teachers Posts

Julia Donaldson in India, Jan 2018

Julia Donaldson

Universally adored children’s writer Julia Donaldson toured India in January 2018. The reception she received was heartwarming. Wherever she went there were crowds of excited children and parents. Even at the specially organised event by Scholastic India of school librarians and teachers there were many who while learning from Julia Donaldson’s performance were completely star struck — you could see it in their eyes and later when innumerable group photographs were being clicked. It was an incredible experience to witness.

Here is an article I wrote about Julia Donaldson’s trip in January. It was written days after her departure from India but never was published till today. It was an honour to meet Julia Donaldson for her humility shone through as did her vast amounts of experience in inculcating the love of reading in children. She was keen on telling a good story to the children and infecting them with the joy of reading. While being a fantastic storyteller she also shared her experience of working on the technically-sound phonetic books like the Oxford Reading Tree ( ORT) books that are introduced as part of school curriculums worldwide. According to her it was a big learning curve for it taught her how to focus on telling a story within the limited number of consonants prescribed for a particular level without losing her trademark touch of creating rhyming and play books. 

Note: Follow the links embedded in each title and it leads to the book page on Amazon India. 

Julia Donaldson MBE and former UK Children’s Laureate is to the world of picture books what Stephen King is to horror stories and both have an enviable fan base. Like Ed Sheeran, Julia too began her career busking. She enjoys performing and always has a repertoire in mind before going on stage but willingly adapts if the occasion demands it. As Julia says “audiences and moods vary depending on whether you are performing in a bar, a street or in schools.” She usually performs with her husband Malcolm who accompanies her on the guitar. Their thorough professionalism at managing crowds was evident after a performance ended when Malcolm picked up his guitar and sang while going up and down the queues of eager yet restless folks awaiting their turn to have their books autographed by Julia.

When Julia Donaldson’s tour of India was announced excited adults squeaked “Her picture books are fabulous! The illustrations! AndGruffalo…Will he be there as well?” Chirrups of delight from the children who became eager volunteers at every performance! She would call upon children from the audience to come up on stage to play minor roles in the stories she enacted such as SuperwormThe Ugly Five,and What the Ladybird Heard. Ideally Julia prefers it if her audiences have read some of her “play books” in advance as it enriches the experience. This fear was put to rest in India. Whichever city she visited the enthusiastic crowds of children and adults alike sang with her. It was like being at a pop concert where the  hysteria of the audiences upon seeing Julia Donaldson in flesh was worth witnessing.

The crowds in India were far larger than any she has performed before anywhere else in the world. Yet the warm, cuddly, grandmotherly figure with a radiant smile that lit up her already twinkling eyes remained unperturbed. She performed happily even though some of her little extras decided to plonk themselves on stage to read the pile of picture books placed in a pile rather than participate in the sing-along!  Despite battling terrible bronchitis Julia Donaldson managed to mesmerise folks with her storytelling. Certainly she had sophisticated props; mostly recognizable characters sketched by her long time illustrator Axel Scheffler, yet she relied mostly upon vast dollops of imagination to make her stories come alive.

Julia Donaldson’s magnificently magical storytelling is technically perfect in using rhythm and wordplay. She demonstrated to teachers that while sharing light-hearted stories with new learners it is easy to convert a simple classroom into a vibrant one with music and colour. A happy child learns fast. The importance of reading is critical to her and has always been — she taught her younger sister to read! Of the nearly 200 books Julia Donaldson has written the bulk are phonic readers; requiring her to blend vowels and consonants precisely according to early learning rules of phonetics. This is in keeping with her fascination for sound patterns and letter stories.

Julia Donaldson grew up in a home filled with music and poetry with her grandmother instilling a lifelong passion for Edward Lear’s nonsense language —in The Giants and the Joneses Julia invented Groilish! (Later to her delight she was commissioned to write a sequel to Lear’s “Ówl and the Pussycat”.) Age 5 she was presented by her father, a still treasured edition, of The Book of Thousand Poems inculcating in her a dream to a poet/lyricist. Her mother would play a version of “antakshri”, encouraging her daughter to find a word beginning with the last syllable of a word she had uttered. All of which helped Julia while writing her books in blank verse.   

In the 1970s she worked in a publishing firm while contributing songs and plays to radio. One of these was A Squash and A Squeeze which an editor recollected two decades later persuading Julia to turn it into a picture book.

Julia Donaldson’s fascination lies in experimenting with well-known folktales. In the Gruffalo it was the retelling of an ancient Eastern tale where a little girl goes into the forest and tames a tiger that follows her meekly home. But Julia was stuck for an appropriate rhyming word for “tiger” so used “Grrr… “ Rest they say is history! She recalls fondly that her sons could never cross a bridge without enacting the Three Billy Goats, now she hears of picnic expeditions that revolve around a Gruffalo hunt!

Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide, translated into many languages. She structures each book carefully paying close attention to her conclusions: “She does not like rosy endings that tell the child that it was all a dream. Sealed endings are not to her liking.” In 2014, 40p of every pound spent on buying picture books in UK, went to Julia Donaldson. It was more than spent on Harry Potter books! On Christmas Day 2017 The Highway Rat premiered on television as an animated film, fulfilling an annual ritual of converting a Julia Donaldson picture book into film since 2012 when Room on the Broom was nominated for an Academy Award. ( For Christmas 2018 it will be Zog and for Christmas 2019 The Snail and the Whale are to be adapted.) 

Running on the Cracks is the only young adult novel she has written. It has her characteristic gentle empathetic touch without underplaying hard issues such as immigrants, mental health, sexual predators and runaway kids. Even so “she would rather make picture books that allow her the freedom to play with words that get made in a shorter time than writing a novel which takes some effort.”

Ultimately Julia Donaldson firmly believes that children should read a variety of genres including comics – give them anything that appeals to them!

And yes, Gruffalo came. Many selfies were taken!

8 Dec 2018


On readership by Philip Pullman

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman is a selection of his essays and speeches delivered during the course of his career. There is a lot of wisdom buried amongst these pages. A book to dip into and think about. For instance the following extract is from his essay “Intention” discussing the author’s intention on when he embarks upon writing a book. A question he says that is usually reserved for authors at literary festivals where the audiences need to be entertained. He illustrates the problematic nature of such a question by extending the argument to that of labelling books with an age figure.

The final aspect of ‘intention’ I shall look at here is to do with audience. ‘What age of reader is this book written for?’ is a question that different authors feel differently about. Some are quite happy to say, ‘It’s for sixth and seventh graders’, or, ‘It’s for thirteen and upwards.’ Others are decidedly not. In 2008 most publishers of children’s books in teh UK announced that in an attempt to increase sales they were going to put an age-figure on the cover of every book, of the form 5+, 7+, 9+, and so on, to help adult purchasers in non-specialist bookstores decide whether a particular book would make a suitable present for a particular child. They met a passionate and determined resistance from many authors, who felt that their efforts to write books that would welcome readers of a wide age-range were being undermined by their own publishers, and that the age-figure would actively discourage many children from reading books they might otherwise enjoy. The argument continues, but again it shows the problematic nature of ‘intention’. Does age-guidance of any sort imply that the book is intended for a particular kind of a reader? My own view is that the only appropriate verb to use is, again, hope rather than intend. We have no right to expect any audience at all; the idea of sorting our readers out before they’ve seen the first sentence to me presumptious in the extreme. 

I too have my reservations about this given that this principle is increasingly being turned on its head by bracketing the child’s reading to what is deemed as “age appropriate” rather than allowing them a free run of book collections whether at the school library or at bookshops/ bookfairs. Off late this basic principle is being turned on its head by adults discouraging children to pick up a book that has been labelled in this manner as not being age appropriate. Horrific turn of events given that this was not the intention at all. Age-guidance numbers were merely that — guiding principles. These numbers are not meant to bracket the child’s reading and thereby curtail their enthusiasm in reading. Children ( like adults) test themselves constantly and evolve in their reading habits by flitting between easy and challenging books. Whereas emprical evidence as collected in the bi-annual Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Reports ( KFRR) show that if children are allowed to pick up books for themselves there are greater chances of them becoming lifelong readers. ( These reports have been published across continents including India after conducting surveys in various cities, tier 2, and tier 3 towns too.) So it is not a good idea to prevent children from accessing books. If they do not understand something they will ask or drop it and return to the book later. But don’t straitjacket their reading in this manner.  Philip Pullman is absolutely correct in expressing his reservations about the intention of publishers on printing age-guidance numbers on the back cover of children’s literature.

Philip Pullman Daemon Voices ( ed. Simon Mason) David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2017. Hb. pp. £20

27 February 2018 

Storyweaver, Pratham Books

final-logo-pratham-booksWelcome to StoryWeaver from Pratham Books : http://www.storyweaver.org.inbanner-2-fc6332eba5193186348e9c5190fee65b

A whole new world of children’s stories. It is a platform that hosts stories in languages across India and beyond. So that every child can have an endless stream of stories in her mother tongue to read and enjoy. StoryWeaver is an open platform designed to be innovative and interactive. It invites both, the weaver of stories and the reader to connect and share the fascinating world of words and illustrations. This then, marks a new chapter in children’s literature and publishing. Come discover the magic of stories and the joy of reading – a cornucopia that will delight endlessly.

