Symbiosis Between the Creator of Children's Books and the Reader

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
From a paper presented at a conference organised by National Book Trust, at Trivandrum, 2000

At a story-reading session in one of the private English medium city schools in Chennai, the children of class VI, about 60 of them, were asked what books they read. There was silence. After some prodding a voice piped up with the name of a story she had read — from her English textbook as it turned out. After some more prompting another child mentioned Tinkle, the comic book series so popular with children today. Just two responses. These were children from middle and upper middle-class homes, many with educated parents often with both parents working. They came from homes with televisions, refrigerators, cars or two-wheelers, but no children's books. We were shocked. This was our first interaction as publishers of children's books with a class of children. 
          They read of course, their school books most of the time and maybe bits and pieces from magazines and newspapers and the occasional comic. But they did not read books outside the classroom. They did not read for pleasure.

          The story reading session that followed the interaction with the children was a great hit — we had a class full of enthusiastic listeners, except for the teachers who seemed unhappy at having to sit around with the children when they could have been doing something else! Enthusiastic children who, given a chance, would love to read books at one end, indifferent parents and teachers at the other, and the publishers, creators of children's books, caught in between. Bridging the gap between these two groups — adults responsible for selecting and providing books and children, the actual users — is what the symbiosis between creators of children's books and readers is all about. 

          Why do we need to build this bridge? Simply, to tackle attitudes. The attitude of parents, teachers, librarians generally is that reading books is first for improving reading and writing skills and then for improving general knowledge. In a system where the textbook dominates the curriculum, where a child carries 5 to 6 textbooks to school everyday, the feeling I suppose is that his/her reading is taken care of. 

          I have heard parents say, "My child has so much to read, where is the time to read other books?" The assumption here is that reading serves the same purpose whether you are reading textbooks or other books. Worse is the assumption that reading textbooks has a very definite purpose whereas reading other books is a waste of time and money. Reading is also seen as something that the school should take care of. Parents completely absolve themselves of the responsibility of providing an atmosphere at home that values, encourages and engenders the reading habit — oh no, all that is for school. And in school? The atmosphere is even less congenial with teacher after teacher focussing on textbooks in the classroom and the libraries displaying locked cupboards of expensive encyclopaedias and sadly, badly, bound books. Totally uninspiring and doing nothing to invite the child to open the pages. 

          Coming back to the question of symbiosis, if there is to be a meaningful, natural freeway between publishers and young readers, attitudes prevailing in schools and homes, of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers and librarians, all these have to change. First there has to be a recognition of the need for children to read books other than textbooks. Books that offer them a chance to be real readers, not just to say words aloud. Books that demonstrate to young people the personal pleasure of reading. As long as schools and homes do not provide books their rightful space, children will never realise that reading can be a pleasure. Confronted by the dull, dreary, dread of textbooks, they will give it up at the first opportunity. And I am convinced that this happens, over and over again. 

          Having said this, I'd like to give you an idea of how this symbiosis works at Tulika. When we set up Tulika the least encouragement we got was from well-meaning friends in publishing and distribution. They warned us about the problems of distribution — discounts, credits, collections, et al. Our response was to set up Goodbooks, a company to promote and market children's books. We believed that if we had a committed team of people (one at first and later two) who worked closely with shops and schools we could find the space for good children's books. It worked in a handful of shops and schools who were interested in the first place and were supportive of our efforts, but it was a struggle with the others. We had to constantly rethink our strategy for shops — exclusive displays, attractively painted Goodbooks stands (we found them used as umbrella stands or simply put away) , display of reviews, book jackets, and even a book release and author signing. The struggle continues but has got easier as our list got longer and we had more books to offer. 

          The problems of distribution persist but the greater problem was the lack of awareness about the need for children's books among parents and children. In our interactions with schools, teachers, librarians and parents we have faced numerous situations where it was always the adults who posed the problem, who stood between the book and child. Children were enthusiastic, eager, anxious to look at, hold and read books. How else do you explain this — it would be break time but the children would all crowd round our stall at school fairs when they could have been playing. There were children who sat at the stall and finished reading a book they couldn't buy. There were parents dragging away crying children who badly wanted books. We realised that we had to address this problem first if our books had to reach our young readers. The problem was how? Our response has been a newsletter: Goodbooks for children and young people. It is a quarterly publication where we raise several questions about reading and books and hope to discuss, argue, exchange ideas and actively involve people in the world of children's books. 

          Then there was the problem of reach. We were constrained to working with a few shops in 3-4 cities where we could be sure of payments and reorders. How does a small organisation like Goodbooks reach cities and towns in other parts of the country? Our answer has been the Goodbooks Library, a direct mail service. The newsletter includes a catalogue of books which is a list of good children's books from different publishers including Tulika. We charge a small membership fee, Rs 100 for individuals and Rs 200 for institutions — and we look for support to sustain the effort. We mailed out 10,000 copies of our June issue, mainly to schools. 

The first issue was made possible because we got sponsorship support. We hope to continue to get support for at least the next 3 issues. The first few members are, as we hoped, from smaller towns and cities. There is even one from Tibet! We hope the Goodbooks Library will grow to include members from every corner of the country and that the newsletter will become a common space for concerned individuals to share and discuss their thoughts, ideas, views about books for the young. By providing this vital space for parents and teachers we hope to take the books we create closer to our readers. 

