Two of the most prominent characteristics we share: being feminists and being book nerds, 24x7x365.
Recently, looking for birthday gifts for nieces and nephews in a favourite, well-curated bookshop in Delhi, we were dismayed that we couldn’t find any books that told the kinds of stories that we would like for kids today to read and hear – stories with strong female characters that break gender stereotypes, normalise diverse identities, undo the taboo around sex and sexuality, and are relevant to young Indian readers (books with more brown-skinned characters would be a good start).
Like us growing up, many of you probably had to learn to ‘see yourself’ in stories not written with you in mind, and make the best of less-than-enlightened narratives. We know first-hand that kids can learn to read feminist ideas into mainstream stories if that’s all they have – but doesn’t the upcoming generation (finally) deserve better options? As Marley Dias, the innovative tween behind #1000BlackGirlBooks, points out: it gets old reading about “white boys and their dogs”.
Outside of gender-conscious circles, many parents remain unaware of the scant but growing collection of resources that could help them finally start ‘the talk’, and have an earnest conversation about gender, sexuality, and sex that also emphasises consent, pleasure, and desire.
But were these resources available in the mainstream, would parents even buy them or feel comfortable using them as springboards for frank discussions with their kids?
Since we don’t have kids ourselves, we asked some actual parents about their experiences finding children’s books that talk about gender, sex, and sexuality. Many of the responses confirm both the importance of these resources and difficulty locating them:
“No, I find it super hard to get my hands on this kind of books, especially those dealing with the topics the way I want to talk to her. In fact, the latest was a Ramayana written ‘with the perspective of strong women’ – I picked it up with such excitement! But then had to keep it down [because] they mentioned that Sita was a strong woman who ‘exercised choice’ when she ‘decided’ to come with Rama to the forest.
“We order books online in case we’re looking for something specific that’s not available. Most of the feminist books we have are from abroad.”
– Parent of a 6-year-old girl, Delhi
“It’s a rare sight to find these kinda books on shelves. These books will be of great help in spreading awareness among children. Books on issues such as those talking against gender disparity … self-assessment will be of great help.”
– Parent of a 2-year-old boy, Delhi
“My son is in college now but when he was in school, I never consciously made an effort to look for such a book, but having worked with [the] development sector and on these issues, I always spoke to my son and other kids in my family about gender and sexuality. I don’t think sexuality and gender are issues that parents normally talk about with children because the only thing that matters to them is studies/good marks. Personally, I also feel that social class and education of the parents plays an important role in this even today!”
– Parent, Delhi
If it’s important, why aren’t parents demanding that these resources be more available in the mainstream? To be fair, most Indians who are now parents probably didn’t get much help with these subjects from their own families and teachers, and might feel unprepared/unsure of what they need if they were discouraged from asking questions about sex at a younger age.
India has a ‘chequered history’ with education on sex and sexuality, to say the least. There is widespread disagreement about who is responsible for teaching it, the content of this education, and whether young people should get any guidance at all or just have to figure it out (but only after family-approved marriage, of course).
On the rare occasion when schools even offer sex ed, it’s often focused on harm reduction or promotes an abstinence-only approach using fear-mongering tactics and lessons on morality – and, as East India Comedy famously lampooned, manages to nearly avoid the topic of sex altogether.
This glaring lack hasn’t yet galvanised most parents to take up the responsibility themselves, and some are “outsourcing” the talk to private sexuality educators.
Even for those of us who ‘live and breathe’ sexuality in our professional lives, it’s damn hard to decide when and how to introduce kids to the subject. After the erstwhile Health Minister Harsh Vardhan suggested sex ed be banned in India, professor Shilpa Phadke penned a brilliant piece fiercely defending robust (dare we say feminist) sex and sexuality education. At the same time, she expressed the complicated anxieties she has about broaching such topics with her own young daughter:
“I worry that I will give her too much information, information that her 4-year-old consciousness cannot process. I worry that I will give her too little information and she will stop asking me. As a parent I am stunned by the paucity of Indian resources that one might label broadly progressive, other than … TARSHI’s fabulous Yellow Book…
“… being a feminist mother is no easy task. How do I teach my daughter to recognize danger, negotiate risk and yet have fun?”
Her essay points to the delicate balancing act parents must perform to keep all this in view and yet ensure their children are comfortable enough to keep dialogue open on difficult topics. If someone with Phadke’s level of training and experience in feminist theory and advocacy readily admits her struggles, how challenging it must be for parents who rarely inhabit spaces where gender and sexuality are common themes.
Therefore, having enabling books and resources on these sensitive issues becomes even more salient, as they can prove to be valuable guiding materials for parents to have conversations with their kids in an accessible, non-judgmental and fun way. The right kind of conversation-inspiring resources are crucial learning tools for both kids and parents to help break the cycle of shame and misinformation.
Dr Perri Klass, national medical director for the U.S.-based Reach Out and Read paediatric literacy program, highlights the importance of the special interpretive space that’s created when parents read books – especially non-digital books – with their children. Unlike videos and electronic media where the visuals and interactive modes are predetermined, the unlimited possibilities analog words and images provide inspire empathetic (re)imagining of the worlds we encounter. Parents can offer questions, interpretations, and familiar reference points to enhance their child’s understanding of what’s on the page, and regular practise reading with kids also creates a comfortable environment for parent-child bonding that’s often missing in hectic daily life.
Using books to stimulate dialogue, especially on sensitive topics, can catalyse relationship growth with adult children as well. Srinidhi Raghavan shares in a poignant essay how the exchange she began with her Amma (mother) a few years ago – trading books on feminism, sex, lesbians, being single and related topics – provided their first (though not last) entry point of genuine conversation on sex. The books “did most of the uncomfortable talking” for these two introverts and helped them to build a “more open, loving relationship based on trust”.
So, even though technology is making other kinds of sex education media more available than ever before, we argue that old-fashioned book reading is an essential practice to continue alongside viewing a video series like Sex Chat with Pappu and Papa – which gives a whole new nuance to practising your ‘cricket batting’ alone or with a partner. 😉
But the question remains – where to even start? We leave you with a number of helpful ‘listicles’ that lay out books by topic, age group, user-friendliness and language. We can’t personally vouch for each and every item on these lists, but there are some excellent jumping-off points in the mix:
Cover image from Getty Images
 Shanoor Seervai, ‘Outsourcing Sex Education in India’, The Wall Street Journal, 30 January 2015.