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

Shifting Perspectives: Sheetal Sheth on 

Addressing Gender and Ethnic Bias in her First Children’s Book

“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.

Jillian Dara

Jillian grew up an island girl but converted to city style after living in Boston, London, Santiago, and now, NYC. She is a writer, editor and content creator with a desire to share stories in the lifestyle genre. With a particular focus on travel and profiles, she prides herself on sharing the most authentic story for those who aren’t able to share their own.

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