Harman Pandher knows what it’s like to be a kid growing up in Canada and never being able to find a book that reflects your own experience.
He knows that when the characters in kids’ books don’t look like you, when their families don’t do the things yours do, it can be easy to forget that your story is as Canadian as anyone else’s.
So he decided to do something about that.
Pandher, a Burnaby resident and Surrey schoolteacher, has just released his debut children’s picture book, Gurpreet Goes to Gurdwara: Understanding the Sikh Place of Worship.
The story is told through the eyes of a young boy from a Sikh family, who attends gurdwara with his family on Sunday – reluctantly at first, and then with enthusiasm as he learns more about the traditions of his community.
“This is a Canadian story, and I really want to stress that to people,” Pandher said. “It’s to show that, yes, it’s showing a boy from a Sikh family, but he’s Canadian. This is a Canadian family – whether it’s a story about a Sikh family or a Jewish family or a Christian family or a Hindu family or a Muslim family. That’s what Canada is. We’re a country of immigrants, and I wanted people to know when they’re reading the story that this is a little slice of Canadiana. This is what this country is all about.”
Pandher pointed out the Sikh community in Canada is a long-established one, with the first Sikh settlers arriving in 1897 and the first gurdwara established in 1908.
“There were a lot of struggles along the way, a lot of rights they weren’t given; they had to be fought for, like a lot of communities did,” he said.
Despite that history, Pandher noted, he didn’t have access to stories about his own community when he was at school in Burnaby – first at Second Street Community School, then Cariboo Hill Secondary.
“I grew up here in Burnaby and would go to the gurdwara with my parents,” he said. “You go along, but as a kid you have a lot of questions. Sometimes you go through the motions, but you don’t know why you’re doing the things you’re doing. … I wanted to answer some of those questions in this book for kids who are going through that right now.”
The book touches on various aspects of the Sikh faith, as well as the importance of the gurdwara as a place for everyone to be taken care of. Pandher points out that gurdwaras, like other faiths’ places of worship, have long served an important role in social service work – providing food and shelter for those in need, helping people with drug addictions or those who are struggling with mental health.
“That’s the type of role our places of worship are playing in the community at large,” he said, noting that’s especially true in places like Queensborough, where the gurdwara has long been a leader in community service efforts.
With warm and whimsical illustrations by Gurpreet Kaur Birk, Pandher’s story helps to illuminate all those truths in an easy-to-read, child-friendly way.
Pandher’s approach to storytelling was inspired by his own childhood – when, he points out, his parents didn’t have access to such books to share with him and his sister, Amanjit.
“They got me into reading. They never said no to buying a book for us – they would say no to toys and other things, but never a book,” he said with a laugh. “That’s what got me into writing and reading and my love of books, but there was always this missing piece. We never got to see enough of our own stories, stories where I could see people that looked like me and were going through the same experiences that me and my family were going through.”
Pandher, who served two terms on the Burnaby school board from 2011 to 2018, is passionate about children being able to see themselves reflected in all aspects of society – in business, in politics, in the arts.
“Representation is so important, in so many aspects of society,” he said. “In education, kids need to see themselves represented in the resources that they use, in the books that we give to them.”
As a Grade 5 teacher in a school where the majority of the students are South Asian, Pandher has faced that challenge first-hand.
“For us to find resources that they can relate to that are relevant to them, culturally relevant, that will inspire them even just to get hooked on reading, let alone learning about their roots and their heritage and their identity and feeling proud of that – it’s hard to find,” he said.
Seeing themselves reflected in the stories around them helps to build self-confidence and self-esteem, he said, and helps children to feel appreciated and accepted in the world around them.
And, he pointed out, the benefits of representation are even broader than that. Ultimately, he said, the more diverse stories that we share, the more we can all develop an understanding of each other.
For Pandher, this moment is the perfect time to release Gurpreet’s story.
“The world has changed dramatically in the last few months,” he said. “People are joining together to stand up to racism like never before, to be actively anti-racist. Educators are leading the way in that, and it begins at this age – childhood. No one is born a racist. That’s learned, it’s taught, and we need to teach kids at an early age about the great diversity around us and to build understanding: that we’re all equal; we’re different, but those differences are something to be celebrated. It makes us stronger.”
Pandher is thrilled that his book is already being ordered from around the world – it’s available on Amazon, and he’s already seen orders from across Canada, the U.S., the U.K., India, and even as far away as Australia. And he’s pleased that the people who are reaching out for the book aren’t just from the Sikh community or the Punjabi community, but people of all cultures.
He’s making a concerted effort to ensure the book gets into the school system; with his connections in both Burnaby and Surrey, he’s already made a start in that direction. But he’s hoping to hear from even more teachers and librarians who also understand the need for children to have access to their own stories.
“I hope that inspires more work like this,” he said. “By that I mean underrepresented stories to come out, because there’s a real thirst out there for more diversity in our kids’ literature and, I think, literature in general.”
HOW TO GET YOUR COPY
Gurpreet Goes to Gurdwara is available for sale on Amazon. It’s also available online through Barnes & Noble in the U.S. and will soon be available online through Chapters-Indigo in Canada. Anyone wanting more information about the book or who’d like to arrange orders for schools and other organizations can also contact Pandher directly by email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 778-835-7898.