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“Let’s Read” Indonesia Helps Children Understand Mental Disabilities

February 7, 2024

By Aryasatyani Sintadewi  

Reading can exert a powerful influence on children’s social and emotional development. Storybooks and young-adult fiction can introduce children to characters and situations that expand their capacity for empathy and help them become adults who are more accepting of others and less likely to lash out at those they perceive as “different.” Reading, in this respect, can prepare children to be part of a more humane and inclusive society.

Early in their social development, both at home and at school, children begin to encounter and wonder about physical and mental differences among their family and peers. Intellectual disabilities or behavioral disorders can be particularly confusing to youngsters, who lack the social experience to understand what they are seeing. Reading can help them navigate these situations. As young-adult fiction author Rebecca Westcott has written:

Children live in families; they are surrounded by adults with all their adult problems…. Life happens, and they are a part of that. Their books need to reflect what they hear, what they see. They need to recognize their situations in a book.

Let’s Read Indonesia Raises Awareness of Mental Health Issues

The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read in Indonesia has recently developed several new picture books for children with plots and characters that revolve around various mental disabilities. Play Me the Harmonica depicts bipolar disorder, Colorful Messages focuses on selective mutism, and Let’s Have a Water Fight! portrays a child with an intellectual disability. Each story is designed to help young readers make sense of these disabilities and remove the stigma that surrounds them.

Play Me the Harmonica by Shoba Dewey Chugani, illustrated by Singgih Cahyo and edited by Damar Sasongko and Eva Y. Nukman, tells the story of a little girl whose older brother, who loves to paint, has bipolar disorder. In one passage, the illustrator shows the brother, lost in his own despair, painting a picture so dark that it scares even the boy himself.

Illustrator Singgih Cahyo uses colors and facial expressions to convey the character’s inner experience to the reader. Bipolar depression is lonely and isolating, but the colorful illustrations invite the reader to understand and sympathize.
In Let’s Have a Water Fight! by Anna Farida, illustrated by Evi Shelvia and edited by Damar Sasongko and Eva Y. Nukman, a girl tells the story of a boy in her village named Alif who is obsessed with playing with water. But Alif is strange. He doesn’t know how to play with the other children.

The children make Alif go away. But when the girl sees him rejected and alone, she feels guilty and wants to help him. Her village in Central Java has a local tradition called gebyuran, which features a “water war” on the day before Ramadan. She invites Alif to join them, and he can’t stop laughing with happiness. Instead of shaming or shunning him because of his mental disability, the children in Let’s Have a Water Fight! learn to accept Alif and share in his happiness.

Colorful Messages by Dina Antonia, illustrated by Adinda Novalyawati and edited by Shoba Dewey Chugani and Damar Sasongko, is a story about acute selective mutism, a condition that renders sufferers unable to speak when they are anxious or under stress, even though they can speak normally at other times. In Colorful Messages, a little girl named Pelangi can’t sing along in class or join the fun at parties because of her disability.

Pelangi can cook. She can draw beautiful pictures, and the girls even overhear her speaking to her mom. But the book’s illustrations capture her loneliness and shame in public situations. In the end, the other girls reach out to her to make her their friend and help her overcome her social anxiety.

Reality in Fiction

Children occupy a world of imagination, and that is what makes childhood such an innocent time. But they also live in the real world, with all its troubles and contradictions. Storybooks are a delight to a child’s imagination, but they can do more: they can help them prepare for the world around them and the things about this world that are hard to understand, like mental disability.
Reading together is one of the best ways to introduce children to complex subjects like disability. Sooner or later, they will encounter people from other walks of life, people who are “different,” and reading can prepare them to open their minds and step into others’ shoes. With these new stories, available on our website in multiple languages, Let’s Read hopes to bring awareness of mental disability out of the shadows and to nurture the virtue of empathy for others among young readers, creating an antidote to stigma and bullying, and fostering a spirit of inclusion for all.
These and other stories on similar themes are available in multiple languages at
Aryasatyani Sintadewi is a Books for Asia officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Let's Read


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