"Relationships and communities evolve through heartfelt responses to stories." ~JoEllen McCarthy, Layers of Learning
In this episode of Behind the Book, JoEllen McCarthy talks to author, Sheetal Sheth about her children's book, Always Anjali. Watch to discover what inspired her to write this popular book and what she hopes students and teachers will learn from it.
Links in this episode
Mango & Marigold Press
Bravo Anjali now available for pre-order
About the Behind the Book Video Series
JoEllen McCarthy created the Behind the Book video series in collaboration with Stenhouse Publishers because she believes in the power of read-alouds. Throughout her teaching career she has often thought of those read-alouds as her co-teachers, but, as she will show in this series, it's the inspiring authors and illustrators of those books who are the real co-teachers. So join her as she talks one-on-one with the authors of some of your favorite children's books and hear about their journeys creating them and what they want teachers and students to learn from them.
About JoEllen McCarthy
Read the transcript
JoEllen: Hi everyone, welcome back to the next episode of Behind the Book. I am JoEllen McCarthy. And I am so pleased to have with me today, the author of one of my all time favorite mentor texts and book as co-teacher, Always Anjali, written by the lovely and talented, Sheetal Sheth. And the original was illustrated by Jessica Blank. And the second new edition has a new illustrator, which we're going to find all about in today's Behind the Book. So welcome Sheetal, I'm so happy to have you. And thank you, thank you for the gifts you've given us in this wonderful character and her stories and how we get to learn from her lessons that really will support our caring conversations.
Sheetal: Oh, thank you. It is a joy. It's so nice to see you. I love how much you love this book. I love how it's taken on extra meaning actually in this past year with the kind of political climate. And I've heard from so many teachers and people, educators, parents that have been using the book as a resource, which only makes me happier. And I'm so glad we're able to have the conversations we need to. And the book helped with that.
JoEllen: Absolutely. Thank you so much. And for those of us who are viewing at home and don't know the story of Anjali, would you be so kind as to give us a quick little book talk?
Sheetal: Yes, of course. So Anjali, it's her birthday. She can't wait. She's so excited to finally get a bike of her own. And her and her best friends are riding their bikes to the carnival and they all want to get matching license plates to put on their backs of the bikes. And she's the only one that can't find her name. And in that moment, as sad as she is, she gets bullied on top of it and gets made fun of. And to make matters worse, the actual cashier at the booth throws her a license plate with Angela on it, a close enough name. And as I'm telling the story, I think there's so many people that kind of can relate to all of these moments.
Sheetal: So she goes home and tells her parents she's changing her name. She demands to change it. She hates her name. She's so upset. She's crying. She goes into her room. Her mom comes in and her mom explains to her the story of her name and why she was named what she was, where it comes from, why it's meaningful. You're like not sure if Anjali really cares or gets it. And then she kind of goes to sleep, wakes up in the middle of the night with a little kind of inspiration. And you see her working, working, working. She goes to school and something I purposely put in, I wanted to show female friendship because I don't think we see enough of it.
Sheetal: So you see that her two friends, Mary and Courtney had actually come and brought her a license plate just like theirs that they had made for her, but she had made one on her own. And it was completely different from everybody else's. And something I talk about in school is when we get to that part, I always say, "Describe theirs, describe the one that everybody has." And they always say, "Well, it's the same. Everybody has the same thing. It's plain." And then I said, "Okay. Now describe Anjali's." And Anjali's is obviously very colorful and distinct and reflects who she is. And everyone's like, "Oh yeah. Nobody else has that."
Sheetal: And so the point is to get that being yourself is the most important thing. And then after this moment, she kind of has a run in with the same bully who again, starts to make fun of her. Mispronounces her name on purpose. And she's able to stand up to him, walk away and leaves, kind of like peacing out realizing that, not being one of the crowd is actually what she wants to be. And she vows to always be Anjali. And I will tell you, as you know and several people know what happened with Senator Perdue, deliberately mispronouncing Kamala's name during the campaign. That moment, which again, is outrageous that a sitting Senator would do that on purpose, has brought up these conversations. There was actually a thread that went around, my name is, because people were doing the counter to what he was doing. And so this book has taken on new meaning. And I'm really happy as we talked about that again.
JoEllen: Thank you for remind me that, because I think you and I even engaged in a conversation through Twitter, where I brought up your book and several other titles to help have these conversations in the classroom, and connecting it to real relevant world's issues. And just the messages in this book about self-acceptance and celebrating names and identities are so important and so essential to be having in the classroom. And then when we see the craziness of what's going on in our world, more so, I always say, we can only control what we can control in our classrooms. And so this is essential work that we're doing. And books like yours are gifts for teachers because we have the opportunity to engage in these conversations and have an entry point through a story that really makes it accessible for young children. So I thank you for that.
Sheetal: No. And I also think it's not limited to us and to our children because it's an adult problem as well. And I have met so many teachers that don't realize that when they don't take the time to learn a child's name, or they give them a nickname that they never asked for, how that makes someone feel. And it stays with them. There were studies done about what it means when you've never been called your given name, and you didn't ask for the nickname. And so it's really important we get it right.
