A Book in Every Child’s Hand – Pratham Books

CSR Times: We would like to start with the journey of Pratham Books. How it started? And what was the vision of the founding members?

Suzanne Singh: We set up Pratham Books as a not for profit organization 10 years ago in 2004. The reason we set it up was that there were major issues with the reading abilities of children.Even today approximately 50% of children in school are not reading at the grade appropriate level. If you look at the ASER statistics published every year on education,about 50% of students who are in Grade 5 struggle to read books of Grade 2 competency.

What happens when a child is unable to read well? Well if she cant read, then she cannot progress in other subjects like history, geography or science and will tend to fall further and further back in school.

In 2003, Pratham, a large not for profit organization that works on improving literacy levels among children, started a campaign called the Read India movement which was working to improve reading levels among children . As children started to learn to read, Pratham set up libraries to anchor their reading skills and give children access to more reading material. They soon realised that there were not enough good quality supplementary reading books in all the Indian languages that were available.  So the requirement was for good books in Indian languages.

Some languages like English and Hindi had choices, but there were fewer options in other languages such as Odia or Urdu. Apart from insufficient availability of books ,the other problem was the high cost of books. The books needed to be affordable so that they were accessible for all children.

That’s when the idea of Pratham Books was born.The objective was to create simple joyful storybooks that the children could read in their language. Our mission statement became ‘A book in every child’s hand’ The objective was to spread the joy of reading, by making sure that every child had access to simple joyful storybooks to inculcate and develop their reading skills.Hence,Pratham Books aimed at providing affordable, good quality storybooks for children in Indian languages. The books had stories set in Indian contexts so that children could relate to them. We publish books in 12 languages and most of our books are priced under Rs. 35. Also we realized that since children are not used to reading text heavy material, we had to create beautiful books using pictures and illustrations to draw them into reading.

That really is the genesis of Pratham Books . Our journey in the last 10 years has been wonderful. We have produced 280 original titles and when you translate that into different languages it’s about 2000 books in 10 years. When we started out most of our books were priced under Rs. 25 because we wanted to keep our books affordable. In 10 years because of input costs we have marginally increased the cost of our books so now most of our books are under Rs 35. To encourage children’s’ interest in reading, we have a wide range of books, from early readers to storybooks based on the environment, maths, finance, and poetry and our books can be read by children up to the age of 14. There are some interesting books we have developed in last couple of years. We have produced a 4 book series on financial literacy to help children understand basics of finance. For example, how do you save? How do you spend? What is income? What is expenditure? How do you plan? We have recently done series of 10 books with tribal stories where we worked with four tribal communities in Odisha. We had a content creation workshop with the people from the tribal communities and captured their stories which have so far existed only in their oral tradition. The books have been illustrated by artists from the Saura tribal community. These books are bilingual and have been done in the 4 tribal languages of Kui, Munda, Saura and Juanga and also in Odia, which is the language that children learn in at school.  Thus children are able to bridge the gap between their home language and the school language.

CSR Times: CSR Times operates from Goa. The local language here is Konkani. Do you have any books in Konkani?

Suzanne Singh: We have not published books in Konkani but encourage the production of books in other languages through our open content policy. We release many of our books under Creative Commons licences and anyone can translate them, remix them, reuse them or even print and sell them. We have more than 500 books available under these licenses now. With India’s language diversity, it is not practical for Pratham Books to publish books in all languages so we encourage other groups and organizations to translate our books and use them in their work. For example, a group from Karnataka is promoting Sanskrit. About 50 of our books are being translated into Sanskrit. There is another group in Ladakh that is working with Ladakhi children has been translating our books into Ladakhi.  We have had a discussion with an organization called 1556 in Goa about translating into Konkani and have another on going discussion with the World Konkani Foundation. At present we publish books in 12 languages and plan to increase it further. Our vision is to make books available in as many languages as we can either directly or through our open license strategy. We want to partner with organizations so that they can use our books and either translate or rewrite them. The choice is entirely up to them.

CSR Times: So you collaborate with NGO’s and organisations across the country?

Suzanne Singh: Yes, the biggest buyers of our books are organisations that are already working on literacy programs across the country, such as UNICEF,Room to Read, AksharBharathi, Akshara Foundation and also Pratham. Our goal is to reach the underserved child and we do that with the help of NGOs. Another channel is state governments who buy our books for their library programmes in schools.

CSR Times: What is your Library program?What is the cost of setting up a library? How you manage it?

