When renowned author Ranjit Lal penned “Smitten”, a book for young adults in 2013, it’s original story line was about sexual abuse with the father as the culprit.
However, he had to change this when the publisher sent the manuscript to some schools for suggestions. “Some principals suggested that they don’t want the father as the abuser and it should be changed to stepfather. They said parents had e problem with the story,” said Ranjit Lal, a winner of Ladli award for gender sensitivity in 2012.
Instead, the stepfather was featured as the abuser.
“Though I didn’t want to step into the stereotypical line of stepdads being bad, I changed it for the sake of the book. I still have doubts if it’s the teachers who find it hard to deal with children on this topic,” said Ranjit Lal, whose award winning book, “Face On the Water”, deals with female foeticide.
Tackling themes like sexual abuse, sex, homosexuality and romance, the authors of young adult literature are breaking new ground more than ever. However, the debate on what is acceptable for young children is always a raging one. Authors feel that children shouldn’t be kept off-limit when it comes to dark themes.
“Today’s children are exposed to the world through the internet and the social media. We cannot censor them,” said Ranjit Lal who has dealt with topics like the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in his book “The battle for No. 19”, for young adults.
Author Paro Anand’s recent book, “Like Smoke” opens with a line, “I hate Muslims,” from the young protagonist. The book, a collection of short stories tackles themes like riots, violence, death and love in a subtle way.
Anand remembers how she had a debate with children on the topic during a workshop. “There were a lot of arguments on the story where an young girl perceives all Muslims as terrorists because her father was killed by one. However, she later realises that its a wrong perception. Some of the students argued that all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims,” said Paro, a recognised name in the genre.
The author felt that the only way to break the stereotypes is to keep the dialogues open.
“There is some thought process and we are creating the space for them by talking about it. Why not present a story through which they feel the power to understand the world they are a part of,” Paro questioned.
Himanjali Sankar, author of ‘Talking of Muskaan’, a novel for young adults dealing with homosexuality, said that more than pulishers, it was schools which resisted her book. “Schools were apprehensive that parents would find the topic hard,” she said. The book was born after the Supreme Court restored homosexuality as a criminal offence in the statute book in 2013.
“There is no point in keeping these issues under the carpet. We are perparing them for life by talking about it,” she said.
However, authors admit that stepping into these delicate realms is a tricky business. The message has to be sent in a fair way without taking the high moral ground.
“Children need to be dealt with fairly. You tell them these are the consequences; they will see through you if you preach at them,” Ranjit Lal contended.
He explained how he tackled a dark subject like female foeticide. “It was challenging to keep the story light and to make it presentable for children. I decided to give them a normal family story and it clicked,” he said.
Though publishers are pushing the boundaries, authors feel that there’s still more scope. “The moment you talk about love or sex, all the defences go up. I have a collection of teen age love stories for which I am yet to get a publisher,” Ranjit Lal lamented.
However, Sohini Mitra, senior commissioning editor with Puffin, said that publishers are more accomodating than ever.
“We are trying to move away from the cozy, happy zones and are dealing with themes which are dark and gripping. We also make sure that the subject treatment is in a sensitive way for the target group. Here, we have lot of parental monitoring when it comes to books,” Mitra said.
More of a western import, age slotting of books for children and young adults is another pont of contention. “I dont think we should stop children from reading what they want. Why should we decide what they should read or not,” Anand asked.
It’s not child’s play anymore!