In a garden, in bed, by the windowsill—Ismat always had her nose in a book. She read a lot, but there was something missing in all the stories. These books were about boys going on great adventures, their journeys and their lives. None of the books had stories about girls.”
This passage from the book The Girl Who Went To The Stars And Other Extraordinary Lives, by Ishita Jain and Naomi Kundu, published by Puffin this year, is from the section on Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, but it probably reflects the experience of most girls growing up in India in the 1980s and 1990s.
There were just very few stories about girls. Even in books where girls did go on adventures, like Enid Blyton’s mystery and school stories (and let’s admit it, that’s pretty much all we read), they were only allowed that much adventure and no more. Anne always took charge of food when the Five went camping. George was the exasperating killjoy because she would insist on accompanying the boys to the smugglers’ cave instead of waiting patiently in a snug tent like Anne. In the all-girls’ boarding school stories, such as Blyton’s Malory Towers books, those who did not conform to the norms of being lacrosse-playing all-weather girls were mocked. Even an excess of ambition was bad—Mavis, who dared to go out without permission to sing at a country fair and lost her voice, or Amanda, a potential Olympics champ, who swam out to the sea and almost drowned.
These are the subtle ways in which the world told girls what their limits were. So when the first Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls book, by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, came out in 2016, following a super-successful, record-breaking crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, it was a thumping indication that a new generation of girls needed stories that would tell them they were limitless and free.
“I am continuously floored by the success of the series,” says Favilli on email. “Not many people know it, but this series is the culmination of years of work in children’s media. During that time, I witnessed from the inside how gender stereotypes still permeate media for children of all ages and how damaging that can be. Parents are offered little resources to counter this trend and they are especially concerned about the lack of strong female role models in children’s media. That’s why I decided to create this series. It’s always been important for girls to see female role models. It helps them become more confident and set bigger goals for themselves.”
For Jain and Kundu, Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls raised a very obvious question—why do we accept fairy tales about princesses being saved by princes when we have stories of real-life heroines out there? “It started a movement and we felt we needed a book like this in the Indian context,” say Jain and Kundu on email. Jain is currently pursuing her master’s in fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York while Kundu runs her own graphic design firm, Enterspace, in Bengaluru. Their book features 50 Indian women—some famous, like astronaut Kalpana Chawla and cricketer Mithali Raj, and some not so well known, like firefighter Harshini Kanhekar and trans woman Rose Venkatesan, a talk show host and gender rights activist.
“We wanted to make sure that we covered a wide gamut of professions—from an astronaut to a train driver. Every job had its own struggle when it came to being a woman,” says Jain.
The stupendous success of the genre is borne out by sales in India as well. Like A Girl, a similar-themed book with stories of 52 women which came out late last year, has gone into its second reprint already and is now available as an audiobook on Amazon’s Audible platform, says the book’s author Aparna Jain. “That a fairly expensive book which costs up to `800 sold out 10,000 copies in six months points to the fact that parents and children alike want and need these stories. There is a hunger for them,” says Aparna.
Apart from Ishita Jain and Kundu’s book, the last couple of months alone have seen new releases in the genre that follow a similar format: Unstoppable: 75 Stories Of Trailblazing Indian Women by Gayathri Ponvannan (Hachette India); The Dot That Went For A Walk by Reema Gupta, Lakshmi Nambiar and Sarada Akkineni (Caterpillar Wings LLP); and She Can You Can: The A-Z Book of Iconic Indian Women by Garima Khushwaha (HarperCollins India).
There have been books and series focused on individual women and achievers from specific fields: Tulika Books’ Warrior Women, written and illustrated by Tara Anand; Dipa Karmakar: In Perfect Balance and Anna’s Extraordinary Experiments With Weather (about weather scientist Anna Mani) from Pratham Books; and Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel With A Paintbrush from HarperCollins. Several others are lined up for publication: Speaking Tiger’s Those Magnificent Women And Their Flying Machines (about women scientists who steered the Mangalyaan mission); The Girl Who Thinks in Numbers: Data Warrior Prukalpa Sankar from Pratham Books; and a series of fictional “diaries” of famous historical women, like Nur Jahan and Jodha Bai, from Talking Cubs, Speaking Tiger’s children’s imprint. Meanwhile, Duckbill Books is working on a new non-fiction series called Ten, and among the first books in it is Shruthi Rao’s Ten Indian Women Who Were The First To Do What They Did.
“I am fascinated by people’s journeys and I wanted to communicate a sense of wonder about one hard and yet joyful life to young readers,” says Anita Vachharajani, the author of Rebel With A Paintbrush, exquisitely illustrated by Kalyani Ganapathy. “I want to tell the stories of our scientists and business people too, it’s just that there are many others doing that. I feel that not enough people are telling the stories of our artists in ways that are fun and accessible.”
Anita’s interest in writing on Amrita Sher-Gil was to talk about her work, her life, and her craft to a generation of young readers who might not have encountered her art as yet. Looking deeply into the life of one subject is rewarding, she believes. “We have a way of telling children that ‘so-and-so was a great artist/writer/scientist’. But greatness is not a monolith,” she says. “It is made up of many tiny struggles and tinier triumphs.”
Bijal Vachharajani (not related to Anita), senior editor at Pratham Books, loves the “meticulously researched and lovingly drawn” Rebel With A Paintbrush, and is also fond of Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World by Kate Pankhurst and Joan Procter,Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala.
“There’s definitely a slew of similar books flooding the market, (and) at one level, it’s very welcoming. But as publishers and editors, we owe it to our readers to come up with innovative formats and narratives and commit to books that challenge stereotypes in any form,” says Bijal. Which is why, she says, editors at Pratham Books often commission stories that are based on everyday heroes, like a forest guard or a mountain climber.
“We also find fiction does that in a subversive way,” says Bijal, and, in fact, many of Pratham Books’ stories of female role models are fictionalized accounts. Sayoni Basu, publisher and director of Duckbill Books, also believes in fiction’s elliptical ways of inspiring children. “I think we are constantly trying to educate kids and tell them very clearly what is right and wrong. And somewhere, role models take away the delightful ambiguity and vastness of the human experience where we admire different aspects of different people. Yes, girls need inspiring stories of other women, but I feel the parents who buy these books for their daughters are the same ones who will restrict their kids from actually following their dreams freely.” (“Maybe I am just a grumpus,” she adds).
While Aparna Jain believes in the more the merrier—“As long as there are stories to be told about amazing women, they should be told,” she says—Pratham Books editor and writer Payoshni Saraf points out that books can have a multidimensional impact on children’s minds. “A book could be written on a particular theme, but the takeaways can be multiple. One of our very popular books, How Do Aeroplanes Fly?, talks about motion and aerodynamics and also touches upon how nature inspires machines. But when we spoke to 11-year-old Alka and her friends at a reading centre in an urban slum in Delhi, they were most excited about the fact that the pilot in the story was a woman! They didn’t know till then that women can also fly planes.”