Sita Brahmachari: How books can change the world, one reader at a time

Published on: 05 June 2017

Sita Brahmachari reveals how her new book Tender Earth follows a young girl waking up to the world of politics around her - and how she went on that journey herself.

Credit: Tanya Nash

Most people will have heard of Malala Yousafzai's quote: 'One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.'

It was not until I experienced that feeling that I really became a self-motivated reader. I remember the book that turned me into a reader and I can recall the strength of the feelings it provoked in me as I write this - the breathless need to see justice done and the anger against those who perpetrated injustice and prejudice.

The book was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I read it when I was 12 years old and it changed me, just as Laila Levenson in my new novel Tender Earth is changed by reading I Am Malala.

At the beginning of Tender Earth, Laila is not much of a reader - but then one day her form tutor hands her a book. When I wrote Laila's reaction to reading I Am Malala, I experienced all the emotions that I did when I read Angelou's story nearly 40 years ago.

'I'd completely forgotten I was even in school I'm so wrapped up in this book. I can't believe what I'm reading; how brave a girl my age can be.' - Laila Levenson in Tender Earth

Books can make you see things differently

When writing Tender Earth, I asked the question, 'How will the things you read about and experience lead you to stand up for what you believe in?' That made me think about how reading Angelou's story changed my world.

It led me to reading and being engaged in the news and current affairs. It started me on a path of discovering other great writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. At university, it made me lobby for greater representation of African, African American and Asian writers. It was what convinced me to pursue an interest and career in working with community groups like the one I'm involved with today, the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.

Reading can be a catalyst for so many thoughts and actions during a lifetime... including picking up a pen to write my own stories. Nearly forty years after reading Angelou's book, the theme of finding a voice has influenced what I write today.

A list of books that can change the world

In Tender Earth, Laila's form tutor Mrs Latif is putting together a collection for her own children of stories and novels that can change the world, so here are some books that I picture on Laila Levenson's future bookshelf. I imagine that each one of them would make her want to use her voice and act to make a difference.

As I've been writing in Laila's voice for some time, I've written what I imagine she would write in her school reading record after reading these books - just as she does for I Am Malala.

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

'I really wanted to help Marlon not get into gangs like his brother did. I felt sorry he was born into that world, and how hard it was to escape, even when he wants to do the right thing.'

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

'I could imagine I was Starr. How she speaks out against discrimination and racism even though it's so hard to do. It says this is part of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. I want to find out more about that.'

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

'When I watch the news about Syrian refugees I wonder what that boy or girl's story is from beginning to end. I feel like I know more now. I really felt for Omar having to leave his happy life.'

Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin

'Sometimes when I read a story in the past it makes me think about life now. It's in London in 18th century Coram Hospital for Orphans and the descriptions made me feel like I was back there but it also made me think of orphans and adopted children now.'

The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

'How can it be only 1959 when schools were segregated in America? This book made me learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the power of protesting and great leaders.'

Hidden by Miriam Halahmy

'Forget about news and statistics. What would you actually do if you found a refugee person washed up on a beach like Alix and Samir did? Hide them? Help them? This book really made me think.'

Here I Stand - Amnesty International Anthology

'This anthology of stories and poems made me think about what human rights really are. It made me wonder about the lives of people I know and if their rights are being protected.'

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

'I think this book is about who has power. Malorie Blackman switches black and white around and shows how ugly racism is. I love how the switch around gives you space to really think how racism works and how to challenge it.'

Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali

'I've never read something like this before. I can't believe that Hitler actually tried to get scientists to create the perfect blue eyed, Aryan baby. The story is through this baby's eyes. It gave me chills. It made you question any ideas about things or people being "perfect".'

Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle

'I read Liccle Bit and so I wanted to read the follow up. I can't believe this writer isn't actually a teenager. How he captures people's voices and seems to know how it feels for those friends on either side of the river.'

My Name is Parvana by Debora Ellis

'Parvana's story is set in Afghanistan and she's accused of being a terrorist. It reminded me of Malala's story. How can anyone treat a young girl, not much older than me, like this? It made me angry.'

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

'I liked how the chapters are told through different voices Nicu and Jess and how you watch their journeys coming together even though they're such different people. It's like a modern day Romeo and Juliet and tragic because both their lives are so hard.'

Does My Head Look Big In This by Randa Abdel-Fattah

'I really love this book as it made me think of my friend Pari... and what she told me about attitudes to her wearing her hijab. I liked how Amal thinks and speaks and she's got a good sense of humour.'

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

'My friend Kez recommended this to me. It's a real shock to see Jessica lose her leg in an accident, but then to see her rebuild her life and motivate a girl with cerebral palsy is inspiring. It actually made me think so much of what me and Kez talk about together - people's attitudes to disability.'

From Somalia with Love by Nai'ma B Robert

'Safia is a London-Somali girl. It's about how you can be one culture at home and another at school and what people expect of you. When Safia's Dad comes back from Somalia he wants her to be more traditional. It makes you think that people feel torn in different directions.'

Tender Earth is endorsed by Amnesty International UK because it illuminates the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity, and upholds our right to protest against injustice. Find out about the Amnesty Young Activist programme

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