Five Desi Children’s Books About Diversity, Feminism and Consent
Strong, fair, sword-flinging princes saving meek, beautiful princesses is a literary trope prevalent in children’s literature across the world. It’s no wonder they grow up with subconscious beliefs of what men and women can and cannot do, and what they should aspire to be and look like.
By the time they hit puberty and before their conscious mind is even fully developed, these ideas become the ‘truth’ or ‘beliefs’ for them subliminally, and the rest is history...and the present state of the world.
Here enters The Irrelevant Project (TIP) with a goal to interrupt bias, prejudice and stereotyping in spaces of everyday learning. Started by Meghna Chaudhury and Alishya Almeida in 2016, the project strives to do justice by its very name: Make gender, colour, caste and other fixed definitions of identities simply irrelevant.
Each story was written once and then reviewed multiple times by peers to see if it was sticking to the themes and was child friendly. We were also really inspired by research done by Rebecca Bigler and Carol Martin on gender and gender stereotypes in children, which aided us in developing content for the books.Meghna Chaudhury, Co-founder
The books use the concept of multiple identities that each person has, and how, emphasising identities apart from gender, colour and race can foster equality. They also use the psychological Intergroup Contact Theory, a well-researched concept of reducing prejudices by increasing contact between two different groups.
In The Big Book of Why, brown-skinned Anvesha gets a hard-bound notebook from her grandfather who encourages her to jot down all the questions that come to her mind as she goes about the world. The book includes illustrations of pages inside Anvesha’s book: “Why does daddy cook only on Sunday and amma cooks daily?”;“Who called yellow ‘yellow’?” and other befuddling questions that come to a child’s mind about our complex society.
In Don’t Pull My Cheeks!, a young, round-faced Bibloo finally learns that he has the right to say ‘No’ when he doesn’t want to be touched or picked up, as nice as the intention of the adult may be. When his mother notices this, she teaches him that he can simply say NO! Surely, next time Jon Uncle comes to Bibloo’s house and tries to pick him up, the child shuts him down:“Uncle, if you want to pick me up, ask me first. I don’t like it.”
Annie & Arjun is a sweet story about two siblings who love to play together and often help around the house with chores. But often, Arjun has to wait around for Annie as she helps their mother with cleaning up after meals, watering the plants, packing tiffins. Unhappy with this unequal distribution of work, the two kids come up with an innovative way of dividing chores amongst themselves, much to their parents’ surprise.
The Curious Case of Mohit and Rumi the Rabbit is a rewriting of sorts of the popular Alice in Wonderland, where Rumi takes a despondent Mohit, bullied about his weight in school and nicknamed “Motu”, back in time to highlight all the good things about him and the talent he has. “[There are] so many stories that make you”, Rumi concludes as Mohit snaps back to the present to realise that “to dream, size does not and will never matter at all.”
Nila and Najam is the story of a pair of twins who talk to each other about their dreams and goals every night before falling asleep. Nila loves robots, maths and science and wants to make a robot of her own called Munnu. Najam dreams of being a kind, loving primary school teacher like his teacher, Mrs Nalini. Through the endearing nightly exchanges between the siblings, we see a breaking down of stereotypes of what professions are suited to men and women.
Behind the Scenes
The best part about these books is that everyone – the writers, the illustrators, the website designer, the researchers, the publishers – came together and contributed simply because they believed in the cause. We intend to pay back everyone who has helped us because everyone’s skills and resources are important, but until this point, more than fifteen people gave us their time and effort for nothing in return.Meghna Chaudhury
Meghna’s expertise lies in designing learning experiences at the confluence of psychology and education. She currently works as the Director of Curriculum and Content strategy for an NGO, Dost education. For her, it was her experience as a teacher that guided her in the process of creating these books. “I know what children like to look at. That’s why we made sure each book has a large two-page illustration spread for them to pause at and even has worksheets at the end,” she says matter-of-factly.
We are also providing a downloadable resource (available for free on the website), which guides the parent to help sustain the engagement of the child with the theme of the book. As time passes, we will look towards hosting workshops and opening more dialogues with a child’s stakeholders.Meghna Chaudhury
Alishya Almeida, a queer activist and teaching fellow at Ashoka University, is a fierce feminist who has previously conducted research on shame and identity. She first came into the limelight in 2013, when an online photo campaign started by her went viral, where she urged women to post photos on social media completing the sentence “I need feminism because...” Four years since, her research into how prejudices and biases take root and spread in society have proved invaluable for TIP.
We started TIP by running workshops with a few classrooms. In one of them, we introduced two stories and found children understood the point faster than instruction-based exercises. Around the same time, we were reading current children’s literature and felt we needed more voices and representation of experiences we have as children growing up in India. This was our cue, and our prototype stories became the springboard for creating a range of stories.Alishya Almeida
Writers Ashwini Ashokkumar and Varsha Varghese are also a part of this feminist, humanist bandwagon, eager to initiate the process of change at the stage of early learning for children. Varsha is the founder of The Wordsworth Project, an NGO which inculcates the love for reading in children from low-income families. Ashwini, for her part, uses her love and skill of writing and her background in social psychology in The Big Book of Why to spin an enchanting tale about something as serious as teaching children to question uncomfortable status-quos.
In January 2017, Harish Balan, a supporter of alternative art and dialogue offered to publish 5,000 copies of the books in his press, Read More Publishers.
All the people involved in this project came on board solely because they believed in an issue that has only just taken root in the west, rarely talked about in India: The need for diverse books.
Early drafts of the stories reflect the changes that each narrative went through, with the team cautious, now more than ever, of subconsciously reinforcing stereotypes of any kind. Notes from Meghna to the illustrator on Bibloo’s story draft says “Can we show hair on his arms, maybe a small dowsing of acne?” Two scrolls down, the illustrator points out that maybe Jona aunty (the original relative) should be Jon uncle because women are too often stereotyped as familial and maternal.
Another interesting concept TIP was keen to embed in the books is critical thinking for children. Before Bibloo learns that he can say no, he devises his own solutions to his problem; Anvesha sits on her big chair and ruminates about her unanswered questions, while Annie and Arjun put their heads together to come up with a unique way of dividing chores.
What next for TIP? “More books, and hopefully multiple partnerships with classrooms and other educators who use these books. It is in following the routes our characters take and the lives they lead in the imagination of the children that our next steps shall emerge,” says Alishya.
But what will remain constant is TIP’s goal of disrupting the pattern of imbibing prejudices and limiting biases in children’s minds, constructively and colourfully.
(These books are available for sale here).
(We Indians have much to talk about these days. But what would you tell India if you had the chance? Pick up the phone and write or record your Letter To India. Don’t be silent, tell her how you feel. Mail us your letter at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll make sure India gets your message.)