Friday, March 10, 2017

Gender-Balancing in Children's Books

Joeanna Rebello Fernandes on children's books that move away from sexism and provide newer narratives and role models for the kids of today.

Via Times of India

If only Sowmya Rajendran's book was around at the time. Published in 2015 by Tulika, Girls To The Rescue is a redemptive retelling of popular fairy tales, where leading ladies like Snow White, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty are non-conformists, their happily-ever-afters not tied in with the prince. "I started composing feminist fairy tales while trying to get my daughter to eat her meals," says Rajendran. By her hand, Cinderella turned into the girl with big feet, whose godmother wanted her to go to the ball, have fun, and not be a homebody. The prince ends up admiring her big feet.

Despite having turned the tale on its head, though, Rajendran doesn't believe in keeping pop culture away from kids. "My daughter also knows the traditional tale, but enjoys the retelling. With alternative narratives, children will learn to question what they read and see. That took us a long time, I started analysing, interrogating and unlearning only at the undergrad level," says Rajendran, who has also won the Sahitya Akademi Bal Sahitya Puraskar for another book that questioned gender stereotypes.

The girls and women who inhabit children's literature today are not unlike the people writing and illustrating them; products of their time who won't stand for sexism or other discriminations between the covers. And so, Sangeeta in Scholastic's The Great River Magic loves math and her brother loves to cook. Rajiv Eipe's grandmother in Ammachi's Amazing Machine (Pratham Books) wears a tool-belt and makes a mean coconut extracting-machine. Shabnam Minwalla's Nina is The Shy Supergirl (Westland) without the dual identity. Who says a supergirl can't be shy? These books and their individual characters flatten stereotypes.

Publishers and authors abroad have been making up for bigoted books since the '80s and '90s, with feminist works like Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole, Andrea Beaty's Rosie Revere, Engineer, Ian Falconer's Olivia, and many others. And in the last couple of years, Indian writers have also been actively contributing. "It is a conscious attempt to right the balance since boys have formed the default centre for the longest time," says Manisha Chaudhry, head of content at Pratham Books. "Having more active, curious, problem-solving girls is to normalise the portrayal of childhood in a gender-balanced way."

Illustration : Rajiv Eipe
Children's writing may have turned a page, but marketing and buying behaviour has to keep up. Some kid-lit campaigners like columnist Bijal Vachharajani are doing what they can to spread the word and recommend new, diverse titles for parents and teachers. 

"There are some amazing feminist children's books and young adult literature being published in India (and internationally) — of course they are few and far between. But the range is steadily increasing," says Vachharajani.

But children, parents and educators often don't get to know about these books. Vachharajani says: "There needs to be more buy-in from mainstream bookstores, e-retail sites and the marketing teams for such books. Otherwise they will continue to be considered 'alternative'. Which these books are not — they are definitely slice-of-life."

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