“Always Anjali” Author Sheetal Sheth Brings Protagonist Diversity to Children’s Literature
Sheetal Sheth is an actress, activist, and the author of Always Anjali, a children’s book about a young Indian-American girl named Anjali who is bullied by other kids for being different, due in part to her unusual name. Always Anjali follows Anjali’s personal journey toward making peace with her unique identity; detailing the struggles and obstacles that Anjali is able to overcome in order to discover the power of celebrating her authentic self. In Sheth’s own words, “It’s really about a girl who has to embrace that being an individual is her superpower.”
Sheth’s personal narrative bears notable similarities to that of her book’s fictional protagonist. In the 1990s, Sheth embarked upon an acting career after graduating with honors from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. At the time, there was little South Asian representation in Hollywood and racial prejudice often appeared to be an under-the-radar fixture of the industry.
Sheth recalls, “I was once told, ‘You are the number one choice for this part, but [the casting directors] are uncomfortable with someone with your name playing this part.'” Unfortunately, this was far from an isolated incident. Sheth remembers agents asking her on many occasions “which of her names she was going to change”.
Despite these obstacles, Sheetal Sheth made her mark on the film industry with a breakout role as Nina the indie hit ABCD. Sheth’s portrayal of the rebellious Indian-American daughter struck a chord with a generation of South Asian immigrant children yearning to break away from tradition. Acting roles in several independent and Hollywood films followed.
Sheth began to contemplate a career as an author when she was pregnant with her eldest daughter. While attempting to cultivate a library of diverse and inclusive literature for her first child, she realized just how difficult it was to find popular children’s books with a diverse set of protagonists.
Sheth says, “So I really started getting fired up, because […] there wasn’t a lot, and there certainly wasn’t much Indian representation. Or if there was, they were books about an extraordinary event or a person or a holiday — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we need books that make us feel like we’re a normal part of the conversation. Black, latino and native authors combined wrote only 7 percent of the new children’s books published in 2017. That’s terrible! It’s absolutely horrendous. So I thought, let me take a crack at it.”
The outcome of her work, Always Anjali, represents the importance of telling the story of an everyday Indian-American girl, but that’s not its only powerful statement. Sheth also took the road less traveled in her decision to not shy away from tough and controversial topics like bullying and racism. As a book written for a 3 to 10-year-old audience, Sheth knew that the inclusion of these topics in Always Anjali would not be universally popular, but it was a choice that Sheth made with intention.
Sheth describes a scene in Always Anjali in which a boy who is bullying Anjali chants, “Peanut butter An-Jelly with a dot on top”. Referencing the “dot”, Sheth says, “is a little bit of a [racial] slur, so some parents and educators don’t even want to touch that. They’re like, ‘I don’t want to give them a word they might not know.’
She continues, “I’m just like, ‘What a luxury it is for you where you don’t have to worry about your child being spoken to this way. Isn’t it your responsibility to teach your child empathy and teach them what other kids might go through just because of the color of their skin?'”
Just a few months after the release of her first book, Sheth is already dedicated to making Always Anjali into the first in a series, working in collaboration with her publisher, Bharat Babies, and her illustrator, Jessica Blank.
We talked to Sheetal Sheth to find out more about the incredible woman behind the many inspiring characters she brings to life, both on screen and off.
Name: Sheetal Sheth
Job Title: Author/Actress
Current home base: Between NY and LA
Originally from: New Jersey
Superpower: My intuition
One thing on your bucket list: Space travel
A woman in history you admire & why:
Any woman who had the courage to speak her truth. You see how hard it is even in these times. I have such deep admiration for so many before us.
A current woman you admire & why:
Ruth Bader Ginsberg. For more reasons than we have space, but mostly for her heart and grit. And for this quote: “When do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the court?” And she answered, “When there are nine.”
Quote/piece of advice that you live by:
‘”The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'” (Jack Kerouac)
What are you doing to make history today?
Creating a new normal narrative that represents the world as we actually live it.
What is one thing you have accomplished that you are most proud of?
I am thrilled with the honest conversations that are opening up about race and bullying around this book. It’s vital for children to be seen, heard, and ready to handle anything that comes their way.
What is one project you are currently working on that you are most excited about?
This Anjali series of books!
What, in your opinion, is one of the biggest challenges facing your industry today?
Industry leaders, gatekeepers, reviewers, bookstores, etc that reflect the narratives being written. We need inclusion and representation in not just the writing, but in every part of the industry so every book gets a fair shake.
What is a trend in your industry that you foresee becoming popular in the future?
Women and people of color leading the charge. Having seats at the table. It needs to be a given, never a trend.
What were you doing before becoming an author? Do you or have you worked in other industries?
I am a full time actress and producer. I am passionate about telling stories. And love the challenge of crossing and connecting in other mediums.
What is one piece of advice you’d like to give to other founders & change-makers?
Trust your gut. Know your worth.
Are there any great resources you have discovered that have been helpful in your success, either personally or professionally?
Staying healthy in mind and body is so important to me- so whatever it is that does that for you, is a MUST.
Fun fact about yourself:
I love extreme sports!
“Always Anjali” by Sheetal Sheth is available for purchase on Amazon