I’m excited to share author Darshana Khiana’s new book, I’M AN AMERICAN, debuting May 2 with amazing illustrations by Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honoree Laura Freeman. Together words and pictures make a compelling statement about how we all are Americans through the eyes of children and the contributions all of us make together.
This book is thoughtfully and cohesively woven together from the introduction on making sure that readers know that only a small group of ethnicities are included in this picture book but there are a myriad of groups who make up this diverse country. The message is clear there is so much more than one narrative!
I love the direct yet lyrical language used throughout the text that explores and explains that “one must read widely, since no group can be defined by a single story.” The picture book begins with a question to draw readers into the conversation of what makes a person “American.”
History, cultural pride, families' past experiences taken from classroom children draw out the sometimes difficult encounters facing each group of immigrants who came to America and make it what it is today. Having children speak their truth lends an immediacy and poignancy to each story.
Strong back matter includes maps that indicate countries of origin and Darshana’s own immigrant story are not to be missed. A bibliography and further reading sections make this a great pick for teachers and librarians. Although the recommended grade range is pre-school to third grade, older elementary students will enjoy this book, too. By using layered text to structure the book, Darshana has created a book for many readers at different reading and interest levels. This is a book for our times.
I met Darshana at a nonfiction writing retreat in Georgia when we were both new writers with dreams to reach children with our work. It is a joy to see the books Darshana has given young readers!
Craft Chat with Darshana Khiani
Kathy: I love the emphasis on the multitude of narratives that make up the immigrant story. Was that always a theme for I’m An American? What other throughlines did you want to emphasize in this book?
Darshana: When I started envisioning the story as a concept book, I knew that it would be a diverse classroom with each child telling their family’s unique story. One of the main throughlines is immigration history and what were the reasons that brought immigrants to America. I hope readers see that while we have these American values in common, we can’t take them for granted and must rise to the challenge to uphold them.
Kathy: I’m An American has such strong back matter. Did you add back matter as you wrote? Did you, the illustrator, or your editor suggest the maps that indicate country of origin? Do you see adults or readers as the audience for this section?
Darshana: I wish I had written the backmatter while writing the story. Since I didn’t have any experience with an informational book and there was an eagerness to get the story out, we sent it on submission without backmatter. Plus I had heard that backmatter is subject to the editor’s discretion because it increases the book length. Once the book sold (nearly two years later), I started investigating different types of backmatter I could include and then ran it by my editor. Having to re-hash the research years later was painful. I highly recommend writing the backmatter along with the story. My critique partner, who is a school teacher, suggested having a map. The book is for ages 8 and up. The backmatter is probably for older kids and adults.
Kathy: Take us through the creation of this book. Where did you get the idea? How many versions/revisions?
Darshana: My initial inspiration came in the Summer of 2017, I watched a YouTube video of a White man conversing with an Asian man about being American. Even though the Asian man answered every question with an answer that was similar if not the same as the White man’s answers, it didn’t matter. The White man would not “see” the 4th generation U.S. born ethnically Chinese man as an American. I was flabbergasted. When is one considered an American? Initially I wrote a narrative story about a biracial child questioning his identity. Unfortunately, the draft didn’t feel like a picture book and had veered from the heart which was “If America is your home and you believe in the ideals/values of this country then you are American, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even citizenship." From a conference critique, I received a suggestion to create a concept book with layered text, set in a diverse classroom. The American values would be prominently featured in the main text with the student’s family backstory in the secondary text.
Once I was on the right path, there were 9 revisions before it went on submission. Another small revision while it was on submission (between rounds). After it sold, another 6 revisions with my editor.
Kathy: Did you set up the refrain early in the writing process? Did it change over time?
Darshana: The setup of the main text with the refrain was there from the beginning. The one refrain that changed after a sensitivity read was the Muscogee one. It was changed so that the girl identified with her tribal nation first and then the United States. I think this change is quite powerful and exemplifies that tribal nations are nations too. It also has the effect of pausing the reader to stop and think.
Kathy: How is this book different/like your other books?
Darshana: I write broadly. Three books with different story voices and target markets. They have one thing in common, a theme of persistence.
HOW TO WEAR A SARI book has a 2nd POV direct approach, light and funny and is more for the commercial market. I’ve heard it makes a good “gift book”. In this book, a young girl persists through the challenges and drapes a sari on herself, which is quite an achievement.
I’M AN AMERICAN is an informational book with layered text. It’s all about teaching more serious topics, best suited for discussions at home or in the classroom. This one is for upper elementary through adults. In this story, the reader learns about the diverse groups that call the United States home and how they have persisted in making a better life for themselves.
BUILDING A DREAM uses lyrical language and is based on a true story. It’s a feel-good, inspiring type of book. The boys in this book tackle environmental and societal challenges and build themselves a floating soccer field that enables them to become one of the best youth soccer teams in southern Thailand.
Kathy: What are you working on now?
Darshana: My next book BUILDING A DREAM: How the Boys of Koh Panyee Became Champions releases in September 2023. Beyond that, I’m revising an older picture book manuscript that is near and dear to my heart, searching for new picture book ideas, and doing exploratory work for a novel that I hope to write someday.
Biography and more!
Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. Learn more about her at www.darshanakhiani.com or follow her on Twitter or Instagram @darshanakhiani.