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Storyland express

The Parag Initiative began its journey by concentrating on book development and that remains a priority in an ever-expanding canvas

Book development is too dry and inadequate a term to describe the wide spectrum of work that the Parag Initiative has undertaken to promote the creation of literature for children, of stories that spark their imagination and give wing to their dreams.

Collaborating with publishers, national, regional and local, to craft vibrant and appealing books; spreading the reading net for these books by rendering them in several Indian languages; honouring, encouraging and enabling writers, translators and illustrators; versioning books in braille and audio to aid visually impaired children; and tapping into stories of diverse communities and marginalised groups — Parag has stretched every sinew to flesh out what is a critical component in its mission to further the cause of reading among children in India.

Support for children’s book publishing, the seeding and fostering of it, was Parag’s maiden endeavour in education when the programme started. The Initiative has thus far enabled the publication of 453 original books and 554 translations for children in the 3-16 age bracket, reaching many millions of readers in government schools and rural communities and homes. The numbers are significant but more important is the context.

The children’s literature landscape in India is in its early stages of development, especially when it comes to the diversity, quality and reach of books in regional languages. Access to books is limited to one for eleven children in rural regions and one for five in urban areas — by comparison, in Britain it’s six books for every child — the vast majority of rural children (an estimated 68%) and those from poor urban communities have a minimal connect with storybooks, under 30% of children’s literature is available in Indian languages, and publishers find it difficult to fill these gaping holes due to the cost factor, limited dissemination channels and low demand.

Add up the challenges and what you get is anything but the print-rich environment that shapes the reading habits of children in a growing-up period of paramount importance. The Parag effort in book development is essentially about changing the equation in this space, showing what is possible through sustained commitment and how an ecosystem for children’s literature can be fashioned with high-quality books as the starting point.

Parag’s book promotion model rests on three pillars: forming long-lasting partnerships with nonprofit publishers, particularly in Indian languages; building the capacity of emerging authors, illustrators and translators; and supporting translations and original work in regional languages.

Tutored to read
Tutored to read

A spectrum of content

Book development is provided a fillip through grants to produce work in different languages, formats and themes — gender and diversity, nature and conservation, disability and socio-emotional learning — and through a commitment to bolstering content creation and design. Collaborations, with Eklavya Foundation, Kalpavriksh, Pratham Books, Anveshi and a bunch of other organisations, have been vital in taking the broader idea forward.

Parag has worked with 18 publishers to develop books in 16Indian languages, among them the tribal languages of Mundari, Bhilori, Pawri and Santali. The intent is to generate a wide range of reading material that can function as ‘windows’ and ‘mirrors’ for children and young adults, drawing them into their own experiences while opening up the world beyond, expanding their knowledge base and sparking independent and critical thinking.

“Parag began by addressing the issue of good-quality reading material not being available in Indian languages,” says Amrita Patwardhan, head (education) at the Tata Trusts, “and we made a couple of grants to nonprofit publishers to publish different kinds of reading material: fiction, nonfiction, picture books and poetry.”

There’s more to it, of course. “Content development is a serious process,” adds Ms Patwardhan. “We work closely with our publishing partners. First, in the selection and finalisation of manuscripts and occasionally in their commissioning. Second, after a book is published we have an external review of it on various parameters. This evaluation and the feedback we receive from experts and readers are useful when the next cycle of books comes along.”

Parag abides by the ideals of an inclusive India. “The values enshrined in our constitution inform the framework we try and stick to,” says Ms Patwardhan. “We don’t want our books to be preachy, but we don’t shy away from complex and difficult topics. We don’t try to oversimplify; we strongly believe that children need to see the reflection of the world around them in these books.”

Parag has, down the years, expanded its horizons by exploring new avenues. In the pipeline is a greater quantity of book publishing in regional languages, specifically in Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Odia and Assamese. That’s not going to be easy but as with so much Parag has achieved, a way will be found — by the book for sure.