Moon at Nine, Deborah Ellis

Monday, January 29, 2018

When I was growing up, the chances of finding any young adult literature with gay or lesbian characters was pretty much zero. And trans characters? Not a chance. Thankfully, in the last 10-15 years, we have seen an explosion of books by and about queer folks written for the YA audience, and they aren't just from tiny independent publishers that you can only find at bookstores in large urban centers. (Dear Middle-Grade Authors-please follow the lead of your YA fellows. Kthnx.)

While books like Rainbow Boys, Luna, and Sparks: The Epic and Completely True, (Almost Holy) Quest of Debbie  (find a complete booklist of queer YA I love here) describe the challenges of being young and queer in America, Moon at Nine, by Deborah Ellis, takes us away from the present day and the familiar American landscape we know, and drops us into the post-revolution Iran of the 1980s. The main character, Farrin, is the daughter of wealthy aristocrats, which in the days after the fall of the Shah of Iran was actually not a point in her favor. While she was accepted into a special school for gifted girls, she is intensely lonely. None of the other students will dare to be her friend, because under the new regime, being wealthy is seen as stealing from the more deserving working poor. One day, a new girl, Sadira, comes to the school, and Farrin finally has a friend, someone who will stand up to the head girl, who bullies Farrin daily. When their friendship turns into something else, their lives are changed forever. It is not safe in 1980s Iran for a girl to love another girl, and when their love is discovered, they are put in more danger than they ever imagined.

This book is so well-written and well-researched. I learned things about post-revolution Iran that I didn't know before. While Farrin and I share nothing culturally or religiously, I immediately understood her; her disdain for her parents, her feeling of being trapped, her desire for love and friendship. I recognized in her the restlessness I remember feeling as a young person; the desire to start living, already! I think most young people feel that at some point. But for queer young people, especially ones like Farrin and Sadira who have to hide that part of themselves away like a dirty secret, there is the added urgency of trying to find a safe place just to exist. Ellis portrays the tenderness of new love, the terror of being found out, the angst of being an adolescent, and the pain of separation in such a way that you can't help but be drawn in emotionally to Farrin and Sadira's story. Which makes the end that much more powerful, and hopefully leaves a lasting mark on the reader; one that urges them to act on the side of love and support justice for all people.

Teachers, this book would be great to pair with the graphic novel Persepolis in an English or world history class. Readability-wise it has a low Lexile (high-interest, low reading level 700L), but the ideas present in the text make it a much more complex read than that would suggest, and you'd need to build some background knowledge about the time period, the fall of the Shah, and Iranian culture in general. Starting with Persepolis, a memoir, would help students have a full picture of the events directly preceding the events in Moon at Nine. If I can figure out a way, I'm going to do exactly that at the school where I am a literacy coach.

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