Books

Indian kid lit is tackling difficult questions of gender, disability, sickness and death

There’s no safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book 

There’s no safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book  | Photo Credit: Collage: Arivarasu M

I recently read a children’s picture book called  Jamlo Walks by Samina Mishra , about a little Adivasi girl who died during the migration of workers following the 2020 lockdown. It was factual and didn’t mention death once, but I cried and howled like I knew Jamlo personally. It dredged up memories of the peak pandemic days, when Facebook overflowed with obituaries, WhatsApp conversations brought only bad news, and television screens showed displaced people walking thousands of miles to reach home. Reliving the collective helplessness, I cried myself to sleep.

ALSO READ: Children’s magazine ‘Thumbi’ brings out braille stories for visually-impaired readers in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

The previous day, I’d cried in a bookshop while reading Richa Jha’s  Boo! When My Sister Died, about a girl angered by her sister’s death; and  Macher Jhol, also by Jha, about a blind boy who wants to make a fish curry for his sick father. In a few days, I’d become so addicted to children’s picture books that I joined a free online children’s library, Storyweaver, by Pratham Books. I like the Indian stories the best because they resonate with me — they either talk about experiences I have lived through or the surroundings they illustrate are familiar. Kids wear recognisable uniforms and their families look like mine.

Books to read
Jamlo Walks (Puffin) by Samina Mishra and Tarique Aziz, on COVID-19 and the labourers’ walk during the lockdown
Boo! When My Sister Died (PickleYolk Books) by Richa Jha and Gautam Benegal, on mortality
Dance of the Wild (PickleYolk Books) by Richa Jha and Ruchi Mhasane, on body positivity
Savi and the Memory Keeper (Hatchette India) by Bijal Vachharajani, on ecological concerns
Guthli Has Wings (Tulika Books) by Kanak Shashi, on gender difference
What Lies Between Two Hearts (Speaking Tiger) by Ranjit Lal, on religious difference
The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Cook (Penguin India) by Subhadra Sen Gupta, on mental health

Facing reality

However, when it comes to difficult topics like sickness or death, children’s literature in English has always been upfront: think of nursery rhymes like ‘Ring-a-ring-a-rosies’, where people collapse probably because of the plague or ‘Jack and Jill’, about children tumbling down the hill. But their language and settings do not speak to me: I don’t have golden locks, gingerbread is unfamiliar, as is a cottage in the woods owned by three bears. On the other hand, like every Indian, I have seen images of people walking to their faraway homes in the burning summer heat and tasted the fear of death, even while hiding in my house.

I wondered how children deal with these books which make me so sad. A little bit of reading on Samina Mishra led me to a wonderful essay (‘Why we shouldn’t shield children from darkness’) by an award-winning children’s author, Matt de la Peña, who says, “Maybe instead of anxiously trying to protect our children from every little hurt and heartache, our job is to simply support them through such experiences. To talk to them. To hold them.” Because they undergo the same experience as adults, but unlike adults, cannot process them.

Samina Mishra’s ‘Jamlo Walks’ is about the migration of labourers and their families during the 2020 lockdown in India

Samina Mishra’s ‘Jamlo Walks’ is about the migration of labourers and their families during the 2020 lockdown in India

A friend of mine said that her young son was afraid of playing football in the apartment compound during the lockdown because he was scared of getting COVID. Almost every parent I spoke to sighed about how their children were affected mentally in the past couple of years. But they didn’t mention finding books that would explain what was happening around them.

READ: Folk tales may still hold sway, but lived experiences are slowly entering children’s narratives

Yet books comfort us, help us cope. As Peña says, “There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.”

Bookshops and libraries recommended by Smit Zaveri (Editor, Pratham Books), and authors Richa Jha, Bijal Vachharajani and Ritika Kochhar
Lightroom Book Store, Bengaluru
KoolSkool, Gurgaon
The Book Shelf, Hyderabad
Seagull Books, Kolkata
Bookworm Trust & Library, Panaji, Goa
Kahani Tree, Mumbai
Rachna Books, Gangtok
Eureka Bookstore, Delhi
Libraries
OneUp Library, Delhi
Cosy Nook Library, Bengaluru
Let’s Open a Book, Spiti
The Community Library Project, Delhi

Evolved storytelling

So, I spoke to children about books they’re reading, especially on topics that seem unwieldy even to grown-ups — body positivity, mental health, LGBTQIA+ issues. To my surprise, these weren’t big deal for the children. Agastya Ghosh, a Class X student of Maxfort School, Dwarka, New Delhi, knows about homosexual relationships from TV series like  God Friended Me or  Supergirl although he can’t recall seeing any books on them in the school library.

