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‘A book in every child’s hand’
Anukriti Sharma | Thursday, 13 April 2017 AT 12:30 PM IST
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Suzanne Singh, chairperson, Pratham Books, talks about enticing more readers and the use of technology for it. They are among the four recipients of the google.org grant.

Recently, Google’s charitable arm Google.org, announced grants of USD 8.4 million to four Indian non–governmental organisations in the education space. The four organisations — Learning Equality, Million Sparks Foundation, Pratham Books StoryWeaver and Pratham Education Foundation— — will receive the grant over the next two years to expand and scale up their activities and enhance the learning experience for students in the classroom. Pratham Books, now plans to abide to their mission of ‘a book in every child’s hand’ so that the most under-served children have access to reading resources, can learn and practise reading. We speak to Suzanne Singh, chairperson, Pratham Books to know more about their future plans and involvement of technology to woo more readers.

How do you think the google.org grant is going to help the organisation ?
Pratham Books received the grant to further develop StoryWeaver, an open source, digital repository of stories for children. The grant from Google.org will enable Pratham Books to massively scale the number of quality stories available on StoryWeaver and expand distribution and access to the platform by building technology-driven features like an offline version of the platform. There will also be focus on improving the translation experience on the platform and Pratham Books will have access to Google’s expertise in this domain.

At a time when people are moving away from hard copies due to the rise in e-books, how do you plan to garner their attention?
Rather than looking through the lens of print vs digital, Pratham Books believes in the power of print plus digital. StoryWeaver operates on an online-offline model where content creation happens online, but content consumption can be online or offline, which our outreach partners on the ground have made the most of. We have numerous examples of organisations translating content on StoryWeaver and then downloading and printing the stories, or sharing in classrooms via projectors.

Take for example Suchana, an organisation working with Adivasi children in Birbhum, West Bengal. Their educator-translators have translated over 60 stories in two tribal languages — Kora and Santali (Bangla scripts) — and will print 10,000 copies of the books to distribute to students.

Pragat Shikshan Sanstha is an educational enterprise working in Maharashtra and supporting schools, teachers and children in the district of Phaltan and other nearby areas. Its focus has been on setting up more libraries, something that not only benefits the school but also children from nearby communities. Teachers have downloaded stories from StoryWeaver and conducted read-aloud sessions in community libraries equipped with a tablet and a handheld projector.

Will you be exploring new genres and new languages to reach out to the masses?
Teachers and literacy organisations have asked us to add minority and tribal languages and dialects like Surjapuri to StoryWeaver to help create supplementary reading material for their students. Stories in Gondi, Banjara and Saurashtra have been created by enthusiastic community users, helping create a pool of stories in languages that are not represented in mainstream publishing. Of note are the 100 stories translated into Konkani by members of the Konkani Bhasha Mandal and volunteers from the Konkani Language department of the Goa University, having recognised the diminishing footprint of their mother tongue from the landscape of children’s literature.

Do you plan on involving more technology to woo readers?
Creative collaboration is at the heart of StoryWeaver, and we want to empower our community to create and disseminate more content in new and exciting ways. In the pipeline is a collaborative workflow model where authors, illustrators, translators, educators and NGOs can find and work with each other effectively on StoryWeaver. Plans are afoot to add audio to our stories, based on feedback from outreach partners and community users and our belief that listening is an essential pre-reading skill. A stronger transliteration tool for our translators is also on the cards. We believe that each of these enhancements will ultimately lead to more stories, in more languages for more children.

What are the major reasons behind children moving away from reading?
In India, there are critical supply shortages for reading resources for children — not enough books, in not enough languages, compounded by poor access and issues of affordability. As most publishers cater to middle and upper income urban audiences, demand based economics dominate, to the detriment of creating books for economically weaker groups, where the profit motive is low.

By openly licensing all content on StoryWeaver under the Creative Commons 4.0 license — one of the most liberal licenses — we give users not only the access to read stories in their languages for free, but also the power to create, translate and repurpose stories based on their own requirements, using tools embedded on the platform. Our stories have so far been read 1 million times (online and offline) and downloaded 1,00,000 times. Conversations with outreach partners on the ground, have only confirmed our belief that when given access to engaging, fun and beautifully illustrated stories, children will naturally gravitate towards reading.

We have all grown up listening to Indian folk tales but now the kids are more enticed by Western characters. Do you think we can get them involved in the same folktales again through books?
Pratham Books believes that children should be able to read stories which they can relate to — both culturally and linguistically, but that are at the same time diverse and inclusive. Our catalogue of print and digital books also includes folktales from different parts of the country like Kaka and Munni: A Folktale from Punjab’and First House: a story from the North East. We have also delved into the rich oral storytelling traditions that exist in the country, and created the Adikahaani series’— 10 books that have been written and illustrated by authors and illustrators who belong to four different tribes from Odisha. The stories were primarily folktales, illustrated in the Saura wall mural style (the art form common to all four tribes).

What are the other challenges that you face?
There is a dearth of experienced translators of children’’s books in many languages and this has prompted us to explore ways in which we can nurture the ecosystem of translators via masterclasses and video tutorials. Also connectivity continues to be a barrier to adoption and we are working on several solutions to address that.

Please elaborate on the future plans?
StoryWeaver envisions itself as one of the largest repositories of open source, multilingual stories for children. We hope to continue to inspire and empower everyone from first time writers, to professional translators, to illustrators to other book publishers to join the open source movement. As we grow, we will continue to improve our community’’s experience on the platform. Improving access is one such space we hope to better.  While internet access and mobile penetration continue to increase, we are cognizant of the fact that some geographies still have infrastructural barriers. We are working on an offline version of the platform to ensure that more children can access our joyful stories.

The author can be followed on Twitter @sh_anukriti

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