How children’s books can save lives

It’s time for a new protagonist.
It’s time for a new protagonist.
Image: AP Images/Paul Abell
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Three years ago, I wrote a story about a girl named Beena who goes shopping for bangles with her mother on her birthday. In the process of choosing the color she wants, she reflects on the women and girls who have influenced her life, and who represent a variety of experiences and viewpoints. All but one of the characters have Muslim names.

I felt a strange affection for this piece, because even though I am Hindu, and not Muslim, the characters were based on my family of wild and wonderful Indian women. I wanted it to be a picture book—that is, until the story was rejected by slew of small presses in the US and India, including (but not limited to) Lee & Low Books, Pratham Books, Tulika Books, and Saffron Press. I never sent the story to the bigger houses because I knew that it would be hopeless without an agent, and I had already been rejected by about a half dozen of those as well, sometimes when I included this story in my submissions packet. After I moved on to magazines, I received rejection letter Highlights, among others.

At first, I thought, it must be a bad story. I must be doing something wrong. So I sent it to friends for feedback, three of whom are published authors—two are women of color who write about women of color, like me. I incorporated every edit I’d received from them, all to no avail. I’ll keep working at it, I thought, and eventually I’ll have something publishable.

Lately, though, I’m starting to think that these rejections had less to do with how I write and more to do with who I write about. If Beena was Bella, would she be the star of a picture book? If she was shopping for bicycles instead of bangles, would she be allowed space in a magazine? Or, if she remained Beena, and her female friends and family were excellent cooks and obedient daughters instead of activists, athletes, and auto mechanics (as they are in the story) would she be an instant hit?

I’m not the only one with doubts. One of my favorite authors, Walter Dean Myers, and his son, Christopher Myers, recently held the publishing industry accountable for the lack of books for young people by and about African Americans. Their op-eds were a reaction to a tally kept by the Wisconsin Children’s Book Cooperative about the number of books published by and about people of color that revealed that only 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published last year featured African-American protagonists, and only 67 were authored by African Americans. (In my own ethnic group, Asian Americans, this trend is bizarrely reversed: we authored 90 books last year, but only 69 were about Asian Americans.) A day later Katy Guest, literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, announced that her publication would no longer review gendered children’s books, particularly those featuring female protagonists doused in pink and glitter.

An optimist would say that it has to get better, now that reviewers and producers of multicultural children’s literature (the polite term for fiction for young people devoid of protagonists who are either white or talking animals) are publicly up in arms and poised for action. Me, I’m not so sure. Every few years, someone writes and article like this, and we all shake our heads and wish things were different. But as long as publishers have bottom lines and people of color are not a part of it, I’m fairly sure that things will remain the same. 

Sometimes, I wonder if it matters. Last year, in one of India’s government daycare centers, I watched a doctor declare a four-year-old girl with twiggy limbs and ashy knees severely malnourished. That day I thought, who cares about fiction when so many children are dying of hunger?

Weeks later, I watched that same girl take her hot, midday meal, still steaming on the steel plate her teacher handed her, and sit between a pair of chubby, two-year-old boys. She began rolling the rice and dal into balls and feeding the boys, even though they had their own food. Her teacher told her to stop, but she refused. After a long negotiation, she agreed to swallow one bite for every bite she gave away. But when her teacher was not looking, she disobeyed.

I saw the same scene repeat itself across the country. When I spoke to the girls, I realized they were playing pretend, play-acting a future as mothers, caretakers, and sacrificial lambs, instead of as pirates or detectives or super heroes, like I used to do. Their imaginations were circumscribed by the limits of their realities: what they saw in their homes every day, and the stories about crows and frogs and lizards that they occasionally heard at school.

This, I realized, is why stories matter. They feed our imagination and shape the stories we tell about ourselves, real or pretend. We all deserve the opportunity to suspend disbelief, especially when it comes to our own lives. But when our only material is the unjust world around us, rather than characters who look and act and sound like us, our imaginations become circumscribed.

What if, I thought, this girl read about Beena’s family? What if she pictured herself as an athlete, an activist, a mechanic? What if she thought that these were possibilities not just for rich, fair-skinned children, but also girls like her? What if her father and her brothers read it and thought the same thing? (After all, isn’t imagination the most important ingredient in empathy?)

On Mar. 18, the story finally appeared in Young World, the weekly supplement for children published by The Hindu, one of India’s national newspapers with a huge circulation. Probably, more children will see it in this newspaper than they would have if it were a picture book—the preschooler pretending to be a mother might be one of them.

But there is a part of me that aches. I want to see Beena as I pictured her: dark-skinned, curly-haired, with her mother in a head scarf. I want to dedicate the book to my mother and my grandmother. I want to give copies to teachers, especially in India. I want to know that the characters matter, that children like me—children like us—can imagine themselves in a world beyond the one we live in.