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HomeArts and CultureBabita Sharma’s new book celebrates ‘sassy sleuth’ and corner shop lives

Babita Sharma’s new book celebrates ‘sassy sleuth’ and corner shop lives

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YOUNG Asian girls can be fun, sassy, adventurous and intelligent and should be celebrated, journalist and author Babita Sharma said, ahead of her new children’s book being published next week.

Priya Mistry and the Paw Prints Puzzle tells the story of a young girl who loves to solve mysteries, such as unexplained paw prints in her family’s corner shop.

Speaking to Eastern Eye, Sharma revealed that being a mother of four-year-old, she felt an acute lack of diverse representation in children’s literature.

“It was so important for me to do something that celebrates little Indian girls,” Sharma said. “As a writer, it is so important for me to have diverse representation in children’s literature. I want my daughter to pick up a book and find somebody that looks like her and is also a central character in a nonstereotypical way.”

Sharma set the storyline in a corner shop because she grew up in one, she added. It was vibrant and always buzzing with different events and people, she recalled, so she was able to bring honesty and authenticity into Priya’s world.

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“I was so passionate about bringing her (Priya) character to life. She is free, sassy and fun. She is also incredibly cheeky and smart, but she’s always very curious about people and life. Being a proud British Indian, I know there is so much that can be celebrated about us, just like other children with similar backgrounds,” she said.

Some of the book’s incidents are loosely inspired from Sharma’s own childhood, who recalled mopping prints of muddy boots on the shop floor at the end of the day and wondering who they belonged to.

“What’s more similar between myself and the main character is the flow of customers and their stories. I remember sitting at the shop till as a little child and watching all these people coming in, wondering who they were and what do they did. I think there is definitely some similarity between the two of us,” Sharma said.

Calling herself a “proud corner-shop kid”, Sharma credits a huge part of her personality to her childhood spent working alongside her parents from a young age.

INSET Book cover
Cover of Sharma’s new children’s book

“It’s ingrained in everything that I am. Even as a writer or as a journalist, my curiousness about people’s lives is just very much part of my DNA,” she said.

Having spent 15 years covering major news events as a presenter for BBC News, Sharma reported on the Covid-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the EU referendum and Brexit, the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit, royal weddings, and the London and Rio Olympics, among others.

She said living above a newsagents for the first 10 years of her life made it seem like she shared her family with the public.

Their living room was the shop floor, where she used to eat by the till and do her homework while helping her parents stack shelves in between.

“My childhood was unique and different. When I came back from school, I was very hands on in helping mum and dad with the shop, whereas other kids would probably do something else, like playing in the garden.

“We used to have dinner very late because my parents were always busy running the shop and we had to wait till the shop was shut to sit down as a family.

“It’s the experience of a lot of immigrant families and still is today.”

As a child, Sharma said she sometimes yearned for a “normal life”.

“At the time, I wanted to be a bit like everybody else with a normal front door and a doorbell and not a shopfront door. But now that I look back on it as an adult, I realised how lucky I was to have such an extraordinary upbringing, where I was introduced to so many people from all different backgrounds every day.

“I also got to see my parents work and being incredible businesspeople.

“That phase of my life really inspired me as a writer and to be a good storyteller. I am passionate about people and telling their stories. I was always watching people and observing them,” she said.

Where independent newsagents were previously run mostly by south Asians, these days Afghans, Sri Lankans, Polish or Romanians are also in the business.

The USPs of such shops, which is usually a fresh bakery or samosas made in the kitchen, help them withstand tough competition from supermarkets as well as new-age quick home delivery apps, Sharma said.

“These big supermarkets can’t replicate what a corner shop has, which is human interaction on a personal level, which is so important for community life.

“The world is changing – we are becoming digital and tech savvy.

“That’s why I wanted to write this book so the younger generation realises that a world like this also exists.

“And yet it is not something they have not seen or are unfamiliar with.

“While reading about Priya’s adventures and her world, the little readers can also go down to their corner shop and relate to the fact that it’s the place where this character lives. It’s like bringing the real and fantasy and meshing it together, thereby creating my own USP,” Sharma said.

She is planning to develop Priya Mistry and the Paw Prints Puzzle into a series and has already written the second book.

“I would love it to be more than two books. I also want to see her on the screen as well in an animation series. So that is the next thing that I am going to be working on,” she said.

The illustrations in the book, done by Ali Pye, are detailed and authentic, featuring jars of colourful sweets and shelves stacked with different products.

Sharma said, “Ali Pye is fantastic. She was so open to exploring different things.

“I wanted the main character’s mother to wear a bindi, as my own mother wore one throughout her life. Everything in the book is authentic as I wanted the representation to be very true.”

Sharma said Asians did not celebrate themselves enough.

“We are not very good at celebrating our achievements. This book is an opportunity to say that we are proud of our young boys and girls and their identity, so that they can stand proud and feel seen, counted and recognised,” she said.

Priya Mistry and the Paw Prints Puzzle by Babita Sharma and illustrated by Ali Pye is available from next Thursday (14).

 

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