Suzanne Singh: We have a simple solution that we have developed for a library. As per the RTE, every school in India must have a library. Most of the times books are kept locked in the cupboard are not shared on a regular basis with children. Also since infrastructure is an issue, a separate room is usually not available for a library.So we came up with a simple solution. We createda small modular unit with plastic pouches that can be hung up on a wall. These pouches can accommodate about 125 books per classroom. We call this a Library in a Classroom.The idea was to create a print rich environment in the classroom itself where the child can actually pick up a book whenever she wants to read and put it back. With feedback from teachers, we also added zip to the modular library that allowed teachers to lock the library unit whenever required. It is something that they can put up on the wall and can be accessed by the child in the classroom without the need for a separate library or room,and this has been very successful.

CSR Times: Would you like to say something about Teach For India campaign and your participation? We are sure that it was successful and had lots of learning too.

Suzanne Singh: We have partnered with some Teach for India fellows and donated books for them to use in their classrooms. They too raise money and buy books from us.

CSR Times: Your organization is a social business model and is in proper alignment with the CSR and its requirements. So what according to you can be the role of CSR in context with your organization and how you can play a role?

Suzanne Singh: Books can really be transformational and we need to understand the importance of reading. When a child has access to a library at very early age, itopens up their minds, expands their horizons and their interaction with books helps them grow.

I think CSR can play a really big role in helping set up libraries across schools and communities. There is an acute shortage of not only books but also people who can work at ground level. The pleasure of reading is diminished because the children simply don’t have access to books apart from textbooks. They can’t just pick up a storybook and read it. So CSR funds can be deployed very effectively in creating a network of libraries in schools and communities and spread the joy of reading. If companies take up the responsibility of ensuring that kids have access to books in the locations where they have their industrial plants and branch offices in non-metro cities, it will go a long way in addressing the gap that exists on the ground today.

CSR Times: Would you like to be approached by NGOs across India.

Suzanne Singh: Certainly, our books are subsidised and affordable so that they can be accessible for everyone across the country. Like I mentioned earlier most of our books are priced under Rs.35. We also have a low cost ‘mini storybook’ option called a story card which is an A4 card folded down the middle with a full story and 4 to 6 illustrations. We priced these story cards for Rs 2 when we started and now it is sold for approximately Rs. 4 per card. The idea was to make these stories available to children at the least possible cost.

CSR Times: When you approach any school, are they supportive?

Suzanne Singh: We knew that if weproduced quality storybooks that were attractive and colourful with good quality paper, the children would be attracted to the books and enjoy reading. In 2007-08 we did a massive campaign in Bihar. The Bihar government decided to equip all primary schools with reading materials for their 1st and 2nd classes. So they invited 5 publishers to set up book melas in all the 37 districts in Bihar and we were one of them. All the publishers organized local book fairs and the headmasters of all the schools in the districts were invited to come and purchase books for their schools. It was a very successful programme because 70,000 schools participated and bought books for their students. Pratham Books distributed around 4million storybooks and 4 million story cards in about 2 or 3 months. This is a good example of a state government understanding the power of books and libraries and the schools supporting this with enthusiasm.

CSR Times: Would you like to suggest something to increase people’s participation? To engage as many as possible.

Suzanne Singh: One of the things we do amongst many others, was to engage with volunteers who we call Pratham Books Champions. Hundreds of Champions participate with us in our mission to bring books closer to children because we believe that this is a societal mission and we all need to join hands to make this a reality. Every year on International Literacy Day we have a campaign called ‘One Story One Day’ and we invite volunteers to conduct story-telling sessions in their communities. Last year we selected a book called “Paplu the Giant” for this campaign. We had published the book in 5 languages and our volunteers translated it into many more languages for their sessions. 500 Champions participated to conduct storytelling sessions with 40,000 children and what was quite astonishing is that the story was told in 25 languages. This year we have picked a book called ‘Taklu the little Salt Seller’ and we have done about 1500 storytelling sessions across the country. We encourage our Champions to share their experiences on our blogwww.champions.prathambooks.org. You can read on the blog how people are becoming change makers and a simple idea of reading a book to children, brings forward hundreds of volunteers who do so in their own ways.

We are hopeful that in near future all children in India will have good books to read.

To know more about Pratham Books Please visit www.PrathamBooks.org

About Ms Suzanne Singh, Chairperson, Pratham Books

Suzanne Singh has been associated with Pratham Books since its inception in 2004. She was the Managing Trustee of the organization from 2010 and has been Chairperson since January 2014. A management graduate, she spent several years in the corporate sector before moving into the development sector. She also serves on the Boards of Akshara Foundation and United Way Bengaluru.

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