When I decided to buy my own domain and expand my vision for my blog I knew I wanted a focus of my writing to be on “reviews” of diverse books. Not reviews in the sense of giving a book a rating, but more so an explanation of how this book approaches diversity and how my students have responded to it. It was natural that the first book I’d focus on was Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks.
It’s shameful to admit but prior to a few years ago I never really thought about the (lack of) diversity in the books I exposed my students to. Sure, there were books with diverse characters, but it was by chance- not a result of conscious effort to have all my students represented in the books they read.
Two summers ago I was browsing Twitter when someone mentioned the book Save Me a Seat and I was immediately intrigued. My students are largely South Asian (about 85%) with the majority being from India. It’s rare to find books with Indian main characters so I immediately picked it up, thinking, “Oh, this will be nice!” Little did I know that this one small gesture would revolutionize my teaching, my philosophy on education, and the way I structure my library.
I opened my school year with Save Me a Seat, setting aside my usual choice of Wonder for the first read aloud of the year. My kids were entranced. They corrected how I pronounced the words (which I still get wrong- but I try, boy do I try!), they shared ways their family structure was similar to Ravi’s, and above all else they enjoyed the story for what it is- an amazing tale about friendship, feeling like an outsider, and the struggles of being yourself in a world that often pushes us to be someone else.
I was so enthralled with this book that I connected with the authors who graciously participated in a Twitter chat with my class. A year later we had the opportunity to have Gita Varadarajan come to our school and share with us her writing, her story, and her experience of immigrating to America from India.
(That photo is of Gita and I reading the beginning of the story, she is reading the part of Ravi while I read as Joe).
But what made this experience so life altering for me was watching the kids react to Gita’s stories…. they laughed at jokes I didn’t understand, they ooohed and aaahed at mentions of foods I had never tried, and they connected in a way I didn’t know how to reach them. They saw themselves in her, and she in them. I sat there with literal tears in my eyes and thought, “THIS is the power of representation. THIS is what happens when kids read books and can relate.”
Save Me a Seat shows diversity by sharing with us the lives of two students in the course of one week in their 5th grade year. Joe, from a Caucasian American background, and Ravi, straight from India, are forced to face their bully, Dillon Samreen, another Indian student who is more “Americanized” than Ravi. The dynamic between Dillon and Ravi was particularly interesting, with the aspect of being “more Indian” or “more American” bringing up interesting conversations with my students as they decided whom they related to more.
I will forever be thankful to Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan for creating such an incredible novel that captures my students in a way no other book I’ve read to them has. Representation matters, and Save Me a Seat was the first book to open my eyes to just how important that is.