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This International Day Of The Girl Child, which was on 11th October, I hope you decided to pick up some empowering books for girls. Here is a great list.
Stories are one of the best tools to empower children. When young boys and girls read books with strong female characters, it helps bridge the gender gap. With this in mind, we bring you a list of empowering books for girls that some acclaimed Indian authors for children and young adults recommend.
The first time I went looking for a book with a strong female character was 8 years back, when my preschooler came to me crying that she was made fun of in school for her dark skin. One of her classmates, another five year old, had told her that she could only be a wicked witch because one needs fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes to be a princess.
At that time we lived in the Silicon valley, the melting pot where every third person you bump into would be from India. Yet my daughter was singled out for her dusky complexion. Being a strong believer that there isn’t anything a good book can’t fix, I bought home from the library, I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont and Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell. These are the books that literally opened the flood gates for me!
I had always been an avid reader, but thinking back, up to that point my reading choices, be it children’s books or books for adults, have always been best sellers. It was a refreshing change from the patriarchal flavors that I was used to, to read about Molly Lou Melon who did not mind that people made fun of her appearance and the little girl in ‘I Like Myself’ say, ‘no person ever anywhere can make me feel that, what they see is all there really is to me’.
Since then we have have been on a mission to pick out empowering books for girls with strong female characters. Of the lot, the Amazing Grace series by Mary Hoffman, Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch, Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke, Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole, and Where The Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin, have been our evergreen favorites.
Shortly we moved continents and landed back in India just as the publishing industry in India was blossoming. Thanks to this, we discovered many more gems. Nabiya by Chatura Rao, Razia And The Pesky Presents by Natasha Sharma, Dear Mrs. Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian, The Mystery Of The Secret Hair Oil Formula by Asha Nehemiah, Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari, Vanamala And The Cephalopod by Shalini Srinivasan, A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman and the Apoorva series by Nandini Nayar are current favorites at our home.
So, for you, my readers, I approached some of our favourite Indian authors who write for children and young adults, about what they would choose as empowering books for girls, and here is the list I have compiled.
The Why-Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi, illustrated by Kanyika Kini
Text and illustrations work beautifully together to portray Moyna, a feisty young girl who can’t stop asking “Why?” Coming from a family of poor tribals, Moyna discovers that books hold the answers to her questions. She demands that school timings be changed so that she can finish her work grazing the goats before attending class. Most heart-warmingly, a grown up Moyna returns to work as a teacher in the tribal school thus becoming becomes a catalyst in empowering many children.
Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Priya Kuriyan
Spunky 9-year old Yasmin Kader is determined to save Book Uncle’s pavement lending library when the city asks him to close it. She galvanises the support of her warm and diverse neighbours, getting them to work together to achieve their aim. The magic of reading and the bonds of neighbourhood are conveyed beautifully in the book.
Asha Nehemiah’s books can be found here.
Queen Of Ice by Devika Rangachari
Queen of Ice is the story of Didda, the 10th century ruler of Kashmir, who overcame the twin obstacles of her gender and her physical lameness to ascend the throne in a male-dominated context. As the delineation of the past is normally male-centered and gender-blind, the story of this remarkable woman, who is otherwise routinely side-lined in historical narratives and accounts, becomes all the more important. Didda is no ordinary queen — she succeeds in rewriting history through her ambition, while maintaining her own in the turbulent political climate of her adoptive kingdom.
Mayil Will Not Be Quiet by Niveditha Subramaniam, Sowmya Rajendran
Mayil Will Not be Quiet transports us to the world of Mayil Ganeshan who is on the threshold of thirteen and eager to document the life around her as a step towards becoming a full-fledged writer. Feisty, thoughtful and wildly inquisitive, the endearing Mayil virtually leaps off the pages of this book into our hearts. Written in a journal format that is charming, candid and insouciant in turns, Mayil wittily describes her world, simultaneously exploring myriad issues such as gender, identity, and friction at home and school. And nothing can keep her from expressing her views: she will simply not be quiet!
