Publishing - II: Learning channels should be a combination of online and offline

Himanshu Giri, CEO of Pratham Books, shares the lessons from the pandemic — more intentional commissioning, a dip in the number of books, more online marketing, and less direct engagement with audience

15 Mar 2021 | By PrintWeek Team

With schools shut for the better part of the year, and with children at home, you’d expect them to pick up the reading habit? Has it happened?
For the initial two to three months of the Covid-19 pandemic, we shut down our warehouse due to the nationwide lockdown. Things started to pick up when the lockdown was lifted. We saw a huge surge in online book sales from parents primarily. We assume that this trend means that more children are reading at home.

The usage of our open digital platform, StoryWeaver has grown exponentially, showing an increase in consumption of digital content for children. In the early months of the pandemic when schools closed, we saw a huge increase in the usage of the platform and an increased proportion of traffic from early Covid-19 impacted countries in Europe like Italy, France, and Spain.

As the demand surged for digital learning resources, we created programmes that could be used in low-resource environments. Our Covid-19 initiatives on StoryWeaver include the launch of StoryWeaver Learn at Home grade-wise curated resources in Hindi and English, scaling the ‘reading programme’ into four languages, adding to our repository of audio-visual books, YouTube videos and thematic reading lists, available in multiple languages. There has been a ~400% increase in the usage of StoryWeaver over the last eight months.

While physical schools are closed, online classes seem to be going on. How do you think the introduction of these online teaching methods will affect the holistic development of a child?
Children are in a Catch-22 situation, and so are parents. For the holistic development of a child, learning channels should be a combination of online as well as offline resources and both should ideally go hand in hand rather than an either-or situation.

Do you think a child now would be more receptive to books with audio-visual components added on? Have you published any such books?
StoryWeaver ( ) is an open source digital platform of multilingual children’s storybooks, and is embedded with easy-to-use tools to read online and offline, create, translate, download and print storybooks. During Covid-19, educators and governments were looking for resources that could be used independently by children. StoryWeaver’s audio-visual books — Readalongs — are very popular. They have been read and listened to over 1.3-million times in the last six months.

The Readalongs are audio-visual storybooks that early readers can listen to as they learn to read. These books have subtitles that mirror the audio narration of the story, which help children build language and pronunciation skills. They are also available as video stories on YouTube. We have found that such audio-visual formats aid in language development and reading ability for young children, and are invaluable resources for parents and teachers.

In a country like India, half of the population still don’t have access to the internet to access these online classes. What happens to these children? As someone involved with children’s literature, have you done any work towards this?
Yes, we have. When the pandemic turned the world upside down earlier this year, we were forced to think differently to continue to spread the joy of reading to children everywhere. And so we launched Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno! a dial-a-story campaign where any child anywhere can listen to hundreds of audio stories for free in English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada. The beauty of this campaign is that it doesn’t require the internet or a smartphone. Any child can listen to stories for absolutely free with just a basic feature phone.

This is one of the ways in which Pratham Books is working towards bridging the digital divide in enabling access to storybooks in mother tongue languages for every child. Global research also suggests that merely providing a library-like atmosphere can encourage children to spend more time reading. More than 50% of children in grade five in India cannot read at grade two level. Economic priorities mean children from low-income environments have little or no access to books at home. The library then becomes their sole resource for reading material.

Guided by the scarcity of infrastructure and resources that most government and affordable private schools face, we designed the Library-in-a-Classroom (LIC). Quite literally, a library that hangs on the wall, the LIC contains dozens of richly illustrated children’s books. With the LIC, the child enjoys invaluable physical proximity to printed books, which in turn encourages her to read and develop emotionally and intellectually. The LIC comes with approximately 100 carefully selected books that are laminated to ensure durability.

The books, languages, and reading levels are customised to the classroom and help teachers in multigrade classrooms. The unique format of the LIC invites children to freely interact with storybooks that are attractively displayed on the wall instead of locked up in a cupboard. This further induces shared reading and learning. Instead of by age, our books are categorised according to four reading levels, ranging from emergent to fluent. These are designed to help parents, educators and librarians select the right books and help children gauge their own level of fluency in a non-judgmental manner.

Through our crowdfunding platform Donate-a-Book, we have distributed storybooks and LIC kits to schools and organisations across the length and breadth of India.

