Why it’s a mistake to shelter children from complicated realities

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Updated: April 28, 2019 1:19:07 AM

In My Heart, her book on adoption, highlights how every child’s extended family acts as a support network, helping them carve their identity.

Nandana Sen, RAHI Foundation, child sexual abuse, Unicef, In My Heart, In My Heart review, child aoptionIn My Heart explores the questions that every adopted child is bound to ask about his/her history.

Award-winning actor, author and child rights activist Nandana Sen has worked in close quarters with children as part of her work at RAHI Foundation, a Delhi-based organisation for survivors of child sexual abuse, and Unicef, among others.

In My Heart, her book on adoption, highlights how every child’s extended family acts as a support network, helping them carve their identity. Here, Sen tells Indrani Bose how crucial it was for her to write the book and how she wants to encourage more people to adopt a child. Edited excerpts:

What was the thought behind In My Heart?

Writing the book was extremely important to me as it had been growing in my heart for a long time. I think we would all agree that adoption is rarely covered in our mainstream media or kids’ literature even though we know that the love of adoptive families could change the lives of thousands of Indian children. Having worked for years with underprivileged children, many of whom are displaced, homeless or institutionalised, the need for a gentle and inclusive children’s book about adoption had become crystal-clear to me over time. I wanted to write a book that celebrated how every family is beyond biology, born out of love and inseparably connected through the universal bond of the heart.

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Specifically, In My Heart explores the questions that every adopted child is bound to ask about his/her history. The truth is, most kids adopted here may never get to know their birth mother even though it’s natural for them to want to learn about her and right for the adoptive parents to support them in that need. I hope this book makes it easy for families to discuss this sensitive issue, which can sometimes become quite emotionally fraught for both the child and the parents.

That said, In My Heart is not only about adoption. It also illuminates how every child’s extended family and support network nurture her and shape her identity. Keeping in mind that families come together in many different ways—biology, adoption, surrogacy, second marriages, LGBTQ parents—I hope that this book resonates with other alternative family units, many of whom may still encounter a kind of stigma and the fear of bullying. Given that the dynamics of any unique family situation have so much to do with the comfort and regard with which the world around it accepts its ‘normality’, I wanted to write a book for all children, from traditional, as well as non-traditional families, with a view to broadening every child’s understanding of how different kinds of families come together through love.

Did you have any apprehensions about the subject being confusing or heavy for children?

No, actually I didn’t. Children are extremely resilient and keen to engage with the world. I strongly believe that it’s a mistake to shelter them too much from complicated realities even though it’s critical for kids’ books to feel safe, fun and imaginative rather than preachy. Like In My Heart, my very first book Mambi and the Forest Fire (which came together in a workshop I conducted at a home for rescued children) also celebrates difference and focuses, though in a very different way, on the need to embrace the unique identity of every child. Mambi is about a spunky monkey who wishes she could fly and swim like her ‘cooler’ jungle friends, but comes to understand that she has her own special gifts that empower her to rescue her friends. This story always sparks off discussions on how all of us are equal with unique abilities and interests that we all need to love and respect. I’m glad that Mambi has been so loved by all kids (including children with special needs whose distinctive realities are not yet sufficiently represented in our children’s books).

As a reader, as well as a writer, I’ve always loved children’s literature, which, without being at all didactic, promotes a kinder, braver, more sensitive and inclusive view of our world. In fact, my favourite children’s books—whether by Rabindranath Tagore, Dr Seuss, EB White or Paro Anand—ingeniously introduce kids to notions of empathy, equality and fairness through age-appropriate genres. Children’s books can be truly transformative by encouraging kids to think critically and creatively, to freely express their thoughts and emotions, and to ask questions without the fear of being judged. But first and foremost, they need to be vivid, inventive and playful stories that enthrall any child.

Have you got any feedback from children about the book?

Yes! I’ve done lively, long, chatty sessions on In My Heart with over 2,000 kids in lit fests, schools, bookshops, children’s festivals. My storytelling sessions are always very interactive even when the audience is 500-strong. For this book, I usually start off with a big canvas jigsaw puzzle… kids choose the pieces to put together the picture of a family. It made me so happy to see that children were instinctively curious about, and captivated by, the story of Mia, the girl who “had come out of Mumma’s heart, and Papa’s heart”. They always became very quiet and absorbed when I read from the book, but as soon as I stopped, they would erupt into boisterous chatter every time. The kids were so full of enthusiastic—and often hilarious—comparisons (like “my dadima can’t stop singing to me either”), super-wise observations (“I am sure tummy mummy loves Mia though she is far away”) and splendid questions that started off many excited discussions (“Are they both Mia’s real mummies then?”). I’m thrilled that children have so much to say and ask about Mia’s story.

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