Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Battling Stereotypes in Children's Books

Gender Norms? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Gender Norms!

A few months ago, an article titled 'Bilbo Baggins Is a Girl' caught my attention. In this article, Michelle Nijhuis says 'until children’s books catch up to our daughters, rewrite them'.

Via Slate
My 5-year-old insists that Bilbo Baggins is a girl.
Then I thought: What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.
And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else. 
Despite what can seem like a profusion of heroines in kids’ books, girls are still underrepresented in children’s literature. A 2011 study of almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 showed that only 31 percent had female central characters. While the disparity has declined in recent years, it persists—particularly, and interestingly, among animal characters. And many books with female protagonists take place in male-dominated worlds, peopled with male doctors and male farmers and mothers who have to ask fathers for grocery money (Richard Scarry, I’m looking at you). 
More insidiously, children’s books with female protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroine to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow.

This morning when Genderlog kick started a discussion by asking the following question, it immediately reminded me of this article.
While sharing this article with two of our editors and discussing our own books, the following responses came in:
Happily for the world, authors are getting more and more sensitive to gender depiction in children's books. In some of our books , there are little hints to show that our authors and illustrators are aware of gender diversity. In an early book, Smart Sona, a little girl is interested in her father's work, carpentry. In one of our recent books, the Rupaiya Paisa series, an entire scene is a celebration of women's work. Illustrator Deepa Balsavar shows women driving a tractor, and repairing a pump-set. 
- Mala Kumar 

Children's books assume a stable unbroken world of verities. Unfortunately many of those verities are built on patriarchal notions of how things are. They imprison both genders in stereotypes and misrepresent the lived reality of men and women, boys and girls. Fortunately writers are people who explore and seek and work on contested ground. Children's authors who are infused with this spirit are among the most adventurous and creative. They fashion characters and plots that present a mint fresh view of the world that is completely credible. A little boy who helps his grandmother by bringing in the potatoes, a little girl who freely draws a train as long as the verandah, a young dreamy boy who imbibes the music in nature, a school girl who races home to hug her father before he leaves for the factory...these are just some of the characters from our books that reflect the rainbow diversity of the world.  
It is only when all hues are presented naturally that gender realities will be truly reflected and acknowledged. 
- Manisha Chaudhry

UPDATE: We asked some of our favourite Indian publishers on Twitter to send us recommendations of books from their list too. (this list will get updated as we receive everyone's lists)


Children’s books have many powers, and one of the most special is their ability to offer children glimpses into lives that are different from their own. With gender inequality at times seeming all pervasive, books have massive potential to reflect and even encourage alternative realities.

On our list, I can’t help but think of Meena – the heroine of Catch that Crocodile! – who deftly solves the problem that has defeated the village strongman, doctor and policeman. Similarly Jaya – the fictional protagonist of Trash! – takes the lead and offers support when a young boy arrives alone in the city for the first time. 

Perhaps even more powerful are the books in which the artists with whom we work tell their own life stories. In Following my Paint Brush Dulari Devi narrates the path that she followed from a domestic worker to a renowned artist. Teju Behan shares her incredible journey into the rich inner world of art in Drawing from the City while Amrita Das reflects upon the fate of women more broadly in Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit.

Most recently, we’ve published a new edition of Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream. Written over a hundred years ago it’s an inspiring testament to the power of imagination. Creating her own utopia, Hossain sketches out an appealing story of reversed purdah in Ladyland, where peace-loving women overpower aggressive men through the power of their brains.



The Case of the Candy Bandits by Archit Taneja - with its superlative female detectives.

Trouble with Magic by Asha Nehemiah - about a scientist aunt and her marketing whizz niece.

Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan - about a young girl caught in war-torn Afghanistan

Maya Saves the Day by Meera Nair - about young Maya, who does indeed save the day every time!

Jobless Clueless Reckless by Revathi Suresh - a coming of age story set in Bangalore.



1. Malu Bhalu by Kamla Bhasin and pictures by Bindia Thapar
As the adventures of the young female polar bear Malu unfolds, feminist writer and activist, Kamla Bhasin’s delightful verse in Hindi draws another larger picture: about girls, and what girls can do too.

2. Ranganna by Arthi Anand Navaneeth and pictures by Kavita Singh Kale
Ranganna, the little male elephant loves colour so much, that when he sees brightly coloured nail polish on the two little girls who play with him, he insists on getting his toenails painted too.

3. The Why-Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi and pictures by Kanyika Kini
Mahasweta Devi’s true story of a young tribal girl, Moyna , growing up in a feudal village in West Bengal who dares to ask ‘Why?’ questioning everything and everyone. The Hindi translation, Kyon Kyon Ladki has been adapted as a play and is one of Gillo Gilehri’s (Mumbai) most successful plays.

4. Nabiya by Chatura Rao and pictures by Ruchi Mhasane
The true story of a spirited young girl living in Bombay chawl, who is as passionate about football as she is about storybooks. 

5. Aditi Adventures, a series of 12 books by Suniti Namjoshi
In the Aditi Adventures series by well-known feminist writer and poet Suniti Namjoshi, not only do strong female heroes dominate, but all the heroes (both female and male) are characterised by their wisdom, courage and gentleness, always questioning power hierarchies.

The Fabulous Adventures of Aditi Adventures is an interactive bilingual English-Kannada play based on the books, by Rafiki Warafiki (Bengaluru) which has been touring schools for more than three years.

Which books in your opinion have crossed the lines of gender and become a part of your child's reading world?

Image Source : Alan

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