Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2018 226 pages
Twelve-year-old Amal must leave school to take care of her family after her mother disappointingly gives birth to yet another girl and suffers post-partum depression. Amal loves school and learning and hopes to go to university one day, but for now she is tending small children and doing laundry. Life gets even worse when she will not give up a selected fruit at the market to a rude man, who turns out to be the evil landlord to whom most of the village owes money. After the offense the landlord demands payment from money owed from Amal's father and, when Dad cannot pay, agrees to take Amal as a servant in his home as repayment. She is sent to the evil landlord's home and assigned as a personal servant to his elderly mother, displacing another girl and creating an enemy. The shunned servant sabotages Amal's efforts and gets her in trouble, leading to a slap from the master of the house that sends her reeling. Will Amal's family ever raise the money to release her from servitude? Will she ever adjust to life as a servant and give up her hope of an education? Will Pakistan forever be plagued by evil landowners with the uneducated masses at their mercy? Amal eventually taps into her inner strength and confidence, as she learns to make some tough decisions, even at the risk of her own safety.
Inspired by the real-life story of Malala Yousafzai, Saeed has created a character who must fight for her right for an education and suffers injustices simply because she is poor and female. Young readers may not be familiar with Malala's story and an author's note at the end will expose them to it, perhaps inspiring them to learn more. This story is beautifully told and will tear at the heartstrings of its readers. American children will find it difficult to comprehend the hardship and injustice that Amal must endure and this book will not only educate them about other parts of the world, but, perhaps, help them to be kinder to their neighbors who have fled from oppression to find freedom in America. Amal makes some hard, mature choices, even at her own risk, in order to bring her powerful nemesis to justice. The change befits many people, including Amal, yet not for people who economically depend on the landlord, showing Amal that life is not always as black and white as we think. Readers will be shocked that Amal's father allows her to go off with the evil man to pay his debt, creating a great conflict and interesting story that will encourage readers to continue to turn pages to see how this young girl figures a way out of her problems. An often overlooked corner of the world in children's literature, this is a powerful book that can potentially change lives.