Devika Rangachari’s books can be found here.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
This is a novel that has not one, but two memorable female characters. The narrative moves between past and present as it slowly unravels the story of Vivian Daly, the elderly woman whose attic is to be brought to order by teenage rebel Molly Ayer. In delving into Vivian’s past, Molly manages to come to terms with her own troubled life in the present.
I loved Orphan Train because it shows the reader that when there is absence of privilege and the path life takes is decided by forces beyond one’s control, even day to day survival becomes a matter of hanging on to the fraying rope of hope/ resilience. The book is about the triumph of human spirit and that’s what makes it such a winner for me.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
12-year-old Abilene Tucker is abandoned by her father. Here too the novel moves between the past and the present as the courageous young girl begins to realise that in order to reclaim her heartbroken father she has to understand the boy he was once. Moon Over Manifest, a 2011 Newberry medal winner, is an irresistible combination of adventure and mystery, of friendship and family drama, of emotion and pragmatism, of hope and redemption.
Revathi Suresh’s books can be found here.
Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken.
Although this is the second book in the 11-book Wolves series, this is the one where Dido makes her first appearance, (You have to really read the whole series to ‘get’ Dido, a most unlikely heroine.) Pure fantasy, masquerading as history, this swashbuckling series is set in an alternate period in English history. Highly recommended for its colourful characters, imaginative spills and chills and, above all, for showing how courage and friendship can rise above all the disadvantages of poverty and neglect.
Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan’s books can be found here.
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad
A breathtakingly beautiful picture book that captures the world’s greatest ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, in all her elegance and brilliance. With a dancer’s grace, words glide through the pages and pictures flow gently like a stream. This book carries an ethereal glory in its appeal.
It is a dedication to her ballet art, showcasing her life story from her poor and humble beginnings to how she travelled the world, sharing her dance with rich and poor alike. The story is rendered with a subtle poignancy and Julie Morstad’s illustrations shine all through with a certain understated panache. Swan will speak to budding ballerinas of 3 and up.
Praba Ram’s books can be found here.
The Battle for No. 19 by Ranjit Lal.
A group of school girls travelling through Delhi are caught in the violence that erupts after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. They hole up in an empty house but the world is full of demons; some screaming and eager to shed blood, and others within them, trying to tell them they can’t fight.
I recommend this book because it is a gripping tale that focuses on one of the darkest periods in Indian history. The eight girls all have their own fears and insecurities but Lal’s writing makes this a page turner, where every incident adds to the development of the characters. The story is fast-paced and the book ends with a truly nail-biting battle.
Apoorva’s Fat Diary by Nandini Nayar
The first book in the series, this narrates the events in the life of twelve-year-old Apoorva. Her quirkily written diary reveals the various facets of Apoorva’s home and school, and helps us cheer the girl who faces all the jokes and slights about her weight with such composure.
I recommend this book because I think Apoorva is a really strong character. Despite being bullied Apoorva is never the underdog; instead she infects us with the desire to be happy in our skins. Apoorva’s sangfroid is remarkable and eventually it is her ability to laugh at herself that wins us over and has us cheering her.
Nandini Nayar’s books can be found here.
Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay is a funny, heartwarming book about an eccentric family. The only boy, Indigo, cooks when the mother forgets to buy food. Eve Casson may well be the world’s worst cook and housekeeper, but she’s a loving mother.
For younger readers, Unprincess! by Manjula Padmanabhan with three stories about feisty unprincesses. My favourite is Urmila, who’s so ugly, she becomes an agent of Mass Horrification.
There’s also my book for ages 7+, Koobandhee – The Adventures of Bala and the Book-barfing Monster. In this sequel to Bookasura, Bala encounters Koobandhee, the headless one-eyed female monster. Koobandhee is loud, hairy and most unladylike, but beneath all that bluster there’s a vulnerable giant longing for friends.
Arundhati Venkatesh’s books can be found here.
Do let us know your favourite empowering books for girls, and your favourite fiesty girl characters in the comments section.
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