LGBT themes in children’s books

Interview with Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers
by M Venkatesh for the article ‘Coming Out Early’ in Live Mint, August 2014 

VENKATESH: LGBT-themed books for adults – by Indian authors – though nascent, seem to have taken wing. But in the younger readers’ category, it is still virgin territory, though things are changing. At least two publishers – Bloomsbury and Duckbill – have decided to publish, and a third one is contemplating going for one later this year or early next. Is this a trend? There have been children's books like the Shadow of Eternity (Payal Dhar, Zubaan) that did refer to LGBT, but no picture books unlike abroad which even fleetingly touch upon such subjects.

RADHIKA: In fact, we do have a book with a visual of a same sex family – a book about homes and families (Home, 2009). Just as it shows houses that are made of brick, thatch, a pipe on the road, a tent and so on as homes of people, it shows large and small families, a single parent family and a same sex couple with a child. Accompanying minimal text, the pictures are there for adults to point out and say that people are different, homes are different and families are different, or for children to absorb the details and ask questions, which they will.

Another very popular book is Mayil Will Not be Quiet, a diary of a 12-year-old girl in which she talks about all the things that she is concerned, obsessed or curious about, including gay relationships.
With more awareness today about LGBT it is natural that it will be reflected in books for children, pre-teens and teens. As publishers we don’t believe in taboos in children’s books. What matters is how sensitively and imaginatively such issues are dealt with.

V: Would Tulika go for publishing in this genre? Is the audience ready? Or would you choose your market depending on the content?

R: Not as a specific genre but as part of the various categories we do – picture books, fiction and non-fiction for older children. A forthcoming YA non-fiction, Big Hero, Size Zero: Gender Talk, deals with LGBT issues among other gender related issues.

V: Do people/authorities react more if the incidence of/reference to gay fiction/same-sex issues when it is in picture books or books for younger children compared to those for Young Adults? Re, what happened in Singapore’s NLB. The picture books were: And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express.

R: They will. But there will always be teachers and parents who will welcome such books and look for them. The many NGOs who run libraries and reading programmes in different states, for instance, find books that deal with difficult issues useful in their programmes, especially when made available in languages. Books offer great opportunities to teachers and parents for discussing complex subjects which they find difficult to handle on their own.

It helps that we don’t have streamlined, efficient systems of selection for libraries which decides what gets into schools, like in Singapore. The inefficiency of our selection and distribution systems sometimes works to our advantage – the gaps and cracks help!

V: Such a book – in all probability – will not find its way into school libraries because of screening. Would such a move upset you as a publisher especially if you have published one? There could be other gatekeepers or self-appointed ‘custodians of correctness’ in the way. Your comments.

R: Depends on the schools, as I said. It may not be selected by the national or state board schools. It happens with YA books in regional languages where often adult books by well known authors are recommended for selection at the state level and then weeded out because of the ‘taboo’ themes of the book, which are unfortunately often LGBT themes.

A good book on a sensitive and important topic being banned is always difficult to accept but we are taking that risk with our eyes open and are aware of the problems involved. So we have to be prepared to fight it out and stand by our authors and illustrators. Given the current political climate, things are not going to be easy for publishers who are committed to doing inclusive books for children.

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