Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Lifting Their Voices, a guest post by Marcia Argueta Mickelson

As a teen, I didn’t have a voice. Well, technically I did, but I didn’t use it. My voice was hidden; it lived in fear of being seen or heard by anyone around it. My voice was so quiet that, in my junior year of high school, a bee stung me during math class, and I said nothing. I didn’t tell my teacher or my classmates. I didn’t ask to go to the nurse. I sat in pain for the rest of the day until I got home and told my mom.

My voice was so scared of being heard that it couldn’t even advocate for my own well-being. This was due to social anxiety or extreme shyness or both. Perhaps I quieted my voice because I always had a sense of not belonging wherever I was. There were loud, overwhelming voices telling me that since my family came to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants, I didn’t belong. So, I quieted my voice even more. One day, I missed school to attend my naturalization ceremony and receive my citizenship. The next day, my teacher asked why I was absent, and I was too embarrassed to tell him the reason. I could have spoken out in celebration of a wonderful experience, but I hid it.

My father, Jose Argueta, is pictured here taking his oath of citizenship. I was able to receive my citizenship a few years after him.

It was in the last year of my teens that I finally found my voice and realized that I needed to use it. This realization came in the form of a transformative book. In a college class, we were assigned to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In Malcom X’s writings, I discovered my voice. His message taught me to be proud of who I am and where I came from. His words inspired me to feel pride in my very small voice, and I became resolved to amplify it to advocate for myself and for others.

One of the reasons I love to read and write about teens is because in these young characters, I see them doing what I could never do at that age—lifting their voices. I see these young characters using their voices to say many important things.

We see young people speaking out to advocate for themselves or for other people all of the time, and I am in awe of their courage. The young people who formed the March For Our Lives movement were compelled to speak out against gun violence. They used their voices to create a huge movement. A young undocumented immigrant used her voice during her valedictorian speech in Texas to advocate for undocumented immigrants. Greta Thunberg, with her very young voice, inspired students all over the world to join her strike for climate change. Today’s young people are advocating for change in a way I could never imagine doing when I was a teen. I lacked their courage.

While I was not courageous enough to use my voice as a teen, I can now create fictional characters who are not afraid as I was or who overcome their fear to speak out.

In my book, Where I Belong, Millie Vargas is the oldest daughter of parents who came to the U.S. from Guatemala as undocumented immigrants. The book begins with Millie keeping her voice small, not wanting people to know that her she and her parents were once undocumented. She lives her life quietly, helping to take care of her siblings when her mother is at work. Millie’s quiet existence gets thrown into the spotlight when her mother’s employer, a Senate candidate, shares their story at a campaign event. He praises Millie’s family as deserving immigrants because of their work ethic and Millie’s straight A’s. The media recognition brings out trolls who denigrate and threaten Millie. At the same time, activists and reporters want Millie to speak publicly, to tell her story and advocate for immigrants. Millie doesn’t like the spotlight and wants everyone to forget about her. Susanna, an undocumented teen from a neighboring city, reaches out to Millie and invites her to a rally. Millie hesitates, but as she sees that Susanna is willing to put herself in danger of deportation by attending the rally, Millie decides to go. She takes the stage at the rally and tells her story.

Millie was scared to use her voice to speak out for the undocumented, but she overcame her fears for a great cause. She was inspired by another teen to use her voice. Although she was hesitant at first, it didn’t take her nearly as long as it did for me to find and use my voice. Even though I am not a teenager anymore and never had the courage to do what I see so many young people doing, I am thrilled that I get to create characters who find the courage to lift their voices.

What a wonderful generation of youth that surrounds us who elevate their voice, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively to uplift, inspire, protest, resist, inform, or advocate.

Meet the author

Marcia Mickelson was born in Guatemala and immigrated to the United States as an infant. She attended high school in New Jersey and then graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in American Studies. She is the author of five novels including Star Shining BrightlyThe Huaca, and Where I Belong. She lives in Texas with her husband and three sons.

Marcia Argueta Mickelson’s Website: http://marciamickelson.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/marciamickelson/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/marciamickelson

About Where I Belong

An immigrant teen fights for her family, her future, and the place she calls home.

In the spring of 2018, Guatemalan American high school senior Milagros “Millie” Vargas knows her life is about to change. She’s lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, ever since her parents sought asylum there when she was a baby. Now a citizen, Millie devotes herself to school and caring for her younger siblings while her mom works as a housekeeper for the wealthy Wheeler family. With college on the horizon, Millie is torn between attending her dream school and staying close to home, where she knows she’s needed. She’s disturbed by what’s happening to asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, but she doesn’t see herself as an activist or a change-maker. She’s just trying to take care of her own family.

