Today, we live in a warzone – a polarised society full of racism, bigotry, bullying, body shaming and criticising people how they look and what they believe in, resulting in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. We see reports of drugs misuse, knives and extreme self-harm in schools. This is why 1 in 8 (12.8%) have at least one mental disorder in the UK. I am a concerned father of four young children and researcher of mental health and emotional well-being of young people, I want to protect, educate, help and support my children through writing, yes it seems very simple but just reading and writing helped me focus, protect, educate and encouraged myself through very tough and challenging times.
Through creative writing, we want to create more tolerant, aware and anti-racist classrooms and society for young people. Through reading diverse books children can learn about “other” people’s names, cultures, traditions and family values. Children accept people from “other” cultures, genders, colour and religion are the same or similar to them and at the same time they are different individuals.
We believe when children see their writing, names and pictures in a book it gives them a huge boost in confidence and self-belief. We want to give them “I can do anything” attitude right from the start which, we hope, they will carry all their lives. Most people don’t try or explore new ideas because of their self-doubt and lack of confidence but when these children accomplish something at a young age, they will not hesitate to try new ideas and follow their dreams.
When I speak to young people from BAME children their main concern is their identity – they try to figure out if they are from the countries of their parents or the country they were born in or both, they try to fit in the culture of their parents and the country they are born and brought up in. They are British when they in the countries of their parents and they are from Asian, African, South-American background when they are in British society. We figured if we help children from diverse backgrounds write and publish their books, they will identify themselves as writers and authors leaving behind all the confusing identities.
We all need a medium for expressing our feelings and emotions and writing is a great way to express what and how we feel. Writing is not only a great skill and tool for children but the best medium to express their feelings, emotions, perspective and experiences with others. To tackle mental health issues, children need to know how they feel, why and who is making them feel that way and seek help and support.
Those children who are in schools today will join the real world in 2030-2035 and no one knows how that world will look like, what the jobs will be, and where and who they will be living with. This is why we need to raise our children more tolerant and acceptable but at the same time train them to be who they are and live with their own identity.
The first book in this project was “Let’s explore Africa the continent” written by eight children. I taught those children how to write through simple guidelines but give them the freedom to write what they found interesting in one country those chose in Africa. Through this exercise children learnt that every black person is not the same, they don’t come from the same country, religion and tradition. Food, culture, religion, beliefs and customs vary in different countries in Africa, we should not judge people by the skin of their culture, giving the idea of diversity to children. These children who wrote this book and those who read it will be more open-minded, tolerant and aware of different cultures, genders and religions, wiping the root causes of stereotypical behaviour, racisms and bigotry – which is ignorance.
We are now writing about “The Global Pandemic” and want to document the whole Coronavirus, Covid-19 from the eyes of children – as what they feel about it, what did they do, they missed the school and friends and whatever they did or missed during these strange times. This activity will make children aware of their feelings and emotions, what they like or dislike, what they missed or how they coped with a difficult time. Our main goal is to connect children with their parents when children write about their feelings, emotions and experiences their parents will be more aware and familiar with their children. This way we can strengthen the primary support network (family) for children if/when they need help and support.
Reading and writing diverse books encourages empathy and cultural understanding but when children see names and characters similar to them, their colour, gender or culture encourages them to be themselves excluding the inferiority complexes, they believe they can be in books, movies, videos and it gives them “I can do it” attitude. I always had to search and buy books for my children so they can see themselves in it as we could not find any in libraries. We went a step further and started writing about subjects important to us such as being creative, open-minded, tolerant and expressing their feelings and emotions for better emotional stability and being resilient to mental health issues. My son Nasir, seven years old, documented these qualities and called it superpowers, which we then illustrated and published it through a self-publishing company. “The boy with Four Super Powers” is a children’s book about everyday habits like kindness, cleanliness being tidy, non-judgmental etc presented as superpowers to make fancier and more desirable.
Because of my humour, height, body and skin colour I always being asked/told I don’t look like Pakistani, I don’t look like a Muslim or I don’t look like Asians because we don’t cross-cultural boundaries, we don’t know about the good about different cultures, religions, beliefs etc, the only time we see “other” people when they are in news for negative reasons (always) and we create an image about “other” people. This is why we have arguments/fights between vegan and non-vegan, motorists and anti-motorists, religious and non-religious people, and between racist and anti-racist people. We thought we can create an accepting mindset in children from a young age so they don’t spend all their lives in ignorance, fighting and resisting someone or something they only have seen on TV or news for 30 seconds.
We want to empower children from marginalised and minority groups to write about their experiences, perspectives and imagination and represent themselves in children’s books. I believe representation without empowerment is a shallow representation and it doesn’t solve the problems we have in society. Since the article in Guardian “Only 1% of children’s books have BAME main characters – UK study” every author, illustrator and publisher includes characters and names from BAME backgrounds calling it diversity and representation which is very important and necessary today but we are leaving behind BAME authors to publish their experiences, lifestyle, family orientation and how they see the world.
Through our writing project, we hope to create more diverse, culturally aware, tolerant and anti-racist classrooms and at the same time, children who write and publish their books will have high self-esteem, more confident and have a sense of achievement. Nasir, our son who is seven years old is a published “author” and apart from playing Minecraft, watching minions, he writes for 20-30 minutes about anything he likes or dislikes.
Right now, we are helping ten children in our area to become “authors” or writers and we hope with time and the right resources we can scale this project and involve as many parents and children as we can.