Stories of demons, gods and fairy tales with happy, moralistic endings probably formed a memorable part of your childhood. You may remember reading these stories, but do you remember asking why the princesses were always soft-spoken, swooning, fair-skinned women waiting to be rescued?
Gender tends to be a recurring theme in Manjula Padmanabhan’s books. The 63-year-old author wrote “Unprincess” in 2005, a collection of three children’s stories, with the simple motive to write “entertaining and interesting” tales with non-princess characters for heroines.
“I don’t fret about meanings as I write. I know they’re embedded in everything I do," she told TNM. Manjula highlights what has been problematic with the dominant discourse of children’s literature. Selling unquestioned stereotypes in the guise of moralistic happily ever-afters.
Manjula Padmanabhan's "Unprincess"
However, like Manjula, there are people who are seeking to create alternative children’s literature which is diverse, inclusive, and sensitive.
Bengaluru-based Maegan Dobson Sippy and Bijal Vachharajani curate books for children and young adults on their Instagram account “BAM! Books”. The initiative is about 10 months old and hopes to be a platform for parents, educators and readers to find the latest books and trends, especially those with South Asian aspirations.
However, it remains a challenge to convince sceptical adults that alternative literature does not intend to corrupt children, but start a conversation about difficult issues in an age appropriate manner. Radhika Menon, Managing Editor of Tulika Books, has known instances of well-known schools returning books on themes like gender and sex, because parents did not find them “appropriate” for children.
“But individuals and groups running reading programmes, even in the smaller cities and towns, look for books with sensitive themes and use them effectively for discussions that sensitise children to difficult and complex issues,” she says.
Radhika Menon, Managing Editor at Tulika Books
What about younger children? Radhika explains how a story need not be told with words alone: “Showing people with different brown skin tones, different physical appearances including those with disabilities (can help). Visuals that also show settings which all children can relate to regardless of their economic or social backgrounds can make a book inclusive even when the story is not necessarily focused on that.”
But given that adults generally tend to be a child’s first point of reference for books, does one woo the adult or the child? Maegan acknowledges that there is a disparity between the books an adult would select for a child and what the latter would actually love to read. “The best children’s books are always the ones that bridge that divide – something that a child loves and can relate to, but which an adult would not get bored of reading again and again,” she observes.
Maegan and Bijal insist that children’s books need not be jargon-heavy when dealing with difficult issues. “Children’s books should reflect the world around us, but in a way that is accessible and age-appropriate,” they argue.
Manjula agrees: “Everything a child is exposed to is important – in school, at home, in books, text-books, on TV, in movies, on the street and in shops. Our lives are a continuum. If textbooks and storybooks don't reflect the lived experience of a child, their influence is greatly reduced."
Bijal says that the alternative nature of the topic must not overwhelm the story. “It must not take away from the narrative or pictorial aspects of the book. You can’t force an alternative direction on a story just because you want to do the right thing. Children are clever and as writers, we must respect our audience,” she maintains.
Maegan Dobson Sippy (left) and Bijal Vachharajani (right) of BAM! Books
The problem of explaining concepts to children without the jargon is something ‘Kaalitales’, a 2013 initiative by students of NLS, Bengaluru, tried to address. Started by Chirayu Jain in August 2013 with an NGO called Brown and Proud, Kaalitales sought to raise awareness about colourism by holding competitions in schools, asking children to write their own renditions of fairy tales.
“But what ended up happening was a complete role reversal instead of a nuanced approach. Children wrote fairy tales but which showed the girl basically doing what the guy in would do in the story,” explains 20-year-old Nikita Garg, a third year NLS student and a member of Kaalitales’ nine-member team.
After a hiatus in 2014, Nikita says that this year, they haven’t used words like “feminism”, “re-telling” or “reinterpretation”. They have two categories instead. While the first one allows the participants to send any story (with elements of science, adventure, fantasy or magic), the second category is that of alternate endings. So far they have received 133 responses from 16 schools across cities like Bengaluru, Delhi and Vadodara.
The idea, Nikita explains, is to get older children to write these stories for the younger ones in their school. “Once you get the reading part right, you will get the writing right too,” says Nikita, explaining why the competition is limited to students from classes 9 to 12. The Kaalitales team also wants to get the best stories published in print.
Girls to the recue: A feminist fairytale collection where girls rescue themselves. Being boys: An anthology which challenges the narrow notion that "boys will be boys". (Tulika Books)
While books that questioned and challenged stereotypes were there earlier too, the proportion of children reading them has grown now, Radhika says. Widespread access to the internet has an important role, she points out: “Online parenting groups and book discussions have also helped in creating awareness and changing attitudes towards children's books.”
Bijal says that though children’s publishing is still relatively new to India, the international boom and growth of alternative themes in children’s publishing in the post-Harry Potter era has helped the country. However, Maegan observes that there is a class divide when it comes to access. “But I think it’s very encouraging that we’re encountering more and more parents who did not read for pleasure in their own childhoods prioritizing it for their own children,” she says.