This Zainab Sulaiman Story for Kids Blurs Differences
By Shivani Shah
Most children don’t get to interact with people with special needs on a regular basis. Few schools are equipped to teach differently abled children alongside typically developing children, and so the two are often separated, which only leads to this assumption: They’re different from us, right?
Not in Simply Nanju.
The story for kids by Zainab Sulaiman is set in the United Integrated School, a school for differently abled children where spinal deformities, cerebral palsy, and deafness are part of daily life. The titular Nanju is Nanjegowda, a Standard Five student whose father has threatened to send him to a different – and stricter – school if he doesn’t keep his marks up. Nanju has no desire to change schools, but he’s not interested in studying, either.
So, when the books of the smartest girl in the class (and Nanju’s crush) start disappearing, Nanju enlists the help of his best friend, Mahesh, to catch the culprit before his father finds out that Nanju is a suspect.
The plot of this book could take place in any school. With few modifications to the story, Nanju and his friends could be like the characters in any other book, just like most kids.
Here’s the thing – they already are.
Nanju and Co. pull pranks, have ‘enemies’ and rivalries, like Ben 10 and cricket, and have active imaginations that lead to conspiracy theories. They’re children who behave like other children, even if they don’t always look like them.
And that is the beauty of Simply Nanju: By setting this story in a differently abled school, Sulaiman has thoughtfully and subtly shown that differently abled doesn’t mean different. The kids’ physical traits are described but not dwelled upon. They look and talk different compared to the societal norm, but their thoughts, emotions, and motivations are just like anyone else’s. If anything, they have more compassion because they know how it feels to be laughed or gawked at – a fact that Zainab Sulaiman mentions only in passing because this is not a book about how these kids are different; Simply Nanju is a book about how they’re not.
The dialogues are written in a colloquial, Indian-English speech that sounds authentic from the mouths of children (and their teachers). They don’t speak the Queen’s English, but they sound like who they are – children learning to communicate in a language that’s not their own. Kids aged 10 and older will enjoy reading about Nanju’s antics as he tries to solve the mystery. In a world that constantly divides people into “us” and “them,” Simply Nanju will help young readers learn there’s no them, only us – even when we look different.