Always Anjali by Sheetal Sheth

On the morning of her seventh birthday, Anjali gets the best gift ever–a new bike! She can’t wait to ride to the fair with her BFFs Mary and Courtney.  At the fair, there’s a stall selling personalized bicycle license plates.  Mary and Courtney scoop up theirs, but Anjali’s told to make do with Angela. As a disappointed Anjali walks away, one of the older boys begins to chant “Ann-Jelly! Can I get a peanut butter an-jelly with a dot on top?”

Anjali rides home determined to change her embarrassingly uncommon, license plate-less name to Angie, but then learns that her Indian Sanskrit name means a divine gift. “To be different is to be marvelous” says mom. (“Humph” goes Anjali.) But after thinking about her situation, Anjali gets to work. With creativity, self-confidence, and a no-nonsense focus on what’s really important, she remedies the lack of license plate issue–and teaches her bully a thing or two.

My goodness, how I love Always Anjali (Bharat Babies, May 2018).  Indian American author Sheetal Sheth, whom I’ve seen in films such as The World Unseen and American Chai, takes on an issue that is both extremely personal (your name!) and also works perfectly as shorthand for the larger question of inclusion. A name needing explanation is a symbol of so much more–from being asked how you speak English to where *exactly* you’re from. This issue is close to my heart, as you can probably tell…

I also deeply appreciate how Sheth points out that it’s a systemic issue we’re dealing with–the only guilty person is the creepy kid who teases Anjali. The problem is the lack of  inclusion in cultural and social settings, when you don’t look or sound like the majority. Sheth shows that the answer lies in individual action as well as systemic change. Anjali finds a creative solution that emphatically affirms the value and magic of being different, but ideally, that fair stall would stock some diverse plates too.

Third, I’m so thankful that there’s no didactic heavy-handed message about tolerance or diversity blah blah bloop bloop. Anjali rides away from her bully after shutting him down, because “She had places to go and didn’t have time for foolishness.” Making fun of a person for being different is pretty dumb! Bullying is mean! By making the case for inclusion as a common sense argument, Sheth manages to teach without the preach.

The illustrations by Jessica Blank deserve a list of praise-worthy reasons of their own. For starters, Anjali is pictured as deep brown rather than beige or cream with a spot of tea. There is so much shadism in the South Asian community that it feels like an active design choice to have a dark skinned protagonist. Also, I love how the illustrations  incorporate cultural information subtly yet tellingly.  Anjali is an Indian American girl, and her room is a purple wonderland of soccer ball, spaceships, dinosaurs, microscope, skatergirl action figure–and a set of tablas. Look at this young tabalchi!

Yup, any kid between the ages of 5 and 8 crossing my orbit is going to have this book thrust into their arms, with a demand they begin reading right away. (Pre-readers will receive an instant storytime.) Sheth says she’s planning a series around Anjali; I can’t wait for the one where Anjali’s thirty-five and running for President.

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