South Asia is used to describe the region of Asia that includes the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The region is home to over 1.94 billion people. Over 5.4 million people with South Asian heritage live in the United States.
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Despite the large number of people in our nation and world who are South Asian, there is not a lot of South Asian representation in American children’s literature. We need more non-fiction books about South Asian heroes and more fiction books with South Asian main characters.
The books on this list stand out as excellent biographies of South Asian people who have made an impact in our world. You’ll learn know about well-known historical figures, and meet some world-changers for the first time. My hope is that as South Asian representation grows in children’s literature, this list will grow as well!
13 Children’s Books About South Asian Heroes
Twenty-two Cents:Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo
Muhammed Yunus grew up in extreme poverty in Bangladesh, and he was determined to do something about it. As an adult, he became an economics professor and started the Grameen Bank, an institution where aspiring business owners could take out micro-loans and avoid the corruption of moneylenders who charged excessive interest.
This book is so inspiring, and I recommend reading it with kids ages 8 and up.
Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World by Uma Krishnaswami
Most people in the United States are familiar with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but not as many know about the peaceful work of Mohandas Gandhi. In this book, one of my favorite authors dives into the similarities between the two men, and how they were led to peaceful resistance through their own life experiences. Though the two men influenced different eras, they both used peace to make their mark on the world.
This book is perfect for readers ages 9 and up.
The Boy Who Grew A Forest: The True Story of Jadav Payeng by Sophia Gholz
I love this look at a young activist! Jadav Payeng grew up on an island in the Brahmaputra River. When he saw the deforestation happening in this home, he decided to take action. He planted trees, starting with a small patch of bamboo, and eventually grew a forest that spans over 1,000 acres. This story shows how powerful one small act of restoration can be.
I recommend reading this book with children ages 5 and up.
Guru Nanak: the First Sikh Guru by Rina Singh
Born to a humble Hindu family, Nanak was an exceptional child who early in life asked questions about the religious practices and conventions of his culture. He grew up to become a renowned spiritual teacher and visionary for his time. The Sikh religion’s universal focus was the result of Nanak’s attempt to establish a single and more universal mankind., with a religion that is open to all, embracing all.
This gorgeously illustrated book is recommended for readers ages 9 and up.
Fauja Singh Keeps Going by Simran Jeet Singh
Fauja Singh didn’t start walking until he was 5 years old, and no one thought he would ever run marathons. Fauja defied the odds by doing many things he was told he couldn’t, and at the age of 81 he ran his first marathon. He eventually became the first person over 100 to run a marathon, and when he wrote the introduction to this book, he was 108!
This inspiring story is excellent for sharing with kids ages 3 and up.
Between Two Worlds: The Art and Life of Amrita Sher-Gil by Meera Sriram
This book follows the life story of an amazing young artist, who began creating at a time when few women were celebrated for their talent. Amrita Sher-Gil followed her own path, broke many “rules” that were taught to her in art classes, and painted the people of India in ways no one had before.
This book is recommended for kids ages 7 and up.
The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art by Barb Rosenstock
Another profile of an amazing South Asian artist! Nek Chand moved to the city of Chandigarh, and was determined to find beauty in his newfound home. He used trash and discarded items to create a sprawling representation of the village he came from, with mosaics, patterns, and sculptures made entirely from things others had thrown away.
This secret world was hidden for over 15 years, and when the local government discovered it, they wanted to tear it down. Thankfully, the town’s residents rallied around Nek and demanded his creation be protected.
This awesome story is perfect for kids ages 7 and up.
Manjhi Moves a Mountain by Nancy Churnin
Dashrath Manjhi’s village did not have access to the things it needed, like hospitals and schools. A nearby village had all of these things, but the mountain between the two kept the people on Dasarath’s side from accessing them.
Dashrath took it upon himself to chisel a tunnel through the mountain to the other side. Over 20 years, he chipped away at the giant rock, determined to make a difference for his community.
This book is great for reading with kids ages 5 and up.
A Girl Called Genghis Khan by Michelle Lord
Maria Toorpakai Wazir loved to play sports, so she joined a local squash club. However, she faced persecution and even violence because she was a girl who loved sports. Things only got more dangerous when she received an award from the president of Pakistan, and she had to quit playing squash publicly due to threats from the Taliban. However, that didn’t keep Maria from working hard and practicing in secret every day. Despite the persecution, she never gave up on her dream.
This powerful story is great for reading with kids ages 7 and up.
Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became An Artist by Shazia Sikander
Shahzia Sikander grew up in a multigenerational home in Pakistan with her Muslim family. The school she attended was Catholic, and there she learned about Western art and culture. This combined with her travels to places like Roma influenced Shahzia’s art and created a beautiful blend of cultures.
In this book, Shahzia tells the story of her life and how she carries her heritage with her everywhere she goes, even as she moves to the United States and experiences many other cultures along the way. I recommend reading it with kids ages 4 and up.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were an unlikely pair. Tenzing grew up in Nepal, and Edmund grew up in New Zeland. But both men dreamed of climbing Mount Everest. This amazing story tells how the two men came together to make history by climbing the world’s tallest mountain.
Uma Krishnaswami is one of my favorite authors, and I really love this book. Read it with kids ages 6 and up.
Fly, Girl, Fly!: Shaesta Waiz Soars Around the World by Nancy Roe Prim
As a child, Afghanistan-native Shaesta Waiz lived in a refugee camp. But that didn’t stop her from having big dreams. Shaesta Waiz overcame the odds to become a pilot. But she didn’t stop there! She went on to become the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe unaccompanied in a single-engine aircraft.
This amazing story is perfect for reading with kids ages 4 and up.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai
In this lovely picture book, Malala tells her own story of how she saw injustice in her community, and what she did to respond to it. With her magic pencil, Malala imagined a world where everyone had equal opportunity to pursue the things they loved. Some people tried to stop her from sharing these ideas, but Malala persevered and kept working toward equality for her country and the world.
This book is an excellent choice for kids ages 3 and up. It’s a gentle introduction to Malala’s powerful story.
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