Aparna Jain’s Like A Girl: Real Stories For Tough Kids made a splash in Indian children’s publishing in 2018, and with good reason. Here were 51 stories of terrific Indian women—fighters, winners and achievers—accompanied by deft illustrations. It was the right thing at the right time: The #MeToo movement had taken off in India, Wikipedia editors were running workshops to include female achievers in the public encyclopaedia, and there was a new zeal for making space for women around the world.

Though the “inspiring stories of women achievers" genre of children’s books—kicked off by the international best-selling series Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls—has peaked, the historical exclusion of women, more so Indian women, from public discourse is so large-scale that this work cannot be over anytime soon.

Jain, who uses a similar format to tell the stories of 45 Indian men in Boys Will Be Boys, seems aware of this. In her preface, she acknowledges that writing her latest book has been harder. “Do we need another book on men, I wondered. Shouldn’t I be doing another volume on women?" she asks.

It’s a tough call. On the one hand, we do need well-narrated stories (not the usual hagiographies from school textbooks) about achievers. In her selection of male role models, Jain demonstrates thoughtfulness and a desire to go beyond the obvious: linguist Ganesh Devy, Dalit activist Bezwada Wilson, Paralympic swimming champion Murlikant Petkar, investigative journalist Josy Joseph, mental health/public policy researcher Sanjeev Jain and Assamese environmental activist Jadav Payeng are a few of the names that make one pause and read.

On the other hand, it is difficult to reconcile oneself to this need for “gender symmetry": here’s a book for girls about girls, and here’s one for boys about boys. This is problematic. Wasn’t the whole point of the “rebel girls" genre of books to mainstream the lives and stories of women for both girls and boys? Was it not an exercise in saying ‘look, girls have done amazing things and they are role models for all children’? Primed by the blue-and-pinking of every product from water bottles to school bags, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Indian parents, educators and readers will see the two books as appealing to different readerships—exactly what books such as Like A Girl subverted.

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