AUTHOR: Adiba Jaigirdar
CATEGORY/AUDIENCE: Young Adult
GENRE: Contemporary, romance
RELEASE: May 12, 2020
PUBLISHER: Page Street Kids
LINKS: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository
Nishat’s traditional Muslim Bangladeshi parents don’t take her coming out as a lesbian very well, but she’s glad to have the support of her sister. Nishat isn’t expecting the return of Flávia, a childhood friend, and she can’t help but fall for her. When a school business competition begins, Nishat can’t wait to show off her henna skills—but she’s crushed when she finds out Flávia is doing henna designs too. Nishat must balance her feelings for Flávia with her anger at her for appropriating Nishat’s culture amidst a flurry of competition and sabotage.
The Henna Wars was an absolute delight to read and will undoubtedly be on my favorites list at the end of 2020. I completely adored the romance between Nishat and Flávia, and felt that Adiba Jaigirdar did a superb job of balancing a sweet swoony romance with heavier themes like identity, culture, and family acceptance. Nishat comes out to her parents at the very beginning of the book, and her parents have a hard time accepting this revelation; in their eyes, Muslim girls can’t be queer. Nishat struggles with knowing that her parents are unable to accept this aspect of her identity, and her pain was palpable and authentic.
This YA contemporary is about so much more than just family acceptance: it’s about first like, sisterhood, culture, and identity. Nishat has a beautiful relationship with her sister, and I loved the amount of support and allyship her sister offers her. I didn’t realize going in that The Henna Wars is set in Ireland, and it was refreshing to read a YA novel set outside the US. This is also an intersectionally diverse novel: Nishat is a lesbian who is both Muslim and Bangladeshi (all of this rep is #OwnVoices, which makes me so happy!), and her love interest and rival Flávia is biracial (Black-Brazillian and Irish) and bi. There were several other characters of color who played supporting roles.
The Henna Wars is definitely a celebration of identity and culture; Nishat is proud of her henna and is heartbroken when this important element of her culture is appropriated by her crush Flávia at the urging of her white cousin (who is also the resident mean girl). I love that Adiba Jaigirdar addresses cultural appropriation, a topic I would love to see discussed more in YA and kidlit. Nishat is incredibly hurt by Flávia’s actions, especially when she fails to see why borrowing elements of another’s culture is problematic and harmful. The two girls enter into a cut-throat competition full of sabotage—each is determined to have their henna business be the winner.
I loved Adiba Jaigirdar’s writing and felt that the structure of a school business competition worked perfectly for this story. The pacing was spot-on and I loved reading about Nishat and Flávia’s budding romance amidst their competition. This book so perfectly balances light-hearted romance, fun competition, and complex themes of race & culture. Nishat has so many complicated feelings about Flávia, herself, and her family. The Henna Wars is also set at a Catholic school, and definitely deals with the experience of being a queer Muslim girl of color in a primarily white & Catholic setting. While struggling with feeling like an outsider, trying to win the competition, and dealing with her complex feelings for her crush, Nishat is also grappling with her parents’ lack of acceptance. The Henna Wars has a lot going on, but every storyline is handled with care and attention, weaving Nishat’s story together perfectly. This novel carries so many important and touching conversations that need to be happening in YA.
If you couldn’t already tell by this glowing review, I loved The Henna Wars. Like, really loved it. Like, I’m gonna be recommending this to every teen at my library and screaming about it for the rest of the year. It is everything I want and love in a YA book: swoony romance, complex family dynamics, a fleshed out story, intersectional diversity, and just plain all-the-feels. As the synopsis suggests, fans of Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and When Dimple Met Rishi will adore this, as will fans of Sabina Khan, Amy Spalding, and Jennifer Dugan. Those who like F/F romance as well as enemies-to-lovers or rivalry/competition tropes will adore this novel. Readers should be aware that this novel deals with coming out, homophobia, racism, bullying, and cultural appropriation.
The Henna Wars is a new favorite for me that I’m so thrilled to add to both my personal and library collections. It’s a perfect balance of light and heavy, romance and competition; it tackles so many important questions and I’m forever here for the intersectionally diverse representation it delivers. I’ll be ecstatically screaming about this one, and waiting to see what Adiba Jaigirdar writes next—she’s definitely a new YA voice to watch.
Thank you to Page Street Kids for the free review copy.