-na,” Soojin repeats. “That’s kind of nice.”
“Do you like it?” Emily asks me.
“Not—um—I don’t know,” I stammer. “Do you seriously think she looks like a Fiona?”
“Duh. She can look like anybody she wants, can’t she?” Emily turns back to Soojin.
My face grows hot.
“Don’t you like being Soojin?” I ask my best friend in a low voice, leaning across the table to make it harder for Emily to hear. “You’ve been Soojin your whole life. Aren’t you used to it?” I want to add that we had always been the only kids in elementary school with names that everyone stumbled over. That is, until Olayinka came along in fifth grade. It’s always been one of our “things.”
“Really, Amina? I thought you, at least, would understand what it’s like to have people mess up your name every single day.” Soojin lets out her sigh again. And this time it feels like I deserve it, even though I don’t know why.
Mama told me once that she picked my name thinking it would be easiest of all the ones on her list for people in America to pronounce. But she was wrong. The neighbor with the creepy cat still calls me Amelia after living next door for five years. And my last name? Forget about it. I could barely pronounce Khokar myself until I was at least eight. And since I don’t want to embarrass anyone by correcting them more than once, I just let them say my name any way they want.
Soojin is the only one at school who gets it. Whenever a substitute teacher pauses during roll call and asks, “Oh, ah, how do you say your name, dear?” I don’t even have to look at her to know she’s rolling her eyes. We still collapse into giggling fits if one of us mentions the lady who called me Anemia, as in the blood disorder. But now all of a sudden Soojin wants to be a Fiona or a Heidi?
Does it have something to do with being in middle school?
“What other names do you like?” Emily asks. She’s so interested in the conversation that she hasn’t touched the limp grilled cheese sandwich on her tray yet. I lean back and chew my pretzels while Soojin repeats her other choices to Emily.
“Ooh. I like Melanie, too,” Emily says. As I watch them chat, the lunchroom starts to feel like someone’s cranked up the heat. My palms get sweaty, and I feel super thirsty, and not just from the pretzels. I look around and find Julie sitting at her usual table, talking with a couple of new girls from another elementary school. She doesn’t seem to even notice that Emily is missing. I don’t say another word until Emily gets up to put her tray away and go to the bathroom before the bell rings.
“Soojin’s a pretty name too,” I say in as normal a voice as I can. “And I’m not just saying it because I’m used to it.” I want to add that I can’t imagine calling Soojin any of those other names, and that it would feel like I was talking to an impostor—but I don’t. It doesn’t seem like Soojin wants to hear that.
“Thanks.” Soojin’s face softens. “You know, a lot of Korean people have two names, a Korean one and an English one.”
“Yeah. But you didn’t have another name before. So why do you want one now?”
“I always wished I had a different name. Besides, my whole family is picking new ones.”
Soojin’s dad already goes by George and her mom is Mary, so their names would just become official after they take the oath to become citizens. I call them Mr. and Mrs. Park anyway, since my parents never let me call any grown-ups by their first names. Everyone is Auntie and Uncle or Mr. and Mrs. But Soojin taking on a new name just doesn’t seem right.
“Can I still call you Soojin?” I ask after swallowing hard to clear the lump that has formed in my throat.
“I want everyone to use my new name and get used to it in middle school, so it’s normal when we get to high school. It would be messed up if my own best friend didn’t do it.” Soojin peers into my face expectantly. “You will, right?”
“Yeah. I will,” I promise, although I cross my toes inside my shoes. I decide I will call her Soojin for as long as possible. The knots tighten in my stomach again, churning the half sandwich, seven mini pretzels, and three bites of cookie sitting inside. I watch Soojin put her empty containers back in her lunch bag, looking for a clue to why she’s acting so bizarre. Because even though I can’t explain why, something about Soojin wanting to drop her name makes me worry that I might be next.
The first year of middle school is tricky. Suddenly, Amina’s best friend, Soojin, starts talking about changing her name and, even worse, spending time with Emily—a girl that used to make fun of them! Amina’s older brother seems to be getting into a lot of trouble for his grades, and now he wants to play basketball instead of studying. To make matters worse, her uncle comes to visit from Pakistan, and her parents seem to be trying awfully hard to impress him. With so many changes, it’s hard to know how to be a good friend, sister, and daughter. But when Amina’s mosque is vandalized, she learns that the things that connect us will always be stronger than the things that try to tear us apart.
