In 2016, a campaign on Kickstarter to finance a book found 13,454 backers who pledged a whopping total of $6,75,614. The book became the bestselling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, featuring snippets on 100 inspiring women from across the world.

Delhi-based author and leadership coach Aparna Jain was one of the backers of the project. But when she looked for biographies on Indian women for children, she couldn’t find any that were satisfactorily engaging. So she decided to write one herself. Like A Girl: Real Stories For Tough Kids features a remarkable variety of 56 women icons and their complex stories in a hardbound, lovingly-illustrated volume. The women that from a part of this book range from historical figures such as Sultan Razia and Chand Bibi to young achievers like Dipa Karmakar and Poorna Malavath.

Over two dozen women artists created the accompanying artwork. Through layered, uncensored profiles, Like A Girl is meant to be a starting point for conversation and debate among children and their parents, with some of the stories weaving in issues such as caste, rape, child marriage and sexuality for a privileged, urban audience.

In an interview with, Jain, whose last two books were the well-received The Sood Family Cookbook and Own It: Leadership Lessons From Women Who Do, talks about how she pulled off Like A Girl in six months, whether it was tough to put together “real stories for tough kids” without sanitising them and why she decided to include the stories of “uneasy icons”. Edited excerpts:

When I heard about Like A Girl, I thought it sounded like an Indian version of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. But it is so much more. Were you egged on by the belief that there was a serious gap in the kind of books being written for children?
I was definitely inspired by Rebel Girls which I backed (as did thousand others) on Kickstarter before the book was even in the market. The format in Rebel Girls is fabulous for little kids – 150 words and one page only. The women were more adventurous, sporty, doing cool stuff – pirates, sailors.

I knew our own icons were different. Our battles were different. Our stories were complex. And layered. And required a lot more words and explanation. I looked for biographies for kids on women and was disappointed. What little was there, was “textbook-like”. In addition there was no hook for a young reader. Also I wanted a fairly frank book out there for kids. To start debate and discussion.

Internationally, the trend of illustrated feminist books for children on iconic figures has caught on in the last few years. There’s Women in Science, Legendary Ladies, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, a second volume of ‘Rebel Girls’, and so on. Was it easy to find a publisher here and get them interested?
In this case – happily – yes. I took the idea to Karthika VK and Gautam Padmanabhan at Westland. It took them five minutes to agree to do it. Of course they had to do a lot of work internally on how to manage the production and costs considering the Indian market doesn’t take to expensive books easily. This was going to be expensive. All colour and hardbound! It’s come through so beautifully and I shall be ever grateful to them.

Bama, illustrated by Tara Anand

How did you adapt the concept to suit an Indian context?
I pretty much approached it from scratch. I didn’t adapt anything. I interviewed, I wrote, I edited, I read stories to my nieces, I listened to their questions, I rewrote stories. The important thing I kept in mind was that I was writing for a certain audience. A more privileged, sometimes cocooned urban audience and therefore needed to flesh out certain concepts and landscapes.

How long did it take to get the book together? What were your primary sources? What were your days like while researching and writing?
From the time I actually began writing it to giving it in to Karthika – six absolutely back-breaking months. You know, you look at it and it seems simple right? I mean – it’s a book of short stories. But the truth is I was juggling travel, interviews, writing, rewriting, research. I read – well, skimmed – over 35 books. I interviewed 60 odd people. I had to chase down relatives of women who were no longer alive. I had to chase down women who were alive but so busy it was impossible to contact them. I had to badger people for introductions. I had to make follow up calls to gatekeepers every week. It was a bit of a nightmare. Some women were dropped because it was impossible to get in touch with them.

Talk to us about settling on the title. It’s such a compelling statement. Were there other feisty titles competing for the spot?
I came into the book with this title. “Like a Girl” or “Ladkiyon Jaise”. I really wanted to take this rebuke and turn it around into something powerful. I knew this is what I wanted to call it but I wasn’t sure about the strap line. Karthika and I were discussing the strap line after the book was edited. As you know the stories are hardly simple. I wanted to get in the word tough somewhere. I kept saying tough stories and then Karthika said “How about ‘Real Stories for Tough Kids’?” And that clicked for me and clicked for everyone in the room.

You write that it was a nightmare to choose the 56 women whose stories made it to the book. Take us through the process? How challenging was it to make it representative and inclusive? And were there profiles you were unsure of including in the final list?
It was a nightmare in the beginning. I felt our list was quite safe. We decided not to have any politicians because – ooh, corruption, or ooh, human right violations. But after a long discussion with Ajitha GS – another key person from the publisher end – we decided to bring in “uneasy icons”.

Also you know when you have a list and then you keep wanting to add “another amazing woman” – that happened a lot. I would text Karthika every day for about two months with a new name. She did consider some, but when we finally froze on a list, she would just answer – “next volume”. In terms of inclusiveness, I deliberately steered away from women in corporate India and Bollywood. I wanted kids and their parents to learn about some women they had not heard about.

