young readers

Gay characters, single-parent families: Books for Indian kids begin to reflect real life

The narrative is broadening. Issues like sexuality and class are getting reflected in children's books.

The Right to Education Act of 2009 is a landmark legislation, rightly heralded for its capacity to transform the lives of India’s underprivileged children. Though its promises are yet to be fully realised, it has unwittingly made a small impact on a completely different field: children’s literature in English.

In July, The Misfits by Delhi-based American writer Kate Darnton became the first Indian book in English to dwell on how underprivileged children deal with the pressure of being thrust into a different world, courtesy the Act. The law is at the centre of the book, as are many of the issues that flow from it – bullying, class privileges and the nature of friendship.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan, out this month, also features the effects of the law. The characters in the book for young adults include a lesbian who attempts suicide and a bright young boy who has gains admission to a school under the Act.

Few pieces of legislation stir the social landscape so comprehensively that they begin reflecting almost immediately in literature. This Act might be an exception.

“I think what we are seeing in the children’s book market is similar to what we have seen in the adult’s market – a broadening out of genres,” said Anita Roy, head of Young Zubaan, a children’s book publisher.

Diverse genres

Children’s literature in English in India is beginning to respond to a shifting political consciousness in the western world and in certain sections of the Indian society.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, said Roy, Indian fiction in English for adults was very literary in style. Now, there are genres as diverse as romances, self-help books, thrillers and detective fiction. The same is now beginning to happen in the children’s market, where both mainstream and alternative publishers work.

“It is important that books which tackle issues, whether sexuality or class, have to work as stories at the level of the book, as opposed to having characters be the vehicle to deliver your issue,” said Roy. “The challenge when you are looking for and writing alternative books is, to now allow the alternativeness to overwhelm the story.”

Not your regular stereotypes

Among the new crop of books for children are titles that have leading and peripheral characters exploring their sexuality (Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan, Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt), children with disabilities going about everyday life (Sujatha Padmanabhan’s Chuskit Goes to School, Leela Gour Broome’s Flute in the Forest) and families with single parents (Shals Mahajan’s Timmi in Tangles).

These might seem like heavy tags, but these books do not always make these issues central to their plots or characters. Authors say they simply want to expand the scope of what children read.

“Forget alternate sexualities, sexuality itself finds very little representation in [young adult fiction] in India, and it’s only beginning to change now,” wrote Payal Dhar in an email to Scroll.in.

Dhar’s young adult fantasy series, Shadow in Eternity, has homosexual characters. Her upcoming book, Slightly Burnt, deals more directly with the topic of homosexuality.

“The idea that children might have questions about sexuality, their own or of others, is a terrifying thought for us, adults, and the way we deal with it is to pretend it does not exist or shut them up when they bring up the issue,” she wrote. “This is how I got the idea for Slightly Burnt – when it struck me that LGBT kids are virtually invisible in India.”

Himanjali Sankar agreed there is no space for alternative sexualities in children’s books. However, rather than sexuality, she found it more difficult to write about class.

“Especially in India, we tend to take class for granted,” said Sankar. “My children’s exercise books all assume that they come from certain class positions and are familiar with things like phones or access to technology. My main concern while writing the book was to ensure my tone was not condescending.”

Roy said: “If you are lucky you end up with tokenistic ‘good’ lower class people. But you probably will not have a mainstream book where all characters are from lower caste or class background. People assume that books about ‘that group of people’ are for ‘those people’ anyway.”

Reaching the readers

These books remain only at the fringe of children’s publishing. Far more titles are released every year that do not venture far beyond the norm. The trouble for alternative books then lies in getting them to children past a variety of gatekeepers, including schools, libraries, bookshops and most of all, parents.

“Most parents buy books for children thinking it will help them in their studies,” said Balaji Venkataraman, whose Flat Track Bullies has a child who takes off from school to hang out with Durai, the son of his domestic worker, over the summer holiday. “Only people whose parents have a habit of reading will encourage kids to choose their own books. Otherwise, it is one-way traffic.”

Distributors in shops also prefer to stock flashy books by western authors that sell in bulk over the few copies that Indian authors might sell, said Venkataraman.

“When I went to schools to give talks [about being a writer for children], kids would get interested, I would think the book would be very successful and then two weeks later, only two copies would be sold,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know whether to target kids or write for their parents. You have to strike a balance.”

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