Q&A with children’s author Shirin Taherzadeh
Nal'ibali: Column 5, Term 4 (2019)
Congrats on your children’s book – Little Champions of Justice is a great title! Can you tell us a little bit about what the book is about?
Little Champions of Justice tells the stories of eight extraordinary individuals from around the world who have made it a better place. It’s a book about the courageous, the just and the wise, those who have made the ordinary extraordinary, and those whose actions have contributed to change. It’s about heroines and heroes whose stories have often been unknown, yet whose lives are an inspiration for young and old.
What inspired you to create this book?
As a mother of two young children I see the power of story books in expanding our children’s minds and hearts. Yet, despite the vast amount of children’s literature out there, there is simply not enough diversity represented, nor enough examples of courage and justice for our children to aspire to. So, together with a small group of friends, we started First Valley Books to do just that! This book is our first publication to date.
It must have been incredibly hard to choose the eight activists you wrote about from amongst so many inspiring people doing good around the world. What were your criteria?
It was definitely hard to choose! There are so many champions of justice in our world, and each of their stories is incredibly inspiring. We eventually decided to choose four women and four men representing a diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We wanted to ensure that each story highlighted a different cause for justice, such as advancing gender equality, standing up against racism, and promoting environmental sustainability.
Unlike many books about famous people, you specifically chose to focus on moments from the lives of activists when they were children themselves. What effect do you think this will have on readers young and old?
We wanted children to be able to identify with these activists; to feel like they could easily slip into their shoes and experience their world, their fears and their courage. At the same time, because the themes in these stories are universal and timeless, it’s my hope that parents will read them with their children and together be inspired to have courage to bring about change.
Although the book features the stories of inspiring people from around the world, South Africans can find their very own hero in its pages: Nhlumba Bertha Mkhize. Who was she and why were you drawn to her story?
Nhlumba Bertha Mkhize was a trailblazer and pioneer of women’s rights in South Africa. Yet the first time I came across Bertha’s name was in the footnote of an article. By chance I decided to research more about her. As I read her life story, and learnt of all the tireless sacrifices she made, I felt impelled to make her story known more widely. I keep thinking how many other Berthas exist whose names are merely footnotes in history books and articles!
Your website gives a sample of the stories, together with additional information on each activist for adults. Will this be a feature of the book too?
The book has a few interesting and fun facts about each activist. For example, Ron McNair, who was the second African American to fly to space, was the first astronaut to play the saxophone onboard a space shuttle! He also achieved fifth-degree black belt in karate! The website provides more detailed information, for those keen to learn more.
Children often only learn about inspiring people through history books. Why do you think encountering them through story books might be as - if not more - effective?
Storytelling is powerful! It captures not only the mind but also the heart. When we read a story, we enter a world where we suddenly experience the thoughts, feelings and emotions of someone else. And when this happens, and our own hearts are inspired, the impossible suddenly feels within reach and we are motivated to bring change.
Self-publishing seems to be more and more popular, as people realise that mainstream publishers aren't able or willing to take a risk on the kind of groundbreaking content people want to see on the shelves. How are you planning on approaching the process?
From the very start, First Valley Books has been working closely with a growing community of parents scattered around the world. We shared drafts and early illustrations at every stage of the process, ensuring that the book resonated with their children and was something that they would want to own. Having built this little publishing team around this community, we were then able to start working with an award-winning printer to produce the books.
What advice would you give to people who might like to follow a similar path of writing and publishing a book on their own?
Definitely go for it! Find a topic or a story that inspires you. Read up as much as you can about it, and then start writing. And then, if you can, share what you’ve written with a few potential readers to get their feedback. Their feedback can be gold dust to the writing process!
To make the book accessible to everyone, you've come up with a very unique distribution method: email! Can you tell us a little more about how people can get hold of the book - either as a hard copy or on email for free?
We’d love you to get a copy of the book! We're building up to a Kickstarter in a few weeks time where you’ll be able to buy it. In the meantime, definitely subscribe to our email list where you can already read some of the stories. Go to firstvalleybooks.com. Stay updated on when the book is out by following us on Instagram or Facebook.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.