“A child who reads will be an adult who thinks”

- So, let’s explore the dynamic world of children’s literature

Children’s literature is an important genre of book publishing that has a significant impact on children’s lives and their development. We all have learnt the first lessons about different cultures, beliefs, moral and ethical values, such as honesty, kindness, and fairness through story books. It has the power to shape young minds and help children develop in a variety of ways, so it should be valued and encouraged.

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Having good exposure to nice literature at a young age helps to improve children’s reading skills, vocabulary, and comprehension, as well as encourages a love for reading and learning. These books also encourage children’s imagination and creativity, helping them to think outside the box and consider new perspectives. Later in life, a well-read person can better cope with their emotions, develop empathy and understanding of others, and explore the complexities of the world around them.

To better explore the latest trends and developments, Smita Dwivedi interacted with Himanshu Giri, CEO, Pratham Books; Shivnarayan Gour, Fellow at Eklavya Foundation; Prashant Pathak, Publisher, Wonder House Books; and Richa Jha, Founder and Publisher Pickle Yolk Books and brings a first hand report.

AABP: What are the trends and developments in the children’s literature?

Himanshu: There is a significant focus on publishing storybooks on a wider range of topics and themes in the children’s literature segment in India. According to a report published by the Association of Indian Publishers and EY-Parthenon in May 2021, the onset of digital publishing has further changed the supply-side paradigm, increasing challenges concerning intellectual property, piracy and the copyright ecosystem. There is a strong need for publishers to focus on enabling access to diverse, affordable and quality books for every section of society. Additionally, there is a need for the government to provide a conducive regulatory landscape to meet the various challenges faced by the publishing industry. Print books currently dominate the publishing landscape in India, with digital formats accounting for a very small share of the market, according to industry participants in the same report. However, e-books and audiobooks are expected to be critical growth drivers in the future.

Shivnarayan: In the last few years, there has been an increase in the pool of good books in the field of children’s literature. Diversity can now be seen in children’s literature, diversity of styles and local languages is now visible. Established writers, poets and publishers of the country are also making an important contribution in making children’s literature, and on the other hand, children’s voices are also heard in today’s children’s literature, the works written by children are included in the form of books. In a way, children’s literature has the task of bridging the gap between children and adults.

A few years ago, according to a study by Tata Trust’s Parag Initiative, children’s literature accounts for only 5% of India’s publishing market, which is growing at an annual rate of 20 to 25%. The government has been the biggest buyer of children’s literature in the country, 30 percent of children’s literature goes to urban areas, and 70% is meant for distribution in rural areas, it is a matter of concern that only 20% reaches there. So there is also a concern about the reach of children’s literature.

Prashant: There are two areas which are seeing significant growth in the Indian literature segment – one is books about early skills learning which can be an introduction to different vocations and professions and another one is self-management and self-learning. These trends I believe are here to stay and young parents are motivated to impart such education to kids at a very early age.

Richa: Picture book biographies are already the next big thing in this segment, and it is only going to get bigger, more innovative and more wholesome in the way more and more publishers take to them. The other segment that is poised to spread its wings wider is green literature across all age groups and formats. A need of the hour indeed, there couldn’t be a better time for the creators to fix a steady gaze on it.

I also see Graphic Novels taking on a more central place within the ambit of children’s literature, again, across all age groups. With a stunning range and depth of socially-engaging subjects and themes, and visual styles being used, our graphic novels will surely soon be travelling beyond our borders.

AABP: What was the impact of pandemic and how are you moving forward?

Himanshu: Hybrid learning models in schools and at home have been one change we have noticed after the pandemic and ensuing school closures. Another change has been that parents have become far more involved in their children’s reading and learning journeys because they spent more time with them at home during lockdowns. Overall we have observed through our on-ground partners using our storybooks and curated Reading Programmes with children, that each of the stakeholders in the education system, be it the child or the parent or the teacher or the institution, everyone has understood the need for blended learning using a combination of online and offline learning models as a result of the pandemic.

Shivnarayan: The pandemic has done a task of connecting children and adults with books. People have also got an opportunity to emotional bonding with each other and to see life in new contexts during this period. The children have been able to read books for fun since they were away from the pressure of textbooks and fear of exams for two years. Although it is a different matter that it cannot be seen everywhere. This can be seen more today in those areas where there was sufficient availability of books.

Prashant: Though the government did not place books as an essential category product during the pandemic but people, in general, understood the necessity of books during such times. What we have experienced post-pandemic first that people are going out to bookstores to explore and buy and secondly the market for trade books especially in the children segment is growing whether it’s a general novelty, story or activity books.

Richa: I’ve seen a growing acceptance of stories that aren’t necessarily all sugar and honey. The pandemic-led complexities in and around our lives made readers reach out for literature and reading resources that could help them make sense of and deal with the vagaries that we were hit by. This readiness for children’s books addressing the so-called more difficult subjects like death, separation, displacement, loss and so on became visible.

AABP: Is there any challenge that’s worth a mention?

