by Gita Varadarajan
“To be literate is not to be free, it is to be present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history, and future.”(Friere and Macedo, 1987)
In the year 2011-12, I had the privilege of working with 5th graders at P.S.11 in Chelsea NYC. I walked past this mural every day as I entered the school building, the words reminding me and all educators of the moral responsibility we have of ensuring that all children have access to reading and writing.
“When we read and write we dream. Our imaginations take us to places we remember, places we wish we could travel to, and places we will never be. When we read and write, we become superheroes, sport stars, mermaids, angels, grown-ups, and crazy creatures.”(P.S. 11 readers, writers, and artists, 2005)
These words from the minds of children are testimony to the power of books, reading and writing. Books have the power to nourish and comfort, help find freedom and adventure. A book is personal, the images and experiences you have when negotiating the pages of a book are unique to you the reader. There is no single perspective that a book offers, it is left to the reader to choose what to see and how to see it. In many ways a book is like a kaleidoscope, synonymous with patterns that change and represent a million possibilities. This is what makes reading so exciting.
In the year 2012, I worked with a group of teachers in India on how to teach writing to children. We embarked on a unit on realistic fiction. We worked hard to teach children to write edge of the seat stories. They learned how stories need characters who go on journeys, face problems, and finally find ways to resolve them. They learned that as writers they need to elaborate and create tension. And the children wrote dramatic stories and touching tales; of being bullied, of the pain of moving to a new place, of losing a friend, and so on. The teachers were elated, and the young authors were proud. But then on careful re-examination of the stories, we found an alarming trend. These Indian children had written stories with main characters who were white, blue eyed and blonde haired.
One 5th grader’s story entitled My New Life had a blurb that read:
“Janet Bough Heart is a nine-year-old who lives in New York with her parents. Janet misses her best friend Ellen, when she moves to Iceland, where she deals with bullies in her new school. “
It made me wonder why the author did not create characters like her- brown skinned and black eyed? Why did she not choose to show us the colors and sounds of India? Why did she not write what she knew and had experienced in her home in India? It made me think about how the kinds of literacy experiences we provide for children have a powerful impact on their perceptions and images of what is valued and not in stories. As teachers it is important to expose children to texts that consider multiple perspectives, that reflect the lives of the children who read them and that opens spaces for all children to feel comfortable to write stories with characters that look, and talk like them.
These thoughts have weighed heavily on me as a writer. I remember my own childhood spent reading books written by Enid Blyton and Franklin W.Dixon. I tried hard to imagine the world of the Famous Five but Kirrin Bay, where much of Blyton’s Famous Five is set was a far cry from the bustling and hot city of Madras (now Chennai) where I lived with my grandparents in a cramped two-bedroom apartment overlooking the Bay of Bengal. My first forays into reading thus were from the perspective of an outsider. It felt isolating and burdensome. You see, I didn’t even see a slice of my life in the pages of any book. Thus, while I was curious about this different world that books took me to, reading was not that page turning, wide eyed, mind spinning experience all the time.
There is power in being part of a discourse community, of being an insider. You understand and know the rules, you know the lingo, the customs, and rituals. It is a very empowering feeling and that is what books that serve as mirrors can do. That is what Nanasada Kanasu (A Dream Come True), composed by the teachers at a school for children of migrant laborers in Bangalore, India did for its young students.
The students had not been responding or engaging with read alouds in class, but when their teachers read about Ningamma’s dream in Nanasada Kanasu, a text that reflected the lived realities of their students, the experience was so different. The students listened and engaged differently because they had an inside view into the life of Ningamma and the characters in the story. They imagined the jelly stone on which the clothes were washed, imitated Ningamma as she cleaned the vessels and danced along with her as she performed on stage on Annual day. A book that served as a mirror was just what they needed.
Therefore, as a writer it is important to me to write stories that reflect not only my life but also the lives of so many children of Indian ethnicity who may see my stories as a comfort and a mentor. So, I write unabashedly in my authentic voice, highlighting brown skinned, South Indian main characters, who live their lives, express their fears and hopes, solve problems, and go on adventures.
