Drawing Deena by Hena Khan

So there are a lot of reasons why this book resonated with me and made me cry for younger me, but foremost among them was the very clear cut, if never fully named, eldest daughter syndrome our main character Deena suffers from. Idk if it’s even a thing in certain cultures, but the expectation she faces to pretend that everything is okay, to soothe her parents by pretending that their choices are her choices, really cut me to the bone.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Deena manages to overcome this. The 21st century, particularly in America, is much kinder to children with mental health issues than it was when I was growing up. Watching young Deena learn to take agency over her own mental health was inspiring, even for an old like me, but especially for an old who wants her kids to grow up without all the unnecessary mental anguish I went through at their age.

The story itself revolves around Deena Rahman, a middle schooler who loves art but who worries that her parents’ constant fighting over money will lead to their divorce. She’s also under pressure to keep her grades up while helping with her mom’s dress business. Her mom is something of a complainer, constantly moaning about the price of things, including Deena’s much needed dental care. Deena, unsurprisingly, takes this to heart, blaming herself for requiring a mouth guard and secretly wanting extra art classes. Her beloved younger brother, meanwhile, pretty much gets to ask her to do all sorts of chores for him but only reluctantly reciprocates (this is a common theme in Hena Khan’s books. I love that the main characters adore their kid brothers but I personally find these younger brother characters irritating.)

When Deena gets the idea to promote her mom’s boutique on the Internet using her own artistic skills, she isn’t prepared for the changes it brings. Most concerning to her, however, is the strange turn in her relationship with her best friend and cousin Parisa. Deena’s mom figures it’s just jealousy, but Deena isn’t so sure. With her friendships falling apart and her parents still fighting, will Deena be able to hold everyone together, even tho it sometimes feels like she can’t eat or breathe from worrying about them all?

I was pretty lucky in that my panic attacks only hit me in college, so I knew what was happening to me and could work through it (my poor professor, tho, had apparently never seen one before and was almost more distraught than I was, as we were sitting in her office when the worst one struck.) Deena’s own experiences with anxiety felt absolutely visceral, as did her struggles with eldest daughter syndrome. So it was wonderfully vindicating for her to manage, with the support system of school and an older artist in her own community, to stand up for herself and say, “Yes, I have anxiety. Yes, I want to get better. Yes, I want therapy.” Like, the passage where her mother asked the school counsellor how much treatment would cost and Mr Lin told her it was free had my entire body unclenching with relief. While a cynical part of me notes that 21st century mental healthcare in America still only centers productivity, it is still so much better than it used to be.

On the face of it, Drawing Deena is a pretty straightforward story of a young artist with anxiety who learns how to enact positive change. But it’s also a book that eschews tropes of girlish pettiness, that encourages artists to question their own work and its messages, that matter-of-factly chronicles the life of a Pakistani American family as entirely commonplace. Most of all, it encourages the kind of healthy conversations that children with eldest daughter syndrome are too often discouraged from having. These are all valuable topics to explore for readers of any age.

This is definitely my favorite of Ms Khan’s books so far. The messages it conveys are as layered and nuanced and powerful as the self-portrait Deena finally creates, and I loved every moment I spent reading it.

Drawing Deena by Hena Khan will be published February 6 2024 by Salaam Reads and is available for pre-order from all good booksellers, including

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