1. Describe Amina’s feelings about music. What keeps Amina from telling her teacher that she would like to sing a solo? What could Amina do to overcome her fear? Have you ever been afraid to do something you wanted to do? What happened?
2. Why does Soojin consider changing her name? Why do you think Amina is uncomfortable with the idea of Soojin changing her name? Have you ever wanted to change your own name?
3. Why do you think Emily decides to stop being friends with Julie and to start being friends with Soojin and Amina? Why doesn’t Amina trust her at first? How would you react if someone who had been mean to you in the past tried to become your friend?
4. What causes tension between Amina’s parents and her brother? How do they resolve their differences? Have you ever wanted to do something your parents did not want you to do? Have your parents ever required you to do something you did not want to do? How did you handle the situation?
5. How is Thaya Jaan related to Amina? How can you tell that Amina’s parents respect Thaya Jaan? What do they agree about? What do they disagree about?
6. Why is Amina initially unhappy with the group she is assigned to work with on her class Oregon Trail project? What is the best thing about working with a group? What is the hardest thing about working with a group? What does Amina learn from working with Bradley, Soojin, and Emily?
7. Describe what happens at Amina’s Sunday School. Do you attend any religious services or classes? If so, how is Amina’s experience similar to yours? How is it different?
8. Both Amina and Soojin have been teased because of the food they bring to school or the way their food smells. Why do you think people tease or bully kids who are different? If you were in Amina’s or Soojin’s position, how would you respond? If you encounter someone from a different cultural background, how should you respond to them?
9. Discuss the role that forgiveness plays in the novel. Who does Amina need to forgive? Who does she need to ask for forgiveness? Do you think it is more difficult to ask for forgiveness or to forgive someone else?
10. How does jealousy threaten Soojin and Amina’s friendship? What does Amina learn about Soojin, Emily, and herself as a result? Do you think Soojin is a good friend to Amina? Is Amina a good friend to Soojin?
11. In the novel, Amina is trusted with secrets. Do you think she’s right to keep Mustafa’s secret? Should she have kept Emily’s secret? Why is it sometimes hard to keep secrets? Are there ever secrets that you should not keep?
12. Amina’s parents and Thaya Jaan disagree about whether or not music is forbidden. In every family, people disagree about the way to raise children and about what types of behavior should be allowed. How does Amina navigate the conflicting viewpoints in her own family? Have you ever had to navigate a similar situation? If so, how did you handle it?
13. What is backbiting? Why does Amina feel guilty of backbiting? In your opinion, did she backbite Emily? Explain your answer.
14. Amina’s parents are concerned that Thaya Jaan will not be happy when he visits because, as they say, “You know there’s some bad feeling in this country toward Muslims, and all this negative talk in the news these days.” When Thaya Jaan is in America, what evidence of bad feelings toward Muslims does he witness? What good things about America and acts of kindness does he witness? What does he conclude about life in America?
15. What is vandalism? How did the description of the vandalism of Amina’s mosque make you feel? How do you think you would feel if your school or place of worship was vandalized? Explain how this act of violence ends up bringing Amina’s community together.
16. The novel ends with a message of change. In literature, characters that change are called dynamic characters. Almost all the characters in Amina’s Voice are dynamic characters. Explain how each character changes.
1. The characters in Amina’s Voice have different cultural backgrounds. Amina’s family is from Pakistan, Soojin’s family is Korean, and Emily’s grandmother was Polish. Research the cultural background of a character in the novel or research your own family’s cultural heritage and participate in a multicultural celebration where you present your research to your class.
2. Amina’s Voice includes vocabulary and references to Islamic and Pakistani culture. Choose an unfamiliar vocabulary word and research what it means. Working with your classmates, create a word wall for the book.
3. Food plays an important role in both Soojin’s and Amina’s families. Research the food of Pakistan or Korea and try cooking a traditional dish at home or eating in a Korean, Indian, or Pakistani restaurant to sample one of the foods that Khan writes about (ex. kimchee, masala chai, naan, gulab jamun, or bulgogi). Write a food review of the dish or dishes you sampled, including a recipe so that your classmates can try the food at home if they wish.
