Wondering how to talk to children about social identities? Here is a cool way!

As a follow up to our previous piece on how to talk to young people about social issues, we bring to you a list of thought-inspiring  picture books that can help get you started with some of those conversations you have been tip-toeing around. 

Gender 

We live in a world where we are bombarded largely, by messages telling us that our bodies must look and be a certain way. That defines how we must feel inside. The pressure that puts on a child who must feel any other way is unimaginable. A child, young person or adult who experiences their gender differently than what they were assigned, has very little space for their identity and experience being validated. And it doesn’t help that everything from clothes to body language that counts in the conventional sense as an expression of gender, is steeped in the idea of the binary.

1. Soda and Bonda      

That gender is a social construct can sometimes seem like a difficult thing for even adults to understand. And it does not help that we live in a time when transphobia is around us sometimes in the media, and sometimes in casual conversations, mockingly calling people ‘chakka’, ‘gudh’ etc. 

A seemingly simple book about a dog and a cat can show us the way. It draws us in by pointing out behaviours of dogs and cats. And slowly raises the question of what if a cat wanted to be like a dog? This can act as a great starting point to say that, sometimes, we may feel differently inside. The conversation can gradually move towards talking about how we have different body parts when we are born and so the doctor tells us we are this or that. However, we may feel very different inside, and that is ok. 

2. Guthli has wings

In reading and hearing the story of Guthli, it can be liberating to even know that there is a possibility to be different and feel different. It allows for children and adults alike to be ok with what their minds may be telling them about how they feel inside. The way Guthli’s family responds to them and their experience is another great way to talk about how we may be sensitive and just in our interactions with others who we see may be different from us. 

Another lovely resource on how one may explore and be curious about gender is ‘Julian is a mermaid’. 

3. Rainbow girls

Kamla Bhasin and Priya Kurian’s Rainbow girls, starts by questioning if girls are all the same and then takes us on a journey of meeting different kinds of girls. It is a great way to create a world of possibilities for young children identifying as girls to see themselves and others being represented. It also wonderfully challenges the idea of beauty and how women are portrayed. Combine the reading of this book with Rainbow boys and some interesting questions to talk about, and you have yourself a fun lesson on gender. 

Sexuality and diverse representations of families

With most media representations of love, relationships and families being heteronoramtive, young people have almost negligible exposure to examples of alternatives to heterosexual relationships. As adults we ourselves are unpacking so many stereotypes and biases regarding sexuality and sexual orientation that it may seem like a daunting task to speak about this to young people in our lives. 


1. We are family

For many children and adults alike, the only idea of family is the one we see in movies, cartoons, media and anything other than that is made to seem incomplete or in need of pity or patronizing. 

Patricia Hagerty in the most simple way, draws out the commonalities in the experiences of a family. The book takes us through representations of so many different kinds of families- one with two mothers, two fathers, a single mother, a grandmother and a grandchild, and a family with a person living with a disability among others. It also allows us the opportunity to ask if there are other kinds of families we can think of, like birth families, families that adopt etc. You will be surprised once you start the conversation at what may come of it. 

2. And Tango Makes Three

With the abolition of Section 377, we may have moved a bit closer to some sense of justice. It definitely may have reduced the fear of being mistreated by law enforcing powers of the state and society but we are still a long way from comfort with speaking about sexuality in our homes, and especially to young people. One start is the exposure to alternate lived realities of people around us. 

And Tango Makes Three, is an entry into speaking about how love and intimacy goes beyond the mainstream depiction of boy-girl love. The story of the two penguins in the New York zoo introduces very gently the idea that anyone can love anyone. It also beautifully shows how the idea of a family that we have seen and heard around us is not the only one that can exist. 

Rural, Tribal, Regional identities

We live in a world where indigenous cultures, and rural identities have been marginalized. Many have been rendered invisible at the hands of the privileged urban, upper caste, English-speaking folks, under the garb of ‘development’. For many of us this results in othering these identities. This manifests in ways we interact with each other through these identities as employers, as peers, as classmates; very often leaving those of us with rural, tribal or regional identities without agency and stuck in the structurally oppressive system that many of us continue to live by and unconsciously/unconsciously perpetuate. 

1. Kali and the rat snake

One way to understand what it means to be from another culture or region is to familiarise oneself and listen to stories of others. In Zai Whitaker and Srividya Natarajan’s book, you can see the struggle of Kali being accepted for who he is. The book allows for us to talk about there being multiple realities for children living in different parts of the country and the world. It also raises questions like whose responsibility is it, to then ensure that Kali is accepted. Must he be proving his worth and value or are there others who may have acted differently to turn the situation around. 

