I first found this picture book through Betsy Bird’s excellent blog for School Library Journal called Fuse 8, in a post she did as part of her 31 Days, 31 Lists series. For this post she listed 2020 Nonfiction Picture Books. The field of children’s literature is wide and deep and rich, and how wonderful are the people who make lists like this for us to mine and discover new treasures? If you haven’t found Betsy Bird and her blog yet, I highly recommend it. Your library cart will always be full and your bookshelves will sag with goodness.
Why does Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon by Simran Jeet Singh and illustrated by Baljinder Kaur have a spot on my bookshelf? Why did it give me goosebumps the first time I read it? Not only is it an incredible story, but it has some uncanny similarities to the book I coauthored with Rebeka, Her Own Two Feet. In Fauja Keeps Going, he is born in a small village unable to walk, just like Rebeka. In one of the first illustrations of the book, Fauja is pictured sitting under a tree eating a mango. In our book, we talk about Rebeka sharing a mango with her sister, Medeatrece.
Fauja’s mother encourages him with the words “Today is the chance to do your best,” a refrain that comes back later in the text. In our book, Rebeka’s father tells her “Chance comes once,” a phrase that is also repeated throughout the book. After years of crawling on the ground, Fauja teaches himself how to walk, just as Rebeka teaches herself how to walk. In the illustrations, a butterfly flutters around Fauja as he takes his first step, and then another, and that butterfly appears at the end of the book as well. A butterfly is a powerful symbol in Her Own Two Feet! In both books, Fauja and Rebeka fly across the ocean to countries where they don’t speak the language and encounter hardships they eventually overcome as they make new friends and learn new skills. Are you catching all this? The “chance” refrain, learning to walk, butterflies, flying across the ocean . . . do you have goosebumps?
Both of our books have themes of resilience, perseverance and strength. They deal with overcoming rejection, and the importance of faith. I can’t wait to share Fauja Singh Keeps Going with Rebeka next time I see her. One significant difference is that the picture book doesn’t stop when Fauja is still young. As the subtitle explains, the book shares the story of how Fauja leaves his village for the first time at age 81, runs his first marathon at age 89, and finishes the Toronto Marathon at age 100. Rebeka is just 18 years old, and her future spreads before her with great promise and possibility. What a wonder to find a book with so many similarities, and what a delight that a Sikh man born in India, and a Christian girl born in Rwanda, would share so much in common. If only they could meet over a cup of tea and a plate of ripe mango, the friendship that would bloom and the stories they would trade!