A former teacher who taught at all-girls schools, Shetal Shah said she noticed how the girls’ self-esteems soared when they were learning about women of various diverse backgrounds. This has led to Shakti Girls, her debut children’s picture book featuring poetic biographies about trailblazing women across the Indian diaspora.
“Shakti” refers to an individual’s divine power and energy in traditional Hinduism. This energy is considered female because mothers have the power to birth new life, according to the first page of the book. Throughout the book, the poems highlight the accomplishments of newsmakers such as Vice President Kamala Harris to actress-producer Mindy Kaling, but we also learn about former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj, and astronaut Kalpana Chawla.
Empowering Hindi words and motivating messages are woven into the verses to affirm each young reader’s identity and self-esteem. A short glossary of English and Hindi words is provided on each page to enhance the experience, as well as activities to empower one’s inner shakti.
The inspiration to tell these stories are not only from Shetal’s education background, but it also pairs with her upbringing in New York City as a second-generation Indian American. She talks to she lit about telling these women’s stories in rhythm and seeing her children’s reactions to the finished product. Check out the conversation below:
she lit: How did you come up with the concept to tell these stories in rhyme and intentionally use Hindi words and phrases in the poems?
Shetal: The idea of sharing these stories was in the back of my mind for quite some time. However, it was my youngest son who sparked the idea to present them in a more engaging format that would resonate with young readers. In order to capture their imagination, I knew the writing had to be lively, fun, and ignite their thirst for learning.
As an educator, I was aware of the cognitive benefits of rhyme in enhancing memory retention and concentration. Additionally, having experienced the sheer pleasure of reading and reciting rhyming poems, I knew it would captivate and delight my audience. With this in mind, I embarked on the task of narrating the stories of these remarkable women in verse.
Later on, I felt compelled to incorporate Hindi words into the poems when I reflected on my own grasp of Hindi and Gujarati, a regional language of India. Having realized that my exposure to these languages did not include many self-affirming and empowering words, I imagined how uplifting it would have felt if the first words I learned were words of empowerment.
she lit: Growing up as a second-generation Indian American, how and where did you learn about women of Indian descent? What was your sense that classmates and kids around you knew about these women?
Shetal: Growing up in the United States during the ’80s and ’90s, I did not have access to the resources that would have helped me learn about women of Indian descent. Occasionally, a family member visiting from India would bring me short stories about Hindu goddesses like Lakshmi, but I never encountered a secular book or article about an Indian woman until I learned about Indira Gandhi in high school.
However, the information was limited, and Gandhi remained the only woman of Indian descent I knew about until college. I realized that my knowledge, or lack thereof, was not unique and was likely shared by my peers. Even as a frequent library-goer, I had little knowledge of books and media that celebrated Indian women.
Today, I am grateful to see a shift in diversity represented in children’s literature, but there is still much work to be done. While we have made progress since I was a child, we have yet to scratch the surface of adequate representation.
she lit: From your experience as a teacher at all-girls schools, how did you engage students in learning about women from different ethnic backgrounds who may have been left out of their history lessons?
Shetal: Witnessing my students’ natural curiosity about the world and its diverse cultures and people was a privilege and a joy. Teaching an extension lesson on Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, as part of our unit about medieval Japan, was particularly memorable. The thoughtful questions and wonderment my students shared about her and her achievement were exciting.
Fortunately, many of the courses I taught fell under the umbrella of global studies, making it easier to introduce diverse cultures and viewpoints within the curriculum. By starting with student inquiry and later giving them the space to reflect and make connections to historical figures like Shikibu, my students took ownership of their learning and forged deep connections that transcended boundaries and cultures.
Learning about history and the people who made it can be incredibly empowering, especially when students are given a choice and voice in how they want to learn. The true challenge, however, was finding the resources to support different learning preferences and interests.
she lit: There is an interactive component with having readers look for symbols related to the poems in the illustrations. What motivated you and illustrator Kavita Rajput to add this type of engagement for young readers?
Shetal: As an educator, I recognized that incorporating an interactive component would enrich the learning process by enabling readers to make connections between the visual cues and the women featured in the book.
In my teaching practice, I favored a multisensory approach that engaged learners through storytelling (hearing it), illustrations (seeing it), and activities (interacting with it) that fostered reflection and interaction. I was determined to apply this approach to Shakti Girls, as I believed it would create a more meaningful and enjoyable learning experience for readers.
she lit: How have your children reacted to the book and what has impacted them the most?
Shetal: From the inception of the book, my children were part of the creative process, unapologetically critiquing, editing, and validating all aspects of it. Now, I catch my son who inspired the rhymes, casually reading the book on his own. I can tell they are proud of their mom, but I can also tell they are excited to learn about these brave women and are inspired by their stories.
As a mother of two boys, I am confident that reading this book will help break down any unconsciously held beliefs they have about women and girls. A defining moment for me came when my oldest son, who enjoys swimming competitively, asked me if I knew any Indian American swimmers who had competed at the Olympics. Given the statistics on diversity in the swim world, I wasn’t surprised when our internet research drew a blank.
However, I was able to share Mohini Bhardwaj’s story from my book. As an Olympian and former captain of the USA’s gymnastics team, who happens to be a vegetarian like my son, her journey was a source of inspiration for him. While it didn’t entirely answer his question, it helped him see that people like him can achieve greatness in athletics.