Goshticha Shaniwar is a reading programme implemented by StoryWeaver in partnership with UNICEF, Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research & Training (MSCERT) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Maharashtra that was co-created and designed to instill the joy of reading by providing quality reading material every week to students from grades one to eight, reaching 65,000 schools across the state of Maharashtra. Content is disseminated via WhatsApp to teachers, who then use online and offline channels to ensure that all students can access storybooks even if they do not have access to digital technology. Every week students receive book posters, digital storybooks and an accompanying activity.

For One Day, One Story, our annual storytelling campaign celebrating International Literacy Day, storybooks were narrated in Hindi on Doordarshan in Bihar through a longstanding partnership with Oracle, reaching an estimated 20 lakh children across the state. We also had a host of celebrities lend their time to narrate the stories in many languages, and these videos reached far and wide through our partners and networks across the country via Whatsapp.

What 2020 was like for children’s literature in general and your organisation in particular in terms of books being produced and sold, and the general trend?
This year cannot be considered a normal year on any front and book distribution is no different. It will take some time before things return to even a semblance of normal. One good thing that has happened because of the pandemic is that more and more publishers are moving to dual formats, print and digital, which was not the case in the children’s literature space specifically outside of academic content.

As far as production of new books is concerned, we are developing almost 70-75 new books this year, which will be made available for free through StoryWeaver. Many of these titles will be printed as and when the situation stabilises. We have already printed and sold five new titles this year including a special storybook on the coronavirus called The Novel Coronavirus: We Can Stay Safe co-created with some of India’s finest authors and illustrators.

Do you think with schools closed, and book related public events not taking place, it’s more difficult to promote children’s literature than books for adults?
As the world went into lockdown, children’s books creators came together to offer free storytelling sessions and art activities on their social media platforms. In India too, Thoda Reading Corona and Read at Home With StoryWeaver were kickstarted as a way of sharing this wonderful world of books with children stuck at home.

There has also been a spate of online festivals, book talks and book launches, with bookstores and schools adapting to technology. Of course, nothing comes close to the experience of meeting authors and illustrators in real life, and for creators to engage with children at schools, fests and bookstores directly.

How do you see the future for children’s literature in general and the future of your organisation in particular? Do you see a drastic change in the way of your working or it would be business as usual in the future?
One lesson from the pandemic was that it is the arts and culture that gives us hope in difficult times. And children’s books are a beacon of hope with their stories and art. We will definitely see a change in the industry — there is more intentional commissioning, a dip in the number of books, more online marketing, less direct engagement with the audience but more with educators and librarians to get our books in the hands of children.

Have you published any books on the subject or conducted classes/ workshops with them?
Yes, we have published a storybook on Covid-19 for children — The Novel Coronavirus: We Can Stay Safe written by Deepa Balsavar, Rajiv Eipe, Bijal Vachharajani, Maegan Dobson Sippy, Meera Ganapathi, Nimmy Chacko, and Sanjana Kapur, and illustrated by Deepa Balsavar, Jayesh Sivan, Lavanya Naidu, Priya Kuriyan, Rajiv Eipe, Renuka Rajiv, Sheena Deviah, and Sunaina Coelho.

As 2020 unfolded into a very different year, we wanted to do our best as a children’s book publisher, to help young children understand the coronavirus and the confusing situation it had landed us all in practically overnight. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, everyone was affected by it, some more than others. However, children were at a particular disadvantage because they didn’t understand a lot of what was happening, and grown-ups were struggling to explain it to them.

This led to a spate of fantastic books across the world, like Nosy Crow’s Coronavirus, a book for children, attempting to communicate with children about the pandemic and dealing with social distancing and school closures. We realised that there wasn’t any book talking to children in the Indian context and in Indian languages, and StoryWeaver, being open access and multilingual, would make sure this necessary information was available to everyone who needed it.

One book project that made you smile in these grim times?
It is extremely difficult for children to find books in mother tongue and non-mainstream languages. Recently, we collaborated with UNICEF and the Tribal Regional Development Department in Rajasthan to build local language libraries in Vagadi and Sahariya. We conducted capacity building workshops to revive these tribal languages, where we helped teachers from the community translate 50 stories from Hindi to Sahariya and Vagadi.

The translation master classes and the discussion with teachers was a unique experience. It brings us great joy that such efforts will help in reaching children through storybooks in their own mother tongues and spread the joy of reading.