An Anthem to the “And”
September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments
It has taken me a lot of growing up to realize how quickly the world demands that we put labels on ourselves, and how tempting it then becomes as parents to fit our own children into the same tidy little boxes. Even the questions we routinely ask of our children and their peers—Is she shy? Is he artistic? Is she kind?—assume two fixed outcomes: yes or no. Sides are chosen, identities are constructed; and then, inevitably, confusion sets in when the data points don’t consistently match up.
A few years out of college, when I was working in advertising, I attended a retreat designed around improving problem-solving skills. As part of it, we had to take the Myers-Brigg personality test. What was revolutionary to me wasn’t that I received at the end a set of letters to represent my dominant personality traits, but that each of those letters was plotted on a spectrum. I expected, for example, that I would score as extroverted (E)—I’ve always been social, albeit preferring intimate groups—but what surprised me was that I was quite close to the midway mark between extroverted (E) and introverted (I). This seems incredibly obvious to me now, but I had never previously considered that someone could be both things at the same time. That I could derive equal energy from social interactions and from being by myself. That I didn’t have to choose. That my identity might run on a spectrum, rather than conforming to a binary system.
When we fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as one way or another, it’s not only limiting, it’s fundamentally inaccurate. We, all of us, are walking contradictions. It’s what makes us interesting. It’s what makes us human. Maybe we get nervous walking into a new classroom, but we can belt out a solo on stage. Maybe we can’t draw the likeness of anything, but we love moving paint around on canvas. Maybe we have a hard time sharing crayons at school, but we’ll sit and read to our baby sister at home when she’s sad. What if there was a way to encourage our children to take these “but”s and turn them into an “and”s? What if instead of contradicting one another, they are just two true things?
When I first opened Divya Srinivasan’s triumphant new picture book, What I Am (Ages 3-7), I thought it was going to be a book about a Brown girl responding to a microaggression that’s all too familiar to those whose non-whiteness doesn’t fit the idea of American that some people insist on holding onto, even though all evidence points to the contrary. It’s the “What are you?” question.
And it is a book about that. A beautiful, validating mirror for an Indian American reader.
AND it’s something more. Because, as our young narrator reflects on this question, she realizes that she is a whole lot more than her race or her ethnic heritage. And that many of these things might seem like contradictions—only they aren’t. They’re just her.
What this book is—and why I hope every child gets a chance to read it—is a testament to the complexities, to the nuance, within each and every one of us. It’s a kind of roadmap to how we might think about our own identities—and how we might express them to a world bent on incessantly inquiring.
We never see the person that poses the question to the protagonist of What I Am. In fact, the question shows up as a speech balloon on the title page itself, intentionally distancing it from the confident anthem that follows—the real story, so to speak. We’re told on the title page: “I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t answer, and they left. But I kept thinking about it.”
So, what is she? Well, for starters: “I am a girl. I am a human. I am a human animal.” We see her hanging upside-down, monkey style, from a tree branch.
She’s also a daughter, a granddaughter, and “an Amma to my guys.” I think this is the moment I knew I was going to love this book. My daughter might be a Mommy to her stuffed sheep (not an Amma), but she similarly refers to them as “my guys”—and always has. Among the nods to Indian culture and the Indian American experience, there are some details that will feel personal and specific to the narrator and others that will be internalized by the reader as universal.
Next, we see the girl eating pizza next to two other children. She is eating a slice loaded with mushrooms and peppers, while the others are eating pepperoni and sausage, respectively. Here, we’re reminded that sometimes our identity comes about in contrast to the choices of others: “I am a vegetarian.”
Quickly, we move into fuzzier areas. The girl’s skin tone is both “dark” and “pale” and sometimes, in summer—cue flip-flop tan marks—“I’m different colors.”
The middle of the book—and all my favorite spreads—delves into personality. At first in thinking about her tendencies, our narrator includes a “but”: “I like to look at animals, but I am nervous around animals.” She then quickly drops the “but” when bringing up seemingly contradictory elements. “I am selfish” is followed by “I am generous.” “I am mean” is followed by “I am kind.” While the language is general—perhaps an invitation for listeners to try it on for size—the illustrations hint at specific stories unfolding over play dates and mealtime.
“I am a scaredy-cat” sits beneath a picture of the girl covering her ears during a thunderstorm, while “I am brave” shows her trapping a giant bug as her mother cowers in the corner. Again, we are privy to the idea that children do not have to choose one at the expense of the other.
If you remember Srinivasan’s illustrations from Little Owl’s Night or Octopus Alone, you’ll recognize a similar playfulness here, albeit of the human kind. Our protagonist tells us she is “not mischievous,” then follows up on the opposite page with, “(most of the time).” And, to remind us that identities can sometimes be tried on for fun, she tells us, “Sometimes I am a witch!”
On and on we go—the girl dances and sings with ease for her grandparents, then freezes on stage at a school play—as we learn more about how she interacts with others, on where she falls on the great, wide, ever-shifting spectrum of identity. Only at the end does she add, “I am American. I am Indian,” her friends and family crowded around her while she prepares to blow out her birthday candles.
Perhaps most powerful are the sentiments shared on the book’s final page: “What I am is more than I can say.” When our children are asked to define themselves, they should have language at their disposal that feels right and true to them. But we must also let them know that their identities can never be contained in language alone, that there exists at their core a beautiful, fascinating, endlessly complicated mystery that is theirs to discover in their own time and on their own terms.
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