How diverse are your child's bookshelves? It's been said many times, and deserves to be said many more: books offer both a window, in which we look into the lives of others, and a mirror, in which we see ourselves. These children's books with characters of South Asian descent are delightful mirrors and windows!
The bonus, is that your children don't have to have South Asian ancestry to be able to recognize parallels with their own experiences! Every child has known the joy of a favorite food, struggled with identity and friendship issues, or enjoyed the company of loved family members.
South Asia includes India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives. I'm sharing my favorite books that are set in those countries as well as in the west. You will find a variety of picture books, early chapter books, as well as historical and contemporary novels.
Note: this post contains affiliate links which may earn commission.
I strongly encourage you to check books out from your public library. If you choose to purchase books online, you can still support your local independent bookstore by visiting this South Asian book list on Bookshop here.
Read aloud these delightful books and find more titles on my list full of fun folktales: Folktales from India.
Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed, illustrated by Anoosha Syed
I adore this picture book even more than I enjoy a delicious bowl of daal. Bilal is so excited to make daal with his dad! Food has a way of bringing people together, right? He explains to his diverse group of friends that the slow-cooked lentil dish takes lots of patience as well as lots of yummy ingredients. His friends have never tried it and they join him in the anticipation of eating the deliciousness. I love that I can share an excellent and joyful picture book featuring a South Asian family.
Divali Rose by Vashanti Rahaman, illustrated by Jamel Akib
Find it: Your Library | Amazon
Ricki lives in Trinidad and he is eagerly awaiting the Hindu festival of lights, Divali. He accidentally breaks off one of his grandfather's beautiful roses and he is fearful of owning up to his mistake. His grandfather blames the new, immigrant neighbors and Ricki knows he must tell the truth. This is a great book to spark a discussion not only about honesty, but misplaced blame and jumping to prejudiced conclusions. A author's note gives the history of Indians in Trinidad.
Same Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
This picture book is about two children, one in America and one in India, who are pen pals. The two boys like to do lots of the same activities, even though their countries have very different cultures. This is a great book for teachers and parents to use to talk to their kids about universal experiences and values.
Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Jamel Akib
Find it: Your Library | Amazon
I love this book about a girl describing how her family waits for the monsoon rains. The land is dry and they wonder if the rain will every come. The illustrations are full of life and the poetic text is fun to read aloud. Another fun picture book is Mina and the Monsoon by Rukhsanna Guidroz.
Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala by Meenal Patel
This is a charming story about a girl who lives in the United States and has a special relationship with her grandmother. Priya's Babi Ba lovingly describes India to Priya. Priya shares the cultural traditions in India with her classmates and together they create a marigold garland to help Babi Ba when she feels sad and misses India.
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Krömer
In Pakistan, Malik is looking forward to flying his kite during the festival of spring. From his wheelchair on a rooftop, he flies it vigorously, battling the neighborhood bully. After the celebration, his compassion spurs him to help a girl with a kite escape from the same bully.
Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min
Here is a really fun book to read aloud! Bursting with rhythm, the story tells of Aneel's excitement of having his grandparents come to stay. His grandmother fills the house with the marvelous scent of incense and his grandfather tells wonderful stories. His grandfather's tales inspire Aneel to make delicious roti for everyone. This book is a delightful way to introduce and celebrate Indian culture.
Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters
When Grandma sets out to visit her daughter she must travel through the jungle. On the way, many wild animals threaten to eat her, but she puts them off by explaining she will be plumper on the journey home (after she has feasted at her daughter's table). Her hide-in-a-gourd strategy on the way home fools everyone but the fox, but her faithful dogs save the day (and her).
Early Chapter Books, Ages 6 and up
Early chapter books vary widely in age recommendations. Most of these books are appropriate for for ages 7 and up, depending on reading level, but Yasmin is great for ages 6 and up.
Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Julianna Swaney
The Book Uncle is a friendly gentlemen who helps children in India find just the right book at the street corner lending library he runs. This is a terrific story about one girl's determination to stand up and protest against the corrupt politicians who threaten to put Book Uncle out of business. Yasmin's story will inspire your kids to work towards a goal and learn about the value of community involvement.
Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi, illustrated by Hatem Aly
Meet Yasmin is a very early beginning chapter book series about a charming Pakistani-American girl. Each book is divided into four separate stories in which Yasmin uses her creative energy and high imagination to solve problems. Delightful and a good choice for very young readers
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik
Omar is an appealing and relatable protagonist. His family is British-Pakistani and having just moved to London, Omar is feeling nervous about starting a new school and meeting new friends. In a funny-bone-tickling narrative, author Mian weaves important issues about diversity, Islam and the power of standing up for yourself.
Nina Soni: Former Best Friend by Kashmira Sheth, illustrated by Jenn Kocsmiersky
Nina lives with her Indian-American family and is currently having trouble with her best friend, Jay. She hopes to fix their friendship while working on a school assignment, all the while trying to keep her sister out of trouble! This new series is perfect for kids who like contemporary stories about everyday kids.
Chapter Books Ages 8 and up
The following books featuring South Asian and South Asian-American characters are generally recommended for ages 8-12. I recommend most of them for ages 9 and up.
Contemporary Middle Grade
Scroll down if you are looking for historical fiction or fantasy books.
Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan
In Bangladesh, Naimi feels frustrated she is constantly told she cannot work to earn money for her family because she is a girl. When she accidentally ruins her father’s rickshaw she disguises herself as a boy and meets someone who will change her life. The book includes a glossary and an author’s note about micro-finance.
