Nina Hamza sets an incredibly high bar by placing three classics of children’s literature at the heart of her debut middle grade novel, Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year. Fortunately for readers, she more than delivers, soaring over the bar with ease.
Twelve-year-old Ahmed Aziz must move with his family to his father's Minnesota hometown so that his father can receive experimental treatment for a rare genetic liver condition. Ahmed feels displaced and lost, and his Muslim faith and brown skin don’t ease the transition. In Minnesota, he says, “I hated having to explain myself with an adjective. I didn’t feel like an Indian American, and it didn’t matter that I had never been to India, because the color of my skin meant I needed to explain.”
Ahmed’s new English teacher, Mrs. Gaarder, was the best friend of Ahmed’s uncle, who died at age 12 of the same liver condition that now threatens Ahmed’s father’s life. Her class provides the book’s narrative focus: a yearlong group competition in which students will study Louis Sachar’s Holes, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. At the end of the year, students will challenge her in “Are You Smarter Than Mrs. Gaarder?”—a competition no student has ever won. Ahmed, who’s never enjoyed school and doesn’t like to read, is less than enthused.
Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year features not just a riveting and complex plot but also a large cast of fully realized characters anchored by the likable Ahmed, who has a fresh, funny and authentic tween voice. Hamza delves deeply into Ahmed’s fears of loss and grief as he learns more about his uncle, and she portrays a prolonged and dire medical crisis with notable sensitivity.
The author’s depiction of realistic school scenes, friendships and rivalries is also excellent. At school, Ahmed gets to know a broad group of students, most notably a bully named Jack, who unfortunately lives next door. Their superbly developed relationship provides many opportunities for Ahmed to compare his own experiences to those featured in the books he is studying.
Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year marks Hamza as a writer to watch and provides engaging opportunities for readers to discover common ground with Ahmed and with the characters he meets during his epic year. Hamza hints at a sequel when Mrs. Gaarder reveals that she’ll lead a similar exercise in her class next year with a study of three of Shakespeare’s plays. We can only hope this is the case.