Maybe a lot of this is prompting a big ‘ol “DUH” from a lot of you, but honestly, it is not so obvious a conclusion. Stories about minorities are often understood to be less commercially successful. I had to comb through the list of popular middle-grade books on Goodreads in order to pick out the few that featured diverse characters. Looking at the front covers, I noticed a troubling trend: many seemed to be trying to hide the ethnicity of the character by drawing them as silhouettes or by placing them less prominently in comparison to any white characters on the cover. I was delighted to see that “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” by Kelly Barnhill, “Ghosts” by Raina Telgemeir, and “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia all prominently featured their characters in full color. “Aru Shah and the End of Time” joins these books in celebrating the beauty of diverse characters on the front cover, and not attempting to hide anything from readers. This proud representation is part of the reason I feel so much optimism that this book is making its way to young readers’ shelves. Kids who look different should not have be hidden.
Hesitation to write a story centered around a minority character comes partly from the worry that it won’t be “relatable” to a majority of potential readers. And there’s the rub. What aspects of a character make them “relatable”? Does it really have to be their race or ethnic background? Thus far, the fantasy genre has pulled from faerie folklore, European fairy tales and mythologies, and the Bible. With the repetitive tropes often complained about within the fantasy genre, new cultures should be a breath of fresh air. Characters from different cultures introduce story elements and themes that readers may not have encountered before. The hesitation regarding relatability still holds, because different cultural backgrounds are still perceived to be a large differing factor between otherwise similar people. The world of fiction has been reluctant to accept that a child like Aru deserves to be featured in the center of their own storyline and for that story to get the same attention as similar stories about non-marginalized characters. That’s why I almost cried after reading “Aru Shah and the End of Time”. Roshani Chokshi placed an Indian, Gujarati seventh-grade girl, attending a mostly-white school in Atlanta, at the center of her own fantastical, demon-battling storyline, and made her just as deserving of the spotlight as Percy Jackson.
Aru Shah is a girl whose whose life circumstances are basically my own--Indian, Hindu, Gujarati, American, and a [former] inmate of a mostly-white middle school in the Atlanta area--and she is put on the same playing field as the likes of Percy Jackson. That is a triumph that makes my heart swell. I think of the long-term effects of a story like this, and that’s what prompts the tears. Kids in my generation marveled at the "Percy Jackson" series. We learned and laughed about Greek mythology through these stories and discovered a new way to interact with ancient mythologies outside of a history classroom. It was an excellent first step toward educating the young generations about the breadth of ancient mythologies that had such an impact on art, culture, and literature still in existence today. I can confidently say that I know such much more about Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology through Rick Riordan’s stories that I would ever have learned and retained in a history classroom.
As I continue, I am not at all trying to downplay "Percy Jackson", but just to uplift the "Pandava" series. Greek mythologies live in the history books and almost nowhere else. It is not a large part of any people’s religious beliefs. Therefore, learning about Greek mythology is an excellent history lesson, but not necessarily an important anthropological lesson. There’s where learning about Hindu mythology differs—the Hindu religion is still practiced, and learning about it is a way to understand the culture of a large population of people (despite the truth that Hindu culture has many, many variations). American pop culture representations of Hindu Indians are often problematic, depicting stereotypes (see: any Indian nerd character), caricatures (see: Apu from The Simpsons), or exotic falsehoods (see: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom...or, don’t see it, preferably). Learning about a people’s culture is a key way for an individual to see the world through their eyes, which is an important step toward seeing and treating them as a fellow human—an important step toward inclusivity.
This is precisely the experience “Aru Shah and the End of Time” provides to readers. Chokshi writes to the difficulty of fitting in at a school where your classmates only notice how you differ and not how you belong. At the same time, she is writing about a girl who discovers a new world, new powers, and a new legacy—the same kind of exciting storyline that attracted readers to the Percy Jackson books. If readers embrace this book and the forthcoming Rick Riordan Presents books, I can’t wait to see how young people’s understanding of their minority classmates will evolve. I sincerely hope the “that’s so weird” mentality toward foreign cultures will begin to dissolve. Even more, I hope this is not wishful thinking. I hope this is something real.
Thank you to everyone who gave such helpful feedback while I was drafting this. I really appreciate you spending your time to help me out.
Thanks to my friend Saloni Desai for being a great conversation partner on this topic, and basically helping me formulate some of these thoughts, and for coming with me to Roshani Chokshi’s book signing event.
Thanks to Roshani Chokshi for signing my book and for making me feel seen. You have such a warm, welcoming personality, and I’m so glad to have met you.
Buy the book here! You don’t have to be a middle-grade reader to appreciate representation. If you don’t want it for yourself, please help spread the word to middle-grade audiences you might be in contact with.