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(How) Can we read? An interview with Shelly Anand
I love my body because
it takes me where I want to go.
It moves in and out of playgrounds,
Have you ever loved a book at “hello?” Five words in, just completely and totally gone for this fabulous book and whatever it contains?
Shelly Anand has only written two titles — Laxmi’s Mooch, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali, and *I Love My Body Because, co-authored with Nomi Ellenson and illustrated by Erika Rodriguez Medina — but the minute I opened both of them, I had a visceral, physical reaction, heart swelling, tears surging to my eyes.
Perhaps it’s because one of my daughters has a bit of a unibrow, and last year on the playground, when some other kids pointed it out to her, she became aware of it for the first time.
My reaction was, So what? You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on. You’re perfect exactly as you are.
But I’m her mother. And I am also a human being — a female one — who has lived 40 years in this messed-up country full of diet culture and obsession with appearance (both so toxic they show up absolutely everywhere and effect everyone), so I get it.
Enter Laxmi’s Mooch. From the first moment we read it — when we got to the second page, where a friend points out Laxmi’s “little mustache” — I felt my child’s entire body, her whole being, lean toward this book in recognition.
That Anand’s astounding, gorgeous story about accepting and loving one’s body (and facial hair) just as it is only got better from there — so good, in fact, that I want to scream it from the rooftops — is a testament to her phenomenal talent.
Here’s a lightly-edited biography, written by Anand, from her website:
I was born and (mostly) raised in Georgia by immigrant parents from India. I am a civil and human rights attorney fighting for immigrants and workers from marginalized communities. I live with my husband and two super kewt, super badmaash kids, who don’t put up with any bakwaas. No pets because my husband and son are allergic to everything.
My debut children’s book, Laxmi’s Mooch, is inspired by my own experiences growing up and having a mooch that other kids noticed. I hope kids (and adults) reading the book can celebrate their mooches and body hair! My second picture book, I Love My Body Because, is co-authored with photographer and body awareness artist, Nomi Ellenson. With the book, we hope to counter negative messages children receive about their bodies and fat phobia and start kids on a journey of self love.
As an adult reader, do you have authors whose books you buy no matter what? The minute they become available for pre-order, you’ve purchased them, doesn’t even matter what they’re about?
Shelly Anand is now that children’s author for me. I hope she writes many more books; I’ll buy every one of them, sight unseen.
I was so happy when she agreed to be interviewed, and even more amazed by her thoughtful responses to my questions. Here they are.
In addition to your work as a children’s book author, you're also a civil and human rights attorney — how did you make that leap to doing both? What called you to the work of writing picture books?
I started exploring children’s literature when I became a mother. I wanted to find books that our biracial family could relate to.
I never really thought about writing picture books until I wrote the first draft of Laxmi’s Mooch. I was on maternity leave with my second child, Uma, and my friend Sonya — a fellow Diaspora Desi raising kids in the South — told me that her six-year-old daughter Sasha had come home upset after a girl at school teased her about her mustache. “Wow, that young?” I was surprised; not because the teasing happened, but because of their age. “What am I going to do?” Sonya wondered. “Take her to get it waxed or threaded? She’s only in kindergarten!” My mind flashed to the beginning of my hair removal journey — years of threading, waxing, bleaching. Not just my mooch, but also my arm hair and, of course, my legs. I looked down at Uma and at her little mooch as she slept peacefully in my arms and made a decision right there and then. We have to make it different for them.
You’ve produced two outstanding picture books about bodies: the aforementioned Laxmi's Mooch (2021) and I Love My Body Because (2022). Both are beautiful conversation starters for not only seeing and accepting oneself but also comparing and contrasting physical attributes, identities, and beliefs with compassion and understanding.
Why did you write these books, and why are these topics important to address with children? (An important follow-up question to this, offered by one of my subscribers: Laxmi’s Mooch was based off your own childhood experience. As an adult, do you still have your mooch?)
For me, as a mother, I really wanted to make sure my kids had respect and appreciation for all people and all bodies, no matter the size, shape, color, or ability, as well as a love of their own bodies.
