August 11, 2021 7:34 AM EDT

Shirin, a 16-year-old Iranian American who wears a headscarf, has spent the year since the attacks of 9/11 enduring an onslaught of racist and Islamophobic abuse from peers, teachers and strangers. In response, she’s withdrawn into herself, only emerging from her shell whenever she practices her dance moves with her brother and his break-dancing crew. But when star basketball player Ocean James, her white lab partner at her new high school, begins showing a genuine interest in getting to know her, Shirin’s guard slowly starts to come down. As Shirin and Ocean’s relationship grows deeper, the couple faces prejudice and criticism from nearly everyone around them—forcing Shirin to make a heartbreaking decision. A Very Large Expanse of Sea crafts a powerful exploration of cultural identity, cross-cultural relationships and the ways that post-9/11 prejudice still echoes in America. Published in 2018, best-selling author Tahereh Mafi’s first standalone novel was long-listed for a National Book Award. —Megan McCluskey

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