Booked & Hooked: Bringing Stories to Every Child | Keynote Address at Neev Book Award 2020 Special

Oct 10, 2020


Rohini Nilekani’s Keynote Address at the Neev Book Award 2020 Special. The title of her talk is “Booked & Hooked: Bringing Stories to Every Child”

Namaste and good morning, book lovers. It is truly a pleasure and an honour to be giving this keynote address at the Neev Literature Festival, and to be taking part in the award ceremony as well. Thank you, Kavita, thank you Neev, for this opportunity. This festival, with the beautiful title Imaginary Lines is a very important signpost in the journey to ensure that all of India’s children get a chance to immerse in good books. As a society, we need to do many more things that are focused on the intellectual and cultural development of our 300 million children. It is no exaggeration to say that it will determine the very future of this country. Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. A reading nation is a thinking nation. Which is just so important to lift us out of the multiple predicaments we face as a society today.

Today, I will speak to you about my journey as a reader, a writer, a publisher and then back again to being a writer and a reader.

I started my love of books very early, learning to read long before I was formally taught in school. I would peer over my sister’s shoulder as she read the fun books borrowed from the nearby library. My entire childhood was spent between the pages of hundreds of books. My mother had to wrench me away from the book I was clutching so that I could do my daily chores, such as helping to set the table.

Thank God for all those authors and illustrators who carried me off into a world of make-believe, letting me entwine myself into the lives of strange and wonderful characters to whom I could talk, whose stories I could extend, and who would always be my secret friends.

What an innocent time it was.

No TV, no computers, no Internet and no mobile phones. It was so much fun to walk down to the library, choose our books, pay the few paise of reading charges from the pocket money that our mother gave us, and come home to read, read and read. If we were lucky, we were allowed to buy a crunchy snack to add to the enjoyment. It was sheer bliss.

I started out with the Noddy Books of Enid Blyton. Noddy was this strange little creature with whom I could still identify with for the scrapes he kept getting himself into. Toyland became a magical place for me, and I kept returning to the books again and again. By the age of six, I was reading the Malory Towers series, and all the other Enid Blyton books I could lay my hands on. I also read the William books and of course Winnie the Pooh.

One of my biggest regrets is that I did not read much in our own languages. Not even in my mother tongue, Marathi. Not even when my own mother was a Marathi and Sanskrit scholar. My mother wanted us to be fluent in English, the upwardly mobile language. Also, it was not so easy to find books and stories for young children in Marathi or Hindi. We did get to read comics – from Vikram Betaal and the Panchatantras to Akbar and Birbal. Occasionally, I would see them in Marathi at my cousin’s home. But unfortunately, I did not sustain my reading in Marathi. I now realize just how important it is to read in many languages, especially in a country like ours. It may be the glue that will keep the many threads of our social fabric from unravelling in the future.

Luckily for me, that did not prevent me from getting stories in Marathi. Thanks to my beloved grandmother, Atya, as we called her, I got thousands of stories, mostly about the bhakti saints of Maharashtra. She was an amazing storyteller. Till today, my eyes can water remembering her tales of the difficult life of the orphaned Sant Dnyaneshwar and his siblings. Atya truly taught me the power of a story to inspire, to evoke empathy and to capture the imagination. I try to repay that debt by channeling Atya while reading and telling stories to my 3-year-old grandson.

Millions of children have grandmothers like mine to tell them stories. Ours has been an oral society, a nation of storytellers, passing the epics down from generation to generation.
But we cannot say the same thing for books and for reading.

If, like me, you were surrounded by books, you were fortunate. The sad truth is, that even now, even after the strides we have made in the past two decades, a good book is a rare thing for children to access. Look at the numbers. In the UK, there are 4 books available for every child. In India, there is one book for every 5 children in urban India and one book for every ten children in rural India. Worse, in a country where we have 22 constitutional languages, and hundreds of other languages, most of the books are in only two languages. English leads by a huge margin, followed by Hindi.

This was exactly the problem some of us decided to tackle, way back in 2004. Through the Pratham network, we had helped thousands and thousands of children to read more fluently. But then they had very little to practice their newfound skills on. The only book that truly reaches every household in India is the school textbook, and you can hardly curl up with one of those. When we started libraries, we could find only a few books in a few languages other than English. And we decided something had to be done.
That’s when I cofounded Pratham Books, with the mission of A Book in Every Child’s hand. We wanted to truly democratize the joy of reading. We wanted children from each corner of the country to get good books, in their own languages, that were affordable, and attractive and inspiring. If that meant we had to become publishers ourselves, so be it. We learnt the nuts and bolts from scratch. Soon we had dozens of books for young children, each simultaneously printed in up to 12 languages. Because we were a non-for–profit organization, we could subsidize the books. Because we were unafraid, we could try things no one had before.

We had to think big. We had to disrupt. We had to be creative. We had to be bold. We had to be fast.

Within a few years, Pratham Books became the largest publisher of children’s books in India. We published hundreds of books across many languages. We reached out to every writer, illustrator and translator we could find. We used every channel of distribution we could think of. We partnered with samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar. With other publishers, with government, with other NGOs. We wanted to reach just as many children as we could.

We succeeded beyond our expectations. Millions of children got to own their very first book thanks to Pratham Books. Millions of children got to read stories in their own languages, about situations like their own, children like themselves. These were Indian stories, indigenous tales, freshly written. They were true to the many cultures of the country. To be honest, we were more focused on diversity than on quality, in the early days. We wanted stories from every geography, every community. We wanted to showcase Indian motifs, art and culture. Books that could help children understand and enjoy the diversity of this country. Its geography and climate, its people and cultures, its flora and its fauna,

Books that could help children engage with ethical issues. Children may begin with binaries of black and white but good books help them move into the grays, where all the rich nuances of life are. Books can help kids move beyond blind certainty towards a blurry doubt and then on to a dazzling yet humbling knowledge of how much more there is to learn. We wanted to offer them all that.

