Are There Taboos in Children's Literature?

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
Paper presented at a seminar during the 14th World Book Fair in New Delhi, February 2000. Also adapted as an article in The Hindu's Literary Review, August 2000


Are there taboos in children's literature? To my mind the answer would be a yes and a no. If the question means do taboos exist in children's literature then yes they do. If the question is should there be taboos in children's literature then my answer as one involved with and concerned about children's books is a definite no.

          The taboos that are imposed on children's books are often culture specific as what is acceptable in one culture is seen as unacceptable in another. One of our authors, well-known story-teller Cathy Spagnoli says, "American publishers are very touchy about body functions, the Japanese are not at all (our own folklore is very similar though unlike the Japanese our children's books are sanitised versions --- a fallout of our accepting western norms and making them our own). Japanese children's books have for years included folktales with references to excrement, urine and so on. They have even brought out two delightful picture books on these two functions; these have been translated into English and are so popular! I used to be fascinated as a teller in Japan to watch other tellers, often elegant librarians or stiff-looking businessmen, tell tale after tale about passing gas and how urine became a river, etc. Audiences loved them and took them all in so naturally. I could never do that HERE (in the US where she lives). The few times I've tried such tales I've had school principals give me a talking to." 

          Vayu Naidu, another Tulika author and founder of a storytelling theatre in Birmingham, published a series of children's books with BBC's Channel 4 about a calf called Biswas. There were objections to one of her books because it opened with the mother of little Biswas dying. Death in a children's book was taboo especially when it did not happen to a wicked character in the story. In contrast, our traditional stories for even the very young deal with death in a most natural manner. 

          Strangely, as we have discovered in our interactions with foreign publishers, taboos are not restricted to content and theme of books but even to styles of illustrations and colour. Anyone who has worked with children knows how naturally and easily they absorb what seems alien and strange to adults. In the Indian context all of us who have grown up reading stories of elves and fairies, scones and ginger ale, oak trees and toadstools know how we have accepted and loved this 'alien' world. It is unfortunate that it is adults, who decide what children should read, who impose taboos instead of encouraging and enhancing children's instinctive ability to live most comfortably with the diversities around them. Paradoxically, though there is an upswing in multicultural book publishing, taboos continue to be imposed and are dictated by the dominant English language book market. We will allow cultural specificities thus far and no further seems to be the stand. It is alarming how willingly parents, teachers, writers, artists and publishers are promoting this highly censored and restricted brand of multiculturalism. 

          To the question should there be taboos in children's literature my answer is no. Taboos imply censorship, curtailing writers’ freedom to write the way they choose. There are writers who work comfortably within an idealogical framework and others who prefer to repeat a proven narrative formula. And there are other writers whose work challenges traditional canons by being unpredictable, innovative, subversive and risk-taking. Such writing most often deals with issues that are taboo or considered unsuitable for children. But in the hands of a talented writer the same issues are communicated with a sensitivity that opens the child's mind in ways that more conventional books do not. As publishers with a commitment to good writing we must defend and celebrate a writer's freedom to challenge the prevailing complacencies of our age. More importantly, we must give children the choice to read a range of books from the traditional and conventional to the more challenging and unconventional if we are to make them responsible readers. 

          At this point I would like to bring up what may seem unrelated incidents but which expose the more deep-rooted problems we create by our attitude to childhood reinforced in the books we create for our children. All of us will remember quite vividly the shock and horror we experienced when we read about the shooting incidents in schools in the US involving young boys. There was not one but several such incidents. Evidence shows that they were planned meticulously making it more difficult to explain them away as something done in a fit of uncontrolled anger. They bring us face to face with a reality we find difficult to accept — the myth of childhood innocence. 

          Marina Warner in 1994 made two points in referring to the much-publicised James Bulger murder in the UK, of particular interest to those of us concerned with children's books. First she suggested that a culture which sets up what she called a 'nostalgic worship of childhood innocence' is likely to be vengeful and punitive in its disappointed anger when children fail to live up to its imagined ideal. The second point was her suggestion that the myth of the innocent child is associated in particular with children's books. 

