“All children deserve the freedom to dream.”
When Veera Hiranandani stood up at the podium, the audience, who had been chit-chatting about parking and the unpredictable rain, became part of history. Her story became their story: A story of humanity.
Tuesday evening at the Dodd Research Center, Hiranandani received the 2018 Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature.
The award was introduced by Glenn Mitoma, director of the Dodd Research Center. He described the purpose of the award, in celebrating human rights and children’s literature. Mitoma laughed to himself before wittingly adding, “It’s like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Two great things that must be brought together.”
“What does human rights mean in the context of literature for young people?” Mitoma said. “It is in the values and principles designed to guide our relationship with one another that becomes the core of children’s literature.”
Speaker Shamia Raman provided a brief yet cohesive historical background for the context of Hiranandani’s story. Through a number of photographs and details, Raman reminded the audience of how unaware we are as a culture.
“[Hiranandani] shines a light on human rights,” Raman said.
Inspired by her own experience and her father’s journey leaving India after the Partition, Hiranandani explores questions such as, “Why is there so much hate?” and “Where is home?” through the eyes of a child in “The Night Diary.”
To Hiranandani, human rights consist of the vital aspects of survival, such as one’s basic needs. However, she expanded upon this to include, “the right to play, the right to create, the right to be loved, and the right to dream.” These are also essential human rights that are stripped away in times of turmoil, such as the Partition.
Though she did not always know she would become a writer, when she did, Hiranandani said she knew she had to share her family’s history. Growing up, she heard bits and pieces but was somewhat shielded from the painful details of the past.
“When you are young and feel your parents are keeping something from you, you only become more curious,” Hiranandani said.
Hiranandani told the audience about her childhood, growing up in Fairfield County, with “more identities than could be held at once.” Her father was an immigrant from India and her mother was Jewish of Polish descent. As a young child of a minority group, Hiranandani struggled to find representation in literature as reassurance of her existence. That it was in fact “ok to be me.”
She went on to explain that it is the natural desire of humanity, to figure out what kind of box you fit in. For this reason, all stories like “The Night Diary” must be told. They must be able to say “you, young reader, exist.”
Judy Stoughton, children’s librarian at the Mansfield Library, received a copy of “The Night Diary” along with one of each of the honorable mentions for the library.
Stoughton spoke with me about the evident impact of human rights in children’s literature at the Mansfield Public Library.
“I get more questions. I see more books going out. I feel like there is more awareness now among readers and parents,” Stoughton said.
“It is so important for all of us to find books that reflect many people’s experiences,” Stoughton said in response to the Malka Penn award. “Stories are so effective. Kids, well not just kids, human beings, respond to stories.”
After the presentation, I had the opportunity to introduce myself to Hiranandani.
When asked, how we as a community on campus can explore upon on the topic of human rights, Hiranandani responded, “Books are a great place to start conversations that tell stories of different perspectives.”
Kate Luongo is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.