Bringing Life to Books: Smriti Halls on celebrating South Asian and dual heritage families

Published on: 03 March 2021 Author: Smriti Halls

Writer in Residence Smriti Halls' gorgeous new book Not That Pet! is a celebration of life in an Indian family - but while children's books have made progress in showing more diversity, Smriti points out there's still a long way to go. She talks about the power of bringing everyday life into books.

Illustration: Rosalind Beardshaw

"Mum! Can we get an elephant?"

For an author, it’s ALWAYS exciting to bring a brand new book into the world but I’m even more excited than usual about this one. My newest picture book, Not That Pet!, is a laugh-out-loud story that’s furry, scaly and very twist-in-the-taily. Mabel and her gorgeous family simply can’t agree on the right pet to get – a dilemma (or should I say battleground) familiar to MANY families up and down the country when the small people in the household demand that they must have the most unlikely and preposterous of pets. In this story I wanted to harness the humour and hilarity of family life and celebrate just how clever and wily (under the guise of total innocence) small people are. It’s a book full of laughs and LOTS of surprises.

Illustration: Rosalind Beardshaw

While I love this story for its exuberance and cheekiness what I love MOST is the central character. Mabel is feisty, inventive, resourceful… and Indian. Although I devoured books of every sort and made them my own, I would have loved to see a character like this when I was growing up: a gorgeous little girl with brown skin and black hair in bunches who looked just like me (well a bit). The theme of my residency at BookTrust has been about ‘bringing books to life’. As a picture book creator, I feel it’s just as important that we bring LIFE to BOOKS - the reality of the life we see around us - including the resplendent variety of people and families in all their glorious diversity. Mabel’s family is very much like my own now – both Indian and English and it’s a thrill to see this on the page.

Much encouraging progress has been made in diversity in many areas recently. A report by CLPE looking at minority ethnic representation in children’s books found that some 30% of picture books published during 2019 featured BAME characters – a truly huge increase from just 6% in 2017 .

We need more South Asian characters

I’m delighted to see so many marvellous books flourishing from a diverse range of talented authors and illustrators. However, as we celebrate that remarkable improvement, we shouldn’t forget how stark the reality remains in some respects and most especially for South Asian representation – the most under-represented of all groups.

According to the report, the share of books with an Asian main character has actually fallen since 2017 to just 0.3%. For a group that makes up 11.3% of primary school children and 6.8% of the population as a whole, this feels quite shocking.

Illustration: Rosalind Beardshaw

Illustration: Rosalind Beardshaw

I have worked within publishing for a long time and it feels like a real testament to how far we’ve come that Mabel and her family can joke and jiggle across the page. I’m so proud of the books I’ve written that are helping redress the balance – Elephant in My Kitchen and Ready Steady Rescue before it. It gives me more joy than I can possibly say that stories and characters that were considered impossible a decade ago when I suggested them in conversations that were awkward and tricky to have, are now being embraced, celebrated and unequivocally recognised as necessary, important… and downright delicious. Seen not only as books we need to have, but books we want to have. But this is an ongoing journey.

There is much work for all of us to do – we all have a hand in creating, supporting and championing books like this.

Hurrah for big, beautiful books

Right now, however, I want to celebrate Mabel and her fabulous dual heritage family. I’m so thankful to Ros Beardshaw for bringing them to life with such loveable charm. I particularly love gorgeous Grandma in her mint green sari… (though in our house she’s called Aama and is the fount of all wisdom, grace and mischief). Plus I love the fact that Mabel’s mum doesn’t look so different from me now as a grown up – although her swishy ponytail is a LOT tidier than mine ever is!

So, hurrah for books and the way they get BIGGER and more BEAUTIFUL. May they continue to go from strength to strength, reflecting our wonderful world, so that every child can see their face and know that their place is secure in this glorious world of books. May families of every kind be celebrated. Even those, like Mabel’s... who might also have a snake, a skunk or a grizzly bear in tow! 

Win your very own copy of Not That Pet!

Not That Pet! is reviewed here. Follow Smriti on Twitter or find out what she's been up to as our Writer in Residence.

BookTrust Represents

BookTrust Represents is a four-year project created to promote children’s authors and illustrators of colour.

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