“The Best Stories Are The Ones You Know Yourself”

Tea Country Sri Lanka 2012Last week, one of my seven-year-old twins came home from school with a beautiful book, Frederick Lipp’s Tea Leaves, which she chose because, in her words, “It’s about tea, and we drink a lot of tea.”* Yes, we do. As it turns out, though, this book has a closer connection to our family: It takes place in Sri Lanka.

I am half Sri Lankan, making my red-headed daughters a quarter. At 7-years-old, they are already tired of explaining where Sri Lanka is on a map to their well-intentioned peers (“It’s that tear drop island under India!”). We haven’t taken them to visit yet, so their knowledge of the country comes mostly from maps, family members’ stories, books, and their imaginations. Tea Leaves helps them imagine what their grandmother’s homeland is like.

The beautifully illustrated story features Shanti, a nine-year-old child from Sri Lanka’s mountainous tea region. She lives on an island, but has never seen the sea. Her mother, a low wage plantation worker** who also hasn’t seen the sea, encourages Shanti to explore her curiosity by asking her uncle to tell her stories about the Indian Ocean. Uncle Nochi, who takes the tea leaves from the mountains to the coast by train, has seen the sea many times.

Tea Leaves ThumbnailShanti says to him, “Amma says you told her stories about the sea. Will you tell me stories?”

“Hah,” he replies, “the best stories are the ones you know yourself,” thus encouraging Shanti to see the ocean for herself. The question is whether her family can afford the trip.

This picture book, intended for children ages 6+, couldn’t have come at a better time for my daughters. They recently came home from school asking what race they are. Well, that’s not the easiest question to answer. Racial classifications, based on social construction masquerading as genetics, have always been highly controversial. Most people look at my daughters and assume that they’re white, but their background is much more than their skin color.

I tell my daughters that we’re multi-racial, and then delve into a description of the ethnicities that make us who we are, including Sri Lankan, Irish, and Sioux. None of it is new information to them, but they never really cared much about our background before. Since learning at school about Martin Luther King, Jr., and thus also learning about why he means so much to our history, they are now interested in the question.

Tea Leaves offers my daughters a glimpse into a part of their background. Shanti lives in a different region from where our relatives live, but she is a fictional friend my daughters associate with their heritage. Just as Uncle Nochi says, though, real-life experiences are best. We’ll have to take our daughters to Sri Lanka as soon as possible.

*It’s illustrated by Lester Coloma.

**This book also encourages a discussion about poverty and labor conditions. It made my daughters think about how hard people have to work for our cups of tea.

***Images: My youngest sister took these pictures on her trip to Sri Lanka in December 2011/January 2012. The top picture is from tea country. The bottom picture is the Indian Ocean.

Indian Ocean


  1. I really like the sound of this book. What a great one for jump starting several good conversations!

    Growing up, my parents made a big effort to teach my brother and I about other cultures and traditions. I’m sure it helped that we were raised in a pretty diverse city. I want that for my daughter too.

    Are you familiar with Mystica (as if you could know every book blogger out there)? She is a book blogger who lives in Sri Lanka. She sometimes adds in tidbits about her life–like the recent election–but mostly talks about books. I may have told you this before, but I once had a pen pal from Sri Lanka. He was living in Saudi Arabia, however.

    1. I am not familiar with Mystica, but I will look her up (thank you!). I haven’t been to Sri Lanka in a long time, but we’re planning to take the girls there in a few years. It’s a long trip. It’s interesting that you had a pen pal from there. Coincidentally, several of my Sri Lankan cousins used to live in Saudi Arabia (now they live in Canada).

  2. I love the images in your post. Your sister has a good eye but I bet anywhere in that country has wonderful scenery and views. Your daughters are really growing up with a multi-cultural education too with all that you and your husband have provided for them through the years. I think a great lesson is in that book, “the best stories are the ones you know yourself.” It teaches kids to be creative, original and adventurous among many other lessons to learn.

  3. The issue of labor for tea is repeated throughout the world in the spice trade and in coffee. At least coffee has gotten into the issue of Fair Trade. I hope tea soon does also. And I am delighted that your daughters found the book on their own, and not had it given them by a relative. Their discovery is all the more sweet.

  4. It’s really looks like a beautiful book. It sounds like a pretty interesting heritage and combination your daughters have there… and a lot of different exciting backgrounds that are so much linked to them.

  5. It’s interesting to hear about when children first learn about different races. I know when I was a kid, I didn’t notice it at all. It’s also good to hear how people tell their children about their cultures. I know I’m going to have a similar conversation with my daughter someday since she has a big mix of different cultures in her. Some Eastern European, some Western European, some Taiwanese, and some Chinese.

    And what a beautiful picture!

    1. Thank you! Race is one of the more challenging discussions to have with children. My daughters have long known that their skin color is different from mine and from many of their friends (we live in a very diverse school district a few blocks away from a majority-minority city), but those observations didn’t prompt larger discussions until recently. Books with multicultural themes have been very helpful!

  6. Nice story and pictures. For sports watchers the best window into Sri Lanka is of course their excellent cricket team who have risen from nowhere 20 years ago to be among the world’s best today.

  7. Beautiful pictures! It sounds like a lovely story and a wonderful way for your daughters to become even better acquainted with their heritage.

    1. Thanks, Jaclyn! I love the story and the illustrations, though I will admit that it’s also made me feel a little guilty for enjoying my tea when so many real-life workers like Shanti’s mother are paid so little for their labor.

    1. It really is a beautiful country. I haven’t been there for a long time. My mother and sisters go pretty regularly, though. It’s a lot harder to travel now that I have a job and three children, but we just have to make it a priority.

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