Tell me a story of the wonderful witch
Do you worry about the stereotypes in your child’s books, from the good wife to the fair princess? Here’s how to free fairy tales from prejudice.
Who doesn’t know Cinderella’s horrible step family? The stepmother and ugly stepsisters were “with fair faces, but evil and dark hearts” and they made sure that “times soon grew very bad for the poor stepchild.” You may have also read about the good wife, who is always slaving away at the stove, while pundits dole out sage advice and peasants toil and serve. Many stories come with a bevy of people engaged in servitude, either helpful or malicious, stupid or cunning, always at the service of the privileged.
While some of these stories are charming, others entertaining, as a child reading them, it’s hard not to believe that all step-parents cackle and are horrid, that girls must do the dishes and wait to be rescued, while boys must do the rescuing. It’s also easy to assume that pundits are wise and peasants are thick-headed. “These stories reflect the times and cultures in which they are set,” said Radhika Menon, managing editor of Tulika Books. “They are timeless concepts — the good vs evil, the wise vs foolish, the strong vs weak. And overriding all this are notions of beauty and gender, which continue even today.” Menon points out that, often, writers and illustrators unconsciously reinforce the stereotypes even while the stories or illustrations try to break free of them. “It requires skill and understanding to change or subvert stereotypes in children’s books,” she added. “The challenge for editors is to identify such writers and illustrators and for parents and teachers to find such books!”
Narratives have the power of influencing children’s attitudes, behaviour, and perceptions. For one, new research from the Brigham Young University, US, suggests that the Disney “princess” culture can “influence preschoolers to be more susceptible to potentially damaging stereotypes”. The study, which involved 198 preschoolers, revealed that “more interaction with the princesses predicted more female gender-stereotypical behaviour a year later” — this affected their confidence to do well in maths and science. The girls didn’t like getting dirty, and were “less likely to try and experiment”.
But then, if some stories can reinforce biases, others shatter them. Which is why we have films such as the fabulous Shrek series (okay, some of them, at least), a delightful parody on stereotypical fairy-tale characters, as well as children’s books with protagonists who refuse to be pigeonholed. In Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle (HarperCollins), there is a girl “whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world”, and a brave toddler outwits a slew of monsters in Maurice Sendak’s Mommy! (Scholastic). “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice”, a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, showed that children who read Rowling’s books were less prejudiced and more open-minded.
Closer home, writers are cutting through stereotypes and superstition to write books that are reflective of our times. Ranjit Lal writes about female infanticide in Faces in the Water (Puffin). Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu (Young Zubaan) has spunky female protagonists who take their schooling future in their own hands. In Nandini Bajpai’s Starcursed (Red Turtle), reason trumps astrology, while girls play some excellent football in Swati Sengupta’s Half the Field is Mine (Scholastic). Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan (Duckbill) has an LGBT theme, and Zainab Sulaiman’s Simply Nanju (Duckbill) is set in a school of differently-abled children.
Yet, log onto a bookseller’s website or visit an average bookstore, and you will see fairy tales, mythological and gendered books topping the popularity lists. The appeal of these stories is undeniable. Many of them are better packaged and marketed. Spend a few minutes in the aisles of an airport bookstore, and you will observe that many parents are clueless about most Indian authors.
Additionally, the power of popular culture is impossible to ignore. Little wonder then, that children covet Disney princess-themed birthday parties, Chota Bheem backpacks and lunchboxes. Chota Bheem maybe everywhere, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the series has strong gender biases and borders on tokenism. For instance, the fair-skinned Chutki may play with her friends and embark on adventures, but she’s the one burdened with household chores. But then, books and media are not the only sources of prejudice. “I feel stereotypes and labels are bound to creep in to our children’s lives and books are not the only influence,” said Aashti Mudnani, who owns Lightroom Bookstore in Bangalore. “[I] am mostly speaking from personal experience with my own children and feel that reading books to a child often involves questions and discussions and it is important to engage in these.”
But then, books and media are not the only sources of prejudice. “I feel stereotypes and labels are bound to creep in to our children’s lives and books are not the only influence,” said Aashti Mudnani, who owns Lightroom Bookstore in Bangalore. “[I] am mostly speaking from personal experience with my own children and feel that reading books to a child often involves questions and discussions and it is important to engage in these.”
At Lightroom, Mudnani and her team handpicks the books, creating a veritable Narnia for children. Here, you won’t find Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk, but you will stumble upon a modern retelling such as The Princess and the Giant (Nosy Crow) by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton, where the princess helps the angry giant who won’t stop stomping about. You will also find Girls to the Rescue (Tulika) by Sowmya Rajendran, where six fairytale leading ladies stray from the hackneyed path. “Princesses are a mega bore,” writes Rajendran, in the epilogue. “The ones in the stories I grew up reading anyway. They are in the situation where they can do whatever they want but they never do anything.” Her stories are fairytale emancipation at their best.
Writer Subramanian believes that modelling is important when it comes to tackling biases. “Children are always watching,” said Subramanian, who has been a public school teacher in the USA. “If you are kind to domestic help, if you make friends with diverse families, and if you question injustice, they’ll notice. They’ll read that book about an unintelligent servant and think, ‘But the akka in my house isn’t like that. Why is this akka like this?’ Nothing is more important than giving kids the opportunity to be around diverse peers and adults.”
So if your children prefer reading Cinderella, don’t hit the panic button. Mudnani says one shouldn’t necessarily shy away from reading Cinderella and Snow White. “Instead talk with children on certain parts of the story or characters that may not necessarily be true to life, the wicked stepmother, as an example,” she said. Menon agrees, “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.” Parents, teachers, writers and illustrators need to step up to the task.
Both Menon and Subramanian recommend giving children choices to read from, acquainting them with a range of writing, and discussing the stories. “Kids can handle a lot more than we think,” said Subramanian. “They see stereotypes all the time. Books are a lens to interpret these stereotypes. It’s important to be there when kids are deciphering topics that might be uncomfortable to process. Let them experience it, but make them feel comfortable enough to be able to discuss these difficulties with you. Let them talk.”
Bijal writes about education and food security. She has co-founded BAM! Books on Instagram to talk about children’s books that break new ground