Digital Literature

How a children’s book publisher hopes to reach more of India’s 200 million children

Pratham Books’ new open-source platform is a huge step to creating more young readers.

On September 8, International Literacy Day, a publisher of children’s books took an unprecedented step to get more children in India to read, and to think creatively. That day Pratham Books launched StoryWeaver, an open source digital platform that aims to be a go-to repository of children’s literature online. Pratham Books have been publishing for eleven years now, with over 300 titles and 2,000 books in over 18 languages to their credit, and have now made these books available to everyone, under open source content licences.

The people at Pratham Books reckon that mainstream publishing just doesn’t reach too many of the approximately 200 million children in the country, especially when it comes to books that adequately represent Indian children in their own contexts and cultural milieus. Suzanne Singh, the Chairperson at Pratham Books, says, “There aren’t enough engaging, joyful books being published for children in Indian languages outside of Hindi and English. Most books will be age-old fables, folk tales, etc. of differing quality.”

Read, tell, build

What the StoryWeaver website does is to replicate the oral tradition of storytelling: it puts out a story and then invites people to either read the story as it is, translate it into a different language, or take the bare bones of the story to tell a completely new one.  Contributors can even add illustrations, or use the many prompts on StoryWeaver, from textual to illustrative, to write stories themselves. "I am happy to have my books on StoryWeaver and under open license. The possibility of reaching out to many more children and in many languages is just wonderful", says author and illustrator Madhuri Purandhare.

So a teacher, guardian or young reader can go to the story writing software, type a title and start writing. StoryWeaver will help the writer determine the level of the story, and also help select appropriate images from an image bank. If the writer wants to upload her own illustrations, she can do so. Similarly, to translate, all one needs to do is to select a ‘translate’ option, pick the language, and begin.

The website interface is quite simple, and all the text is Unicode-compliant, which means that readers will not have to download any special software, which is ideal for low-bandwidth Internet connections situations with a limited choice of devices may be limited. Singh says that the platform was designed with resource-poor conditions in mind.

Booklovers too have pitched in in different ways. Says Kumarika, an employee of Infosys, who spent hours proofreading Odia books on StoryWeaver: “I am glad that I spotted Pratham Books’ tweet looking for Odia proofreaders. My heart did not want to let go of this incredible opportunity of reviewing children's books, that too in Odia.”

The origins

How did it come about? “We had participated in the Google Impact Challenge in 2013, and as finalists, we won a grant to develop the idea that we had presented – which was to build an open source platform with multilingual children’s content. Once we got the grant, it took us about 15 months to build it.” Says Delhi based Priya Kuriyan, illustrator for the launch campaign, “As an illustrator who truly believes that reading stories can change lives, it only made sense to contribute to the idea of Storyweaver in any small way that I could.”

Pratham Books is hoping to use the relationships it has built with organisations that use its books to promote StoryWeaver. “We have planned an offline-online outreach plan for workshops with our partners to demonstrate how the platform can be used in their literacy programmes. We will do the same with state governments,” says Singh.

The idea behind StoryWeaver, ultimately, is to build an ever-increasing community, a network of book readers, writers and publishers. To that end, once you sign in, you can discuss books on forums, “like” particular books that you enjoyed, and then tinker with them to your heart’s content. As of the time of writing, almost a month since the launch, the website has chalked up 920 stories in 27 languages.

A scan of the most read stories will show not just It’s All The Cat’s Fault (for Level 2 readers) by the well-known Indian children’s literature author Anushka Ravishankar, but also a reworking of it called The Story-Pooping Cat (for Level 3 readers) by Greystroke.

The original story:

Why haven't you done your homework?
Miss, it's all the cat's fault.

Synopsis: The boy in this story could not complete his homework because of a certain mischievous cat. Sounds like a silly excuse? Well, read about what happened to him, and you'll see how one thing can lead to another, and another, and another...

And the new version:

There was once a cat that pooped stories.
She would sit up on a tree without any worries,
Settle down after slurping on curry;
And poop stories, without any hurry.
No, it wasn't the work of elves or fairies;
Just a cat that could poop stories!

Synopsis: There was once a cat that pooped stories... no, really! Well, that's what Aaron tried to tell his maths teacher one day when he was asked to do a sum. No cats, dogs, monkeys, fourth-graders or teachers were harmed in the making of this story!

It’s an early example of what Pratham Books hopes will be the norm. “We would like users and content creators to participate in a collaborative, creative and mutually beneficial process of creating and transforming engaging, and accessible material for children,” Singh says, “We hope that this becomes a multi-stakeholder platform that democratises the joy of reading for children.” Adds children’s author Subhadra Sengupta, “For me as a writer what is important is reaching many, many children and the joy of children living in places I have never even heard of reading my books. An open platform is the perfect way.”

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