69 pages 2 hours read

Aisha Saeed

Amal Unbound

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Twelve-year-old Amal’s dreams of becoming a teacher are shattered when she disrespects the powerful landlord of her Pakistani village and is forced into a life of servitude in the New York Times bestselling Amal Unbound (2018). Author Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani-American teacher, writer, and attorney as well as a founder of the We Need Diverse Books organization. In Amal Unbound, Saeed calls attention to contemporary global inequities, exploring themes of social injustice, education, and the importance of family. Amal Unbound is a look at one girl’s courage as Amal struggles to regain her freedom and become a force of change for her village. The novel received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly, and also appeared on numerous top ten booklists, including YALSA’s Top Ten for Reluctant Readers. Amal Unbound was also listed as a 2019 ALSC Notable Book.

Plot Summary

Amal, the narrator, lives in a tiny rural village in the Punjabi region of Pakistan. She loves reading and learning, and plans to attend college and become a teacher like her own inspirational instructor, Miss Sadia. However, Amal’s responsibilities as eldest daughter take precedence over her education. When her mother suffers depression after the birth of Amal’s new sister, Amal’s father orders Amal to stay home from school and take on the household duties. Though Amal chafes at this interruption to her education, in the Pakistani culture, family is more important. Amal cares for the baby and her two younger sisters, watching wistfully as her other sister, Seema, attends class.

Snatching a moment alone one day, Amal visits the open-air market and purchases a pomegranate to share with her good friends Hafsa and Omar. As she leaves, she is struck by a car. A young man emerges from the vehicle and wishes to buy her pomegranate. Outraged at his arrogance and frustrated with her own powerlessness, Amal vehemently refuses. She finds out later that she has insulted Jawad Khan, the son of the wealthy landowner, Khan Sahib. Jawad is known for his cruel, punitive nature. Most of the villagers are deeply indebted to Jawad and fear his power. Unbeknownst to Amal and her mother, Amal’s father owes Jawad money for bailing out the family farm. To punish Amal’s insolence, Jawad demands that Amal become a servant at his estate, working to pay off the family debt. Reluctantly, Amal’s parents give her up, promising Amal they will do anything to quickly get the money and bring her home.

The elegant Khan estate is surrounded by tall walls and guarded by armed men. There, Amal joins the other servants: Bilal, a teenage boy who is Jawad’s personal servant; Nabila, a girl about Amal’s age who has a chip on her shoulder towards Amal; young Fatima and her surrogate father, Hamid the cook; and Mumtaz, an older woman who is in charge of running the household. Amal becomes the personal servant of Nasreen Baji, Jawad’s mother. Nasreen is kind to Amal, but Amal expects to go home any day, and has trouble fitting in. Amal misses her freedom and her family. When Amal discovers Jawad’s library, she secretly borrows books. The books, along with her family memories, become her lifeline—until Jawad bans her from the room.

Jealous of Amal for taking her place as Nasreen’s servant, Nabila tries to sabotage Amal, getting her in trouble with Jawad. It is only when Amal stands up to a pair of policemen, thereby keeping Jawad from punishing the servants, that Nabila warms to Amal and they become friends. Nabila and Bilal help Amal use the library again. Amal takes young Fatima under her wing and teaches her to read. Gradually, Amal settles into life at the estate, though she is bitterly aware that her family can never pay off the money to get her home and is angry at the unfair loss of her dreams. Amal enjoys her first visit home for Hafsa’s sister’s wedding. As she soaks in her family’s love and attends the elaborate wedding festivities, Amal is nonetheless hurt to discover that the lives of her family and friends are moving on without her.

It is election year, and the Khan family needs students to attend their newly sponsored literacy center, which Khan hopes will help him win. The local villagers, fearing Jawad, avoid the center. Jawad orders Amal to attend and make it look as if the center is successful. Amal is thrilled to learn about computers from the young teacher, Asif. Amal shares her story with Asif, and he encourages her not to lose hope. He tells Amal that people are working to change the unjust status quo. Jawad, for instance, is under investigation in the disappearance of the son of a diplomat, which is why the police keep visiting the estate. Amal overhears Jawad admit to his father, Khan Sahib, that he murdered the missing boy. Amal is determined to bring the family to justice. Bilal knows where the body is buried, and Amal passes the information on to Asif, despite the possible danger to herself if Jawad finds out.


Amal’s bravery is rewarded a week later when Jawad and Khan are arrested. Amal is proud that she and a handful of servants stripped the abusive Khans of their power. Nasreen closes the estate down and frees Amal from her debt. Amal joyfully walks home, her future bright before her.