In her book, Hunger, Roxane Gay talks about how children would point at her and make comments about her being fat. Children learn at such a young age to associate the word fat as something negative and with the word comes a slew of connotations and assumptions. Nomi, my co-author, and I wrote I Love My Body Because to counter those connotations and assumptions. Sonya Renee Taylor, in her book The Body is Not an Apology, talks about how children have this joy and sense of wonder about their bodies that we lose as adults. So the book is about capturing that joy and wonder and getting kids and the adults who read to them excited about all the amazing things our bodies can do as well as the diversity of bodies that exist in this world.
The process of self-love and self-acceptance is something new for me. It’s a journey I started on after becoming a mother — wanting something different for myself and my children after being raised in a culture and society that is so fatphobic and ideals of beauty center on whiteness, thinness, and being hairless. Writing both of my books was such a wonderfully healing process and whenever my inner critique tries to come out to make me feel bad about my body, I’m grateful to have these words and images to go back to. I hope others, young and old, feel the same.
And to answer your question, I am very proud to have and show off my mooch as an adult. #LetYourMoochShine!
During this year's award season, multiple children’s titles — both picture books and middle-grade novels — won both the oldest, best-known awards and some of the newer, identity-based ones. (Watercress garnered the Caldecott Medal for Jason Chin, a Newberry Honor for Andrea Wang, and won the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Associate picture book award; Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Associate and the Stonewall Young Adult Literature prize.)
These strides toward greater diversity and inclusivity in children’s publishing are so necessary and heartening, and there is still much work to be done. Are there any trends in books about the South Asian American experience that give you hope? What would you like to see in the future?
I am happy to see more and more titles by South Asian authors covering topics that are important to us. I love that there are multiple titles coming out focusing on Diwali and Eid – even a couple of years ago when I first started writing and publishing children’s books, it felt like there could only be one or two books out on a topic or a holiday specific to our heritage or religion while there are numerous titles on Christmas or Easter. I am really excited for my friend Rakhee Mirchandani’s book My Diwali Light, which is coming out just in time for the holiday this fall.
I am also really thrilled that my children are growing up in a moment where they can learn about South Asian history in popular media, particular stories that are personal to our family. When Ms. Marvel came out, I got texts from so many fellow South Asian parents whose families endured the trauma of Partition. Both of my parents were refugees from the Partition of India and Pakistan, and both of my parents were born in refugee camps. Having a show that my kids are excited about and want to watch makes teaching our family history all the more meaningful. I’m really looking forward to reading The Moon from Dehradun: A Partition Story by Shirin Shamsi with my kids and giving it to other South Asian families.
This is a question I ask everyone: what are a few titles, recent or otherwise, that have stood out to you as being so excellent you wish they were on the shelf in every home and classroom?
Right now my daughter really loves The Queen of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, because she too just started kindergarten.
I also am really loving Sugar in Milk by Thirty Umigar, which tells the story of how the Parsis came to India, fleeing Persia, and how they were welcomed into the community, despite an Indian King’s initial hesitation that there was not enough room for this community of refugees. It’s a story that I think about and share a great deal when thinking about the right and need we have as human beings to migrate and move around the world, and how our communities, and government, should welcome immigrants and migrants with open arms just as this Indian king did.
My son and I have been reading Roshani Chokhsi’s Aru Shah series, about a young Indian American girl who is the reincarnation of Arjun, one of the five Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata, a significant piece of Hindu mythology. It’s a fun way for my son to learn and be curious about this important piece of literature in our religion. I try to keep my website updated with some of my favorite picture books and middle grade/young adult books (as well as romance novels for parents!)
[Ed: I can’t speak for her romance selections but her choices for children are fantastic — you can’t go wrong with any book on that page!]
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?
I have a publication scheduled for summer 2024 titled In This Family, a tribute to our Desi Midwestern/Punjabi Irish family. I can’t wait to share this new picture book about multicultural families, which Meenal Patel will illustrate.
And I can’t wait to read it. Anand’s books not only address incredibly important topics and fill a gap in representative literature, they are excellent, affirming stories that I recommend everyone read.
Thank you so very much to Anand for taking the time to grant me this considerate interview. For more information about her work, visit her website. And be sure to seek out her books at your local library and bookstore (or order them online). They are beautiful — I’d even say necessary — additions to any library, in homes, classrooms, libraries, and beyond.