In this month's Inspiration from the Bookshelf, nonfiction author Rashmi Sirdeshpande takes an enlightening liberty with the usual format . . .

People get misty-eyed talking about the books they grew up with. The truth is I didn’t really connect with books as a child the way I do today. For me, this is the Golden Age. Children’s books have never been so beautiful, so clever, and so inclusive (and I know we have a long way to go but things are changing). Don’t get me wrong — I loved Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind. I loved A Little Princess too. It’s problematic but you see, it had something of India in it (SIDE NOTE: an Indian protagonist was too much to ask — even today, as Knights and Bikes author Gabrielle Kent says, South Asian protagonists are rarer than unicorns in children’s publishing). See, I loved all of those stories as a child, but I fell in love with children’s books as an adult.

Images supplied by author
Now, I wanted to pick an underrepresented creative for this post and if K. M. Lockwood (Philippa) hadn’t asked me to talk about just ONE book, I’d have raved to you about Joseph Coelho for his lyrical picture book If All The World Were (illustrated by Allison Colpoys), or Nadine Kaadan’s beautiful depictions of Damascus in The Jasmine Sneeze, or Kwame Alexander’s How To Read a Book (illustrated by Melissa Sweet). (And here they are because I’m cheeky like that and couldn’t resist slipping them in!)

Images supplied by author
Instead, I present you with author-illustrator Oliver Jeffers and his beautiful book Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth. Oliver Jeffers is…well, he’s this fabulours artist who talks about his relation with books here…but this IS the book that flipped a switch inside me. It’s a book he created for his newborn son and it shows. It’s overflowing with love and wonder. It’s the book that showed me what nonfiction could be.

To my son, Harland. This book was written in the first two months of your life as I tried to make sense of it all for you. These are the things I think you need to know.

That dedication struck a chord with me. THIS is how I start every nonfiction project. I imagine I’m writing for a new generation of readers and little listeners and I’m writing with THAT kind of love. And it’s not just the sentiment that I find inspiring in this book, it’s the content too. It has notes on things like constellations, the distance to Mars, and the idea that our time here is limited. Why can’t a book for little children touch these things? Why can’t we give our youngest readers more credit? Why can’t we see them as being fully capable of wrapping their brains around big ideas like these? And why can’t every book, even a nonfiction book—or perhaps especially a nonfiction book—make every child feel like they belong? I mean LOOK at this spread:

Inside spread on people from all around the world from Here We Are
I saw this and I had a glimpse into what the future of books might look like. As picture book makers, we could wrap our arms around the whole world if we wanted to. We could make books that speak to every single child, books that reflect the world around them. We could take big, complex ideas and make them simple and beautiful and exciting. We could make nonfiction books that are IRRESISTIBLE.

Oliver Jeffers has raised the bar for me. The kind of nonfiction I grew up with was very different. I adored it, of course, but THIS is magical. When I discovered this book, I decided I wanted to bring that kind of magic into the books I write. I’ve been very fortunate to have been paired with a masterful illustrator and designer who know exactly how to do just that. We have something stunning in store for next year and it’s taking all my strength to hide it from you. But for me, it all started here. With THIS book. Sometimes you need to see something this beautiful before you can believe it’s even a possibility.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande is a lawyer turned children’s author with two small children who ask her lots of questions. Rashmi writes non-fiction picture books that ignite children's curiosity, as well as fictional stories that crackle with imagination. When she's not playing with words, you'll find her on her yoga mat twisting herself into all sort of shapes.
Find more about Rashmi on her  website or connect with her on Twitter.

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