Middle-Grade Novels featuring South Asian Characters

As a writer of South Asian origin, I am always looking out for books that feature South Asian or middle-eastern characters. I interact with many middle-grade readers of South Asian descent in grades 4-8, so these books are of high interest. This post is about celebrating and sharing such books that were released in 2017 and also seeking out ways to find them.

Firstly, what makes a South Asian character? This means a book that features a character whose culture, people or heritage is portrayed from the southern region of the Asian continent. The countries and islands that make up South Asia are Tibet, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Sri Lanka.

Secondly, how many such books are out there? The CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education, University of Madison-Wisconsin) receives the majority of new U.S. trade books for children and teens each year, and provides information on the number of children’s books by and about people of color.  According to the 2016 statistics from CCBC, out of 3400 books that they received, 239 of them were by and about Asian Pacifics or Asian Pacific Americans. While it is fantastic that the number of diverse books is increasing by the year, the need for representation is still high.

Thirdly, what can we do to increase the visibility of these books? Ideally, all types of diverse books should be read and enjoyed by everyone. Therefore, here are some suggestions that are not limited to middle-grade readers of South Asian descent.

  1. Show up at diverse author events and buy the books.
  2. Read and share your views about these books with your family, friends, and on social media.
  3. Request or order the books for your schools and local libraries.
  4. Donate your time or money to organizations like We Need Diverse Books that work tirelessly to promote diverse literature.
  5. Add these books to the required reading lists so it helps kids recognize and celebrate different cultures.

With that said, here are some compelling 2017 novel recommendations, featuring South Asian characters and what the authors have to say about the stories:

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar : In her interview for NBC, Kelkar talked about the meaning of Ahimsa and the motivation behind writing the novel. She said, “I didn’t think much about activism when I was I child. I used to write letters to companies protesting things sometimes, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned that writing can be used for speaking up and speaking out. Ahimsa was a principle of nonviolence at a time when conflicts were generally solved through war. This was the first time this unique idea helped create a country. You don’t need to own a weapon to do this. It is within you.”

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan : Hena wrote about her inspiration for the book in her interview with Cynsations. She said, “I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. “

 

 

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari : Mixed-Up Files did an interview with Sheela Chari. Sheela talked about the interracial friendship in the novel. According to Sheela, the main character “Myla was more like her as a young person – a highly observant girl who felt largely unnoticed by the world.” She said, “Because she was so much like me, it made sense to make her Indian-American, with a family and lifestyle similar to my own. “

 

 

Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge : Kristi Wientge talked about why it was important for her to highlight her culture in the story at Yayomg. Kristy said, “I love highlighting things we think are SO different, but, in fact, are so, so similar to our “normal.” I’ve traveled and lived in China and England and now in Singapore and without fail, people from each place have a picture of what America is and what Americans are like and they seem to be blown away that I don’t fit neatly into any of those ideas and that I’m very much like they are.”

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani: Nidhi Chanani talked about her story, her art, and activism in an interview with the Horn Book. According to Nidhi, “There are many communities that are underrepresented within books and art. It creates a cycle of prejudice and isolation. Art and books that showcase underrepresented identities can shift our perceptions of difference, of ourselves, and inspire people to make more inclusive art.”

 

Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste: This story features a South Asian Character as the best friend to the main character. Tracey Baptiste talked to Sheri Larsen of Mixed-Up Files about how we can make a difference in the lives of middle schoolers. Tracy said that “Books that accurately represent different cultures and different stories are crucial now so that there isn’t an ingrained sense of “otherness” about people who don’t look the same, or who live differently.”

 

Step Up To The Plate, Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami: In her interview with Lee and Low, Uma Krishnaswami said that readers of this story “will see that community and caring cross boundaries of language and race. That friendship is a better choice than hatred and suspicion. I hope they will see that playing ball can be competitive but it can also be a way to come together and heal divisions.”

 

 

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi: Karuna talked to Hena Khan about what it means to have this book out, in terms of inclusion. In her interview for the School Library Journal, Karuna said, “It’s incredible to look back now and realize that I am actually an author, just like the other women of color authors. I always looked up to and dreamed about emulating with my words. I definitely wouldn’t have imagined it being with a book that represents the never-heard voice of Bangladeshi Americans.”

 

Which books on the list are you excited about reading? Please do share in the comments below.

