Our favourite childhood stories tend to stick with us forever. For children who grew up on a steady diet of Panchatantra or Jataka Tales, animals are prominent characters in the books they loved. More than the animals’ adventures, one remembers the way that the stories made one feel, and the lessons they taught. There were lessons of curiosity, persistence, discipline, risk-taking, and problem-solving that reinforced values of friendship, empathy and compassion. Growing up, one realises how much power these stories hold and how they shape one’s understanding of the world.
Looking back, it’s easy to notice how children’s books have reflected attitudes in our society about diversity, power relations among different groups of people, and various social identities. The visual and verbal cues children pick up from books influence their ideas about themselves and others. Books can reinforce positive values, and teach accurate information about people of various identities. Books about social justice often allow children insight into what it feels like to encounter discrimination. To raise responsible children, we need to teach them about people outside their immediate family and neighbourhood. On the other hand, some children grow up not seeing themselves represented in any of the books they read. It is important to fix this so that children from various backgrounds can see their lives reflected in the stories they engage with.
Young Zubaan hopes to create socially conscious and politically responsive books for children of all ages. This commitment has led us to seek out books that inspire conversations about social justice and encourage children’s passion and action around the anti-caste struggle, feminist organising, LGBTQ rights and environmental protection, among other subjects. Here is a list of our favourite children’s and young adult books published in 2019 from India, that explore social action and foster critical-thinking:
1. Guthli Has Wings
Age Group: 6+
Category: Picture Book
On the face of it, Guthli is like any other child; she talks non-stop, loves to draw fairies and has a chicken for a friend. However, she becomes very upset when she isn’t allowed to wear a pink frock for Diwali, and is asked to wear her ‘boy’ clothes. Published by Tullika Books, Kanak Shashi’s latest book Guthli Has Wings attempts to familiarise children, parents and educators with the concept of gender identity. Gender identity, a complex subject that has multiple connotations has been broken down to suit the understanding of a child. In an interview with The Hindu, Kanak explains how she developed the concept in 2010 when she was working with school children, and among many other things that struck her, the performative aspect of gender drew her attention, “This whole process starts fairly early in life — probably right from the moment an infant starts perceiving the world and forming ideas about it. I just wanted to create something that subverts this whole process.”
2. Ten Indian Animals You May Never See in the Wild
Age group: 8+
This book tells the survival stories of ten of India’s rarest animals. A few have made a heroic comeback from the very brink of extinction; others have not been so lucky and are spiralling to their inevitable doom. Award-winning novelist Ranjit Lal writes an engrossing account of how human activity has driven so many beautiful animals out of their natural habitat. A part of the new non-fiction series — The 10s — published by Duckbill books, this book is perfect for children to understand that the need of the hour is to coexist in harmony with the natural world.
3. My Country, My Government
Age group: 10+
What does the Prime Minister do? How are judges chosen? In My Country, My Government Rohini Oomman takes on and breaks down the complicated functioning of the Indian government into bite-size nuggets of information. From the formation of the Indian Constitution to today’s election system, this book tackles complex subjects in a clear, easy-to-understand way with exercises and explanations. Learning about the way the government works can help awaken a child’s sense of social responsibility. An experienced and well-known educator, Rohini has put together an informative guide which helps children understand how the government functions, while also helping them realise how politics governs every aspect of life.
4. Maa (Hindi)
Age Group: 12+
Kancha Illaiah Shepherd, a well-known political theorist and anti-caste activist authored Maa, which details the story of a young professor at a university. The professor, who belongs to a shepherd community, fondly recalls how his mother fought against caste atrocities and mobilised the people of his community to rally against the discriminatory and casteist attitudes prevalent in his village. Published by Eklavaya, Maa has been illustrated by Lokesh Khodke and Shefalee Jain. It is an essential read for parents, educators, teachers who wish to sensitise young children about the caste-system and for young adults who wish to read an inspiring story of how a lower-caste woman mobilised her community to struggle against inequality.
5. The Case of the Missing Water (Multilingual)
Age Group: 12+
In the middle of summer, the tank in Ranj’s village dries up and the villagers are left with no water. Most families have left the area and classrooms in the school that Ranj attends are half-empty. There is only a dried-up stream running through the village, the birds and animals have left too. Frustrated at the state of affairs, Ranj and her friend Sapna have fixed their mind on finding the missing water. Will they succeed in their mission? Find out in this book written by Shalini Srinivisan and illustrated by Upamanyu Bhattacharya.
Age group: 10+
Seven-year-old Varun has never met his father and only seen photographs of him in the wedding album. Varun meets his father — the Man — for the first time in the court after his mother files for divorce. When the court mandates that the father meet Varun every month, he is scared and angry. But why does the Man keep bringing gifts for him? Why does climb trees like a monkey? Why does he keep saying ‘Pop! Pop! Pop!’? As if Arun could ever start calling this strange Man ‘Pops’!
Published by Duckbill books and written by Crossword Book Award winner Balaji Venkataraman, this book delves into the complex emotions experienced by a child when his parents are estranged. It is also a great reminder for children who come from single parent families that they aren’t alone and loving families come in all different shapes and sizes.
7. Behind the Lie
Age Group: 10+
Valli and Ramesh live under a cloud of fear because of their father, who has a frightening temper. Their mother suffers the brunt of their father’s violence and is unsure about how to escape the vicious cycle of abuse that she is stuck in. Will this ever change for them? This is a moving story about how a family fights domestic violence with some quick thinking and a little help from their neighbours. Written by Asha Nehemiah and illustrated by Aindri Chakraborty, this book is extremely relevant for children who have undergone similar experiences as it can help them identify the triggers or situations in which the triggers or situations in which domestic violence may be present. And reading a story of how another child came forward and sought help may encourage other children to do so, too.