Parent and professor of psychology Tanu Shree Singh helps you figure out how to have the tough conversations with your kids
For the occasion of World Cancer Day, this episode of our parenting podcast deals with how to talk to children about cancer and other challenging themes. Host Anuradha Varma, who leads Express Parenting, is joined by guests Tanu Shree Singh, psychologist and author of the children’s book Darkless (published by Puffin), and editor Richa Jha, the founder of Pickle Yolk Books. On this episode our two guests talk about children’s books that deal with challenging themes of terminal illness, disability, trans issues and more and why it is important to help children grasp concepts of sadness and loss.
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For the occasion of World Cancer Day, this episode of our parenting podcast, Difficult Conversations with Your Kids deals with how to talk to children about cancer, and other such challenging things. On this episode, our host, Anuradha Varma, who handles Express Parenting for The Indian Express, is joined by Tanu Shree Singh, the author of Darkless (a children’s book published in English by Penguin) on the topic of young children dealing with very challenging issues, and her editor Richa Jha, who is the founder of Pickle Yolk books, an independent publishing house based in New Delhi. On this episode, our two guests chat about the necessity of talking to children about these harder themes, and how more and more children’s books are starting to tackle these issues.
Anuradha Varma :
We’re here with Tanu Shree Singh, author of Darkless, the picture book and a regular on our podcast, and publisher, Richa Jha of Pickle Yolk Books. Basically, since Darkless, deals with a dark theme, and you’ve also brought out several books on challenging themes, let’s talk about that today. How books can help children deal with challenging themes in their life.
When the book starts off, this boy is sad, he’s in a dark place. And you don’t know why. It’s only later when his mother comes out of the car. And you know, he’s so excited and happy to see her and the reader realizes she’s recovering from cancer. So I think you lead to it gently and you also,
Tanu Shree Singh:
You know, a very interesting thing has been the reaction that I’ve been getting from different readers. The younger lot, a lot of them don’t really notice or question why her hair is missing. Then I have had parents who would sit them down and explain why. I’ve also had parents who are not very comfortable talking about this so called grim thing. And they said the child understood it as “The mother was not there. And that’s why the child was sad. He couldn’t really express that he was missing her”, which is also great.
You know, the whole idea of different people taking different things from the book. That has been absolutely fantastic. So across age groups, I have trouble whenever anyone asks me what age group is this suitable for? Because I’ve had 40 year old people writing back saying that, you know, this was the kind of a cathartic read that they needed because they had lost a parent a few years back. Since then they had been struggling with it. So it’s been a fairly interesting experience when you look at the reactions that people give.
Is it okay for you to read how the story ends because that itself will throw some light on how different people can take different things from the book.
Tanu Shree Singh:
(reads an excerpt)
“I was scared you’d never come back.” Mama held Ani. “I’m here now” she said, “so are Dobby, Nani and your friends”. “But…” Ani’s voice trailed off as he tried not to cry. “But as long as you let others love you, you will be okay”, she said. Ani dug his face into her singing heartbeat and whispered “Even if you’re not there?” “Yes.” A gentle breeze kissed them both as he dozed off mumbling “Hair… your hair, can I shave mine too?” Mama smiled and held him tighter.
I mean for a parent, I can just try and see the way Tanu is resolving it. It’s like, suppose a parent is going through something difficult. And in this case, we are talking of a terminal illness, right? It’s cancer that the mother clearly is suffering from. So in a situation like this, can the mother say “No, I’ll always be there with you”. Or will the mother say “Okay, I’m not there. You know, I’m going to die.
And there are other people to love you!
And what she’s saying is look, as long as you keep me inside you, there will be light. And I’m always there in that sense. And that is such a powerful thought. And it can be applied to so many other situations.
