Today we have a special guest on Biracial Bookworms. Author Sonia Panigrahy shares many of the same values as I do to provide girls with strong, diverse female book characters to look up to as role models. If you read my blog series of everyday female everyday superheroes, you met a few women who fulfilled their childhood dreams by believing in themselves and the power of education. I am extremely excited to have Sonia share with us her inspiration behind writing her children’s book Nina the Neighborhood Ninja. When Sonia went to the bookstore or library, the bookshelves were full of great stories. However, diverse female superheroes who were strong, smart, and pursuing their goals were scarce.
Her main goal is to change how girls are portrayed and perceived in the majority of children’s books. Today, I want you to meet Nina the Neighborhood Ninja; a strong, bilingual female superhero, and read the inspiration behind this amazing book from her creator.
Diverse Female Superheroes Children’s Books
Reading was my favorite childhood pastime. I remember my father reading bedtime stories to me that always ended with a moral to the story. I looked forward to going to the public library with my mother and siblings. We filled our arms with so many books that we filled the entire trunk of our car. Therefore, I was ecstatic to share my love of reading when my family and friends began to have children of their own. Yet this turned out to be the beginning of a new and frustrating journey. A journey that ended in the creation of my book, “Nina the Neighborhood Ninja.”
We often hear the saying, “a child’s brain is a sponge.” A child’s brain is absorbing information to make sense of the world and to interpret their place within. Adults can foster a child’s knowledge and curiosity through literacy, as well as use reading as a healthy activity for building relationships. Books are an educational tool to use stories and images to elicit the imagination. Equally as important, they enable a child to grasp new concepts. However, the concepts and messages they are learning are solely contingent upon the adults who are reading to them.
Breaking Stereotypes in Children’s Books
To explain a little of the background, I started my venture into parenthood with a son. Coincidentally, my sister and friends all had boys as firstborns. It was pretty easy to find books that put boys in the center of exciting adventures. Children at a very young age link their identity to their gender. Often times, boys identify with the characters that are strong, smart, and active. There has always been a multitude of male superhero stories; full of adventure in which they could transpose themselves as the main character during imaginary play.
It was not until a few years later when my role as an aunt did I notice a glaring disparity in children’s literature. I searched those very same bookstores for books that portrayed girls as strong, smart, and active. I looked for adventure stories where the girl could transpose herself as the lead of the story. What I found were girl characters that were pretty, not too smart (they made the mistakes that got them caught and in need to be rescued), and passively waiting for a male to take action.
Girls were princesses, and boys were superheroes in the majority of books. I realized that our youngest citizens—the ones with the most expansive, impressionable, and open minds—are learning through books that there are limits. They glean inspiration from books as to what they can do and who they can be. This inequitable portrayal of females is not only detrimental to girls, but it is harmful for young boys. These kinds of messages teach boys narrow, limiting stereotypes that they will later reinforce.(print of the picture above available here)
Activism through Children’s Books
Since books support education, the literature a society disseminates reflects its educational values. However, what I found on the shelves of children’s bookstores reflected a society that continues to drive deep rifts in social equality. This goes for both gender and racial representation. Society, from the lens of children’s publishing, turns out to be not so progressive after all.
I started the discussion with my family and friends that we as adults have to become activists so the children’s publishing industry reflects the demographics of it’s readers. Females making up half of the world population and as of 2016, the majority of babies of color under 5 years old are now the majority. By taking action to write Nina the Neighborhood Ninja, I wanted to ensure girls can find books that value their confidence, curiosity, bravery, physical strength, and intelligence. Plenty of books show girls as compassionate, resilient, empathetic, and generous. However, it is high time for more books to show girls as fierce superheroes as well.
Superhero Girls in Children’s Books
I created “Nina the Neighborhood Ninja” to provide children with a character that is a relatable role model. I gave her the superpowers of being smart, strong and speedy. Just like any superhero, Nina symbolizes morality, justice, in addition to strength and intelligence.
Children learn about the world around them by reading books, yet society continues to ask children to learn about the world through characters that do not reflect them. If children learn about a world that does not look like them, children feel the world does not see them. Not being seen is not being valued. When society continues to support books that exclude females and people of color, the message is clear. In order for under represented or stereotyped communities to become visible in children’s literature, we must take action.
Aside from creating a book that portrays females in a realistic and positive way, my goal is for children of color to be prominently represented. I want to be a part of the paradigm shift in children’s literature. When you look at the New York Times best seller list, my vision is that it will be inclusive of strong female girls of varying racial backgrounds, and not centered around Caucasian males or inanimate objects.
Multiracial and Multilingual Girls in Children’s Books
I created “Nina the Neighborhood Ninja” to provide more options when people go to look for books. A beautiful surprise I included in my book is that children cannot determine Nina’s ethnic background. What truly mattered to me as I was writing is that readers of various demographics find Nina relatable and inspiring. This includes underrepresented biracial and multiracial children in literature.
Additionally, I have had my book translated into Spanish. “Nina la Ninja del Vecindario” ensures that my message reaches more Spanish speaking children. An added component of the book is to open the possibility that Nina could be Latina. Spanish-speaking households should have their native languages protected through childhood literacy. English-speaking households should embrace bilingualism and learn another language. For adaptability in a multi-cultural society, raising children to be bilingual is paramount. Learning the value of being includers is part of teaching global citizenship.
Insist that Girls are Super Heroes Too
I want to give little girls, as well as little boys a more enlightened view of what a super hero looks like. Spreading the important message through children’s books that anyone can be a superhero; irregardless of age, race, ethnicity, or gender. The greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that the youngest readers can see themselves on the pages of my book. In turn, they can realize all the potential and power they have to change the world.
We hope you support this amazing author’s message. Nina the Neighborhood Ninja is a tremendous book for the little readers in your life. Right now, we have a huge opportunity to show little girls why Wonder Woman is so important and how we can advocate for more strong girls in children’s literature.
By adding Sonia’s diverse children’s book to your home/classroom library, we model to children that we value being inclusive. With more diverse bookshelves, we encourage children to become global citizens. Here is a great list of more strong female diverse children’s books for older children as well. Take action today and be sure to join my Facebook group dedicated to multiracial and multicultural books for children.
About the Author
Sonia Panigrahy, is a public health professional, world traveler, as well as an adventure seeker, and fitness enthusiast. Her motto is that life is too short to be bored! Nina the Neighborhood Ninja (Spanish title: Nina la Ninja del Vecindario) was created out of Sonia’s lifelong love of reading.
Specifically, she was disappointed that girls continue to be excluded as the lead character of superhero stories. After unsuccessful attempts to find a girl superhero protagonist of color on the pages of a book, she gave up. Then, she created her own.
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