When I sat down to write this post, I had no idea what to write about. My formative years were in the 80’s and the only South Asian stories I knew were the Amir Chitra Katha books and folktales of Akbar and Birbal from India. Living in rural Pennsylvania I grew up on a steady diet of Richard Scarry picture books, Judy Blume books, and Nancy Drew mysteries. When I started reading teen romances, how I wished there was a South Asian female protagonist, someone who had to explore the culture clash while having a crush on the cute Caucasian guy at school. The closest I got was trying to connect with a Latina teen in TE AMO MEANS I LOVE YOU.
I started researching South Asian history in America and found Uma Krishnaswami’s eloquent and educational post on “Being South Asian”. From here I learned the 1928 Newbery Award winner went to a South Asian, Dhan Gopal Mukerji for GAY-NECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON. Cool! But why is this fact not more readily known? Why did the foundation of South Asian literature not begin forming for another fifty-sixty years? My guess is this probably has to do with the size of the South Asian population and the exclusionary policies prevalent during the first half of the 20th century. While there were South Asians in the United States most prominently in the farming communities of the Pacific Northwest, the numbers were small. It wasn’t until after the 1965 Immigration Act that immigration restrictions from South Asia eased up. It was these 1st generation peoples that would start building the foundation of South Asian children’s literature.
Since I am a picture book writer, here are a few South Asian picture books that made an impression upon me when I re-entered children’s literature as an adult. These books are my mirror, one that I didn’t even realize I needed until recently.
Kashmira Seth’s MONSOON AFTERNOON (Peachtree, 2008) transports young readers to a lush, tropical India and explores the relationship between grandfather and grandchild. This book reminded me of my summer vacations in India. The hot, balmy June weather and how refreshing it felt after a downpour. I loved the beautiful watercolor illustrations which accurately depicts the setting with its banyan trees, bungalow homes, and of course the roaming cows. Her latest book SONA AND THE WEDDING GAME (Peachtree, 2015) beautifully balances the rich traditions of an Indian wedding ceremony and its accompanying fun ‘n games. The stealing of the groom’s shoes is the top shenanigan that takes place at an Indian wedding, one that I have participated in many times during my youth.
Rukhsana Khan’s MY BIG RED LOLLIPOP (Viking, 2010) is about an older sister, Rubina, who is invited to her classmate’s birthday party and must take her younger sister at her mother’s insistence. This book cleverly shows the clash of views between two cultures and also how to learn from the experience. Rubina’s mom brought back memories of my mom’s “traditional thinking” which definitely didn’t always work harmoniously with the American way.
This is just a sampling of the wonderful South Asian children’s books that have been published within the last ten years. For a comprehensive list of South Asian authors do check out this post by Padma Venkatraman. As I look to the future and watch the South Asian population and its history in this country grow, I’m excited to see what type of South Asian stories will be created next.
Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She writes humorous multicultural picture books and spends way too much time online immersing in all things kidlit. You can find her blogging at www.flowering-minds.com and on Twitter @darshanakhiani.