There is a strange conflict in me as a queer trans writer and a queer trans reader of children’s books when I think of books I’d like to see written, published and read.
As a reader, I want to see an explosion and not just a disruption. If I am allowed to dream of books, then there is no need for me to dream small. As with many of us marginalized due to the various structures of society like caste, class, language, gender, religion, region, ethnicity, ability, neuro-normativity, sexuality, to name a few, we have very little space to dream and to articulate our desires and dreams.
As a writer, especially as one who has been able to find a tiny foothold in the industry, I feel some amount of power in the ability to put some of my ideas into words. Many of the folks in the kidlit industry, especially the editors, come from the same sort of book-engrossed lives as many of the writers do, and so there is some amount of space at that level to bring in ‘different realities’. The other few terms being ‘inclusive literature’, ‘in our own voices’, and ‘writing about difficult themes’. And this is evident in the book festival circuit, panel discussions, and the way some of these particular books are marketed. So, we have more and more books with protagonists with disabilities, a slew of rebel girls who grow up to do things they were not allowed to do traditionally, books dealing with death, illness, divorce, and such like. There are fewer books, but they are there on different creation stories, depression, and even queerness.
However, I also know well that writing is but a small part of the process in the making of books. For any writer’s words to reach children there is a legion of editors, publishers, distributors, stores, schools, parents—adults that mediate, and each of them with clear ideas of what is needed, acceptable, and/or profitable. This is an ecosystem that is geared towards social and cultural ideas and norms of what children need to know and learn and what is good for them. There are a few disruptions, but not only are they few and far between, even after publication they are easy to neglect and set aside in this enormous machine of production and consumption.
So when you look at the bookshelves in stores and the bestsellers lists, when you look at what the schools want and what the stores are afraid of advertising, and finally at the publishers catalogues, there is a smattering of these books in a large sea of the popular, the urban middle class and upper middle class families and adventures (cis-heterosexual savarna Hindu), schools of the like few children go to (urban with good infrastructure, no dearth of teachers though they may be monsters), of classic folk tales and religious tales and historical stories (largely savarna, Hindu, mainland, etc.), and of course, the well-meaning authors who have been elevated to the status of stars and thus have shelves devoted to them. All this, of course, after the shelves on shelves of English language bestseller series from the US and UK.
Even so, as readers, and writers, we are supposed to be grateful and overjoyed at this tiny space in these shelves and the odd lauding of a book or two on some occasions and talks about the future, which we are told, will be different. Perhaps it will be. Perhaps it will be more of the same. But I for one, am tired of these stories of acceptance and existence. Of these odd books where the queer characters spend their time coming to terms with themselves and attempting to get those around them coming to terms with their [gasp] difference. I am tired of books where [gasp] the straight parents are divorcing, and the progeny is coming to terms with it. I am deeply annoyed by books where persons with disability spend all their time coming to terms with [gasp] their disability. Or books from locations where all that can be talked about is their [gasp] different folk tales or clothes or food or language! I am so very bored of these gasps and the pats on the back for creating space for ‘them’. And then taking these to children so that they too can see these differences and learn to be ‘kind and inclusive’. Yes the discourse, it is a changing, but too slowly for many of us. And yes, we know we exist, your acknowledgement does not mean much.
So here is what I actually want—I want shelves and shelves and whole libraries of books where the stories of the various lives that are lived within us and around us abound. Where the urban sections are small, and not just from the towers. Where the stories are from multiple castes and communities and not just middle class savarna Hindus that are default. Where the rebellions are not against adults who are so weird and horrible that they must be vanquished (Roald Dahl is great, there are real monsters around us), but against the adults around who are full of good intentions and rules on what is good for children. I want books that disrupt and tear apart the normal, the normative, and the controlled. I want books that make us weep, get angry, want to smash things. Books that we can retire with for days on end because they give us what this world does not and might never.
I want books that question everything and not those invested in giving answers so that all feels good. And yes, I do want books that make me feel good because they are about real lives that are lived, not tokens of existence of the margins in a miasma of good little children being modelled to become good little citizens that live with blinkers to everything that is unjust, unfair and wrong around us. And yes, I want books of dreams. Of huge dreams that turn everything upside down and inside out. Books where access is built into the universe, where bodies are free to be, where connections are not scrutinized, and conversations are possible. I want books of joy, of laughter, of love, of conviction. As a reader, and a writer, I want the tiniest of the particular to help me know, with a kick to my head or a tug to my heart, not just how little I do know, but how hollow my pretensions of knowing are!
Shals Mahajan is a writer, activist, layabout, part feline, somewhat hnooman genderqueer fellow who lives in Bombay. Their published works include Timmi in Tagles, Timmi and Rizu, A Big Day for the Little Wheels, The Mighty (Little) Hunter, Reva and Prisha, and No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy (co-authored)