Sunday, October 30, 2011

Interview with Suzanne Singh - Managing Trustee of Pratham Books

I first came across Pratham Books on one of our jaunts to India when we lived in the UK. I was frantically looking for good books in Hindi for my daughter. When I chanced upon their books I felt like a kid in a candy store. The low-cost high-quality books meant I could buy multiple copies in different languages. This was about 8-9 years back and the bilingual language children's literature scene was not as rich as it is today. Pratham Books filled the gap nicely.

I have today the happy opportunity of inviting Ms.Suzanne Singh, the Managing Trustee of Pratham Books, to discuss the impact of nature on children and the related role of books. Suzanne is a management graduate and has spent 13 years in the corporate world before moving on to the social sector in 2003. She has a deep interest in education. She has been on the Board of Trustees of Pratham Books since 2006 and its Managing Trustee since 2010. She also serves on the boards of Akshara Foundation and United Way Bengaluru.

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting to you, Suzanne Singh!

When you decide content for the books you publish, are there any particular themes you focus upon?
Our first premise while selecting any manuscript is whether it is an original, engaging story for children. Once the team of editors like the story, they review it for age-appropriateness, quality of writing, suitability for translation and relevance. We also evaluate it in the context of our overall content strategy for the year. Themes only come into play when we feel that some gaps exist in our range or the market then we are open to commissioning books on those themes.

Could you please elaborate some more?
We have an overall content map for the year based on our strategy, the manuscripts and also what we hear from children, their parents and other buyers. Our aim is to have a balanced range of books across age groups and genres. For instance, if we find that there is no book based on sports, then we would look for that.

We cater to a wide range of children - both urban and rural and therefore diversity is essential. In this context, it is limiting for us to define a set of themes that define our publishing. We like to expand our boundaries constantly so we are forever thinking up new ideas for our books!

What do you think is the role of nature in the life of a child in India today? In an urban scenario? Rural/semi-rural scenario? 
Nature is still a theme close to a child's life. Whether in the city or elsewhere, the sky, the sun and stars are still visible and are able to get children dreaming and fantasizing. Trees and plants, birds and insects are all things around which hundreds of stories can be woven. Nature plays the role of provider of food, air, shelter, water and while children in cities may not be able to climb trees, they do go trekking, and enjoy other outdoor activities close to nature. As a not-for-profit publisher that works closely with children in both urban and rural areas, we are extremely particular about the situations and themes that we select for our books. Through our books we hope to sensitize the children to surroundings that maybe unfamiliar to them. For example one of our series 'Out and About with Ajja', has interesting stories about a city boy's little discoveries when he visits his grandfather in their village. Similarly 'City of Stories' gives our rural children a taste of life in the city.

Do you believe things are different from when we were growing up? Do you think there is cause for concern? If yes, how do you think it can addressed?
Times have changed a lot, and we must learn to accept the good with the bad. So while we may be shocked when we hear that an urban child actually thinks that vegetables come from the supermarket, it is our duty as parents and teachers to give the right exposure so that urban children are in as much touch with nature as their rural counterparts. Its also important not to pack their schedule tight with various activities but also leave some time for nature walks and explorations, even if they are limited to their own backyard.

Every generation has its own joys, expectations and sources of concern. Our grandmothers may have enjoyed all night storytelling sessions in her village, our mothers may have read storybooks, we have been able to read and write on the internet and our children can see, write and hear stories on the iPad!

Having said that, one major thing that mainstream publishers and urban India tends to forget is this - there are still millions of children out there for whom simple storybooks are out of reach either because of price or because of access.

So while on one hand we may worry abut an over-dose of information for the urban child, there is a serious dearth of the same on the other side of the spectrum. As a community we must also spend time thinking of ways to bridge the gap between the two.

We hope that irrespective of where the child lives, children can learn about the environment around them through books and become better citizens for tomorrow.

What is the role of books in that process?
Books were, are and will always be sources of enrichment. Books always trigger a child's imagination and encourage children to think creatively. We believe that if we produce more books for more children in their languages, children will have access to books, which is the first step to encouraging reading. And at Pratham Books we hope that we can spread the joy of reading to every child in India.

How do you incorporate the five elements of nature in your books to appeal to a child growing up in a city? 
We do have books on environment and seasons, and on wildlife. These have the elements in them in some context. To make it appealing to a child (whether urban or rural), it’s important that they appeal to the child visually as well. Therefore all our books are vividly illustrated. Our recently launched 'A Walk among Trees' is a good example of great visuals supporting an interesting fact based book. As is 'King Cobra', which besides being beautifully illustrated by Maya Ramaswamy has a story written from the point of view of the cobra by famed naturalist Janaki Lenin.

Could you please give our readers a list of books that have been published by Pratham Books which center around nature and the five elements?
Sure, here are some:

In Search of the Rain Woman
Sailing Home


Rainbow Fish
At the Seaside
Boat Ride
Turtle Story
Rain Rain

The Case of the Healing Herbs
A Walk Among Trees

Danger in the Forest

Jungle Brew
Manu Mixes Clay and Sunshine
Chasing the Plastic Pisach
Nono the Snow Leopard
Grandfather goes on Strike 
Rhino Charge

Air / Space:
Wandering Cloud

Sister Sister Why is the Sky So Blue
Vayu the Wind

Wonderful kite 
Sister Sister Why Don't Things Fall Up?
Sister Sister Where Does Thunder Come From?

Sister Sister Where Does the Sun Go at Night
Sun in a Fury 

Thanks Suzanne, it was a pleasure having you here on Saffron Tree!


utbtkids said...

Enjoyed the interview Chox. Thanks Suzanne.

Loved how Suzanne explained how Pratham does not stick to a theme. Also how Pratham takes a bit of city to the rural children and vice versa.

Chox, nature theme neatly tied in with the interview.

Choxbox said...

Thanks utbt.

It totally does. Have used Pratham Books extensively in the library in our NGO orphanage.

Meera Sriram said...

Thanks Suzanne and Chox! Hope the gap between the overdosed and the deprived blurs some day...hats off to Pratham for taking this up!

sandhya said...

Prathan books is doing some wonderful work!

Recently met a school teacher from a school which stresses on nature and the children's exploration of it, and she was all praises for books by Pratham...the quality of the stories, multilinguism, paired with affordibility makes them the no. 1 publication they prefer.

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