Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.
As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family, or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.
What is The Henna Wars about?
The Henna Wars is about Nishat struggling with three things in particular: number one is her parents’ attitude when she comes out as gay, number two is her feelings for a girl at school, and number three is the business competition in which she attempts to sell henna designs while her crush does the same.
Genre: YA Contemporary Romance
The age for this book may border on Middle Grade as it has no potentially inappropriate content for younger readers.
Tropes: Friends to Enemies to Lovers
Flavia and Nishat go through several stages of “are we friends? enemies? something more?” throughout the book. They briefly went to school together as children and are reunited when Flavia is invited to a wedding Nishat attends. The two are drawn together over and over, and despite Nishat’s sister disapproving and Flavia’s business being in direct competition to Nishat’s, they continue to flirt with one another.
Plot: Cultural Appropriation is Rude
Though the overall plot of the novel is that of Nishat coming out, having her first real crush, and struggling with her parents’ expectations of her, there’s a significant portion of the novel dedicated to the major subplot of the business competition. Nishat gets especially competitive and frustrated when Flavia announces she will also be doing henna designs despite henna not being part of her culture. She resists Nishat calling her out for cultural appropriation by arguing henna is simply art.
This is a very cutesy book, and it does have good LGBTQ+ representation. I’m glad this book is on the shelves for young people of color to pick up–especially those that can relate to the main characters and their struggles as members of immigrant families. I would say the pacing of the story is very fast as well, so it’s an easy read. The lessons about cultural appropriation are very well written–they don’t get preachy but the author concisely explains what cultural appropriation feels like to Nishat and how it violates her trust, upsets her cultural connections, and otherwise offends her.
This book felt a little young for me, and I didn’t enjoy it as thoroughly as I’d hoped I would. However, I recognize that I am not the target audience and so I don’t think that’s a fault in the book. For me, this wasn’t a super engaging read and I don’t think I would reread it; but I’m glad it’s out there!
My one big gripe is that Nishat strikes me as a self absorbed character who doesn’t really learn to be less so. She apologizes where warranted, and a lot of her emotional reactions to things are perfectly reasonable. But Nishat does devalue her friendships in favor of her sister, she’s a little judgmental, and she often lets her emotions get the better of her at the expense of the feelings of those around her. While I think it’s totally fair to have a teenage character like Nishat be self absorbed for much the story, I felt there wasn’t enough of a moment where she realizes what she could have done differently.
Ultimately, this is a fine book, but it wasn’t for me. I’m glad it was written and published, and I think if you fit the target audience better you’re going to enjoy it! Though I prefer my characters older and more mature, Flavia and Nishat were a very cute couple when they put their minds to it. I enjoyed the real affection between Nishat and her sister and her friends. The humanization of the school bully may not have been super necessary, but not a terrible inclusion to the story. I think where this book was strongest was when it dealt with the cultural appropriation aspects of Flavia’s henna business–but especially with Nishat’s growing confidence in her henna designs. Nishat was a bit of a frustrating character to read the perspective of, but her experiences are very real and her emotions entirely valid.