Actress and children’s author, Sheetal Sheth, writes about “real things in a real way.” She says that she doesn’t do abstract stories about “unicorns and dragons.” The “real things” in her children’s books include illness, death, racial differences, and conflicts between the sexes. Her characters—including an Indian American girl in Sheth’s popular Anjali series—deal with these real-life situations.
Sheth herself has had her own poignant experiences with these topics. Growing up in small-town America as a first-generation Indian immigrant, she felt uncomfortably different. She understands how important it is for children, including her own, to see book characters who are similar to themselves. “I make a point to curate books and the things that [my kids] watch so that they do see themselves. We’re watching stories of people who are us, and not us, because we want to … create empathetic kids,” she said.
As a woman in Hollywood, she has faced #MeToo situations, and therefore, understands how important it is to teach children respect between the sexes. She is also a cancer survivor. Her children were 2 and 4 when she was diagnosed, and she understands how important it is to help children cope with serious illness.
“I looked for [children’s] books about illness and death, and I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t abstract,” Sheth said. Her newest book, “Making Happy” (set to publish in the fall of 2022), is about a girl named Leila whose mother is battling illness. Leila’s family gets through these hard times by finding joy and laughter together. Sheth’s advice to anyone helping children cope with illness is: “Tell them as much as you think they can handle. I’m all for being honest, but also in an appropriate way. Tell them that you’re feeling all the same things they are, that you’re scared too, and that you’re going to go through it together.”
As a young mother coping with cancer, Sheth had her unique challenges. One was the recovery from her double mastectomy. “The hardest part was that I couldn’t hug my kids for a long period of time,” Sheth lamented. “It’s really, really difficult not to hug your children.”
She received her diagnosis in 2018, on Christmas Eve. “I was with family, and so I wasn’t really ready to talk about it—but I was in it, so I kind of had to,” she said. During the holidays, things were closed, and medical staff were out of the office, so it was hard to get answers at a time when she had so many questions. That struggle is in her past, yet always present. “I don’t think you ever really overcome cancer,” Sheth explained. “I think you live with it. Once you have cancer, it’s part of your life.”
On Racial Differences
Earlier that same year, Sheth had published her first children’s book, “Always Anjali.” Anjali struggles with how different her name is. It’s not on any of those novelty items you see in gift shops with names printed on them: like Jennifer or Joanne or Sarah. Nobody knows how to spell Anjali, and one boy makes fun of her, calling her “peanut butter ‘and jelly.'”
Anjali wants to change her name to Angie, but her parents teach her about her name’s beautiful Sanskrit origin. It means “a gift, the most precious kind, just like you,” her mother tells her—and Anjali learns to wear her name proudly. People in showbiz have also asked Sheth to change her name to something more “American,” and she has always refused.
The issue of changing names is something many children go through across the board, Sheth said. She has volunteered at children’s organizations and, she says, “I worked with kids on a regular basis who told me they didn’t fit in, or they had to change something about themselves to fit in, and that narrative is something I heard over and over and over again. And I thought, ‘Is there a way to put this into a book?'”
Anjali’s experience has resonated widely. “Always Anjali” won the 2019 Purple Dragonfly Storybook Grand Prize, voted on by teachers and librarians.
Growing up Indian American, Sheth said that she felt “a push and pull. Are you Indian enough? Are you American enough? Who are you?” Her parents wanted to protect her from being too “Western.” But that was impossible, growing up in the West. Also, she felt they had a romanticized vision of how India was when they left. It had changed since the 1960s. Her parents raised her with a strong sense of community, which led her to a service-oriented life, always working with nonprofits.
She learned the magic of Indian culture, as Anjali does in her book, but she also appreciated being American. When Sheth’s first child was born, she started looking for books that featured children of various ethnic backgrounds. But the books she found were “inaccurate, insensitive, or just plain wrong,” she said. That’s what motivated her to create Anjali.
On Boys, Girls, and Big Feelings
Sheth’s second book, “Bravo Anjali” (published in September 2021), has Anjali learning to play the tabla, a traditional Indian drum. It’s usually played by males, and the boys in her class are jealous of her talent. She tries to hide her talent to avoid jealousy, but she also becomes angry and hurt. Anjali and the boy who was most jealous and mean, talk to each other and resolve their conflict, healing their friendship.
Sheth says “Bravo Anjali,” is “really about teaching our kids, boys and girls, how to talk to each other when they’re having big feelings.” Many children feel like crying and bursting out with anger, though we often tell them to calm down, she noted. Sheth tries instead to recognize those feelings and help children work through them. “Having big feelings is a good thing,” she said.