How my annoying family became the perfect book inspiration: Anisha Accidental Detective author Serena Patel on growing to love the chaos
Published on: 04 March 2020 Author: Serena Patel
Serena Patel's Anisha Accidental Detective series features a main character who comes from a very big, very loud and very busy family. Here, Serena thinks about what family means to her - and how it has influenced her books...
Photo: Tania Morris
If you had asked 12-year-old me what a family was for, I would probably have pulled a face and said, 'To annoy me!'
As far as I was concerned, families were nosy, always in your business and had far too many opinions for my liking. Siblings were a royal pain in the neck, especially if you were the eldest. But it wasn't just them - there were so many cousins, aunties and uncles, grandparents, and more aunties and uncles (who weren't even necessarily related to you). It did my head in!
Then there was the extended family: mum's cousins and their kids, such-and-such who married so-and-so, their mother-in-law's sister's son's children... it was endless. And did everyone else have that one embarrassing relative? What about the ones who insisted on hugging? Don't even get me started on the never-ending rounds of family occasions - I did everything I could to avoid them.
The missing families in children's books...
Families in fiction were a funny thing, too. In most books I read as a child, the families were often non-existent: the parents were dead, away somewhere, distracted or not engaged in what was going on. Step-parents were ALWAYS evil and any other relatives who had been designated as carers were often just as bad!
Sometimes there were elderly grandparents, who were very much loved but not really taking an active part in the adventure (not counting, of course, the wonderful Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Mostly, the children went off and had wild, wonderful, and sometimes mischievous adventures, all without the knowledge of the grown-ups. This was a brilliant world to escape into - no family, no annoying relatives. Amazing!
When I was growing up, most kids I knew had families consisting of 2.4 children. Coming from a single parent British Indian family was unusual in the 80s. Things have changed a lot since then, and actually there's no such thing as a normal family. All families have their own special qualities and being different is what makes us, us. Families come in all shapes and sizes, so shouldn't the books we and our children read reflect that?
Reflecting realities and challenging stereotypes
When I came to write Anisha's family, I wanted them to have some characteristics that children would recognise in their own families - their reality reflected. But I also wanted to turn some of the stereotypes on their heads.
At first glance, Granny Jas is your typical Indian granny. She is the head of the family, without a doubt. She cares for them by pouring all of her love into her cooking. But she is also quite mischievous and feisty. She has secrets, and is very protective of them - just don't mess with Granny when she has a mop in hand!
I wondered how I came up with such a character, and then I realised she had been inspired by the women in my family.
My own grandmother is 85 this year and can still be found in the kitchen cooking up treats in her perfectly pleated sari. When she was alive, my mother-in-law was a feisty and formidable woman who made the most delicious lamb curry - something none of us have ever been able to replicate (I like to think she had a secret special ingredient she never told us about).
When I was growing up my favourite granny in fiction was Super Gran. She was super-fast, had super hearing and could jump higher than a pole-vaulter, but she was also very clever and quite cheeky. I think there might be a little of her gusto in Granny Jas!
Growing to love the chaos
In Indian culture especially, the family encompasses everyone you are even remotely related to, which annoyed me so much as a kid! Now, as an adult, I have three sisters-in law, a brother-in-law, and my own two siblings (and all the associated partners/husbands/children).
It's a squeeze when everyone comes over to our house, but the laughter and the chaos are something I have come to embrace. It certainly makes these gatherings memorable and board games highly competitive! At some point, I realised there was a lot of research material for a book in having a big family...
I also have two nieces and two nephews, and my relationships with them give me so much joy. I think that has seeped into the Anisha Accidental Detective series with Anisha and her Aunty Bindi.
Part of Anisha's journey in the first two books involves bringing new people into her family. Uncle Tony, who marries Aunty Bindi, has two children from his previous marriage. As might be expected, this is not always a smooth transition, and the twins Mindy and Manny are at first glance quite mean and difficult. But I like to think they are just a little misunderstood and I hope readers will take them into their hearts by the end of the story.
Blended families are part of this generation's reality, even in Indian culture, which was previously either unheard of or not talked about. I'm glad to be able to show it in this series, hopefully in a light-hearted way.
I think the thing I've learned throughout my life is that family can take any form. Sometimes it is found in the most unexpected places and it's not always blood that connects you. When you find that place where you feel you truly belong, it is a wonderful thing.
I hope that in writing Anisha's family the way I have, I can show that family life is often far from perfect. It can be chaotic and loud; it can be extremely annoying and inconvenient.
However, it can also be wonderfully weird, funny, and filled with love (although not too mushy, please, and definitely no smooching!) Without our families, related or not, life might be that little less interesting.