Undiscovered Voices finalist Serena Patel (UV2018) shares the importance of making sure children can see themselves in the stories they read and how diverse voices are a gift to every reader.
Seeing yourself as the hero
Imagine loving stories, inhaling book after book, books being such an important part of your life. Now imagine never seeing yourself in books. Imagine never seeing someone like you as the hero of the story. Imagine never believing you can be a hero in your own story.
I loved books as a child. Reading was comfort, escapism, mystery, adventure. Books held my hand through difficult times and kept my head above water when I couldn’t express how I felt as a young person growing up.
I never realised that in the stories I loved I never saw myself. I was never the hero of the story.
The hidden impact of being invisible
I’ve only realised as an adult what the impact of that can be. Seeing yourself in stories can be validating, empowering, educating. We know books create empathy. We know books help children make sense of the world around them. The world I was seeing was white centred, not just in books but in my primary school too as I was the only child of colour there. I felt like I didn’t belong, that there was no place for me.
I hadn’t realised that was the message I was receiving but it makes sense now. If I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me in stories, what did that make me? Invisible? Not to say there weren’t books about people of colour but those that did exist were not made accessible to us, not given the same visibility.
Don’t stop believing
I had always loved writing, but had never shown anyone my words, never believing anyone would want to hear what I had to say. Then much later as a mother, I remember looking at our bookshelves and thinking something is not right here. Where are the books that reflect our life, where are the British Indian main stories?
So I started writing again, but still disbelieving even as I embarked on the journey to publication that anyone would want to read this book.
Sharing stories with the world
When I entered the Undiscovered Voices competition I had no idea what could happen. It was the most wonderful thing. The judges heard my voice, they valued it and they put it in front of publishing and said ‘look at this!’ I am forever grateful to them for providing this platform to new writers.
How wrong I was thinking no one would want to hear what I had to say – the reception for the book from readers, librarians, teachers, parents and children has been amazing. They all accept and love Anisha as the hero, no questions asked. And now it feels so simple – of course, Anisha can be the hero. Why couldn’t I see it before?
How I wish I’d had these books as child, how validated I would have felt, I might have felt differently about myself? Seen myself and my culture through a positive lens. Seen myself as a hero of my own story?
But how glad I am we have a chance to give this to the next generation. Those books that reflect realities, act as windows and mirrors can make a real difference to our children. Reading those stories, hearing new voices, opening up the world and our minds. What a gift that is.
Serena Patel is the author of the Anisha, Accidental Detective series which won the Sainsbury’s Children’s book Award for Fiction and the CrimeFest award for Best Children’s Crime Fiction.
She lives in the West Midlands with her family. Serena believes all children deserve to feel seen in the stories they read and that books are an important tool for empathy. When she’s not writing Serena enjoys watching movies, reading and eating cake. Chocolate cake preferred.