Subject: Reading for pleasure
Age Group: KS2
Synopsis: Books by writers who use their own cultural experiences to create stories with characters that British Asian children will relate to and hook them into reading. Ideas are from Gillian Harris of SLS Tower Hamlets.
Gillian Harris, MBE
Tower Hamlets SLS
Black Lives Matter drew attention to the experiences so many Black people recognised of being unable to find characters they can relate to in the books they read in school. Now a number of booklists have been produced to guide teachers to resources to help fill this gap. There are debates about the definition of “Black” and the various terminology that has sprung up – “Black Diaspora” or “BAME” or “writers (or characters) of colour” – and there are many different opinions as to the correct term to use. However, when it comes to finding the right books to have in your classroom, we can be and need to be more specific, as you could have a whole classroom library of books by African authors, but if there are children in your class from, say, Bangladesh, these books will be a window into other cultures for them, but they will still not be finding themselves in these books. An important question to ask is do these children need books set in Bangladesh or in the UK? Many will have only visited their home country on holiday, if at all, and whilst stories are a good way of learning about their heritage, to get them hooked on reading the stories need to reflect their lives in the UK.
As well as characters in stories, we need to be aware of the authors who can give children role models they can identify with and inspire them in their own creativity and future careers.
The following books feature Pakistani, Indian and Chinese characters, and are written by authors from those countries. I discussed in a previous article about whether white British authors can write about children from another culture, mentioning Elizabeth Laird and Mary Hoffman as excellent writers who do their research and draw upon their own life experiences to accurately portray other cultures.
However, there is a subtle difference between these books and authors writing about their own culture and in particular, British Asian culture. Happily, there are an increasing number of excellent Asian authors getting published and, as a white British person myself, I find a refreshing honesty in the characterization that, if used by a white author, could sometimes be accused of stereotyping. There is much to debate here, and I’m not suggesting that stereotyping is OK if the right person is doing it, but it is important to know the writer as well as the book. Indeed, I start with an author who did raise eyebrows by calling her first book “The Muslims” because that was what her family were called in their (mostly white) neighbourhood.
All the titles listed below, and more, can be borrowed from your Schools Library Service. SLS is also the place to go for advice if you have a particular request.
Zanab Mian gave up science teaching in a secondary school to become a writer and immediately won the “Little Rebels” award which celebrates children’s fiction which highlights issues of social justice in 2017.
Originally called “The Muslims”, the first in the series was renamed Planet Omar – Accidental Trouble Magnet and is a surprisingly funny story, told by Omar, about how his family move house and how he gets bullied at his new school because of his (Muslim) religion – not a laughing matter, you would have thought, but Zanab Mian manages to combine the seriousness with refreshing humour. She has gone on to write Unexpected Super Spy where Omar goes into action to save the local mosque when it is threatened with closure, Incredible Rescue Mission which Omar mounts to rescue his teacher who he thinks has been abducted by aliens.
A fourth book Epic Hero Flop will be published in July 2021. In addition, Zanib has written Planet Omar – Operation Kind as a World Book Day 2021 book.
Serena Patel grew up in Walsall and Aston in Birmingham and experienced bullying and name-calling at school and remembers never seeing her own culture – British Indian – reflected in the books she loved. Her book Anisha – Accidental Detective, is a funny story about how Anisha’s Aunt’s soon-to-be husband gets kidnapped hours before the wedding, and the kidnappers say he will only be released if the wedding is called off. Anisha and best friend Milo set about unravelling the mystery. Its sequel School’s Cancelled is another hilarious account of Anisha trying to discover who wrecked her volcano project and caused the school to flood, which led Anisha to be disqualified from the competition to win a trip to the national space centre.
Her third book, Granny Trouble, will be published in 2021.
Jasbinder Bilan moved to the UK at a very young age. She draws on her Indian heritage in Asha and the Spirit Bird and Tamarind and the Star of Ishta. In the first title, Asha leaves home in the foothills of the Himalayas to save her family after her father disappears and her mother is threatened by a cruel money lender. With help from her friend Jeevan and Nanijee, the spirit bird of her grandmother, she crosses mountains and faces many dangers including child exploitation.
In the next story, Tamarind’s Indian mum, Chinty, died soon after she was born, so she is excited to meet her Indian family for the first time and find out all about her. But nobody wants to talk, and instead she is intrigued by the abandoned hut she is forbidden to go to, the seemingly friendly monkey and a strange girl in the garden whom no one else seems to know about. Slowly, Tamarind unravels a mystery at the heart of who she is.
Nizrana Farook was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which provides the backdrop to her two books The Girl Who Stole an Elephant and The Boy Who Met a Whale. Nizrana wanted to write the sort of stories for her own children that she had enjoyed when she was young, but give them characters they could relate to. She was quite shocked to find that the publishing world had not changed much since she was a child. In her first title, Chaya is the girl who stole the elephant – she is a rebellious child, daughter to the headman of her village in Sri Lanka and feels perfectly justified to take from the rich to help those in need. Except one day she goes too far and steals the Queen’s jewels and royal elephant unwittingly putting her village in danger – leading to an escape into the jungle with her friends. The Boy Who Met a Whale is her latest book, telling of Razi, a local fisherboy, who finds Zheng in a drifting boat. Zheng has escaped a shipwreck and is full of tales of sea monsters and missing treasure. Soon the villains who are after Zheng are also after Razi and his sister, Shifa, too.
Saadia Faruqi, a Pakistani-American writer, living in Texas, has written a lovely series for early readers about Yasmin, a bright and intelligent second-grader who uses creative ingenuity to solve life’s little problems. Among the 12 “Yasmin” titles are Meet Yasmin, Yasmin the Footballer, Yasmin the Fashionista and Yasmin the Builder. Yasmin’s Pakistani family and heritage are seamlessly integrated into each story, and the final pages include a glossary and fact sheet that teach a little Urdu and Pakistani culture
Remy Lai was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore, and now lives in Brisbane, Australia where she studied Fine Arts. Her debut novel for children is Pie in the Sky which won the Tower Hamlets Book Award 2020. Despite losing their father, Jingwen’s mother decides to move from China to Australia as they had planned anyway, but Jingwen struggles to fit in, and his pesky younger brother doesn’t help. He tries to compensate by baking the cakes he and his father used to bake for their cake shop, but then mother bans the use of the oven when she is at work. Fun illustrations by Remy tmake this book about baking, broken hearts and family love hugely entertaining. Her next book, Fly on the Wall, tells of Henry Khoo, who wants to prove his independence to his over-protective family by going on a trip around the world – all by himself.
Chen Jiatong is one of China’s bestselling authors. The Beijing-based writer who wrote White Fox and White Fox in the Forest in 2014, but they have only recently been translated into English, while his series of four “dream maker” books have yet to be translated. White Fox (“Dilah and the Moonstone” in China) tells of Dilah the white fox who embarks on a quest to find a magical moonstone that has the power to turn animals into humans. Along the way she befriends a variety of other animals, but they must race to reach the moonstone before the wicked blue foxes. The sequel, White Fox in the Forest was published in China as “Dilah and the Wheel of Reincarnation”, giving a more obvious hint of what the book is about.