Celebrating Differences Through Inclusive Books

The Children’s First Contest that was launched by Parag along with Duckbill Books and Vidya Sagar School, Chennai, solicited manuscripts that treated children with special needs as children first—with all the hopes, fears, mischief and fun that comes with being children.

Books and literature are considered both a mirror and window for readers. For children who are learning to read and connect with the written word, books that provide familiar contexts, characters and stories are attractive. Such stories connect with children, reaffirm their identity and enable them to find their place in the world. Books also enable children to see others they may perceive as different from themselves and through stories, accept differences and appreciate diversity. This is true of all children, including children with special needs. 

Hundreds of new titles are published each year for children in India, but only a handful of children’s books feature a differently-abled character in the story. And books which realistically portray different abilities are rare. The tendency to make the differently abled invisible is one part of a complex problem; the representation of persons with different abilities as overly heroic is the other. In a bid to over-compensate, the characters thus created are not easy for children to identify with. Due to this literary bias, children with different abilities grow up not seeing relatable characters in books, and their peers often have a limited understanding of the life experiences of the differently-abled. 

The Children’s First Contest that was launched by Parag along with Duckbill Books and Vidya Sagar School, Chennai, solicited manuscripts that treated children with special needs as children first—with all the hopes, fears, mischief and fun that comes with being children.

The aim of the books was to register the presence of the differently-abled around us in a sensitive but unexceptional manner. So there is Manya in Manya Learns to Roar. Manya wants to be Sher Khan in her school play. The Jungle Book is her favorite film and she knows all the lines. She’s sure she'll be a superb Sher Khan. But some don’t think a stammering Sher Khan would work! Will Manya get to act her dream role?

Magesh in Vibhuti Cat is a lively and very active boy. He loves playing with his older brother Vignesh, but has difficulty in speaking and has no friends. Magesh loves drawing, and especially drawing cats. Vibhuti Cat is his constant companion and assumes varied forms. The book thoughtfully illustrates the inner life of a child who has a difficulty with speaking and verbalizing. Vibhuti Cat becomes a form of expression for Magesh and a tool for him to gain confidence. The story also shows how a supportive family can help a child achieve his optimum best.

The other two books which won the contest are Kittu’s very mad Day and Neel on Wheels. These stories try to reclaim the space that society has taken away from differently-abled citizens by treating them as dependent and helpless. The children in these books are free and mobile, exploring their abilities and relationships, rather than being segregated from the community and being confined to their homes.

A few years back Parag collaborated with Chetana, an organization in Chennai that works with children with special needs and Tulika Publishers to bring out three books where the protagonists were differently abled. Parag has also made an attempt to look at the format of books and supported conversion of books into Braille and tactile forms to enable the visually challenged to access children’s literature by working closely with the All India Confederation of the Blind in Delhi. These experiences have shown that bringing out books that sensitively portray characters with special needs is only half the battle won. The other challenge is to enable children with special needs to access and read these books. Children with different abilities are not common within schools and communities in India. Most are confined to special schools – mostly government-run – with little or no links with mainstream provision. Along with publishing books and making them available, we need to work on advocacy and sensitise the institutions working with the differently abled and parents, so that they understand the importance of stories in children’s lives. 

A crucial aim of bringing out more books with differently abled and inclusion as the theme is to encourage more conversations about individual differences, different experiences, and empathy along with conversations on the sameness or universality of aspirations, friendships, joys, and struggles. In saying that we are all the same, we are giving space to and celebrating individual differences. Discussions on different books and literature could actually trigger rich explorations of what children actually think about these aspects. Books where children with different abilities are treated like any other child help in fostering a healthy acceptance of the differently abled, thereby leading to genuine friendships and dissolving of differences. Early reading, which has a lasting impact on young minds, may play a role in bringing in a more inclusive world, where differences are celebrated.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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