4. One of the conflicts that Soojin must resolve is the question of whether or not to change her name. Ask your parents the story behind your own name. How did they select it? What does your name mean?
5. After Amina’s mosque is vandalized, Soojin’s church volunteers to host the Islamic Center’s carnival and Quran competition. What common values bring these communities together? Why is it important for people of different faiths and cultural backgrounds to be kind to one another and work together?
6. Amina is given a class project to compete with her classmates in a game called The Oregon Trail. What was the Oregon Trail? With a group of classmates, play this game and see how you do as settlers. The original version of the game is available for free online, but it has also been reimagined as both an app and a card game. What did playing this game teach you about working together?
7. In Sunday school, Amina hears the story of Prophet Yusuf and his jealous brothers. How is this story similar to the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors? Examine another story, such as the story of the great flood or a folktale like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast that has different versions in different cultures.
8. Amina chooses the classic Sam Cooke song “A Change Is Gonna Come” to sing at the concert. Look up the lyrics and research the history of the song. What inspired Cooke to write the song? Why do you think the song became known as an anthem of the civil rights movement? Why do you think Amina relates to this particular song?
9. Throughout the book, the author uses figurative language to describe Amina’s feelings. For example, Amina describes jealousy as “a fresh shock . . . that courses through my veins like I had stuck my pen in an electrical socket.” Using Amina’s descriptions as a model, write a list of similes that describe the way different emotions feel.
10. Soojin and her family are very excited about becoming American citizens. Research the pathway to American citizenship. How difficult is it to become a United States citizen? What happens at a naturalization ceremony? If you have a family member that has gone through the naturalization process, ask them what it was like. Did they do anything special to celebrate the ceremony?
11. After the mosque is vandalized, Imam Malik says, “Muslims have far more friends than enemies in this country. Some people don’t understand Islam or are misled and fear us. But I’m getting so many calls of support from our friends and neighbors in the community.” One quality that makes America special is the fact that we are welcoming of different cultures. What steps can your class or community take to support and be kind to one another and to people from different cultural backgrounds?
12. Imagine this book as the first part of a series. What do you think is next for Amina, Soojin, Emily, and Mustafa? Create a book jacket for an imagined sequel to Amina’s Voice. Include a brief synopsis of your imagined sequel.
Guide prepared by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy in Florida.
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.
Hena Khan is a Pakistani American writer. She is the author of the middle grade novels Amina’s Voice and More to the Story and picture books Golden Domesand Silver Lanterns, Under My Hijab, and It’s Ramadan, Curious George, among others. Hena lives in her hometown of Rockville, Maryland, with her basketball-loving family. You can learn more about Hena and her books by visiting her website at HenaKhan.com or connecting with her @HenaKhanBooks.
*"Amina's middle school woes and the universal themes running through the book transcend culture, race, and religion. A perfect first book for this new Muslim imprint."
– Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
"Watching Amina literally and figuratively find her voice—bolstered by community, friendship, and discovered inner strength—makes for rewarding reading."
– Publishers Weekly
*"A universal story of self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. A welcome addition to any middle grade collection."
– School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
*"Written as beautifully as Amina’s voice surely is, this compassionate, timely novel is highly recommended for all libraries."
– Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
"[A] relatable portrayal of a tween who wants to fit in, and who’s devoted to her faith even amid her confusion about her family’s varied approaches to it."
– Horn Book
"This gentle example of multicultural domestic realism hits all of the right notes...a comforting counternarrative to what young readers may see on the news."
– BCCB, March 2017
"Realistic fiction centered on a Pakistani-American Muslim girl is a refreshing change in the middle grade market.....It’s solid storyline and the common denominator of middle school drama highlights the fact that students from all backgrounds may be more alike than they realize. Recommended."
– School Library Connection, May/June 2017
"Hena Khan (It's Ramadan, Curious George) writes a gentle coming-of-age story universal in theme and original in context, and appealing to any reader who has just wanted to slow the world down."
– Shelf Awareness, 3/17/17
"For inspiring empathy in young readers, you can’t get better than this book."
– R. J. Palacio, author of #1 New York Times bestseller Wonder