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Breaking the Glass Slipper: Diversity and Discord in Children’s Literature

–Shaoni Dasgupta

As essential as it is to revisit the folk tales and fairy tales that many of us have grown up with, for tenets of indomitable spirit, essence of magic and believing in “as many as six impossible things before breakfast” (Lewis Caroll), the revisit must also include an interest in the re-telling of the same. The diverse characters and empowering stories would not only retain the magic of the fairy tales but also situate it in a modern-day situation which asks to blur the lines of discrimination. It is essential to indulge in stories where the damsel is not in distress and doesn’t require saving- either from a high tower or a bullying, evil stepmother.

Literature for children from the days of Panchatantra to now, through its multi-faceted avenues have been making children aware of their culture, society and surroundings. Traditionally, children’s literature has not been vocal in the representation of diversity, thereby reflecting the then-society’s general lack of awareness and further the need to expose a multifarious reality to children. However, over the years, this realization that the need for socially aware and inclusive literature starts early, has dawned upon many.

It is essential that children see themselves in the books they read and learn to empathize with ‘alien’ concepts and ideas as a mere stretch of their own reality. Seeing a representation of one’s reality is a much-empowered dimension that can be added to a personality, young or otherwise. As young minds, the readers are more impressionable and hence the requirement to start early- in inculcating a sense of diversity and social awareness. It is the lack of awareness that seeps deep into the skin of a child who then grows up to be indifferent to the sufferings of others, shows lack of empathy to anyone who is not them or similar to them. The otherization surfaces both brutally and otherwise. The range can be from stereotyping a person with different interests from yours by sticking a label on them to being intolerant on a larger scale in terms of religion, caste and social-standing. If honour-killing is a reality representative of intolerance, regular bullying in school springs from a similar history of lack of empathy and inability to embrace others.

Much to the relief of many, publishers have started to bridge the gap in diversity representation in their books. As the many statistical reports suggest, there are very few books on children of colour, on gender equality as a tool to change the present and the future, on disability as an enabler and not otherwise. The Diversity Baseline Survey of 2019 yielded concerning results- the industry consisted of 81% straight people, only 11% disabled people, 97% Cis men and women and 76% Caucasian population.

The Unboy Boy, written by Richa Jha, illustrated by Gautam Benegal and published by Pickle Yolk Books, traces the story of Gagan and his ease at being who he is, despite everyone trying to make a ‘boy’ out of him. Gagan’s mother’s assurance to him every night brings peace to him and hope to the readers of a world that is non-binary. While Sadiq Wants to Stitch written by Mamta Nainy, illustrated by Niloufer Wadia and published by Karadi Tales, emphasizes on a similar trope, it is extended beyond the subcontinent in titles like Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love where our protagonist is in love with the idea of mermaids and proceeds to dress himself as one by the end of the book, thereby highlighting self-acceptance. A similar set is the Satrangi Ladke-Satrangi Ladkiya books written by Kamla Bhasin, illustrated by Priya Kurian and published by Pratham Books. These picture books, amongst many others, re-emphasize the need to express one’s true self and eventually accept it.

Publishers are also concentrating on the diverse and magical ways families are born. In My Heart, written by Nandana Dev Sen, and published by Puffin Books, elucidates Mia’s journey to find her tummy-mummy and the journey leading her to bigger and better truth. The heart-warming illustrations by Ruchi Mhasane adds to the beautiful journey of the little girl who has so far believed that she has come out of the hearts of her parents and hence, is so much like them.

Julius Lester’s Let’s Talk About Race, illustrated by Karen Barbour and published by Harper Collins, beautifully captures the celebration of diversity, as the author shares in a note to this book, “I write because our lives are stories. If enough of those stories are told, then perhaps we will begin to see that our lives are the same story. The differences are mainly in the details.” The well-known political theorist and anti-caste activist Kancha Illaiah Shepherd has authored Maa, where the protagonist, a young professor from the Shepherd community remembers his mother fighting against the atrocities of caste and enabling the community to stand up against the prevalent discrimination in the village. Published by Eklavya and illustrated by Lokesh Khodke and Shefalee Jain, this book is a stirring tale that can be used to sensitise children towards a future of no discrimination. The Why Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi and illustrated by Kanyika Kini, published by Tulika Books, also stresses on a multitude of societal issues, from caste discrimination, to having a resilient girl as a protagonist whose thirst for knowledge is heavily criticised, earning her the title of The Why Why Girl. Puu, by CG Salamander and Samidha Gunjal and published by Scholastic, traces the issue of manual scavenging and brings it within the scope and understanding of children. The title emphasises on the pun in the word ‘puu’- a Tamil word for flowers and the English word ‘poo’ and takes us further away from the bright pink flowers and little pigs on the cover. As expressed by the author-illustrator duo, this book was aimed at being a conversation starter and so it has! The metaphor in the pink flowers, the replacement of butterflies by bees and the intended dark brown skin of the protagonist, is successful in making Puu a book about the ‘lesser humans’ in the eyes of society, while constantly reminding us of the societal structure and its glaring woes.

Thukpa For All, a book by Karadi Tales, written by Prabha Ram and Sheela Preuitt and illustrated by Shilpa Ranade, depict a narrative of community-compassion and hope as Tsering’s inability to see doesn’t come in his way of love and compassion. It also beautifully narrates how a visually-impaired child experiences the world around through sights and smells, much like Gopu from Richa Jha’s Maccher Jhol. Published by Pickle Yolk Books and illustrated by Sumanta Dey, the negotiation of the ordinary that the protagonist goes through as he steps out of his comfort zone, is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The heart of the story is his compassion for the father who has hand-held him through every noise and silence of the city and his ultimate wish to bring to him (the father) unadulterated joy in savouring a favourite dish. The unadulterated joy for the father, as the readers perceive, is in this warm attempt by his visually-impaired son, who has, for the first time, flouted all the rules to make him happy.

It is essential that the community of publishers, authors and illustrations continue on this path of opening new windows for everyone alike. The discussed diversity projects itself as a rainbow that is born out of the clouds of prejudice and the downpour of societal obstacles. The necessity of tuning a child to existing prejudices, calamities and stereotypes is the foundational stepping stone to the magical universe of impartiality.

Author Bio

An assistant editor at StoryWeaver, Pratham Books and an enthusiast of all things poetry, Shaoni is a proud Bengali who unwinds by whipping up a cuisine or two. She loves the ‘flaneur’ in her and admits to have scribbled about unnamed people, roads and water banks while travelling. Reviews and analyses excite the academic soul in her!

Published by The Delek Archives

This project intends to archive instances of identity and religion-based discrimination in schools. It will map policies, surveys, curriculum evaluation and self-reflections; with a larger goal to providing a vision for justice, equity and inclusivity in school education.

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