In case you were wondering, the Cybils judging is going just fine. Thanks. Every waking second that I’m not working, writing or mommying/wifeing I’m reading. In reality, that’s not really a lot of seconds but for the first time in history my fast reading skills have come in handy. For once, consuming a book in an hour or less is a good thing! So stuff it to all those people, over the years, mad about my skills. The ones who claimed I was skimming or wasn’t getting as much out of the book simply because I happen to read at a pace faster than most. Look at me now!
Now then, on to the business at hand. Cybils judging has become about my ability to get my hands on books. As many of the books are new, my library system is either in process of ordering or simply don’t have. So my ability to get my hands on some of the brown book noms has been somewhat limited. So far there’s been The Queen of Water and now, Bestest.Ramadan.Ever. by Medeia Sharif.
Fifteen-year-old Almira Abdul has a lot going on. As her family observes Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, she’s dealing with competition from her best friend on her crush and a new Muslim girl at school who has opinions about everything including Almira’s chance at nabbing the guy of her dreams. It’s classic YA with a Muslim twist.
Anyone who has viewed even one of my posts here at BBS knows I have an extreme soft spot for brown books that portray brown characters as “everyday” kids who just happen to be brown. Every book has its place, but for too long brown books were boxed in to the point where even now, I think some parents would rather their child read only books with an African American protag that deals with our historical struggle or our modern-day struggle to rise up from poverty. Those parents don’t get it. But those of us who do will continue to write stories that feature people of color where race has nothing to do with it.
Bestest.Ramadan.Ever. is Sharif’s debut into YA. So it’s understandable that her first novel would center around Almira’s religion and her struggle to be an average American who just happens to be Muslim. There’s talk of a sequel and I imagine the next book we’ll see those aspects playing less of a part. But it’s part of the game to introduce brown characters and all their “differences” so we can get to the fact that even those differences make us all generally alike. In that respect, BRE delivers as an intro to what some Muslim teens experience in the mostly Christian public school arena.
Although Almira is fifteen, she comes off a little younger in voice. Not a bad thing, as I think BRE will appeal primarily to younger YA readers.
Sharif’s description of Almira’s battle to not cheat during Ramadan (this is the first year she’s attempting with conviction to successfully complete the fasting month) will give non-Muslim readers insight into something they likely know little to nothing about. And the battle between Almira and her grandad, who insists on teaching her Arabic, can translate across a variety of generational issues.
It’s good to see a contemporary pop fiction book featuring a Muslim protag and a diverse cast of other characters (Almira’s best friend is Latino). That alone makes it worth putting into the hands of young Muslim readers who want to see themselves portrayed outside the normal range of topics. I can almost feel Sharif’s need to pioneer this debut just to prove there’s an audience. Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if her other goal is to prove the story itself will appeal beyond Muslim readers. But that’s where BRE’s weakness lies…appealing to other readers.
It can. But I think some readers may find the overarching Ramadan storyline repetitive. I almost found myself feeling like – let’s move on and stay focused on the meat of Almira’s issues with Lisa and the new, bold Muslim girl, Shakira. The book eventually does just that. But took a little longer to get there than some readers may have patience for.
I think Muslim readers will want more of Almira. I hope publishing, by now, respects how important it is for the vast array of brown teens to see themselves reflected in popular culture. But if Sharif wants to reach a wider circle of readers, there may have to be a smoother blend of Almira’s differences with her average teen struggles.