STEM Books: What (We Think) Works

Posted by Yamini Vijayan on May 11, 2017

Since its inception, Pratham Books has published a range of picture books that explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) topics in interesting ways. But it is since 2015 that we have been doing this in a much more focussed manner. The main reason for this was the realization that there aren’t enough multilingual information books available for early readers in India. The fact that many children find science and math slightly daunting made this even more of an interesting challenge because we felt that we could help change this perception by creating fun, memorable books around STEM topics.

While we've been exploring a number of ways to introduce STEM topics to children, one of the biggest challenges has been to present information accurately, imaginatively and in a simple way without making it seem 'textbookish'. So it was essential that we paid attention to the narrative, plot and tone of each book so that children are drawn to it. 

Since we work extensively with children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, it is important that our books are relevant to these children. Conversations with partner organizations who work closely with these children reveal the need for simpler books as their reading fluencies are still developing. Bearing that in mind, our focus has been on creating simple books that encourage children to explore the world around them with an open mind, ask as many questions as they possibly can and find ways to apply their knowledge.

We continue to be keen to create STEM books, so we thought it might be interesting to highlight a few books that were created over the last couple of years, mainly as a way for us to reflect and share our learnings. So what worked?

Clarity of concept – An important aspect of a STEM book is its ability to demonstrate the concept clearly. I Spy! (by Samvida Venkatesh & Sandhya Prabhat) explains the concept of subtraction wonderfully - using play and humour.

Simplicity – Most of our conversations with our outreach partners lead us to the same conclusion: the need for simpler books that match the reading levels of the children we work with. Sunando Chakraborty’s Sniffles, a story about how flu spreads, is an excellent example of this. Also, we adore the central character of this book. Satya, Watch Out! is another good example of simplicity of narrative and plot.

Good storytellingJadav and the Tree-Place won the Best Digital Book award at the Publishing Next conference last year. This story – about forester Jadav 'Payeng' Molai - stood out for us as well mainly because it is an inspiring story narrated powerfully by Vinayak Varma.

Using humour – Rajiv Eipe’s Ammachi’s Amazing Machines has been a big hit with our readers for many reasons! But one reason for its popularity is the gentle humour that runs through the story, especially in the art. While it can be challenging to include humour in STEM books (imagine having done this in a story about simple machines!), we can tell you that it works wonders.

Seamlessly blending fiction and non-fiction – It isn’t easy to strike the right balance between fiction and fact, so we were delighted to publish A Butterfly Smile (by Mathangi Subramanian & Lavanya Naidu) which has managed to achieve this. In this, a girl who is new to the city shares her knowledge of butterflies with her classmates and also learns new facts about them. At the same time, it highlights migration due to environmental and economic reasons. Another story that managed to do this successfully is Dum Dum-a-Dum Biryani! (by Gayathri Tirthapura & Kabini Amin) which explores the fascinating relationship between math and cooking.

Widening the imagination – What better way to talk about this than directing you to How Far is Far? A book about distances, big numbers and measurement, Sukanya Sinha and Vishnu M Nair have created an exceptional math book which stays true to the core ideas of math: play and exploration.

Memorable characters – Being able to create characters that stick in our memory is an admirable skill. Including memorable characters naturally makes it easier for children to retain the concept and story. In that regard, some of our favourite characters are: the quirky grandmother from How Old is Muttajj? (by Roopa Pai & Kaveri Gopalakrishnan), the endearing gharial from Ghum-Ghum Gharial's Glorious Adventure (by Aparna Kapur & Roshan K), adventurous Arya from Arya in the Cockpit (by Nandita Jayaraj & Upamanyu Bhattacharyya) and the perpetually hungry Neema from Bijal Vachharajani and Priya Kuriyan's What's Neema Eating Today?.