You have adopted an easy, anecdotal style which goes beyond mere summaries of their lives. It must have been a challenge accessing the little details of their childhood stories that really bring the profiles in the book to life.

Yes, when you interview a person and ask them about their childhood the answers are usually vague. “It was fun, challenging, tough”, etc. But when you ask them for anecdotes, it takes longer. I had to talk to women a second time for their childhood memories.

I remember Bama emailing me a few days after our first interview to say she remembered a childhood story. I then called her up to get it. I found the childhood anecdotes laid a setting for the person. So when you hear the story, your mind is fired up and your imagination is already taking you to the person’s home or situation. It gives the rest of the story texture and context. Some of the stories were touching. Like Soni Sori’s or Gauri Sawant.

How are you reaching out to readers and who do you want them to be? Are schools taking an interest in introducing it to students?
It’s been a couple of weeks but it has really been encouraging. Strangers have been pinging me via Instagram and Twitter and asking me to sign copies for their kids. One woman in Bombay bought five copies for her kids and her friends’ kids and left it at my hotel for me to sign. Everyone who has sent feedback has given mostly critical and encouraging feedback. Yes, one of the plans is to do the school circuit and I hope educators will use this book as a tool to talk to kids.

What did you have in mind when you thought of how you wanted the book to look? Like A Girl works beautifully as a collaborative art project, where 26 women artists were commissioned to illustrate these stories. How did you pull that off?
Yeah, that was a bit of the nightmare.

The first job was to get an art patron. I spent a few months knocking on doors and then fortuitously met the folk at Oxfam India who were the perfect partners. Their gender programme aligned with the thinking behind the book – making a positive impact on young girls and giving them role models to look up to.

I then met Ayesha Broacha – who had worked on my first book with me – and asked her if she could come aboard as art director. I knew I would barely have the bandwidth to manage the art and in any case I was in no position to give critical feedback or guidance to artists, because I am not one.

Ayesha heard me out and then said, “How much time do we have?” When she learned I had four months she almost laughed. She asked, “how will we get the artists, check their work out, sign contracts, supervise work, pay them and get everything in on time? This is a one year project!”

That night I barely slept. The next day I decided we would do it somehow. I contacted everyone I knew in the art space – students of NID, Shrishti, people who run design collectives and groups. I posted multiple times on social media with a callout. Lawyer Swaty Singh Malik drew up a contract and then within 15 days we were swamped. Every time an email came in I would forward it to Ayesha. She finally had to create a new email ID for this project. She would approve an artist and we would ask the artist whom they wanted to illustrate. The first few artists had this choice. They would send her a layout and dummy to approve and then get started on the illustration. She was pretty clear on the look and feel. Even though the book was targeted at slightly older readers – if a child was to hear a story, we wanted them to be able to look at the illustrations and say “this is the woman who climbed Everest twice in a week” or “this is the woman who fought against child marriage”. She wanted it to look like The New Yorker and not like an Indian textbook.

Mithila Raj, illustrated by Joanna Mendes

Through these profiles, you address subjects that adults tend to avoid talking to children about, or don’t know how to tackle – gender, caste, sexuality, rape, poverty, mental health, human rights. These are present in the stories of Bhanwari Devi, Dayamani Barla, Bama, Ritu Dalmia, Soni Sori and many others. Did you at any point hesitate to write about these issues for children, or how you were going to write about them?
Did I hesitate? No. I knew these were concepts I wanted parents to speak about to their kids. Did I wonder about how it was going to be presented? Yes!

Karthika and I had a number of discussions on language in the story. For example, should we use “sexual assault” or “sexual violence” or “rape”? What would parents be more comfortable using? It was a bit of a toss-up with a number of discussions. Finally we decided on it being what it is – rape. Why shy away from words that are used in media everyday and in fact children should know about? In fact many do know about.

Talk to us about including a reading guide at the end of the book, which deconstructs topics such as prostitution and caste for children in plain and simple terms.
I had decided there would be a glossary or a section with explainers at the back of the book. It was though, the toughest part to write. You are writing an explainer on tough topics for kids. Topics most people steer clear of. Then getting it checked for sensitivity and accuracy. Then editing it again for appropriateness and length. This was the section I was most apprehensive about. Even until the last day Karthika and I made changes. But I’m pleased with the final result. The explainers are again a segue for parents and educators to begin a conversation with kids.

The profiles are at times critical of some of the legacies, such as in the case of Indira Gandhi and Jayalalithaa. You write in the preface about giving kids a chance to see the grey areas in the stories, to see the good with the bad. How tough was it to not whitewash the flaws?
Not at all tough. In fact it would have been tough to write a sanitised version. I’m not that person! I also firmly believe that women are held to much higher standards and we are made to feel we need to be perfect and virtuous to be considered heroes or icons. I wanted kids to know that there is good and bad with greatness. And I want parents to be able to tell them about the pressures and temptations that come with fame. No one should be held up as perfect. No one is.

Could you give us a peek into Like A Girl volume two, which I believe is already in the works
Ha! There is a companion volume planned, but for now, my lips are sealed.