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Suma Subramaniam
Suma Subramaniam works with children globally to promote education and is a WNDB volunteer. After a successful corporate career for many years, now, instead of chasing technical talent in the hi-tech industry, she chases characters in her fictional work for the most part of her time. Suma has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, a Certificate in Popular Fiction from the University of Washington, and advanced degrees in computer science and management.

Kirkus book picks for Middle School readers

Have you ever Googled yourself? Be honest.

I never have, and during a spell of boredom while watching Big Ten football last weekend, I did.

I’ve been blessed to wear many hats throughout my life, including children’s book festival founder, former city councilwoman and now, children’s book author. As I scrolled through various articles from over the years, a wonderful surprise popped up on my cell phone screen.

An article from Sacramento Parent shared a list of the Top 19 book picks for Middle School readers from Kirkus. It begged me to question why not the top 20 book picks, but I’m rolling with it.

What is most amazing is that my biography, Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller is included in the list. Pinch me.

Since this list was buried in my search, I thought it might be news to you as well. As opposed to listing all of the books, I’ve opted to highlight those that received a Starred review from Kirkus.

Some are older releases, some newer. If you have not read them, make sure to add these to your must-read list!

Wonder

R.J. Palacio, Knopf Books for Young Readers

The movie comes out in November, and if have yet to read this modern classic, make sure to pick up a copy before then!

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The book that inspired the Choose Kind movement.

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Ghost

Jason Reynolds, Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum
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A National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature.

Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel in a new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Running. That’s all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all started with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?

Quicksand Pond

Janet Taylor Lisle, Atheneum

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Newbery Honor winner Janet Taylor Lisle’s gorgeous and profound new novel about a pivotal summer in two girls’ lives explores the convictions we form, the judgments we make, and the values we hold.

The pond is called Quicksand Pond.

It’s a shadowy, hidden place, full of chirping, shrieking, croaking life. It’s where, legend has it, people disappear. It’s where scrappy Terri Carr lives with her no-good family. And it’s where twelve-year-old Jessie Kettel is reluctantly spending her summer vacation.

Jessie meets Terri right away, on a raft out in the water, and the two become fast friends. On Quicksand Pond, Jessie and Terri can be lost to the outside world—lost until they want to be found. But a tragedy that occurred many decades ago has had lingering effects on this sleepy town, and especially on Terri Carr. And the more Jessie learns, the more she begins to question her new friendship—and herself.

The Unexpected Life of Cromwell Pitts

Avi, Algonquin

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High adventure from a master storyteller about one boy’s attempt to fend for himself among cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves.

In the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, 1724, Oliver Cromwell Pitts wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. He’s alone in his ruined home with no money and no food. Oliver’s father has left behind a barely legible waterlogged note: he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in trouble. Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him, and he can’t resist the temptation to take it. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following the trail of his father and sister. The journey is full of thieves, adventurers, and treachery–and London might be the most dangerous place of all.

York: The Shadow Cipher

Laura Ruby, Walden Pond 

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From National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby comes an epic alternate history series about three kids who try to solve the greatest mystery of the modern world: a puzzle and treasure hunt laid into the very streets and buildings of New York City.

It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo, and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

Joplin, Wishing

Diane Stanley, HarperCollins
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A heartfelt and magical middle grade novel in the tradition of Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia,about family, wishes, and the power of true friends to work magic.

While cleaning out her reclusive grandfather’s house, Joplin discovers pieces of a broken platter in a cookie tin. After having the platter repaired, Joplin wishes that she could both find a friend at school, and befriend the girl pictured in the platter. The next day, Joplin befriends a boy named Barrett, and also notices a girl outside her apartment. A girl who looks remarkably like the girl in the platter…

The girl introduces herself as Sofie, and she has a terrible secret. Cursed to grant wishes for the owner of the platter for all of time, she has been trapped for centuries. Joplin and Barrett vow to help her, but freeing Sofie is more complicated than they could have imagined, and the three friends end up against a sinister foe who could put them all in terrible danger.

The Quest for Z

Greg Pizzoli, Viking Books for Young Readers

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From an award-winning author comes a picture book biography that feels like Indiana Jones for kids!

British explorer Percy Fawcett believed that hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest was an ancient city, lost for the ages. Most people didn’t even believe this city existed. But if Fawcett could find it, he would be rich and famous forever. This is the true story of one man’s thrilling, dangerous journey into the jungle, and what he found on his quest for the lost city of Z.

Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller

Julie K. Rubini, Ohio University Press
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Long before she wrote The House of Dies Drear, M. C. Higgins, the Great, and many other children’s classics, Virginia Hamilton grew up among her extended family near Yellow Springs, Ohio, where her grandfather had been brought as a baby through the Underground Railroad. The family stories she heard as a child fueled her imagination, and the freedom to roam the farms and woods nearby trained her to be a great observer. In all, Hamilton wrote forty-one books, each driven by a focus on “the known, the remembered, and the imagined”—particularly within the lives of African Americans.

Over her thirty-five-year career, Hamilton received every major award for children’s literature. This new biography gives us the whole story of Virginia’s creative genius, her passion for nurturing young readers, and her clever way of crafting stories they’d love.

Julie K. Rubini
Julie K. Rubini is the author of Hidden Ohio, Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist, and her latest, Virginia Hamilton: America's Storyteller, which received a Starred review from Kirkus. She is also the Founder of Claire's Day, Ohio's largest children's book festival.
www.julierubini.com and www.clairesday.org

If I Taught Writing: What I Learned About Teaching Writing from Becoming a Writer…and a Mother

The other day, my six-year-old son and I serendipitously ended up at a classic-car show in our downtown. I didn’t really know he was even that interested in cars. But he was and asked me to take a couple of pictures of him with cars and even a picture of an engine (I think it was an engine).

That night he had me take one more picture of him “working” and then asked me to print the pictures. I was sure they would end up somewhere random, such as crumpled in his pocket or stuck between couch cushions. Instead, that same night he showed me a book he had made all on his own.

If you’re familiar with Chris Van Dusen’s If I Built a Car, you will notice my son follows a similar structure to Van Dusen’s book, even to the end (“If I built a car, that’s just what I’d do.”) The ideas, though, were all my son’s. This is not a child who normally sits down to write for pleasure. But there’s a lot I learned from this experience.

I am a former elementary and middle school teacher. I actually left teaching to pursue a career in writing as well as to start a family. What I’ve learned is that when I return to teaching (it’s inevitable I will), I will definitely teach writing differently.

Here are some tips I have for teaching writing to elementary and middle school students. In other words: If I taught again I would do the following:

  1. As a writer, if I’m not inspired, I’m not inspired. I put my work-in-progress to the side and come back to it when I’m ready.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I wouldn’t expect students to pump out a product when they’re just uninspired. I’d have students do something different for a bit (even something not writing related) and try again later.
  2. Whenever I get inspired by something I see, I try to write it down before I forget it.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students keep a running list of topics. They’d have access to their list to add to it throughout the day. It wouldn’t have to include only topics, either. It could be a funny sentence or the name of a character, etc.
  3. When I’m stuck for an idea, I look at picture books to see if they inspire me. Sometimes I even attempt to write in a similar style to one.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d allow students to write “fan fiction.” If they liked a book, I’d have them do a spin-off of it (for instance, my son’s spin-off of If I Built a Car). Then they wouldn’t have to worry about inventing characters or inventing a plot. They could focus on other aspects of writing.
  4. I find that when I’m running, I get all sorts of ideas (such as the idea for this post!). It clears my mind and allows ideas to flow.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students work on discovering how they can clear their mind. How can they become inspired? Does drawing help? Running? Bouncing ideas off peers?
  5. Unless I’m typing, I am not working at my desk. I edit on my couch in front of the fireplace, and I work through plot issues by spreading my manuscript out on my floor.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that writing at a desk doesn’t work for everybody. I’d allow students to test out different ways of working.

    My second office.

  6. I find a lot of value from reading mentor texts. I learn about different formats, styles of writing, etc. I see what good writing looks like.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have kids use books as much as they could as inspiration for their own writing. If they are writing nonfiction, I’d let them tear apart the nonfiction section of the library. Which book formats do they like? What writing styles do they like? I’d have them do the same with narratives. They would look at humorous books and sweet books and scary books.
  7. Most of my time as a writer isn’t spent writing new material; it’s doing revisions.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I would change the focus of editing away from the grammar. Instead, I’d spend time on how to both add and cut text. I’d do an exercise in trimming a longer piece to figure out what’s really crucial to what they are writing. I’d have them make every word count.

    How I edit a novel. Assistant pictured in background.

