Jakarta. Children's book author Sekar Sosronegoro recently published "Prasangka Moka" ("Moka's Prejudice”), a picture book that teaches children about the values of tolerance. The book stars a little monkey who refuses help from other animals because it has heard so many bad stereotypes about them.
With so many people responding positively to the book's theme, we asked Sekar to recommend other children’s books that might also help parents teach their kids about tolerance.
Sekar replied with a list of six books, only one of them written by an Indonesian author.
Sekar said it's difficult enough to find books about tolerance for adults, let alone children.
"The word 'tolerance' sounds nice to the ears, but when you discuss the topic, there's always a lot of pain involved – because when we talk about tolerance, we also have to talk about intolerance. It’s a difficult topic. We don’t like being discomfited, so we tend to avoid it," Sekar told the Jakarta Globe on Saturday (15/04).
The Los Angeles-based author said in the US racial discrimination is still rife, more than a century after slavery was abolished in 1865, but at least discussion about it starts early in elementary school.
"People realize it's an important topic. Teachers take an active role in teaching children about tolerance. Parents also look for books that can help them teach their children about the subject," Sekar said.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, discussing sensitive historical events, for example what really happened in the 1965 anti-communist purge, almost always ends in quarrels.
"Another sensitive topic is the 1998 riots. Many adults deliberately avoid the topic, only brave parents would talk to their children about it," she said.
Despite the grim reality, Sekar said Indonesian parents should be encouraged to introduce the weighty subject to their children. These books should help them get started.
"Horton Hears a Who!" (1954) by Dr. Seuss
Adapted into an animated movie in 2008, "Horton Hears a Who!" is about the friendship between Horton the elephant and Who the dust.
Horton becomes a laughing stock in the forest because he's friends with a creature that's pretty much invisible to the naked eye.
However, Horton doesn't care about what others think and is willing to be friends with anyone.
"Horton even promises Who that he will save Whoville, Who's hometown that's in danger. The book teaches us that the strong should protect the weak," Sekar said.
Her favorite quote from the book, which sums up the moral of the story, is, "A person’s a person, no matter how small."
"Mostly Monsterly" by Tammi Sauer
Bernadette, the main character in "Mostly Monsterly," is a young monster who likes to do un-monsterly things such as baking and petting kittens whenever she's on her own.
But when she is with her friends, she would show her fierce side because she is afraid that her friends will avoid her if they know the truth.
"Through a quirky choice of character, the story reminds us that it’s okay to be different," Sekar said.
"Olivia and the Fairy Princesses" (2012) by Ian Falconer
"If Mostly Monsterly is about a little monster trying to fit in and be accepted by her friends without losing her identity, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses shows how fun being different can be," Sekar said.
Olivia is a little, observant pig with big questions about stereotypes in society.
At her friend’s birthday party, the girls wear "big, pink, ruffly skirts with sparkles and little crowns and sparkly wands." Meanwhile, Olivia is dressed in a French sailor shirt and matador pants.
She asks, "Why is it always a pink princess? Why not an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand or an African princess or a princess from China?"
The story ditches the stereotypical, western image of a princess, and encourages children to dare to be themselves.
As Sekar’s favorite quote from the book says, "If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore!"
"The Sneetches" from "The Sneetches and Other Stories" (1953) by Dr. Seuss
Another work by Dr. Seuss, this one discusses the serious issues of racial discrimination and prejudice in an honest and entertaining way.
Sneetches are yellow bird-like creatures. Some of them, called Star-Belly Sneetches, have a green star on their bellies. They said, "We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches."
The other common Sneetches, with nothing on their tummy, are called Plain-Belly.
"When a group thinks they're superior just because they're different physically – this shows how ridiculous prejudice is. The story ends with both groups realizing they've been played all along by a trickster," Sekar said.
According to Jonatan Cott’s 1983 book "Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature," Seuss said the story was inspired by his opposition to anti-Semitism.
"The BFG" (1982) by Roald Dahl
"The books tells children not to be fooled by physical forms or appearances," Sekar said.
"The BFG" is one of Roald Dahl’s classics, adapted into a movie by Steven Spielberg in 2016.
It tells the story of a friendship between an orphaned young girl named Sophie and the BFG, short for "big friendly giant."
Giants are routinely demonized in children's stories and folktales around the world. In Indonesia, for example, the Javanese folktale "Timun Mas" features a green evil giant named Buto Ijo, who kidnaps young girls.
But Dahl shows that not all giants are bad. There are the man-eating giants led by Fleshlumpeater, but the BFG is an exception.
"Just because I is giant, you think I is a man-gobbling cannybull!" BFG says in his own idiosyncratic vernacular.
The BFG even helps Sophie and Queen Elizabeth II to capture the evil giants.
"The BFG also reminds us that people who are different from us can help us solve important problems," Sekar said.
"Laskar Pelangi" (2005) by Andrea Hirata
Inspired by Andrea’s own childhood, "Laskar Pelangi" (The Rainbow Troops) is a story of 10 children from different backgrounds set in the remote Belitung Island off the coast of Sumatra.
The children are united by one goal: getting a good education so they can get out of poverty.
Sekar found the friendship between the children very heartwarming.
"Minority" characters such as the Chinese-Indonesian A Kiong, Harun, who has down syndrome, and myopic Kucai, are not singled out for their differences in the book.
"The teacher, Bu Muslimah, also loves her students equally," Sekar said.
According to local news outlet Detik.com, Laskar Pelangi has been translated into more than 40 languages.
It was also adapted into an award-winning film by Riri Riza in 2008, and as a musical in 2011.