On Dec 27, 2014, SCBWI India, in collaboration with Max Mueller Bhavan, and with the help of the organisers of Bookaroo, brought together a group of writers, illustrators, storytellers, publishers and other people interested in children’s books, to discuss the boundaries in literature for children. Tanushree Singh reports.
This could not have come at a better time. A lot of children around me are stepping into a phase where their reading tastes are increasingly getting more complex. One look at the newspaper reflects an unnatural moral stance in society that unfairly encompasses books, some for fairly innocuous reasons. There is a disconnect between what is out there and what we ‘want’ the young readers to read. So it is only fair to explore what the boundaries should be. Should themes like love, sex, violence, mental illness, addiction, suicide, and sexual abuse find space in children’s literature? Or are we adding to the turmoil that a child already faces trying to adjust to the demands of the world?
Dr. Shalini Advani, Director of Pathways School, Noida kickstarted the discussion. Having worked with children closely, she rightly pointed out that kids are eager to enter adulthood and are constantly underestimated by know-all adults.
Priya Kuriyan, an independent animation film-maker and illustrator, and Samina Mishra, an independent film-maker and writer, then introduced excerpts from various books that are considered to be dark for one reason or another. From our good old Amar Chitra Katha to the Hunger Games, each book had material that could be considered unsuitable for children or young adults. Take, for example, ACK – we never see the illustrations as titillating or exceptionally violent, probably because we let mythology and history take some liberties. Then why do books that talk or hint at sexuality, or for that matter use violence as a backdrop, do not go down very well with us? That formed a point of thought.
The group was a mix of parents, teachers, authors, illustrators, story-tellers and publishers. So the perspectives that were thrown up were varied and added interesting dimensions. Writer Ranjit Lal, Jamila Gavin and Devika Rangachari, storyteller Ameen Haque, publishers Anita Roy and Sayoni Basu, were among those who had strong opinions to voice.
Sometimes as grown ups and the self appointed custodians of what enters the ‘fragile minds’ we tend to be over cautious. That reflects in the stories we write. As Himanjali Sankar pointed out, while writing, she did not think of Talking of Muskaan as dark, she saw it as a story.
Shouldn’t there be some things that ought to be taboo as far as children’s books are concerned? Ranjit Lal disagreed. And rightly so. Newspapers have it all. Whatever we are trying to protect children from is printed each day and delivered to our houses. In fact they read the gorier version there.
Anita Roy related her experience, as publisher at Zubaan, while editing My Body Book. An NGO in Mumbai that works extensively with victims of sexual abuse were concerned with the images used to explain the body parts. They suggested that the illustrations of the body be covered in swimsuits. Their concern was that the books would not get past the guardians, if the parents or teachers found them inappropriate or threatening in any manner.
Dr. Shalini pointed out that children develop sexuality earlier than is commonly assumed, and we need to respect the child’s privacy, his or her desire to share. A dialogue goes a longer way than banning texts or being condescending.
Another point that came up was the use of crude language in books. Are cuss words unavoidable? There were a few of us who thought it could be spared but then again Dr Shalini rightly said, ‘we need to accept the callousness of youth, even cruelty. For them it is normal.’ Encouragement obviously is not a logical corollary of acceptance.
Another concern was promotion of violence through books. Do books promote violence? Should there be boundaries? Rupa Gulab pointed out that there are no boundaries in real life. Showing violence in books should not, therefore, be a problem.
Sayoni Basu rounded up the session, with a presentation that showed some books that were banned when they were first published—a surprising list, consisting of the likes of Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein, whom we would be proud to have in any children’s library today. In contrast, a book like the German Struwwelpeter, which was acceptable many years ago, would be unacceptable now. So, suggested Sayoni, we adults should stop taking ourselves seriously, and let children read what they like.
In conclusion, love, sex, and darkness are a part of who we are, it is around us, and our little ‘angels’ are aware of it all. They will learn anyhow, and they are capable of handling stuff much more maturely than we give them credit for. The question is what would we rather have as their source of information—speculative hushed whispers in classroom from equally misinformed classmates or facts from us? The choice is ours to make.