New children’s book untangles the lingering impact of the British Empire

Shelina Janmohamed's The Story of Now aims to help young readers make sense of the world

Shelina Janmohamed hopes her new book will help children think critically about how the past affects current events, such as the toppling of the Edward Colston statue into Bristol harbour. PA
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The Story of Now: Why We Need to Talk About the British Empire by Shelina Janmohamed is not your average history book.

Through 20 chapters, separated into four parts, the book uses accessible, entertaining language to take children on a journey that connects the past to contemporary times. Its novel approach allows children to understand the context of history and how it has shaped people's lives in real and tangible ways.

“The approach that I took for the book was that it should be for all children, irrespective of their background,” Janmohamed tells The National.

“The stories of the British Empire are for everybody. It doesn't matter whether you are what we might call white British, whether you're a kid from an industrial northern town in the UK, whether you’re from Scotland, or from Wales or Ireland. Whatever your background, the British Empire has shaped the country and the world we live in and our own individual stories.”

Janmohamed has written four other books. Her first, Love in a Headscarf was a memoir designed to cut through the stereotypical narratives of Muslim women. She also works as an advertising executive, is a columnist for The National and hosts a current affairs podcast called The Shelina Show.

Through these various creative outlets, Janmohamed has always tackled contemporary issues of identity, by drawing on shared understandings and shared pasts.

It was this idea that first prompted the idea for Story of Now.

In 2020, when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down in Bristol, as part of Black Lives Matter protests, Janmohamed wanted to find a book for her two young daughters to read. She wanted to give them context around the history of race, migration and what many view as consequences of the British Empire affecting the world today.

To Janmohamed’s surprise there were no books that explored these issues for children over the age of eight.

"In 2022 to my complete and utter shock, I couldn't find anything for my children to read that was aimed at their age group,” she says.

“What I really couldn't believe, apart from what a huge contemporary conversation this was, was that the British Empire was the biggest empire ever – that’s just a historic fact. So it's mind boggling that there are no reading materials for children at that age. And that's when I decided to set out and write the book."

With chapter headings such as Do We Really Know all the Facts?, Enslaved Children for Sale, Migration, A Heated Debate, and The British Empire... Thumbs Up or Down?, the book explores many facets of the empire, and what it means to be British today.

The book is filled with first-hand sources, including quotations from real children all over the world from different times and backgrounds.

Janmohamed points out that the British Empire lasted more than 400 years, spanned 400 million people and a quarter of the world's land mass. It's a vast topic and one that has become socially sensitive for many communities, often sparking polarising political debates.

To this day, the shadow of empire still looms over the lives of many. From the Windrush scandal to the Balfour Declaration, Britain's adventurism has left a deep imprint not just on those living in the UK but also people all across the planet.

Janmohamed hopes the book will give young readers a more nuanced understanding of history and the world.

“One of my frustrations with the conversations around British Empire is that it's a very heated debate around something that happened in the past.

“It's very much around what's called the culture wars. I don't think kids need culture wars. Our kids really need conversations. We need to stand in their shoes and help them see what's happening in the world and make sense to how they came to be here and what they are going to do about it.

“I wanted to give children the tools to understand that they can and should try and look beyond the surface or try and think more critically about what they're being told,” she says.

“I hope the book will help them understand the world we live in a bit better. I hope it will help them understand who they are in their own lives. And I hope it will enable them to have really great conversations with their peers and their friends.”

The Story of Now: Why We Need to Talk About the British Empire is out now

Updated: August 04, 2023, 8:32 AM