Inspire Your Kids With This Urdu Children's Book
As someone who was born in Pakistan and raised in the U.S. since she was 2, being bilingual came naturally to Benish Shah. Outside, in school, and among friends, the world came alive in English. But inside her family’s Dallas home and when among a close-knit group of cousins, aunts, and uncles in and outside Texas, life was experienced in Urdu.
“My parents enforced a strict ‘no English at home’ rule,” Shah says. “As kids, it drove us crazy. As adults, we came to appreciate it.”
Going to law school in Georgia and working in marketing, media, and startups in New York, San Francisco, and Dallas, Shah came to meet other South Asian Americans like herself. She realized her experience was at once common and unique. Language skills varied among friends and coworkers, as did their connection to heritage.
But what was shared were the many misperceptions regardless of upbringing. Some people would assume that because Shah was an immigrant, she needed help with her English — far from the truth. On the other hand, some Pakistani Americans thought she didn’t know her family’s mother tongue, even though she could effortlessly speak and understand it, if not read and write. As an adult, she took pride in her language skills and further honed them by participating in cultural and professional associations and programs.
One experience still sticks out in her mind. Shah was at a dinner in New York where she met a professor who made a startling commentary on the Urdu language.
“She was white and fluent in Urdu,” Shah says. “And she asked me how it felt to be illiterate in my own language. I remember thinking, ‘Why does this person feel like she has ownership over my identity like that?’”
It was a defining moment she thought of again as her sister-in-law and sister were both expecting kids in recent years.
“I didn’t want my nieces to ever feel that way. I wanted them to have the resources to learn and own the Urdu language and be proud of it,” Shah remembers thinking. She also wanted them to have a chance to learn the Urdu language via the same kind of high-quality, kid-friendly illustrated books that have long been available in English and are increasingly sold in Spanish and other languages.
That’s how the English Meets Urdu series was born. A colorful set of three books was released this year, authored by Shah, and illustrated by her sister-in-law, Maryam Ishtiaq. The hardcover books are meant for kids up to 5 years old and U.S.-born to parents of Urdu-speaking South Asian heritage.
“Our debut book series for children is a set of board books that make it easy for parents to teach their children Urdu words without needing to know the Urdu alphabet…. not all immigrant and first/second generation parents read Urdu script but they want to teach their children to speak Urdu (and maybe learn something themselves in the process),” according to the website for the series, which is published by Anchor and Oak.
Elizey Eats uses pictures and transliterated Urdu to teach kids about the words for fruits and vegetables. Sarina Sees covers dogs, cats, monkeys, and other animals. Kai Colors, named after a friend’s son, is about the colors of the rainbow.
The themes are both appropriate for kids but also useful for adults, Shah says.
“These are three areas where we sometimes, as Urdu-speaking adults, even forget what the Urdu or English words are,” she says, giving a nod to the prolific use of English in everyday Urdu conversation, especially in the U.S.
The books, which sold out on their first run and are now on additional prints, come at a time when writers of color are increasingly releasing children’s literature that is tailored toward their communities. At the same time, those books remain in the minority.
Kids’ books by people of color grew by 3% in 2020 and now represent nearly 27% of titles, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center. When it comes to characters in books, representation of people of color grew more slowly last year — by 1% — with about 30% of kids’ books representing subjects or characters that were not solely white.
Shah and Ishtiaq hope to play a small but significant role in changing that data for the better.
“When we started, we knew there was this need in the market,” Shah says. “It kept coming up with my friends, my siblings, and my siblings’ friends that we needed these teaching tools in Urdu. Now we’ve just finished concepting our next two books on Urdu for kids.”
Shah also believes the titles can give kids of South Asian parents more resources to adapt to bicultural identities than she did as a child.
“When you’re an immigrant like I was or like many friends my age, you spent a lot of your life trying so hard to assimilate,” Shah says. “In this new generation, things can be different. It’s more common to be proud of speaking a second language and maybe even a third, depending on where your parents are from or where you grew up. We hope these books can not only teach kids words but also instill pride.