Tanu Shree Singh:
So people, as I said, have taken different things from the book. So have children who, in fact, I’ll go back to the session that I did with some children. We usually work around fears, “what is it that scares you?” And the session usually ends in a riot, because everybody has something to say at the end of it. And the children come up with the most amazing things, and deep thoughts in terms of what they feel. So right from getting lost in a marketplace to what if my mother doesn’t come back? What if I’m left alone? What if I don’t have a friend? What if my friends are not my friends anymore? You know, all sorts of things. The kids I’m talking about are five years, six years, seven years old. So the whole idea is to recognize that and also understand that the power is within. That, you, yourself hold the key to step out in the light.
Tell me Richa, why do publishers shy away from children’s books addressing challenging themes? There are, of course, a lot of books that have come out, but by and large there is hesitance.
Two ways of answering that.
Traditionally it’s been believed that children need to be kept out of the purview of anything which will make them feel sad or hurt or scare them, you know, and that children should have only innocent thoughts to play around with, so to speak. And therefore, the publishers have shied away from doing anything, which has anything even remotely to do with a slightly challenging sort of thing. But children absorb and and they are hearing things they are looking at things they are understanding everything way more than we can credit their minds with. So it’s not as if they don’t know what’s happening around them. It’s not as if they themselves are not forming opinions of what’s happening around them and it’s not as if they don’t know how to cope with things that are happening around them. And therefore, that sort of awareness is now creeping into publishers, gradually, we are seeing more and more publishers taking the chance.
From a consumers point of view, if I’m a parent and I’m walking into a bookshop, there are five different books kept, four of them are really happy, funny, absolutely riotous sort of books from whatever I can see on the cover. And here is one book, which is talking about something sad. Now as a parent, my first instinct will always be to pick up a book which is happy, right? Because finally, at the end of the day, especially if it’s a picture book, I have to sit with a child at the end of the day, and read it out to her. And there’ll be questions. I am tired at the end of the day, how am I going to answer all those questions that are coming out? Right? So I mean, I do understand a parent’s psychology. And publishing is finally everything to do with what sells what doesn’t sell sad as it may be. That’s how it happens. And if the books don’t sell, how is the publishing industry going to flourish? So it’s like a constant sort of push and pull that needs to happen. And that is happening. And I’m glad it’s happening more and more now.
Because there are parents who are willing to go that extra mile to discuss things with their children, they are willing to go the extra mile to pick up books, which are difficult. You know, there are books that when I’m reading them out with my daughter now, I end up choking. I mean, Darkless is one such book, right? It’s difficult for a parent to have that kind of an emotion when you’re sitting with a child and openly express it. So we’re finding parents who are doing it now and I’m sure it’s just going to get better because in the West we’ve always had quite a few books coming out. In India also, now of course.
Tanu Shree Singh:
I think that conversation now has begun. So even the online reading groups that you mentioned earlier, there I can see the transition happening, because earlier, the vast majority of people would shun books that talk about anything that is remotely challenging because again, as Richa pointed out, it would pose uncomfortable questions and we are not great at handling the whole mortality aspect. Ask any young parent. I remember that when we were younger, we found the whole idea of life insurance very ridiculous and offensive. Yes, we are always shying away from talking about something as grave as that number one. Number two, we project ourselves as parents in a way that children think that we have all the answers. So where we don’t have the answers is not a very comfortable place to be. When the fact is, that it is okay to not know and it is okay to acknowledge that you do not know and then discuss that.
You know, in your online reading groups, you run a library as well and Richa, you obviously interact with a lot of children through workshops, etc. So you’re saying that parents are more interested in such themes? I see on your online reading group as well, parents saying “My son or my daughter has this problem. Do you have a book?”
Tanu Shree Singh:
Yes, yes, yes, yes. So now that’s happening. We still have resistance. I do remember one parent coming back and say that, you know, this is not suitable for a young child, my child cried after I read the book them. Now, again, as a parent, I do understand the whole idea of being protective and obviously none of us want to see our kids cry. But it is also important to acknowledge that it is okay to cry and it is all right to feel sad. That understanding is now gradually building. But I think we have a long, long way to go.
