Always Anjali celebrates individuality

When the book was first published in 2018, author Sheetal Sheth set out to create a South Asian girl-hero in a book that promotes tolerance and empathy and celebrates our differences in ways we don’t see often. Always Anjali is a personal and timeless picture book with a positive message encouraging readers to appreciate what makes us special and honors our different identities.

Anjali, a young Indian American girl, is often teased for her name. When Anjali can’t find a license plate with her name on it, she asks her parents to change her name to a more “common” one. After her parents refuse, Anjali delves into her identity beyond her name and realizes that being unique is fabulous! 

In an exclusive interview with Kaashvi Mittal of India Currents, actress, advocate, and author Sheetal Sheth talks about the experience of feeling othered and the journey toward embracing yourself. 

Kaashvi Mittal: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you decided to become a writer? 

Sheetal Sheth: I feel like I’m a storyteller in many different ways, and I’ve been doing it for decades now, whether it be as an actress or producer, or advocate. I’ve worked with kids my whole life since I was a child myself, so writing children’s books was always something I wanted to do. But, it became a priority and, to me, an emergency when I started to have my own kids and I realized that we hadn’t progressed as much as I thought we should have since I was a kid. And, I was not going to have my kids feel like they didn’t see themselves as the hero stories as they grew up.

KM: Your book “Always Anjali” has been widely acclaimed for celebrating diversity. What inspired you to write this book, and what impact do you hope it will have on readers? 

SS: I think the diversity and having a South Asian at the center of a book series is exciting, but if you don’t have a book that has the right narrative, it won’t matter. So for me, the narrative of owning who you are, where you come from, and celebrating it in a world that’s telling you to be everyone else and to “fit in” is something that I think resonates with everyone not even just kids, but I think adults struggle with it as well.

I hope when kids read it with their families, they’re reminded that they’re perfect the way they are, and they don’t need to change any part of themselves whether it be their name, their clothes, their background, their sexuality, whatever it is that they feel insecure about for whatever reason. I wanted to flip the narrative and assure them that that’s what makes them awesome. 

KM: I know that you also have a follow-up to “Always Anjali” called “Bravo Anjali.” In writing about the experiences of South Asians, how do you ensure that you are giving an accurate representation of this community, and have there been any challenges in doing so? 

SS: I feel like I know the community very well. I have been a very active community builder since I was a child. I’m a first-generation Indian American and grew up extremely connected to who I am. I’ve been working in this space for a very long time. Now, that being said, we are not a monolith and we all have our own points of view and experiences within the community and outside the community, so you can only tell the stories that are meaningful and authentic to yourself, which is why you need more stories and more perspectives and more points of view. But, I always speak from the heart and all of my books are realistic fiction, meaning they are all based on real-life stories, so there’s just truth and heart in all of them. And, I think that comes through. 

KM: I wanted to know a little bit about your process for writing. When you have an idea, how do you follow through with it? 

SS: You just have to write. I find the very first draft to be the hardest part of writing, and I am terrible at it. Although I don’t know many authors who disagree with me. I usually have an idea and I do a stream of consciousness writing and it just depends on the kind of book it is – what the style, the tone is.

Sometimes I outline and sometimes I don’t. One of my books “Making Happy” came to me in a dream, and I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t stop writing. And, then looked at it the next morning and I was like, “Oh, this is a book.” And, then you start refining. For me, the editing and the revising process is much more enjoyable, but getting words on paper is really hard. But, once I get that, I can get into it and really feel like I can shape the story the way I want. 

KM: And focusing a little bit more on the characters of the story, your characters are acclaimed for being relatable. How do you approach character development? 

SS: What I have going for me is that I am an actor and it is the work I do. I’ve been doing it for decades, so creating characters is kind of my bread and butter. And, I feel like I do it whether it be as an actor, producer, and now as a writer. I find it to be really fun and there are lots of exercises I go through to figure these things out. As an actor, it’s kind of going to the writer and figuring out the subtext and all of the little clues that the writer has put in there. So, it’s really fun to be on the other side. 

KM: As an actress, aside from what you just mentioned, how does your experience in acting influence your writing and vice versa? 

SS: They go hand-in-hand. Part of my process, especially because I write children’s books and they are meant to be read out loud, when I’m writing, I read them out loud. And, there’s a rhythm you can feel if you’re getting or not and that really helps in the editing process. I also try them out. I have a focus group in my home. They have a lot of friends, so I’m always testing out my books and I can tell immediately if they are not working, not landing, and if they’re bored or if their eyes glaze over. And then I’m like “Okay, I got to look at those parts again.” There’s no better honest audience than kids. 

KM: Along with writing, you mentioned that you are also an advocate for social justice. Do you incorporate values from your activism into your work? What part, if any, do you see for writers in promoting social change? 

SS: I’m not a fan of overly didactic texts or books. I think some people like that and that’s great and that’s why you have to have choices. But, for me, the most important thing is to write something that’s accessible and entertaining. And, all the other stuff is layered in. There’s no way I can disassociate from my heart and everything I believe in, and the stories that I tell are stories that I don’t think have been told before and I want out there because I am hoping that they will impact and open people’s hearts and minds.

I’m always like I can’t believe we are arguing about something so simple. So, I don’t think my thoughts on the world are so revolutionary because they seem just human and basic ways of treating each other. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

So, for me, it’s really important to get to kids early while they are forming who they are. And, they say the first 7 years are the most important years of our kids’ lives, so I find it to be a real privilege to create content for kids because I think we are getting them right when it matters most. And, I don’t think kids are too young to talk about anything, obviously in age-appropriate ways and language. But, I think we are failing our kids in many ways and underestimating them, so I really like to meet them at their level and give them something to aspire to in the texts. 

KM: Besides “Always Anjali,” what other projects are you working on, or what can readers expect from you in the future? 

SS: I have a new book called “Making Happy” that came out a few months ago. It’s about mental health, specifically geared towards kids. I think our kids are struggling more than ever and it’s all about how you make happy when it feels like your world is spinning, or not going the way you want it to, or scary things are going on. And I have a new book that was actually just announced with Penguin Randomhouse called “Rashi’s Rakhis” and it’ll be out next summer. That book is really about reframing a very well-known popular festival named Raksha Bandhan which many people know. We grew up with it.

I’ve always had a lot of problems with it as well as other cultural traditions because I feel like they are constructed in patriarchy. I have two girls and I’m always like “Well, what they can’t participate?” and have things reciprocated to them. For me, it’s always been like having each other’s backs and protecting each other. So I wrote a book about it because I want to give kids and families the tools and language to be like you know what we need to reboot sometimes.

There’s a lot of stuff out there that doesn’t make sense. So it’s okay to celebrate in a way that is aligned with your values. If that means changing it and including girls (which by the way I think is the right thing to do) then do it! 

KM: Lastly, just to wrap up the interview, what do you hope that readers will learn from this book and why should readers read it? 

SS: The Anjali series itself is the very first illustrated book series that has a South Asian at the center of it. That in itself is very exciting. There’s an opportunity for us to then kind of keep telling more stories in different ways. I feel like the Anjali series should be in everybody’s library – home library, school library, libraries in your town. I really hope that it’s shared as much as it continues to be shared.

I’m really moved by how much people are excited about it and how much people love it. I hear stories from parents all the time about how they found the book under their kid’s pillow or how the book allowed for a conversation they never had before. They told them a story about what was happening at school that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t read the book, so that’s the special sauce that you want and it gives me pure joy. 

Kaashvi Mittal is a rising sophomore at Saint Francis High School. Her interests include computer science, AI, and writing!