Monday, February 27, 2012


Here's the text of a presentation I made at a seminar in the New Delhi World Book Fair on 27th February 2012.


What kind of books do children need? And what do we do to enable such books to be selected and included in the school libraries being introduced under RTE across the country?

I. What kind of books do children need?
The five questions that must be answered in ‘yes’ in order to qualify them as being ‘right’ for children.

1. Is it child oriented?
·         Does it see from the child’s point of view?
·         Does it take as its core what will be interesting / fun / engaging for children?
·         Does it see children as having some intelligence and experience of their own, or as empty pots to be ‘filled’ or as passive beings to be ‘moulded’?
·         Is it preachy or does it help children come to their own understanding, their own conclusions?

2. Is it age appropriate?
·         In terms of subject matter, use of fantasy/imagination, treatment of the subject, references made to the child’s life and way of seeing, understanding what is difficult for a child at this age (and making it easy), use of language / vocabulary / structure of narrative or presentation, modes of communication used (e.g. text to picture ratio), designing, fonts, etc.?

3. Is it true to the genre and its requirements?
·         If it is a story does it have a real conflict driving the plot?
·         Does a poem have the kind of word play and imagery that children can relate with as well as take forward?
·         Does non-fiction use entry points that draw children in, and relate with children’s day-to-day experiences while helping them understand something that lies beyond their environment?

4. Can it be re-visited?
·         Does it have the emotional appeal that draws children to go through it again and again?
·         Can they find new things in it, whether in the visuals or in the text?
·         Can they do things with it differently, over different times?
·         Are there ‘openings’ in it that children can fill in differently at different times?

5. Does it take the child beyond what she can usually pick up in textbooks or regular TV shows?
·         A book is a take-off point where the action continues in the child’s mind. It can be inexpensive, easy to carry around and use….
·         And it should enable exploration, sharing, further imagination…

6. Finally, is the overall package localizable?

Children who are deprived of such books are deprived. Period.
In fact, the absence of such materials reflects the true poverty of India…Do our children, everyday, spend hours engaging with such material?

And what do we do so that this happens?

II. Getting the right books into children’s hands

All children will come across textbooks… we need to influence these, but that is another story…

Under the RTE, libraries are being established in each of the 13.5 lakh+ government schools. You already know how books get selected, and why the ‘wrong’ books are so prevalent ‘out there’.

What do we do?

Some suggestions:

1. Establish standards and disseminate them
·         Agree on a reasonably clear set of criteria of what kind of books are desirable in our context. (The context bit is critical!)
·         Convert this into the kind of language that a lay person can understand (accompanied by a set of objectively chosen exemplars to illustrate these if needed).
·         Ensure that you actually develop and publish such material at an affordable price.
·         Organize widespread dissemination of this set of criteria (or standards). In the media there are talk shows, columns, TV programmes on topics such as fashion (what your child should wear), the latest gadgets, preparing your children for admissions or examinations – but not on what your child should be reading. We are at fault, and we deserve what we face…
·         Use the weekend supplements of newspapers to showcase good material, actually give exemplars.
·         Have regular reviews brought out (like the film reviews that give ratings on a 5 star systems!) – while spelling out why something is rated well.

2. Develop and disseminate procurement guidelines
·         Develop what you think should be model guidelines for procurement of good children’s books. Make the process of developing these guidelines itself a participatory and transparent one, involve government representatives.
·         Once you have such guidelines available, ask the ministries / departments to consider using them, make them available in the internet, and in the hands of decision-makers who are required to use such guidelines.
·         Identify good practices (related to large-scale book procurement) and disseminate them. Institute a system of objectively recognizing good governance with regard to procurement and use of books and libraries. Have a credible system of doing this (if our process is in doubt, once again, we would deserve what we get!).

3. Reach out to parents
·         Take the parent and SMCs into confidence. Have a communication strategy wherein they learn about the importance of god books and also realize that it is their children’s right to get them under the RTE. A large-scale parental education programme is called for.
·         This is one area where a large number of NGOs could also contribute.

4. Provide exposure where required
·         Organize a buyers’ book fair specifically for state officials from across the country or at least make better use of the existing book fairs. Maybe you can convince NBT/MHRD to support the organization of a business / buyers’ fair’ of this kind.

May the best books be bought and reach children’s hands!