When I was a kid, I never saw myself on the page. Like never. Occasionally, there’d be a brown person on the screen—like the monkey brain eaters from Indiana Jones And the Temple of Doom, or Apu from The Simpsons. Such stellar representations, no? Yup. (You can read some of my thoughts on that in the upcoming anthology Our Stories, Our Voices.)
It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally discovered a teen who looked like me gracing the pages of a novel: Ameena Meer’s trippy Bombay Talkie. That was followed—after a long gap—by the stunning Born Confused, by Tanuja Desai Hidier (check out its more recent sequel, Bombay Blues). These days, thankfully, things are starting to shift, and it’s about damn time. There are now more new and forthcoming books about brown girls dreaming (and scheming!) than I can count on two hands.Here are some of the YA books featuring South Asian characters that you should definitely be reading right this second. Because we’re brown, we’re proud, get used to it!
Love, Hate, and Other Filters, by Samira Ahmed
Maya Aziz is an American teen with big city dreams and a camera in her hand. She’s got a crush on a maybe unsuitable boy, and parents who just don’t understand why she doesn’t straighten up and pursue the good (read: obedient!) Muslim girl path they’ve laid out for her. But that cultural tug becomes all-out war when a terrorist incident incites hate in her hometown of Chicago. Timely and super-relevant, Ahmed’s debut offers another filter on a squarely American teen existence—one still rarely explored on the page.
You Bring the Distant Near, by Mitali Perkins
The bonds that bind the Das clan are strong, but can they survive the pain of immigration and self-discovery? Told by five very different narrators, Perkins’ latest spans four decades and three generations in the lives of a single immigrant family, centering on sisterhood, various forms of feminism, and the tug of war between two often disparate cultures. Lovely and immersive, this National Book Award–nominated saga offers the lilting storytelling we’ve come to expect from stalwart Perkins, the self-proclaimed “auntie” of YA literature.
Pashmina, by Nidhi Chanani
Priyanka Das is trying to figure out who she is, but that’s hard to unravel when her dad’s MIA, her mom’s lips are zipped, and all the answers lie in a country thousands of miles away. With the help of a magical shawl, Chanani’s graphic novel tackles questions of family, identity, and culture in a transformative tale that follows one girl’s journey to an India both real and imagined.
A Crown of Wishes, by Roshani Chokshi
I absolutely loved the petulant Maya, who led us into darkness in Chokshi’s stunning debut, The Star-Touched Queen. But Gauri, the star of companion novel Crown, is my actual favorite. Chokshi keeps you flipping pages with haunting worldbuilding, push-pull romance, and the fact that her princesses come with a mission. But her delicious turns of phrase are what really capture you: you’ll want to drink them up like ambrosia stolen from a mean god. Like this one: “In that moment, he looked like mischief and midnight, like a temptation that always slipped away too fast and left you, at once, relieved and disappointed.”
When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon
Old school meets techie cool in this classic rom com, in which heroine Dimple just wants to go to APP camp (yes, for real) and kick off her career at Stanford. Rishi, well, he’s hoping to find the love of his life in oblivious Dimple, thanks to a setup by their traditional Indian parents, who are hoping they’ll meet, click, and wed. But after iced coffee is thrown during their meet-cute moment, all bets are off. Sweet, sassy, and decidedly feminist, this love story will have you swooning.
Alpha Goddess, by Amalie Howard
One of the first fantasies to bend and twist Hindu mythology, Howard’s Alpha Goddess—and its upcoming sequel, Dark Goddess—imagines sixteen-year-old Sera Caelum as Lakshmi reborn, but marked with the powers of both good and evil. She must decide what path to take, and her choice could mean the end of the mortal realm. Throw in a twisty love triangle for good measure, and you’ve got a rich reincarnation tale where the stakes are the world as we know it.
My So-Called Bollywood Life, by Nisha Sharma
Bollywood meets Hollywood in this hilarious and lovelorn sendup of classic rom-com Only You. Winnie Mehta’s family psychic—because, yup, that’s a thing—has forever told her she would meet the love of her life before she turned eighteen, that his name would start with an R, and that he would give her a bracelet. So of course Raj is the one, right? Except they broke up. Which foils everything. And when she meets fellow film geek Dev, well, he so does not fit the prophecy. Can Winnie learn to let go and take her fate into her own hands? And, more importantly, will she get her perfect Bollywood ending?
That Thing We Call a Heart, by Sheba Karim
Karim’s sophomore effort, following her debut, Skunk Girl, is part sweet romance (but watch for the aftertaste!), part coming of age, and a whole lot of cultural tug of war. It centers on misfit Shabnam Qureshi during a summer when she experiences her first taste of love (and plenty of pie), a friendship falling apart, a cultural awakening, and lots of good, old-fashioned teenage angst. Next up for her is a road trip romcom romp called Miriam Sharma Hits the Road, definitely worth preordering now.
Chainbreaker, by Tara Sim
This sequel to Sim’s clockstopping debut fantasy, Timekeeper, takes clock mechanic Danny further into unknown territory as the clocks in India begin to fail, requiring an intervention of epic proportions. Here, Sim explores more about identity and culture, putting a strain on Danny and Colton’s budding relationship, and letting Maya connect with her Indian roots as they undergo a perilous journey. Vivid worldbuilding, rich mythology and deep emotional conflicts mark this satisfying sequel.
A Girl Like That, by Tanaz Bhathena
Zarin Wadia is one of those girls. You know the type: the ones they whisper about in dark corners. The ones they say were asking for it. The ones they say got what they deserved. That’s why they’re not so surprised when she and her love, Porus, are found dead in a ditch on the side of the highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. But as Zarin’s story unravels, told through multiple perspectives, we’ll learn that things aren’t always as black and white as they seem.
Not the Girls You’re Looking For, by Amina Mae Safi (June 19)
Fierce girls and friendships? YES! Lulu and her squad are goals for sure. They can handle anything, right? Until they can’t. This is a novel about a girl who is confident, fun, and very independent—but realizes that sometimes what you really need to get by is a little help from your (fabulous!) friends.