Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Shine, Coconut MoonReading level: 5.5
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school (middle school okay too)

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

Shine, Coconut Moon was rather “meh” for me. It’s the author’s first book, and it’s not written incredibly well (not like I could do any better). Much of what happens and is said seems forced, and it just doesn’t flow very well. I regret that I lack the language and knowledge to explain further.

The premise of the book is great: an Indian-American teenager starts to discover her identity just after the September 11th terrorist attacks when she meets her turban-wearing uncle. (India is not an Arab country, by the way.)

The beginning with Sam and Molly talking about sexy lingerie and “doing it” with the boy who’s the “real deal” was unnecessary. I was even more irritated because that would be the only part that would make the book not appropriate for school. For that reason and the fact that the main character is a senior in high school, scholastic recommends it for 9th grade and up. I think middle school (girls) might like it too. As much as that lingerie scene was unnecessary, one could argue that both girls were being careful with their bodies, were waiting for the “right” boys, and weren’t jumping into doing anything unsafe or inappropriate. They’re just being high school girls.

Towards the end, Molly and Sam drink alcohol and eat 2 pints of ice cream and other junk food. I was more appalled at the unhealthy amount of calories they were consuming, but parents might take issue with the drinking part. The girls have a fun time drinking, but, beneath it all, they have to cover it up, and they feel some guilt. It’s not explicitly stated that they feel guilty, but they know they shouldn’t be doing it. Unlike Tippy drinking alcohol in It Ain’t All For Nothin, there are no repercussions, although drunkenness (by Mike and other boys) is definitely not a good thing in Sam’s eyes.

I found it rather unrealistic that Sam, at age 17 or 18, becomes interested in her background and family because 1) it took so long and 2) high schoolers tend to be moving away from their family…right? It was also weird to me that she is just now beginning to realize the racism in society as well as her being different: “As I look around the table, I notice something I’ve never noticed before: I’m the only brown face here” (63). After all, isn’t middle school the time when kids are hyper-aware of their differences? After facing bullying in elementary school, Sam is just now thinking about how she’s the only brown-skinned girl in a sea of White faces? Hmm.

At the same time, I appreciated the author bringing to light some feelings that non-White people have: being the only person of color in the room, at a table, or in a classroom.

Near the middle of the book, Mike makes this comment in passing: “Phil Taylor and Todd Hamilton got fired last week. The company’s hiring illegals under the table for pennies a day.” Mike’s mother replies, “I hope they tighten those borders like they said they would. Especially now – it’s such a scary world out there” (127). I expected Sam to jump in and defend the immigrants, but she doesn’t. She (rightly) gets upset about the stereotyping of Apu in The Simpsons but is silent when it comes to defending any minority that isn’t South Asian/Indian. I think the author missed a huge opportunity to give us a lesson about the culture of power, being different, and just having a moral compass.

As much as I took issue with a lot of parts of this book, I think students (girls), would like it. It is a pretty good story about digging in your past, bringing together a broken family, and dealing with discrimination. And let’s be real, that book cover is going to draw in the girls…despite the cheesy tag line: It isn’t always easy to find your true self. *sigh*


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