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A Hero of Every Stripe- A Children’s Reading List

All heroes don't need to be blonde and blue eyed

Heroes of every colour, stripe and type for young readers from the vast treasure trove of children’s literatures

Children Reading

When I was about eight, I wanted to be Heidi. And while I am sure that the goats and the cheese and the jumping up and down a mountain added to the allure, what I really wanted to be was the cherubic little heroine on the front cover- with her flaxen curls, blue eyes, and plump pink lips. After all, one of the first Nursery Rhymes we sing as a child, lays out the expectations of a “type” of beauty on us.

Chubby Cheeks, Dimpled Chin

Rosy Lips,Teeth Within

Curly Haired, Eyes so Blue

Mummy’s Pet, Is that You?

Try being a dark eyed, sallow, snaggle toothed desi and you detest looking at the mirror before you turn 10!

Once I was old enough to question things, it also perturbed me  that most of the ‘heroic’ figures in my books were males, and where little girls were heroes they were often so for their “feminine qualities” like pluck, resolve – or most often – how they looked.  And that is why I’d like nothing more than to supplement my child’s Dr. Seuss’, Enid Blytons, and Roald Dahls with heroes of different cultures, genders and races.

Little girls who do more than just boil eggs for their big brothers while they go on adventures, children from different parts of the world, those with too much and those with too little- I’d love for her to find inspiration in all of them. At the same time the last thing I’d want is for her to be saddled with stories that are little more than “moral lessons” or a grown-up’s privileged tokenism. These should be books with wonderful stories, characters worth emulating, and language worth sinking your teeth into.

If that’s what you are looking for your children too, here’s a handy list to start with:

Ten Little Fingers1. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox

With a simple rhyming scheme and big bold illustrations, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes makes an ideal first read aloud book for little boys and girls. What is most striking about the illustrations though is how diverse they are. From the little sneezing baby, to the delightfully impish crawling one, they have eyes and hair of different hues but are equally adorable. I also really enjoy  how all the kids interact and play with each other through the pages of this delightful board book.

A similar Indian option is the wonderful Ten by Shefalee Jain - one of my daughter’s favourite books- where the lovingly penned illustrations of 10 Indian children quietly teach a lesson best described as  “same same but different”

Recommended for: 6 months +

2.The Runaway Peppercorn by Suchitra Ramadurai

Little kids loves the macabre story of The Gingerbread Man for some reason! The countless hours I’ve spent chasing after my daughter when she pretends to be the slippery baked fugitive do not bear repeating! In Runaway Peppercorn, the author appropriates the fable to a much more culturally appropriate errant spice, saving you the trouble of explaining what a Gingerbread is (not very tasty), and the illustrations weave a story that’s far more modern and hilarious than its inspiration! What’s even better, this peppercorn doesn’t meet the sorry end that its predecessor did!

Recommended for: 2-4 year olds

3. The Churki Burki Book of Rhymes by Gita Wolf and Durga Bai

This book has some of my all-time favourite illustrations done in the Gond style by brilliant artist Durga Bai. The wonderfully nonsensical rhymes that the two Central Indian girls Churki and Burki share with each are full of the kind of whimsy that will appeals to young children, and the lovely art makes for excellent study room decoration once the child is done with the book. It is also a wonderful book to start conversations about our country, its villages, and the role women play in our society (I am making it sound a lot less fun than it is, right?)

Recommended for Ages:  4-6 Years

Andamans Boy4. Andamans Boy by Zai Whitaker

What happens when Arif has enough of his foster family (his near Dursley-ish Chacha and Chachi) and runs away all the way to Andaman? He befriends a Jarawa boy and learns so much about nature,  the ecology and about their  way of life. But this book is not a subtly disguised sociology or geography text. It is first and foremost a coming of age tale, and a story of the unique bonds that only the very young can form with each other. Little children will also delight in the unexpected humour in the Jarawa’s interactions with others!

Recommended for Ages: 7+

5. Faster Fenay at Fort Pratapgarh by B.R. Bhagat

When your child is done reading her Three Investigators and Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews, could you perhaps divert her attention to our very own Faster Fenay? Smarter, more ingenuous, and beloved TV character from her mother’s childhood, Fenay’s stories are the kind of thrilling adventures that keeps children and adults coming back for more. And now they’re available in nice translations from their original Marathi.