2. Snip

With the spread of COVID-19, India has seen the spread of ignorance and apathy to the plight of marginalized regional identities that include those from North eastern states of India. The representation of this identity is either known or seen by exoticizing their cultural practices, appearance, food among other things. Once again we come back to being able to first acknowledge and validate the existence and lived experiences of these identities and humanize by listening, engaging and accepting the differences that we see. 

Snip, from Pratham books by Canato Jimo, is a wordless picture book that communicates so much about the day to day life of children from a family living in Nagaland. The subtle representations of the  culture are woven beautifully into the storytelling without becoming the centre of the story. Questions or themes to explore while reading the book could be- how we may look different but are still living in the same country and so have the same rights. It is important to also bring in nuances of how even within a state or region many people may have different experiences. 

Religion

Before we start speaking about books on religion, as important as it may be to talk to children about being Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, it is important that we see this conversation in a context. We live at a time where there are sometimes misconceptions and sometimes just ignorance or unfamiliarity with regards to specifically a religion- Islam and the Muslim identity. The portrayal by the media in movies, in the news, can and does easily reinforce stereotypes we hold, and then pass on to children around us. 

1. Owl and Cat, Ramadan is…

Getting to know the lived experiences of another helps humanize the other, however different they may be. And a step in humanizing is to familiarise oneself with a different culture and recognise what makes us similar. 

Owl and Cat, Ramadan is… introduces us to all the things that families do, and that are celebrated in the festival of Ramadan. Speaking and drawing parallels with similar experiences is one way to start understanding a different culture and this book might be just the resource to help you do that. 

Another way to ensure exposure and understanding of different kinds of faiths is to bring diversity in the kinds of books you read and the backgrounds and identities of the characters themselves. You may consider picking books that show Muslim characters represented respectfully and with sensitivity. It is important to reflect on your reason to choose a book. Do not choose a book only because it has a Muslim character in it. It would be easy to tokenistically pick such books rather than valuing its content, its depiction of characters, illustrations and anything else you may look at while picking a good book. 

Books to think about including from this lens may be Ismat’s eid, What is love, and Fakhruddin’s fridge

Migration or Movement 

In the past two months the cities we live in have seen a lot of movement. Families have been forced to move from their houses back to their villages. For many families, the idea of a dignified life, providing and caring for your loved ones has been threatened and for many ended with fatalities. Children and young people the country over are watching around them either in the news or in conversations, what is happening. For many it may be inscrutable, but for many there may still be curiosities about why this is happening.

1. Mukund and Riaz

Mukund and Riaz is a heartfelt telling of the story of  migration of a family during Partition. It situates itself in the life and experiences of two friends who are forced to separate from one another. Although the book speaks of the Partition, the helplessness of the situation and needing to uproot one’s own life from one place to another is captured beautifully and sensitively. The experiences of Mukund and Riaz can be talked about with young readers. It gives the opportunity to process what it may have meant for a family to leave and how others around them can respond sensitively and with empathy to those who may have to experience this.

Social/Economic Class

Class being at the intersection of so many identities like caste, religion, gender and others, may seem difficult to talk about especially since the only way we have been conditioned to understand it is through the lens of pity. 

1. Nabiya

Nabiya, from Tulika publishers is a story that takes us through the joys, struggles, hopes and dreams of a young girl living in a slum. While the book highlights the struggles of being economically marginalised it is not centred around just that. Reading the book while also stopping to talk about what makes Nabiya’s experience similar or different to ours and then exploring some of the reasons why we see this inequality if it comes up are some ways to unpack the experience of class. 

We will keep sharing more such resources in our articles ahead. Keep following our social media channels to know more. 

About the Author

Amrita is a Library Educator trained in the Library Educator’s course by Bookworm, Goa. She works with the R&D team at Apni Shala and enjoys spending time reading children’s literature and making connections with social and emotional learning for children and adults. 

If you want us to support you with more such resources or offer feedback, write to Amrita at amrita@apnishala.org

Loved reading this piece? At Apni Shala, we are committed to bring you more SEL-aligned resources during this pandemic. Our work is dependent on generous donations from our supporters. If you found this useful, make a donation here: I would love to donate to Apni Shala.

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