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
This funny and touching story of Ravi, an Indian immigrant adjusting to middle school and Joe, a boy who recently lost his best friend due to a move, is told in alternating voices. The two boys become friends when they unite again a school bully and one seriously crazy week full of laugh out loud humor ensues.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
This is a simply lovely graphic novel about a girl who seeks answers about her family. One day, Pri finds a pashmina in an old suitcase. When she puts it on, she is transported to a vibrant India where she encounters an elephant and a peacock who become her guides. Pri begins a journey to find the answers to her questions in this marvelous story filled with magical realism.
A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Bilal and his family move from Pakistan to Virginia. His father, however, stays in Pakistan. Back in Pakistan, Bilal was an excellent cricket player; in Virginia he joins a summer baseball team, but of course he must figure out the differences and adjust to the new game. This is a wonderful story about adjusting to a new culture.
Karma Khullar's Mustache by Kristi Wientge
Karmajeet Khullar is going to be starting middle school soon, but she is worried about the 17 new dark hairs on her upper lip. She is anxious to get the help and advice from her best friend, but she has been acting so different lately and Karma feels lost. Karma's Indian father is learning how to be a stay at home dad, and her white mother is very busy with work. The book addresses themes of middle school friendships and bullying and I love how Karma's interfaith Sikh-Methodist household plays an integral role in her journey.
The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy
I adored this book about an Indian-American boy, Rahul Kapoor, who is trying to discover what he is best at and who he wants to be. He decides to try out Mathletes and finds a welcome home, but struggles with an invitation to the Sadie Hawkins dance. He's just not sure he likes girls. This is an intensely engaging and funny story about a boy dealing with identity, OCD and anxiety. A must read!
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman
Find it: Amazon | Your Library
Tara is getting ready for her bat mitzvah, but she is conflicted about her cultural identity and her faith. Her Indian mother converted to Judaism before Tara was born so Tara knows that “technically” she is Jewish, even though a girl at school tries to make her think otherwise. Tara is navigating middle school waters for the first time, re-evaluating her relationship with her best friends and having in-depth conversations with the Rabbi about God. Even though Tara experiences the typical early teen angst in her relationship with her parents, it is clear that they are a supportive unit and her extended family, also living in NYC, are an integral part of their family life. This is a terrific read, especially for kids who come from similarly complex backgrounds, but also to teach kids about the diverse experiences of multicultural families.
The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani
Sonia Nadhamuni is half-Jewish, half-Indian but she isn't sure how she identifies. Neither of her parents are particularly observant and now that she is no longer in a small, private school her new classmates ask lots of questions about her identity. Her skin is dark, but she doesn't identify as black and in her new school she sees the way black and white students segregate. Where does she fit in? On top of that she must figure out if which of the girls truly want to be her friends.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
Viji and her sister Rukku run away from their abusive father and land on the streets of Chennai, in India. The two girls make friends with a pair of boys when they take shelter under a bridge. Together with a stray dog, the foursome survive by sorting through trash, making and selling beaded jewelry, and the kindness of a few adults. Although their life is clearly dangerous and tenuous, the four enjoy a freedom of sorts and gain confidence as they learn new skills. When Rukku falls ill, Viji seeks out help and the children find hope for a different kind of future. Venkatraman's masterful storytelling takes readers on a journey your kids won't soon forget.
Historical Middle Grade
Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar
In 1942, Anjali's mother joins Gandhi's resistance movement in India. This means some big changes for 10 year old Anjali and her family's way of life, and Anjali must work to overcome her prejudices against some of India's lower classes, like the "untouchables." Despite her dedication to nonviolence, Anjali's mother goes to jail and Anjali must decide if she is going to take up her work. This is a moving story of a girl's journey towards learning about inequality and the importance of social justice. (Also, look how pretty the cover is!)
Step Up to the Plate Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami
It's 1945 and Maria, a biracial girl in California (her father is from India, her mother is from Mexico) wants to play softball on a team organized by her teacher. At the same time, her multicultural community is feeling the strains of institutionalize discrimination. I don't know of any other children's book that addresses the experience of Indian-Americans during this time period. Fascinating and enlightening, but also a great story of a determined girl.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
I could not put this book down! Nisha and her twin brother are half-Muslim, half-Hindu siblings living with their father in India just before the time of Partition. When the word comes that their town is to become part of the new Pakistan state, Nisha, her brother, her Hindu father and grandmother must make the harrowing and dangerous journey to the Indian border. Each chapter is an entry in Nisha’s diary as she leaves her comfortable life behind and struggles with her own questions of identity. Highly recommended!
Orange for the Sunsets by Tina Athaide
1972 Uganda is not the typical setting for a children's novel, and yet, readers will draw many parallels between the shocking events in which the Ugandan government expelled ethnic Indians from the country, and present-day xenophobic tensions and arguments over national borders. The narration, which alternates between two friends–Indian Asha and Ungandan Yesofu–explores the nature of loyalty, nationality and allows the reader to view the country's chaos through two different lenses. Powerful and moving.
Fantasy Middle Grade with South Asian Mythology
The following books are fantastical stories which will introduce children to some of the mythology from the South Asian region.
The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta
The Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series draws upon Bengali folklore. Kiranmala, and Indian sixth-grade interdimensional demon slayer is concerned. A spell gone awry has sent her parents into another dimension and she is about to be eaten by a rakkhosh demon in her own kitchen. Thus begins a highly engaging and funny adventure in which Kiranmala rejects two princes' offer to rescue her, travels to a magical dimension full of fantastic beasts, battles demons, solves riddles and saves New Jersey.
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chockshi
My kids loved this adventure book series and I love that the tale relies on Hindu mythology to take them on a fantastical journey. Aru has a tendency to stretch the truth, and while she is spending the school holiday at Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture (her mother is an archeologist), her classmates dare her to prove her claim that the Lamp of Bharata is cursed. But what happens next involves frozen classmates, the Hindu epic poem, the Mahabharata, a demon and the Kingdom of Death!
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