Dreaming the Big Dream: Serena Patel on the importance of children seeing themselves in books

Published on: 22 October 2020

Anisha: Accidental Detective author Serena Patel loved books as a little girl, but had a hard time finding heroines that looked like her. So she decided to change the narrative. 

Serena Patel and her book Anisha: Accidental Detective

An escape into worlds where it was better not to fit in

When I was a child, I absolutely adored books, they were my lifeline. An escape into worlds where it was better not to fit in, worlds where being different was a wonderful thing, sometimes magical, important and could lead to amazing adventures. When I look back now, I wonder how I didn’t see that none of the characters I loved looked like me. There were no British Indian heroines in the books I was given. There were no children with one foot each in two Indian cultures feeling like they belonged to neither. I can see now that the racism I experienced in the real world coupled with a disconnect from my own culture and not seeing myself in books led me to feel unvalued, insignificant, invisible.

I always aspired to be a writer but never believed anyone would want to hear my stories.

The stories I was surrounded by featured white, middle-class protagonists, written quite often by white middle-class authors. Authors that I admired were certainly not from my part of the world – a little town in the Midlands. The dream of becoming an author was too big. My world was small and my expectations even smaller. As a result of how I felt, I didn’t aspire to stand out. In fact, I did everything I could to fit in or at least disappear into the crowd.

I wonder what a difference it might have made to the 10-year-old me to have been able to read a book about a child like her. Would it have validated my feelings? Might I have felt empowered and had the confidence to stand up to the bullies? Maybe I would not have felt so lost and unanchored in life for such a long time. Despite all this, I do believe that books have actually saved me and held my head above water throughout my life. There are some stories that are universal and we can find parts of ourselves in characters even if they don’t look like us. However, that feeling of being seen, that acknowledgement that your story matters, that you matter, is the most important gift a book can give.

There's no reason not to aim high

I would have carried on not believing, thinking I should just fit in, that dreams were a luxury I couldn’t afford. But as a wayward teenager still finding her path, I met someone who changed the way I saw myself. I had moved to London aged 18 without much of a plan or direction but had applied for an admin apprenticeship. Sandie was my manager there and the first person I really believed when she told me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. She wouldn’t accept my excuses that things were too hard or not possible. If you want something, work hard for it, believe you can do it, be determined. There’s no reason to not aim high. I carried these mantras with me not sure how to use them but knowing one day I would.

It was years later, as an adult and as a mother when I started to recognise the importance of representation in books.

How would my children see themselves as worthy of taking up space in this world if even the books they loved lacked any resemblance of the life they were living, of their culture, of their family? This awakened my childhood dream of becoming an author. I realised I wanted to write those stories, for myself and for my children. The old mantras came back to me. Believe you can do it.

I shared this dream sheepishly with Kat, my friend. I expected her to gently dissuade me for reaching for something so unreachable. But she didn’t. In fact, she offered to read my stories. Each time I would enter a writing competition Kat would read my entry, correcting my awful grammar and telling me how much she loved my ideas. I don’t think she knows to this day how much of a gift this encouragement was.

Support from my husband gave me the courage to sign up for a writing course. Later I felt brave enough to enter a competition, Undiscovered Voices, which led to me gaining an agent - Kate Shaw - and eventually a contract with a publisher. Their support gives me the courage to keep going even when I doubt myself.

I have been blessed with the unfailing belief of a wonderful set of people.

Books can act as mirrors

It only recently occurred to me that the family I write about in my Anisha Accidental Detective series is in lots of ways the one I married into and the one my children now have. Large, chaotic, funny and always there for each other. I’m so pleased and feel lucky to be able to write these books and hopefully show children of all backgrounds the differences and similarities in our lives and families. That books can act as mirrors and windows is so true and I see the amazing impact of that in the lovely messages I receive from readers and teachers of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

We have to make sure all children feel seen, heard and valued. Books can give them that if we give the opportunity to writers of all backgrounds to tell their story.

I’ve been given that opportunity and, finally, now I feel seen. And I hope my books will pass that feeling on to their readers.

Sometimes I still can’t believe I am actually doing this but, having published two books in the Anisha Accidental Detective series this year I finally feel confident to say I’m an author.

Serena Patel is the author of Anisha: Accidental Detective and its sequel, School's Cancelled. Follow her on Twitter.

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