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What It Feels Like To Be American with Darshana Khiani

Darshana Khiani shares I'm an American, a beautifully depicted, thought-provoking look at the many ways we define what it means to be an American.







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[0:36] Introduction

Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.

I am a teacher, a librarian, and a fan of kids. And today we are talking about what it means and looks like and feels like to be an American. And who gets to decide who can call themselves American. I think it’s an episode that will draw you close to others different from you and one that I hope will also lend to celebrating and valuing those differences.

Before we get started, remember that you can shop for any of the books you hear on this podcast while at the same time supporting independent bookstores! Just head to and click on “Bookshop”. You can also support the show and buy me a coffee. And, of course, we love seeing those 5-star reviews come in for the show, like this one “This podcast, presented within easily digestible segments, is a terrific way for kids to feel relevant and connected to those who create books for them.” Yes! That is the mission and I am so glad to hear that’s how the show is being received! Thank you!

Our guest today is Darshana Khiani.

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. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup.

[2:34] Book Summary

Matthew: I'm an American by Darshana Khiani; illustrated by Laura Freeman

What does it mean to be American?

A classroom of children across many races, cultures, and origins explores the concept of Americanness as they each share bits of their family history and how their past has shaped their own personal American experience. Whether as new immigrants, or those whose family came to this country generations ago, or other scenarios, these children's stories show some of the broad range of cultures and values that form the history and identity of our nation.

A beautifully depicted, thought-provoking look at the vast expanse of cultures that exists in America, the values that bring us together as one people despite our differences, and the many ways we define what it means to be an American.

[3:37] Meet Our Guest: Darshana Khiani

Darshana: Hi, my name is Darshana Khiani. And I am a first generation South Asian American. And I am the author of my picture book, I'm an American.

[3:51] What Does It Mean to Be an American?

Matthew: So, the big question we’re going to focus on with Darshana today is one with an answer that will vary from person to person. What does it mean to be an American? Or, maybe more specifically, who has the right to consider themselves an American?

Before we hear from Darshana, Jonah, what are your thoughts on this?

Jonah: To be an American to me means you were either born in America or you moved to America when you were either younger or older. I personally think that anyone can be an American. I think it doesn’t depend where you move from. I think anyone that lives in America or was in America is an American.

Darshana: So, for me, being American represents being able to pursue your dreams no matter your race, your class, your religion. It's that as long as you do the hard work, you can get ahead. And I've always believed in that and to me that's what America represents. So, it's the pursuit of happiness.

Now, I think, uh, older listeners might know that okay, it's not quite so easy and there are some challenges, uh, for various groups of people that we're working to make equal, but I think we can get there. And I love that there are so many wonderful stories of people where they came with nothing.

Like, my dad came with one suitcase to this country and he got a job as an engineer and brought his, brought us over, cuz I actually, I wasn't born here. I was born in Kenya. But I came here when I was one and my mom, and then eventually he sponsored his entire family, or all his siblings and his parents to come over. That's something that I have referenced in the back of the book, um, in my dad's immigration story.

[6:00] The Readers That Led to I’m An American

Matthew: I wonder, listeners, if you’ve ever asked yourself what it means to you to be an American. Or, really, any nationality. I know that you’re listening from all around the globe.

In the U. S. the question of who gets to call themselves an American is something that is hotly debated all the time. It’s as if the very act of including others, inviting them in, is a threatening thought for some. Which then makes me think to myself, what do I personally lose by calling someone different from me “American”?

A lot of significant events in this nation’s history were around who had the right to call themselves an American.

I wonder if you’re listening outside of the U.S. and have experienced something similar in your country and its history.

It’s these touch points in history that drove Darshana’s approach to this book.

Darshana: This book, honestly, I think it's for ages eight to a hundred. I think it's a conversation starter. What does it mean to be an American?

I wanted to show them the diversity of the nation. And then also learn about immigrant stories. So I know when I was a student, a long time ago, um, you know, when you learned about American history, you learned about the people who came over, so British colonists. You learned about the enslaved Africans. And maybe you learned about the Chinese people immigrating to work on the Transcontinental Railroad, but that was about it.

We never talked about all the other people that came over. Maybe oh, the Irish, we talked about because of the potato famine, but there were so many groups that we didn't talk about. Or the fact that we always, it always bugged me that we would stop right as we got to World War II and it was the end of the school year, we never learned past that. So it never got to when my dad immigrated to this country post 1965.

And also I myself didn't learn about Japanese immigration or the internment until I was in my thirties, and that was because I moved to California and there were greater touch points or people who could talk about it. I didn't know that there were South Asians who immigrated to this country in the early 1900s. That blew my mind.

And it just makes a huge difference. There's a term that I learned and I hope we hear it more in the media. It's called “representational belonging”. And it's about when you see yourself in history, it makes you feel that, “Oh my God, I'm an American, too. I belong here.” Right? “I'm not just that immigrant or part of that immigrant family that came post 1965.”

