Pages of Hear our Voices are filled with lush illustrations by Alexander Mostov, like this detail from a spread featuring the story of Nanny, a freedom fighter and leader of the Jamaican Maroons.
Pages of Hear our Voices are filled with lush illustrations by Alexander Mostov, like this detail from a spread featuring the story of Nanny, a freedom fighter and leader of the Jamaican Maroons.

Big Topics for Young Readers

The stories of British colonialism come to life in Prof. Natarajan’s Hear Our Voices.

By Laura Atkins ’92 | March 8, 2024

When a publisher approached Reed Prof. Radhika Natarajan [history] to write a children’s book about the British Empire, she hesitated. She was busy working on her monograph for publication at the time, a key step on her academic journey. Additionally, she wondered if other historians would take her seriously if she wrote a children’s book.

“Did I want to spend time on this?” she wondered. But given the absence of a children’s book on her subject of expertise, Natarajan decided to say yes. Writing about history for an audience of children presented a unique opportunity. “It just felt too important to pass up.”

Then she had to figure out how to translate the complicated topic of British colonialism for young readers. Hear Our Voices: A Powerful Retelling of the British Empire through 20 True Stories is the spectacular result. But the road to publication wasn’t easy. Natarajan had to educate her publisher along the way, in order to craft an honest and nuanced book that children would want to read.

UK publisher Quarto conceived of the project after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. They saw a gap in the history market: a book about the British Empire from the perspective of those living underneath it. Quarto found Natarajan through Twitter, drawn by her scholarship and her role as chair of comparative race and ethnicity studies, or CRES, at Reed. Coauthor Chao Tayiana would work on six entries from Africa, and Natarajan took on the rest.

The publisher initially asked Natarajan to organize the book geographically by country. Her response: There’s a reason she doesn’t teach her classes at Reed that way. “My classes focus on movement, and not just of British people around the world, but of colonial subjects who were traveling around the empire and shaping it, whether through labor migrations, through diplomacy, or whatever else.”

The selection process presented another challenge. The publisher initially proposed categorizing these figures as either for or against the British Empire. “I disagreed with that for two reasons. One is I felt like we were including these figures because their personal stories revealed something more significant about the British Empire and how it worked. And the second is that it became incredibly problematic for certain kinds of historical moments.” For instance, the publisher wanted stories of Native people who supported the U.S. in the American Revolution. However, Natarajan pointed out that most Indian nations supported the British, understanding it as a more strategic alliance to maintain their own sovereignty. “Any of these stories should be putting the interests of the individuals, their communities, and nations first and not just reducing them.”

For Natarajan, the goal was to show the overlapping themes and experiences of subjects of the British Empire over time and geography. Quarto ultimately came on board, and Natarajan was able to approach the book with her goals intact.

Then came the biggest challenge of all: telling the story of each figure in a way that would engage nine- to twelve-year-olds. To support the research process, Natarajan hired Reed students Zoe Lee-DiVito ’23 and Betsy Wight ’23. They created portfolios for each figure, and Natarajan immersed herself in original writings when they existed. This helped her find a narrative arc for each 600-word entry.

Natarajan turned to members of her children’s writers critique group in Portland for help in shaping the stories for a young audience. They encouraged her to focus on motivations, points of view, and descriptive details. “That’s not what historians think about,” says Natarajan. “[It] took a bit of imaginative work, while also wanting to really be true to the history.” Natarajan says this was the biggest writing challenge she’s faced. But it was worth it.

The final product is filled with  engaging narratives and lush illustrations.  The book opens with introductory material about the British Empire to lay the foundation for the 20 first-person accounts. Profiles include historical figures like Nanny (ca. 1680–ca. 1750), a Jamaican freedom fighter; Lin Zexu (1785–1850), who attempted to stop the British opium trade in China; William Cuffay (1788–1870), a leader in the Chartist movement in the UK; Sophia Duleep Singh (1870–1948), the daughter of the last Sikh emperor, who fought for women’s suffrage in Britain; and Kwame Nkrumah (1909–72), a Ghanaian revolutionary and politician.

The book also shows how people living in British colonies all over the world were connected by similar experiences and histories. Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), for instance, learned tactics to resist British control in India from suffragists in the UK. Historical context boxes expand on diverse topics, including Indigenous sovereignty, partition, residential schools, and assimilation.

“I hope that children will see that you don’t have to share identity with someone to feel like you share a struggle with them or that your stories are connected,” says Natarajan. This sentiment underscores the book’s intent: to get young readers excited about history and to show them that ordinary lives can have extraordinary impacts. “I think the most important thing is that you’re not telling these kids, things were bad, and now they’re good. But that [throughout] history, people thought about their conditions, as individuals, as communities, as nations. And they thought about how they could change them. Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they weren’t. I don’t think the people in the book were all heroes, but they are all people who did things.”

Natarajan hopes the book will help young readers to think historically, and to consider how each person’s actions can lead to collective change.

“You can’t just reduce everything to struggle and violence and oppression,” Natarajan says. “There has to be space for joy, too.”

In this time when the teaching of history faces book bans and restrictions, books like Hear Our Voices become critical tools. As Natarajan puts it, “[I]n our political moment right now there is a battle over the past.”

Natarajan believes it’s important for young people to understand history so they can better understand issues in the world today—issues that often seem overwhelming, even to adults. But stories give us what Raymond Williams called “resources of hope.” Hear Our Voices helps children understand that many people’s actions brought us to this present moment. When we learn about these histories, it becomes clear that every one of us, individually and collectively, has the power to shape the future.

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