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Zanib Mian: ‘I didn’t see people like me in books growing up’

"The impact is feeling like your stories aren’t interesting enough to be in books, or that you’re not understood in the world you’re in."
Zanib Mian's Omar series is loved by thousands of children. Image: Supplied

World Book Day is here. It’s the annual focus on encouraging children to enjoy reading – and emphasising the power of books in this year of interrupted education is more important than ever.

Over the last two decades, World Book Day (March 4) has allowed 10 million children the chance to own a book – often their first. And this year’s selection shows it’s not just a child’s life that can change through reading, they can be empowered to change the world.

We have asked three of this year’s World Book Day authors to tell us more about how their books will start a new, more hopeful, chapter in our lives.

Here, Zanib Mian, author of the Planet Omar books, explains how she didn’t recognise herself in the stories she read as a child. She says the aim is for diversity not to be a big issue at all.

The Big Issue: Does being exposed to more diversity make you think of race as less of an issue?

Zanib Mian: Definitely so! Because it becomes your world and because the more opportunity you have to interact with different people, the less ignorant you are of their background, culture or religion, and that understanding leads to respect.

And if children never think diversity is a big deal, it won’t become one in their later lives either?

Absolutely and I have hope that we will get there. I think many beautiful people exist that don’t see differences as issues, but we still have negative stereotypes perpetuated all the time and they do lead to prejudice, even if it’s unconscious. 

Is there a difference between the way adults and younger readers view your books?

I guess kids that are from a different background to Omar and his family, are more focused on all the things Omar says and does that they recognise in themselves.

They’re just drawn into the plot, and the bits of information about the character’s background are absorbed much like the science bits in the book, as something interesting they maybe didn’t know before, but not a big part of the book. Adults do acknowledge those parts more because they are conscious of learning about how and why Muslims do certain things and they appreciate it.

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Planet Omar: Operation Kind by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik (Hachette) is a World Book Day £1 book
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Planet Omar: Operation Kind by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik (Hachette) is a World Book Day £1 book

When you were young did you recognise yourself in any books?

I didn’t see people like me in books growing up, which is why I always made up white characters for my stories and drawings as a little girl. However, much like some readers do when they read the Planet Omar books, though I didn’t recognise myself in terms of the culture of the character, I did in their behaviours and interests. For example, George’s Marvellous Medicine was one of my favourites simply because I loved mixing up things to make strange concoctions at home. Though I promise I never fed them to my gran!

What is the impact of not being able to relate to characters in books?

The impact is feeling like your stories aren’t interesting enough to be in books, or that you’re not understood in the world you’re in. 

Are kids learning to celebrate differences between cultures rather than be ignorant about them? 

Yes, I think there’s much hope for those being raised in today’s world. The more we can understand each other, the shorter the distance between us becomes. Education leads to love and respect and eliminates that pesky fear of the unknown.

Planet Omar: Operation Kind by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik (Hachette) is a World Book Day £1 book