My young sons – and yours – need to see their stories told in books

I worry what the lack of diverse books for young adults mean for my Pakistani-American sons, growing up Muslim. I want to see that change, writes Aisha Saeed
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

Since I was a child, I’ve loved reading. Growing up, I devoured every book I could find. Books allowed me to transport myself to different eras, fantastical worlds, and learn more about the lives of others I would never otherwise have known.

As a Muslim and a Pakistani- American growing up in South Florida, I was definitely a minority, but through reading books about the experiences of mainstream American culture I felt I could live a moment in another’s shoes and understand things I might otherwise not.

It was not until college that I first encountered a story that stopped me in my tracks: Shabanu by Suzanne Staples, a young-adult novel about a Pakistani teenager. Never before had I encountered a story where the character looked like me.

While Shabanu, the main character of the book, grew up in a nomadic tribal family and her life experiences were sharply different from my own, it felt incredible to see on the book cover a Muslim Pakistani girl looking back at me.

I realised that while I spent my entire childhood and teenage years reading the stories of mainstream Americans, my own stories were nearly invisible in American literature.

It is a powerful feeling to see oneself reflected in literature. It is a statement that you matter and you belong and I wondered what the lack of stories of Pakistani Americans in American literature meant about our place in this country, did it mean we belonged somehow less than others?

I also realised that all this time I had read and explored so many details of the lives of my mainstream American counterparts, but how many people ever read a story that reflected my experiences or my life to better understand me?

Just recently, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin made the shocking revelation that while the United States is growing increasingly diverse, children’s books are still anything but. In fact, of the over 3,000 books released in 2013, only 7.5 per cent of those books contained any diversity at all.

The study showed me that the invisibility I experienced in the world of literature as a child remains the same today and this revelation was disheartening to say the least. While my children could browse their library and read books about talking bears and friendly monsters, stories of other cultures – including their own – remained as scarce as they were during my own childhood.

I also quickly learnt that I wasn’t the only one who felt frustrated.

The results of the CCBC study sparked national coverage, most notably from The New York Times which wrote two pieces highlighting the problem with diversity in children’s literature.

The findings were troubling. And while people felt frustrated, it was when Book Con announced its line-up of all white authors – and then refused to address the public outcry with promptness – that 22 of us, spearheaded by author Ellen Oh, decided it was time to take our collective voices and raise them “to a roar” that couldn’t be ignored. We started a three-day social media campaign beginning on May 1 dedicated to showing the world why we needed diverse books.

And indeed our campaign did just this. Thousands of people from all over the world, from publicists to authors to agents, and most importantly, readers, began sharing why diversity in books mattered to them through photos, words, and videos. Within hours of launching, news outlets declared our campaign a viral sensation.

The amazing success of our three-day campaign highlighted that diversity in books matters to our society as a whole. When children, particularly those outside of the majority culture see themselves in print it is a powerful statement: they may not belong fully to the mainstream culture, but their stories matter just the same.

During the three-day campaign I read countless hand-made signs and heartfelt stories from friends and strangers not wanting their children to be seen as simply walking stereotypes of their ethnicity, or always the funny token sidekick, but instead, as fully realised complex human beings.

In seeing their hopes and fears I saw my own. I am the mother of two small Muslim Pakistani-American boys and this is my most fervent prayer. I want my sons to see depictions of themselves in literature that go beyond the negative stereotypes and cliches so often littering the television and news circuits.

I want my boys to know that although they may be different in some ways from their mainstream counterparts, they also belong. I want them to know that their narratives also matter. Literature is a direct and powerful way to accomplish just this.

And while erasing the feeling of invisibility for my children is a powerful enough reason to demand increased diversity in literature, increased diversity also helps the mainstream culture to better understand those who are different from them.

Children are the purest form of humanity. Their hearts are most open to accepting and understanding those who are different from them. A child has no concept of hating another person for the scarf on their head, the length of their beard, or the colour of their skin; these are hatreds that are taught.

Having more stories readily at hand at schools, libraries, and bookstores can counter such teachings and allow children to experience other worlds, understand other people, and realise that while there are differences among all cultures and faiths, there is also the commonality of humanity that binds us all together. Not everyone is lucky enough to live in a diverse neighbourhood or town but reading a good book with diverse characters can bridge that distance with the turn of a page.

As a young girl who never saw her stories in print and who suffered prejudice and discrimination for the colour of my skin and my faith, I don’t want the same for my sons.

This campaign and the powerful statements shared by its participants gives me hope that one day my boys will grow up in a world in which they will never feel invisible. That they will not read stories of only one culture, but instead, read stories of all cultures including their own.

It is truly for my sons and for them to know that their stories and their experiences matter that I worked on this campaign and why despite the fact that our three-day campaign on social media is over, we all as a group know that our work in changing the landscape of literature in America has only just begun.

Aisha Saeed is author of the upcoming young adult novel Written In The Stars, to be released in 2015 by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books

On Twitter: @Aishacs

Published: May 10, 2014 04:00 AM

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