I wrote my first story for Sona Sharma in 2015 – she came fully formed on the page along with her Grandfather whom she calls Thatha (Grandpa in Tamil) and Elephant, best friend and imaginary friend all rolled into one.
Although I loved Sona in her first story I wasn’t sure a quietly funny family story will appeal. My first confidence in the story came later that year when I was doing my MA at Bath Spa University. I had a 1-1 session with our Professor – the most amazing David Almond. I had sent in the first few pages of Sona for him to read and he loved it.
It gave me the boost of confidence I required to send the story to my editor at Walker Books, Mara Bergman. Mara loved Sona – but we decided she needed a bigger story, a story that shows off her charm, her humour and also her love for her family.
That story became SONA SHARMA – VERY BEST BIG SISTER. Loosely based on my growing up in Chennai, and set in a contemporary Chennai in a loving family like mine and a fun cast of characters in Sona’s world – her school friends, teacher, her auto-rickshaw driver and Mum’s best friend Mullai – they all help Sona become the VERY BEST BIG SISTER to her baby sister.
Sona Sharma is currently available to pre-order and will be out in the world on 3rd September. Beautifully illustrated by Jen Khatun, the stories showcase one family in Chennai and a little girl who has the fears of any first-born child like me – will my family love me less when the new baby comes?
Amma, Sona’s mum explains to her that families have loads of love to go around and Appa, her dad explains that they will be poor only when they run out of love.
With the help of Elephant, gentle proverbs of Paatti, her grandmother and the wisdom and stories of her grandfather and the no-nonsense street smart of their auto-rickshaw driver, Sona learns to love her little baby sister.
Get hold of a copy now and find out who the President is, who Miss Rao is and how Sona finds a name for her little baby sister.
Sona Sharma will be visiting a number of UK blog sites during the month of September. Don’t forget to follow the bloggers to find out more about her mission to becoming the Very Best Big Sister.
I got tagged today by a friend for a question about who is writing books for South Asians in the UK. And we all tagged people we knew and then I realised, it was good to create a list we can all share.
As the aunt of mixed-raced kids whose cultures are meshed in and we feed them quite a lot of both Indian and British stories, it’s important for our children to see stories that are about them too.
So I’ve started a list here. If you have more people to add to this, please first check if they’re part of South Asian heritage and if they are British either by residency or by nationality. If so, do message me on twitter at @csoundar and I’ll add them to this list.
Also I’ve indicated ages the authors have books in. If you’re one of the listed authors and you want to change it, do let me know. This is just an indication for parents and teachers/ librarians. Authors are always experimenting and writing new things.
I write mainly stories that touch upon India in some way. Putting aside why that’s so, my stories bring tales from all parts of India.
These stories are definitely for the Indians who live everywhere in the world. I witness the joy of children from Indian backgrounds in schools across the world when I bring these stories to them. They are undoubtedly a joy to the parents and grandparents who can relate to them and enrich the reading session with their own stories and tales from their own lives.
But is that all? Surely these stories appeal to everyone else? For a child who has no connections to India, these stories are exotic, magical and from a place where they had never been to. Perhaps they’d travel to India, inspired by these books. Perhaps they’d relate to their neighbour from India better.
Stories about someone other than our lived experience is a window to the outside world. It is a door to walk through and make friends, shake hands and embrace someone new. It’s a mirror that reflects how similar we are to others in this world, however far we seem.
“When the only images children see are white ones…as long as children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books… there seems to be little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation.” -Nancy Larrick, 1965
Schools, libraries, parents, grandparents, booksellers, publishers and reviewers must therefore not brand these books as “Great for South Asian Kids”. Because they are universal in their appeal – both to South Asians and to the rest of the world. How else will a child find out about life outside their town, city and country?
Read about why we need public libraries and these must be curated by professionals who understand Equity in the Library.
Schools, libraries, parents, grandparents, booksellers, publishers and reviewers must not only embrace if they want diversity in their reading – but also if they don’t want it. What if your community or school or customer base is monochrome? Then how would you show your world that the universe is a bigger place than what they can see and perceive?
