Books
Are we feeding our children clichés and stereotypes through our traditional bedtime stories?

A lady once approached Albert Einstein seeking advice. Inspired by his work and in a bid to nudge her little son into the same field, she wanted to know the kind of reading her son must do to be adequately prepared. “Read Fairy tales,” he quipped. When the mother protested for a more serious answer, Einstein said a tad loudly, “Read more fairy tales!” Einstein believed that creative imagination was the essential element for scientists and fairy tales provided the much-needed stimulus at childhood.

Have our traditional fairy tales become passé?  Can today’s 5-year-olds relate to kings, queens and the pricking of spindles? Along with their dinner are we feeding our little girls clichés of princesses who yearn to be rescued and need a Prince Charming to gallop into their ‘happily ever after’? Growing media research and semiotic studies have exposed and debated the political correctness of these bedtime rituals.

Fairy tales began as oral tradition until the Brothers Grimm and the French author Charles Perrault curated and re-wrote the stories, as we know them today. Most of the stories were watered down historical events that could not be openly spoken about or were social mores masquerading as tales. Simple on the surface and filled with one dimensional imagery and characters that are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. These stories contained simple messages of love, sacrifice and safety but also undercurrent themes such as ‘rape’, ‘incest’, ‘torture’, that one feels uncomfortable talking about.

The Little Red Riding Hood is a story about a little girl in a red cape who is accosted en route to her grandmother’s house by a wolf. The wolf reaches the house before she does, gobbles up the grandma and lures Little Riding Hood into his trap, until a passing woodcutter saves her. Sanitised versions have the grandmother locked up in the closet.  Either ways the tale served as a warning, admonishing young, naive girls from straying from the ‘safe world of the village’ into the ‘dangers of the forests’. Big bad wolves are lurking everywhere, they seemed to say. If independence is what you crave, only a burly Samaritan can save you.  Professor Arthur Asa Burger, in his book ‘Media Analysis Techniques’ offers different interpretations of the same story, including a Marxist reading. In 17th century France, red was the colour associated with prostitutes; ‘fertile’ women who strayed were thus doomed to this fate. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud found fairy tales replete with sexual symbols that resonated with the human mind because of their archetypes.

Five-year-old Zoya struts around the house with a blue dupatta for a cape, announcing that she is queen Elsa. The stupendous box office success of Disney’s Frozen and Maleficent magnify the undying appeal of fairy tales. “But I find it hard to narrate these stories to Zoya or answer her subsequent questions” says Lakshmi a new grandparent, noting, “Hansel and Gretel for instance is so violent, with the children pushing the cannibalistic witch into a hot oven.” Today’s kids are extremely curious and are not shy to question logic. Zoya wants to know why a man has two wives and already thinks that fair is beautiful.

Research indicates that Cinderella was a fair complexioned Greek woman called Rhdopsis, who was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt. Snow white was Margarete von Waldek a 16-century Bavarian noblewoman whose brother made children work in his copper mine, causing severe deformities and hence known as dwarfs. Celebrated modern-day fairy-tale writer Neil Gaiman, who tweaks fairy tales to give them a feminist spin, thinks otherwise. His latest work, The Sleeper and the Spindle is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. “Snow White tells you that even when those who love you put you in an intolerant situation you can make friends and cope with life,” says Gaiman.

Some young and new mothers like Shruti Mathew are not convinced.  An avid bookworm herself, Shruti has been collecting books for her baby Isha from the day she was born, mostly award-winners based on Amazon’s top 100 books for children. Her recent picks were Harold and the Purple Crayon and Miss Rumphius. “These books boost creativity and make children care for issues that they can relate to, like the environment than hunters and witches.” Shruti concludes.

Neha Bhalla is a busy mother and a busier teacher. With a decade of experience in special education, Neha often weaves fairy tales into her curriculum, as she believes that they enter the subconscious of the child and become a base for studying history in the higher grades.  “I feel they still have magic. As for the violence in a tale, when they are taught by a teacher and not watched on TV, children handle it better and it gives them a good understanding of good and bad,” she says.

