Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is a Philadelphia-based children’s author and educator, with 15 years of experience teaching kids and teens in traditional and alternative learning settings. As an inaugural fellow with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, she developed curricular frameworks for youth and adult anti-racist programming. In her new picture book, Sister Friend, illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani, two students of color find comfort and community together in their majority white school. Here, the author reflects on the personal classroom experiences that inspired her book.

It’s become a powerful mantra of social justice spaces: “Joy is an act of resistance.” I underline and bold that truth, then venture to add to it: our collective joy is resistance.

While the inspiration for Sister Friend comes from a painful childhood experience, it is the collective joy I found with kids like me, despite that pain, that drove me to write this book. I began writing this story about being racially excluded because I found many similar narratives lacked the role of other marginalized children. The stories often go something like this: first, a Black/Muslim/Asian/pick-any-variety-of-non-white child is excluded from the group. Some stuff happens and then, it ends with white kids taking pity on this child and realizing they should include them. The white kids save them.

What’s often missing from these stories are the ways in which marginalized kids (and adults) find each other and form friendships. What’s missing is how we in our weekend schools, family gatherings, affinity groups, and even within classrooms and workspaces grab moments of happiness together. We bolster each other and form collectives that challenge the harm of racist spaces. We insist on seeing each other when those same spaces are designed to make us invisible. We save us.

Told through the fictional character of Ameena, Sister Friend is the semi-autobiographical story of six-year-old me, entering first grade as the only Black girl in the class. It’s the story about that little girl enduring months of silence because no one would speak to her unless it was to say something unkind. I still remember some of the little elementary school jabs that weren’t overtly race-related but nevertheless, made me feel my difference. Sister Friend is my recollection of learning how to make myself small and unnoticeable because my presence felt too heavy and conspicuous in that all-white class. Disappearing made me less of a target. And yes, all of that was painful.

Still, I remember in those days the joy of going to the masjid and suddenly being able to appear in my fullness again. I recall becoming loud in the play areas and how I “leaped unbound” as Ameena does with other kids like me. As a girl, I needed that space of shared exuberance. Sister Friend is the story of that space.

Sister Friend comes from one other core memory of that first-grade year. My teacher sent me out of the room to give a note to another teacher. There should have been nothing remarkable enough to remember about that. However, once in the other classroom, I noticed a girl no one else seemed to see. The kids in the room talked and laughed around her while she was silent. She didn’t look up at me, but I could see that she looked sad. And I realized I felt sad too. A myriad of things could have caused that pained look on her face. Six-year-old me was sure of the reason though: our different hair and brown skin meant being lonely.

I felt sad but I felt hope. For weeks, I looked for her on the playground. I looked for a friendship. For a moment of shared joy.

Unfortunately, true life isn’t as neat as a picture book plot. The other girl’s class never seemed to be on the playground with my class. And soon after, my parents transferred me and my siblings because they were worried about the lack of diversity. In my new school, another Black girl immediately claimed me as her bestie. I easily made friends of all racial backgrounds and ethnicities. The memory of the other girl and our shared sadness, I thought, was gone.

During an interview a few years ago, I was asked about my earliest memory of racism. I pictured the girl in the other classroom and described that moment. I didn’t expect to cry. I didn’t know the tears for her (or was it for me? for us?) had even been there. I’ve since wondered what happened to her. When I’d go to a school visit and in the audience a visibly different child—racially or otherwise—seemed to sit apart, trying to disappear, the story of Sister Friend would nudge me. I’d feel sad but I’d feel hope.

I hope and pray that the girl in the other classroom found her spaces too. I hope that educators today are actively noticing the same kids I notice and that in their discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, they understand that even our youngest children can feel excluded. Those kids need intentional opportunities to collect and feel joy. I hope to tell a tale that allows such kids to share in the joy of Ameena and Sundus, because in that story they are centered. In the story, they are hopeful, persistent, and euphoric about collective joy. And I sincerely wish for new narratives that teach kids and educators of dominant groups to not expect to always be the focus, but rather to question how they might be more thoughtful about including and seeing the kids who disappear in their classrooms every day.

Sister Friend by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illus. by Shahrzad Maydani. Abrams, $18.99, May ISBN 978-1-4197-6721-0