My first novel Save Me a Seat, shines a light on Ravi and his experience of moving to a new school in a new country. It very much mirrors my own experience moving to America. And when children and families reached out to me saying how they felt validated, how they felt that finally someone was telling their story, I knew that now they too had an insider’s perspective. While on a school visit to Edison, New Jersey, I felt so much joy to address a large group of mostly brown South Asian faces. When I talked about idlies, and curd rice, cricket or Vedic math, their eyes lit up. When we discussed the meaning of Indian names most kids wanted to share theirs too.
My new picture book My Bindi spotlights Divya’s world, where she is reticent to wear a Bindi (a symbol of her Indian Hindu tradition) to school in America. She is anxious around being different and learns that when you are your true self, others will see you.
I wrote this book with the hope that children who read it will feel brave to bring their whole selves, their authentic selves to school. My writing helps me explore my own identity and peel the layers to discover what makes me ME. It is my aim to provide a space for young children to practice this exploration through the books they read, especially from the perspective of an insider.
It is critical that the children of India and of Indian descent are exposed to many books written by Indian/ Indian diaspora authors that celebrate India, Indian lives, and the Indian experience. Maulik Pancholy’s The Best At It follows an Indian American gay kid, Rahul Kapoor, who fights anxiety, homophobia, bullying and racism and finally discovers who he really is. The story reflects Pancholy’s real life experiences, but it may also be the solace so many kids like Rahul need as they struggle with their identity. It may also serve to reshape the narrative around issues of homophobia and anxiety.
We need to think hard about the way we invite children into the world of books. We want books to be kaleidoscopes, providing multiple perspectives, taking readers on magical journeys full of excitement and wonder. We also want to be able to provide spaces where children can see, feel and be themselves in the texts they read.
Curating a classroom library is serious and important work. It is indeed a labor of love. Using the lens of perspective, positioning, and power (Jones, 2006) may help in providing a diverse collection of books for the youngsters in our classrooms. Ask yourself:
1) Who are the authors of texts, and what perspective are they forwarding?
2) Whose experiences are being valued and made visible that contribute to social and political positioning?
3) Who is telling what story and what power do they hold? Who is framed and who is left out of the frame in the text?
4) Are there books that reflect the cultures, ethnicities, races, genders, castes, classes, abilities, religions, personalities, body images, identities, passions, and interests of the children in your classroom?
5) Are there books that will help children think of those who are different from themselves, help them empathize, and become more aware?
6) Are there books that will make them feel powerful and free?
7) Are there books that will help them feel comforted and hopeful?
8) Are there books that (re)shape discourses that are in circulation in the broader world, question stereotypes and provide different perspectives?
9) Are there books that are of different genres and formats?
Our goal must be to ensure that all children feel visible and connected to the texts they read. The vision of children turning through the pages of a book furiously, eyes wide, minds on fire, experiencing a slice of life familiar to them in/ the pages of a book is one that can be achieved if teachers analyze and stock their classroom libraries through a critical lens. Let’s not limit the discourse that can take place in the classroom. Let’s invite children to a vast and broad array of literature, thus opening the conversations and the mind to new and different possibilities. Let’s live up to the dream of the readers and writers of PS 11- 2005. Let’s ensure that young writers in our classrooms feel free and bold to write stories with strong and fierce characters that look, and talk like them. It is heart work! And we owe it to our children.
Other books I love by other Indian diaspora writers:
Gita Varadarajan was born and raised in India and moved with her family to New Jersey in 2010. She has worked with children all over the world, earned her master’s degree in Literacy Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and has been teaching at Riverside Elementary School since 2014. She is also the co-author of the best selling Middle Grade novel Save Me a Seat. Her new picture book, My Bindi, came out in 2021.
Gita is passionate about using writing as a reflective tool, and spearheads reading and writing workshops in India, as well as being on the Jury for the Neev Book Award. She lives with her husband in Plainsboro, NJ and has 2 grown sons who are both in college.
- Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.
- Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School. She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.