‘Understand and respect others’: Diverse author cultivates empathy in children through storytelling

·3 min read

Editor’s Note: While some may say it was an improvement over the previous year, there was still a lot about 2021 that we’d like to forget. There were some highlights, however, and our reporters have launched a Reflections Series, in which each of them shares a story that had a positive impact on them.

2021 is about to pass. As a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, I wrote a lot of stories about minorities this year. Some of the stories about racial discrimination are regrettable, but there are also stories that give me hope. Among which I was inspired the most by Meera Bala, a minority educator and author from Markham, with a mission to write books that represent variety of backgrounds.

Bala reached out to me in April and introduced her first book, 'Palm Trees Under Snow', which is about a little girl that lived through the war in Sri Lanka and then moved to Canada to face more challenges like language barriers and bullying. Finally, she overcame the difficulties and gained strength by studying really hard.

This book is very touching. It not only allows the children of immigrant families to relate to themselves through the story, but also gives local children a chance to understand the stories behind immigrant life.

In a followup interview, Bala shared the good news that she was so encouraged by the wonderful reviews of 'Palm Trees Under Snow' that she published a second book, 'Hearts Full of Hope', in a short time.

Also from the perspective of minority children, the new book follows the lives of five kids from different countries under the pandemic.

Amazon's data shows that Meera's books have been sold to 42 countries around the world, and many students, teachers, and even front-line staff feel inspired.

Hillary Lee is a health-care professional, reading Hearts Full of Hope has brought tears to her eyes. “It is relatable on so many levels and showcases characters of diverse backgrounds, showing us how we are all interconnected in hope and love,” she said.

For many teachers like Abiramy Nagarajah, it is not easy to find a book that is relatable to every single student, but she believes that 'Hearts Full of Hope' is exactly the book that allows children to see themselves represented in this story, and it’s also a great way to explain what happened during this pandemic through the eyes of children.

Statistics from Bala’s research indicates that in 2018, only 23 per cent of children’s books featured non-white characters, with more than half of the children in Canada and US identify themselves as being of non-white ethnicity.

Growing up as a minority here in Canada, even though Bala loved reading, she had a difficult time relate to the books because the characters in the books never looked like her. Similarly, due to the lack of such multicultural books, local children cannot gain insight into the characteristics and habits of kids from immigrant families.

During the pandemic, there were many anti-Asian racism crimes happened in York Region alone, which saddened me, a local journalist with different colour and culture, very much. Because many of the accusations against Asians are untrue, much of their vilification is rooted in ignorance.

Meera and I see eye-to-eye on this issue. We both believe that the end of discrimination starts with children's education.

“Children must be educated from an early age to eliminate discrimination,” she said, encouraging racialized people to follow her example and become independent authors to make a point of view through their own stories. “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it. To see our similarities and differences represented through books will allow us to embrace each other and to live in peace and harmony.”

For more information about Meera Bala and her books, please visit: https://wordsbymeera.com/.

Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Economist & Sun

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