Then Mr. Wheeler, a U.S. Senate candidate, mentions Millie’s achievements in a campaign speech about “deserving” immigrants. It doesn’t take long for people to identify Millie’s family and place them at the center of a statewide immigration debate. Faced with journalists, trolls, anonymous threats, and the Wheelers’ good intentions—especially those of Mr. Wheeler’s son, Charlie—Millie must confront the complexity of her past, the uncertainty of her future, and her place in the country that she believed was home.

ISBN-13: 9781541597976
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 12 +

Questions, a guest post by Supriya Kelkar

Like many people over thirty, after a month of sheltering in place, I finally took the leap and joined TikTok to make videos for AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE. I am lucky to be safe and healthy and have a place to shelter in. But after feeling consumed by stress and worry and sadness with some family members and friends either immunocompromised or sick, and several more employed as healthcare workers risking exposure to care for patients in the hospitals, I needed to take a minute to regroup, and this app was the place for me. Somehow minutes turned to hours, as I found myself laughing louder than I had in weeks at the most ridiculous fifteen-second antics courtesy of other TikTok users.

There were heroic healthcare workers doing the most hilarious dances in between shifts to get a break from their stress, hysterical challenges at home that irritated pets were just not into, and spouses dressing in their Halloween-best to make their significant other laugh during their work calls. It was the perfect distraction.

But within a couple days, TikTok figured out I was Indian-American, and I suddenly found my homepage full of videos from other South-Asian Americans. Many were really funny, full of Bollywood references and entertaining songs and dances, but there were also several TikToks by high schoolers or undergrads that were like short films exploring hyphenated identities, belonging, and microaggressions, and several of them actually listed the hurtful questions the kids and young adults heard all the time.

Surpiya’s book with some yummy paratha

I was intrigued because in my book, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster), the main character Lekha, the only Indian-American middle-schooler in a small town in Michigan that doesn’t value diversity, also lists the questions she hears every day. Questions like “where’s your dot? Where are you from? Where are you really from?” and many more. Questions that aren’t coming from a good place. Questions that are meant to make the recipient feel less-than.

I had based these questions on the questions I had heard all the time growing up as one of the few South Asian-Americans in a small town in Michigan that didn’t value diversity. And now, decades after I’d last been in middle school or high school, desis on TikTok were grappling with those same questions, just like other kids across the country have been, like nothing had changed since I was their age.

I was dismayed that things really hadn’t improved much in all those years but I wasn’t surprised. I had written AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE in 2017, when the hate I knew had never gone away was suddenly emboldened and encouraged by people in positions of power. I was full of fear and worry that in a few years, my young children would be facing the same things I did; they would be forced to answer othering or racist questions every day, as if their existence needed an explanation to be permitted.

I was hopeful maybe things would be better when they got older but the TikTok videos were proving that might not be the case. I started to feel down, remembering how years of those questions had rendered me silent. Remembering how, unlike Lekha, who finds her voice over the course of the story in AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, I didn’t find my voice until years later, in college.

But then, somewhere in between watching the TikTok videos of South Asian-Americans defiantly answering the questions if they wanted to, or literally brushing them aside, swiping the text off-screen, not giving the ignorance their time if that’s what they chose to do, I realized that things had changed. Because unlike the way I dealt with the questions as a kid, shutting down, getting embarrassed or humiliated, these kids and young adults were calling out hypocrisy and appropriation and othering and microaggressions, while speaking up for themselves and speaking out against hate for the whole world to see.

It’s my hope that readers of AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, who haven’t yet found their way to deal with these questions, are inspired by Lekha’s story to speak out against hate as defiantly as that. I hope it empowers readers everywhere to be proud of who they are and to not let the questions get them down. I hope they are no longer made to feel like they owe anyone answers for who they are. And I hope the pages of this book help them find the answers they are looking for, silence the questions, and stir readers to proudly speak up for themselves and others, be it through art, writing, music, song, dance, poetry, their words, and yes, even through TikTok.

Meet Supriya Kelkar

Photo credit: S. Malde

Supriya grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Supriya’s books include AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, June 9, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021).  Learn more at www.supriyakelkar.com

Follow Supriya on Twitter @supriyakelkar_ and on Instagram @supriya.kelkar

Supriya’s local indies are:

Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, MI. https://www.nicolasbooks.com/

Bookbug in Kalamazoo, MI. https://www.bookbugkalamazoo.com/

The Book Beat in Oak Park, MI. https://www.thebookbeat.com/backroom/

Literati in Ann Arbor, MI. https://www.literatibookstore.com/

About American as Paneer Pie

An Indian American girl navigates prejudice in her small town and learns the power of her own voice in this brilliant gem of a middle grade novel full of humor and heart, perfect for fans of Front Desk and Amina’s Voice.

As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

ISBN-13: 9781534439382
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years