I have always loved reading. My Dad’s bedtime stories transported me to faraway places (I’m looking at you Britain), and faraway trees. And thanks to a persistent set of siblings, we always squeezed in “one more chapter”. Once I could read myself, I’d stay in bed on weekend mornings, discovering stories from around the world in the pages of my books. I remember books about boarding schools and circuses, rainbow fish, and the place where the forest meets the sea. What I don’t remember was ever reading books that were set in Africa. I knew nothing of the stories there. This didn’t matter to me at the time, but it does now.
My first memory of learning about Africa was rice day at school. We all ate rice to raise money for children in Africa. I also learnt a little about Africa from my family having sponsor children, and from the charity ads on TV.
I fell in love with Africa
Fast forward 20 years and I stepped off a plane in South Africa, and found a place that would become my home for over four years. This place was not the Africa I had been told about. It was a place of families, of love, of celebrations, of struggle, of many narratives, and fond moments like waiting for maize porridge to cook on Sunday mornings.
Fast forward another 15 years, and here I am, married to a Zulu man from that place in South Africa, raising two daughters with African blood and brown skin, who are every bit as Aussie as I am.
I have found myself wondering how I would help my girls navigate all that their dual identity is? How do I help them know their culture when they are growing up so far away from it? How do I help them love who they are, when they are surrounded by Barbie dolls, friends and even a mum with straight hair and white skin? What do I tell them, while they are still so young?
Celebrating their African Culture
I was very intentional about finding books, toys and even birthday cakes that represent my kids. I searched high and low for these products. I’ve found some online (there are many options if I’m happy to pay international shipping from America), but only a few in mainstream bookshops and libraries near me. This deficit planted an idea that grew into a dream, with my husband, to write a series of books about an adorable African girl growing up in Australia. To write about the things that are hard for those growing up with dual cultural heritage, like missing family overseas; and about the things that are beautiful, like speaking a second language. We wanted to write it for our own kids, so they can see themselves in the pages of a book. We wanted to write it for all kids – because seeing characters who are different to them builds empathy and normalises differences that they will come across in life.
And so my poetic husband sat down and wrote Who Am I? – the first book in the ‘Zola the Zulu girl’ series. He published it just before Christmas in 2020.
We weren’t the only ones
Turns out, we weren’t the only ones who felt this gap in the literary market. The response was phenomenal. One mum said she wished this book existed when she was growing up. Another said her daughter was so happy that Zola had hair like hers. One parent told us it should be in every preschool across Australia, and then started contacting preschools to advocate for it. It felt like Australia was ready for it, like the events of 2020 had made more parents and educators aware of the importance of filling their bookcases with books featuring diverse characters.
Today, our kids are growing up surrounded by different colours and cultures. After all, Australia is a very multicultural place, with one quarter of the Australian population born overseas (2014). Books can teach children that difference is beautiful, so they don’t make hurtful comments about another child’s skin, features or hair. (Yes, this still happens- sadly 18% of Australians have faced race-hate speech because of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion). Books can teach children that different is normal, so that they don’t expect others to look or be like them. We can each be different, and totally awesome in our own ways.
This is why we aim to get Who Am I? into every library, preschool and daycare centre across Australia. If you have a contact within a preschool or daycare, please email them and ask them to buy Who Am I? for their centre, or consider donating a copy to them. Write to your local library, and ask them to stock it. And, (of course) add it to your book collection at home. Talking about differences and appreciating different cultures will help lead our kids into a kinder world, in how they view themselves and others.
You can find out more about Who Am I? here – www.percyspoems.com.