          The image of the innocent child has been created and recreated — in children's classics and in many contemporary stories. Writers created and many continue to create an unreal world of privileged children in pretty cottages with perfect families. Fortunately writers in countries where children's literature was discussed and studied began resisting this sentimentalised portrayal of childhood. Of course, there are always those to continue to perpetuate this myth. But there is also a realistic recognition that children can be selfish, devious and manipulative, much like the adults around them. But there is reverence for the potential and actual goodness of children, an understanding of their different ways of seeing, and a sympathy for their needs and their vulnerability. 

          In India however this unreal portrayal of reality continues in our children's books. We have to only look at stories in our school textbooks to understand the extent of this. It is a world of goody-goody children and adults versus the wicked and cruel ones who are duly punished — all black and white, shades of grey being quite clearly taboo. And this is not because of a lack of talented and sensitive writers but because of a system — perpetuated by the big publishers, distributors and the book-buying institutions like schools and libraries — that has failed to allow for little else. It is important that we see the dangers of such attitudes as it has a direct bearing on the compassion with which we are able to deal the child victims of an increasingly violent world.

          Any discussion on Indian children's books is handicapped by a culture that has not yet recognised the area of children's literature as a serious area of study. And children's books sadly reflect this lack of intellectual discourse and we have books that are clones of Western children's literature or tales of morality from misconceptualised local cultures. Many of the taboos we have imposed in children's books are a fallout of our colonial past. It is a Victorian western attitude — which ironically the West has got rid of and we are burdened with — which sees children quite apart from the adult world and having to be brought up protected from harsh realities. In stark contrast, the Indian child in those early days grew up in joint families and were very much part of an adult world with all its complexities. Stories were tools to help children deal with that adult world. The very purpose of the earlier and much-derided moral tales was to assist in the eventual production of an adult and not a perfect child. 

          To quote A.K.Ramanujan: "Even in the most urbane and westernised Indian households there exists, behind the prim exterior, another India. It lives in tales of passion and trouble, told to children by their grandmothers and servants as the dusk descends." Thus to tell children 'tales of passion and trouble' was seen as the most natural thing to do. The world of Indian folklore (like in most oral storytelling cultures) is fascinating and complex. Tales speak of what cannot usually be spoken. What is supposed by analysts to be repressed and hidden is open and blatant in these tales: love, betrayal, sexuality, incest, rivalry, cruelty are all explored in these tales. To quote Ramanujan again: "As these tales are usually told to children in the context of the family, they are part of the child's psychological education in facing forbidden feelings and finding a narrative that will articulate and contain if not resolve them—for the tellers as well as their young listeners." A wonderfully liberating way of looking at stories and books for children but which finds no reflection in the mass-produced books which forms the bulk of our children's literature. 

          More and more children grow up in nuclear families and single parent families in a global culture driven by powerful market forces. It is a rapidly-changing high-tech world where they are constantly exposed to conflicting and confusing messages about values and attitudes. In such a context the role of stories whether told or written becomes even more crucial in helping children discriminate and make informed choices at every stage in their lives. 

          The publishing scene for children's books in India is at a critical stage. After a long period of colonial influence when we produced clones of British children's literature there is now an awareness of the need to break free of this. The focus now should be — it certainly is Tulika's — to produce children's books that assimilate the deep understanding of children's literature in the West and the strengths of our own storytelling instincts; books that strengthen and foster an understanding of cultural, ethnic, racial and sexual identities. How else do we equip children to deal with death, divorce, class and gender inequities, communal and religious tensions, AIDS, teenage pregnancies, sexual abuse, the dangers of consumerism . . . the list is endless. If the world has to be seen and portrayed to children in the light of the present day through books, taboos have to be breached, new styles and devices used in the best traditions of our oral storytelling. Publishers, teachers, parents and all concerned with children's books have to overcome their own biases and be open to such books. But a word of caution here. We should not fall into the trap of promoting books "too obviously out to open children's eyes to the problems of society and human relationships, producing correct thinking documentaries rather than literature." What is the benchmark, then? I would like to quote one of our talented writers, Poile Sengupta, on this: "It is the range and depth of a book, its sense of unshackled freedom that makes the writing vivid, the book fun. And strangely enough when this sense of freedom is achieved, all those tiresome values creep in too not with bombast but softly, tinged with lovely colour." And taboos have no place in such writing.