Almira Abdul is your typical Florida teenager, concerned about her weight, her crush, her grades and her greatest challenge—fasting for Ramadan. Last year she was caught eating cookies on the first day; this year she is determined to join her family in fasting from sun up to sun down in Bestest. Ramadan. Ever.
But other stressors pop up—attraction to a boy, friction with her best friend—it's enough to make a girl crave chocolate. Debut author Medeia Sharif shares how she gets into the hearts of teenage girls and why Ramadan can affect both a girl's spirituality and her waistline.
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One of the most important relationships in the book is between Almira and her best friend Lisa.
I'm a high school teacher and that's something I notice with my female students, and I remember that time in my own life. Many of my favorite books have that intense relationship. When I hang out with teenagers, the person they keep referring to is their best friend—it's one of the most important people in their lives.
How do you know teenagers so well?
That's the reason! I'm with them seven and a half hours a day.
When Almira is fasting, some of friends, like Maria, offer her food—is this a cruel act for them?
Maria is kind of playful, I don't think she meant it in harm. Her friends don't understand her, and Maria is very loud and has an in-your-face kind of personality. Her friends get to where they do understand why she's doing it, and they become proud of her.
Almira's character has typical teenage interests, but she also shows a very spiritual side.
In the first draft, she was sort of negative toward her religion—“Why am I fasting, this is horrible!” I remember being a teenager—I didn't realize what fasting was for, I thought it was a drag and I never did it myself. Someone pointed out to me that she needed to be more positive and find a purpose to blend in with the story line better. In the first draft, she wasn't that spiritual, but when someone gave me that input something clicked, and I was able to revise it and make it stronger. I think Ramadan was a time for her to get control of everything—she gains control of her body, her friendships. Her goal was to get Peter and she masters that goal.
Your book is coming out during a time when in some areas Muslims are not held in high regard—did you write the book with the idea that it could serve as a cultural bridge for teenagers, or were you just interested in it as a good story?
First it was just a good story, and then I started thinking of it as an icebreaker. Almira is a different religion from her friends, but she seems so normal and regular. I imagine people might not agree with what's going on—especially among Muslims. They might not agree with the boyfriend aspect, how she goes after Peter when she's supposed to be fasting. You remember the scene when she just wants a kiss from him? I looked it up, and people aren't supposed to kiss during the daylight hours of fasting.
In the end, she makes a decision that reflects a new maturity, but it's also one her parents would disapprove of—why?
I wanted readers to know about the culture—that the females would be hesitant to reveal certain things to their families, they'd be fearful. Also, I'm trying to write a sequel with that beginning!
What are some of your own favorite books for teenagers?
I have many favorite books, but here are some contemporary books that have a great friendship/relationship vibe to them:
Anything by Louise Rennison. I read the first four books of the Georgia Nicolson series: Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God: Further Confessions of Georgia Nicolson; Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas; and Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants: Even Further Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. Georgia is hilarious, and I love her relationship with her best friend, Jas.
I also adore Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series. It cracked me up. Carolyn Mackler is another writer I look up to. I enjoyed her novels The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things and Love and Other Four-Letter Words.