Innovative and original content for early education: the need of the day!

The ‘National Education Policy (NEP)’ lays emphasis on early childhood learning, which would mean learning starts at the age of 3 years. The focus is on the medium of instruction being in the respective mother tongue. Janani Rajeswari S explores how the publishing industry looks at creating content for this age group to enrich their learning.

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Over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6, indicating the critical importance of appropriate care and stimulation of the brain in the early years in order to ensure healthy brain development and growth. The National Education Policy emphasises on early childhood learning. Here, we talk to two publishers – Kalpavriksh, Pune and AdiDev Press, Gurugram to know how they gearing up for this change. Sujatha Padmanabhan and Tanya Majmudar are members of Kalpavriksh while Chitwan Mittal is from AdiDev Press.

AABP: Brief us about your journey in publishing:

Sujatha and Tanya: We target children from six to 14 years. Over 40 years, we work towards ensuring ecological, livelihood and cultural security of communities most dependent on biodiversity. Environmental education has been part of this work. Through locale specific education programmes, we have attempted to link children’s learning to their immediate natural surroundings and their social and cultural contexts in meaningful ways. Through such a programme in Ladakh, we came out with our first children’s book, The Ghost of the Mountains in 2008. A few years later, we published a couple of books for the Kachchh region. Though these were all developed for local use, we published them in English as well. The way the books were appreciated made us realise this aspect of our work (children’s book publishing) can help us reach a wider audience outside of the environmental and social sectors and create a wider impact.

Chitwan: AdiDev Press was born out of a passion for children’s picture books and South Asian culture. As an expat parent, I wanted to introduce my children to South Asian culture through picture books for emerging readers that tap into universal ideas, leveraging story-telling, beautiful visual elements and simple content to introduce the history and folklore of this part of the world. I couldn’t find what I was looking for and that’s how AdiDev Press came to be.

AABP: The National Education Policy(NEP) came into being in 2020. Following the pandemic, the children are now getting back to school. How do you think laying emphasis on the early childhood learning will help the publishing industry?

Sujatha and Tanya: If children are to gain foundational literacy by Grade 3, which is currently a huge challenge in our country, then children need access to a variety of reading material beyond the prescribed textbooks. Stories need to be read to younger children to gain ease of using language, learning new words and complex sentence structures. Books can be windows to worlds different from that of the children, and hence a way to expose them to the diversity of regions, geographies, cultures and lifestyles that exist in our country and also flora and fauna too. Laying emphasis on early childhood learning will encourage publishers to come out with more local, relatable and relevant books.

Chitwan: One of the most important things about books for children in this age group is being able to convey complex ideas in relatable terms. I think it’s important to imagine the child’s world when putting books together, what they would find interesting or relatable, rather than focusing solely on the morals they should learn. For instance, in our book, Service with Guru Nanak, we break down the message of service for children through instances like helping around the house or at school, helping friends or family members and serving the environment or community. Also, publishers have the freedom to be creative and push the boundaries in a way that textbooks, for example, can’t. For example, our book ‘J is for Jalebi’ alphabet book introduces kids to the Hindi alphabet in a fun way to help kids to remember what they learn.

AABP: How important is the role of the publishing industry in creating content for kids aged between 3 and 8 years? How do you see the children’s publishing industry with respect to creating original and innovative content books for early childhood or formative age group?

Sujatha and Tanya: This is the age when children get interested in reading. They go from understanding their immediate surroundings to exploring what else is there in the world. Thus, they are interested in both factual and imaginary books – they enjoy stories of all kinds as well as books on topics from bugs and birds to science and inventions to planets and galaxies. It is important for the publishing industry to produce content that sparks off children’s curiosity and imagination.

When we were kids, we barely had any Indian books to read. Over the last few decades, the children’s publishing industry in India has seen a sea change with them offering books of different genres to children. A number of these books bring out social and environmental issues very creatively and sensitively. We have books on things like climate change, death, gender identities and inclusion – topics which were never written about for kids earlier. Yes, there is always room for growth, but we feel that the Indian publishing industry is doing really well in producing innovative and original content.

