Romani Children’s Books: A prerequisite for Romani pride and intercultural understanding

John Anusavice

December 10th marked the United Nation’s anniversary of “International Human Rights Day.” Continuing with its goals since its inception in 1948, the United Nations has announced that it will hold a year-long campaign commemorating the Declaration. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, reaffirmed that the campaign would encompass “a year of intense and profound reflection on the continuing and vital importance of each and every one of the 30 articles”.[1] Even though there has been great progress in promoting civil liberties, Mr. Zeid stressed the dangers of overlooking past historical atrocities and the gross infringement on unalienable rights. Specifically, Mr. Zeid stated: “as World War II and the Holocaust grow distant, that awareness appears to be evaporating at an alarming rate, and the enormous progress that has been achieved through progressive enactment of human rights principles… is being increasingly forgotten or willfully ignored.” [2] And indeed, along with other peoples, the Romani history, including their extermination and deportation during the Holocaust, is often forgotten.

Article 27, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, underscores that education should be inclusive, and open to all regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.[3]  Moreover, it states that education should be “directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”  For a society to be genuinely free and adhere to the UN’s human rights standards, the right to an inclusive education is necessary. Besides, inclusive education underscores the need for diversity in children’s literature which plays a vital role in the development of an individual.

Growing up in the U.S., I never came into contact with Romani children’s books. However, on numerous occasions, I came across the fictitious “Gypsy” character Esmeralda in the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  As a child, I was dispirited to discover that Roma were depicted as “kidnappers” and Esmeralda as a mysterious “seductress”. I also read  Shadow, The Sheep-dog, written by British author Enid Blyton, which tells the story of a young boy who had lost his dog and later finds him drugged and caged in a “Gypsy” caravan. These stereotypes illicit intense negative emotions, feelings of inadequacy, and exclusion. They helped me understand the importance of the need to change the portrayal of Roma in children’s literature.    

Moreover, this past summer, I had the privilege of meeting several Roma youths in Romania. I asked them what they thought of how Romani people are portrayed in the mainstream.  Analogous to my experience as a child, many felt that some children’s literature degrades Roma people and thus damages their self-esteem; they said they feel “different” and excluded. Furthermore, all agreed that the discrimination that they have encountered stemmed directly from the spread of harmful stereotypes such as the ones that appear in the literature. Denice, a young Roma woman studying to become a doctor in Bucharest, recalls verbal abuse and offensive language by teachers and fellow students. Denice attributes a lot of the hostility stemming from a pattern set forth by literature books and the media.

The stories of these young Roma made me treasure, even more, the New Storytellers Project and other similar initiatives aiming to produce Romani children’s books.  Building an image of Roma void of stigma is vital for exposing both non-Roma, and Roma children alike, to the culture of Romani people. Furthermore, diversifying children’s literature creates a foundation of tolerance and empathy in young children that will be present with them their entire lives.

[1] UN News Centre Editors. “Human Rights Day: UN Launches Campaign for 70th Anniversary of Universal Declaration.” UN News Center, United Nations, 10 Dec. 2017, www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=58253#.WjqzrjeQyUl.

[2] UN News Centre Editors. “Human Rights Day: UN Launches Campaign for 70th Anniversary of Universal Declaration.” UN News Center, United Nations, 10 Dec. 2017, www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=58253#.WjqzrjeQyUl.

[3] “Stand up for Human Rights .” Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights | Stand up for Human Rights | UN Human Rights Office, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commisioner, www.standup4humanrights.org/en/article.html?article=26.