The Unboy Boy...examining gender roles through a picture book.
Gagan is a happy, gentle little boy who loves observing ants, colouring, collecting stamps and other comparably gentle pursuits, with his ‘teddy bear’ Bingo by his side. These were not activities that interested his brother or the other boys around him, who enjoyed roughhousing, playing tricks, telling scary tall-tales and other stuff considered normal for little boys. They invite Gagan to join them, but Gagan always refuses, preferring to continue doing what he enjoys. So, the boys call him names, hurtful, mean names. Even his grandfather, called him names when Gagan shows no interest in Dadu’s war stories or toys.
Every time he is called a name, Gagan feels very sad and lonely. He asks his mother, “Mummy, am I not a boy?” When Mummy assures him that he is the gentlest, sweetest one ever, who makes her so proud, Gagan feels happy and reassured, and he smiles as he sleeps, dreaming about adventures that he and bingo will have.
At the annual camp at school and the children are excited to sleep in a tent, toast marshmallows around a campfire, play and eat. It was fun, fun and more fun! Soon it was bedtime, and along with lights-out came plenty of scary tall tales. They told stories of teddy-bear eating trolls, which scared and angered Gagan who clutched Bingo very tight as he remembered his mother’s usual reassuring words and soon he was smiling in his dreams. However, when one of the children realises that his cat is missing, the tall tales of ghouls who love bloody cat soup, of dead watchmen and monsters, make them very afraid and it is Gagan who is often called a sissy, who rescues the missing cat.
I chose to use this book with intent. I had heard about a gentler child being called names, names that he was not comfortable being called.
I always read a book before reading it aloud to my groups of students, anticipating questions that may crop up as I read, and trying to anticipate the direction of the post-reading discussion.
While I thought it was a great book to open a discussion, I didn’t anticipate the turn of this discussion.
I read this book to 4 mixed-age-group(MAG) 2/3/4th graders, and two groups of mixed 5th/6th graders. A total of 150 children, over the course of last week.
This book made the younger group a bit sad and scared at the scary bits, and they focussed more on those parts, and only with a little prodding, did they voice that they liked that Gagan stayed true to himself and despite being called names, did not give in, some saying that he was such a nice kid. The manner in which they responded left me a bit dissatisfied and I wondered whether it was my delivery, maybe a little too much drama at the ‘scary’ part, playing Dadu a little too dramatically?
Given that the read aloud sessions were spanned over 4 days, I had the time to play around with my approach to the book.
Then during session number 5, something happened which made me quietly rejoice as a library educator.
This was a group of 5th/6th graders. As I read, I had their attention completely. Their reactions easy to read, and I could watch their expressions change as the story progressed. The usual reactions were to Dadu, the mean friends and how nice Gagan was, that despite being teased by his friends, he still thought of rescuing the cat and helping them. Then one little faction to my right declared that they did not agree. They did not like the way the book ended. They strongly felt that Gagan wanted to prove his worth and therefore went to rescue the cat. They were very against this. The other children only accepted him after this deed, they said. This is not right, why should he have to prove himself? Why can't he be accepted just the way he was, rescuer or not?
A debate broke out, which was guided into a dialogue, each group putting forth their opinions about the book. The group who didn’t like the ending, took the book from me and pointed out to the illustrations about Gagan’s dreams. Why would a boy who is so gentle smile happily when he is dreaming about killing a dragon? The strongly argued that this was at odds with the story. Besides if Bingo is a ‘teddy bear’, why is he illustrated as a stuffed dog?
I had obviously not examined the book closely enough. I hadn't thought that I needed to.
Any book that can make my 9 and 10 year old students think so critically, to put forth their arguments clearly and simply, hold on to their points of view after having formulated them so intelligently, is a book worth reading aloud. This was a huge moment…to see my students grow as critical thinkers. This was a moment when I was learning from them.
The book lent itself beautifully to a follow up activity about gender roles, which further extended our discussions. Children were given a sheet with a squarish Venn diagram. They had to assign words as boy words, girl words, or if applicable to both, as kids words. Random words like blue, football, fire-fighter, cleaning/dusting, scientist, burping etc were called out and this activity further added to passionate discussions about gender roles, taking up the entire one hour library session.
The Unboy Boy by Richa Jha and illustrated by Gautam Benegal is a wonderful book that will lend itself to plenty of discussion.
I did, however, feel that its message seemed to be picked up more easily by the 8+ child.
(I received this book from the author/publisher to use and review)