So I guess through a book, a picture book, specially for a very young child, you learn to acknowledge and accept that you know, death, disease, even cancer is out there.
Tanu Shree Singh:
Uncertainity is out there.
Also helps them process that feeling and deal with it. And I think a parent sitting there with a picture book can actually help the child directly, right.
Tanu Shree Singh:
So interestingly, the young kids when they realize the concept of death, they do it fairly early. I mean, all of them have seen random beetles stop moving after a while and they do know that there is something going on here. And then a lot of them also transfer that feeling to the parents, and that fear takes them. So I remember my older one, having that fear all the time. A simple thing like going out. What if you die? It’s as simple and as clear as that. Now, a lot of kids do not voice it that directly where they’re probably not encouraged to express that clearly. But that fear is very much there. That fear of uncertainty is very much there. So why not address it?
Yeah. And Richa, you mentioned that you know, when Tanu’s book came along, you were working on another picture book around the same theme of cancer.
I think it was plain madness to do two books at the same time. But actually, I’ll tell you the difference is that the books actually are not talking about cancer. The books are dealing with two very, very different, I don’t know, forms of insecurities that come into a child’s life because of something which is happening to the parents or somebody you love. And what Tanu was showing was one aspect, what Mamta Naini will be showing in her book, ‘I and I’, is something very different. A completely different form of insecurity. And it just so happens that both sets of parents in both the books happened to be suffering from a similar disease, but they are completely different books. I mean, I think at some point, we also need to go beyond the illness factor and look at the books on their own in terms of children coping.
Tanu Shree Singh:
It’s not just children coping. So I was reminded in one of the sessions that when I was younger, one of our classmates lost her father to cancer. And we have no idea what to do with them. So gradually she faded. In the sense that we did not know how to act. Are we too cheerful? Should we include her in our games? And we were young, Class three or four or something. So, for that age, it is easier to move away, than maybe make that effort and understand, oh, this child is in a dark space, and they need their time and they need the help, and I can’t give up on them. So it’s also for the children who see other children suffering because of any reason. So I think somewhere the idea of empathy, and to be able to understand what they’re going through, and then maybe help them work through it is also something that I see coming out now.
Yeah, so in that sense, it’s not just meant for kids who are going through something.
Tanu Shree Singh:
Yes, I’ve also had a child who said, “Oh one of my classmates I think, is in that dark bubble.” And I asked them “Why do you think that? He says “I don’t know but he’s forever moping around. Maybe I’ll find out.” And the way the child quickly identified the dark bubble, I was like, wow, different people take different things from it.
Richa, You’ve also taken up a lot of other themes like in ‘Maccher Jhol’. The boy’s father is ill, and he navigates Calcutta and the streets and you don’t realize till the end that okay he can see. And also ‘The Unboy Boy’. ‘Boo’, of course, we see this little girl who loses her sister. So you’ve taken up a lot of challenging themes. How has the experience been? What have your learnings been?
The starting principle always is that children are very intelligent, and there is nothing which is too difficult for them to understand. So it’s just another book that is dealing with things that happen around them all the time. That’s it. And if we as authors, writers, illustrators, publishers don’t put those books out, how will children see themselves there? When I’m working on a book, I don’t really think whether it’s an underrepresented sort of area that I need to bring out. And therefore I go looking for a certain story or, you know, my mind starts thinking of a certain certain story. It’s not like that. It’s just that, as I said, the children are exposed to all kinds of things, and therefore all kinds of things need to be there in books. I keep coming back to that word empowering, because I feel that every book that we have to bring out- the child has to at the end of reading that book, whether being read out or reading on her own, has to come out feeling that yes, I am a stronger person than I was before I started reading the book. And that strength is coming from these kind of subjects that we deal with because you make them feel intelligent that yes, there are people who think we can deal with these things.
So on that note, I think it’s a good point to end this and let’s hope that parents and children will have a lot more titles to pick up.
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