Do story books for children display a gender bias? NITHYA SIVASHANKAR finds out what some authors and publishers have to say about this

“I had a question about King Dasharatha. I didn't get the part when he says he wants a son to ‘carry' his name…Why didn't he want a daughter, I asked Amma… (Jhansi Ki Rani and Queen Velu Nachiyar) were also daughters and ruled kingdoms, right?”

Mayil, the 12-year-old protagonist of “Mayil will not be quiet”, carelessly scribbles this in her diary. Still, when she learns that her mother is to take up a job when her father loses his job, she is upset. She is also uncomfortable with the fact that now her dad and her grandfather will take turns cooking.

Are there gender stereotypes in children's books? The Guardian recently published an article on gender imbalance in children's literature and the representation of female characters in it. It dealt with the skewed ratio of male to female protagonists in books for children and young adults.

Suniti Namjoshi, a writer and poet, notes that Indian books also reflect this imbalance. “The ratio is almost certainly skewed, and I think that girls are more likely to read books with male protagonists than the other way about. This is because children and children's writers quite often tend to reflect the attitudes prevalent in the society around them. In India, boys and men are certainly more privileged than girls and women.”

Tomboys and sissies?

Says Anita Roy of Zubaan Books, a feminist publishing house, “I think it's safe to say that the kind of gender imbalance that you see in Western children's books is there in Indian ones as well. In the same way that, perhaps, it's seen as socially okay for girls to dress in boys' clothes (a ‘tomboy') but not for boys to dress in girls' clothes (a ‘sissy').”

Anita does point out an exception - Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman's “His dark materials” trilogy. But adds, “I wonder whether J.K. Rowling would have rolled out such a successful series had the first volume been called ‘Hermione Granger and the philosopher's stone'.” It's strange, she says, how in collections such as the Panchatantra, animal characters are automatically assumed to be ‘he' - but if there's a ‘she', then her gender has a direct bearing on the story.  

More male protagonists

“Notice how most superheroes are male,” points out Naresh. R, a Chennai-based storyteller. “There are more male protagonists in Indian children's books. I don't know whether that is good or bad. Maybe, male heroes do sell well,” he says. But it really doesn't matter who the protagonist is. It is fine as long as you have the kids hooked on to your story, he feels.

But it is not always like that. The authors of ‘Mayil…', Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam, have another observation. “When we interacted with a few VI and VII standard children from a school, we discovered that more boys than girls picked up our book,” says Niveditha. “We had a boy come up to us during the book launch and ask us how he could become a writer just like Mayil,” adds Sowmya. Niveditha, who works with Tulika, notes that “The Wyi-Wyi girl” by Mahasweta Devi and “Eki Dokki” by Sandhya Rao (both, with female protagonists) are popular among boys. In Namjoshi's “Aditi adventures”, the protagonist is female, as is Ele, the elephant who is enormously strong. “The characterisation in the series is one of the most obvious means used to question stereotyping of any sort,” says the author. She feels that her publishers (Tulika) are aware of class, caste and gender issues.

Zubaan Books, points out Anita Roy, addresses gender imbalance and stereotyping by publishing books with “unconventional girl heroes”. As examples, she cites Payal Dhar's trilogy, “A shadow in eternity” and Subhadra Sen Gupta's “Foxy four” series.

Tackling taboo subjects

“We have books that tackle difficult or taboo subjects, and nonfiction titles that reflect the changing aspirations of young women today. ‘A girl's guide to a life in science', which is to be published soon, is one such book.”

Suzanne Singh, managing trustee, Pratham Books, says, as a publishing house, Pratham Books is conscious and aware of the role its books play in the lives of the children who read them. As responsible publishers, they are careful not to promote discrimination or bias. Both male and female characters in books published by Pratham Books are equally curious, feisty, naughty and resourceful. Says Suzanne, “We do not slot our characters based on gender and we tend to reject manuscripts that do so either overtly or otherwise. Our focus is to create engaging, lovable characters that kids can relate to universally.”

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012