By Shivani Taneja and Ragini Lalit
We live in a country where too many of children’s realities include not having money to buy what they need, walking long distances to collect firewood, going out to fish for their evening meal, or not having a dry corner to sleep or sit in the house when it rains. These life experiences often include incidents of being displaced by those in power, or being discriminated against by the institutions that are meant to protect, like schools, police, judiciary, health services, local governments.
Privilege often renders this world invisible to us, creating a warped understanding of situations and people. But given that these experiences of persistent structural barriers exist in every aspect of many children’s lives, the absence of caste, abuse, stealing, sexuality, class among others in children’s literature, raises the question: whose childhood or which childhoods are we talking about in our children’s books? And equally or more important, who (all) are we writing for? Krishna Kumar, eminent educationist and former NCERT director, prods us when he emphasizes on examining childhood from an Indian lens and suggests that children’s literature in India needs to build its own path.
Stories create more opportunities than one could begin to list and explore within an article. But in a country as fragmented and diverse yet interconnected as the one we live in, what we focus on here is the need for diversity in our children’s books for the critical purpose of stories enabling us to understand others and finding ourselves in books. Narratives and stories ‘help us understand who we are, and how we are to behave. They show us how to live and die, they show us what community and friendship mean’, a reflection by Anne Lamott (1994) strikes a chord at this point. Similarly, Huck (1987) reminds us that, ‘Literature has the power to take us out of ourselves and return us to ourselves a changed self, to enlarge our thinking while educating our hearts.’
The Silences in Children’s Literature
Many times among adults, the dominant perception of childhood is one of ‘innocence’ or ‘naivety’. This then guides our perceptions in discussing children’s literature, and children’s supposed innocence is pointed at as a perceived lack of subjectivity of any kind. Children’s literature is expected to fit the tropes of being ‘simple’, linear narratives for ‘tabula rasa’ children who must be protected from violence, abuse and all kinds of structural conflicts.
It may be as recent as the last 10-15 years that the space of children’s literature has allowed life-worlds of marginalized children and ‘dark issues’ to tread inside our books with richness and sensitivity.
Recently, the 2022 South Asia Book Award for Children’s and YA Literature went to Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2021), a story about a 9-year-old child growing up inside a jail and then on the streets. Prior to this, we see some stories where lack of material goods comes up sensitively while giving a voice and agency to its characters in Untold School Stories (Anveshi, 2008) or The New Sweater (Muskaan, Eklavya, 2015). Gogu Shyamala’s book, Tataki Wins Again (Anveshi, 2008) talks of the abuse that a dominant-caste landlord inflicts on a girl for daring to water her fields before his, and books like Panchhi Pyara (A and A Book Trust, 2010), Meri Zoya Chali Gayi by Richa Jha (Eklavya, 2018) or Kya Tum ho Meri Dadi? (Ektara Jugnoo, 2019) are some books which acknowledge experiences of grief and death.
We still don’t have adequate stories of conflict, violence, anger but children engage with these ‘issues’ every day. In a seminar on diversity in Children’s Literature held in 2019 in Bhopal, Azra Khatoon, who worked with children and young adults in the aftermath of the widespread violence that hit Muzaffarnagar shared that the children were ‘drawing and expressing horrid experiences… these are not just isolated experiences that we can ignore them.’ Picture books like Mission Cycle (Pratham Books, 2018), Red (Tulika Books, 2018) enable young readers to take part in life amidst conflict situations, curfew and unrest. Stories of this kind may bring some recognition to the lives of those who might grow up hurt and affected by similar experiences, as well as those who might hold dominant worldviews regarding such situations.
Similarly, while narratives of criminality and justice in mainstream media tend to take on a simplistic character, with seemingly obvious notions of right and wrong, in Children’s Literature, we see a parallel attempt to teach moral lessons. A marked lack of nuance when discussing such issues tends to position people on extremes without really allowing them to engage with their own and others’ non-normative behaviours, classifying them as blemishes or misdeeds rather than realities of many.
Where is My Story?
The gap between life at school and home becomes ever expansive when, for the children of marginalized communities, the forbidding space of school lends to an active absence of recognition and endorsement of themselves and their lifestyles. For a long time, children who have historically been ignored by Children’s Literature have been offered literature that presents a window into the dominant narratives, into lives very different from one’s own. And while windows and doors are important for all readers, seeing oneself visually and textually in stories, stories as mirrors, is essential for being valued, for being affirmed and to counter narratives that erase, caricaturize, marginalize, or present us as less than fully human (Bishop, 1990).
In the few children’s stories where this is being corrected, we often find that the marginalized child is accepted and recognized only when s/he achieves something, be it a display of smartness, or bravery and we rarely come across literature where children have agency and are talking openly of the difficulties of their lives, be they middle-class and/or working-class lives. Rather, they are seen anxiously guarding the secrets and ‘dark’ areas of their lives.
Examining the genre of picture books, Khadeer Babu, the author of Sir Ka Salan (Anveshi, 2008), shares, ‘it took so many developments in literature before a Muslim child could be the protagonist of a children’s story book with his identity clearly and wholly expressed within the narrative.’ Thus, in the Indian context, we can still count on our fingertips books that have been able to present well the indigenous, Dalit or a child of any minority group.
Being authentically represented in literature as political subjects with richness and sensitivity affirms the readers who find their experiences being mirrored, while also functioning as windows and potentially sliding glass doors where readers might meet actors who stand up or speak out even when it appears difficult. In Bama’s Mirchi Ka Chura (Muskaan, 2021), we witness a day in Pachayamma’s life, a feisty woman combatting the daily struggles of being a Dalit landless labourer in a village. Such literature, written in one’s own voice from one’s own location, invites readers into the shadow-net that the narrative offers to think for themselves. Basti Mein Chor (Muskaan and Eklavya, 2020), a story born out of a classroom activity, gently interrogates who and what a ‘chor’ (thief) is. In stepping into their world, we, as readers, are forced to examine our own beliefs.
