“[H]e had never met anyone like Layla before: and it wasn’t even because she was Muslim, with a scarf and from the Sahara Desert. No, Layla just had this way of telling stories and seeing the world” (You Must Be Layla, 9).
Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s You Must Be Layla and Listen, Layla, are two of the richest YA-middle grade novels I’ve read in a long time. The bold colours of the covers are inviting and replicate Layla’s personality that glows with extroversion and cheekiness throughout the current two books. You really haven’t met anyone like Layla before, except you have, in every young teen.
Throughout the two books, readers watch Layla struggle with identity, fitting in, and working out her interests and hobbies. The books are jam-packed with relevant struggles, and Abdel-Magied perfects the voice of the youthful teen dealing with them.
I adored how easy these books were to float through, whilst they are still exploring racism and systemic injustices in Sudan, they are also hopeful and honest. At the end of You Must Be Layla, to keep her scholarship at the new school, she is forced to decide to pair up with an unlikely teammate in the Grand Designs Tour. Similarly, Listen, Layla has her growing from her abrupt return to Sudan, she learns sacrifice and makes choices to benefit her communities.
“The teenager couldn’t disobey such an obvious instruction though – Sudanese culture was all about respecting and listening to your elders, particularly in situations like this” (You Must Be Layla, 66-67).
Each ending feels real and raw, whilst leaving enough space for Abdel-Magied to expand Layla’s stories into new books, of which I hope there are plenty.
The comedy that underpins Layla’s character was also significant to my reading experience and to Layla’s character as a whole. There is no point where she is stuck as an archetype or trope, Abdel-Magied reminds readers that Layla is a teenager, a Sudanese Australian teenager. All of these elements are underpinned by her cheekiness as she uses her boisterous nature to make friends and explore her options. I can see these books being really important to other young Sudanese readers and other readers of colour trying to establish themselves beyond the racism that still exists today. These stories are real, and are reminders that young girls like Layla are fully-fledged humans in their own right who just want to have a halal girl summer.
“I am Layla Kareem Abdel-Hafiz Hussein, the greatest Sudanese Australian inventor the world has ever seen. And if they don’t know my name yet, they will soon” (Listen, Layla 13).
Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Layla stories should be essential to all young people. They are inviting, funny, hopeful, tackle important issues and real-life events that could happen in any young person’s life. I’m really excited to have had the chance to read and love these books and cannot wait for future instalments.
You Must Be Layla (2019) & Listen, Layla (2021).