There is a dire need of material for young people to read

As the pandemic rages on, the unsung victims of its after-affects have been the school children, especially in rural areas and among the economically weaker sections in the urban centres, with many children forced into either marriage or child labour. Tultul Biswas and Shailaja Srinivasan of Eklavya, a non-profit, non-government organisation that develops and field tests innovative educational programmes for children, discusses the issues at hand.

24 May 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?

You would expect confident readers with access to reading materials – books to pick up the reading habit during an extended time at home. However, children who are just learning to read, not independent readers or independent readers without access to books will find it very difficult to cultivate the reading habit. Quite frankly, it has not happened in rural areas and perhaps not also in urban clusters with economic challenges. In urban areas, there has been a demand for books during the lockdown. However, even here, there is a perceptible shift towards online reading – and eBooks being in demand rather than the print versions. The silver lining in the otherwise cloudy sky has been the community level reading rooms/ makeshift libraries and learning centres set up by grassroots organisations. These have been the only spaces where the printed physical books are still in demand.

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?

It’s obvious that this has skewed the entire scenario with hours of screen time for young children. Dryness of the eyes, headaches and other related ailments are now quite commonly seen. Not only that, emotionally too it has been a very challenging time for children – with no or rare avenues to meet friends and peers, constantly at home under the gaze of parents/ adults. The stress has been maximum on children who come from socio-economically weaker sections – where the lockdown has caused loss of livelihood and even pushed many (in both urban and rural settings) into child labour. Young girls being married off at a comparatively younger age is also being witnessed. In all, holistic development has gone for a toss!

Do you think a child now would be more receptive to books with audio-visual components added on? Have you published/ promoted any such books?

Yes. Children have been exposed to eBooks, pdfs, readers and audio books, perhaps more during the pandemic than before. We have also published eBooks, audiobooks, magazine flip books, which can be viewed on our website.

Yet, in a country like India, half of the population still don’t have access to the internet. What happens to these children?

The answer to this question is quite painful. We have found a number of children who were part of our primary school engagements in rural India in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra being pushed into child labour of various kinds. As a response, Eklavya restrategised its work in education to start Mohalla Learning Activity Centres – spaces for children within a neighbourhood to come together to interact with each other and a friendly adult – a local youth from the same neighbourhood – and learn together. It has been a successful model.

What the current year looks like for children’s literature in general and your organisation in particular in terms of books being produced and sold, and the general trend.

It has been a difficult year. With almost zero sales during the lockdown and publishing grants being curtailed as a result of CSR funds being affected afterwards, we had a series of books ready for the press but not going for printing. We then started some crowd-funding drives and got a good response – and about 70-75% of the waiting books have now been published. Sales is still not back to normal.

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?

Yes, it is more difficult to promote children’s lit than books for grownups. It has not been easy to promote children’s lit online only during the pandemic. Stakeholders in the publishing industry have made all efforts to promote children’s literature – online – with storytelling sessions, author interactions and interviews, eBooks, audiobooks, but these efforts have not converted to sale of books.

How the pandemic has affected the work in your organisation and how are you dealing with the fallout, in terms of number of books, number of copies?

Number of titles going to press was lower this year because of workflow disruption and gearing up the teams to work remotely. The number of copies printed was reduced due to budget constraints for production costs. With bulk orders suddenly gone and education/ literacy funds diverted to health, press-ready books had to be put on hold till funds could be raised for the printing costs. Book promotion and in general promoting children’s literature had the teams scrambling in the initial days of the pandemic, as in, our organisation we did not have a dedicated full-time team for web promotions, which was the only method to reach out to audience during lockdown.

How do you see the future for children’s literature in general and the future of your organisation in particular?

Future of children’s literature is bright as there is a dire need for a variety of material for young people to read. There will definitely be some changes in the method of working with the pandemic experience – perhaps most in marketing strategies.

Now, the big question. How to make children aware of the virus and the importance of hygiene and social distancing? Have you published any books on the subject or conducted classes/ workshops with them?

We have come up with posters, even creative worksheets for children to discuss their own experiences of the lockdown – trying to address their emotional and mental well-being. We have had street plays to make children aware of the virus and how to take precautions. But not a book, partly because we know that books reach a miniscule of the child population and the children, we work with need to be reached in more direct outreach methods. Partly also because the books we have seen about the virus till now are so didactic.

One book project that made you smile in these grim times.

Our heartwarmingly successful Ketto fundraiser for raising funds for printing press ready books.

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