Regional focus: South East Asia Diaspora
Author: Sophie Blackall
Illustrator: Rukhsana Khan
Genre: children’s literature
I’ve been away from academia for a long time…two decades to be exact. While I love children’s literature and enjoy delving deep into the cultural themes depicted in stories for young audiences, I am rarely challenged to explore all angles of my book choices.
Mohit, a friend for years, bilingual educator, teacher trainer, global citizen and a current graduate student at the University of Texas, Austen has been visiting La Puerta Abierta for the past two weeks leading teacher workshops, modeling multimodal language activities and living the day-to-day with our students and staff at our center.
In between his activities with our school community, I take advantage of ten minute time gaps to “talk” children’s literature with him and to catch the pulse on current trends and on-going controversies in the realm of education. There are moments when I fear that I’ve been away from the academic circuit for too long, like when we plunged into the children’s classic Tikki Tkiki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, published in 1968. I remember repetitively listening to a recording of Tikki Tikki Tembo on my plastic record player as a child, marveling at the illustrations that transported me to far away and “exotic” places. I memorized the tongue twister of sounds that accompanied the name of the main character. In fact, Tikki Tikki Tembo has also become a favorite for teachers and students at La Puerta Abierta. Hence, when Mohit discussed the cultural misreprestentations so abundantly present in the story, I was bewildered. I pulled my tattered childhood copy of Tikki Tikki Tembo off my shelf and reread the text and examined the illustrations. The lack of cultural authenticity was startling.
I recently purchased Big Red Lolipop when a friend recommended it and I quickly fell in love with the bright, bold illustrations by Sophie Blackall and Rukhsana Khan’s tale of sisterly dynamics. Khan and Blackall create scenes that are in many ways universal, and yet, provide the reader with a unique glimpse of life of a Pakastani family living North America that is distinctly authentic.
I was convinced that I had discovered my next title for Sail Away Story, and then…I talked with Mohit! I learned that yes, in the academic world, there is some criticism of Big Red Lolipop. For example, why does Ami (the mother of the main character) not know what a birthday party is? Many Pakastani’s do celebrate birthdays and a reader might make assumptions that Ami is simple or unengaged.
That said, Mohit did endorse Big Red Loliop. In his words:
The book will resonate with South Asian children and allow all readers a window into the domestic life of a Pakistani family in North America that is “just like other families” in some ways, and different in others.
Later in the day he sent me an essay by Rudine Sims-Bishop which he had studied in a previous graduate course. Sims-Bishop states “books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
Big Red Lollipop provides both windows and mirrors for our young readers as they begin to understand themselves and the world at large more profoundly.
While I have no plans of returning to the world of academia in the near future, I remain grateful for friends and colleagues who connect me to current trends in education and cultural representation, and in turn, encourage me to delve deeper in my understanding of children’s literature.
Big Red Lollipop is a story told from the perspective of Rabina, who is invited to her first birthday party. When her mother (Ami) insists that she must bring her little sister Maryam along to the celebration, Rabina is mortified and worried not only about what the other children will think of her, but what disasters her sister will ignite. Maryam does spark a whirlwind of chaos, and Rabina is furious. However, as the story progresses, we learn that sisterly love often surpasses sibling squabbles and that forgiveness is a powerful tool.
What I love:
- Blackall’s artistic choices and attention to detail with Ami’s salwar kameez (traditional dress of women in the Punjab region), the raja (quilt) on the children’s bed and the embroidered pillows on the sofa allow the reader to glimpse into the lives of a Pakistani family living in North America.
- Khan’s message goes deeper than “fair is fair.” She explores real solutions of compassion and forgiveness.
- In a time when islamophobia is very much alive, I am hopeful to find children’s books that represent Muslim characters in dignified, every-day roles.
Themes: South East Asia Diaspora, forgiveness, family
- Why do you think that Ami might not be familiar with birthday parties?
- What are a few clues that help you to understand that Rabina’s family has origins in a different country?
- What is forgiveness? When have you had to offer forgiveness to another person? Have you ever had to ask for forgiveness?
- Who do you identify most with in the story? Why?
- What is your favorite sweet? Draw an exaggeratedly big picture of it in the style of Blackall’s lollipop.
- Rabina’s family is originally from Pakistan. Find Pakistan on a map. Investigate interesting facts about the country and culture.
- Make a list of ways you could welcome a new immigrant like Rabina into your school, community or neighborhood.
- Listen and watch Rukhsana Kahn read Big Red Lollipop here.