Strong, like a girl

In the real world, girls don’t wait for superheroes to ‘rescue’ them, nor are they golden-haired damsels who let their hair down for men to climb up. Aparna Jain’s book for children,
Like a Girl: Real Stories for Tough Kids
, is a stark contrast to stories where girls are sidelined in their own stories.

The book features the stirring and inspirational life stories of 56 women who fought (and continue to do so) persistently, in the face of challenges presented by an unjust and bigoted society. Every one of them came forth to define their own victories, ‘like a girl’. It tells the stories of warriors, rulers, politicians, performing artists, sportspeople, journalists, writers and activists, among many others.

The book also features the digital artworks of 26 women artists commissioned from across the country, including Priyanka Paul, Tara Anand, Shruti Prabhu, Sudeepti Tucker among many others. It is art directed by Ayesha Broacha (with illustrations by her too), and the collective effort truly shines through in the final product.

Inspired by the 2017 publication,
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
, Jain, a business consultant, endeavoured to put together a book for the Indian context, to make visible and recognise the contribution of the many Indian women who were catalysts for change. While Indira Gandhi and J Jayalalithaa find place, there are also significantly less-known figures like doctor-legislator Muthulakshmi Reddi, tribal activist Dayamani Barla and transgender mom Gauri Sawant. She doesn’t whitewash the greys, despite the fact that the book is written for children.

How do you think ‘Like a Girl’ is different from the story and picture books you were exposed to as a child, and how do you think books with sociological and political themes would stir young and receptive minds?

My childhood was so long ago but yes, I do not believe I was exposed to any sociological contexts in storybooks. Also, I read very little about Indian women outside of history books and prescribed Indian novels in schools, none of which were specifically Indian feminist. I think this book needs to be driven by parents and educators in order to engage children to be more aware and engaged. The book itself just serves as a catalyst. A starter for some.

What was your experience like, working with these incredibly complex and diverse narratives and life stories when the end goal was to condense them and make them comprehensible and engaging?

The best way to do that is to see what is unique to your stories and what is necessary. What can stir people to read more and do their own research. I must admit there were times when I was tempted to write a lot, and I did. Thankfully, I had an insightful editor in Karthika V K who was able to sift the chaff from the wheat, so to speak.

You have incorporated diverse life stories which are otherwise often overlooked or sidelined in mass media. How did you select the final list of people?

I had done a bunch of things. Reached out on social media to ask people about who they considered idols. I asked Japleen (Pasricha) of Feminism in India what she thought of my list. She sent me some suggestions too. It was great because the first time I heard of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi was from her. That list grew and was added to and subtracted from. In the end, Karthika and Ajitha (G S) from the publishing team (at Westland Publications), the art patrons Oxfam India, and I finalised a list.

How was the experience of working with visual and verbal forms simultaneously, intended to cater to a young audience?

A nightmare in terms of logistics and great fun in terms of interacting with young artists. My friend Ayesha Broacha came aboard as art director which really helped. She was able to provide guidance and direction to the artists while I focused on the writing. But I was involved at pretty much every stage. Sometimes Ayesha and I played ‘good cop, bad cop’.

How do you intend to make the book more accessible?

For starters, the publishers are already planning a Hindi translation. It may not be as expensively produced because the Hindi market will not be able to take such a price point. Translations into other Indian languages will be decided later. The book is also easily available online and in most bookstores. Libraries do order copies. We had a heartwarming story from a volunteer at the Madras Literary Society – one of the oldest libraries in Asia – who wrote that she loved the book and uses it for interventions and storytelling to children in streets and public spaces. She even sent us pictures which are posted on the Like a Girl Instagrampage.

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