Diversity in Children’s Literature
Every reading I do is another confirmation of how stories and children’s books are the best way to generate empathy, love and understanding among children from different cultures. And more importantly, they are the best way to remind everyone that we have much more in common than things that divide us.
As a writer and illustrator of picture books, I meet lovely children from all over the world and find that they often see themselves in stories and relate to them in beautiful ways- whether the story addresses their lives directly or is about an ancient far away city that they have never heard of. Every reading I do is another confirmation of how stories and children’s books are the best way to generate empathy, love and understanding among children from different cultures. And more importantly, they are the best way to remind everyone that we have much more in common than things that divide us.
At the beginning of the conflict in Syria, I wrote and illustrated a book titled ‘Tomorrow’ (Ghadan), a story about a little Syrian boy during the war who suddenly wasn’t able to go to school or out to the park anymore. When I read it for Syrian children who had to leave their homes, I felt that the book helped them open up and tell their own stories about the conflict and the anxieties they went through. However, at first I was quite nervous when I read the book in the UK, and wasn’t sure how kids here would react to such a challenging and distant topic. But in the end, I was happily reminded once again that children are basically the same: they enjoy storytelling, and are full of curiosity about things that they don’t know about, no matter how unfamiliar. I was extremely touched that they were so full of sympathy for what children in Syria are going through, and they showed so much love and support without hesitation. I was surprised that there were even kids that could (on some level) relate to what that the boy in the story was going through during the conflict. For example, after reading the book in a school in Little Hampton, a little girl came up to me and said “your story happened to me!” When I asked her “really? but how?”, she answered: “I wanted to go to the park and I couldn’t because it was raining and I felt so sad, just like the boy in your story!”
In addition to sensitive topics like war and its consequences, I believe that it is extremely important for children to explore various cultures as part of their reading, and to be exposed to stories that present the various races, religions, and life experiences in a way that is normalised. I say this because I am sometimes surprised by the lack of topical diversity available in the children’s book market in the UK to be honest. I didn’t feel that this was sufficiently reflected in a country that upholds and celebrates diversity and multiculturalism so well. That being said, I was very fortunate to have my book ‘The Jasmine Sneeze’ (set in Damascus) published here – and I hope to see more published by other authors in the UK one day. Stories that address Syrian culture and its unmistakable aesthetic are extremely important at a time of conflict- both for British kids and Syrian kids. They remind young Syrian refugees and migrants that they not only come from a ravaged country, but from a culture with a rich and proud heritage, with ancient cities and grand civilisations. It has also been my experience that these stories can give English kids an insight to where their new Syrian friends come from, perhaps highlighting some of the ways in which their backgrounds are both similar and familiar, and wonderfully different.
I truly hope that my book is a small beginning to more Syrian art in the UK, especially during a time of such prejudice and misrepresentation of the Syrian people. After all, diversity and variety in art and culture benefits everyone!
Jasmine Sneeze: https://www.lantanapublishing.com/shop/books/jasmine-sneeze/