Medianama has a wonderful article on Pratham Books and Storyweaver. It is available at: http://www.medianama.com/2015/09/223-pratham-books-open-source/ But I am also copy-pasting the text in case it is not easily available sometimes.

Non profit trust Pratham Books has launched StoryWeaver, an open source digital platform, which features 800 stories in 24 languages (14 Indian and 12 international languages), with an image repository of over 2,000 images. These will be openly licensed and free of cost; content creators and other users will be able to read, download, translate, version-ise and print through the platform. Users will also be able to create and publish new stories, using the Creative Commons licensed content on the site.

The stories are available in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi and Odiya, along with English translations to all these languages (and Tamil and Telugu, excepting Assamese and Malayalam). It lists publishers like itself, African StoryBook Initiative and World Konkani Centre. The stories can be filtered by reading levels as well. The platform provides DIY videos for creating and translating stories. ( https://storyweaver.org.in/tutorials )

Anyone can translate stories by clicking on the ‘translate’ option under the selected story, which redirects you to login via Pratham Books, Facebook or Google+ and provides a host of Indian and African languages, along with French, German and Spanish to translate to. It displays the original text for reference and once done translating it lets users put in a new title, creator details and publish. Pratham Books says that it has generated more work opportunities for illustrators through their CC work. It also states that its primary users are teachers, librarians, writers and parents.

The trust hopes that this move will not only encourage more content creation but also address the scarcity of multilingual story resources in India and multiply it. With the launch of the platform, the trust has also created a “Weave a story” campaign where it has roped in children’s books writers Anushka Ravishankar, Soumya Rajendran, Rohini Nilekani and Rukmini Banerjee to write a special story for children. StoryWeaver will invite users to translate these stories and the trust expects that 100 new versions will spawn out of the 3 original stories. The first story to be launched on the platform is Ravishankar’s “Its All the Cat’s Fault”, which is expected to get 5 derivative versions today.

Google Impact Challenge shortlist
In August 2013, Google had shortlisted 10 non-profit organisations in India as finalists for its Google Impact Challenge intended to support a technology based social project with an award of Rs 3 crores. Among these was Pratham Books which intended to develop an open source platform to create and translate 20,000 e-books in minimum 25 languages to enable 20 million book reads by 2015.

Launch of books crowdsourcing platform
In June, Pratham Books launched a crowdsourcing platform called DonateABook which let nonprofits and schools raise funding for books in order to provide them to Indian children. It connected book seekers with people who wanted to give books away. Then, there were 30 campaigns on the website, looking to raise between Rs 3,500- Rs 110,000 for multiple cities and towns in India.

The projects have been assigned for underprivileged kids, kids from government schools in villages, immigrant construction workers’ children and more, and sought books across Indian and English languages. Individuals as well as organisations who wanted to get books for the children they work with could also start campaigns on the platform. The platform sought to get 50,000 books for children by this Children’s Day, which falls on 14 November every year.

The Bangalore-based trust publishes cost effective books across Indian languages. It publishes books across genres like fiction, science, history, maths and nature among others. It claims to have published over 300 original titles in 18 languages, totalling up to 2,000 books across genres of fiction, nonfiction, and story books on science, history, mathematics and nature

 

8 Sept 2015

Jumpstart, “Speaking in Tongues”, 29-30 Aug 2013, New Delhi

Jumpstart, “Speaking in Tongues”, 29-30 Aug 2013, New Delhi

Logo

Jumpstart is an annual platform provided in India by the German Book Office (GBO) that is targeted specifically at professionals within the children’s book industry, bringing together authors, publishers, illustrators, designers, booksellers and retailers, teachers and librarians. It began in 2009 with a small workshop for professionals. But over the years it has blossomed into a two-day event that is clearly demarcated by open sessions that include panel discussions and workshops/master classes. Each event revolves around a theme that is encapsulated well in three words — “Join the Dots” (2010); “Out of the Box” ( 2011); “Off the Page” (2012) and this year it is “Speaking in Tongues”. The event is scheduled to be held on 29-30 August 2013, the India International Centre, New Delhi. Since last year the Book Souk, matchmaking between publishers and authors, has become a key aspect of the festival too. Key publishers such as Scholastic India, National Book Trust, HarperCollins, Hachette, Young Zubaan, Tulika, Tara, Karadi Tales, Pratham, Eklavya and others have participated in past Jumpstart festivals with direct, positive outcomes. For instance Pratham Books has recently acquired the publishing rights to five books by the French artist Herve Tullet who participated in 2012.