          The Goodbooks Library also sources books from other publishers in India and other Asian countries. Our exposure to books from countries other than the US and UK are very limited. It is important to have a lively exchange of books with other developing countries if we are to truly democratise our children's reading. With the entry of giant publishing houses from the west there is the real danger of having access to only the kinds of books they choose to bring in. The Goodbooks Library offers not just books in English but also books in other languages. There is also a need to select those books that children, especially in the 14+ age group, would enjoy even though they are written for adults. The process of reading and selecting will continue and we hope to open up the ever-widening world of children's books. 

          Through the Goodbooks Library we offer children a range of books in different languages, for different age groups, in different genres, from different countries. Through the Goodbooks newsletter we reach these books to a wider and wider readership. But what brings us closest to our readers is our reading promotion activities in schools — workshops based on books, meet-the-author/illustrator sessions, story-telling sessions, story-reading sessions. Our most successful programme is the Goodbooks Reading Corner. Successful because we have set up these reading corners not just in private English medium schools but also in ten Corporation schools, ten reading corners in each school. 

          Briefly, the Goodbooks Reading Corner is a classroom library which comes in an attractive bag. The bag holds up to a 100 books, it can be hung on the wall and can be carried from class to class. This way the books are stored safely, they occupy very little space since they are on the wall, and costs are kept down as the books are shared between the classes. In Chennai schools we are able to offer once-a-month reading sessions using the books in the reading corner. As our reading corner activities increased, our team of resource people expanded and continues to expand. College students, retired teachers, teacher trainees, housewives, theatre artists, are all part of the team, each bringing their own experience to the activities. For the Corporation schools we needed a much larger team as we had to conduct ten sessions in each of the ten schools every month for more than thousand children. Our solution was to involve college students in this as part of their National Service Scheme programme. 

          The idea of the reading corner activities was to introduce a fresh and imaginative approach to reading. We had to guard against the danger of these activities becoming an extension of classroom work especially when schools expect results. This was a problem we faced — we thought of these activities more as interactions when books could be read, discussed, stories told, written, pictures drawn. But schools saw our activities as helping in improving reading fluency, improving 'English', improving conversation skills in English. While in the other schools the Reading Corners were for the primary classes, in the Corporation schools it was for classes VI to X. And the directive was to improve the students' English. We did face a dilemma — our focus was to encourage children to just read at their own levels, at their own pace but the focus in some schools was on improving language skills. 

Discussions and debates followed and the consensus was that there was really no contradiction — books were about reading and language and as children discover the joys of reading they also become confident readers. We could, through books, offer them that opportunity, that space, which schools or curricula did not. As for improving English, we realised that the students in Corporation schools themselves were extremely motivated. English was the language of empowerment and they had to learn it. And we could make that learning fun and meaningful through books. The dilemma was resolved. 

          The next step was forming Goodbooks Education Resources. Schools needed, welcomed our participation. As activities and opportunities increased we realised that it was another area that Goodbooks had to and could take up. Goodbooks because of its involvement with publishers and books also had access to authors, illustrators, experts/specialists in various fields. The idea was to think of programmes in schools where we could bring people like these to interact with students and have discussions and activities like drama, creative writing, classroom projects. There is a need to provide a creative space for children within the existing system burdened with unimaginative curricula, textbooks, teaching methods. The Goodbooks Education Resources provides that space through books and people involved with books and reading.   

          Goodbooks Marketing, the Goodbooks newsletter, the Goodbooks Library and Goodbooks Education Resources are all part of our efforts to promote children's books, to bring children closer to books by creating an awareness about books among the adults involved in buying and selecting books for children and involving them in our activities. As publishers we realise that we cannot stop with just creating books, the books have to reach children for which we have to address parents and teachers. We do that through Goodbooks and invite other like-minded publishers to do the same. 

          There are, generally, three types of readers: the committed book-lover who genuinely appreciates good books and is willing to pay for it; the large number who willingly spend on clothes, shoes and pizzas but not on books which are seen as a waste of money (unless they are glossy imported information books); the majority for whom none of these are affordable.  It'sclear then that the situation in a country like India is quite different from developed western nations where the readership, the market, even the infrastructure can be taken for granted. Here in India, many things are nebulous and you make rules as you go along, right from creating awareness about the need for books, to putting them together, to publishing them to marketing them to making them read.

          What are some of the problems? An education system that has no place for books, a multilingual culture, economic 
disparities, non-existent library network, rigid school system, etc etc. Publishers have to negotiate these problems if they are interested in reaching these books to readers everywhere. The way Goodbooks has evolved in a short span of three years is indicative of this. It has been a continuous process of rethinking, reworking, strategies, as new and unexpected problems faced us at every stage. These were not so much marketing strategies as problem-solving ones. The symbiosis is not just between the publisher and the reader — I wish it were that simple but it isn't. It is a process that involves more and more people – organisations, NGOs, government agencies and individuals, translators, municipal officials, school heads and teachers ad so on. This has been our strength but the sheer logistics of this creates its own problems......the process continues and evolves.