Subscribe to SLJ
Bowllan's Blog
Inside Bowllan's Blog

Writers Against Racism: Malathi Michelle Iyengar

Janet del Mundo, a sales and marketing manager from Children’s Book Press sent the following e-mail to me:


One of our books/authors immediately came to mind as I was reading your WAR series.  Malathi Michelle Iyengar wrote a poetry collection entitled "Tan to Tamarind: Poems About the Color Brown":

The book was a very personal work for the author, who experienced racism as  a child in North Carolina.  I’ve attached a Q&A here, where she talks about her inspiration for writing the book and what she hopes children will learn from it.  In a way, this book sums up the reason Children’s Book Press exists.

Here’s Malathi’s interview.

What inspired you to write this book?

Growing up in North Carolina, I was constantly bombarded with messages telling me that my brown skin made me dirty, ugly, and un-American. These messages came from other children, from adults, from commercial media such as television, and yes, even from children’s literature. I distinctly remember sitting in the bathtub and trying to bleach the brown out of my skin using water and a creamy bar of Lowila soap.


In thinking about my own journey, I remember certain works of literature that played a huge role in transforming the way I saw myself. But most of the books that changed my life were written for much older children or for adults, meaning that I didn’t read them until I was twelve or thirteen years old. The books available to me as a very young child tended to reinforce my negative view of myself as a brown-skinned person. I wanted to write a literary work for very young children that would captivate their sensibilities and engage their imaginations with images evoking the amazing beauty of the color brown. 


Who do you want your book to reach?


I hope this book will make it into the hands of children who live in areas where they don’t ever hear the message that brown is beautiful. I know there must still be kids in America who are the only brown kids in their towns, who get bullied at school because of their skin color, and who desperately hope that if they just find the right kind of soap, or just scrub hard enough, maybe the brown will go away. This book aims to counter the negative effects of racism on brown-skinned children, but I think all kids should read this book, no matter what color they are.


As an educator, why do you think multicultural books are important for all children?


I’ve heard other teachers and administrators at conferences say things like, “Well, my district is all white, so I don’t need all those multicultural books.” I think these teachers and their students do need Tan to Tamarind because it will provide them with a rich literary experience that can help them grow as people. Wouldn’t teachers in these districts agree that their students will have grown, both personally and linguistically, if, instead of seeing the color brown and automatically thinking “Dirt,” or “Poop,” they can begin to see brown and think, “Cocoa” … “Nutmeg” … “Spruce” … “Milk tea” … “Coffee” … “Sandalwood” … “Tamarind”?

Malathi Michelle Iyengar is a writer and elementary school teacher. She holds Master’s degrees in Music and in Education, and currently teaches at a public elementary school where she is happy to see lots of beautiful brown faces every day. Malathi lives in the Los Angeles, California.

(Original contact is from Mayra Lazara Dole)


  1. Holy WOW. I can’t believe an educator said that, but it is proof we still have a long way to go. One thing I would NEVER do in a conversation like that is remain silent. If we are giong to work together to heal racism, multicultural books are relevant and for everyone. As an author of children’s books I believe that with all my heart.

  2. I hear that often, too, and am amazed that white educators can’t realize that an all-white school needs those books even more precisely BECAUSE there are no living, breathing brown people who can articulate their own experience! ALL children benefit from engaging with diverse learning materials–books featuring children of color aren’t only FOR children of color, they’re for everyone.

  3. George Edward Stanley says:

    Oh, I’m seething! You are right, Zetta! School districts which are all or almost all white are the districts which need books about young people of color the most! I think in this case we probably shouldn’t use the term “educators” to describe the people who said these books weren’t needed. And any country where young people of color feel the need to bleach their skin to fit in is in serious need of DIALOGUE!!!

  4. Amy Bowllan says:

    Keep in mind, George, we’re also in a country where a black president needs approval to speak to America’s school children, and has to apologize for winning a Nobel Peace Prize.

  5. This book makes me happy.
    When I was a kid, I hated being at church where a hymn “Whiter Than Snow” was sung… and sin was always characterized as “dark.” This would have been helpful to me as a kid. Thank you, Malathi.

  6. George Edward Stanley says:

    You’re right, Amy! I sometimes feel as though I’m a character in ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

  7. B Herrera says:

    When I first came to Laredo I was shocked at how many Hispanics made racial remarks about blacks. Then I realized it was ignorance and lack of exposure which led them to stereotyping other races. I began explaining about all the cultures I could get information on and encouraged reading and research about people and places outside their comfort zone. I quickly came to realize that every culture needs to read about other cultures as well as about their own in order to better understand each other. Reading does indeed open up your mind, but only if you read a variety of books.

  8. Malathi,

    Thank you for sharing your important story and writing Tan to Tamarind. It sounds beautiful. I look forward to sharing it with children I know.