Recommended for: Ages 7 +

6. The Duckbill History-Mystery series by Natasha Sharma

For little children engrossed in tales of King Arthur’s Court or Robin Hood, Natasha Sharma’s History Mystery series will hit just the right spot. They learn a little bit of history and also enjoy rollicking good yarns about the adventures of super kings (and sleuths) Akbar and Ashoka. I love these books for the simple pen illustrations that accompany the stories, and for the sense of fun and laughter that is not lost on wise 8 year olds. Way more interesting than any History text book!

Recommended for: Ages 7 +

Mayil Will Not Be Quiet7. Mayil Will Not Be Quiet! by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran

And why should she? Mayil will also not take the Fair and Lovely sachets that the new girl in school hands her, she will not tolerate a racist remark even if it’s from her beloved tatha, and she will speak up and be heard loud and clear. A delightfully feminist parable for our times, children will love Mayil’s voice and also hopefully notice how families where mothers are the primary breadwinner are just as ideal as the ones in their other books.

Recommended for Ages: 10 and above

8. Hope is a Girl Selling Fruits by Amrita Das

This powerful and poignant book by Amrita Das has already won so many well-deserved accolades for its lovely illustrations and its quiet telling of the story of  a young girl on her way to Chennai, and the surprise companions she meets on the train. The story of these two girls -one selling fruit, and the other on her way to look for work, delves into what it means to be a woman, to be a creative person, and to grow up. Pre-teens rich or poor, from any country of the world, will identify with the alienation- and the hope.

Recommended for: Ages 10 and above

9. No Guns at My Sons Funeral by Paro Anand

It is rare to find a book set in Kashmir, but rarer still to find a book that engages young readers in questions about faith, right and wrong, and terrorism without speaking down to them. Paro Anand’s beautiful No Guns at My Son’s Funeral does just that. What will young Aftab choose- his biological family, or his ‘family’ of terrorists? What does it mean to ‘be a man’ to a very young boy? Anand engages the slightly older young readers in many such questions in this thought provoking -and often devastating- story.

Recommended for Ages: 10 and above

Ms Marvel Kamala Khan10. Ms. Marvel#1- Kamala Khan

In the beginning of 2014 something very interesting happened in the Marvel Universe- the launch of a new superhero who is a Muslim-American school girl from Jersey. As the writers described it-  “Captain Marvel represents an ideal that Kamala pines for. She’s strong, beautiful and doesn’t have any of the baggage of being Pakistani and ‘different‘”. But we wouldn’t recommend her books for comic book nerds if they were also not hilariously funny, beautifully sketched, and completely kick-ass!  She reminds us a bit of the early Peter Parker in her struggle to blend in, and her reluctance with being a superhero, and has received glowing reviews from the usually grouchy comic book reviewers!

Recommended for: Ages 10 and above

11. Wonder by R J Palacio

One of my not-so-hidden secrets is that I love kids books and movies. They appeal to a part of me that ‘adult literature’ just cannot reach. And no book touched my heart and soul more last year than Wonder. Augie Pullman suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome and has several cranio-facial deformities. His first year in Public School is described with such compassion by the author, that you forget after a while that the protagonist is ‘different’. He suffers the same anxieties as any one in middle school does, makes the same band of friends and bullies that you probably did, but emerges a lot stronger- because he’s a wonder that way.

Recommended for: Ages 12 and above

12. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Britain’s Children’s Books Laureate Malorie Blackman has written this compelling Young Adult about a society where the white protagonist is a Nought whose mother works for his black friend Sephy (a privileged Cross) who has all the power. Even if racism is reversed, does it make it any less uglier? What happens to friendships in an increasingly fractured world? Described as a ‘dystopian Romeo and Juliet’ the book is told in the alternating voices of the two protagonists and is one that adults are just as likely to enjoy as their teenage kids. You have to wonder why in the wake of Hunger Games and its many cheap imitations, no one has thought to make a movie of these popular books yet. Oh wait.

Recommended for: Ages 12 and above

Featured Image: Kara Newhouse via Compfight cc

Book Jacket Images: From and

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