So that's affected me personally.

For teens and adults, I'm hoping it can open up discussion about what are the challenges we have of living up to our American values, cause we certainly have plenty. And where have we succeeded as a nation and where do we still have work to do?

[9:10] BREAK

[9:42] Accepting Diverse Identities and Culture Backgrounds

Matthew: Being someone others see as an American is a certain kind of privilege. It means that people are not as quick to question your right to participate in things we associate with being American. This might include our legal processes, but it also includes celebrations widely practiced in this country. Or a platform to express your concern with and challenge the way something is being done. Or access to locations and services or opportunities.

And it’s often those with that privilege of being widely accepted as “American” that are the ones questioning who else can call themselves American.

Darshana, in your experience and your research, why wouldn’t someone want to consider somebody else American? It kind of seems like it’s not their business, but I’m sure it’s more complicated than that.

Darshana: This is a really good question. I had to think a lot about it. And I also think there's probably a lot of different answers depending upon the age of the person answering, their race, as well as their economic class. But I wonder if at the simplest level it has to do with identity.

So say for example, if I were a white person who identified as an American and that the things I liked as being American, or my religion, or my skin or my culture, then I might initially think, “Oh, somebody who's different, how can that be American?” You know, where we think it's an either/or as opposed to a combination.

And I also wonder if it's the fear of the unknown, right? Because we understand ourselves and so if we see people talking and we don't understand what they're saying, then, you know, we might worry, “Oh, are they talking about us? What do they think about?” You know, it's just that fear of the unknown.

Which is why I think books like this, and I think a lot of, you know, the diverse books coming out and, I mean it's all good. But what really needs to happen is we just need to be mixing more. Really. And I think that's a really hard thing. I think schools are the best place for people from different… You know, and it's not just different ethnicities, it's different classes, it's different religions for people to mix.

And I will say, I think as we get older it's harder because then we are boxed into, “I'm only gonna know people of a certain class since I work in high tech.” Or socially the people I might connect with will vary at times. It might be more South Asians. It might be more mixed. Being in the writing world has allowed me to diversify and to learn. I've learned about so much about other cultures by being a writer because I just have the ability to come into contact with more people. So, I personally am grateful of how it has changed my life by being a writer.

This country has always had prejudice against immigrants. And that's one thing that I did come across in doing the research. It's just that the immigrant group has changed over the centuries. You know, back in the 1700-1800s, there was prejudice against Catholics, against Irish, against Italians, you know, Germans.

And then that changed to Chinese people. Or Japanese. Or, in the present day, Muslims. Right? Or refugees. Or Mexicans. So there's always been this, unfortunately, in our American culture. And I'm hoping now we're at a time where we can really broaden our definition of American. Obviously, we can't get away from the colonial history and our foundings, but I think as we talk about the other groups and their achievements during those times, which were, you know, in the 1800s or in the early 1900s where there's just so much focus on white history. And if we talk about the accomplishments and the contributions of these other people, I think that will then help ingrain into kids from an early time that America was diverse from the beginning.

Matthew: Bringing about that change will require us to be intentional about who is included, not just who is included in our definition of “American”, but also who is included on our teams, at our lunch tables, in our friend group. And on and on.

I checked in with Jonah to see what this looks like for him. Here’s what he shared:

Jonah: Some ways that I make people feel more welcome or feel that they’re more American or feel that they more belong is I try to really be friendly to everyone that I meet and I don’t judge them based off how they look or what they eat. And I really try to be inclusive with them, and make them feel included.

[14:59] From the Pages of I’m An American

Matthew: This book, I’m an American, written by Darshana and illustrated by Laura Freeman, is outstanding, both in its message and in its design.

What I mean by that is it’s clear the time and attention and love Darshana put toward creating the words in this book. She represents a great number of voices and families and histories. And, in my opinion, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride to share an identity, that of being an American, with so many different people across this nation.

But it’s also in the way that Laura illustrated and designed this book that makes it stick and makes it last.

Darshana’s going to share an excerpt to give you a sense of what we mean, and I’ll also include some spreads on the post for this episode, which you can check out on my website.

Darshana: So, I'm gonna read the first vignette in the book, or the first story,

I believe in democracy. Every adult should be able to vote for who they trust and the ideas they value.

A few of my male ancestors came from China more than 150 years ago. They lived in California for many years, but because of the law preventing non-white immigrants from becoming citizens, they couldn't vote.They had no power to change the laws that were unfair. These days. My uncle encourages our community to vote in elections, we make our voices heard.

So on this page, what it's showing in the foreground is a young Chinese American girl who's looking thoughtfully about what it means to be a democracy. And in the background we see the backstory, which spans two time periods: the past of 150 years ago, as well as the present. And in it, we see a line of Chinese workers, you can see their cues, which is their long braids that they used to wear back then, and pickaxes, and they're working on the railroad.

