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South Asian YA Books That Stole 2021

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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The past year has seen some wonderful young adult books being released by South Asian writers and illustrators. With diverse themes ranging from climate conservation to monsters, Indian history, music, extraordinary lives, and courage, we curated a list of the top ten YA books of 2021.  

1. Coral Woman (HarperCollins, 9-11 years): 

This unique book tells the true story of 50-year-old homemaker, Uma Mani, who found the courage to dive in the deep seas and see the corals that fascinated her. She went on to paint these corals and became a passionate advocate of coral conservation. Based on a film by the same name by independent documentary filmmaker Priya Thuvassery, the book is a one-of-a-kind look at India’s coral reefs, highlighting various facts about them and the dangers they face which impact marine life and the coastal communities. 

Written by Lubaina Bandukwala, who is the founder of the Peek A Boo Literature Festival for kids, the book is illustrated by Mumbai-based picture book artist Sanket Pethkar. The book also features some beautiful illustrations created by children between the ages of 9-14 years who participated in Coral Woman, a sketching and book illustration workshop facilitated by children’s illustrator Zainab Tambawalla, conceptualized and presented by Avid Learning.

2. Jukebox (HarperCollins, 11+ years):

A mysterious handcrafted time-traveling jukebox, old vinyl records, and cryptic notes on music history are Shaheen’s only clues to her father’s disappearance. For their search, she and her cousin, Tannaz, are transported to different eras of music history—from political marches to landmark concerts. A surefire treat for all lovers of music, this roller coaster ride of a delightful graphic book connects the notes of music, history, and memory. 

San Francisco-based Nidhi Chanani is the author of Pashmina and Shubh Raatri Dost/Good Night Friend as well as the illustrator of I Will Be Fierce. Born in Kolkata and raised in California, Nidhi creates illustrations that capture love in everyday moments, which are often featured at Disney Parks. In 2012, she was honored by the Obama administration as a Champion of Change. 

3. India’s Freedom Story (HarperCollins, 10+ years):

As India completes 75 years of independence, this comprehensive book looks back and celebrates the extraordinary stories that brought our country freedom from British rule. Tracing the journey of a nation’s history, the book brings alive key episodes of the struggle, such as the arrival of the East India Company, Gandhi’s emergence as a leader, the Salt Satyagraha, Partition, and the formation of the Indian Constitution. It also recounts the role of eminent political thinkers and freedom fighters, such as Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Abul Kalam Azad, and Vallabhbhai Patel. The book goes on to further explore the broader idea of freedom and its significance for today’s youth, highlighting contemporary movements, and focusing on global figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela as well as more recent ones such as Greta Thunberg. 

A child psychologist, writer, and critic of children’s books, Ira Saxena has written fiction and non-fiction in Hindi and English for children of all ages and adults. A well-known author for children, Nilima Sinha has written several award-winning books. She writes in both English and Hindi, and her books have been included in the International White Ravens catalog by the International Youth Library. A self-taught artist, Arun Pottirayil is an illustrator with more than twenty years of experience in digital and hand-drawn illustrations. Vancouver-based Sukriti Sobti is a graphic designer with several years of experience in the book publishing industry.   

4. Pedru and the Big Boom (Kalpavriksh, 8+ years):

The village is invaded by a mysterious gang of ear-shattering diggers. Even though he loves his quiet Goan village, young Pedru is curious about life beyond it and wants to be an explorer. When his grand plan to escape turns topsy turvy, he discovers that he has set loose a chain of events, which will put his entire village in danger. Find out what happens when Pedru stays back and confronts this gang. Accompanied by some lovely black-and-white sketches, this story is an emotional rollercoaster that takes you through the struggle of one boy and his village against a powerful opponent, to save their beloved land. In putting together the book, the author looked up many sources of information on the social and environmental impact of mining in Goa and other mining regions of India. 

