TNM spoke to Suzanne Singh of Pratham Books, a not-for-profit children’s book publisher, which recently won a Library of Congress Literacy Award.

Cartoon of a young boy reading a book from Prathams facebook pageFacebook/Pratham Books
Features Education Monday, October 19, 2020 - 17:49

Pratham Books was set up in 2004 by Rohini Nilekani, Ashok Kamath and Rekha Menon with one basic mission – to put a book in every child’s hand. And 16 years since, the not-for-profit publisher has been doing just that and more. From changing the definition of story book with their ground-breaking initiative Story Card, in which stories are told in just four pages, to taking portable wall-mounted libraries across schools in the country, to making stories available for free on their now-extensive online portal StoryWeaver, Pratham Books has defined and re-defined the boundaries set up in the publishing world.

This year, the Bengaluru-based children’s book publisher was awarded a Library of Congress Literacy Award for the second time. They first received the International Prize in 2018 for their digital content platform StoryWeaver, and now the David M Rubenstein Special Response Award, which carries a cash prize of $50,000. Suzanne Singh, Chairperson of Pratham Books, attributes the award to their initiatives StoryWeaver’s ‘Learn at Home’ and ‘Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno’ (Give a missed call, listen to a story).

“The award recognises our responsiveness to the unique needs faced by children during the current unprecedented times, and our efforts over the past few months to spread the joy of reading to children everywhere during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Suzanne shares.

Over the years since Pratham Books was established, the publishing house has not just made a mark for itself, it has also taken children’s book publishing to a new level in the country. From their very first ‘Story Cards’ initiative, an ingenious way of taking short stories to children in the form of cards (mini storybooks with just about four pages), to their recent ‘Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno’ programme that lets children listen to stories on the phone, Pratham Books continues to create a literary revolution for children. They've also forayed into publishing story books not just in regional languages but in tribal languages as well. Additonally, their 'Donate-a-book' campaign aims at building crowdfunded libraries for children in remote parts of the country.

This year, even amid the pandemic, Pratham Books achieved great milestones, a reason why they were awarded the Library of Congress Literacy Award. With schools closed and children stuck at home, it was time to reinvent the classroom learning method.

Interestingly, Pratham Books' ‘Learn at Home programme’ on StoryWeaver has over 50,000 users. They have also increased engagement with government initiatives across India. For instance, the StoryWeaver Reading Programme has been launched across 65,000 schools via WhatsApp in collaboration with UNICEF and the government of Maharashtra. Pratham Books has not just increased its digital footprint but also found ways to accommodate the needs of children who may not have access to the internet.

Suzanne explains, “There has been a huge increase in the consumption of our digital books on the StoryWeaver platform – we have witnessed a 350% increase in readership just since March this year. Further, the demand for audio-visual books saw a 400% spike. We also witnessed an upward trend in global traffic, particularly from countries impacted early on by the COVID-19 pandemic such as Italy, Spain and France.”

She continues, “However, we’re deeply cognisant of the fact that all children don’t have access to digital technology and cannot participate in online learning. ‘Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno’ was a campaign that addressed the digital divide. All a child had to do was give a missed call to a number and she would get a call-back and be able to listen to a story in a language of her choice.”

About two lakh children across India have called in to listen to 3,50,000 audio stories when the initiative was launched in April 2020. “The campaign even reached remote villages in Chhattisgarh through our nationwide network of on-ground partners. We are currently running the third edition where children across India can listen to delightful stories from Pratham Books for free, in English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada,” Suzanne adds.

The Novel Coronavirus: We can stay safe, a break-neck speed project created in just a fortnight by 13 of India’s most prominent children’s writers and illustrators, is one among the books that is popular among children this year. Other popular books include P.S. What’s up with the climate?, launched in collaboration with WWF India, and Satrangi Ladkiyan and Satrangi Ladke by Kamala Bhasin.

Sharing some of the positive feedback Pratham Books has received this year, like that of a Bengaluru-based teacher who vouches for the books in keeping her students engaged and a mother from the United States who uses StoryWeaver regularly for her home-schooled children, Suzanne adds, “The Community Library Project has created a virtual community library called ‘Duniya Sabki’ on WhatsApp, which features StoryWeaver content. Innovations like this and open access storybooks are helping share the joy of reading in these difficult times.”

Suzanne tells TNM that Pravin Chenva from Cosmo Foundation in Karjan, Gujarat wrote to Pratham Books about how their ‘One Day, One Story’ campaign, an annual storytelling campaign celebrating International Literacy Day, was observed online. This year celebrities such as Saif Ali Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Chitrangada Singh, Tillotama Shome, Janhvi Kapoor, Athiya Shetty and Mithila Palkar came online to read Angry Akku and The Girl Who Could Not Stop Laughing for their ‘One Day, One Story’ campaign.

Admitting that the pandemic has changed publishing for children, Suzanne says, “A lot has changed in just six months. The pandemic has proved that the publishing industry needs to think differently to prepare for a post-COVID world. While Pratham Books has embraced technology and open licensing to achieve our mission of ‘a book in every child’s hand’, we do recognise that much more needs to be done.”

In parting, she brings up several important questions to be answered in the affirmative in order to continue educating and entertaining children across the globe — “Can state education systems and publishers come together to equip all schools with vibrant print and digital libraries? Can more publishers share and open-license their content? Can all publishing houses, governments and civil society come together to create a national reading campaign to encourage children to read more? Can donors support some of these efforts that will help children become independent readers and learners?”

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