Teaching diversity and inclusiveness with children’s booksChildren's books like ‘Hamar Dudhu’, written by Shanti Chaudhary, make the world more accessible to children of all cultures.
Children’s books were rare when I was a child. For most of my childhood, I grew up listening to stories my father made up from his own imagination. They were narratives to teach me lessons about life and discipline. I remember one most significantly: about a wolf that howls into the dark night, calling upon her friends to get the girl who doesn’t finish everything on her dinner plate. Instead of bedtime storybooks, my mother would hand me spelling books, as there were no children books in the house. And so as everyone slept, I would read P-O-T-A-T-O and C-A-R-R-O-T.
As I grew older, we started having weekly library classes in school. During visits to the library, I would sneak into the children's section and hide in a corner to read Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, The Princess and the Pea—books that I had become too old to read by now, but ones that I nevertheless enjoyed. Sometimes, when my teacher would find me, she would admonish me. I was too old for them, she’d say. Unwillingly, I would pick up Enid Blyton, which at that age was tough for me to understand. Things, however, have changed for young children today and for the better.
For children these days, options are plenty. You can find books of different genres too for children. You also have children’s books that are closer to home. Only this week, Srijanalaya, an NGO, added six children picture books—Ladeha and Bachhiya, A Fox’s wedding, Kailari, My Dudhu, Khuttruke, Bhukali—from Tharu writers to the budding children books market in the country. And they are remarkable—not just for the stories they tell but because they offer a glimpse into Nepal’s diverse culture and lifestyle of the Tharu community.
The characters in the stories are not just mere representations of a community rather they, together with the illustrations, work together to teach children, at their impressionable age, about diversity and even inclusion.
In the story ‘Hamar Dudhu’, written by Shanti Chaudhary and illustrated by Ubahang Nembang, a young girl proudly talks about her mother, ‘Dudhu’ in Bara Jilla Tharu language. The story is also based on Chaudhary’s mother. The book has been translated into three other languages—English, Nepali and Dangauro Tharu—as well to make it more accessible to a wide range of readers. The English version of the book, titled ‘My Dudhu’, is translated by Muna Gurung, founder of Kathasatha, a forum which fosters public writing and storytelling in Kathmandu.
‘Hamar Dudhu’, with its enchanting illustration, is engaging and enlightening, and speaks about Tharu women and their lives. But for a child, it may not be an easy task to completely grasp what the book is saying. From the get-go, the book speaks about social customs and issues. Take for instance this line: ‘My Dudhu was a child when she got married.’ There are instances in the story that read into the tradition of the Tharu community (much like in many other Nepali communities) that perhaps when read to a child needs more explaining. Like, ‘Every day my Dudhu wrapped herself in a white cotton sari,’ to say she is a widow or, ‘Once when Buwa hit Dudhu, the glass bangles on her wrist broke,’ to show domestic violence.
For a children’s book, the book is atypical for many reasons. It highlights issues that our society is still uncomfortable talking about openly, such as child marriage, domestic violence, death and even women empowerment—topics seldom touched in children’s books. Often in children's books, the metaphors of the challenges in life are ghosts, a problem or a tangible object or a real subject that children can relate to, but in ‘Hamar Dudhu’, the writer presents readers with an ordinary life and the challenge is life itself. There is no tangible problem to grasp at immediately or a falling action to the plot, the narration is what carries the book. And that is also why this story is powerful, eloquent and stirring. However, children reading this book will have a lot of questions as the book is both comforting and confronting. They will need parental guidance or reference to read this book.
As the story moves forward, we see the girl’s mother growing into a strong independent woman. She weaves mouni, colourful baskets, which over the years becomes very popular with high demand for it in the neighbourhood, especially during weddings. The choices of words for the storytelling are subtle, careful and kind, and as we read along, we too see why the girl wants to be like her Dudhu and not any stoic representation of power.
Nembang’s illustration is liberating and endearing, it’s colourful and mirrors the Tharu community beautifully. There is a tenderness to his strokes as though he too understands the story being told. For those who have been to the Tarai, these pictures are evocative of the visuals in Tharu communities.
‘Hamar Dudhu’, along with the other five books that Srijanalaya has come out with as part of the Book Creation Project supported by The Asia Foundation’s Books, makes a groundbreaking feat with local stories. And in a world full of stories, many that are still buried, these local stories are influential, as they introduce characters and cultures that even many adult readers have not come across in children stories, moreover in the mainstream stories.
It is said for children to grow into humble human beings, they need to learn and understand inclusiveness, diverse cultures and economic differences in society. They must be acquainted with the world they live in and need to be able to see their stories in the diverse characters they read.
In A Fox’s Wedding by Chhabilal Kopila, with Suman Maharjan’s illustration, which is also another book that was released with ‘My Dudhu’, a diverse community comes together to organise a fox's wedding. The preparation itself feels like a lesson to readers—a victory of sorts—telling of the happy world that is so accepting of each other. It’s a fox’s wedding but everyone from an ant to a frog is involved and immersed in the celebration.
And these are perhaps the kinds of stories that we need more than ever as we talk about changing the world for the better. Stories that are inclusive and diverse. Stories that will raise children to be more aware, kind and open to humanity.
Growing up, I could never imagine that the fairy tale characters I read could be someone from my community or me myself. The few stories I read felt like looking at the greener side over a wall that I could never be a part of. I never thought that we would have children’s books with the main characters from our diverse communities. Many of these stories remain fantasies, as the magic never touched me enough. And I guess today I can tell why: Because we never could see our lives in the stories that have been read or said to us.
But stories like ‘My Dudhu’ will undoubtedly make the world more accessible for children and for everyone. It will certainly make them realise our culture and diversity and make them hopeful of their own stories that they are unravelling with time. These stories are a reminder that we are all living sonder lives.
These stories are also a reminder that children’s tales are just as much for adult readers as it is for the younger ones. And hopefully, no one will tell you that ‘you are too old for this book’.
The e-books are also available on the Let’s Read app, a digital library developed by Books for Asia.