Himanshu: At Pratham Books, our mission is to put ‘A book in every child’s hands’. To this end, we have worked over the past two decades to publish engaging, contextual multilingual storybooks on a wide range of themes and have distributed over 30 million copies of our print books with an estimated readership of 50 million children. As we continue to scale our work through partnerships with like-minded organisations and individuals, we are cognisant of the reading gap that has widened during the pandemic when schools were closed for almost two years, for children who did not have access to digital infrastructure and connectivity. This has strengthened our resolve to continue to do our best to get books to children from underserved and marginalised communities.

There is also no structured consortium of children’s book publishers who are working towards ensuring that good quality literature is made accessible to every child in India. Now is the time to work together to create a reading ecosystem for children, with the National Education Policy 2020 recommending the need to focus on the use of storybooks in the classroom.

Shivnarayan: There has been a lot of learning loss in two years. This has been challenging especially for the children studying in the early classes. It’s going to take time to make up for it. Due to the New Education Policy 2020, the children of pre-primary level will also now be included in the purview of formal education. Anganwadi will be linked with school education. Keeping these circumstances in mind, literature will now be needed.

Prashant: The biggest challenge of being an independent Indian publisher is that at policy level, we are often ignored. We are looking for more formidable support which can strengthen the trade and we can not only publish in India but at a global level like other multinational companies do.

AABP: What is the significance of books in mother tongue?

Himanshu: Millions of children lack access to good storybooks in mother-tongue languages. We believe that all children should have access to high-quality storybooks in their own language – books that engage, inform and open their minds to worlds beyond their own. When a child reads a storybook in her mother tongue, she has a bridge to the language of instruction in school, enabling her to transition to the formal school system easier.

Shivnarayan: It cannot be overlooked that not only do children learn faster in their mother tongue, but opportunities to read in their mother tongue also make them more creative. According to research, the opportunity to talk and read in the mother tongue makes their thought process more active with an improved level of imagination.

Every child deserves to fly high with their imagination, so giving them opportunities to read in their mother tongue means fuelling their thought process and imagination. The surrounding environment has a big role in learning. For the child, the family and surroundings enrich language and facilitate the process of learning. That’s why we have always been talking about peer learning. In such a situation, the mother tongue is very important in the development of the child.And if children get to read books in their own language, it will play a very important role in their development.

Prashant: In general, the important thing is that families need to read together irrespective of whether it is a language that originates from the mother’s side or the father’s side,given that our country is a multi-lingual and multi-cultural heaven.

Richa: I was at a school session with the middle-schoolers in a government school in Calicut where after a brief reading from one of my books, I gave them a story to create. While the bulk of the class plunged headlong into it, I had a small row of young girls hesitantly ask me if they could tell their story in Malayalam. I can’t describe the sudden spark and twinkle in their eyes the moment they got an enthusiastic nod from me, and the degree to which their engagement with the activity rose. And before I knew it, there were others in the classroom who switched from English to Malayalam with the same gusto. It’s just one of the tens of examples I could share on the power of stories in our mother tongue – either to read or to create because it is our most spontaneous form of expression that the child is familiar with. The more books they read in a language that keeps them most closely rooted to their zone of comfort, the more their minds will be at ease to creatively engage with the stories, and the stronger their cognitive grasp over both what’s being said and what’s implied, and the wider their imagination will soar.

AABP: How you see the role of translations in children’s literature?

Himanshu: Providing storybooks in their mother tongue languages is essential for children who never had access to storybooks. While we are working towards nurturing creator ecosystems to publish more language-first storybooks for children, it is also important to translate storybooks into as many mother tongue languages as possible to share the joy of reading with children in many languages. Through our award-winning open-source platform StoryWeaver, we have even created online translation tools to help people translate more storybooks into regional languages. For children to acquire strong reading skills, they must have access to quality reading material in their own language. It has been our constant endeavour to bridge this gap by publishing enjoyable books in multiple Indian languages through translations. Translation is a very powerful tool for creating books in various languages.

Shivnarayan: If there is better literature in any language, then making it available in other languages can be a good initiative. But actually, translation is a challenge in itself. Apart from English, Eklavya has published books translated from many other languages such as Japanese, Italian, Norwegian, etc. to Hindi and English. But we have not got a good response.

Prashant: It plays an important role to ensure that no stories are lost in one corner of your world, it helps is creating an ambient environment for future adults to understand their surroundings.

Richa: Translations are the quickest and surest way for our children to access the many worlds that they are not (and may never be) a part of. Translated literature gets the reader to travel, explore, to belong in another child’s life and world; what more effective way to build empathy in them? At the same time, literature shared from other languages is also what gets them to dwell upon the universality of some experiences while also enjoying the peculiarities of others that are more culture-specific.

AABP: Any message for our readers?

Himanshu: Read Books!

Shivnarayan: May everyone get good books. People can live together in the community. Creativity should be developed in all children and they all get better chances.

Prashant: Make reading a joy! Do not teach what you want to teach, find out what the kids in this generation want to learn and provide them with the resources.

Richa: The lack of state support to independent publishers of children’s books – be it through fellowships and publishing grants, or a regular and guaranteed uptake of our books for libraries – is a telling sign of where non-academic reading stands in the scheme of things on a national level. I hope we see this change in the years to come.

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