Book Blitz, Review, and Giveaway: Just a Hat

Young Adult / Coming of Age / Jewish Fiction / Small-Town Texas / 1970s
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Page Count: 254
Publication Date: July 18, 2023
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Action-packed, humorous, and bittersweet, this 1970s-era coming-of-age novel is more relevant than ever–exploring how a second-generation immigrant kid in a new hometown must navigate bullying, unexpected friendships, and the struggle of keeping both feet firmly planted in two very different cultures.
It’s 1979, and thirteen-year-old Joseph Nissan can’t help but notice that small-town Texas has something in common with Revolution-era Iran: an absence of fellow Jews. And in such a small town it seems obvious that a brown kid like him was bound to make friends with Latinos–which is a plus, since his new buds, the Ybarra twins, have his back. But when the Iran hostage crisis, two neighborhood bullies, and the local reverend’s beautiful daughter put him in all sorts of danger, Joseph must find new ways to cope at home and at school.
As he struggles to trust others and stay true to himself, a fiercely guarded family secret keeps his father at a distance, and even his piano teacher, Miss Eleanor–who is like a grandmother to him–can’t always protect him. But Joseph is not alone, and with a little help from his friends, he finds the courage to confront his fears and discovers he can inspire others to find their courage, too.
Just a Hat is an authentically one-of-a-kind YA debut that fuses the humor of Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi with the poignancy of Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue.
Youssef Nissan, or Joseph, as he’s known in the small town of Hazel, Texas, doesn’t quite fit in. He and his parents are Persian Jews (the only ones in town, although they’re often lumped in with the Mexicans, because one brown-skinned person must be the same as another, right?) and there are many things he doesn’t understand, like why his parents really fled Iran and why his big, strong baba allows himself to be talked down to and treated poorly. Joseph is learning that in a conservative small town, different isn’t necessarily a good thing to be. He’s a good student, generally kind and helpful to others, but that isn’t enough to win him acceptance. He’s got to figure out how to balance his different “hats” – being a good Jew and a good Iranian son with making his way in the American world that he was born into – and that’s not always an easy matter.

This book is a wonderful depiction of the challenges of growing up “other,” told with humor, poignancy, and wit. It’s one of our failings as humans that we belittle what we don’t understand, and some of the good people of Hazel, Texas are no exception. Sure, there are some good folks, like Miss Eleanor, or LaLa, the elderly piano teacher who lives next door, and the Ybarra twins and their family. But the very idea of Joseph being anywhere near the Reverend Baer’s beautiful daughter sends the man into fits of pique, and two other students bully and attack Joseph just because of his differences. At first, they make no effort to get to know him or understand him or learn where he’s coming from. They just pick on him and cause him pain. Since his baba would never condone him fighting, Joseph has to figure out some other way he can engage in battle with his tormentors. He finds that way on the football field.

But in finding creative ways to take his revenge, Joseph learns more about his tormentors than he ever expected, and this new knowledge gives him a different perspective. He learns more about the prejudices and unkindnesses that can be intentionally inflicted by people you wouldn’t expect to act that way, and he also realizes that there are good people who won’t stand by and watch evil have its way. And isn’t that all part of growing up and finding your place in the world?

Khubiar sets her story in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the Iranian hostage crisis. This is the perfect stage for people to express their distrust and dislike of anyone different from them, anyone who might be like those “ragheads” over in the Middle East, who ought to just “go back to where they belong.” I’m not Middle Eastern, and it hurt my heart to think of anyone born in this country, or anyone who came here seeking a better life than what their home country offered, hearing words like that. The book is an excellent teaching tool for middle grades (especially since there’s an educator’s guide available) and a cautionary tale for those of us who may be past school age, but who can still learn a bit about treating others with respect, whether they look like us or not.

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Shanah Khubiar is a retired law enforcement officer, and she is now self-employed as a subject matter specialist. She holds a BS and MEd in education from East Texas State University and a PhD in philosophy. A student of her Persian ancestry, she incorporates (Mizrachi) Middle Eastern Jewry into her fiction, examining the historical challenges and triumphs of a different culture and narrative than what usually appears in literature. Khubiar is a sometime resident and always fan of most things Texas.
Signed hardback copy of JUST A HAT
(US only; ends midnight, CDT, 5/9/24)

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2 Responses to Book Blitz, Review, and Giveaway: Just a Hat

  1. yes, and yes, and yes! I just finished reading with my ears and couldn’t agree more with all your assessments. What a terrific review of a truly outstanding book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Carla says:

    I’ve not heard of this book, but it sure sounds timely and important. Wonderful post.

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