JoEllen: Absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more. And I think that that is something that's so essential. And I think the opportunities to connect conversations and also activities. An activity in the sense of being something that will help extend the conversations with this book. I love the fact that Anjali does create her own name tag, which personalizes, and I shared the picture, shows her celebration of her name, but also her unique interpretation and just the way in which she uses the colors and the imagery and all that. And I think that that's so powerful. And I think it's another message that we all have different strengths and talents and we should be celebrating all of those at all times.
JoEllen: And the layer that you added in there with Zachary the bully, I think it's really important for kids to see how she was empowered and she stood up to him and how she grew from that experience. And I think that's another powerful message that comes from this story. So I thank you for that.
Sheetal: Thank you.
JoEllen: So now, we were talking before and we said that few things that I love about doing this interview series is that we have a conversation that can be brought into the classroom so children learn from the mentor author in a new way. So you are actually eligible to be in the classroom co-teaching. So what are some thoughts that you would like to share that maybe would be behind the books stories that our children and students wouldn't get to know just from reading your text?
Sheetal: Yeah. So most of my writing and I have a number of books, I know we're going to talk about Bravo Anjali, but I have other books that are also in process, come from real life stories. And so whether they be mine or friends of mine or combinations of little things or my kids, they're all real stuff. And the reason why I even started writing was the lack of the representation of the world as we're living it in literature. Especially, I couldn't believe how hard it was to find books that reflected people of color in children's literature. There are still more books about animals than there are people of color in kid lit, and it's a huge problem. And so most of my stories, including Always Anjali are all based on personal stuff.
JoEllen: I love that. You reminded me of the graphic that was done so well, that shows that for people who haven't seen that, who are not in this work to the degree that we are, to see that for the first time, I think is very eyeopening. And I think it's essential that we are having conversations about books and representation or even misrepresentation, because oftentimes the books that do have characters represented in various backgrounds it's something that we have to look at with a critical lens with our students.
Sheetal: Right. And they're dated. And and it's okay. It's okay to say it. It was what it was. And there are better ones now. So let's replace them. It's almost like, if you had a refrigerator that wasn't working anymore, wouldn't you get a new one? And so we have to be able to do that. There's so much better stuff out there, and I think that's part of it. We can write and write and write, but if we're not giving the same access and opportunities and making sure they're in the classrooms, it seems like there's a certain number of books that everyone feels like they have to have, but even those can be critically looked at.
Sheetal: And that needs to come from across every kind of teacher, educators, schools, all these institutions. They need to reach out to smaller independent presses more and really make sure that they're being inclusive in the books that they're having. And I think the problem is there's these structures in place, as we see in several industries that need to be just broken down a little bit and restructured.
JoEllen: Absolutely. And you mentioned that, which brings us to your publisher and the fact that, really exciting news, that Anjali is part of a series now. And the new book, which we both hinted at is called Bravo Anjali.
Sheetal: Yes. I'll hold it up for you.
JoEllen: I'm so excited. I'm so excited. I was fortunate enough to have a preview and to read the text. So do you want to do another quick little book talk just to [crosstalk 00:09:35].
Sheetal: First of all, I cannot believe that this is the only illustrated book series in existence that features a South Asian hero. I didn't even know that was true. And then that was said to me, I was like, "Oh my God! That's unbelievable, actually. And let me make sure." And it's true. And so that's the problem. Secondly, yes. I knew I wanted her to kind of have many stories. And so this story came out of what was, again, real life happening around me and the world at large. And the Me Too movement was in its prime.
Sheetal: And I was thinking about how much I see this gender bias in young kids with boys and girls. Even in the way we talk about books, when people would say to me, "Can you write a book for boys?" And I'm like, "This book is for boys." I'm like, "There's no such thing as boy books and girl books." And in fact, I would argue that it's even more important for boys to read books with girls at the center of the stories than the other, because they need to see the world that way. That being said, so I was thinking about what that would feel like to kids? What would me too be in kids?
Sheetal: And I've also thought about how many people, especially women have not lived to their biggest potential because they feel like they have to kind of dim their light or not be their greatest selves because of whatever reason. And so I started thinking about it in another kind of secret, which some people may figure out or not, is every book... So at the end of Always Anjali there's a picture of Anjali playing the tabla. And that was on purpose. That's like an [inaudible 00:11:16] Easter egg. So at the end of every book, there's an Easter egg of what's to come. And also the titles, it's going to go like alphabetical. So there's the always A. And then there's the bravo B. The third one, there's a C that goes with it, I don't know if I'll get to Z, but there's-
JoEllen: I hope you do.
Sheetal: There is a method to the madness. That being said, so Anjali is such a talented tabla player. And unfortunately, tabla is not an instrument that you see a lot of females playing. It's getting better, but it's a heavy male dominated instrument. And so she's the only girl in her class. She is the best. The boys don't like it. They leave her out of practice sessions. They make fun of her. They tease her. And so she messes up on purpose. And she when she realizes that there's now a contest that her teacher is putting out there and she really wants to win, there's a series of events that happen where she comes to the realization where again, in this book the line is never dim your light.
