Books

Randa Abdel-Fattah on ‘Our Stories’, and diversity in children’s storytelling

Our Stories is a paradigmatic shift in children’s books — telling warm and funny stories with diversity and belonging at their core. We spoke with series editor and contributor, Randa Abdel-Fattah.

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s academic and writing career has been aimed at reshaping dominant narratives about multiculturalism and belonging in Australia and abroad. Our Stories is a new series of children’s books — edited by Abdel-Fatah — that seeks to expand that conversation by including our youngest readers.

So far, Maku by Meyne Wyatt (the award-winning performer, writer, and director) and When Granny Came To Stay by Alice Pung (the acclaimed author) have been released. 29 Things You Didn’t Know About Me by slam poet extraordinaire Solli Raphael and The Very Best Doughnut by Randa Abdel-Fattah herself are slated for launch in July.

We spoke with Randa Abdel-Fattah about prioritising diversity on the page, introducing young readers to new communities, and sharing stories on First Nations land.

Randa Abdel-Fattah The Very Best Doughnut
‘Our Stories: The Very Best Doughnut’ by Randa Abdel-Fattah with illustrations by Amani Haydar

HAPPY: My first thought when I received Maku and When Granny Came to Stay was how lucky I was to be able to share these kinds of stories with my own children. Did editing and contributing to this series bring back memories of the stories told to you when you were a child? If so, has the way that we tell stories to children evolved?

RANDA: Not really! I didn’t have stories like this when I was growing up. It’s not that I was deprived of memorable literature. Many of the stories I read as a child are seared into my memory and form such an intense part of my childhood memories. But there was nothing that made me think critically about whose land I was on, nothing about either my own cultural background or non-White cultures. The only book I remember reading as a child that felt vaguely ‘familiar’ was Five Times Dizzy.

I don’t think the way we tell stories has evolved because there are so many ways to tell a story and I think that the craft remains. What I think has evolved is the critical consciousness around power relations — who gets to write and who is written about; around the social context in which a story is told, the intent and impact of words and characters, and so on.

Maku Meyne Wyatt
‘Our Stories: Maku’, written and illustrated by Meyne Wyatt

HAPPY: These books are thoughtfully and lovingly written, with engaging illustrations too. Did you get any feedback from the authors and illustrators about their experience? What was the brief for them?

RANDA: Write something my kid will read! Only joking. I shared my vision of the series, including its fundamentally and unapologetically political vision of reframing conversations about multiculturalism and diversity in classrooms and then left it to the writers to write as they saw fit.

HAPPY: In Arab Australian Other, the contributions broke down the perceived homogeneity of the Arab diaspora in Australia. Does the Our Stories series share a similar mission of highlighting the diversity of our communities?

RANDA: Absolutely. But also diversity not just in terms of cultural heritage, but also in creative expression: in form and style. Prose and verse novels, maybe even a graphic novel. Diversity in the illustrations. The authors and illustrators have been selected because I feel a connection with their work, their own artistic vision, their political commitments, and their authentic brave voices.

It’s a ‘checklist’ based on being in and of a community of diverse artists who can vividly introduce young readers to the rich cultural tapestry of our communities.

Alice Pung When Granny Came To Stay
‘Our Stories: When Granny Came To Stay’ by Alice Pung with illustrations by Sally Soweol Han

HAPPY: Aside from your own contribution to the series — The Very Best Doughnut— were there any that had particular resonance for you?

RANDA: You’ll have to ask me this question in a few years’ time if, God willing, we have more books out! Both Maku and When Granny Came to Stay have a special place in my heart! I am always a sucker for a story that explores inter-generational relationships.

HAPPY: The significance of these stories being told on First Nations lands is emphasised in these books. What does that mean to you?

RANDA: It means everything. It’s what motivated me to start the series. To have a series of books that encourages young readers to celebrate and reflect on cultural and religious diversity, what it means to live and respect diverse ways of being, in the playground, in school, in community.

Above all, the series is framed within the context of understanding we share and tell our stories on First Nations’ land. I feel very much this is a responsibility as a settler minority trying to teach my children who they are.

Solli Raphael 29 Things You Didn't Know About Me
‘Our Stories: 29 Things You Didn’t Know About Me’ by Solli Raphael with illustrations by Olana Janfa

HAPPY: Through editing this series, have you come away with a better understanding of what kinds of stories resonate strongly with children?

RANDA: I feel very strongly that children want stories that make them laugh, that don’t talk down to them, and that evoke the familiar but still retain enough to arouse curiosity.

Our Stories: Maku and Our Stories: When Granny Came To Stay are out now via Pan Macmillan.

Our Stories: The Very Best Doughnut and Our Stories: 29 Things You Didn’t Know About Me are out on July 26.