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Women Writers Fest: Are Children’s Books Finally Questioning Stereotypes?

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Children Books: From ghosts to talking animals, climate change to gender spectrum, children’s books today cover a plethora of universal topics and issues. What’s interesting is how the new writing in this genre is trying to break stereotypes, spotlight less known female icons, and take up issues like menstruation and introduced them early for children.

At the SheThePeople Women Writers Fest authors Lavanya Karthik, Sonali Shenoy and Bijal Vachharajani were in conversation with Ritu Vaishnav.

“The world has forgone and moved on from the unchanging fairytales and the wordy classics. Today, the school libraries and digital platforms offer a thorough variety of children’s books that not only talk about fiction and magic but also break real-life stereotypes,” says Ritu Vaishnav, an author and the moderator of the session.

Sonali Shenoy, a journalist who works for the new Indian express, is an active participant in the change that children’s works have witnessed in recent years. Her latest illustrated book What’s the big Secret chronicles the journey of an 11-year-old boy who tries to find more about periods. “We had to break the common associations that we had in our mind as adults in order to bring this book together.”

Lavanya Karthik, the author of Neel on wheels and Homework (Hook Books), agrees. “Yes, absolutely!” says Lavanya when asked if publishers are more receptive today to new ideas as compared to a decade before. “It is a fantastic time to be an author right now. You would not find an Indian book on wildlife conservation or social justice ten years ago.”

“It takes a wizard to change the course of time,” says Editor ‘Scissorhands’ at Pratham Books, Bijal Vachharajani as she talks about the revolution that books like Harry Potter have brought in the KidLit universe. “The phenomenon enabled independent publishers to set up shop. Publishers are now interested in witty topics that interest the Indian child, and not just the British readers.” 

A Change In Interests Stirred By A Shift In Mindset

Karthik believes that the credit for the shift goes to children as they are no longer considered juveniles or not smart enough to choose. “They have more agency now; we are not compelling them to read something because we think it is good for them. They are reading books that they want to,” she explains. 

Ritu Vaishnav further steers the panel to how KidLit is addressing gender stereotypes and including more diversity. Sonali Shenoy believes that when authors focus more on the audience than the society, “stereotypes often automatically melt away”. 

“Given our enormously diverse country, this new shift is both a change and a challenge,” says Karthik. She believes that there are a sheer number of communities that authors can bring to the forefront through writing, thereby amplifying the number of opportunities present. 

Parents Supporting The KidLit Universe

The panel concluded the discussion with Ritu Vaishnav’s final question “how do you think the audience and parents can contribute towards supporting children’s writing and books in India”. Karthik firmly emphasizes that while parents should encourage children to Indian sections in the bookstores, they should eventually “let children have the agency to choose what they want to read.” 

Sonali says that parents should share stories about their childhood with their kids. Sonali credits her father for instigating her interest in reading books as a child. While sharing a personal anecdote about how her father used to sit with her to create stories on “bizarre topics like how a particular eagle flew away with his lunch at school”, she stated that it made her want to read more.

Agreeing with the other panellists, Bijal says that reading should not be made into a chore. “keep it fun,” Bijal concludes.