Herve Tullet, signing a book for my daughter, Sarah Rose. Aug 2012

According to Prashasti Rastogi, Director, German Book Office, Delhi “This year we will focus on language. The festival is organised by the German Book Office New and Frankfurt Academy with support from the Federal Foreign Office, Germany. Our partners are Pratham Books as are our Knowledge Partners along with India International Centre and CMYK Book Store. Pratham Books is partnering for a session with language teachers and librarians.”gbo-white

The focus on publishing children’s literature in different languages, the challenges and the thrill of doing so are what are to be discussed at the end of August. One of the panel discussions during the open session will be “Translation is tricky. Dialogue is difficult.” Some of the questions being raised are “How can we know that a book that works in one language will work in another? Which stories travel? Which ones ‘stick’? Why are there so few children’s books translated from one Indian language to another? Are illustrations just as culture-bound as words? ” The other Open Sessions that sound fascinating are “Art as language, designer as author” where award-winning illustrators Julia Kaergel, Emily Gravett will be co-panelists with publisher Arundhati Deosthali and Dorling Kindersley Design Director Stuart Jackman; “What is your bhasha? What is your language?” A workshop for teachers and librarians where panel of speakers who have experiences to share about the teaching and learning of different languages and its impact on learning as a whole. Authors will share experiences on why they choose to write in a particular language and their own experiments with it. To the right is a photograph that I took last year from the open session when Herve Tullet was on stage. 20120823_104202

Such an event is important given that of 1.1 billion people in India, only 2 per cent are able to read and write English. The number of young people below the age of thirty is 550 million who are not only literate in English, but prefer to communicate in the language . The per capita number of book titles published in India is around 8 per 1,00,000 population. This number is much lower in comparison to those of the countries like the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France, and Germany. According to Rubin D’Cruz, Asst Editor, Malayalam, NBT, in terms of languages, the per capita number of titles published per 1,00,000 persons is 6.3 in Bengali, 6.2 in Gujarati, 5 in Hindi, 4.8 in Kannada, 4.2 in Telugu, 3.9 in Urdu, and 7.7 in Assamese (the highest). The publishing industry in Tamil and Malayalam are extremely active and although the Assamese speaking population is relatively low, the publishing industry in Assamese is a lot more active than it is in Marathi, Bengali, Telugu, Gujarati or Kannada. Some of the statistics from 2012 are:

• Hindi (422 million)
• Bangla (83 million)
• Telugu (74 million)
• Marathi (74 million)
• Tamil (60 million)
• Urdu (51 million)
• Gujarati (46 million)
• Kannada (38 million)
• Malayalam (33 million)
• Oriya (33 million)
• Punjabi (29 million)
• Assamiya (13 million)

From the National Youth Readership Survey, National Book Trust, 2010:
1. Of 1.1 billion people in India, only 2 per cent are able to read and write English.
2. 42% of India’s book-buyers are habitual readers; per capita consumption is Rs 80
3. Literate youth=333 m (2009) = 27.4% of total Indian pop or 73% of total youth pop. Signif: Rural (62%; 206.6m) and Urban (126.1m)
4. Pop of literate youth (2001-9) has grown 2.49% higher than the overall pop growth (2.08%)
5. Growth more rapid in Urban (3.15% p.a) than Rural (2.11% p.a.) areas.
6. Hindi is the principal medium of instruction, however as the youth go for higher education the proportion of Hindi as the medium of instruction declines.
7. Approx 25% literate youth read books for pleasure, relaxation and knowledge enhancement; more females read (27%) for leisure than males.
8. Schools are imp for readership development. 59% developed a reading habit in schools. Peer influence is also an important factor.

Actually publishing in India is exciting. As long as you understand the peculiarities of India like the multi-lingual character of the territory, the reverence Indian readers have for the written word. There exists a thriving middle class; increasing amounts of disposable income coupled with a disposition to read for pleasure rather than to clear an examination (a noticeable shift in recent years). Earlier the inclination was to buy books for children, but slowly between the ages of 8+ till graduation from university the casual reader disappeared, so there were no books available for this segment too. Today there is still a considerable vacuum in this age-group, but the market is slowly being transformed as is evident by the appearance of at least three new imprints for young adults in the past year – Inked (Penguin India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications) and Scholastic Nova (Scholastic India).

As the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, also patron of Sahitya Akademi, said in a speech he delivered extempore in 1962. “…to think that a language is crushed or suppressed by another language, is not quite correct. It is enriched by another language. So also our languages will be enriched the more they get into touch with each other … .” (p.319-320 Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007, Vol 1 Book 1, Sahitya Akademi. Eds, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A. J. Thomas.)

If the previous editions of Jumpstart are anything to go by, Jumpstart 2013 sounds very promising. I am definitely going to attend this year too!

Jumpstart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpK_38mScEg
Website and registeration: http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home

18 Aug 2013

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant. She has a monthly column on the business of publishing called “PubSpeak” in BusinessWorld online. 

Twitter: @JBhattacharji