"I Want Children To Be Proud of Who They Are" Kuljinder Kaur Brar on Her Debut Picture Book
What's in a name? A lot, especially if people don't get it right. When Saajin starts his first day of school in Kuljinder Kaur Brar's My Name Is Saajin Singh (Annick Press, illustrated by Samrath Kaur), he's excited. But when his teacher mispronounces his name, he's unsure about correcting her, and the name he's always loved is taken from him, making him feel awkward, unsure, and invisible.
Brar's debut picture book is lit up by Saajin, a bright, brave, lovable protagonist whose thoughtful and gentle exploration of the power of names is an empathetic journey perfect for helping young readers understand each other and the world. And when Saajin, with the help of his family, comes to see the importance of his name and standing up for himself, readers will cheer along. A wise exploration of identity, My Name Is Saajin Singh is a great way to talk about respect and listening with kids.
We're speaking with Kuljinder about her literary debut, and she tells us about the real Saajin who inspired the story, how her experience as a school teacher helped her writing process, and the challenges of writing her first book with a baby at home.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Kuljinder Kaur Brar:
My Name Is Saajin Singh is a picture book about a young Sikh boy named Saajin who takes pride in his name, until he starts school and his teacher mispronounces it. He begins to lose a sense of his identity, but with the help of his loved ones and some time to self-reflect, he’s able to reclaim his identity.
This story is inspired by my son and my own experiences. When my son was born, my husband and I took a whole month figuring out how to spell his name so people wouldn’t mispronounce his name the way they mispronounced our names while we were growing up. Unfortunately, people mispronounced his name. This, along with the lack of Sikh protagonists in picture books were my drive to write this book.
As a classroom teacher, I’ve also witnessed children lose a sense of who they are after trying to live a different version of their name. I feel a strong connection to this because people mispronounced my name while I was growing up and they still do today.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
Yes! I hope they feel more confident with correcting the peers/adults in their lives when they mispronounce their name. It’s not easy to do that, but I really hope they are aware that they have the power to do this. I want children to be proud of who they are, where they come from and to celebrate their backgrounds.
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
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No, it actually got a lot better after each editing round. The main idea of the story stayed consistent but there were fine details added after receiving feedback. I’m very happy with how it is now vs. the initial manuscript.
I didn’t know what to expect when working with an illustrator. I really wanted key elements portrayed like Saajin wearing a patka/rumaal and kara, Dad wearing two different styles of turbans, and Mom alternating between western clothing and South Asian clothing. Samrath was able to really bring these notes and the text to life. The illustrations are so bright and colourful. There is a scene where Saajin goes from colouring in his colouring book to the wall that just looks so beautiful. I never envisioned that while I was writing the story, I just thought of plain lines being drawn on the wall. You can really notice the intricate detail and thoughtfulness that went into drawing that scene, it’s one of my favourite spreads. It was a pleasure working on this project with such a talented and humble artist.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
I wrote this book when my baby was three months old, so there were a lot of setbacks with lack of sleep being the biggest one. This book was a creative outlet for me, so whenever I did get stuck, I’d leave it alone for a while and get back to it.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
For this book, I wrote while holding my baby to sleep on my phone. I needed for him to be fed and sleeping to get anything done. I would constantly think about the story throughout the day and jot things down in my notes on my phone.
Kuljinder Kaur Brar is an elementary teacher. She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia and My Name is Saajin Singh is her first book. She has a son named Saajin who inspired the story.