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Move over, princesses: Children’s books are taking on terrorism, disability

The aim, say authors and publishers, is to help youngsters and preteens navigate their reality as they transition into adulthood.

more lifestyle Updated: Nov 02, 2017 11:49 IST
Lavina Mulchandani
From books on disability to girls kissing girls, boys in love with boys, female infanticide and militancy in the Valley, books for kids aged 10 and over are getting grittier and more grounded in today.
From books on disability to girls kissing girls, boys in love with boys, female infanticide and militancy in the Valley, books for kids aged 10 and over are getting grittier and more grounded in today.

What does it matter to us whether the prince was in the tower or Rapunzel?

The issues that Indian children grapple with as they transition into adulthood relate more closely to the news than to fairy tales — issues like terrorism, disability, the criminalisation of gay sex. It’s a gap that children’s books are filling in interesting ways.

From relatively passive stories about subjects such as death and divorce — where did grandma go; what happened to the pet hamster; why don’t mummy and daddy live together anymore — the past decade has brought a sense of action and agency to the child protagonist.

“These are strong characters who have a voice and are dealing with issues themselves,” says Padma Baliga, a professor of literature from Bengaluru with a PhD in children’s literature.

So you have a young girl in Mumbai grappling with a hatred of Muslims after her father is killed in a terror attack (Like Smoke by Paro Anand); a teen coming to terms with the fact that her friend Sahil is in love with her brother (Slightly Burnt by Payal Dhar); two 15-year-old girls who must decide how they feel about their kiss (Talking Of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar).

Also, a young girl coming to terms with disability; a boy trying to understand why there’s a bunch of girls’ faces in the well behind his home.

It’s not easy telling such tales to children — Anand’s books have been banned from certain school libraries in Delhi-NCR, following sustained protests by parents; Sankar has had litfest events boycotted by principals in Mumbai.

It helps that publishers are willing to back the authors.

“The target age group for Anand’s books is 12 to 14,” says Priya Kapoor, editorial director at Roli Books. “Children in that age group understand public violence and should read books about it because that’s when they will begin to come to terms with their reality.”

Himanjali Sankar, associate publisher at Bloomsbury India, adds that when they choose to publish a book, they are looking for quality and sensitivity. “Slightly Burnt helps sensitise children about homosexuality and is written very well.”

Tanu Shree Singh, an author who runs the Reading Raccoons Library for children in Faridabad, believes it vital to talk to kids about understanding and appreciating all kinds of differences. “And what better way to do this than read to them about it,” she says.

She bought Talking About Muskaan for her 11-year-old son, because she thought it had an interesting theme and she and her sons had recently discussed homosexuality at home.

“I found the plot mildly shocking,” her son Vivaan says, laughing, “but the plot taught me to respect sexual orientation of friends and everyone.”

Buoyed by their successes and the responses of their young readers — many say the books help them understand a community better; respect differences; empathise with those who are different, such as the disabled — authors are charging forward.

Anand’s Like Smoke was preceded by No Guns At My Son’s Funeral — a 2005 book about a teen who finds himself drawn towards militancy in the Kashmir Valley — and she is now working on one about a child realising that he is transgender.

Ranjit Lal, author of Faces in the Water, is taking on the issue of stalking.

As Kapoor of Roli Books puts it: “If the content is well-written and promising, it will be published. These are important subjects, and books do not have to suit all the ideas of the masses.”

BABIES DROWNED IN A WELL

Faces in the Water by Ranjit Lal (2010; Penguin Books): A 15-year-old boy becomes friends with the girls that ‘stay in the well’ in the backyard of his family’s farmhouse.

“I think it’s better to read about female infanticide in a well-written storybook than watch stories about it on a news channel with startling pictures and graphics,” says Anvesha Naha, explaining why she bought Faces in the Water for her 11-year-old son.

“If a boy riding a bicycle can come to be thought of as normal because a child reads about it in a storybook, maybe the idea of saving daughters can become normal too,” adds the entrepreneur from Mumbai. “I really feel there is no need to keep our kids in a bubble and shield them from reality.”

Her son understood the book, she adds, and talked about how much he loves his own girl cousins, after reading it.

Lal says the book was inspired by thoughts of how sad and empty his own life would be without his two sisters.

“In the book, the boy finds that baby girls were lowered into the well to keep alive the family’s tradition of only having sons,” says author Ranjit Lal. “Those girls are now ghosts and talk to him about what life could have been like if they had lived.”

Lal says he was tempted to hang the characters of parents in the climax for what they had done, but didn’t want to make the book too grim.

DEALING WITH A BROMANCE

Slightly Burnt by Payal Dhar (2014; Bloomsbury India): A teenager named Komal finds out that her best friend Sahil is in love with her brother.

Noida schoolboy Sumit Ahire was 13 when he read Slightly Burnt last year. “I picked it because I found it to be unique and interesting. It took me a while to understand some things. I had my mother explain them,” he says.

This is what many parents fear most — books that will prompt questions they cannot, or want not, to answer. Puja Ahire had a simple solution. “I explained homosexuality to him as I would have explained a heterogeneous relationship. Two people of the same gender falling in love is not unnatural to us. My son views it now as we all do.”

When Payal Dhar wrote Slightly Burnt, she wanted to make it relatable. So she spent time building up her central character as a typical high school student, preoccupied with routine high school dramas around assignments, frenemies and crushes.

