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Book Review

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tehereh Mafi has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Shirin is a 16-year-old American-born Muslim. Since the 9-11 attacks a year earlier, life has been especially hard for her and her family. People make assumptions about her based on the color of her skin and her headscarf. She’s been the victim of random attacks and the frequent target of hate speech. Her family has moved a number of times in search of better, safer circumstances.

Shirin’s older brother, Navid, is handsome and often has girlfriends. Unlike him, Shirin dreads school and social activities. She is so tired of dealing with racism and ignorance that she barely looks at other people. When her cute lab partner, Ocean, tries to speak to her, she responds with her usual tone of suspicion and annoyance.

They communicate online to work on their project, and Ocean shows more than a passing interest in Shirin’s life. As Shirin recognizes this and realizes she likes him too, she repeatedly attempts to shut down the budding romance. She knows her parents won’t approve of any boy, and their relationship would only end badly because of their vastly different backgrounds.

Navid and several of his friends decide to form a breakdancing club. Shirin loves breakdancing too much to reject Navid’s invitation to join. They often practice in the gym after school. Shirin sometimes sees Ocean there. Only then does she realize he is the school’s star basketball player.

When a teacher inadvertently embarrasses her in class, Shirin storms out. Ocean follows and cuts class with her. The two begin chatting online and by phone late at night. She still pushes back whenever Ocean suggests they have a public relationship. He assures her they can handle whatever people say or do. She’s skeptical but finally agrees to date him.

Once people begin to realize Ocean and Shirin are dating, the couple faces prejudice and criticism. Another Muslim girl tells Shirin she’s making Muslims look bad. Ocean’s friends and teammates make cruel racial remarks. Ocean’s basketball coach tells Shirin that she’s a distraction after team supporters express concern about the couple.

Ocean’s mom takes Shirin for a drive and urges her to break off the relationship. She confides that she’s spent the money Ocean believes she’s saved for his for college. If he doesn’t get a basketball scholarship, he won’t be able to go to college, and it will be Shirin’s fault. Devastated, Shirin breaks up with Ocean to avoid ruining his life. She spends the following weeks avoiding him, despite his desperate attempts to reach her.

Shirin and Navid’s group performs for the school talent show. Their breakdancing impresses other students, and some students start treating them friendlier. Recalling how Navid’s friends told her she was scary and standoffish, she tries to be nicer to her classmates as well.

When Ocean learns how his coach bullied Shirin, he punches the coach and breaks his nose. The school nearly expels him. Shirin and Ocean get back together for a few months, until her family decides to move again. The teens make the most of the time they have together. Shirin decides she’s spent too much of her life judging others and being consumed by anger. As her family drives away, Ocean texts and tells her not to give up on him.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

Shirin doesn’t want her mom to see her diary, because she would be shocked at the way Shirin often disregards the dogma of their Muslim religion. She does like fasting during Ramadan because it gives her emotional clarity.

Authority Roles

Shirin’s parents are hardworking, intelligent, creative Iranian immigrants, who have endured harsh and violent struggles to succeed in America. They feel little sympathy for rude comments Shirin receives, because the discrimination they’ve experienced was so much more severe. Ocean’s mom has had emotional problems since her divorce and the loss of her parents. She is rarely home and never attends Ocean’s activities.

She takes Shirin for a drive and urges the girl not to ruin Ocean’s chances to attend college. She becomes more involved with Ocean and kinder to Shirin in the end. Ocean’s coach tells Shirin she’s a distraction. He tells her to leave Ocean alone or she’ll ruin his future in basketball and his reputation in town.


The Lord’s name is used in vain. Words including s---, the f-word, h---, *a--, d--n, p---, d--k, suck, douche and balls also appear frequently.

Kids flip each other off. Ocean breaks the coach’s nose. Shirin and her parents have been the targets of physical violence, but these attacks are not described in detail.


Shirin has never kissed anyone before Ocean. They kiss passionately on several occasions. Ocean puts his hands in Shirin’s back pockets, and she puts her hands up his shirt as they make out. One of Navid’s friends says he’s 80 percent gay, but still trying to figure things out.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Prejudice: Many characters demonstrate prejudice against Muslims and others of Middle-Eastern descent. A teacher assumes Shirin doesn’t belong in honors English. People make comments about Shirin hiding bombs under her headscarf. Some tell her she should go back where she came from. A police officer accuses her of making herself a target by wearing a headscarf. She explains she wears the scarf because it feels like armor, which makes her less vulnerable.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 and up




Tahereh Mafi






Record Label



Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


On Video

Year Published



National Book Award Longlist, 2018


We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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