The story of The Boy In The Cupboard centres around a child, Karan, who returns from school and locks himself in the closet. It’s a space where he can simply be, away from schoolmates who sneer at his pink bat, laugh at his kitchen set and make fun of him when he twirls with joy while playing cricket. “So, I keep them all safe here, where nothing can break and nobody can say who I am is a mistake,” he tells his mother.
This touching tale, authored by Harshala Gupte and illustrated by Priya Dali, is about a boy trying to understand his place in the world. Published by The Gaysi Family and Lettori Press, The Boy In The Cupboard is for everyone who has questioned something they were blindly asked to believe in.
While it looks at identity, Budgie, Bridge And Big Djinn by Ranjit Lal (HarperCollins Children’s Book, 2019) tackles the angst of a child caught in a bitter custody battle and another who has just escaped an abusive father, among other situations. It shows the different kinds of families possible, far from the stereotype fed to children so far.
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Today, children’s books—right from picture books for five-year-olds to stories for the 7-10 age group or novellas and non-fiction for teens—touch upon topics that were once considered too difficult for children to understand. Once upon a time, children’s books meant glossy illustrations, tales of adventure, magic and mystery. The idea was to instil the values of bravery, integrity and friendship. It’s not as if there were no books on difficult topics. But the efforts were few and far between, tending to take a preachy tone. And there were few takers.
However, with events unfolding at such a rapid pace globally—conflict, migration, climate change, racial violence, pandemic-induced anxiety and grief—it’s no longer possible to wait to have these conversations.
Children are exposed to much more information, making it imperative to create the right kind of awareness about issues ranging from grief and puberty to Kashmir, global warming, LGBTQ+ rights, or even the myriad feelings that getting a pair of glasses at an early age can evoke. Books are the perfect vehicles to start such conversations.
“It is important that there should be books out there which articulate these thoughts. And, definitely, we are seeing more such stories being written, which are more frank about the way the world works,” says Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, publisher at Talking Cub. Even niche festivals like the Neev Literature Festival for Children are acknowledging and celebrating such books.
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Talking Cub published Ranjit Lal’s The Hidden Palace Adventure, which has a Hindu-Muslim love story as the backdrop. It features a bunch of children exploring the Delhi Ridge and stumbling upon abandoned places. The story examines the conflict in the life of a 17-year-old girl who is in love with a boy from a different religion. “The book talks frankly about inter-religious romance,” says Ghosh.
This is not a first for the publishing house. Two years ago, it had published Paro Anand’s collection of short stories about the many ways people feel othered—be it disability, sexual orientation or grief. “Then there is Nomad’s Land, which is about displacement of refugees and finding your own space,” she adds. “And Menaka Raman’s Loki Takes Guard, which is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl who wants to play cricket. While the book is loaded with humour, it also looks at gender, adolescence, getting your period, and equal opportunities.”
Bijal Vachharajani’s A Cloud Called Bhura, also from Talking Cub, doesn’t just talk about climate change but also progressive politics, from queer rights to Ambedkarite politics, for very young readers.
The trend is visible internationally too. In a December NPR article, Struggling to Discuss Tough Topics With A Kid? Here Are Books That Might Help, children’s book author Matt de la Peña listed his selection. These include: There Might Be Lobsters by Carolyn Crimi, for a child experiencing anxiety; A Map Into The World by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Seo Kim, for five- to nine-year-olds grappling with the idea of death; and The Adventures Of Beekle, for those seeking their place in the world.
Such books help parents who find it difficult to broach issues such as caste, religion and sex. Take, for instance, Tisca Chopra’s book What’s Up With Me?, published by Red Panda, the children’s book imprint of Westland Publications. It looks at a gamut of topics that affect young girls from the ages of 9-14—from the kind of bra that would fit you to whether you should opt for sanitary napkins, menstrual cups or tampons. Written in an easy, conversational style, it demystifies the roller-coaster ride that is puberty.
The Boy In The Cupboard is indicative of a change in tactics by The Gaysi Family, which would earlier create handbooks about everyday queer narratives for 16-year-olds and above in a pop-culture format and a language that was palatable and easily understood.
“No matter how progressive people are, they still back off from narratives of identity,”says Sakshi Juneja, founder, The Gaysi Family. So the organisation decided to move on from doing sessions at schools to creating literature as well.
Discussions on The Boy In The Cupboard started last year, just before the lockdown. But it could only be published this year. “This is not just a book for seven- to 10-year-olds, (it’s) also for young parents. Anything to do with sexuality makes people apprehensive. Even we had to think 10 times, although we were coming from this experience where the sensibility was strong and updated,” Juneja says.
“The idea is to sensitise parents, young teachers and school authorities as well,” adds Juneja. “These conversations are taking place among children already. The question is whether you are ready to get out of your comfort zone or not.”
Neev Literature Festival focuses on the growing body of high quality children's literature from India. “Difficult issues exist in children’s lives. iterature, which recognises this, creates a safe space for conversations. Indian children's writing has become rich and diverse now, and is beginning to cover difficult facets of their lives too, things we often don't want to talk about” says Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, curator and co-founder of the Neev Literature Festival for Children. “While kids must read stories that are windows to the world, they must also read stories that mirror their own identities.” So, while internationally discrimination is about “white versus the rest”, in India, it extends to religion, caste and more. “Mothering A Muslim, by Nazia Erum, is a lovely book, which shares the difficult stories of some Muslim parents and children in mainstream schools,” says Sabharwal.
In the past two years, Neev Litfest has hosted discussions on the subjects of Kashmir, tribal rights and equality. There has been an increasing focus on the subject of ability as well, helping children build resources to handle stress and change. At the moment, Neev has a reading challenge going on, as part of which children can read books such as Unfair by Rasil Ahuja on discrimination based on skin colour or 'fairness privilege', and Jane De Souza’s Flyaway Boy, about inclusion and conformity, about thinking differently.
“Kids now don’t just want to read books on hard topics but also write about their own challenges when they don't see affirming visions of themselves in textbooks, popular culture or art in India. As part of Neev, children have written on their own struggles with depression, gender issues, skin colour, to raise awareness and help others step out of the shadows. These are hard topics to write about. The evolving transformation in kids’ literature is heartening to see, because if it exists in stories we tell, we are ready to talk about it” adds Sabharwal.