How Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver for children is celebrating individuality of expression and smashing gender stereotypes with every page

From the likes of Champak, Tinkle, Chacha Chaudhuri, Amar Chitra Katha and others to Gokulam and others, children’s books in India have taken on a new dimension with new publishers entering the space.
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Purvi Shah leads the StoryWeaver initiative at Pratham Books, a digital platform built for scale, to address the scarcity of books for children through a new approach for book creation and distribution. 

From the likes of Champak, Tinkle, Chacha Chaudhuri, Amar Chitra Katha, and others to Gokulam and others, children’s books in India have taken on a new dimension with new publishers entering the space. 

Children’s books have also joined the digital revolution and globalization bandwagon, focusing on more than just entertainment and moving towards knowledge-sharing and education through interaction.

Founded in 2004, Pratham Books changed the face of children’s publishing in India by bringing storybooks to children across India in their mother tongue languages. Operating on a low-cost, high-volume book, it has distributed over 30 million storybooks and story cards to children all over India so far.

Pratham, in its new avatar of StoryWeaver, is reaching millions of children worldwide, with local, indigenous, and diverse content in many languages. 

Founded in 2004, Pratham Books changed the face of children’s publishing in India by bringing storybooks to children across India in their mother tongue languages.

In a conversation with HerStory, Purvi Shah, who leads the StoryWeaver initiative speaks on the platform, its collaboration with CBSE’s reading mission, and how reading patterns in children have changed over the years.

HerStory (HS): What was the inspiration behind Pratham Books?

Purvi Shah (PS): One out of two children in India cannot read at their grade level (ASER 2019), for a variety of reasons, an important one being the dearth of reading material beyond textbooks in school. Without easy access to books in their mother tongue languages, children struggle to learn to read and practise their reading skills. Pratham Books was set up to bridge this immense reading gap that exists in India. Our mission is to put 'a book in every child’s hand’.

Since 2004, we have been creating engaging storybooks in multiple languages and formats to help children discover the joy of reading – in languages they can understand, set in locations they can recognise, featuring characters with whom they can identify, and telling stories that capture their attention and fuel their imagination. To date, we have published 7000+ storybooks in 25 Indian languages.

HS: Tell us about Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver platform?

PS: With 200 million children in the primary school age group, one of the questions that we kept coming back to was: how can we continue to bring books to children in a sustainable and scalable manner to accelerate progress towards United Nations’ SDG4 - Quality Education For All? 

We did something very unconventional for any publisher - we decided to leverage open licenses and technology to tackle the wicked problem of knowledge inequity. We created StoryWeaver, a digital platform built for scale, to address the scarcity of books for children through a new approach for book creation and distribution. 

StoryWeaver is a repository of high-quality, openly licensed multilingual storybooks. Every book is freely available in multiple formats. They can be read online and keeping in mind the digital divide - can also be read offline, downloaded, printed, and even repurposed. StoryWeaver hosts content from other global publishers as well. Translation tools on the platform helps customise the books for localised requirements and an image bank of more than 54,000 images allows users to create new books. These resources become available to other users as well, creating a multiplier effect and amplifying impact. 

 

StoryWeaver was launched with 800 books in 24 languages in 2015. By creating a participatory framework, we have distributed the ability to solve the challenge of scarcity of children’s books. This has helped scale StoryWeaver’s repository to over 38,000 books in 300 languages, with an online readership of over 13 million, in just six years.

HS: How are your storybooks changing reading habits from comics to knowledge-sharing for the current times? 

PS: Children need early and sustained exposure to engaging, joyful books to build a reading habit and become autonomous learners. Most early grade children do not have a choice of books in their mother tongues at the crucial pre-primary and primary levels. At Pratham, our books have engaging narratives, colourful illustrations, and reflect cultural diversity to form a meaningful bridge for children as they grow and expand their boundaries.

Our storybooks are categorised across four levels: emergent, early, independent, fluent. These levels are based on reading proficiency rather than age, encouraging children to read in a non-judgmental way.

Over the years, we have tackled several important and challenging themes through our storybooks, from shattering gender stereotypes to unpacking issues like climate change, from storybooks about living with disabilities to dealing with life-changing events like separation, bullying and body positivity. Our editorial focus has always been on telling stories in a non-pedantic way, in shaping the literary landscape with storybooks and characters that depart from traditional roles and gender biases. We commission manuscripts that seek equal voices for all genders, and give space to democratic themes free of stereotypes that foster social and emotional learning.

HS: Tell us more about your collaboration with the CBSE?

PS: The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 emphasises the importance of well-stocked school libraries and digital libraries to attain the goal of foundational literacy for all children by 2025. It recommends making quality children's literature available in all local languages to build a culture of reading across the country.

 

Our partnership with CBSE and the Central Square Foundation will promote reading literacy and build a culture of joyful reading among children through the CBSE Reading Mission - a two-year initiative. CBSE schools and teachers will have access to a large repository of openly licensed high-quality children’s storybooks and supplementary resources for Grades 1 to 8 via the Pratham Books Reading Programme, available for free in English and Hindi on StoryWeaver.  

HS:  What are some of the social issues that the storybooks at Pratham Books deal with?

PS: In Ammachi’s Amazing Machines, an inventive and energetic grandmother uses various simple machines to make coconut barfi. The true story of Kali Wants to Dance, about a boy who aspires to become a trained classical dancer, is powerful because he pursues his dreams against all odds. Even as he is repeatedly told that dance is not for boys, Kali perseveres. Satrangi Ladke aur Ladkiyan is a celebration of individuality and expression, smashing gender stereotypes with the turn of every page.

When How Do Aeroplanes Fly? was introduced to a group of children in Rajasthan by a Pratham Books employee, they were struck by an illustration of a woman pilot. “We didn’t know that women could fly planes,” one of the girls remarked. 

We also have a range of picture books centred around Social and Emotional Learning - whether it is Piku's Little World or Chuchu Manthu's Jar of Toffees which look at children grappling with grief and loss, or Who Stole Bhaiya's Smile that deals with the complex issue of depression and mental illness, or the award-winning Angry Akku that helps a girl express the emotion throw anger. 

When How Do Aeroplanes Fly? was introduced to a group of children in Rajasthan by a Pratham Books employee, they were struck by an illustration of a woman pilot. “We didn’t know that women could fly planes,” one of the girls remarked. 

HS: How do you think the digital revolution is changing book-reading among children? 

 

PS: As education systems adapted to remote learning as a solution during the pandemic, StoryWeaver witnessed a huge global uptick in usage. Educators, literacy organisations. community libraries, reading clubs integrated StoryWeaver’s open-source, free digital materials into online classes. StoryWeaver was also featured as a recommended open distance learning resource for children by UNESCO and the World Bank.

 

Responding to user needs, we created the Learn At Home microsite with grade-wise books to make it easy for educators to choose from our repository. We partnered with UNESCO on the Translate-A-Story campaign to create more multilingual content, scaled our Reading Programme and themed Book Lists into several languages, and boosted our audio-visual resources and made them available in more languages. 

We recently launched the Foundational Literacy Programme in Hindi and Marathi on StoryWeaver, available for in-classroom and at-home use, to build early reading fluency and comprehension. This will be used by the Education Department of Chhattisgarh as part of the state’s digital reading campaign, with the potential to impact 30,000 schools.

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan

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