  8. Writing fiction requires lots of research. With my latest novel on sled dog racing, I interviewed many mushers, attended sled dog races, and looked up the correct wording on websites.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students do research even when writing fiction. There must be something they need to look up or verify.
  9. Experts are the best source for fact checking. No matter how much book and online research I’ve done on a topic, when I show an expert my work, they find a better way to word something or find a part that should be tweaked.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that kids are even experts on something. A lesson I’d love to try out: have students write down topics they’re experts on (skateboarding, sewing, etc.) Then give one of their topics to a student who’s not an expert in it. Have that student write about it as best they can without any resources. Then have the expert read and edit it for accuracy and word choice.
  10. So going back to my son. I think the biggest lesson I learned about teaching writing is from being a mother. My children watch me write day and night. They see that when I have some spare time, I write—even on vacation. That’s because I really love writing. I did not ask my son to write about his experience at the car show. I think he chose to make a book because he saw me making books.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d be sure to write when my students are writing. I’d share my work-in-progress with them. I’d show them that writing isn’t just something you do in school. It’s a way to express yourself: your likes, your dislikes, your beliefs.

So if I taught again, that’s just what I’d do!

I also asked my fellow middle grade authors, What tips do you have on teaching writing as a writer yourself? Here’s what they said:

Ditch the “trade and grade” style of peer editing and form mini-critique groups in teams of 4. One child reads while the other three follow along, writing down suggestions and then discussing before moving on to the next student’s turn.
– Kym Brunner, author of Flip the Bird

I wish we had done more fun writing exercises in 5th grade. My main advice is, let them have some fun by creative writing. Schools are so focused on structure and preparing for the tests, that writing for fun, is often overlooked.
– Jonathan Rosen, author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

Sit down. Then, no matter how much you want to, don’t stand up until you’ve written something.
– Darcy Miller, author of ROLL

Every first draft is bad. The magic is in rewriting.
– Kristin L. Gray, author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge

The hero and the villain in a story either both want the same thing for different reasons, or different things for the same reason. Either way, they’re reflections of each other.
– Katie Slivensky, author of The Countdown Conspiracy

Your writing will never be perfect. But you can always make it better.
– Beth McMullen, author of Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls

Writer’s block could mean that you’re focusing too hard on the wrong things. Back up and try looking at the writing from a different angle.
– Allison K. Hymas, author of Under Locker and Key

Sometimes it’s helpful to plan a story out before you write, but it’s also a-ok to start writing the story and figure it out as you go. The important part is to revise carefully once the first draft is finished.
– Lindsey Becker, author of The Star Thief

It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
– Gareth Wronski, author of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy

If you confront three of your characters with an identical problem, each should solve it in their own way. What they do tells us so much about who they are!
– Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity

You don’t have to write every single day to be a writer. Thinking and reading counts too.
– Carter Higgins, author of A Rambler Steals Home

No matter how challenging or scary it may seem, it’s important to write a story from the heart—it will make the writing stronger!
– R. M. Romero, author of The Dollmaker of Kraków

Be kind to your curiosity. Embrace the moments when you think, “I wonder…” – especially when the “I wonder” seems silly and strange and like no one else will care.
-Patricia Bailey, author of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan

Go for a walk, go to the park or the grocery store or anyplace new and soak up the sensory details. Take notes on the sights, sounds, and smells–they will make your writing come alive!
-Christine Hayes, author of Mothman’s Curse

When teaching setting, I like to use the “5 Senses Rule.” Does your story have details the character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste? If not, you may want to work more on the setting.
– Hannah Kates, author of Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key

So here’s a tip I give to all aspiring writers, young and old: the most important question a writer can ask themselves as they’re developing their story idea or even just when they have that “spark” of an idea is “What If?” That question is the engine that drives the plot. What if there were a young boy who’s parents were dead? And what if he lived with these really terrible relatives? And what if he discovered on his birthday that he was, in fact, a wizard? Oh! And what if there was a wizarding school? I like giving that example of how JK Rowling asked and explored “what if” when she wrote Harry Potter.
– Bobbie Pyron author of many middle grade novels, including the upcoming A PUP CALLED TROUBLE.

What tips do you have for teaching writing?

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Natalie Rompella on FacebookNatalie Rompella on TwitterNatalie Rompella on Wordpress
Natalie Rompella
Natalie is the author of more than forty books and resources for kids. Her newest book, COOKIE CUTTERS & SLED RUNNERS (Sky Pony Press), is her first middle grade novel. Visit her website at www.natalierompella.com