Celebrating MENASA Stories in the Classroom: An Interview with Sarina Marzbani, Founder of Read and Write to Unite

In this article, we interview Sarina Marzbani, founder of Read and Write to Unite, about championing children’s literature centering Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia (MENASA).

Why do you want to elevate children’s stories centering MENASA culture and people?

Sarina Marzbani: Growing up, I never saw a character like myself in the books I read or in shows and movies I watched. Either they simply did not exist or were based on negative stereotypes. I remember feeling unimportant and ashamed. Now that I am older, I know these feelings, which no child deserves to feel, were the consequence of underrepresentation or negative portrayals of my community in the stories being told in literature and media.

This is problematic because stories provide readers with information and role models. This understanding, combined with my strong desire to ensure young children who look like me do not feel how I felt, serves as the core of my mission to elevate children’s stories featuring MENASA culture and people.

My goals are two-fold.  First, I want to promote stories that will increase confidence and self-worth, give a sense of pride, and empower MENASA children. Second, I want to expose children of other cultures to characters, ideas, and experiences different from their own, thereby teaching them empathy and encouraging tolerance and acceptance.

What criteria do you consider when selecting stories to feature?

Sarina Marzbani: The main criteria I use to select stories are that the characters are represented fairly and accurately and that they positively portray MENASA people. Whether it is a nonfiction piece about a role model or a fictional story, I want MENASA children to read about a person whom they can identify with, such as someone who looks like them or shares the same experiences. Seeing themselves in books will make them feel that they belong in society and that they matter. I also hope these books will benefit all children by bringing about conversations about a culture different from their own.

Currently, you are focused on children’s books for ages 5-12. What is special about these age groups? What is worrisome about the available books for these age groups?

Sarina Marzbani: Research has shown children’s perceptions of themselves and others begin in infancy. According to research by Yale University, toddlers already use racial differences to form judgments about people by age 3. Children 7 to 8 years old experience an improvement in racial attitudes when they become more understanding of the idea that people can share both differences and similarities, as mentioned in a 2024 Parents article.

Older children are also exposed to racial injustices and stereotypes in the media. These critical years are when perceptions are shaped and reading skills develop. This is why I have chosen to focus on children’s books targeting 5 to 12-year-olds. It is the perfect age range to expose them to representation in children’s books; not only will these books educate, but they can be used to empower and explore diversity, differences, and issues of racism like stereotypes in a child-friendly way.

Although in recent years we have seen more characters representing different ethnicities in children’s books, the number of diverse books is still far from reflecting the reality for children in America, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin statistics from 2022. Furthermore, not all ethnic groups are represented equally and fairly. Out of 3,173 US-published children’s books, only 24 books (less than 1%) were about Arabs, an ethnic group that belongs to the MENASA community. The data also shows that there are more books about certain ethnic groups than books written by a member of that group; this can create opportunities for stereotyped characters or create false perceptions about the ethnicities the stories are supposed to be representing.

These worrisome facts about books available to children are the reasons I am trying to highlight MENASA books that promote the community’s culture and people in an accurate and positive light.

You are collecting original stories from students K-6. What do you hope to see there? What would you like to do with these stories?

Sarina Marzbani: On the Read and Write to Unite website, there is a section titled “Write A Story,” which is a place for children to share their unique MENASA stories. I believe the best way to make sure literature is more representative of reality and more respectful of the identities of MENASA children is if they become the authors of their own stories.

I hope children will write about their own authentic experiences with characters like themselves and share their needs, thoughts, and dreams. I would like to keep these stories available on the website so they can serve as models for other children. Peers who see through the same eyes as the writer will feel validated and not alone, and peers who do not will have their eyes opened to a culture unlike their own. The goal is for children to have a safe space to have their voices heard, better understand each other, and celebrate their unique differences.

As part of your mission to increase access to children’s books representing the MENASA community, you make visits to elementary schools to donate books featured on your website. Why is this important to you? What has been the reception to the books?

Sarina Marzbani: Visiting elementary schools and donating books have truly been my favorite parts of my project! We know how important representation is in a child’s development and growth, and books are an excellent tool to achieve this.

However, tools are only effective if they are in the hands of those who can use them. That is why I am personally delivering books featured on the website directly to classrooms. I am focusing on grades K–3 because reading is a foundational and essential subject in those early school years.

Whether the students are selecting a book from their classroom library or the teacher is reading a book to the class for story time, I want to make sure a MENASA story is available to them as one of their choices. The reception to receiving the books has been great, but I am happy to say the reception from hearing the stories has been even greater!

I have had the opportunity to read picture books selected from the website to the classrooms I’ve donated to, and the fact that the students were fully attentive and enjoyed the stories shows how engaging these wonderful books are. It was amazing to see the eyes of MENASA children light up with pride and exude a sense of importance as they saw themselves as the main character in the pages of a book.

I also love that the stories stimulated conversations that help all children understand a different culture. The experience has given me tremendous hope that the simple act of reading diverse books can connect us and encourage the next generation to be empathetic, respectful, and accepting of every human, no matter who they are.

Sarina Marzbani is a rising sophomore in high school and founder of Read and Write to Unite. The mission is changing the MENASA narrative, one page at a time. She increases access to MENASA children’s literature by highlighting stories without negative stereotypes and donates books to local schools. Learn more at Read and Write to Unite.