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Picture books can open doors to tough topics

One of the toughest jobs of parenting is talking to your kids about difficult subjects. Divorce, illness, death, sex, natural disasters, financial uncertainty. The list goes on. In these moments, parenting becomes blurry and confusing. A parent who has so much to say about everything from eating healthy to good grades is suddenly speechless.

There’s a temptation to avoid difficult topics or just sweep them under the rug, hoping the kids don’t notice. But in the age of cell phone notifications, streaming video, and 24-hour news coverage — when even little kids are exposed to really serious stories — it’s important to face this challenge head-on.

Learning about these differences and appreciating them takes a whole lifetime, so what better way to prepare the generation of the future than by reading children’s books about diversity with them? We have several fantastic Indian authors making an effort to initiate tough conversations in an engaging way through powerful storytelling and illustrations.

‘Jamlo Walks’ by documentary filmmaker and writer Samina Mishra is one of them. It tells the story of India’s Covid-19 lockdown through the eyes of its children. On April 18, 2020, Jamalo Makdan, a 12-year-old, died while walking from the chilli fields of Telangana to her home in Chhattisgarh after a nationwide lockdown was announced due to Covid-19 outbreak. She was among a group of migrant workers who, like many others across the country, decided to return home on foot. Her story touched Mishra so deeply that she made it into a book. ‘Jamlo Walks’ reflects on the socio-economic divides that exist across strata, but Mishra writes without judgment and with empathy.

Since parents often feel tongue-tied when it comes to the topic of unconventional families, journalist and author Pritisha Borthakur’s ‘Puhor and Niyor’s Mural of Family Stories’ is a powerful progressive book that aims to inspire curiosity, raise awareness, instill compassion, entertain, and show a unique glimpse of the diverse kinds of families found in any community. It shows twins Puhor and Niyor’s family as being a nuclear family, with a mom and a dad. These twins demonstrate there are all sorts of families — children with two moms, two dads, a single mother; a multiracial family unit; foster and adopted children; pet parents, and more – none more important than another, and all of them are beautiful in their own unique way. The book teaches about different types of people, and to not judge others based on their race, gender, sexual identity, disability, or anything else.

Author Adithi Rao’s book ‘Chuchu Manthu’s Jar of Toffees’ is a wonderful book to introduce children to the concept of death. Chuchu Manthu is the most loving person Preet knows. After his death, little Preet wonders if his kindness has disappeared with him. Based on a true story about loss and grief, and compassion in everyday actions.

Another book that’s searing and tender at the same time is Paro Anand’s ‘Nomad’s Land’. It talks about the effects of terrorism and displacement, and about the healing powers of hope, friendship, and reconciliation. The story revolves around two girls — Shanna and Pema — who belong to families that have been forced to migrate to escape persecution. One is a Kashmiri Pandit, and the other comes from a nomadic tribe. While the adults are caught up in the memory of a painful past, these children want to heal those wounds and move ahead with life.

There are great disparities in opportunity and recognition between men and women in sports. Author Menaka Raman’s book ‘Loki Takes Guard’ focuses on these disparities at the local level. It’s a coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old girl who wants to play cricket. But for Loki, playing cricket is not as easy as it may seem for an 11-year-old boy. Cricket is a means for Loki to realise her dreams, voice her opinion, and make her presence felt as an individual. Unfortunately, her parents seem to be too involved with her brother’s studies to bother with Loki. So, she takes matters into her own hands and begins a petition to fight for her right to play cricket. Witty and fast-paced, ‘Loki Takes Guard’ is as much a story about the joy of sports as it is about breaking outdated rules and standing up for oneself.

When children can personally relate to a character, it provides a sense of belonging and familiarity. While it is important for children to see book characters they can relate to, it’s also important for them to see characters that are not like them. Children should also be exposed to characters they cannot relate to. They need to understand that not everyone is like them and that’s okay. Lavanya Karthik’s ‘When Adil Speaks, Words Dance’ is about a boy named Adil who communicates through sign language. Adil wears hearing aids in both ears. He loves to run, swim and climb trees and other children want to befriend him. But how do you start a conversation with someone when their words dance to the music you cannot hear? Here, sign language is presented not as something he must learn to fit in but as something others must educate themselves about in order to start a conversation. The book is a heartwarming tale of empathy, inclusivity, and the surprising superpowers of friendship.

Books can explore deep or difficult issues without hitting them head-on. Using storybooks can be a good way to open these hard conversations and they can also give adults the language to make it easier. Reading stories over and over can help children understand as they often need things to be repeated, again and again. Addressing the tough subjects makes your kids feel safer, strengthens your bond, and teaches them about the world. And when you show them how to gather and interpret information, ask questions, and cross-check sources, they become critical thinkers. Some kids take a while to digest information, some ask a million questions. And others may not seem phased at all. The important thing is you’ve opened up the conversation. You’ve made the first step. By investing your kids with knowledge, compassion, and strong character, you can give them all the tools they need to make things better.

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