Archana Atri, who lives in Delhi, has been running a children’s book club called AA’s BookNerds for 12 years. Children going to different schools sign up. They read books from a list curated by Archana, discuss them and participate in activities related to the books, such as creative writing exercises or interactions with authors. Archana informs parents about the books she reads with the children, especially when she feels that they might be seen as “contentious or controversial” by some. She does not force children to read books that their parents might disapprove of, but she also engages in dialogue with the parents.
“A parent once told me that she didn’t want her child to read Ritu Weds Chandni because she did not know how she would answer if the child came home and asked: Mumma, can two girls marry?” Archana told me. This mother wanted to avoid discomfort, so she thought it best to keep the book out of her child’s reach. Archana told the mother that the question might come up sooner or later anyway, when other children talk about the book. The mother gave it some thought, and decided that it was better to let Archana answer any questions in the book club so that she would not have to bother engaging with them at home.
Parents have also voiced their discomfort to Archana with children’s books that address sexuality, human anatomy, caste discrimination, bereavement and domestic violence. Some parents have allowed their children to read books with supposedly objectionable content but blocked out certain words using black markers. This has not helped much because a child can easily borrow someone else’s copy of a book and read it. Archana has noticed that when something is forbidden, children are all the more curious to learn about it.
“These children are creating a new world,” Archana said. “They are inquisitive, they are open-hearted, but adults cannot help imposing their fears.” When some parents told her that they could not understand some queer-affirmative books, Archana told them, “You may not understand but let the children read and get back to you with their response.” Understandably, parents are concerned about what is age-appropriate for their children, but sometimes they also use this as justification for queerphobia.
Meanwhile, some parents do not know how to engage with ideas and expressions of queerness themselves. “There are parents who genuinely need support as they are parenting in a world that is different from the one in which they grew up,” Archana pointed out. A mother whose child comes to the book club told her, “Hum apne bachchon se kitna seekh rahe hain.”(We are learning a lot from our children.)
When the book club was discussing Ritu Weds Chandni, one child said, “You can stop a baraat. But you cannot stop what is in their hearts. They love each other so much.” When Archana was discussing Shals Mahajan’s book Reva and Prisha, about a Hindu–Muslim lesbian couple who raise twin daughters, she was struck by how differently children responded to books as compared to adults. Archana thought the children would talk about the couple’s sexual orientation; instead, they spoke animatedly about how much fun the family in the book had, and the ease with which the parents and children in the book spoke to each other at the dinner table. That the family had two mothers and no father was a non-issue for the children until Archana brought it to their attention. They acknowledged it, and moved on.
Some parents actively look out for books that resist heteronormative narratives. Monisha Raman, a writer who lives in Chennai, learnt about Kanak Shashi’s book Guthli Has Wings through a book review in a newspaper. Guthli, the book’s child protagonist, finds joy in wearing her sister’s clothes but is told to wear clothes meant for boys. Guthli tells her mother, “I want to be a fairy! Why do you keep saying I’m a boy when I’m a girl?” The constant misgendering by her natal family harms Guthli’s mental health. She withdraws from interactions with them, and instead prefers the company of trees and chickens, who do not tell her how to be. Guthli’s mother cannot bear to see her suffer. She brings Guthli a frock, and says, “Wear it and be what you want.” Guthli jumps with joy; she is happy to be accepted on her own terms. “My 10-year-old daughter responded with a lot of empathy,” Monisha said. “She asked me, ‘Why are they making Guthli so sad?’”
Kanak wrote the story of Guthli in 2010, in Hindi. It was translated into English in 2016 for the Being Boys anthology, published by Tulika Books, and later made into a picture book. In 2018, a Bhopal-based non-profit organisation called Muskaan, which works for the education of children of denotified tribes and the urban poor, asked Kanak if they could use the story as part of their English graded reading series. The story then took on a new avatar as another picture book, called Guthli Can Fly. Eklavya Publications brought the story out as a Hindi picture book called Guthli to Pari Hai. It will soon also be made into a picture book in Telugu by Manchi Pustakam. Different price points and language editions have helped the story reach a wider audience.
Raviraj Shetty, an occupational therapist, author and library educator who works with children in India and Nepal, told me that “when parents figure out that children in the age group of four to six are struggling with their gender identity, and their relationship with their body, they come to me, and giving them a book to read is one of the ways to help.” Raviraj uses the Hindi and English versions of the Guthli books with children from lower-and middle-income families of diverse caste backgrounds. He avoids using words such as “queer” or “transgender” to describe Guthli. “These parents do not speak that language that upper-class folks use,” he explained. “Their language is closer to their lived experience.”
Even publishers of the Guthli books do not package them as queer-affirmative, and Raviraj believes that this approach works in their favour. Parents engage with them as picture books. “In their cultural context, using labels and categories that are unfamiliar to them could be tricky,” he said. “After all, the point is to reach out and communicate, not to alienate.”
Raviraj loves introducing children to a book called Soda and Bonda. Soda is a dog who feels like a dog whereas Bonda is a cat whofeels like a dog. The idea of promoting self-determination and rejecting biological essentialism is at the heart of this book, just like with Guthli Has Wings.
Parents who use these books to normalise conversations around diverse gender identities with children do so in the hope of ensuring their children turn out to be sensitive, kind and inclusive.
“We didn’t want to be prescriptive parents like our own parents were,” Kshitij said, while arranging Siya’s books into neat little piles. “Instead of deciding the direction Siya should take, we want her to explore diverse interests and themes to figure out what she likes.”
Kshitij and Reshma introduce her to books, toys and games without imposing conventional ideas of what is considered suitable for a particular gender. It seems this parenting style is helping build Siya’s sense of self. I was curious about her conceptual understanding of gender at such a young age, so Kshitij asked her,“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Siya replied,“Papa, I am Siya.”
Chintan Girish Modi (he/they) is a writer, journalist and educator exploring the inner and outer worlds of queer folks. They used to run an India–Pakistan friendship initiative called Aao Dosti Karein, and have worked on projects with the UNESCO Mahatma GandhiInstitute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, the Asia Pacific Transgender Network, and Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace. They have been published in anthologies such as Bent Book, Fearless Love, Clear Hold Build and Borderlines Volume 1, apart from numerous newspapers and magazines.
Manimanjari Sengupta (she/they) is a painter and illustrator with a background in Sociology and Law. Their work is rooted in challenging the status quo laid down by patriarchy and highlighting lived experiences of women and non-binary folk.
Nayantara Narayanan (she/her) is an independent journalist based in Bangalore. She has worked as reporter, editor and producer for newsrooms such as The Caravan, Scroll.in and CNBC-TV18. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
Ankur Paliwal (he/they) is a queer journalist, and the founder and editor of queerbeat. He writes about science, inequity and the LGBTQIA+ persons for several Indian and international media outlets.