I'm delighted to have this guest post from Keren as part of promoting her third Young Adult novel, Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery (link to follow). Until I read this in Keren's email, I had forgotten/not known exactly how Shazia's character was formed. I'm delighted to have helped such an important element of the book, and I hope everyone loves Shazia as much as I do (& naturally Keren too!) I'll hand you over to Keren, and will see you at the end of the post.
It’s right that I should be writing about Shazia for your blog, Nayu, because you gave me such a lot of help when I was creating the character. In fact, Shazia only became a Muslim because of a conversation we had. I told you that I was writing a book about a lottery winner, and you told me the Islamic view of gambling, and what problems it would cause you if someone close to you won the lottery.
Before that, the character who turned into Shazia was going to be a Hindu, based on an Indian friend of mine who won’t even buy a raffle ticket. She tells her children ‘We don’t rely on luck to make us successful. We work hard to make our own success.’ I was so impressed when I heard that - but I kept on buying my tickets.
Once I realised that some Muslims hold similar views, I knew that’s what I wanted to write about. It was partly because when I go on school visits I see so many keen readers who are Muslim girls wearing a hijab, and I don’t think they often see themselves reflected in books.
When Muslims do see themselves in contemporary YA books, it’s often in the context of talking about terrorism and extremism. Of course these are important subjects, which need to be written about - but thankfully this isn’t part of everyday life for most Muslims. I was more interested in the everyday clashes between religious and secular values, the misunderstandings that arise and the flexibility needed to keep friendships going. I thought this would be fascinating to write about, and might strike a chord with many readers.
I wanted Lia to be a very typical teen, someone who’s a bit immature, very self-willed, reckless and a bit selfish. She’s generous, loving and brave, but she can also be obnoxious. Shazia is someone who likes order and certainty, she likes knowing that she’s doing the right thing, and she has her religion to guide her. Sometimes she can come over as a little bit rigid, a bit of a goodie-goodie - but actually she’s open-minded enough to have a best friend with very different values to her own. Lia and Shazia’s friendship is strong enough to survive their very different characters, backgrounds and attitudes, and I think that’s very typical of teenage girls, who seem to spend years falling out with their friends and then forgiving them.
The reading group at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington has a lot of Muslim girls in it. They were keen fans of my first books, When I Was Joe and Almost True, so my publishers gave them proof copies of Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. I was nervous about their response to Shazia - had I, a non-Muslim, managed to create a Muslim character that they would accept? This was their verdict: ‘Shaz was the most popular character; they found her very believable and as Muslims, they could relate to her principles – indeed her refusal to accept a gift which resulted from gambling provoked a lot of discussion. They felt she was a very good friend to Lia, really cared about her and gave her good advice, particularly about Raf, which Lia didn’t always appreciate.’
That’s friends for you - giving you good advice, which you don’t appreciate! I can’t give away the end of the story, but I was absolutely sure that Shazia’s faith is so important to her that she wouldn’t compromise, even with very strong temptation. I don’t think it’ll just be Muslim girls who identify with her.
A huge thank you to Keren for writing this post. Shazia's a fun character who so many will relate to. It's nice to see that Muslim girls wearing hijab are trickling into novels as adventurous characters. I hope you all go and read Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery. You can find out more about Keren on her blog.