MCCBD Blog Post: The Unboy Boy by Richa Jha
Guest Post from Emily Kilgore
As an elementary teacher and all-around lover of children’s literature, I was ecstatic to learn about Multicultural Children’s Book Day. MCCBD’s mission is clear: to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children’s literature. “Young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions, and religions within the pages of a book.” The event is sponsored by countless supporters of diverse books (listed below) and urges people to review diverse books, raising awareness of quality literature. Well, if that doesn’t sound like something right up my alley, I don’t know what does.
The only hitch? I don’t have a blog. But that didn’t hinder Mia and Valerie, MCCBD founders – the mission holds strong even through technical problems. I was quickly hooked up with Becky (Project Manager for MCCBD and an avid blogger) to be a guest blogger for this event. Not long after that, I was paired with author Richa Jha and mailed a book to review.
The Unboy Boy by Richa Jha was shipped to me all the way from India. I cannot express the excitement of opening a book that came from the opposite side of the world. My original thought was, “This is diverse in itself!” Much to my amazement, the text was filled with more diverse content than simply its publishing location.
The story is of a young boy named Gagan who enjoys things such as “the sun and the birds and the flowers.” His brother, his classmates, and even his grandfather tease him for his unboy-like behavior, calling him names like “sissy,” “mousey,” and “baby girl.” The only person in the story who seems to support Gagan is his mother. Even still, Gagan feels lonely and sad.
The story hits a climax when Gagan and his classmates attend an overnight camp at school. What begins as a fun time together turns scary as the kids exchange stories of trolls and ghouls. To make matters worse, Scuttle, Charit’s cat, goes missing. Pretty soon the kids’ imaginations take over and everyone imagines terrifying things, such as murderers popping out of the ground with knives. In the end, the cat is found by none other than Gagan himself, proving to everyone that he, too, can be brave.
The text is ideal for discussing gender stereotypes. Jha writes of stereotypes to the extreme, such as when Gagan’s grandfather says, “Here, be a man and play with this!” while holding out a gun. Another questionable stereotype depicted in the book is when Gagan is reading a picturebook while his brother and friends are trying to get him to do boyish things. I certainly don’t want to send the message to children that reading is a girly – and therefore weak — thing to do! The stereotypes of weak vs brave; girly vs boyish, are strong throughout the story. Even Gagan was not truly accepted until he succumbed to the stereotypes and did a brave, boyish thing: saving the cat when everyone else was too scared to do so. In any reading with a young child, it would be critical to point out how extreme the stereotypes in the book are.
When I read the story aloud to my class of second graders, many of them could not get past some of the illustrations. Many latched on to the images of the gun and bloody knives while others were scared of the ghouls. While I understand the intent of showing scary images in the text to parallel the boyish stereotypes, I think it was overdone. The students in my classroom were not used to seeing images like these in picturebooks and had a difficult time talking about the theme and characters of the book because they were so wrapped up in the pictures.
Despite these concerns, the book does address a serious issue of gender stereotyping. It is a conversation that must be had at home and in schools, for it is a danger to force children to act a certain way based on preconceived stereotypes. As Gagan shows, children can feel isolated, sad, lonely, or confused if they are forced to act in a way different than they naturally feel.
Below are possible ways to use the book as a discussion-starter at home or in a classroom:
- Focus on diversity:
o Why did people treat Gagan differently?
o What were some things Gagan did that others thought were girly?
o What are some things you like to do? Are they boyish things, girlish things, or both?
o Do all boys need to like the same things? Do all girls need to like the same things? Why or why not?
- Focus on bullying:
o How did everyone’s repeated teasing impact Gagan?
o What could you do if you noticed how Gagan was feeling?
o Have you ever felt bullied like Gagan?
- Focus on characters:
o How did Gagan feel when he was teased?
o How did Gagan’s feelings change from the beginning to the end of story?
o How would you describe Gagan? What character traits does he have?
- Focus on illustrations:
o How do the illustrations help you understand the story better?
o How do the illustrations take away from the story?
o Do any of the illustrations catch your attention? Why?
- Focus on theme:
o What is the theme of the book?
o What do you think Richa Jha wants you to learn?
o Would you recommend this book to someone else? Why or why not?
It is critical to get more diverse texts in the hands of our readers. Feel free to contact me if you have more questions or comments about how I use diverse texts within my elementary classroom.
Also, a special thanks to the Multicultural Children’s Book Day’s sponsors:
MCCBD’s 2015 Sponsors include Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press,Daybreak Press Global Bookshop, Gold Sponsors: Satya House, MulticulturalKids.com, Author Stephen Hodges and the Magic Poof, Silver Sponsors: Junior Library Guild, Capstone Publishing, Lee and Low Books, The Omnibus Publishing. Bronze Sponsors:Double Dutch Dolls, Bliss Group Books, Snuggle with Picture Books Publishing, Rainbow Books, Author FeliciaCapers, Chronicle Books Muslim Writers Publishing,East West Discovery Press.
Visit the MCCBD blog on 1/27/15 to view our huge link-up of over 150 bloggers sharing their multicultural book reviews and activities. Teachers and parents can also check out the Diversity Book Lists and Resources for Teachers and Parents page HERE.