We Breathe as One: The Role of Folktales in Diversity
Contributed by Pleasant
diversity means difference. Fundamentally, folktales invite inclusion.
on a litter-strewn beach in Negombo, Sri Lanka during the fall of 2000, a 17-year
old Sinhalese lad named Nehan approached me and asked if he could practice speaking
English. He told me about his life and his family, the difficulties of the
ongoing war with the Tamil, and how he hoped to succeed in life. Nehan also asked
many questions about my life and my travels. We shared a wealth of words. An
hour later I stood up and put on my shirt. At that point, the young man
surprised me with a pantomime: removing his eyes and placing them in my shirt
pocket. Then he said, “Take my eyes with you and show me the rest of the
am a white, forty-something-year-old woman who has grown up surrounded by books
with characters who look like I do. The main character of my forthcoming middle
grade novel, A Long Pitch Home, is a
ten-year-old Pakistani boy who moves to America and has a grand total of zero
books with middle grade characters who share his background.
I set out to write A Long Pitch Home,
I knew I had hours and hours of research ahead of me. I started with one of my
former colleagues, Sughra, who is from Karachi. She is also kind and funny and
can wrangle any bibliophobic fifth-grader into a reader. I reached out to other
experts on Pakistani and Pakistani-American culture, including a young lawyer
who had moved from Karachi to the US when he was a boy. His wife, who was
raised in Karachi, offered to read my manuscript, all while raising a newborn and
working on her PhD. Not only did they catch things in the story that were
incorrect, but they answered questions I didn’t even realize that I had. And
then there is Hena Khan, a children’s author whose gorgeous books I had in my school library. A
mutual friend put us in touch with one another, and now, two years later, I am
fortunate to count her as a friend.
asked Hena if I could interview her about what it was like to lend her
expertise to A Long Pitch Home, and
she graciously agreed.
I belong to the most privileged group in our culture: white,
heterosexual, and able-bodied. And although my female gender brings me down a
notch or two, my race membership alone gives me a winning lottery ticket in
So when I began to write books for children in earnest, one
piece of advice from an instructor in my MFA program seemed to suit me. “People
will tell you to only write about what you know,” she said. “Don’t listen to
them. Instead, write about the things you want to learn.” There was so
much I wanted to learn. And the stories I yearned to write begged for research,
listening, and learning.
Then I made a mistake. One that would have perpetuated a
racist stereotype had I not been saved by a sensitivity reader.
They want a graduate of the
99%, non-minority, public schools of last-century Briarcliff Manor (the B.M. we
call it, much like residents of the O.C., only without a validating TV show) to
write for a diversity blog?
Roaring Brook has just
published a book I’ve written called Patrick
Griffin’s Last Breakfast on Earth,about a kid who undertakes a kitchen-sink
chemistry experiment and ends up in a parallel world dominated by a
hyper-modern efficiency state that finds human cultural heritages to be inconvenient
and even anathema.
Last month I joined
seven other children’s book editors on a week-long trip across Germany, sponsored
by the German Book Office of New York. The program nurtures Germany’s
relationships with publishers around the globe, as Deutschland
imports roughly 50% of its children’s books from other countries.
learned a ridiculous amount about what we all do similarly and differently, and
I was constantly inspired to think more globally and critically about my own