Gender fluidity and children’s books

We recently watched The Queen’s Gambit with the kids. (This was after my sister breezily replied ‘Sure!’, when I asked if it was appropriate for children. I guess she forgot about the volley of expletives 20 minutes into episode one.) Later in the show, there’s a moment of attraction between the characters Beth Harmon and DL Townes. But soon after this, audiences are left wondering if Townes might be gay. “Wait! I thought he liked Beth!” my husband exclaimed. “Appa,” our nine-year-old replied matter-of-factly, “He could be bi.” When I was nine, I had no clue what bisexuality was. I’d just figured out what being gay meant. But today, children are far more aware of sexuality from a younger age thanks to a slowly growing presence of LGBTQI+ characters and families in books and on screen. Writer and queer feminist activist Shals Mahajan says that talking about gender and sexuality in books for young readers is important and not just for queer or trans children. “All children must know that there are different ways of being and functioning,” they said. This opportunity to explore differences is crucial as “by the time children are five years old, they already can form rigid stereotypes and the pictures and texts in their literature aid in this process [Schlossberg and Goodman 1972]”. But are there enough books for young readers that help prevent these ‘rigid stereotypes’ from forming? Surprisingly, data around this was hard to come by, both for India and globally. The only numbers I could find were from the US-based Cooperative Children’s Book Center who noted that in 2017, only 4% of books received could be categorised as LGBTQI+. Mahajan feels that while English language children’s books in India are moving towards more representation, the world that these books are set in remain largely normative. “They are usually hetero, upper class and caste families where men and women play fairly gendered roles. In that world we have this one person or character who doesn’t fit in or is different. And that is a problem. Because this is a false kind of inclusivity,” they said, adding that access to books — in terms of language and reach — is also a problem. “More often than not it is urban, middle class children who have the opportunity to read many of these books.” Publishers like Pratham Books are cognizant of this gap and are trying to bridge it. Bijal Vachharajani, senior editor, says, “Our team is always looking at field needs, and there’s a need for diverse voices and lived experiences.” By digitising their content, and openly licensing it on their StoryWeaver platform, they offer thousands of free storybooks in hundreds of languages which can be read across devices. “Translation tools also help customise the books for localised requirements, pioneering a new publishing model that transfers agency to the user,” adds Purvi Shah, director, StoryWeaver.