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EXPLORING GENDER AND IDENTITY IN CHILDREN'S PICTUREBOOKS IN INDIA

Updated: Jul 6

How do you define who you are? Do children have the agency as well as the freedom to define their gender and identity? Are they restricted to the binaries prescribed by the conventional, patriarchal society? Children seek to express their individuality and, to a large extent, are influenced by their family, friends, teachers, and society. Understanding this becomes challenging when one’s answers are considered different by society from the prevailing dominant cultural norms. Acceptance and love by a family, by foregoing beliefs steeped in constraining gender norms, can nurture a child’s dreams and agency. Several picturebooks in India have explored gender, identity, belonging, acceptance, and patriarchy in recent years.


Book cover: girls wearing rainbow-colour clothes smiling and walking together.
Image retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/56296306-rainbow-girls

With a target readership from age 5 onwards, these picturebooks have an interrogative stance and create a space to initiate dialogue about gender and identity with young children. Some of them, such as Rainbow Girls and Rainbow Boys written by Kamla Bhasin (2019) and illustrated by Priya Kurian and Pink and Blue written by Ritu Vaishnav (2018) and illustrated by Vishnu M. Nair, discuss prevalent facts and information to question these norms and celebrate difference, individuality, and gender equality. They facilitate dialogue and encourage to challenge norms, binaries, and notions that constrain anyone’s freedom, be it self-expression or defining one’s identity.


Others, such as Guthli has Wings written and illustrated by Kanak Shashi (2019), move further than pointing normative constructions of gender stereotypes and the performativity of gender by giving an insight into the struggle and turmoil faced by Guthli. The verbal and the visual work as a complementary unit to reflect how she is caught between her choice to identify herself as a girl, a fairy, a sonchiriya (golden bird) and her family’s as well as society’s view of her as a boy.


Book cover: child walking with birds around them.
Image retrieved from: from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Guthli-has-Wings-Kanak-Shashi/dp/9386667940

Guthli is depicted as a happy and lively child, a favourite of the family, who loves to talk, explore the wilderness, and ride her cycle. It is a celebration of her identity as well as her happy childhood. However, when she wants to wear her sister’s frilly frock and be like a fairy, she is ridiculed, admonished, and forced to conform as her mother said, “Boys are not fairies, they are princes […] Don’t be stubborn. You are a boy” (Shashi 2019). Throughout the picturebook, there is an interplay between the image and the text that reflect Guthli is an interrogative child who questions why she must conform to something she does not believe in. One such example is her discussion with her mother and her question, “And why do you keep saying I’m a boy when I’m a girl?” (Shashi 2019).


Scan of a book: child looking sad on the left-hand side surrounded by birds. Text unclear.
(Shashi) Guthli Has Wings [reproduced here with permission]

However, this imposition of conformity transmutes a happy, lively Guthli into a subdued, lonely shell of a person. A careful placing of a visibly diminishing Guthli towards the bottom of the page highlights the unequal power relations along with the negative impact such a situation can have on any child. While the rest of the world is bright and full of colours, Guthli is represented in dark and shadowy hues where she is literally and metaphorically retreating into a shell. Before she could rejoice in her self-expression, that sense of freedom and agency is taken away from her.


Scan of book: the same child is now happy wearing a yellow dress and playing on a swing.
(Shashi) Guthli Has Wings [reproduced here with permission]

Through clever use of paper cutout illustrations and verbal-visual framing, the writer provides a poignant take on Guthli’s struggle with belonging and acceptance. Eventually, her mother acknowledges her and gifts her a golden-yellow frock, one that truly aligns with her vision of herself as a fairy and a golden bird. While the picturebook has a happy resolution with her family accepting Guthli, it is the final central and focalising image representing Guthli swinging high on the swings with a fierce determination to change “society’s rules” (Shashi 2019). It is a pivotal representation of her courage to be who she wants to be irrespective of all the “rules in the world that said that she was a boy because she was born with a boy’s body, and not the girl she knew she was” (Shashi 2019). The combination of verbal and visual signification makes this picturebook capable of broadening readers’ perspectives in a mode that enables dialogue about gender and identity, about acceptance and belonging. It highlights how acceptance can have the ability to empower children to continue to dream, fight, and have agency to bring about social transformation.


References

Bhasin, K. (2019). Rainbow Girls (P. Kurian, Illus.) (K. Bhasin, Trans.). Pratham Books.

https://storyweaver.org.in/stories/111755-rainbow-girls

Bhasin, K. (2019). Rainbow Boys (P. Kurian, Illus.) (K. Bhasin, Trans.). Pratham Books.

https://storyweaver.org.in/stories/111756-rainbow-boys

Shashi, K. (2019). Guthli has Wings (K. Shashi, Illus.). Tulika.

Vaishnav, Ritu (2018). Pink and Blue (V.M.Nair, Illus.). Puffin.


Biography

Devika Mehra is an early-career researcher based in Swansea and a former lecturer at (Institute of Home Economics) University of Delhi, India. She has worked on children’s cinema as a genre in India for her PhD, while her pre-doctoral dissertation was on the changing constructions of childhood in select middle-grade British and American children’s fiction (1940-2010). She is interested in research related to children’s visual culture, 20th century British children’s fantasy, children’s historical fiction, and children’s cinema. She has published and presented papers on the construction of childhood in Dalit literature, children’s cinema, children’s literature, and graphic novels in various international conferences. Having completed a short fellowship last year, she is currently working on 20th century British women fantasy authors, contemporary children’s visual cultures and digital picturebooks in India.



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