READ: LGBTQIA+ books for young readers

Niyamat Kochhar, a 15-year-old student of Tagore International School, New Delhi, says her parents acquainted her with these topics at a young age. Having dealt with body and mental health issues herself, she has led campaigns in school on subjects such as gender sensitisation. She’s read a lot of books on body and mental health problems, but most of them are books for adults picked up from her father’s bookshelves. However, her school, which has a students’ counsellor, also holds regular discussions on these topics.

READ: Diversity, joy and some good old silliness

Jayshree Menon, mother of an 11-year-old studying in Sriram Millennium School, Noida, says, “I make it a point to buy books that acquaint my son with the larger world. As a result, he now recognises certain themes outside his lived experience and asks us questions about them. For instance, he wants to know why I am confined to bed with cramps on certain days of the month or why women dress differently from men in the DC Comics movies he watches.”

Kanak Shashi’s ‘Guthli Has Wings’ is about a boy who wants to wear a dress

Kanak Shashi’s ‘Guthli Has Wings’ is about a boy who wants to wear a dress

Every children’s book I picked up, from Kanak Shashi’s  Guthli Has Wings (Tulika Books), about a boy who wants to wear a dress, to Richa Jha and Gautam Benegal’s  The Unboy Boy (Snuggle With Picture Books) was delightful, but I had to hunt them down. Ajay Jain, owner of Kunzum Books, acknowledges that he only has adult books on these topics while the children’s literature section in The Bookshop in Jorbagh has mostly international authors. However, there I did discover the gems that made me cry.

Online resources and Instagram pages to follow
storyweaver.org
paragreads.in
kahanitree.com
www.getlitt.co
read.worldreader.org
@bam_books (Instagram)
www.jarulbookawards.com
readingcaterpillar.wordpress. com/tag/rabani-garg
www.funkyrainbow.com

Storyteller Bookshop in Kolkata has a specially curated shelf of children’s books on physical disabilities. But this is an exception to the general rule that equates children’s literature with Sudha Murty or Ruskin Bond. At the same time, there are several online spaces and children’s lit fests — Bookaroo, Neev Lit Fest, Peek-a-Book or Funky Rainbow: The Travelling Children’s Bookshop’s online interaction, Book Bazaar — where children can find books on topics beyond the usual. A number of schools like Akshara School, Malad, organise interactions with authors. Some book festivals like Kala Ghoda, Gurgaon Literature Festival, Bangalore Literature Festival,  The Hindu Lit for Life have sessions dedicated to children’s literature.

Curious minds

Authors from Payal Dhar to Shals Mahajan, a queer feminist writer, to Jha, publisher at Pickle Yolk Books, have only complimentary things to say about their audience. “On occasions when I’ve spoken directly to young readers, I’ve found them curious, open-minded and positive in their reactions. Teens have reached out, either directly or through their parents, to say that they liked certain books. What I’ve seen in writing workshops as well is that children ask pertinent questions and are intensely curious about the world and themselves when they get a safe space to voice their concerns. They appreciate honesty and being addressed directly,” says Dhar, who is autistic herself.

Shals Mahajan’s early-reader book ‘Reva and Prisha’ subverts traditional norms with an alternate family with two mothers and their two kids who are both Hindu and Muslim

Shals Mahajan’s early-reader book ‘Reva and Prisha’ subverts traditional norms with an alternate family with two mothers and their two kids who are both Hindu and Muslim

Jha says, “My friend, the American author Lawrence Schimel, often deals with gay and lesbian themes in his fiction for children. His books have been translated into a number of languages, but have faced a backlash in a few countries in Europe. In India, Mahajan’s early-reader book,  Reva and Prisha (which subverts traditional norms with an alternate family with two mothers and their two kids who are both Hindu and Muslim), has been accepted widely by readers, which is heartening.”

It’s the best of times for children’s books in India, with our authors winning international awards, and one of the worst of times for children, who are coping with a world threatened by climate change, religious bigotry and intolerance in every form. A safe place which gives children the freedom to discuss, be different and accept difference is what they need now more than ever before. That space is books, read sitting in the lap of a loved one.

The writer is the author of the fantasy series Weapons of Kalki , and an expert on South Asian art and culture.


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Printable version | Jun 5, 2022 5:23:50 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/indian-kid-lit-is-tackling-difficult-questions-of-gender-disability-sickness-and-death/article65446481.ece