Books are important where computers are yet to make inroads
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? Have you seen a rising trend of parents buying more books for their wards?
Covid-19 caught us unawares. This lull in the dull and boring schooling routine could indeed be used to allow children go easy on whatever they liked to do indoors. Books and seamless reading indeed could have played great part in making the times fun, the profits of reading included. I am speaking from a very subjective experience, as a founder of a village ‘library and activity centre’ in Chhatola, beyond the Nainital district. With the abrupt closure of schools, even we had to shut down indefinitely.
We couldn’t break the rules for safety, though personally I would have loved to find some wiggle room, and used this time to offer children read books enjoyably, get unconditionally interested in diverse world cultures and strengthen their vocabulary. Here, the majority of children have opted for English as medium of schools and have no sense of the language and then learning is by rote, the only escape route.
Very few discerning parents, familiar with our multicultural publishing, did order books for children after a few months — towards the fall accepting the fact that Covid and being homebound is here to stay. I would very much suggest that parents use this time to make reading a part of the day.
While physical schools are closed, online classes seem to be going on via smartphones, through audio-visual media. How do you think the introduction of these online teaching methods will affect the holistic development of a child?
I don’t think we, especially in the rural India, are geared up for online teaching/learning at all. Even the brightest of children are complaining that they don’t understand this mode of learning, more so, maths and science. This was sort of imposed on children and the teachers so as ‘not to waste a year’.
Most of the families were compelled to buy a smartphone, which are liberally used for entertainment than learning. Half the times the signals are weak, calls drop and internet speed is too slow to pick up. So, the pretence of learning goes on, and though everybody is trying to swim with the tide, I really don’t think we are ready to make a shift to eLearning/distant learning like this. The whole exercise is going to look good only on the paper, meaning students scoring high in online exams and unscrupulous teachers enjoying a long holiday, with no teaching and a horde of excuses.
This academic year and whatever is left of it could be used to giving children full freedom to use their time as they like, explore themselves. Given that the choice is between writing off a year and pretending to ourselves, that we have found a way without any preparation, let us make a sensible one.
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. If yes, please tell us more.
Yes, of course, we have to take strides in designing audio-visual components suitable to age groups. This, in fact, can usher in a much-needed facelift to the teaching-learning business, moving with the times. And it’s going to need time, and the clock has started ticking already. B
Books cannot be the only medium of learning, but then our small towns and villages are not ready for eLearning yet. They will need to lean on books to remain in the game. However, as publishers were caught unawares, they are behind the times. We need time to prepare ourselves and then get into the stride. We do read books to children using audio-visuals, but that’s not enough.
In a country such as India, half of the population still don’t have access to the Internet to access these online classes. What happens to these children? Do they miss out on their education for a whole year and can there be something done about it? As someone involved with children’s literature, have you done any work towards this? Community libraries can be an answer.
Our village is exactly among the not too developed part of the country. The government schools and a fee-charging Kendriya Vidyalaya are in a mess they can’t cope with. The pretence of online classes held at random continues with the full knowledge that the emperor has no clothes on.
For example, grade 12 has not gone to school, no special classes were held even for a single day. Grade 10 is a shade better in the sense that they did hold classes for the students for three-four weeks in November. All we could do was to teach some students (free of charge of course, in my case) subjects, that we could.
Our volunteers are doing it from home, too. Community libraries are not quite the answer, mainly because nobody thinks these to be necessary when the schools are closed. Language building and engaging the children creatively could really have been a significant gain in this school-free time, but the local community doesn’t want us to.
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?
The books publishing industry on the whole suffered a massive slump this year and children’s books are no exception to that. Schools and libraries remaining closed could be a major reason for that. No book fairs either, the attempts to hold Frankfurt Book Fair and the likes, were reportedly very tame affairs. Adults read books on Kindle and such devices, very few children do. The children use devices mainly for entertainment the world over.
Our publishing plans went for a toss and we sold very little as compared to last year. But we did survive, all thanks to social media and friend circles knowing about our effort. But things have started opening up slowly and
the next year (2021), hopefully, will be a happier story.
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, of course. Mainly because unlike adults, children don’t read much online. They look up electronic media mostly for entertainment and now, of course, for school studies.
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?
We are all hit by the pandemic, no denying that. But we remain a small, but closely-knit organisation working for the goals we believe in — books can change lives for better, helping children realise their growth potential and that our children deserve the best stories from across the world in their own languages. Sales took massive beating as we have school market and NGOs working for reading promotion as our lifelines. Our production is much slower, things had to be moved to back-burners. Our editions remain the same to make these cost-effective and we are hopeful of the market picking up after the schools and libraries open.
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?
We all believe that the books have the potential to make a significant contribution to children’s life, interests and abilities. Changes in reading are bound to come like everything else but stories are inextricably connected to bringing joy in children’s mind and imagination.
So, books will survive always, the forms will change. As for our villages and small town where the present generation is still the first-gen to go to school and hopefully beyond, they are going to need free libraries replete with computer to keep with the change. Books are extremely important to children where computers are yet to make inroads.
Since we work entirely for these unprivileged children through libraries in 130 small villages in the Himalayas, we see the change come slow not as fast as it does in the cities. This being our mission, we are not too sure if we need to change our model drastically, we plan to wait and watch.
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?
Initially, on 20 March 2020, we decided to close the library and the activity centre for a few days (as we thought then), we did call the children and explained why we had to resort to this seemingly drastic measure in uncertain times. I guess the school closure had already put them on guard. The children kept coming back though, urging us to open the library.
So, one day, we had to call an open meeting to talk to them about the use of masks, washing hands frequently and social distancing and the need to take care, and answering all the questions they came up with. The toughest part was explaining the uncertainty, in terms of time.
I wouldn’t call it a workshop; it was more of a dialogue. But after all these years, they perhaps trust us enough to follow the new normal. They know the library will open at the earliest that it can. All of us are waiting patiently. We haven’t yet planned any book on coronavirus ourselves, but we are likely to select one or two (for different age groups) to be put in all the libraries in our annual book donations.
Anything else you’d like to add to highlight the work you have been doing for children during the pandemic.
We started as a lending library 12 years ago and we have got woven into the social fabric of this cluster of villages and evolved adding something new with every year that has gone by. This means supporting girl child’s education (23 girls so far) from KG to grade 12.
This being a Himalayan region, we distribute warm clothes to all the children twice every season, which is widely appreciated. Though, the weekly review/ discussion of books on Wednesday and DIY, hands-on activity on Friday came to a halt, we did select a girl to support her education from nursery to grade 12 and distributed woollens to all. I guess, these non-book activities were important for the well-being of children.
One book project that made you smile in these grim times?
We did this bright and sunny picture book from Finland, Talo Kulman Takana, translated into Hindi as Naya Ghar Naye Dost by Reka Kiraly and illustrated by Jenni Erkintalo, which is a story of diverse cultural neighourhood that a young boy has moved into.
The book seasoned with typically Finnish brand of humour speaks of the importance of trust in people, ability to make new friends despite the difference and feeling good amongst them. This, I think, doesn’t set out to preach anything, but is very relevant to our children who feel so socially divided with all kinds of unhealthy social conditioning. This book shows them the magic of building trust and healthy friendships among the dissimilar.