Absolutely make it available in communities where South Asian readers live. But don’t forget it to bring it to readers who have not ventured beyond safe reading choices.
As the fabulous John Burningham once said, "Children are not less intelligent, they’re just less experienced."
So let’s give our children a varied, rich and wide experience of things around the world. So they grow up to be citizens of the world embracing people from all backgrounds.
Elli Woollard wrote a poem to go with this post and she has given me permission to reproduce it here.
As a child in the21st century, there is so much to worry about. From not being able to play outside to dangers on the Internet. They’re hardly left alone and adventures from books in the 70s seem like another world. While some children are able to talk about their fears, many do not have the language or the emotional confidence to voice their anxieties.
There is not a lot of time to sit down and listen, to ourselves, our inner voices and our children’s unspoken fears. Our lives are full of commute, routines, school work and social media. How do we then settle down quietly to talk about such anxieties? Will it even work if you asked a child, if he/she is afraid of something? This is where books come in. Reading books that touch upon anxieties within a story can often help a child reflect on their own anxieties. They might even mention if they had the same question. They might come forward with something they had worried about.
NHS advice says while younger children often have separation anxieties that will slowly go away when they grow older and go to nurseries or sleepovers, other anxieties especially social ones start to manifest. Many anxieties are not serious enough to see the doctor about and can be dealt with one important medication all parents hopefully have access to – books.
A story for a child is never just a story even when it’s full of fun and adventure or fart and poo. Look closely and you will see the gateway into themes that a parent can pull into a discussion.
When I wrote You’re Safe With Me, at first, my only real goal was to reassure the animals in the forest about the thunderstorm. I approached it as a storyteller first and then as a poet. When the book was written and beautifully illustrated by Poonam Mistry, and published, it created wonderful responses from children. I’ve discussed their fears about natural disasters and they have been able to tell me that they feel reassured after reading the book. Read one of my earlier posts about how children can deal with the fear here.
So when I started writing You’re Snug with Me, a few things were in the back of my mind. The two polar bear cubs born in the snow den, are going to encounter a fierce natural environment they have to cope with. They have never left the warmth of their mother’s embrace for almost nine months, and then when they find this vast region of ice and snow, would they worry?
As a child, growing up must be exciting and worrying in equal measures. What if I sit next to a boy or girl I’m not friends with? What if my new teacher is stricter than the one I had now? What if my new school is too far away? They’ll be picking up on the conversations they overhear in school or at home about teachers, about other children in their class and wonder how it would affect them.
The bear cubs too have similar questions. Who will they meet when they get out of the den? Will Mama leave them alone or would she stay with them? How fierce are the snowstorms and drifts? And more importantly, will all this ice stay frozen?
Of course, at the outset, the story is about polar bear cubs. But then if you use the text to steer the conversation about similar fears children might have – will the giraffe go extinct before my next birthday because I’d like to go and see them in the zoo? Will there be more floods and earthquakes as I grow up and what can I do to stop it?
Then go further – ask them what other things might worry them? Especially if a child is going to the nursery for the first time or transitioning from nursery to reception, talk to them about embarking on that adventure – exciting as well as scary as it might be.
Books are wonderful resources to discuss children’s anxieties. Parents can gently ease into these. Also there is a wide array of books available that either focus or touch topics on the periphery – as a parent you know when you want a big dose of something and when just a pinch is more than enough.
All my books come with activities too – from colouring to solving word puzzles, go further than the book. The more children interact with a subject matter, the deeper their introspection gets. Put your listening hat on and jump into the joys of a book.
This post is a continuation from the first part – What are the ingredients of a universally appealing early fiction series? By Chitra Soundar hosted on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, a community of brilliant blogging authors. Also I wish to make a full disclaimer that I wrote this, in 2015, as part of my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. So it doesn’t cite newer series. And that’s why it has some clever quotes from academic references. This is not normal for me.
Series fiction is the child’s first gateway into the world as an independent reader. They understand not only their school and their friends but also family relationships, life values and about losses, celebrations and their heritage from these books.
