Growing up as a Sikh boy in South Texas, Simran Jeet Singh longed for books with characters who looked like him and his family. But each visit to a bookstore or library ended in disappointment.
Fast forward about 30 years later, he went back to those same shelves in search of books that reflected his young daughters. But as it turns out, not much had changed.
“I didn’t want them to feel invisible,” Singh wrote in an email to CNN. “I wanted them to feel proud of their community and to know that their stories deserve to be told.”
So he decided to write a children’s book that centered on a Sikh character – the book he never had.
That book is “Fauja Singh Keeps Going,” published Tuesday by Penguin Random House. It tells the real-life story of Fauja Singh, a British Sikh centenarian who in 2011 became the oldest person believed to have run a marathon.
It’s the first children’s picture book by a major publisher to center on a Sikh story, according to the author, and was produced by an all-South Asian team.
“Fauja Singh’s perseverance and resilience inspire me to this day, and they are exactly the values I want to instill in my own kids,” Singh wrote.
“I also believe that this book can help cultivate empathy for children of all backgrounds: if our kids can learn to see the humanity in those who seem most different from them, they will see the humanity in everyone they meet.”
The book is a tale of perseverance
The story begins in the humble village in Punjab, India, where Fauja Singh was born and raised in the early 1900s. Color illustrations by UK-based artist Baljinder Kaur help bring the story to life.
The book chronicles the challenges Fauja Singh faced as a young child, from the birth defect that prevented him from walking until age 5 to how his disability hindered him from getting an education to his persistent efforts to build up his own strength.
It follows Fauja Singh into adulthood as he gets married and has children, and as he decides to emigrate to England in his 80s to be with his family. It takes readers into the moment Fauja Singh decided to take up running in his 80s, and how he overcame obstacles to become the world-famous marathon runner he is today.
It might seem odd at first that a story aimed at children focuses on a man who is now 109 years old. He retired from marathons in 2013.
But one of the key lessons that Singh wanted to instill in young readers was being able to see the humanity in others, even those who look different from them, he said.
“Part of what makes Fauja Singh’s life so incredible is that it helps to challenge so many of our stereotypes,” Singh said. “What does it mean for us to lift up and celebrate someone as a hero who has dealt with disability, or who is elderly, or who wears a turban, or who is an immigrant?”
The age gap between Fauja Singh and the book’s intended audience is something that the centenarian himself nods to in the foreword for the book, which was apparently written before his most recent birthday.
“I’m now 108 years old, which means I’m probably more than 100 years older than you. Can you believe that?” the message from Fauja Singh reads.
Though Fauja Singh does not know how to read and does not speak English, Simran Jeet Singh said he played a role in shaping the story. Singh and his team communicated with the centenarian through his running coach Harmander Singh, who would translate the text for him into Punjabi.
In the brief foreword, Fauja Singh offers up some of his secrets for living longer and encourages the book’s readers to never give up.
“I have really enjoyed my long life and hope you have a long and happy life too. I’d love for you to take care of yourself, try your hardest, and always choose yes when you meet a challenge,” Fauja Singh says in the book.
“And who knows? Maybe one day you can break my record for the oldest person to ever run a marathon. Nothing would make me happier!”
Singh hopes books like this one become more common
The pages of “Fauja Singh Keeps Going” are filled with images that depict ordinary moments in Sikh life, such as a parent or grandparent combing a child’s long hair (a symbol of the Sikh faith), a visit to a Gurdwara (a Sikh temple) and a family sitting around the dinner table for a meal of roti and daal (flatbread and lentils).
“Like Fauja Singh, as a Panjabi Sikh myself, the story really resonated with some my own experiences growing up in the diaspora,” Kaur, the book’s illustrator, wrote in an email to CNN. “Being able to share these stories is important work and helps build bridges of understanding.”
Normalizing those images on the page can be powerful for young Sikh and South Asian children, Singh said. It’s something he said he’s already seen firsthand.
“When I first showed my four-year-old the book, I turned to the page where Fauja is doing his young daughter’s hair, and my daughter squealed with delight: ‘Look! That’s you and me every morning!’” Singh said.
“That melted my heart. That moment was exactly what I’ve been dreaming of all along. To have her see us positively, in a world where we are constantly depicting as the enemies – that meant the world to me.”
But as significant as it is for Sikh children to finally have a book that centers characters who look like their communities, Singh said he hopes that stories like these eventually become the norm.
“While I’m excited that this is a ground-breaking book in terms of representation, I also hope that we can eventually get to a place where a book with diverse characters is so normal that it doesn’t even register as something extraordinary,” he said.