In fact, to fill in the gaps, some of us began to write books ourselves!

And my innings as a writer began. Over the years, I wrote several books for Pratham Books. I tried my best to come up with unusual stories, interesting characters. Sringeri Srinivas the farmer was born. Annual Haircut Day was the first in a series of six. It is not at all easy to write good books for young children. Many famous authors I approached told me they would love to help us but were nervous to write for children! I could understand why. It would take days and months to make those 500 words just so. Sometimes, one succeeds. Often, one doesn’t.

But the process is most absorbing and enjoyable.

And to know that we were creating something for so many first-generation readers was soul satisfying.

And nothing has ever given me more joy in my work than the sight of a child happily reading one of our books!

I believe we need to create story-writing courses so that we can have a whole new generation of young authors who could write for children, especially young children.

Because there is still a long way to go before we can declare that there are have enough books for India’s 300 million children.

At Pratham Books we soon realized that if we really wanted to get closer to achieving our mission, we would have to think differently. There was no way we could create enough physical books to reach every child. Nor would it be environmentally sustainable, even if one could.

That’s when we cracked open the model. We went digital. We put up our books in the Creative Commons. Our books could then be freely read online, downloaded, printed, shared, even sold! Our goal was not to monopolize the market, but to create wide access. We went from being a publisher to a platform. We still produced physical books. But to reach the unreached child, we had to go virtual too.

And it worked! We helped build a vibrant new community of writers and illustrators, translators and editors. We unlocked the door to books for parents and children. We were inching closer to our dream.

When I retired from Pratham Books after 10 adventurous years, the team took the organization to new heights. They pushed forward on the digital journey. Under the new name Storyweaver, they made the space for hundreds more books by hundreds of new writers in hundreds of languages to reach millions more children.

The numbers speak for themselves. Hats off to the Storyweaver team for what has been achieved. My books too were lifted by the tide. People read them and translated them and even retold them in their own ways. It is a whole new world!

I continue to write. In fact, I hope you will permit me a little promo. My latest book, this time from Juggernaut Books will be out next month. My grandson was the inspiration, but I so hope little children all over the world will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

With my grandson, my biggest competitor now is the online version of Masha and the Bear. He has fixed quotas of screen time, and eagerly waits to see the next episode. His absorption is complete, his attention riveted to the ipad. He can’t even SEE me then.

It is really tough to parent children in this digital age.

So many questions arise. How much screen time should a child have? Is it ok to read books online? How does one keep the child interested in physical books?

There is a lot of research that tells us that children are not well served by too much screen time. Your recent guest – Dr Maryanne Wolfe talks about the deep reading brain and the perils of digital reading. She believes that digital mediums tend to push us towards skim-reading or browsing, and that skimming is bad for the brain.

This study by the National Literacy Trust (UK) on children and e-reading finds data to support Wolf’s theory that skim reading is bad But it also gives a sense of how one can move forward, by showing that it is digital alone that is bad – mixed medium reading ends up being good. The takeaway here is that to cultivate a reader, you need some physical books. But to sustain the reading habit, a mix works just as well.

Which brings me to an important point. We know that the digital age is here to stay. Today’s generation are digital natives, compared to their parents, who were digital migrants. So it is useless to fight against the myriads screens in their lives. Instead, how can the whole community of experts come together with the communities of creative artists to design a new digital pedagogy ? How can we de-risk from fractured attention? How can we protect children from digital addiction? How can we challenge the algorithms based on artificial intelligence that keep children glued to the screen? How can we bring in a new code of ethics? How can we help parents to better understand how to find the good stuff online? At the same time, how can we help them not to fear technology and its ill effects? After all, these are ancient problems. Parents and educators had the same issues with TV too. Groucho Marx famously said – “ I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” It illustrates the same issues we face today. How can we all engage in making technology work better for us all?

That is the real challenge before us. It is a call to action, which will require creative collaboration and perseverance. I do hope there will be much more of a discourse around this, and literature festivals may be one place to begin.

Meanwhile, we must continue our efforts to surround children with good physical books.

The earlier the better. Now that so much more is known about how children learn, and how quickly they start to map their world, I believe we need a new societal mission – ‘A book in every baby’s hand’.

And not just A book. As Thomas Aquinas said so long ago – ‘Beware of the person of one book.’

Let children read many, many books, all kinds of books, the more diverse the better. I am so grateful that my grandson now has so many Indian books from so many publishers that help him understand other lives. If we have to counter the polarisation that is threatening democracy all over the world, we need to start with good books for young children. After all, as Ray Bradbury said, “ You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” We simply cannot afford that for our country. We need a generation of children who are open-minded, curious, empathetic and capable of critical analysis. All these qualities can be nurtured by reading through a library of good books. Truly, to give the gift of a reading life is the best gift of all to hand over to future citizens.

The Indian publishing industry has come a long way in a short time to rise to the challenge of producing good literature rooted in the country’s diverse cultures. Literature festivals and book awards are pathways to spread the joy of reading those books to every child in this country. So, thank you, Neev, and thank you to every single caring adult who brings a child to the magical moment at which, as Marcel Proust so wisely says, the end of the author’s wisdom appears to us at but the beginning of ours.



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