The book of life: Meet these contemporary writers who are helping reshape little minds

May 3, 2020 2:40 AM

From gender equality and adoption to mental health and sustainability, authors today are training the spotlight on many sensitive topics.

SOWMYA RAJENDRAN , SHABNAM MINWALLA , and BENITA SENSOWMYA RAJENDRAN, SHABNAM MINWALLA, and BENITA SEN

By Shriya Roy

Books for children today are no longer about a make-believe world. From gender equality and adoption to mental health and sustainability, authors today are training the spotlight on many sensitive topics. Shriya Roy meets some contemporary writers who are helping reshape little minds

BENITA SEN

Wielding a green pen
An environmentalist at heart, Sen focuses on sustainability issues, hoping to engage children creatively on the topic

As one enters author Benita Sen’s house in Noida, one is greeted by a beautifully maintained garden. Not surprisingly, Sen, a former journalist by profession and children’s book writer by passion, says she loves gardening as it makes her feel one with nature. She even uses all the waste from her kitchen as manure in the garden.

During 1987-89, Sen was working as a reporter in Jammu writing about problems there, such as the adverse environmental impacts of the Salal Hydroelectric Project. Being an army wife, she had been in and out of different places. The birth of her daughter in 1989 made her take to writing children’s literature, in an attempt to connect and understand children a little better. “A shift in thought” is how the 59-year-old puts it.

Since then, Sen has written multiple books—fiction, non-fiction, biographies, environmental and crafts books—for the young audience. Some of her most well-known books include What Did Nepo Do With a Sari, One Lonely Tiger, The Story of Paper, Indus Valley, etc. The topic, however, that’s closest to her heart is sustainability and through her books she aims to engage children with the issue. Consequences of rapid urbanisation and deforestation, ecological crisis, the issue of extinction, etc, are some issues she has written on. Talking about her inspiration to choose sustainability as a topic to focus on, she says, “I have always been very rooted to the ground. My nails are always dirty from all the digging around in the garden. So that’s pretty much me.”

Sen, however, believes the onus is not just on youngsters, but all of us. “I feel hurt when someone says that the onus is on us or them to work towards a sustainable future. It’s on all of us because we are all consuming the resources. Having said that, I do have a lot of hope from the younger generation,” she says.

The author feels the most exciting part about writing for children is that it’s an audience that you don’t know what to expect from. “Each child has their own way of reading, understanding, processing and perceiving a story. That’s what makes writing for kids all the more challenging and exciting.”

Sen is happy to see shifting trends in the way children’s books are written and perceived in the country today. “I am very excited looking at the children’s literature scenario in the country today. When I wrote my first book, I did not imagine that in the near future we would come so far along… I am not cynical that it has taken time for the trend to change, but better late then never,” she says.

So what’s the future? “Picture books are the way to go for a generation that has very little time. It is the T20 of books,” she signs off.

SOWMYA RAJENDRAN
The versatile voice
An award-winning author, she challenges stereotypical notions of beauty among other diverse issues in her writings

The Pleasant Rakshasha, which tells the story of Karimuga, a demon who is pleasant and also beautiful, inverts the conventional ideas of beauty with humour. Mayil Will Not Be Quiet, on the other hand, explores issues like gender stereotyping through its 12-year-old protagonist. The author behind these exceptional works is Pune-based Sowmya Rajendran. Speaking about Mayil Will Not Be Quiet, which won her the Sahitya Akademi Bal Sahitya Puraskar in 2015, 34-year-old Rajendran says that every publisher in the country had rejected it. “It was the editor at Tulika who suggested that we rewrite the first draft—which was in the form of a resource book—as a diary. This really opened up the possibilities of what Mayil could do and think about. She’s still figuring things out regarding the ways of the world and we wanted children to know that it’s okay to not know everything… that they can change their mind about things… that it’s fine to have opinions and disagreements,” Rajendran says.

With over 20 titles under her belt, including picture books and young adult fiction, she has covered it all. So what prompts her to write? “I write about what interests me, things which I wish I had read when I was younger. I’m averse to lecturing and my stories have evolved from a need to articulate my own feelings about something more than anything else,” she says, adding that there are many wonderful contemporary Indian children’s books being written today and this aids the growth of the market. Accessibility, however, remains an issue. “Indian children’s books have boldly ventured into diverse genres and themes, but the big bookstores still relegate Indian children’s books to a dismal corner or don’t stock them at all. I don’t see that changing soon because the numbers, in terms of sale, are still small. But there are independent bookstores in many metros filling this gap. NGOs and community library programmes also increase the reach of these books among the underprivileged,” the author asserts.

Rajendran says she enjoys writing for children because she finds it liberating to write for an honest audience that will either accept or reject her work outright. “I love making kids laugh, and making sure they have a good time reading my book is the primary thing I care about while writing,” says Rajendran, who has also written inspirational pieces for children such as The Boy Who Asked Why, which documents BR Ambedkar’s journey from a young age, and Wings to Fly, which is inspired by the story of para-athlete Malathi Holla.

Is it better for the young audience to learn about these figures through stories and characters who are like them rather than through history or general knowledge books in classrooms? “Privileged children tend to grow up in homogeneous environments where everyone is like them or is expected to be like them. I myself woke up to my privilege only when I was in college, though I grew up in a home where we had discussions on society, politics, culture and so on. I believe books can be a bridge to other kinds of being, and that’s what I wished to do with these books. Both the books are simple, basic introductions to the people they’re about and the conversations that they can possibly inspire,” she says, adding, “We as adults place an inordinate amount of importance on obedience in our culture which pretty much kills independent thought. Children should question the status quo if we are to hope for a better world.”