Dr Sandhya Rajasekhar, Head of the Department of Journalism, MOP Vaishnav College for Women, with years of experience in decoding media texts agrees. “Fairy tales pass on simple messages, are optimistic and end on a positive note, which is important. I guess they hoped these messages would hold good in different contexts and circumstances. This is what Perrault himself says in his prologue to Sleeping Beauty.”

Every child’s first library comprises of these western classics, but Indian epics as retold by grandparents or read in Amar Chitra Katha are not any short of stereotypes. It is easy to dismiss the Mahabharata as adventures of gallant men, who subjugate women and go on an indiscriminate killing spree but it also contains little nuggets of wisdom about friendship, honour and moral dilemma. Samhita Arni’s The Mahabharat is a retelling that lays out these fables in a simple form without sounding preachy.

Zoya has just started reading mythological stories and is brimming with questions. “Doesn’t Krishna cheat in the Mahabharata? If he cheats how is he god? How can you kill your own cousins? What are they doing to Draupadi?” she batters her grandmother.  Lakshmi felt helpless, unable to satiate her granddaughter’s curiosity until she chanced upon Devdutt Pattnaik’s books. Dedutt Pattnaik is India’s latest storyteller with a twist. Taking the familiar canvas of mythology, Devdutt paints fables that kids can relate to without losing the moral or the essence. In his Fun in Devlok series Krishna dons a teenage avatar and is about to embark on a flight journey when he is stopped and asked to produce his ID card. The story goes on to explain why all gods carry a flag with a designated signage. These new versions have made epics relevant for the changing times.

The Indian publishing industry is flourishing now and books by contemporary Indian authors are slowly creeping into the bedtimes of children.  Sandhya Rao is one of India’s leading children books writers. Closely associated with Tulika Books, her book My Mother’s Sari among others has won international accolades. When quizzed about fairy tales, she reckons that its good sign that people have intellectual problems with them, the stereotyping of the stepmother or stepsisters in Cinderella, for instance. “I feel it's a good thing that of late we have become more alert to the question of stereotyping, gender bias, cruelty to children, horror, and so on. Fairy tales, like our folktales, were not really intended for children, they were for adults. These days, we are very careful about exposing small children to sadness. My personal take on this is that if such stories are told well/shared sensitively, then it's okay. That's the key,” she concludes.  

Nestled into the nooks of one of Bengaluru’s busiest hubs is ‘Lightroom’ a quaint bookstore filled with light, space, and tons of books, the essentials of a happy childhood. Lightroom houses an eclectic collection of books for children handpicked and recommended by its owner, Aashti Mudnani. “I personally avoid housing Disney stories, and would pick The Little Red Hen versus Sleeping Beauty,” Aashti says. Lightroom has almost the entire Duckbill, Pratham, Tara and Tulika titles, all Indian publishers.

The alternative.in recently published an exhaustive list of best Indian fiction for children which contained titles such as the humorous, The Moustache Man and Why Are You Afraid To Hold My Hand? a story that articulates the concept of normalcy and the differently abled.

Mayil Will Not Be quiet, also among the list, by Niveditha Subramanian and Sowmya Rajendran went on to win the Bal Sahitya Puraksar award for 2015 and is recommended by the CBSE.  Written in the form of diary jottings of 8-year-old Mayil, it deals with questions of gender. Niveditha also edited Girls To The Rescue a retelling of fairy tales by Sowmya.  “The question of fairy tales being relevant now solely rests in the hands of the writer and the illustrator,” Niveditha opines. And perhaps parents too, who choose what their kids read.

“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell that dragons exist but because they tell that dragons can be beaten,” A Neil Gaiman quote welcomes Shruti as she scours through Amazon. “Isha doesn’t need fairy tales for that, she will read Harry Potter,” she smiles. But it may not be long before Isha stands in front the mirror blue dupatta around and croons, “Let it go!”