‘Tales for Tweens’, a collection of open-source stories, targets taboo through positive tales

Express News Service

CHENNAI: For quite some time, that mothers can be working women was the ‘surprise’ solution to a brainteaser. Today, it is a mere detail in the stories we encounter, one that doesn’t require a flourish or an announcement. Isn’t that the ideal of representation and inclusivity? Taking a step in that direction, in the area of children’s stories, is Deepak Varuvel Dennison with his book Tales for Tweens.

Marked as ‘Inclusive & Progressive Stories for the New Age’, the book offers the idea of a more accommodating and considerate world through 11 simple stories on some of the most pressing issues of our generation from gender identity to body positivity, civic engagement to climate change, mental health to Internet safety. While there could be a hundred different ways to accomplish this, Deepak banked on the wealth of open-source stories available to us through the Creative Commons licence and adapted them to create a modern-day value education repository.

And so we have a discourse on e-waste and the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra through an adaptation of Himadri Das and Veena Prasad’s A Stitch In Time. Menaka Raman’s I Love Me finds a place here too. As does Mathangi Subramanian’s Asha’s Voice — a beginner’s guide to civic engagement, and Alison Byrnes’ At Least I’m Okay — a present-day picture of the climate change crisis and climate migration. Even while engaging children in subjects of relevance in a fun manner, Deepak tries to introduce inclusivity and diversity in unobtrusive ways. But it wasn’t without some challenges.

A range of stories
“The idea was to compile stories on these important matters but keep the language gender-neutral. But that’s when we realised that for readers to understand and appreciate the decision to keep it that way, they should have certain nuance and understanding of gender identity and expression. So, we started with an explainer story, A Rainbow World. It did make parents hesitate about sharing it with their children but we wanted to offer that resource to those who do want to introduce their children to such concepts,” he explains.

Going beyond the explainer, Deepak ensures a wide range of representation across all 10 stories. There’s a thirunangai cop who helps an old woman look for her lost buffalo and no one bats an eye (in the story). In a class full of kids, there’s a girl who is a football pro and a boy who loves toys and makes some himself. People in these pages have friends from all religions and all regions. A kid with Down Syndrome finds equal space in a mainstream school and same-sex parents/partners are introduced without a fuss. “We wanted to represent people from all sections of social strata and normalise people with disabilities as well. Every story has ‘The Back Stories’ section  to add more to each character, and bring more nuance. (For example) instead of focusing on one story about LGBTQ, we wanted to bring it in every story to normalise it,” he reasons.

Interactive experience
And all this representation was based on a solid plan to fill in the gaps they found in stories available to children, he says. “When we pick a story, we map it completely — how many male characters or female characters, religion, disability, occupation, etc. This will offer an idea of where it is lacking. Then, we found simple ways to bring in details to fill the gaps; be it changing a character’s name or changing the illustration offered. That’s how we adapted it,” he recounts. Every story comes with an interactive section (small games and activities) and a how-to guide to get children to go beyond simply learning about concepts to actually doing their part in it.

While this book was in the making since February, the idea of it began in the midst of a different project for schoolchildren. Deepak and his friend Pavithra Murugan were working on project Flourish, which wanted to offer bilingual stories for children who could read English well but had trouble understanding the language as a whole. They wanted to provide help with language while also presenting stories of value. It is this idea that evolved to be the illustrated book it is today. While people are slowly warming up to the book, it has garnered encouraging reviews from its patrons so far. Deepak would like to expand his work in this area through a course on Learning Design and Technology at Stanford. Perhaps, there’ll be more of this when he returns.

The book is available on Amazon for Rs 499.

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