RITU VAISHNAV
The gender bender
This children’s books editor and author simplifies gender stereotypes and related issues for the little ones
In her 2018 book Pink and Blue, Ritu Vaishnav revisits the popular notion which says ‘pink is for girls and blue for boys’. The book features a mother initiating a conversation challenging gender rules with her child. So what prompted her to write the book? “I actually wrote this book for my son. Before joining pre-school, the very distinction of gender in terms of colour or any other aspect did not exist in my child’s mind. But one day, he came back from school and said he did not want to wear a certain colour or carry a certain bottle because the kids made fun of him. That’s when I decided to write this book as a way to explain the whole gendering process to my son and every other child out there who is equally confused,” says Vaishnav, the 38-year-old author based in Gurugram.

The author believes children should be under no pressure to make gendered choices and books serve as an important tool to convey this. “Kids are confused about the whole gendering process. Sometimes they are bullied for, say, wearing a certain colour or behaving in a certain manner. Their innocent mind does not understand the reason behind it. When they read about the same things in a book, it gives validation to their thoughts and eases their confusion,” says Vaishnav, who has also worked as a TV journalist, teacher and children’s books editor.

Vaishnav, however, is happy with the fact that parents are becoming more aware and responsible. “With every passing day, the adults are understanding the issue and are trying their best to break it down to their kids… that in itself is a great step forward,” she says.

Besides gender, Vaishnav has also written kids’ books on mental health and depression. Her book, Inside a Dark Box, in fact, gives a voice to the experience of depression. The book, the author says, was not originally written for children, but she is glad it has connected well with the younger audience too. “Just like adults, children too suffer from mental health issues. The only difference is that it is harder for them to understand and explain to others. While writing, it was a revelation of sorts for me to see how many people have gone through the same journey,” she says.

So what can we as a society do to ensure that our children understand it? “We teach our children basic things like ‘don’t steal, fight or tell a lie’, etc… conversations around mental health should also become just as common,” she says, adding, “The toughest part about having these conversations with children is to come up with a vocabulary. That is a road block for parents. In that way, books serve as a tool.”

When asked if it’s challenging to write on topics like gender stereotypes and depression for kids, she says, “I have always felt easier connecting with children. More than five years in TV have taught me to simplify topics and that’s exactly what I put into work while writing for them.”

SHABNAM MINWALLA
Magic with words
Mumbai-based Minwalla pens tales rooted in real life and situations to enchant the young audience

The arrival of her twins in 2005 changed Shabnam Minwalla’s life in more ways than one. A journalist by profession, she found herself unable to continue work full-time. “I had already been a journalist for 10 years when my eldest daughter was born. After that, my twins came along and I realised that full-time journalism was quite impossible. After a couple of years of changing nappies and mashing bananas, I decided to try my hand at writing a book. I had planned to write a detective book for adults. So you can imagine my astonishment when what eventually emerged was a book—The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street—for children,” says the Mumbai-based author.

Today, she has multiple kids’ books under her belt, including What Maya Saw, which has been nominated for numerous awards, The Shy Supergirl, Lucky Girl, When Jiya Met Urmila and The Strange Haunting of Model High School. Her stories have also been included in several anthologies.

When asked about the thought process behind her first book, The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street published in 2012, Minwalla says that while growing up she never liked the fact that all the books she read were set in other countries. “Cosy English villages, glittering American cities… It seemed that magic and adventure only happened in those faraway places and I felt very cheated. With Spellmakers, I wanted to write a story set in an ordinary middle-class Mumbai building… and to people it with characters with whom my readers could immediately identify with,” the 52-year-old says, adding, “I really want Indian children who read my books to feel that I am telling their stories. This is why I am particular about creating characters whose routines and lives are similar to those of my readers. So many kids have come up to me and told me that like the children in Spellmakers, they love the goodies from Theobroma. Or that after reading What Maya Saw, they asked their parents to take them around the city on the same clue hunt that Maya and her friends undertook.”

Minwalla says many a times girls have approached her and told her that like her protagonist Nimmi in the series of the same name, they, too, are having trouble with friends or mean-spirited teachers. “As the Nimmi books are part of an ongoing series, the children demand reassurance that by the next book, Nimmi’s little trials and tribulations will be sorted. And this is partly because they seem to identify with the characters,” she says, adding, “In When Jiya Met Urmila, I tried to figure out how two girls from different economic backgrounds could become friends. To my shock, I realised that our children lead such distinct and separate lives that it was difficult for me to even make Jiya and Urmila meet for the first time in the book. During book readings, this is something that the children realise by themselves now. And it thrills me that they are disturbed by it.”

Minwalla also cautions against children’s use of social media which, she says, has made the business of popularity ‘public and quantifiable’. “Many of my characters don’t fit in perfectly in the social world that they inhabit. There’s Lara in Strange Haunting who is academically brilliant, but terribly underconfident. There’s Maya who is an achiever, but craves popularity and the glamorous life that she imagines other teenagers lead. As I look at this list, it strikes me that these are all characters with unique abilities. It’s these abilities that make them different from the herd—and my message is that it is wonderful to be different,” she says.

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