Children’s Books: Back to School

Making Happy, Sheetal Sheth, Khoa Le (illus) (Barefoot Books, September 2020); That's Not My Name!, Anoosha Syed (Viking, July 2020) Making Happy, Sheetal Sheth, Khoa Le (illus) (Barefoot Books, September 2020); That's Not My Name!, Anoosha Syed (Viking, July 2020)

With half of the world going back to school now, two new picture books address issues that kids can encounter in the classroom. Sheetal Sheth’s Making Happy is illustrated by Khao Le. Anoosha Syed has written and illustrated That’s Not My Name.

In the latter, Syed’s main character Mirha is off to school for the first time. She’s looking forward to making new friends, playing, and learning new things. After she introduces herself in front of the class, the other kids call her Mina, Miriam, Murha, Miro, Meera, Nerha, Meha, Neha, and Mara. Mirha is surprised and confused that the other students have so much trouble with her name. When her teacher calls her Mina, she raises her hand and says, “here”.

 

Mirha didn’t want to be called Mina for the rest of the year, but she was too shy to speak up and correct her teacher. Hayden asked Mirha if he could call her Maya. He said that would be easier for everyone to say. She wanted to shout, “THAT’s NOT MY NAME!” But she didn’t. Mirha’s first day hadn’t gone how she had imagined at all.

 

After school that day she wrestles with the thought of being called a name that isn’t hers. She mentions it to her mother and they come up with a way to teach the students and teacher at school the correct way to say her name. Her mother reasons:

 

If people can remember names like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo, they can remember Mirha.

 

Syed shows through colorful illustrations the different emotions Mirha feels on her first and second days of school. That’s Not My Name is a lovely, relatable story whose colorful illustrations pick out the different emotions Mirha feels on her first and second days of school.

 

Emotions are also central to Sheetal Sheth’s Making Happy, a story about a young girl named Leila who feels sad both at school and home because her mother is undergoing cancer treatment. She doesn’t want to participate at school and stays quiet in front of her classmates and teacher. At home, she and her parents find ways to work out their feelings with pillow fights and talking late into the night. After a vivid dream in which she soars with a bird over an ocean and sings through her pain, she feels ready to engage with her classmates and teacher the next day. She raises her hand for the first time in weeks.

 

“Well … my mama is sick right now and she has to rest a lot. I was thinking I’d like to make a quilt for her.”
      “Thank you for sharing, Leila. That’s such a thoughtful idea,” Mrs. Kreisman said.
      “Could I help?” John asked shyly.
      “I’d like to help too!” Daya said.
      “How about we all help? What do you think, class?” Mrs. Kreisman asked with a smile.

 

The students work together to make Leila’s mom a quilt to keep her warm during treatment. In her author’s note, Sheetal Sheth explains that the story came to her after she went through chemotherapy when her kids were young. As Sheth intended, Make Happy can help children process something scary and uncertain like cancer and chemotherapy. Thao Le’s illustrations include vibrant colors that convey both sadness and hope.

In addition to the classroom settings, these two books include South Asian main characters that bring more diversity to English language picture books. They are a welcome addition to children’s literature.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.