By Varsha Bajaj
Count Me In (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019) is an uplifting story of a community rallying to support its own. It is a story that celebrates finding your voice.
In 2020, it was a finalist for the Global Read Aloud program which helped librarians and teachers find it. The support of these invaluable literacy ambassadors has been a gift.
Count Me In was read by hundreds of classes by teachers committed to education and social justice across America and even in Japan and Korea and India.
I’ve been tremendously lucky to virtually visit many of these classrooms.
Early in the pandemic, the morning after a winter storm had shut down most of their state, I visited a hybrid classroom in New Jersey. I’d expected the teacher to cancel that event.
Some of the students were in the classroom, separated by plexiglass walls, wearing masks. A surreal sight and symbolic of our times. Some kids were at home. One of the kids was quarantining and isolated in her bedroom.
I wouldn’t have been surprised, if they’d been merely logged in. But not only were they present, they were engaged, enthusiastic and full of questions. Soon the masks, and walls disappeared, and we were talking about Karina, Chris, Papa, empathy, tolerance and hate. These kids reminded me that books live in the hearts of readers.
They fueled my writer’s soul. I was inspired and made a slideshow presentation the day after that visit. I wanted to be present 101 percent just like my young audience and their hero-educators.
When I see kids jockeying to say hello, ask a question, and connect through a screen it literally changes my day. I wish that I could meet them in person, but Zoom is the next best alternative in these challenging times.
Almost all of them wanted to know if I was writing a sequel which I found immensely flattering. They connected to the story. and the characters were friends they didn’t want to part with.
The characters in the story are mostly Indian American, but it’s irrelevant to my audience of diverse readers. They connect with their humanness, their pain and their joy. Just as I connected to Anne of Green Gables ( L.C. Page & Co., 1908) and Jo March as a young reader growing up in India.
Books and words have the magical ability to cross boundaries and borders.
When a book is read aloud it becomes a shared event, changing both the book and the reader. I’ve been part of a book club for ten years. Passages and words read aloud have woven circles of magic and cemented our friendship.
The characters and the events become a collective encounter, a springboard for discussion and in many cases has led to created art.
Huge thank you to all the teachers and students who have shared the projects they created after reading Count Me In.
Varsha’s next middle grade novel, Thirst, will be available on July 19, 2022 from Nancy Paulsen Books.
Varsha Bajaj is the author of the middle-grade novels Count Me In and Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2015), which was shortlisted for the Cybils Award and included on the Spirit of Texas Reading Program. She also wrote the picture books The Home Builders, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019), and This Is Our Baby, Born Today, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2016), a Bank Street Best Book.
She grew up in Mumbai, India, and when she came to the United States to obtain her master’s degree, her adjustment to the country was aided by her awareness of the culture through books. She lives in Houston, Texas. For more information, visit her website.