“Then she discovers her friend’s love for her brother. It shakes her and she doesn’t know how to react,” says Dhar. “How she deals with it is what the book is about.”

When we choose to publish a book, we first check the writing style, says Himanjali Sankar, associate publisher at Bloomsbury India. “This book helps sensitise children about homosexuality and is written very well.”

KASHMIR, RIOTS AND TERRORISM

Like Smoke by Paro Anand (2015, Penguin Books): A collection of 20 short stories about 20 teens. In one, a 10-year-old girl dreams of parti- cipating in a reality TV show for singers; another is about a fleeting kiss between a boy and a girl.

“I interact with children of all kinds. I listen to their conversations. My stories are inspired by them, by how vulnerable they are,” says Paro Anand.

In her books, the children are struggling, but it is not the struggle of the little match girl, for food and warmth and shelter.

It is a struggle born of their bafflement with the adult world.

“You will read about the daughter of a Kashmiri Pandit who is conditioned to hate Muslims but discovers there is nothing to hate; see the Bombay riots of 1992-93 from the point of view of a dog,” says Anand. “I have not dumbed down any concept. I believe children understand them well.”

One of her most controversial tales has been one where a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl share a fleeting kiss. This, among other elements of Like Smoke, got the book kicked out of three school libraries in Delhi-NCR.

“The parents formed a WhatsApp group to demand the ban. It intrigues me that the tales of violence didn’t bother them, the kiss did,” Anand says. “I am not encouraging rampant kissing in school through the story. In fact, the girl’s character is kind of shocked and embarrassed by what she did.”

Her edgy storytelling has several fans, though, among them Bengaluru schoolgirl Ashima Kumar, 13.

“I read Like Smoke last month, and I really liked the story about the girl who decides not to hate Muslims,” she says. “It helped me understand the community a bit better; they always seem like the outsiders in movies and often aren’t talked about well. I now answer such comments by saying that they are as patriotic as any of us and love peace like we do.”

Anand’s previous work, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral (2005; Roli books) is currently in its 13th reprint. It is the story of a boy named Aftab growing up in the Kashmir Valley.

“The target age group for Anand’s books is 12 to 14,” says Priya Kapoor, editorial director at Roli Books. “No Guns… gets the mood of the Valley right. It is important for this age group to read such books as that’s when they will begin to come to terms with their reality.”

AN UNUSUAL FIRST KISS

Talking Of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar (2014, Duckbill): When 15-year-old best friends Aaliya and Muskaan kiss each other on the lips in a tree house, they react very differently.

Himanjali Sankar says she decided to make her lead character gay after the December 2013 Supreme Court judgement recriminalising gay sex.

“I believe that it is important for preteens to deal with their sexuality and sexual orientation, and the best way to do it would be sit and talk with them or read them a story book,” she says.

In Mumbai, though, Sankar found herself sidelined during a litfest event that sought to connect schools with children’s authors for a series of talks.

“It is the natural instinct of most principals to shy away from such topics,” Sankar says.

Parents have responded differently. Tanu Shree Singh, an author from Faridabad, bought the book for her younger son in 2014, when he was 11. “I bring my boys books on all the themes I think they should read or will like,” she says.

Vivaan, now 14, says he had had a discussion with his mother and elder brother about homosexuality before the book came out. “I found the plot mildly shocking,” he says, laughing, “but the plot taught me to respect sexual orientation of friends and everyone.”

WALKS FUNNY, DOESN’T STEAL

Simply Nanju by Zainab Sulaiman (2017, Duckbill): A tale set in a school for the physically challenged. The 10-year-old protagonist Nanju suffers from cerebral palsy.

Zainab Sulaiman got the idea for her book while working as a volunteer teacher at an integrated school in Bengaluru that had many physically challenged children on its rolls.

The book is a mystery, with disability as a side angle.

Nanju is known as a wannabe. He walks funny and doesn’t care how people view him. Then books start disappearing and suspicion is on him. He must find out who the thief is.

“I have not mentioned the names of disabilities in the book, only the outcomes, such as walking funny or being in a wheelchair,” says Sulaiman.

“I was cautious that the book did not sound like we were making fun of disabilities, but was still relatable to children.”

Aliya Khan, 10, a student from Chennai, says reading the book made her realise that “Nanju is just like me. He is naughty, he is the clown of the class and I am comfortable that in some aspects he may be a little different.”

“In a world which is turning increasingly homogeneous and exclusionary, I feel it crucial for kids to read about kids with different abilities and sexual preferences,” says Sayoni Basu, co-founder of Duckbill.

WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS

Unbroken by Nandika Nambi (2017; Duckbill): Akriti, a Class 11 student, is confined to a wheelchair and is finding this hard to deal with.

The cover of Unbroken is unusual for a children’s book — it contains, among other elements, a wheelchair symbol and a footprint crossed out.

“The cover is symbolism for the fact that Akriti is labelled handicapped everywhere she goes,” says author Nandika Nambi.

“She cuts people off and takes her family for granted, to realise in the end that she was wrong.”

The author decided to pursue the story after watching children in wheelchairs in her neighbourhood and noticing how the infrastructure of buildings and malls does not favour them.

When Akriti sees someone close to her in danger, she realises the importance of relationships and accepting herself — a theme that has resonated with the book’s young readers.

“Akriti is angry, didn’t like her disability,” says Vivaan Singh, 13, a student from Faridabad.

“I felt empathy for her and understand what she is going through when people stare at her or treat her differently. I would have reacted similarly if I were her.”