Author Veera Hiranandani knows first hand the importance of readers seeing themselves in the stories they read. As a child growing up in a Hindu-Jewish household, she often found books lacked characters that shared her experiences. As challenging as this was, it also encouraged her to look at the world differently; and today, she brings the richness of her multicultural heritage to all of her stories. Her most recent book, The Night Diary (Dial)—which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick and a SLC Highly Recommended pick —is about the partition of India in 1947, and is told through the voice of a twelve-year-old girl who is half-Muslim and half-Hindu. Your tween students may not be able to relate to a mid-20th century Muslim-Hindu girl but they will certainly relate to her struggle to find her identity. The Night Diary is also a great way to engage your students with the history of India, people of other faiths, and the life of a refugee. We had the opportunity to speak recently with Veera, and here is what she had to say about her life and work and the importance of diversity in storytelling.
You mention in your bio that you also teach writing. If there was one piece of advice that you could give to aspiring writers, what would it be?
I think there’s no getting around the time-tested advice to read as much as you can and keep writing. I believe all kinds of reading and writing counts, from comic books to classics. Also, I think it’s good to experiment with both your reading and writing tastes and examine as many different perspectives as possible. If you do that over many years, you will become a better writer, a better reader, and perhaps even a better person.
Both The Night Diary and The Whole Story of Half a Girl deal with the issue of finding one’s identity. What do you hope children take away from these books in that regard?
When I was a young reader, I was always adapting myself to the experiences I saw in books. Of course, part of the magic and purpose of reading is to travel to unknown worlds, but I also wanted to read a book with a character who had a background like mine—Indian, American, Hindu, and Jewish. It was rare to see interfaith or biracial characters in books. It was also rare to see characters of color, especially in modern fiction. So of course I loved the first novels I read like Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but something was missing. I started believing there might be a reason for that—that I might not be as valued or important, that I didn’t belong. I think this is a common experience for many children of color and children with mixed backgrounds. All readers should have some experiences where they feel truly seen as a whole human being. I hope I’m contributing a piece of my specific perspective to allow more kids to see themselves or their family history in the books they read. Also, my books always have characters navigating multiple identities. I think any young reader can relate to that.
You explain that the inspiration for The Night Diary came from the experiences of your father’s family during the partition of India in 1947. Why did you decide that this particular story needed to be told at this particular time?
My guiding force, mainly, was that I felt ready to tell this story. I had always wanted to, but I was intimidated at first. Could I write a historical novel? Could I write about the partition of India and blend both my father’s experiences and other research to create a meaningful fictional story that could explain some of the history but also be relatable and engaging for modern readers? A few years ago, I finally gathered up my courage and went for it. The fact that it relates to some of the issues our present world is facing—the global refugee crisis, or some of the divisiveness that is felt in this country right now—is something I started connecting during the writing process, but not the main reason I wanted to write the story at this moment. I think that any time is right to tell a story about a piece of history; hopefully, people will respond to it and make connections.
What is your favorite thing about school visits?
It’s still miraculous to me that this story I wrote in my little attic office is out there in the world finding its way into young readers’ hands. The excitement I see when I come for a visit is always a gift I’m grateful for. Ultimately, I write for that young reader who is having some of their first deeper reading experiences and I really value their responses. I love the Q&A time the most because it never fails that I hear an unexpected question which usually ends up teaching me something new about my work and myself.
Keeping in mind that we’re a magazine for K-12 school librarians, is there anything you’d like to share that we haven’t touched on?
I think kids are hungry for complex topics and questions. They have to be handled well, but perhaps not as carefully as we often think as adults. I say that both as a writing teacher and as a parent. I notice on school visits that when I talk about identity, race, religion, accepting one’s differences, navigating multiple backgrounds, and feeling “other” for whatever reason, I do see eyes light up and questions explode. That excites me.
And lastly—on a completely personal note—since you talk about food as an excellent way to bring people together and how food has always been a way for you to connect with both sides of your family, have you come up with a recipe that brings together the tastes from both sides?
Well, I have been known to throw some cardamom (a common South Asian spice) into a sweet noodle kugel, or add samosas to a Hanukkah celebration. Both the Indian dishes I grew up eating like samosas, aloo gobi, and palak paneer, and traditional Jewish foods like matzo ball soup and kugel will always be my favorite comfort foods. They remind me of home.
You can learn more about Veera and her books at her website www.veerahiranandani.com/
SLC subscribers can click here to access School Library Connection’s review of this highly recommended book.