I wish I had a book like this when I was growing up

At the bookstore, among the paperbacks about caterpillars, bears and little tots, I couldn’t find a single story with a main character who looked like me.

By Ishani Nath

I wish I had a book like this when I was growing up

PHOTO: iStockphoto

When my cousin had her son, I knew exactly what I wanted to bring them as a present. Growing up in Ottawa, I remember falling asleep to stories like Love You Forever and Goodnight Moon. Those were the classics of my childhood. Two decades later, I was hoping to introduce our newest family member to a different type of character—one who looked like us.

I am second-generation Indo-Canadian. My Indian parents immigrated to Canada and I was born here (in Belleville, Ont., actually). I celebrate Christmas and Diwali, understand Hindi but cannot speak it, and my skin is the colour of whole-wheat toast. My story, like many of the 1.9 million Canadians who also identify as South Asian, has been a true blend of my Indian heritage and Canadian life—and I knew my cousin’s son was in for a similar experience. But at the bookstore, among the paperbacks about caterpillars, bears and little tots, I couldn’t find a single story with a main character who looked like me.

Indian-American actress Sheetal Sheth remembers feeling a similar frustration when she was expecting. “When I was pregnant with my first child, I was dismayed at the lack of representation in kids’ literature,” she says. “I didn't see enough children's books that featured kids of colour just living their life.”

Sheth’s struggle isn’t surprising considering a 2017 study of Canadian and American children’s books found that only one in four were about non-white characters, and only 14 percent were by non-white authors. When she was unable to find a story that represented her Indian-American experience, Sheth decided to write her own.

Her book Always Anjali tells the story of a young girl named Anjali who tries to get a nameplate for her new bicycle. Her friends Courtney and Mary find their names right away, but “Anjali” is not an option. Adding insult to disappointment, Anjali is then bullied by one of her classmates for her “different” name. When Anjali returns home, she demands to be called Angie, but instead of helping her blend in, her parents encourage her to see that her differences are something to be celebrated, not erased.

book excerpt

Flipping through the colourful pages of Anjali’s story was like taking a page out of my own childhood. While my friends could easily get diaries and keychains emblazoned with their names, the closest I could find was “Iris.” I envied all the Sarahs and Lauras for being able to say their name without prompting follow-up questions about pronunciation. At one point, I even tried to convince people to call me by my middle name, “Sasha,” which was specifically given to me in case Ishani proved to be too much of a tongue twister.

Sheth has also experienced challenges with her name. “That back and forth is something I and so many experience daily. Still,” she says. “I was also told I should change at least one of my names if I wanted to work as an actress.”

While the theme of the book was relatable, the way Anjali and her family are depicted also struck a chord. Always Anjali’s illustrations by Jessica Blank read like my own experience growing up, mixing two cultures in a way I’d never seen represented in the media. On the first page, Anjali’s room contains rocket ships and tablas; her parents wear Western clothes, not saris and kurthas; and her story has nothing to do with an Indian festival.

book excerpt

As Sheth explains, crafting a narrative about a young brown girl that didn’t focus on an Indian celebration or position her as “other” was intentional. “I thought, we are never going to feel like we are part of the fabric of the mainstream unless we are the heroes of stories where we are doing 'normal' things,” she says. That message is important not only for brown girls like me and Sheth, but for children of all backgrounds. In the same way that The Story About Ping and Anne of Green Gables taught me lessons about life, Always Anjali is a book for all young readers, regardless of their cultural heritage.

For Sheth, this children’s book was a way to help little ones feel represented in a way that she never did. “I wanted all children to feel worthy enough to see themselves in the books they were reading,” says Sheth.

As for me, I was thrilled to see how Always Anjali gives young readers a lesson that I only learned much later in life: that our backgrounds don’t make us weird or “exotic,” but are instead something to be celebrated. It’s stories like these that can help the next generation of brown kids, like my baby cousin, to not only embrace their differences but see themselves as the leading characters in their own stories—and hopefully encourage a new chapter for diversity and inclusion in children’s literature.

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