Always Anjali by actress-producer-author Sheetal Sheth is a lovely story about owning what makes you different. On the morning of her seventh birthday, Anjali gets the best gift ever — a new bike! She can’t wait to ride to the fair with her two BFFs Mary and Courtney. At the fair, there’s a stall selling personalized license plates. The other two girls scoop up theirs, but Anjali’s told to make do with Angela. As a disappointed Anjali walks away, one of the older boys begins to chant “Ann-Jelly! Can I get a peanut butter an-jelly with a dot on top?”
“Always Anjali by actress-producer-author Sheetal Sheth is a lovely story about owning what makes you different.”
Anjali rides home determined to change her embarrassingly uncommon, license plate-less name to Angie, but then learns that her Indian Sanskrit name means a divine gift. “To be different is to be marvelous” says mom. (“Humph” goes Anjali.) But after thinking about it, Anjali gets to work. With creativity, self-confidence, and a no-nonsense focus on what’s truly important, she remedies the situation — and teaches her bully a thing or two.
In Always Anjali, Sheth tackles an issue that speaks deeply to many South Asian Americans. Anyone who hails from the tribe of Starbucks Alias knows how enervating it is to repeatedly sound out your name, with a side serving of dilute apology. A name is simultaneously a personal issue as well as a symbol of something so much bigger — a name that needs explanation trails in its wake questions, ranging from why you speak English fluently to where you’re really from. The opening pages in the book are filled with quotes from South Asian American celebrities who were teased as children for their names. (Hasan Minhaj was apparently called Saddam. Really.)
I also appreciate that Sheth shows that it’s a systemic issue at play here — it’s NOT that white people are to blame (the only guilty person is the creep who teases Anjali). Anjali’s best friends Courtney and Mary are white, and they are excellent friends, who go above and beyond to help Anjali. It’s the system that’s not inclusive. Sheth seems to say that the solution lies in individual action as well as systemic change — Anjali resourcefully finds a way around the obstacle while affirming the magic of being different, but ideally, the fair next year would stock a few diverse plates too.
“A name is simultaneously a personal issue as well as a symbol of something so much bigger.”
The illustrations by Jessica Blank are splendidly detailed, lavishly colored, and incorporate cultural information subtly yet tellingly. Anjali is an Indian American girl, and her room is purple wonderland of soccer ball, spaceships, dinosaurs, microscope, skater girl action figure — and a set of tablas. Go, Anjali the tabalchi! And Anjali is such a winning character — when the bully again teases her, she shuts him up and moves on as “She had places to go and no time for foolishness.” Sheth says she’s planning a series around Anjali; I can’t wait for the one where Anjali’s 35, and running for President.
Saadia Faruqi is an author, speaker, and interfaith activist based in Houston, and her book Meet Yasmin takes a different but equally appealing approach to the issue of inclusion. We meet Pakistani American second-grader Yasmin over the course of four stories, all presented as a slice of Yasmin’s life. While each story tackles a problem, the conflict doesn’t arise from Yasmin’s cultural identity.
“We meet Pakistani American second-grader Yasmin over the course of four stories, all presented as a slice of Yasmin’s life.”
The plots are universally relatable, for Yasmin faces challenges that every kid has gone through, such as getting momentarily lost in a crowded venue, worried that her entry in a competition isn’t good enough, feeling bored and so on. And while Yasmin draws a map or builds with K’nex, we learn about her family and her background through narrative detail.
There’s some very clever writing going here, where the cultural information is prominent but never obtrusive. For instance, when Yasmin is heading to the Farmer’s Market with her mom, she can “hardly wait as Mama got her hijab and her purse.” Faruqi thus demystifies and contextualizes cultural markers without ever resorting to overt explanations. And kids unfamiliar with the word (or the appearance of a) hijab have a handy illustration to look at too!
Yasmin is a younger 7 than Anjali — she’s not hanging out with her BFFs sans parents, but instead, holding her mom’s hand as she walks to the farmer’s market, and putting on a fashion show with her grandma. Each story is brimming with heart. I predict Yasmin will grow up to become an architect who designs beautiful, eco-friendly libraries which comfort and inspire their patrons.
“There’s some very clever writing going here, where the cultural information is prominent but never obtrusive.”
The illustrations by Hatem Aly nobly hold up their end — Yasmin’s large, twinkly eyes, and her tulip nose are the very definition of winsome. (Oh, and I love that both Yasmin and Anjali are presented as deep brown rather than cream with a spot of tea. There is so much shadism in the South Asian community that this darker color feels like an active design choice.)
And finally: Meet Yasmin is populated by the most diverse cast ever. Yasmin’s grandpa is disabled, her teacher is white, the famous television artist Yasmin looks at is black, her friend Emma builds a church, Principal Nguyen judges the art contest, and so on. No overt references are made to identity — it’s all winningly presented as a part of the fabric of the world Yasmin inhabits.
In sum, these books, with their charming plots, subtle messages of inclusion and diversity, and flat-out adorable protagonists, are wonderful additions to any 5-8-year-old’s reading. May they find a home in every second-grade classroom library in America!
Additional Watching & Reading: