Please welcome children’s book author Shetal Shah to Frog on a Blog. Her debut Shakti Girls: Poems of Inspiring Indian Women launched just this week and is perfect for Women’s History Month! Through 13 poetic, biographical stories and colorful portraits (by artist Kavita Rajput), the book introduces kids to real Indian women who’ve accomplished incredible things in the fields of science, politics, sports, math, and activism and exemplify Shakti, a Hindi word meaning feminine energy and strength, power, and a force to be reckoned with. Shetal is a former educator currently pursuing her mission to positively impact and inspire girls from all backgrounds with her writing and to bring diversity to bookshelves. I asked her to stop by and talk about the importance of showing diversity in children’s literature and diversifying curriculum to bring visibility to all students. Let’s hear from Shetal!
The year was 1999. I was a senior in high school experiencing a heavy dose of seniorities and found myself at the local Barnes & Noble more often than planned. On one of my weekly trips, I walked into the store and a beautiful henna-inspired cover with a name that felt familiar caught my attention. The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, I knew right away was of Indian descent. Could it be that a South Asian author made it to the New York Times Bestseller list? This was new to me. I immediately grabbed the book, Interpreter of Maladies, and ran home to dig in. After a few days of indulging her words, I felt a sense of comfort, peace, and home that I had never felt from reading especially the novels assigned at school. It wasn’t long before I returned to the bookstore and actively sought out the works of other South Asian authors, including Arundhati Roy, Chitra Banerjee Divakurni, and Salman Rushdie. While there were few at the time, I knew getting my hands on as many as possible would recreate the feeling of being seen and understood as much as my heart needed.
I know my experience is not unique. Scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, who famously coined the phrase “mirrors and windows”, explained that “literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation…” When children see themselves in book pages, they feel seen and valued. They feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, no longer an outlier or exception to the full American story. As a window, diverse books expose children to different cultures and contexts helping them expand their capacity to appreciate and understand differences. “Research has shown that children notice race as early as six months, begin to internalize bias between the ages of two and five, and can become set in their beliefs by age 12.” If children are not exposed to the diversity of the world starting at a young age, then they will not be prepared to navigate and reap the benefits of this diverse world when they are adults. What better way to start than with books?
Whether it’s small steps or broad strokes, any action toward building a more inclusive curriculum and school or home library will make a positive difference in a child’s life. Families, schools, and educators either in a diverse or homogenous community can use any of the following ideas to get started:
- Develop an annual ritual of evaluating books in your curriculum and library. What percentage of books reflect characters from diverse backgrounds? How many were written by people of color? From here, create a SMART goal to strive for to grow your diverse library.
- Assess the books in your (or your child’s) curriculum, including summer reading lists. What percentage of characters and themes reflect diverse cultures and identities? Are students and families from diverse backgrounds and identities reflected in these books? Identify the gaps and find the titles to fill those gaps. For schools and educators, set a numerical goal or standard to ensure that future book lists are representative of diverse backgrounds. Families can reach out to their teachers and suggest or donate titles to add to the class library.
- Do your children love story time? Rotate diverse themes and characters when reading to them. Set some rules or routines to ensure you include a number of diverse selections every day.
- Not sure where to find diverse books? You can use tools like Diverse Book Finder, Social Justice Books, and even social media to help you discover diverse titles.
- Shop for books at your local BIPOC-owned bookstore. Consider partnering with them to host your next school book fair or birthday party!
Setting measurable goals and developing intentional strategies and tactics to reach those goals is an effective strategy for building more diversity and inclusion in a school’s curriculum and school or home library. By focusing on these concrete goals, you are ensuring there is measurable progress being made to close any gaps and help your children feel validation and belonging while offering a window into another world. As I moved on from high school, I sought out educational settings as both student, teacher, and mother where inclusion was starting to become normalized. As a result, I started to see myself as a valuable member of society who has something unique to contribute. I can only imagine what impact this would have made on me had I grown up with access to more diverse books. Better late than never, I say.
SHETAL SHAH grew up to the sounds of Bollywood and the delicious smells of her mother’s Indian cooking in the suburbs of New York City. As a second-generation Indian-American, Shetal hoped to one day see more stories of girls like her fill the shelves of local bookstores.
A former educator, Shetal taught world history in all-girls schools where she was reminded how curriculum and literature inclusive of women from diverse backgrounds can have a positive impact on girls’ self-esteem, identity development and belonging. Shetal also developed and led numerous educator workshops, presenting at national conferences covering topics on pedagogy and diversity and inclusion.
Shetal currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and her two young boys while pursuing her writing and mission to bring diversity to bookshelves with stories that inspire. “Shakti Girls” is her inspiring debut.
Follow Shetal on social media:
Facebook | Twitter: @ShetalWrites
Instagram: @Shetal.Shah.Writes and @Shakti_Girls