Children in the Post-pandemic Era
We are now into the second year of the pandemic; even as discussions on reopening schools gain momentum, signs that the new normal will be very different are already evident. While education systems across age groups have been impacted, the exigencies of the pandemic on children have been particularly acute, given the importance of schooling in the developmental milestones of young children. The implications of restrictions on the ability to form social bonds affect educational, psycho-social, and physical outcomes. The impact on families has resulted in unique challenges for children. As Toolika Wadhwa says in her article ‘Making Sense of a “Changed” World: COVID-19 and Children’s Mental Health’ in this issue, children have been faced with a ‘completely alien set of circumstances’. The article, which focuses on the experiences of children in middle-class, urban contexts, discusses some of the challenges children faced as they navigated the pandemic, while also talking about the extraordinary courage and resilience they have shown in the face of loneliness, fear and grief.

Moreover, as Mansi Taneja’s article ‘Multiple Childhoods’ notes, ‘diversity and heterogeneity are the hallmarks of how children live and experience their childhood,’ and ‘must be contextualized in the multiple realities and diverse social worlds of children.’ The experiences of childhood have always been shaped by gender, social, religious, cultural, and sociopolitical contexts. The multiplicity of childhood experiences requires due acknowledgment and often differentiated action. Just as the impact of the pandemic has not been the same across families in India and across the world, the particular challenges children have faced have also varied. For example, even as previously normative and medically accepted guidelines on screen usage changed to accommodate the needs of online education and the virtual classroom, constraints on infrastructure, resources and parental involvement—which limit the accessibility of online education—emerged, with poor and marginalized communities particularly vulnerable to the asymmetry in access.

The increased ‘virtualization’ of social interactions itself, which has expanded to cover everything from education to socialization and entertainment—has created additional risks. There is a strong evidence of the medical implications of increased screen usage, with numerous negative medical implications for cognitive, language and behavioural development, especially for younger children. As the need to provide sources of engagement beyond a screen gains urgency, the role books can play, in particular, becomes important. For children books can provide a way to learn and grow which is not reliant on expensive and fragile digital infrastructure, create opportunities for parents and caregivers to engage with children, enable interactions and serve as a springboard for discussions. Moreover, stories have long been used as mediums to convey ethics, morals, and socially acceptable behaviour. Tarika Chari’s article, ‘We Are More Than “One Story”’’, brings a student’s perspective on social justice, diversity and inclusion. Her project in the class exercise, a novel which discusses the different experiences people in the LGBTQIA+ community go through, is an illustrative example on the role reading and writing can play in the learning process.

Beyond serving as mediums by which complex ideas can be communicated, however, books are also just for fun. They provide readers an escape from reality, avenues to explore different worlds. They take us on adventures, introduce us to new people and places, and expose us to different cultures. And no book is too simple—even a seemingly simple picture book provides young minds with ‘familiarity with words, language and speech through reading the pictures and text for communication’, as Ira Saxena points out in her article ‘Emotional Content in Picture Books’. The article discusses how the simple information and profuse illustrations of picture books can aid the learning process and enhance social skills.

This November, The Book Review once again brings out its special issue on Children’s Books. This issue is the 41st edition of the Annual Special dedicated to exploring recent publications in children’s literature. The books covered in this issue span a gamut of themes and ages, from fiction and mythology to education; and from picture books to novels. There are books by adults, and by children. Many of those reviewed were written in English, and some in Hindi. Some are intended for parents; some for parents and children to read and engage with together; while some children and adults can enjoy alone. In addition, the cover image of this issue, as well as other illustrations within its pages are by students of the Society of Autistics in India (SAI), a non-profit charitable trust founded by a group of parents of autistic children with an objective of educating individuals with autism. Operating with a 5:2 student to teacher ratio to ensure attention to special needs, the students of the school (who vary from having mild to severe spectrum of Autism) study in specially tailored programmes for early intervention, communication development, and vocational training, and are taught by teachers from various fields including special education, speech therapy, occupational therapy, yoga therapy, etc.

Books provide an important medium to engage with readers on complex ideas and social issues—while myths, fables and stories have long been used in children’s education as stepping stones to socially acceptable behaviours, they can also be used to sensitize children to issues of diversity and inclusion, and teach them to relate, respect and empathize with both themselves and others; as well as engage them in emerging challenges. In this year’s issue, there were many which explored these important themes. While some such as Hope: Stories for a Healthy Mind, C is for Cat, D is for Depression and The Boy in the Dark Hole use the medium of literature to engage with readers about mental health, others, such as Big Mistake, My Name is Gulab and It has No Name explore challenges of growing up and the ‘othering’ children can face when their experiences don’t conform. What’s Up with Me and Your Body is Yours discuss body changes and transitions to try and normalize frank and healthy discussions and body positivity.

In these increasingly disconnected times, books also prove invaluable for readers to learn about their own heritage and explore cultures. While some take readers through the past, using fiction to bring history to life (such as As Strong As Fire, Fierce As Flames and Tughlaq and the Stolen Sweets), others, like the Dreamers Series, A Journey to Mars, and 10 Indian Heroes focus on the lives of influential or inspiring characters or incidents. Still others seek to make India’s rich cultural heritage more accessible, as in Young Pandavas—The Royal Tournament, Gods, Giants and Geography of India and the Mythquest Omnibus; celebrate the diversity of cultures and traditions in India (as books in the Have You Met series beautifully exemplify); or explore fantasy against a canvas of myths and folklore, such as in Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom, Ribhu’s Adventures on Earth and books in the ‘The Wrath of Ambar’ series set.

The above titles provide just a brief glimpse of diversity of ideas the books reviewed in this issue cover. As with previous years, we have also tried to include a variety of perspectives—from teachers and educators, professionals, authors and illustrators, medical professionals, parents, grandparents, students and children. We hope this issue brings to your attention some books which you find interesting as parents, caregivers, children or just as readers. Happy reading! TCA Avni