Weaving Tales for Change

Stories have always delighted people of all ages. They are engaging, interesting, and sometimes serve as a means of escape from the real world. While there are stories of different kinds for children, Sharda Vishwanathan, along with Raghu Ramachandran, started Tale Weavers, an educational storytelling initiative for kids, two years ago. The stories range from those that focus on breaking gender stereotypes to ones that aim at facilitating the financial literacy of children.

Here is the story of Tale Weavers as told to Nanditha Ravindar by Sharda Vishwanathan.

Power of Storytelling

Growing up, I remember my parents enrolled me in a local library so as to encourage reading and cultivate an interest in books. Right from the age-old fairy tales and the very popular illustrated-version of Indian mythology - the Amar Chitra Katha to internationally acclaimed books that included the Famous Five, The Secret Seven and Tintin, the library offered me an access to a wide variety of books. While Enid Blyton’s book introduced me to the world of adventure, through Tintin I travelled the world sitting in the little corner of my room and Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) took me back to India’s cultural and religious history. These books have been an important part of my childhood and I vividly remember how they were instrumental in shaping my perspectives. Be it associating fair with good and dark with evil as illustrated in the ACK series or the extent to which George from Famous Five had to put on a tomboyish image to be adventurous and be accepted by the boys as they solved mysteries, these stories have always created a certain image and understanding of what is good and evil or what girls and boys can do. It was only as I went on to college and took up a course in critically analyzing discourses and narratives that I started questioning these representations. This takes me back to the work undertaken by novelist John Berger who suggests that very young children begin to recognize patterns and visually read their worlds before they learn to speak, write or read printed language. So stories matter. Stories are powerful as they have a strong influence on a reader’s understanding of  values, norms, culture, history and the world around.
How Tale Weavers Was Born

I was at a park when I saw a group of little girls place their hands against each other’s and compare which one of them had a lighter skin. The one with the darkest tone was immediately called Kaali (the word for ‘Black’ in Hindi) much to her disappointment. And this was not all. The fairest amongst them shared her excitement of how she was the “Snow White” of the group. Completely aghast, I could not stop but question the extent to which media, be it literature, cinema or advertisements, continue to influence the society and reinforce the social and cultural norms that seek to normalize the ideal beauty. How can we change such narratives? Can we have stories that do not show women as a damsel in distress while waiting for her knight in the shining armour to come to her rescue? hen I shared this with Raghu Ramachandran, who is the Co-Founder and Chief Illustrator, the first thing he mentioned to me was Tinkle. In his words: “As a child, most of us have devoured Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha stories. Simple stories and visually engaging illustrations have enthralled readers for years. So how about we come up with simple conversations and colourful illustrations that represent diversity and address issues around gender, race, ethnicity on one hand while equipping children with life skills such as empathy, sensitivity that are key in addressing social challenges and building a community of changemakers on the other?”

Thus, Tale Weavers came into being and we decided to call the initiative “Tale Weavers - Weaving Tales, Breaking Stereotypes” and officially launched it in March 2017.Through Tale Weavers, we wish to create parallel narratives aimed at promoting tolerance and inclusivity. We believe that stories can be used as a tool to engage with children and break stereotypes around gender while creating awareness on subjects such as Menstruation, Safety Rules and so on. The topics are addressed in our stories in a manner wherein the characters live the stories they tell.

Storytelling Approach

Sharda and Raghu: Facilitating a workshop
To describe our approach to writing and illustrating stories, we use the term SMART-

Sensitive to the different social identities
Mixed bag of characters that represent diversity
Age-appropriate language
Realistic and relatable narratives, as they are presented in everyday contexts
Tolerance and inclusivity to promote diversity

Exploring Financial Literacy

I have been working in the nonprofit sector for over 5 years and have been with organizations that work in areas as diverse as education, gender and governance. One of the experiences I really cherish is my work with a nonprofit that helps equip women with financial literacy skills. By teaching them basic money management and other financial concepts, the course aimed at empowering them with requisite skills to make better finance decisions. As I saw the value and the impact of the course, I wanted to explore the possibility of engaging with children on financial literacy. It is a very important life skill and like any other skill, when children are exposed to it at an early age, they not only learn to value money and understand that it is a finite resource but also realize the importance of savings.

Thus,through the characters in our stories, we try and engage with children on what a bank account is, what a savings account is, what taxes are and why paying taxes is crucial while reinforcing the need to follow basic money management.

The Journey So Far

One of the most challenging aspects of running Tale Weavers has been finding illustrators. Illustrations are a very important element in all our stories and we understand the amount of time and effort it takes to translate the stories into colourful, engaging illustrations that represent diversity on every level. Achieving this goal continues this goal continues to be one of our major challenges.

On the other hand, we have had volunteer writers and illustrators who have always supported our work and helped grow our story base to 31 stories. That is something we value and express our gratitude to everyone who has helped us achieve this feat.

In addition to this, engaging with children across schools using our stories has been an enriching experience. To see them not only read the story but also critically engage in discussions around gender and breaking stereotypes is something that has been quite an interesting experience for us and a steep learning curve in itself.

Every story that our volunteers have written and illustrated and the workshops we have conducted over the last two years are extremely special to us. We have conducted story-reading sessions in schools and have also collaborated with other organizations who have used our stories in their work with children, and this for us, has been our biggest achievement. In addition to this, we also had a parent who had reached out to us and ordered 11 personalised copies of some of our stories to be given away as return gifts on their kid’s birthday.

Future Plans for Tale Weavers

Currently, all our books are available online as e-books. But to touch and feel the book that one is reading is an altogether a different experience which can hardly be replaced by e-books. So our first effort will be aimed at printing some our books so as to make them available to a wider community of young readers. We are also looking at creating read aloud videos of our stories as that will make accessibility of our books much more inclusive.

As an initiative that uses storytelling for change, we have also been taking on commissioned projects and collaborating with other organizations to create stories to address different life skills and social challenges. Going forward, we hope to connect and collaborate with other organizations and see how best we can utilize our skills and their expertise in creating a more positive, tolerant and inclusive learning space.

You can read Tale Weavers’ stories here or get in touch with them by sending an email to telltales@tale-weavers.org