Sheetal: And so she gets to that after a series of situations. She realizes that she should never feel bad about being good about something or allow anyone to make her feel bad about being good at something. And so she owns her greatness. And at the end we see her kind of... You'll see, I don't want to give away the ending, but it's a happy ending of course. And it's great. And so that's kind of my take on what it would be like. And even when I got to the end, I made a point, when her and her friend have the conversation, the boy that used to be one of her closest friends who was giving her the hardest time, I didn't want her to let him off the hook.
Sheetal: I wanted there to be language that kids could use to have conversations with each other about how they made them feel and how they felt bad. She didn't understand. She's like, "I thought we were friends. We used to have so much fun together." He had to apologize. He needed to own what he was doing, and that was on purpose too, obviously, in kid language. But I want people to be able to have the tools to have these conversations because it's happening. And I think this is an important conversation to have with boys and girls on both sides.
JoEllen: I couldn't agree with you more. And what I love that you did in both books is, you have characters come to different realizations, which is so important for kids to see the change in a story and how different events and situations impact people in different ways. And that there's always, in both books, like a friend that she can turn to who is supportive in that way. So you have strong characters, you have relationships that are nurturing and you have the ability to see both sides. Where there's a bully and there's problems, there's also sort of the opportunity to look for the helpers, right? And so that she finds her strength through the eyes of a friend who tells her never to dim her light.
JoEllen: And I think that's so important. And as you said, just seeing a way to have conversations around Me Too movement, and just being able to think about all of the microaggressions that happen in the story during her musical classes, I think that is something that is so global and tremendous. And can go across different categories, not just in terms of talent here, but what kids experience, females, males based on race identity, so on and so forth. And that's, I think, one of the most essential conversations we can have, in my opinion.
Sheetal: No. I think you talking about microaggressions is amazing because you've read the text, you're one of the first to read it. And there are so many of them put in there, even if you get one out of however many are in there, that's great, but they're all in there for a reason. And I've layered them with, again, true life stories from people. And by the way, I talk to boys and girls that were in industries where they were not the dominant gender, to kind of hear experiences on both sides.
Sheetal: And I also I have two female tabla player friends, and so I wanted very specific stuff and I had them read the book and I was like, "Please make sure it's authentic." And they've been tremendous in terms of a resource. But in general, the conversation of being the minority gender in something that's dominated on the other side is something that I think we all need to talk about more.
JoEllen: Thank you. I think one of the questions I was going to ask is, how does your activism work with you as an author? And I think you've sort of answered that already in giving us stories that help us have these conversations, invite these conversations and give us the opportunity to really go deeper beyond the pages of a book. And so I thank you for that. I know that we spoke about your real life experiences and thinking about how you as an author have brought your passion.
JoEllen: And already you shared with me some teacher takeaways. Like the fact that you interviewed other children and other adults and friends to get their input. That you did the research. That you looked at studies. And so do you have other teacher takeaways perhaps that you'd like to share, thinking in terms of using this book as a co-teacher? We could pull out craft lessons page after page because your writing is so rich with examples of dialogue and beautiful beautiful language. And just the opportunities for kids to then say, "I can write like that." I think that-
Sheetal: No. Thank you. One thing I think is important and I've thought about like, when we get to the world of author visits again, I was thinking about what would I do with Bravo Anjali, with Always Anjali, we have a bunch of things that we do. With Bravo Anjali I was thinking about what it would be. And I thought, as I talk to kids, even young kids, there's this weird thing of not feeling able to say something good about themselves. And so what I would want to do is give everyone permission and encouragement, and I would want them to come to the front of the class and tell everybody something they're great at. And own it.
Sheetal: And I find that kids even get shy about that. And I don't know where it's conditioning from and how young, but even my kids, they're shy about it. And I'm like, there's a balance to be found in owning your greatness and obviously not going to the other side where you're just obnoxious, but kids should feel proud of being good at something. And so I think with Bravo Anjali, that would be something I would do. We would read this, and again, when we talk about never dimming your light, and everyone being proud of something that they're good at, I would want kids to come up and share a story or something that they want to tell everybody that they're really good at, that they're working on.
JoEllen: I love that. That's so beautiful. And I think that's like the perfect way to kind of wrap up our conversation too, so that we can leave people thinking about ways they can take a book like yours. They can research even if they don't have the opportunity to have you in, hopefully we can get back to author visits.
Sheetal: I know, I know.
JoEllen: We can use tools like these. Thanks to you for offering your time and your talents and sharing your story with us. And thank you for sharing your stories between Always Anjali and Bravo. And I'm so intrigued to see what the next one is after that. I love now knowing that inside secret about the pattern . So...
JoEllen: Oh, I love that
JoEllen: I will talk to you soon.
Sheetal: Bye, bye.