Tamil poet V.N.Surya calls the new born baby “a brand new slate”. Adults have the responsibility to make sure that every letter written on that pure little slate is appropriate. Pristine minds soak up everything they see, hear and experience. Needless to say, writing for children and young adults requires the highest level of care and sincerity. Young Adult novels of the west are famous for their portrayal of queer, neurodivergent and differently abled characters with mental health issues. The world of fanfiction, though not accepted as “proper literature” by many, has many stories written by teens themselves, where they write the characters that they want to read. A cursory reading of any fanfiction site will give us an idea of what is running in their minds.
While it is interesting to read about Eleanors and Aarons and Matts trying to navigate the complex issues of their everyday living in downtown Memphis and the high streets of London, the impact peaks at a particular point. After all, how would I understand the confusion of the genderfluid Rebecca who wants to wear a suit to the prom? All I know are annual day functions at school where we wait for so long to be called on to the stage that our thick pancake-rose powder makeup melts away in the sweaty heat. The emotions will hit closer to heart if one could read about Murugesans, Rohits, Seemas and Vidyas in Kottayam or Pune or Madurai or Sambalpur. Stories where there is a constable going to a village teashop in a bicycle, stories where students dream of eating vada pav on every day of the vacation….. stories where everyone in the village is waiting under a banyan tree… as a teen, I have always longed to read something where I see a slice of my own life.
“Tales for Tweens” by Flourish Books has a collection of 11 stories with beautiful illustrations. 10 out of 11 stories have been handpicked from StoryWeaver, an open-source platform supported by Pratham Books. With stories about inclusivity, body positivity, gender identity, climate change, need for repairing old things, saving money, participatory democracy, importance of voting, physical abuse depression and internet safety, the collection was a great read.
In Priya Kurian’s “Where is beauty?”, we meet a buffalo called Azhagi who likes music. Then there is Esther in “I love me” by Menaka Raman, who tries to make new friends. Prasad from “Class 6 saves” is raised by same-sex parents. Bhaiya from “Who stole Bhaiya’s smile?” is stuck with a big monster on his back, and doctor aunty helps him deal with it. Cutting across themes and characters, the book balances information with storytelling. Since all of us have burnt our tongues with preachy childhood stories, it is easy to understand how this can be a big relief.
The illustrators need a special mention. A buffalo swoons to soft instrumental music. Two women in nighties snigger and frown while giving a police statement. David the cycle repairman joyfully inspects a cycle tube for puncture. Esther is effervescent while searching for new friends. The shy Rubina gives her election speech packed with innovative ideas. Chiru is worried about Bhaiya’s monster but she hangs out with him anyway. The beautiful paintings bring out the nuances of the characters and wonderfully complement the storytelling process.
The games at the end of each story will be very interesting to the tweens. The list of characters with pronouns and explanations is a nice read at the end of each story. But I felt that it would be nice to have these “Character bubbles” whenever the character appears for the first time in the story. Reading all the character attributes in bulk after finishing the story felt a little out of place.
“You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” said James Baldwin. He then goes on to say that identifying one’s own self in a fictional world is a source of great solace. Tweens who read these tales will see themselves, and feel heard. In a world of muffled voices, that is quite a leap forward, is it not?