I Kick and I Fly (Scholastic, April 18) is an intense, dramatic story showing the desperation of families living in poverty in a gang-controlled red-light district in Forbesganj, Bihar, India. It skillfully shows the overwhelming scale of systemic problems and the importance of individual initiative without veering into hopelessness or blaming those who cannot break the cycle. Author Ruchira Gupta established the anti–sex trafficking NGO Apne Aap, and her global activism, including work with the United Nations, has earned her many accolades, among them a Clinton Global Citizen Award and l’ordre national du Mérite from the French government. Gupta also edited River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction and As If Women Matter: The Essential Gloria Steinem Reader.

With I Kick and I Fly, she channels years of experience and passion for reform into a gripping and empowering novel. Fourteen-year-old protagonist Heera, from the formerly nomadic Nat caste that was criminalized by British colonizers, is supported by a network of women and girls. She pursues an education, learns martial arts, escapes being sold into sex slavery—something that she learns affects girls worldwide—and helps others. Gupta divides her time between her hometown of Forbesganj and New York City, where she spoke with us over Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first come to do this work?

I was walking through the hills of Nepal in the 1990s, and I came across villages with missing girls. I asked the men [who were] drinking tea and playing cards, and they told me, “The girls are in Mumbai.” Now, Mumbai was 1,400 km away, and these villages were even two hours away from the highway. I couldn’t understand how this could be. So, as a good journalist, I followed the trail and ended up making a documentary, The Selling of Innocents, and won an Emmy. But finding the answer to my question changed my life: I’d covered war, famine, hunger, and conflict, but I had never seen this kind of exploitation of one human being by another—and to little girls. The women saved my life when I was filming [in a brothel]. Somebody stuck a knife to my throat and said, “You can’t film here.” The women surrounded me in a circle and said, “If you kill her, you’re going to have to kill us first.” I said, “OK, let’s do this together. Let’s form a circle.” Apne Aap means self-action in Hindi. The women had four dreams: school for their children, a room of their own—Virginia Woolf in Mumbai!—a job in an office, and punishment of those who bought and sold them.

It’s fascinating how martial arts is central both in the book and in Apne Aap’s work in real life.

It was really hard: Traffickers would attack us; school principals would refuse to admit the children, saying they are prostitutes; and the kids were hungry. Some were dependent on drugs and alcohol, or their family members were. The kids had no faith in themselves; the community didn’t have faith in them. We begged the government to let us start a hostel inside a local school’s premises. The traffickers would jump over the walls to kidnap the girls; the parents would try to pull the kids out, saying nothing is possible; and the kids also didn’t respect themselves. I was walking home, completely frustrated, and I saw someone teaching karate near a rice field. I thought, maybe this is the way? Even if they are constantly being bullied and beaten, and even if they drop out of school—because who knows what the future holds—they can at least kick in a few teeth of those who are exploiting them. Karate changed everything. One girl told me, “In learning self-defense, I learned that I have a self worth defending.”

What inspired you to turn these incredible stories into a YA novel?

I began writing the book when a girl just like Heera won a gold medal in karate. I was trying to help her stay in school in spite of the fact that her father wanted to sell her. It was quite a huge moment. I began writing the story, but I dropped it because there was no time. And then during Covid, when there was so much misery and doom and gloom, one of the girls texted me saying, “I’m in Forbesganj too. Can I come and see you?” She was telling me how she had rented a place, gotten a job, moved her mother out of the red-light area, and suddenly I felt hope. I thought, why am I not sharing these stories? Human trafficking is such a big problem, and it grew during Covid. We need to be able to talk about these issues with children; children should know what other children go through.

Twenty years ago, I began working on human trafficking. I knew nothing about it, but I had determination. I thought, I’ll go to the two most powerful places for changes in the law—the United Nations and the U.S.—and succeeded somehow. We were able to go to different countries and say, Meet the standards of this law: Provide services to victims, have prevention programs, and punish the traffickers. Shift the blame from the victim to the perpetrator. Now we have more than 160 countries that have signed the U.N. protocol. But what I realized was that the traffickers are one step ahead of us. This is the second largest crime in the world according to the U.N., after the arms trade. What are we going to do if this is the scale of what we are taking on? I need to get to these kids before the traffickers do and tell them what the real story is. One of the biggest culture wars in America right now really is what can we talk to our young people about? We have to talk to them about the truth, and what better way than to do it through storytelling?

Why did you move the setting from India to the U.S. for the later chapters?

I help law enforcement work with victims of trafficking, so I’ve met a lot of survivors here [in New York]. I mentor a group of survivors, and the story in the last chapter is true. A lot of trafficking narratives are of the White male savior: Someone goes from here to a red-light district in India and rescues a girl by knocking down the door. It’s only part of the solution, it’s not holistic. The girl they’re getting out of the brothel will then be put into a shelter. When she turns 18, she’ll be told, go back to that same village, to that same situation with no [extra] skills, whereas what I’m talking about is women and girls taking their own agency. There’s a part in the book set in this shelter in America, with kids working together for this kung fu championship—and they are from everywhere to show how universal this problem is.

Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.