Growing Pangs

Reading books can help children become better people

When it comes to social change, we could all take a cue from children’s books.

 |  Growing Pangs  |  4-minute read |   10-03-2015
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Sarojini is all of 12, lives in an informal settlement in Bangalore and goes to a government school. Her life starts to unravel when her best friend Amir’s family moves up in life and he is transferred to a private, English-medium school. On one hand, rifts appear in Sarojini and Amir’s friendship and on the other, Amir’s private school demands a bribe from Sarojini’s mother when she tries to admit her daughter in the same school according to the Right to Education Act.

What's a 12-year-old to do when everything around her seems to be falling apart? She sits down to write a series of letters, to her namesake, freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu.

Mathangi Subramanian’s new children’s book, Dear Mrs Naidu, resonates with the firm belief “that stories have the power to change the world”. Subramanian puts the spotlight on the unseen, unacknowledged fringes of urban life that are usually veiled from children and particularly the more privileged, myopic gaze of those who read kiddie fiction in English. Despite a rather bleak setting, Dear Mrs Naidu is an inspirational story of courage and hope. Instead of containing her frustration to letters to the freedom fighter, Sarojini takes a leaf from her namesake's life and decides to challenge the system.

dear-mrs-naidu-500_031015011604.jpg Dear Mrs Naidu , Zubaan Books; Rs 295.

Along with her friend Deepti, Sarojini begins to learn about child rights, ropes in a lawyer aunty and a reporter, and rallies the community to start a school management committee. There are some fantastic characters, including a lackadaisical headmaster and a nightie-clad, gold jewellery-toting councillor who “seemed to care more about the state of her fingernails than the people who voted for her”, but Sarojini doesn't let them faze her. Yet even as the community pitches in to repair her government school’s crumbling wall, Sarojini begins to feel angry, instead of feeling proud of what she's managed. Why should they be fixing things that, as she puts it, “the government should be doing for free?”

Dear Mrs Naidu brings to the forefront a multitude of ideas – inclusion, social justice, empathy for child and women’s rights. “The way the public sector fails the poorest people makes me angry,” said Subramanian, a former American public school teacher who has worked with Sesame Workshop and has been a senior policy analyst with the New York City Council.

Social action is often woven into the fabric of children’s books. Young protagonists take on the baddies and most often, they make a difference – whether it’s to save a tree, a puppy or their town, in their little missions of everyday heroism lies the greater good. Children may not always be able to understand the complexity contained within concepts like poverty, economic or gender inequality or the politics of conservation, but that doesn’t mean they're unaffected by these issues. “Just because you are a child, it doesn’t mean that you are exempt from the adult world,” said Subramanian.

Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water is another book with similar zeal. In it, the Delhi author deals with the subject of female infanticide. His protagonist Gurmi is 15-years-old when he learns that his family has a dark secret: seven babies were drowned in the family well because they were girls. As Gurmi and his ghost-sisters set about showing the family what they have lost in their insatiable demand for only male children, Faces in the Water turns out to be poignant, but also funny. Female infanticide is a difficult subject, but Lal manages to strike a balance between humour and sensitivity and ultimately, the message is the winner.

faces-in-the-water-5_031015011920.jpg Faces in the Water, Penguin India; Rs 168.

Little actions can have far-reaching effects, as journalist Shabnam Minwalla’s The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street shows. Nivi and Nikhil move to Mumbai with their parents and quickly befriend other children who live in Cosy Castle on Dorabji Street. However, Nivi and her new best friend Sarita find that their lovely hideout — a gigantic tree — is going to be felled by two evil neighbours. Using their wit and a little bit of magic, they set about foiling their plans and save their beloved tree.

the-six-spellmakers-_031015011949.jpg The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street, Hachette India Children's Books; Rs 200.

It turns out all those stories with hidden and not-so-hidden messages in them actually do impact young minds. For instance, in July 2014, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology published a study titled, “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice”, which revealed that children who read the books were less prejudiced and more open minded towards immigrants and homosexuals.

Sometimes, the message behind these stories ends up spilling into real life in the form of actual social action. Earlier this year, the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit initiative led by fans of the books, won a four-year campaign with Warner Bros Studio agreeing to make all Harry Potter-branded chocolate Fair Trade or UTZ certified by the end of this year. Clearly, the HPA took JK Rowling’s words to heart – “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

Grown ups, maybe it's time to look at the kids’ section for some inspiration.


Bijal Vachharajani Bijal Vachharajani @bijal_v

The writer was the former editor of Time Out Bangalore and writes about education for sustainable development and sustainable livelihoods.

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