Stereotypes in children’s books

Interview with Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers
by Bijal Vachharajani for the article ‘Tell me a story about the wonderful witch’ in The Indian Express, July 2016 

Bijal: If you are a parent and sensitive to stereotypes and labels, how do you explain things such as stepmoms and dumb servants  to little children. Given that there are increasingly more books that are sensitive and with feisty heroines, yet parents find that their children continue to turn to the timeless beloved stories such as Cinderella rather than, say, an Oliver Jeffers.

Radhika: As you know children aren’t the problem so much as the forces and influences around – the market, the social context, popular culture... Raising consciousness is a long slow process and a few books or films can’t change deeply ingrained notions. A story does not in itself necessarily reinforce unpleasant stereotypes, it depends on the way in which it is told and the way in which it is understood. Talking about the stories with the children and asking gentle questions is always helpful. So the onus is on the adults – parents, teachers  and the writers, illustrators and editors. 

B: How do we get children to read more of modern books?

R: Anything that’s forced down a child’s throat tends to create an aversion. Perhaps a first step would be just to make sure that the books are available. Leave them lying around, draw attention to them to arouse their curiosity so that the children can pick them up.

B: Also, it's hard when international publishing formats are often better packaged and more attractive at competitive prices?

R: It is hard to compete with that and also with a certain ‘glamour’ that things Western still have at times. Also the enormous marketing clout they wield, particularly fairytales, fantasy and science fiction, with the multi-billion markets they create with books, films, television, digital adaptations and merchandise.  And while it’s true that great stories are ‘universal,’ it is literally true that Indian stories are about us. They are relevant in a particularly obvious way and that can be a great attraction. That has been Tulika's experience.

B: And lastly, how do you challenge the stereotypes embedded in these timeless tales?

R: These stories reflect the times and cultures in which they are set.  And they are timeless – the good vs evil, the wise vs foolish, the strong vs weak concepts and images are universal to stories, from the classics to folktales. And overriding all this are notions of beauty and gender, which continues even today. Very often writers and illustrators unconsciously reinforce these stereotypes even while the stories or illustrations try to break free of it. Which is why we find that even today we have books that reinforce stereotypes. It requires skill and understanding to change or subvert stereotypes in children's books. The challenge to editors is to identify such writers and illustrators, and for parents and teachers to find such books!

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