My son and I reviewed this children’s book a while back and it is a favorite in our house. I’m so thankful we got the chance to review it. It’s hard for me to come up with questions for childrens books but Sonia Panigrahy blew me out of the water with her replies. The first question answered a few that I had written but it’s absolutely worth the read. If you would like to view our review, click here!
What was your inspiration behind Nina?
About a decade ago, I became an aunt, not only to my nephews, but to the children of my close friends. In the Indian tradition, all adults, familial links or not, are automatically called aunt or uncle to any child. Therefore, my network of children calling me “aunt” continued to grow.
My search for children’s books started for my two nephews. It was rather easy to find empowering books that supported their own notion of being strong and smart. There were a plenitude of superheroes from which to choose. It felt natural, as boys are raised to believe these are their natural born traits. Society, bolstered by the images in media, affirms it.
When my niece was born, and more of my friends began to have girls, I found a problem. Where were the girl’s books that also allow them to be strong and smart? There were plenty of princess books, but when I sought after non-princess books, books where girls were not victims to be rescued or sitting passively on the sidelines, I came out of bookstores empty handed. In one progressive Manhattan bookstore, I asked a staff member to help me find a book for a 5-year old girl going on an adventure. I was given a book where the girl’s adventure was cleaning and cooking for imaginary animal friends. I was in disbelief! The girls I know in real life are just as adventurous, strong, and smart in the very same way we see boys. But, on the pages of children’s books, boys were the ones allowed those traits. There seemed to be a deep inequity in children’s books.
Horace Mann, who once famously stated that education is a great social equalizer. Books, being a foundation in education, should then serve to equalize opportunities for genders. Instead, I found that children’s books, where the audience is comprised of readers with the most expansive, impressionable, and open minds, were in fact narrowing the options of what little girls believe they are supposed to do, how girls are to behave, and what girls can become. What begins in their imaginations becomes rooted in their realities.
In this day in age it is a disappointment that we lack books that allow children to find universal and valued themes of confidence, curiosity, braveness, creativity, strong, smart, kind, compassionate, generous, and resilience. When was the last time you saw a female in a children’s book who encompassed all of these traits? But, how many girls do you know have these traits? Storylines are not representative of girls as they are, but rather, what they are told to be. Our literary orbit centers around boy’s needs, despite females comprising over half of all Americans.
We need more books for young girls are given a narrative of more valuable places in society. Girls need to be given their rightful place in the literary orbit–at the center of the superhero narrative. They should no longer be on the sidelines, objects to be rescued, or held to the notion that feminine power is a physique of improbable proportions. Not only is this lack of narrative detrimental to girls, it’s detrimental to boys, who will reinforce these negative stereotypes. It was with this sense of inequity for young girls and boys that I decided to write a book featuring a young girl, about 5 years old, who was the superhero.
While I wrote the manuscript, I outlined the story of how Nina, the main character, uses a combination of empathy, intelligence, and physical strength, to complete rescue missions throughout her neighborhood. I chose superpowers that any child could feel they have in real life. I wrote out each story, but also each image to coincide with the story. There was one detail I could not decide upon–that was the character’s race. I chose the name Nina, after my sister, but also because it is found in many cultures and I wanted more readers to feel as though Nina could belong to their culture. However, I knew I needed to be more definite about the race, which I knew I wanted to be a person of color because children’s books not only under-represent and misrepresent females, they do the same for minorities. It just takes only a quick glimpse at best seller lists for children’s books, to see that minorities are largely excluded. I worked with my illustrator, Hazel Quintanilla, to provide some sketches. She provided me with 4 and I instantly connected with the character you now see in the book. What has surprised me is the flexible interpretation of Nina’s race, but I find beauty in that. Nina can be whatever the reader wants her to be to feel a connection.
It is uncertain to me if the exclusion of strong female characters or minorities in children’s books is because only books about boys, and White boys, are considered to have mass appeal for book consumers. I was not looking to write a book to have mass appeal, but to be inclusive for girls and children of color, that are often excluded from the narrative. We need more stories that appeal to all children. I want readers to pick up a book, and affirm that what needs to be real in today’s world, that girls and people of color are equally valued.
When this is on the pages of a children’s book, our youngest generations are the ones to instill that message in themselves and their peers. I want “Nina the Neighborhood Ninja” to be the reason that little girls will start seeing themselves as the protagonist leading the way. For boys, I hope Nina will emphasize the reality of how important it is to have strong female role models. By reading books with different people, it allows them the same human attributes society values. We begin to expand our mind and imaginations, and beliefs of what can be. Nina encompasses the traits that I believe all girls, all kids, have and believe they have unless we continue to allow society to tell them otherwise.
Are you considering writing more ‘Nina the neighborhood ninja’ stories?
I continue to get asked by both adults and children to write a series and if this book does well, I would love to write a series.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I am working on transcribing the book into Spanish so that more children and their caregivers can have access to the story. Other than that, I have work to do on promoting this book.
Where did you meet your illustrator? She is fantastic!
Thanks! Hazel did an incredible job. I found my illustrator on a Facebook group for children’s books writers and illustrators. I looked through many illustrator’s portfolios and Hazel’s work had images of girls and children of color. She instantly understood the importance of having children of color for my main character. I also love that she gave the character darker skin tones, which some of the adults have told me appreciate.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I grew up in Texas and my favorite book was the Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie dePaola. It’s a book about a young Native American girl who saves her village by making a sacrifice. The symbol of that sacrifice is the Bluebonnet, Texas’ state flower. I later met the illustrator in my early 20s and got his signature!
In closing, Where can our readers keep up with your work?
Visit my website at www.soniapanigrahy.com and you can get links to my Facebook Author Page, Instagram, Twitter, and sign up for a newsletter.
Author Sonia Panigrahy (Pah-Nee-Grah-Hee), is a public health professional, world traveler, adventure seeker, and fitness enthusiast. She believes that life is too short to be bored!
Nina the Neighborhood Ninja was created out of Sonia’s lifelong love of reading. As her family and friends begin to have children, she looked forward to sharing this love with them. She believes that books are a powerful way to empower impressionable young minds.
Sonia was surprised that she could not find books for girls ages 3-6 years that realistically identified females as intelligent, physically tough, brave, and adventurous. She was disappointed that girls continue to be excluded from the heart of the superhero story.
After unsuccessful attempts to find a young girl superhero protagonist on the pages of a book, especially one of color, she gave up. Then she created her own.