Seeing Ourselves: Stories Worthy of Being Told

In January 2022, when We Need Diverse Books’s Walter Awards Judging Committee informed me that Red, White, and Whole had won the Walter Award for younger readers, I burst into tears. It was such an incredible honor, one I had never dreamed a book of mine would win.

Growing up as an Indian immigrant in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, I didn’t find diversity very often in books. Nevertheless, I loved books from a very young age, and they opened my mind to all kinds of possibilities. I journeyed with Meg Murry to save her family; I learned about friendship and sacrifice from Charlotte’s Web; I traveled to ­Narnia and Middle-earth. I grew up with the ­All-of-a-Kind Family and their traditions. I solved a mystery and thought about what it meant to be an American with my favorite book, The Westing Game. Books helped me understand what it was like to walk in someone else’s shoes; they helped me dream about imaginary worlds; and, thanks to a book called Ouch!: All About Cuts and Other Hurts, books got me ­interested in medicine.

When I visited my extended ­family in India, I was introduced to the marvelous Amar Chitra Katha comic books, which depict stories from Indian history, mythology, and literature. These comics were invaluable in educating me about my own culture. I learned about Ashoka and Ganesha; Rabindranath Tagore and Mirabai; the Ramayana and the ­Mahabharata. I read stories from the Panchatantra that made me laugh, and stories like those of Abhimanyu and Savitri that made me cry.

Despite reading and loving all kinds of stories, I never read one about someone like me — an Indian immigrant living in the U.S. — not in America, and not in India. I didn’t realize what I was missing until much later when, as an adult, I finally read a story that captured some of my personal experiences and provided a mirror of my own life. That book was The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. This was world-changing for me. It made me recognize how powerful it is to see yourself in a book, and it made me realize that every person — especially every young person — deserves to feel this way.

Rajani LaRocca with her daughter, Mira. Photo courtesy of Rajani LaRocca.

While my children were growing up, we read all kinds of books together, and the range of voices in children’s literature was wider…but still not wide enough.

When I started writing, it took me a while to stop writing about “typical” Americans and start writing about people who shared my own background. I still hadn’t truly internalized that others might be interested in reading stories about people like me — that our stories are worthy of being told. But once I started writing these kinds of stories, I couldn’t stop.

I write stories about Indian American kid characters who celebrate traditions, face challenges, solve mysteries, and have adventures; who feel joy and pain, who make mistakes, who learn and grow. They are every kid, and they are uniquely themselves.

I am honored to join so many authors from diverse backgrounds who are writing books for young people today. We use our lived experiences and our imaginations to bring new stories to light — stories that reflect the incredible world in which we live, and that can help shape the world into what we hope it can be.

But we still have far to go.

Looking forward, I hope to see an even greater range of stories in American children’s literature. To prepare to be a citizen in our diverse world, every child needs to gain insight into people who are not exactly like them, so they can learn from them and empathize with them. And I hope that every child in the U.S. gets to experience the thrill of seeing themselves in a book so they know they are understood, appreciated, and loved, so they recognize that they can be the heroes of their own stories. And one day, perhaps, write those stories themselves for future generations of young readers.

From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future. Find more in the "Seeing Ourselves" series here.

Rajani LaRocca

Rajani LaRocca is the author of Red, White, and Whole, which won the 2022 Walter Award in the younger readers category. Her latest book is Mirror to Mirror (both Quill Tree/HarperCollins).

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.