Chitwan: Fortunately, the last decade has seen many new independent publishers contributing towards creating books that are experimental in form and content. However, there’s always more that can be done. India’s culture is vast and diverse, yet there seem to be a lot of books that talk about the same people and places. I would like to see (and publish) more books on lesser-known stories of people from India who deserve to be known. Our two board book biography series, Women in Science and Women in Sports are a start, and we hope to do more books like them.

As for innovative formats, India has a large pool of talented illustrators and designers. However,there are few or no pop-up books, scratch-and-sniff books, or books in unconventional sizes or formats for young readers, which are quite common in the West. These are areas with great potential because these kids enjoy reading as an experience that engages all their senses. For example, our books for young children Are Your Emotions like Mine and My First Hanuman Chalisa have done extremely well in the Indian market and are already being reprinted. Parents in India are placing greater value on finding quality content for their children. Thanks to social media, they come to know about the books before they are published and engage directly with independent publishers.

AABP: Since you are into niche publishing, how has the reach been towards this age group?

Sujatha and Tanya: We have published books for ages 6 and above and they have been very well received. We attempt to talk about serious environmental issues in a manner which is engaging for kids and to introduce readers to remote regions, local communities and lesser-known wildlife through our books. Parents value such books.

AABP: What are the biggest challenges faced by the publishers into early childhood books?

Chitwan: Creating content for emerging readers is always challenging. For instance, writing in rhyme is very difficult. It can easily sound stiff or forced. So, it takes a lot of time to get the metre and rhyme scheme right, so that it sounds fun. It’s also important to find writers who avoid being didactic or old-fashioned just because they are writing for children. Illustrators should ensure that illustrations help convey the message or idea imaginatively. Then the choice of format. We chose board books because they are easy for young children to hold and don’t tear or get damaged easily. This involves finding the right kind of paper and press to print them. Although the books may look simple as they don’t have much text, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.

AABP: Since NEP also focuses on the need for medium of instruction in schools to be their mother tongue/local language/regional language. Tell us a little about the regional language publishing industry scene.

Sujatha and Tanya: At Kalpavriksh, we publish books in English. We also partner with regional language publishers to get them translated. Our books have so far been translated into Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, Telugu, Tibetan and Nepali. This way, our reach is much wider than what it would be if we published the books ourselves.

Chitwan: At AdiDev Press, we strongly believe in the power of learning the mother tongue. We have planned a series of bi-lingual books, starting with the first few in Hindi and English. Our upcoming titles include: A Pagdi for Singh, One Elephant, Two Monkeys, Animal Band and Colours with Radha Krishna. These books, written in verse, will introduce children to vocabulary related to Indian clothes, musical instruments, colours and numbers in a fun, whimsical manner. We hope that in the future we will be able to publish translations of these books in many other regional languages of India.

I think it is very important for children to have access to books and reading material in their respective mother tongue. Regional language publishing in India is strong in some states, but I believe there’s more focus on adult books than books for children.

AABP: Do you think that NEP will help the growth and the expansion of the publishing industry?

Sujatha and Tanya: The National Education Policy (NEP) talks about setting up school libraries particularly in villages. Hence, Indian publishing houses could be approached by State Education departments for procurement of a rich variety of books. These same books could also be translated into regional languages, if need be. The NEP also states that curriculum should be redesigned to reflect the local context of the child to make learning easier and more meaningful for the child. For instance, we have published the book People & Wild life inspired by true stories of community-based conservation from across India. We have localised books such as A New Home for Ajiri, Shero to the Rescue and Khari Journeys through Kachchh that are all based in Kachchh region. The Ghost of the Mountains is about Snow Leopard conservation in Ladakh. Each of these introduces the reader to different regions, peoples and wildlife. Books from Indian publishing houses could also help in bringing local contexts to the child alive.

Chitwan: That depends on whether schools take NEP as a reason to stock their libraries with good children’s books and work with publishers to ensure that children have access to reading material created especially for them. We, at AdiDev. would welcome the opportunity to partner with schools to help more kids read our books. The emphasis on early childhood learning will, I hope, encourage more parents to pick up books that kids can enjoy outside of school. This is a great thing for the publishing industry, which means more demand for quality children’s books.

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