And I love how the artist, Laura Freeman, she has the locomotive of the railroad overlaid into the girl's hair. So it's just this seamless blending of art. And we also see present day, we see a young man looking through papers at a registration booth for voting.

Matthew: Laura's art is exceptional in this work. It's so multilayered, almost applying a watermark effect in some cases where, I think, if you look quickly, you might not notice those details. Which I will say, as a librarian, to have art that kids can really chew on while I read that page and find more and find more. And, specifically, as I read your text and you mention these different things, have them sort of pop out from the art as you go. It's just she really worked with incredible skill. On, on this, on every spread, each and every spread of this. And I love that. Always, always we center a child.

But that not all children are looking out at us, because when we follow that gaze, I think it helps also guide the emotional impact of your text. Really, really stunning job.

Darshana: Yeah. One other thing I'd like to mention, which she may, you may or may not have noticed, is she's used throughout the book for the design of the book, a quilt theme, and that is there on every page.

Matthew: Not only does that become more explicit in the, in the back, but yeah, those patterned lines really become that motif that that carries throughout. It's wonderful.

Darshana: Yeah. She said she was inspired basically by the last spread. Where I think the text reads, “Our beliefs are the threads that tie this country together. We are American.

[19:17] An Open Mind In Place of Assumptions

Matthew: Oh my goodness, listeners! I cannot wait for you to see this book. Tell your grownup or your teacher or your librarian about it. Have them share a copy with you or with your whole class. It will challenge you and bring up so many questions which, I fully expect, will just lead to more inclusive thinking and more challenging who we invite in.

And when you do, Darshana asks you keep one more thing in mind.

Darshana: One thing I'd like to mention, and this is in the forward of the book, you know, what I'm trying to cover is so vast and so broad and, you know, it's only 48 pages that I have. And it's just a snapshot.

No group of people, you know, ethnicity or religion or class, is a monolith. And to truly learn about anyone, you have to dig deeper. So like, if you see something that's interesting, don't assume that that represents the kid next to you that might be from that culture, because it may, but most likely it may not.

So it's always best to go into a conversation about something with an open mind and rather than assumption.

[20:38] A Message from Darshana Khiani

Matthew: It’s time for us to say goodbye for now to Darshana. I am thankful for how she encouraged us to keep an open mind. To see that America has always been diverse, but that many people’s stories have been left out. And to ask ourselves whose voice is not being heard.

As I prepare to see a library full of children tomorrow morning, and as you prepare for school and time with your classmates, Darshana shared the following message:

Darshana: No matter your skin color, religion, ethnicity, or even your citizenship, if you feel America is your home, then you are American. And for those of you who have a stronger connection to another country and don't consider yourself American, that's okay too. You still belong and are welcome here.

[21:33] Closing

Matthew: The Children’s Book Podcast is written, edited, and produced by me, Matthew Winner.

Follow the show wherever podcasts are found, and leave us a rating or review when you do. That helps us out a whole lot because it helps the show get discovered by and recommended to new listeners.

Darshana? Where can listeners find you?

Darshana: I have a website, it's my name, so D-A-R-S-H-A-N-A K-H-I-A-N-I. I'm also at Twitter and Instagram on that using, that's my full name.

One other thing I'd like to let the adult listeners know is I run a quarterly South Asian Kid Lit newsletter, which lists the upcoming seasons, books, picture books through young adult that feature South Asian content or are created by South Asian authors and illustrators.

And the list has been growing. It's phenomenal. It takes so much longer for me to put the newsletter together, but there's just a wonderful diversity. You know, I talked about not having, you know, no group as a monolith. So there's books for every genre and, um, from people from all parts of South Asia. And abroad.

Matthew: It's such a strong list. Not only have guests for the podcast come from that list, but almost always I use that as a purchasing list for our libraries. So really terrific job.

Matthew: Visit for a full transcript of this episode plus some questions that you can use as you think about this episode.

You can also reach out and let me know how you show care for others, how you include them, how you invite them in.

Write to me or send me a message at That’s M-A-T-T-H-E-W M-A-K-E-S P-O-D-S at gmail dot com.

Want a copy of I’m An American? Jonah, where should our listeners look?

Jonah: Check your school or public library, your classroom, or, if you want to support independent bookstores, you can purchase a copy at

Matthew: I’ll have a link in the show notes.

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Fellow teachers and librarians, want a way to explore building a stronger culture of reading in our communities? In The Reading Culture podcast, Beanstack co-founder Jordan Bookey hosts conversations that dive into beloved authors' personal journeys and insights into motivating young people to read. And I am a big fan! Their recent guests include: Erin Entrada Kelly, James Ponti, Ellen Oh, Grace Lin, Adam Gidwitz, and Kate DiCamillo! Check out the Reading Culture Podcast with Jordan Bookey, from Beanstack. Available wherever podcasts are found.

Be well. And read on.

End Of Episode

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댓글 1개

Congrats to Darshana and Laura on the making of this beautiful book!

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