Zai Whitaker, the author of stories like ‘Kali’ and the ‘Rat Snake’ (first published in Cobra in My Kitchen, Rupa Publications, 2005) shares, ‘It is always a challenge when you are writing about these issues and these communities, to focus on the characters and not on your own emotions and develop them as people rather than as embodiment of issues.
The concerns regarding representation, who is being represented and what is to be done when the author may not personally agree with the views they are representing, are often also connected to the question of who we are writing for. Literature representing varied lives needs to be written as closely as possible to the way it is lived, rather than through the coloured mediation of the middle class. Be it Zai or Rinchin, author of Vidroh Ki Chhap Chhap (Muskaan, 2020), it is their own location close to the communities that enables them to do this job well. On the other hand, when the narrators come from within the locations that they write or illustrate about, the lens gets further strengthened; School Mein Seekha aur Sikhaya (Muskaan, 2021) is one example among many, of a young person’s dilemma at not being able to find the safe space that she wants in her school. Such literature, when published, gives agency to its protagonists and enables those on the ‘outside’ to listen carefully.
Tasvir, a writer and poet from a denotified tribal group, Pardhis, reflects, ‘Living this life is a journey. Through the good parts and the challenges, you are present in it, you are part of it, and that is why we are able to say it. How can an outsider experience and live all this and express this?’ Laxman Gaekwad, Sahitya Akademi award winner, reinforces this differently, ‘Till we don’t present our stories, people won’t be aware of us.’
As publishers, educators and parents, we take critical decisions on what a child gets to read. We might have our fixed forms and styles/structures maintained within which we are able to perceive stories, and often publishers mould narratives into this format. Instead, could there be more open-mindedness, and can we prepare new structures in keeping with the style of the story?
Receptivity to others’ lived realities also implies listening in entirety to the content, the language and the way it is said. The originator of the story should then be part of the process from the beginning till it reaches the world outside.
Creating Writers through Good Books
Millions of children are in schools, accessing textbooks and storybooks. They are making sense of the written world through these books. They are also comprehending what can be written and what not. Therefore, as teachers, writers, parents and librarians, it is an important job to strengthen their inner voice.
Hemanta Dalapati, Odia poet and school-teacher says, ‘If I had read literature about myself, our struggles, our fights, our culture, I might have written about my people, about Niyamagiri ten years earlier.’ Elaborating, he adds, ‘Publishing and speaking about your stories come through a journey. Experiencing life, writing and then sharing on this platform… This does not happen spontaneously. It takes support from many people, coincidences, and then things start changing.’
In our experiences of taking diverse children’s literature to young readers from denotified and tribal communities, the discussions have always pointed to the nuances that young readers’ understandings of justice, power, emotions, norms can hold. They can examine the violence at home as clearly as they understand the violence of the state. They can walk along a motley group of children looking for a lost cat or a lost friend. These are children as readers who are collectively and individually transacting with a text. When these stories are also their own or familiar enough for a dialogic safe space to emerge, their own lived experiences come forth. As adults, it is time to move back and merely facilitate these ‘stories’ to enrich our own understanding about our students and society, while they engage within and find words and forms to present their stories. This holds transformation potential.
Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in Decolonising the Mind (1986), argues for writing in one’s indigenous language, versus a hegemonic language like French or English (or Hindi). It would be a privileged mind which has a western concept of ‘childhood’ that guards the entries into ‘literature’ in the Indian context. We need to empower our children to read and write their own stories in their own languages and support in honing these skills and taking these stories further.
In the academic world of adults, theory often helps in giving a reason to life’s unfolding, it helps explain many things that are beyond the making of one individual. Similarly, story books in children’s hands can be a tool to understand life. When young readers engage with rich, authentic and sensitively written literature, usadults are reminded that children have as much, if not more, to offer to our collective understanding of nuanced issues. More importantly, it reminds us that if children grow up with diverse, critical and authentically represented literature, the work of healing can begin—as readers make sense of the text, they are learning how to embrace the stories of the perceived others and in turn humanizing themselves, and each other.
Shivani Taneja has been working amidst people of denotified tribal backgrounds and impoverished communities in and around Bhopal for 25
years. A teacher at heart, she enjoys being part of a classroom every day in Muskaan, thereby observing and learning from students’ responses to
any pedagogic intervention.
Ragini Lalit is exploring what it means to create critical learning spaces for children and young adults, in a way that centers hope and
compassion. She is particularly interested in the use of children’s literature and performing arts in education.
Bishop, R.S. (1990). ‘Windows and Mirrors: Children’s Books and Parallel Cultures’. In California State University Reading Conference: 14th Annual Conference Proceedings (pp. 3-12).
Huck, C.S. (1987). ‘To Know the Place for the First Time’. The Best of the Bulletin: Children’s Literature Assembly/National Council of Teachers of English, 1 (pp. 69-71).
Kumar, K. (2016). Studying Childhood in India, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. LI (23)
Kumar, K. (2012) ‘Concept of Childhood and Children’s Literature’, Sandarbh, Vol. 24
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York, Pantheon Books.
Muskaan (2019). ‘Where is My Story?’ ‘Crossing the Margins in Children’s Literature: 22-23 August 2019’, Seminar Report.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʾo. (1986). Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African literature. J. Currey; Heinemann.