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Actress, Sheetal Sheth, on Addressing Gender and Ethnic Bias in her First Children’s Book

People

"May our littles always feel mighty," writes Sheetal Sheth as the introductory dedication to her first children's book, “Always Anjali."


The picture book was a product of Sheth's own findings, or lack thereof when she was pregnant with her first child. As she prepared to welcome her daughter into the world, an Indian-American, she searched for picture books that offered characters of culture, who would introduce her child to inclusivity at a young age. "I would go into the bookstore and see, 'here's the shelf of diversity,'" shares Sheth. “That's the epitome of marginalization. Why isn't that book, with the lead character who is someone of color, placed with all the others?"

In addition to her full-time role as an actor and mother, Sheth comes from a background in both children's literacy and gender equality, working at organizations such as AmeriCorps, Equality Now, and Representation Project. Sheth remembers a constant interest in contributing to both genres in a larger way. Therefore, when she recognized the lack of characters of color in children's books, she took action to create her own series, with “Always Anjali" as her starting point.

"I thought of everything I dealt with growing up and with acting, and I channeled it into this idea of having a picture book series, with a little, Indian-American girl dealing with things from her perspective, but also just living life," says Sheth. “For someone to feel like they are fully accepted into society, then we need to have stories about the mundane."

Always Anjali portrays the mundane as the lead character, Anjali, celebrates her seventh birthday and receives a bicycle, like all the other kids at school. When she gets her bicycle, she joins her best friends in looking for matching license plates, but she isn't able to find her name. “Anyone with a name that isn't common has experienced this," says Sheth, noting Anjali's friends, Mary and Courtney, find their names right away.

From this experience to being teased by classmates, the reader follows Anjali's journey to accepting her unique name, something that Sheth came to understand herself as she entered the acting world. "I've been in rooms where I was up for big parts, and the casting director looked me right in the eye and said, listen, they love you for this, but the producer is uncomfortable with someone of your name playing this part. It's appalling, really," says Sheth.

Even though Sheth considered changing her name as a child, she never did as she matured in her auditions, choosing to turn down roles rather than change her name. "All of those things were rushing back to me when I was writing. You think we've grown up, but then you think about hate crimes, and the racism, and the bullying, and the big truth that's happening ten-fold more in the last few years," says Sheth.

"I kept thinking for a kid to feel less than who they are is unacceptable. So, this series is an attempt to put something positive in the world and hopefully start a conversation in a way that's accessible to kids. I don't think you're too young to talk about anything--as long as it's done the right way-- and there's no better way to do that than in the lap of someone who loves you."

Aside from addressing racism and bullying, Sheth also subtly touches on gender roles as she worked with the illustrator, Jessica Blank, to create images that flip gender biases. “You see Anjali's dad with the towel on his shoulder in the kitchen, taking more of the domestic role," she says. It's subtleties like this that she hopes parents and educators can “unpack" together with her parent-teacher guide.

Within this guide, Sheth poses the question of individuality and dissects what it means to have a unique trait, and that it's okay to embrace it, saying, "The thing that makes you special is generally what makes you stand out when you're older. It's your superhero quality." Sheth also encourages children to think about how they would treat Anjali, adding, “I want kids to be engaged and have empathy. To not just be allies, but accomplices in these moments."

Since Sheth published “Always Anjali" last May, she has seen an overwhelming response from educators, parents, and children sending videos of their love for Anjali. Of the positive response, boys are relating to Anjali, which Sheth couldn't be happier about, as she further explains, “I never like labeling a book, or anything for that matter, a 'girl' book or a 'boy' book. I like to let them make their own choices without shame."

This ties back to Sheth's overall mission to create constructive conversation around inclusivity, concluding, “If we're going to live in a society where everyone relates to each other, it's important to talk about it."

Purchase your own copy here.

How to Learn Much More From the Books You Read

It is one thing to read and another thing to understand what you are reading. Not only do you want to understand, but also remember what you've read. Otherwise, we can safely say that if we're not gaining anything from what we read, then it's a big waste of time.

Whatever you read, there are ways to do so in a more effective manner to help you understand better. Whether you are reading by choice, for an upcoming test, or work-related material, here are a few ways to help you improve your reading skills and retain that information.

Read with a Purpose

Never has there been a shortage of great books. So, someone recommended a great cookbook for you. You start going through it, but your mind is wandering. This doesn't mean the cookbook was an awful recommendation, but it does mean it doesn't suit nor fulfill your current needs or curiosity.

Maybe your purpose is more about launching a business. Maybe you're a busy mom and can't keep office hours, but there's something you can do from home to help bring in more money, so you want information about that. At that point, you won't benefit from a cookbook, but you could gain a lot of insight and find details here on how-to books about working from home. During this unprecedented year, millions have had to make the transition to work from home, and millions more are deciding to do that. Either way, it's not a transition that comes automatically or easily, but reading about it will inform you about what working from home entails.

Pre-Read

When you pre-read it primes your brain when it's time to go over the full text. We pre-read by going over the subheadings, for instance, the table of contents, and skimming through some pages. This is especially useful when you have formal types of academic books. Pre-reading is a sort of warm-up exercise for your brain. It prepares your brain for the rest of the information that will come about and allows your brain to be better able to pick the most essential pieces of information you need from your chosen text.

Highlight

Highlighting essential sentences or paragraphs is extremely helpful for retaining information. The problem, however, with highlighting is that we wind up highlighting way too much. This happens because we tend to highlight before we begin to understand. Before your pages become a neon of colored highlights, make sure that you only highlight what is essential to improve your understanding and not highlight the whole page.

Speed Read

You might think there have been no new ways to read, but even the ancient skill of reading comes up with innovative ways; enter speed reading. The standard slow process shouldn't affect your understanding, but it does kill your enthusiasm. The average adult goes through around 200 to 250 words per minute. A college student can read around 450 words, while a professor averages about 650 words per minute, to mention a few examples. The average speed reader can manage 1,500 words; quite a difference! Of course, the argument arises between quality and quantity. For avid readers, they want both quantity and quality, which leads us to the next point.

Quality Reading

Life is too short to expect to gain knowledge from just one type of genre. Some basic outcomes of reading are to expand your mind, perceive situations and events differently, expose yourself to other viewpoints, and more. If you only stick to one author and one type of material, you are missing out on a great opportunity to learn new things.

Having said that, if there's a book you are simply not enjoying, remember that life is also too short to continue reading it. Simply, close it, put it away and maybe give it another go later on, or give it away. There is no shame or guilt in not liking a book; even if it's from a favorite author. It's pretty much clear that you won't gain anything from a book that you don't even enjoy, let alone expect to learn something from it.

Summarize

If you're able to summarize what you have read, then you have understood. When you summarize, you are bringing up all the major points that enhance your understanding. You can easily do so chapter by chapter.

Take a good look at your life and what's going on in it. Accordingly, you'll choose the material that is much more suitable for your situation and circumstances. When you read a piece of information that you find beneficial, look for a way to apply it to your life. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn't all that beneficial. But the application of knowledge from a helpful book is what will help you and make your life more interesting and more meaningful.