This year, Rajani LaRocca, an Indian American author of children's books, has been awarded the John Newbery Honor Medal for Children's Literature for her book, "Red, White, and Whole."
It's no ordinary feat as the award presented by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, is the oldest children's book award in the world.
This brings to the fore that books about India and by Indian authors are gradually making an entrance into the mainstream.
Children's Literature in the US is Increasingly Seeing Diverse Voices
Madeline Tyner, the librarian at Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed over a phone call why the most recent data they collected shows an increase in diversity in children’s literature.
“Every year the number of books by and about people of colour are increasing, but in the last two years with the pandemic slowing down people’s lives and clearing more time for them to reflect and the reboot of social movements like Black Lives Matter following the George Floyd incident, there seems to be a genuine interest in diverse voices."Madeline Tyner, Librarian, University of Wisconsin-Madison
She believes nonprofits like We Need Diverse Books also played an important role in changing the perception of American people towards diversity.
She said, “Their 2016 online hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign not only made schools and libraries more aware of the need and demand for more diverse representation when it comes to children's books but also pushed the publishing industry in the US towards a major transition.”
The numbers show a sharp leap in the publication of children's books featuring Indian culture and written by Indian American authors.
In 2008, based on CCBC data, out of 3,000 books, 98 featured Asian stories of which only two books were published with Indian American protagonists written by Indian American authors. Since then the way CCBC collects data has undergone a change. In 2021, out of 3,356 children's books, 351 featured Asian subjects. Of these, the number of books on Indian subjects is right at the top (67). As of creators, in 2021, 73 books had an Indian author or illustrator.
Increase in Representation of Indian Americans
Tyner said, "Compared to other Asian countries and ethnicities, books about India and Indian people are well represented now."
For their best-of-the-year list, Tyner stated that they included several books about Indian American characters including LaRocca’s Red, White, and Whole. "It is a middle-grade historical novel-in-verse about an Indian American girl whose mother is diagnosed with leukaemia."
“We chose some other books, too, like American Betiya by Anuradha A Rajurkar, What Am I? by Divya Srinivasan and Supriya Kelkar’s That Thing About Bollywood. What we appreciate about them is that the characters are full, complex human beings who sometimes embrace and sometimes struggle with balancing the many facets of their identities."
'Promoting Diversity in Children's Books Fosters Empathy': Rajani LaRocca
Rajani LaRocca sounded excited about the recent award. When asked why she chose to write for children, she said, “I believe that promoting diversity in children’s literature fosters empathy in them, which is very valuable for the world. Growing up in Kentucky, I didn’t see my experiences or even someone like me in any book. When I revisited writing much later, in my forties, I wanted to bring the specifics of my experience as an immigrant.”
LaRocca attributed the increase in the demand for diverse representation to the launch of imprints by mainstream publishers looking to raise the profile of diverse voices in children’s literature like HarperCollins’ Quill Tree Books or Penguin Random House’s Kokila, as well as to independent publishers championing diverse voices like Lee and Low Books.
Capturing the Indian American Immigrant Experience & Going Beyond Tokenism
She also pointed out the initiative of We Need Diverse Books in mentoring and providing scholarships to people of colour and getting diverse books to schools.
She said that several Indian authors and illustrators are collaborating and coalescing around children’s literature in America now, like Supriya Kelkar, Nidhi Channani, and Sandhya Prabhat. “They are doing good work and supporting each other as a tight community.”
Both Tyner and LaRocca acknowledge that the publishing industry moves rather slowly and it will still take time for books on diversity to become mainstream properly but they are hopeful for the future.
What is most interesting though is the growth of complexities in the material being published by Indian American authors. Tyner said, "The details of their culture and identity are naturally woven into their lives and the narrative. They feel like real people; not like tokens or stereotypes." There is an added focus on authentic characters and experiences.
LaRocca mentioned the uniqueness of being Indian American and an immigrant. “There is something about being an immigrant that brings a bitter-sweet feeling of being caught between two different worlds.” Her prize-winning book, Red White, and Whole bears a complex texture involving heritage, fitting-in, science, poetry, Hindu mythology, and 80s pop music.
As we celebrate her book winning an esteemed award and steep in the fuzzy feeling of what that means for the Indian American community that has embraced her writing generously, LaRocca has a special message for the grown-ups in the Indian American community.
She wants them to keep pushing for the need to encourage diversity in children’s literature but also reminds them about understanding the need to write all kinds of stories, not just those focusing on the Indian American identity because that is what will make their work more mainstream and universal.
(The author is a public policy professional based in Arlington, Massachusetts.)