A 2011 study at Dartmouth College that looked at 5600 children’s books published in the US in the 20th century found that only 31% of these books had girls as the central characters. Thankfully the representation of women and girls in children’s books is getting better and we have seen some strong female characters in the recent past. A few years ago, the Association of American Publishers ranked Children’s/Young Adult books as the fastest growing publishing category. Avoiding the debate on the labels “teen” and “YA” and keeping to a broad 12+ age category, here are some of my picks of Indian YA books published in 2016 and 2017 with central female characters or well rounded female characters.
- Asmara’s Summer by Andaleeb Wajid (Penguin India, 2016): Bangalore based author, Andaleeb Wajid sets her novel within a real space in the city. She thought of the story when in an auto passing by Tannery Road. Her seventeen-year-old protagonist Asmara, has a secret that she wants no one in her college to know: that her grandparents live by Tannery Road, an area known for its lower middle-class Muslim population. She is forced to spend her summer vacation with them and this forms the timeline for the novel in which the author deftly handles differences in socio-economic class through the eyes of her young protagonist.
- Tanya Tania by Antara Ganguli (Bloomsbury India, 2016): Though written on a Goa beach during the monsoon, the author takes us back to Mumbai and Karachi of the 1990s against the backdrop of political violence. The novel is a story of two young women, children of college best friends who are encouraged to get to know each other. The girls - Tanya Talati in Karachi and Tania Ghosh in Mumbai eventually divulge details about their personal lives and share their ambitions with each other. The novel also brings out the political realities of the two countries through the two relatively privileged protagonists. Written completely in the form of letters spanning a period of 6 years, Ganguli weaves together a heart-wrenching narrative.
- Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb Books, 2017): The only non-fiction book on this list, Girl Rising centred on the eponymous Girl Rising, a global campaign for girl education that created a film chronicling the lives of nine girls in the developing world. Author Lee Stone, uses additional research focusing on these nine girls and others examining barriers to education including factors like early child marriage, sex trafficking, poverty and gender discrimination. Though it is questionable if education by itself without a large set of accompanying conditions can really create a transformative change in the lives of these girls, the book through its infographics, photos alongside a compelling narrative sets the ground to begin important conversations.
- The Sorcerer of Mandala by D Kalyanaraman (Yali Books, 2016): Unlike the other titles in this list, this is a comical, light read with the publishers describing the book as a quirky fantasy novel suitable for ages 14 and up. The story is set in Orum, a town suddenly isolated from the rest of civilization. To save Orum, Vikram, his reluctant fiancée Ponni and his friends a thief and an aspiring playwright must steal a jewel that hangs around the neck of a demonic goddess guarded by her devotee, a terrifying Sorcerer. With each chapter opening with an illustration by Raghava KK, the novel becomes a particularly engaging read.
- Unbroken by Nandhika Nambi (Duckbill, 2017): The YA fiction space has witnessed a growing number of teen authors and Unbroken goes into that list with Nambi writing it in the six month gap between finishing school and joining medical college. A couple of years later, Nambi who had already self-published two novels, sent out Unbroken to publishers with Duckbill eventually taking on the novel. The story engages with some important issues around disability with the protagonist Akriti, confined to a wheelchair following an accident. The story follows her interactions with her brother, parents, and friends and her constantly feeling as though confined to a prison surrounded by them all with nowhere to escape.
So far 2017 has also seen a large number of international books in the YA category depicting the South Asian experience. With us living increasingly global lives, you might find these titles in literature of the Indian diaspora relatable and I have picked one of them for this list.
- Rani Patel in Full Effect by Sonia Patel (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016): Rani Patel in Full Effect is the first young adult novel by Sonia Patel, a US-based psychiatrist who works with children and adults. Rani is a daughter of Gujarati immigrants living on a Hawaiian island often feeling isolated and unhappy. Her only comfort is when performing hip hop. Through Hawaiian, Hawaiian pidgin, Gujarati as well as hip-hop slang, Rani tells you her tale filled with themes of insecurities, love, and incest. This is set against a narrative that includes her parents failing marriage and an older man who is interested in Rani and eventually leads her to an underground hip hop crew.
I grew up on a generous share of Roald Dahls and Judy Blumes and after rapidly making my way through the children’s titles in my school library and local bookstore, I graduated to general fiction without really engaging with the fiction category written solely for teenagers. I am now making up for lost time and consistently add YA fiction to my reading list. Here are two upcoming YA novels that I am particularly looking forward to.
- You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (FSG Books for Young Readers, release date 12th Sept 2017): Perkins has written numerous novels in the YA category with South Asian characters like Bamboo People and Secret Keeper. Her upcoming YA novel tells the story of one Indian-American family through teen voices spanning across three generations. The themes tackled through the lives of these five women include cultural identity, a biracial love affair, and environmental activism could appeal to a large audience.
- Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (First Second, release date 3rd Oct 2017): Chanani is an Indian American artist and illustrator and her upcoming graphic novel will explore what it means to engage with the two identities and culture through her young protagonist Pri. Through the discovery of a magic pashmina owned by her mother, Pri finds out about her mother’s past, her life in India, who her father is and why her mother left him behind. Considering that only few graphic novels engage with these particular themes, this could add some diversity to your reading list.
Many adults confess to reading in the YA genre, so don’t let being older than early twenties stop you from picking up one of these titles the next time you are at a bookstore!