Mumbai-based award-winning author Nandita Da Cunha has previously published picture books and fantasy novels for children. She was among 14 playwrights selected to attend the Writer’s Bloc 4 playwriting program, conducted by the Royal Court Theatre, London, in collaboration with Rage Theatre, Mumbai. Bengaluru-based freelance illustrator, writer, designer, translator, and copywriter Niharika Shenoy has created teaching aids and illustrated content for magazines and websites as well as communication material for not-for-profits. 

5. Born Behind Bars (Penguin Random House, 8-12 )

Kabir Khan, our bright young narrator, is born in prison in Chennai and is a child of dualities. His mother is a low-caste Hindu trapped in a system that imprisoned her for a theft she didn’t commit, and his father, whom he has never met, is a Muslim who wed his mother secretly because of their religion. Kabir also is bilingual, speaking Kannada (his parents’ language) and Tamil. Having grown up in confinement, he dreams of the freedom of the outside world based on what he sees on TV and hears in his mother’s stories.

Born Behind Bars is the powerful and instructive middle-grade companion novel to Padma Venkatraman‘s fourth book The Bridge Home. She continues to explore child homelessness, families of choice, birth and caste, religious, and cultural differences. This time, she also examines a prejudicial and broken justice system and how it affects children.

6. Reva and Prisha (Scholastic, 8-12 years): 

Come and hang out with the Sahils—twins Reva and Prisha, and their mothers, Runu and Pritam—as they jump from dreams to food to school to walks, and discover the world together, with joy, fun, and friendship. A fun, easy-to-read book for all, each chapter is a different adventure. The book subverts traditional norms with an alternate family structure of two mothers and their two kids, and they are both Hindu and Muslim. Further, it focuses on themes of kindness, empathy, sibling love, family, compassion as well as appreciating nature and the world around us—a reminder of happy times during our childhood.

Mumbai-based writer and queer feminist Shals Mahajan has published a few children’s books, such as Timmi in TanglesTimmi and RizuA Big Day for the Little Wheels, and co-authored No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy. Shals is genderqueer and has worked on issues of gender, sexuality, caste, and communalism as a trainer, teacher, and activist. Mumbai-based writer and illustrator of children’s books Lavanya Karthik has written several picture books for various Indian publishers and illustrated over 20 books.

7. The Coward and the Sword (HarperCollins, 9-11 years):

The sixteen-year-old heir to Kofu, Prince Kadis, is not brave and courageous unlike the people of the kingdom who are skilled in war. One day, a seemingly chance encounter changes his life completely. Armed with the mystical sword of Kofu, the timid prince and his two young friends, embark on an epic trip to bring peace to the warring kingdoms of Kofu and Molonga. This is a beautiful coming-of-age story about finding the courage that lies within. 

This is the second novel by New York-based film actor, writer, and National Award-winning film director Jugal Hansraj. His first book, Cross Connection – The Big Circus Adventure, was published in 2017. Book illustrator/wall artist Ruchi Shah has illustrated more than 15 books that have been published multilingually. In 2018, she received the British Council’s Social Impact Award for her work. 

8. Incognito: Lights. Camera. Undercover. (PIRATES, 13-15 years): 

Aarav is on the run—from a gun-toting, trigger-happy, bloodthirsty monster. A dreaded gangster has sworn revenge on his whole family, forcing them to go into hiding—which means no school, friends, cell phone, laptop, iPad, FB, Snapchat, Instagram, or WiFi…As if that wasn’t enough, Aarav has to assume an entirely new identity—that of a girl. To make matters worse, he has the World’s Biggest Crush on his employer’s daughter, while the pesky son digs him! With a dangerous criminal hot on his heels and a startling discovery that throws light on his father’s unsolved death, things promise to get even more complicated. 

Chennai-based author, advertising consultant, poet, lyricist, translator, travel writer, playwright, and columnist Vibha Batra has several books to her credit, including  The Activist and the Capitalist, Glitter and Gloss, Ludhiana to London, Euro Trip, Keeping it Real, and The Dream Merchants.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.

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Neha Kirpal

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She has worked for over a decade in print, television, and online media. Her diverse interests in the culture beat include books, music, travel, films,...