Buchoff (1995:230) writes in The Reading Teacher about family stories: ‘When incorporated into the elementary curriculum, family stories are effective tools for encouraging students to learn more about their heritage, to acquire and refine literary skills and to develop greater respect for the multicultural differences that make them unique.’
Therefore it is critical for children from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities to see their own family and cultural setting in these stories. It is important for them to recognize familiar words and their meanings from the stories that they read.
They should recognize familiar family structures in these stories – living in a joint family, having different or hybrid bedtime rituals, celebrations and festivals that are more culturally specific to them. All of that adds to their overall understanding of their own world – as the learning always begins with the known and proceeds to the unknown.
Opitz (1999:888) quotes Galda (1998:275), ‘All readers… need books that allow them glimpses of the selves they are, visions of the selves they’d like to become, and images of others that allow them to see beyond who they are.’
I read a number of early-fiction series published in the UK and the US, with lead characters from Black and Asian backgrounds, to understand the specific ingredients – the spices that are added by pinch into a popular recipe that make these books diverse and multi-cultural yet universally appealing.
The stories can be set anywhere – either in contemporary Britain or contemporary Africa or Asia – but the setting and characters must be as authentic they can be. Atinuke tells us stories about Anna Hibiscus and the No. 1 Car Spotter who live in Amazing Africa. Hilary McKay’s Lulu and Lenore Look’s Ruby Lu are based in contemporary USA.
Wherever they are set, these stories include authentic customs and traditions of similar families – how do they cook or eat? What kind of food do they eat? How do they address their mothers and fathers and grandparents? What language do they speak and more importantly how are their family and social interactions similar or different to mainstream culture?
Culture in the Core
The stories in these books arise partly or fully from the culture. The culture is not the backdrop alone – it is the spring from which conflicts arise and resolutions are found. In the Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look, Ruby’s cousins from China are staying with them and they are immigrants. Ruby has to deal with this even if she doesn’t like it because that’s what Asian families do.
When writing in the Guardian in 2015, Kalu says, ‘place a conflict or a problem that relates to diversity right on the spine of the plot.’
One of and not Only
The stories that I researched – be it Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke or Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes demonstrate quintessential characteristics of the chosen family. They are not (and need not be) representative of the entire race they belong to.
Bailey’s prize-winner Adichie says in her Ted Talk ‘The danger of a single story’, ’The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’
It is important not to create a caricature but portray a single family upon which a spotlight is shone.
Kalu in his Guardian article (2015) echoes this, ‘Culture is never static. So don’t fossilize it. We have multiple identities and allegiances. Try to get that sense of blur and multiplicity…’
Universality is not enough
Many of these stories set in a non-white family are universal in their emotions. But they are also different from the mainstream in other ways. The differences – both negative and positive are tackled head on – but within the premise of the story being told.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious and the Zebra Necklace, the two girls set off with a nurse to a distant village in search of truth. Western Health & Safety laws and social conventions would disallow this. But it is normal for the family being portrayed in this story.
In Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look, Alvin visits China with his family. There he finds he can’t go out when the smog and pollution is very high and he also discovers the colourful markets and wonderful people, when he does venture out.
Cai explains why discussing differences is a necessary step in multicultural literature.
…first step toward the goal is to accept, tolerate and respect cultural differences. To cross cultural borders, paradoxically, we need to recognize and face them first. If we do not understand and respect cultural differences, there would be no rapport on an equal basis. (2002:130)
Having said that these books are not pulpits for political views. Not a single book beats you on the head with the issues of racism or other issues.
Kalu writes in the Guardian (2015) on this, “Racism exists and writers have the opportunity to make important contributions to speculating how society might deal with it.”
While discussing the differences are important, all these stories demonstrated similarities too. Friendships, love, loss of a pet, loss of a grandparent, judging others, doing mischief – these universal experiences are portrayed through the lens of a lead character who is either Black, Asian or from Minority Ethnic heritages.
In summary, a universally appealing early fiction series with a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic lead character would not only be funny, consistent, feature a unique and memorable main character and have a strong supporting cast; it should also have an authentic setting, keep culture of the main character in its core, avoid stereotypes and celebrate the differences and similarities between the character’s background and the mainstream.