Children’s literature in India is knocking out stereotypes in a bid to reinforce gender equality, encouraging kids to question old norms.

The shift by publishing houses and school education boards focuses on gender but also attempts to start conversations around caste, diversity and sexual orientation. In some ways, this is a major paradigm shift.

In Maharashtra, the state curriculum board changed many illustrations and texts this year to portray gender equality. Woman-man teams are shown cleaning vegetables and performing other household work together. Illustrations of a woman doctor and a policewoman have also been included.

A recently published children’s book called Good Morning, India! celebrates diversity by telling about students, belonging to different socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, who go to school together.

Author Deepanjana Pal addressed prejudices associated with skin colors by creating a little girl character with purple skin, rather than making her fair or dark.

In 2013, the US National Institute of Health conducted a research study that showed how storybooks help children understand the roles of men and women in a society. And if certain ideas are reinforced or challenged about what is typically appropriate for the genders, then the children will be better equipped to identify and even reject hurtful notions.

The study also found that kids as young as age three are able to absorb stereotypes and gender roles. 

Traditionally society confines women to typical gender roles of domestic worker or primary caregiver to children. These roles are represented as illustrations in many books in India and around the world. If left unchallenged, they can enforce stereotypes in a child’s mind.

According to a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report on on gender inequality in India, women perform nearly 10 times the unpaid care work as men. That’s almost three times the global average difference. Housework accounts for 85% of the time women in India spend on unpaid care work, a separate, 2018 report found. This burden is still shared by young girls more than boys in the country.

‘Champions instead of second-best’

Bijal Vachharajani, senior editor of Pratham Books, a publishing house, spoke to Asia Times about how a reading of How Do Airplanes Fly? brought her team to an important realization. ‘‘The book talked about the first woman in India to fly planes. We spoke to a few girls and their biggest takeaway was the fact that women can also also fly planes! What it demonstrated to us was that books have multi-dimensional impact on children’s minds.”

“More and more children’s books today are telling contemporary, relevant stories, which they can identify with. Our literary fathers are gardening, cooking, doing laundry, and our mothers are reading newspapers or enjoying a cup of hot tea,” she said.

Children are open to a lot of influences. Lack of enough conversations around female athletes or women’s sports teams can hinder sport participation among girl students, especially. Gender stereotypes discourage girls from participating in physical activities and sports. Reports have revealed that 40% of women in the sports industry experience gender discrimination and stereotypes. It becomes important to portray strong, ambitious and athletic women characters in storybooks.

StoryWeaver, an initiative by Pratham Books, published Tine and the Faraway Mountain, based on Tine Mena, the first female from Northeast India to climb Mount Everest.

Screen grab of ‘Tine and the Faraway Mountain’ by Pratham Books

Author Sowmya Rajendran’s book The Weightlifting Princess talks about the protagonist’s aim of becoming a weightlifting champion. She eschews the conventional role model of a princess stricken with a savior complex. She is athletic, eats meat and has plans to go to a sports school.

Most importantly, the story refrains from mentioning her physique, the clothes she wears and the length of her hair. Of her skin color, the book says it turns “golden brown” after she trains for a championship. 

Screen grab of the ‘The Weightlifting Princess’ by Pratham Books

Rajendran is a recipient of Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Award, a major literary honor annually conferred on writers of the most outstanding children’s books published. She, said, “Girl children are brought up with the idea of a husband looming in the horizon. But I want them to demand more and have bigger dreams that go beyond meeting ‘Prince Charming’. I want them to believe that they can be the champions, and not the second best.’’

Minute details in a book like showing both parents in the kitchen, a girl flexing her muscles or a boy being sensitive towards someone in a book can help re-define the clichéd traits associated with gender.

A slew of books now available can inspire conversation on themes like gender, sexual orientation, and disability. BHead Curry and other books from Different Tales project (Anveshi and Eklavya), A Non-veg Cow (Tulika), Kali and Rat Snake (Tulika), Boo, My Sister Died (Yellow Yolk Pickle and Eklavya), Kittu’s Terrible Horrible Very Mad Day (Duckbil) are a few of the titles.

Many authors believe that children’s books can kick-start conversations about the most controversial themes: class, caste and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

Bridging gaps

In 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalized gay sex in a historic judgement.

In an attempt to be inclusive of all genders, India’s Curriculum Framework Committee last year revised the syllabus for students in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The textbooks included a chapter on the success story of Narthaki Nataraj, a transgender Bharathanatyam classical dancer.

Activists are involved in the effort to teach children about the LGTBQ community. In April, many parents took their children to a storytelling session by drag queens Lush Monsoon and Betta Naan Stop in Delhi. They performed a story of a rainbow colored, gender-neutral character to kids between the ages of five and twelve.

Daniel Haack, author of Prince & Knight, said, ”Encouraging discussions around gender identity helps us challenge our own bias. One such activity I like is brainstorming with students in ways boys and girls are separated in and out of school, which helps everyone to question why that is and how we can change it.”

While the narrative around sexual orientation is expanding and is becoming reflected in books for children, skepticism around homosexuality still remains pervasive in the Indian society. In July, a 19-year-old boy committed suicide in Chennai after he was ridiculed for being homosexual.

Controversy around the exploration of such topics still exists among gatekeepers like parents and schools in India and around the world. But, as authors show, it is not so difficult to bridge this gap.

Written by Ashutosh Pathak and illustrated by Kanak Shashi, Friends Under The Summer Sun portrays a transgender baker in an enlightening conversation with a child. ”Does it matter”, Shri asked when the protagonist enquired about the baker’s gender. ”No, its all the same … we are all friends under the summer sun,” is the protagonist’s reply. 

Shashi, author of Guthali has Wings, an LGBTQ-themed book said, “The whole narrative raises questions, and parents will have to answer them. And to answer them, they will have to broaden their understanding and keep an open mind.”

”Questioning is the beginning of the process of understanding and accepting issues considered taboo,” Shashi said.