Reinforcing the concept through activities – In the case of STEM books, it’s very helpful to have fun, practical activities at the end of the book. Children seem to enjoy this as it allows them to engage with the concept in a real way and not be passive consumers of information. A Butterfly Smile has a really fun activity at the end of the story. We’ve been told by teachers that How Old is Muttajji? was well received because children enjoyed the interactive nature of the narrative which challenged them to think, much like solving a puzzle.

Pure non-fiction – Although we haven’t done much in terms of straightforward non-fiction, we are beginning to see the massive potential of this. The only reason we didn’t do much of this is for the fear of seeming ‘textbookish’. But the response to books like How Does Toothpaste Get Into the Tube? (by Veena Prasad & Rajiv Eipe) has made us realize that we should look at publishing more of these. This book has certainly done well in choosing the right question – a question that is likely to baffle us, and one that doesn’t have very obvious answers.

Ability to relate – Some of the stories that children have quickly taken to are the ones that they find easy to relate to. For instance, One by Two (by Maya Bisineer & Shreya Sen) which is essentially about division but involves a lot of food sharing which is familiar to most of us.

Fascinating topics – Very often, finding a theme that is of interest to children is half the battle. Of course, this is an old trick! But, it’s a useful one – especially for STEM stories. Just last year, we commissioned Gul in Space (by Richa Jha & Lavanya Karthik) and Kaakaasaurus (by Shalini Srinivasan & Prabha Mallya) because... well, space and dinosaurs!

Good for Read Aloud – We decided to include this point only because we find that a lot of our books are read aloud in schools. So it’s always wonderful to have STEM stories that are fun to read aloud. A perfect example of this is Anupama Ajinkya Apte's Gulli’s Box of Things - a STEM book we published a few years ago (in print). 

All the STEM books that are mentioned here are available for free on StoryWeaver in English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil.

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Diversity in Children's Books: Why it Matters

Posted by Yamini Vijayan on July 01, 2016

This year, we published a book called 'How Do Aeroplanes Fly?' on StoryWeaver in 10 languages. The book – written by Aditi Sarawagi and illustrated by Lavanya Karthik - was recently introduced to a group of children in Kota, Rajasthan, by a colleague during one of her field visits. One of the interesting observations she had made was that the children – both boys and girls – were struck by the mention of female pilots. “We didn't know that women could fly planes,” one of them had said to her. You can watch a related video here.


While I'm aware of disparities existing in every corner of India, this still took me by surprise. It also made me realize that all the thinking we do, as publishers, teachers and parents – which often feels like overthinking – is most definitely a good thing. Including a woman pilot and an Indian one at that had made a difference here, after all. 

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of conversation around the growing need for diverse and inclusive books. And what does diversity mean, you ask. I suppose it could mean a range of things: from gender and religion, to language and ethnicity. The website We Need Diverse Books has listed down their vision as “A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book." In India, initiatives like @genderlogindia and BAM! Books have actively helped keep this conversation alive.

In 2012, a national consultation involving experts from institutions, authors, editors, publishers, librarians and educators was organized by National Book Trust. 'The Good Books Guide', the document that emerged from this gathering, speaks about diversity and inclusion in its section on values. “There is a need to realize that many groups – and their world-view and perspectives – are often ignored in children's literature. For instance, girls, tribal or dalit children, children with special needs, working children and those living in urban slums, don't get enough representation in mainstream literature.”

When I think about the first set of books that were published on StoryWeaver (released digitally first), a few titles come to mind. To be completely honest though, it feels odd to be calling these books diverse. Why should a boy cooking be thought of as diverse? Why should a book featuring a single-parent household be slotted as diverse? Just because there are characters from the North-East of India, should a book be treated as diverse? Children living near a garbage dump... diverse? 

Here's the thing though. There aren't enough children's books, especially in India, in which boys or men are shown to be cooking. Single-parent households in children's books? Hardly. Characters from the North-East? A handful. Well, you get the point. In a world in which children are surrounded with fear, prejudice and suspicion, these stories – which include multiple perspectives and help build empathy - become all the more important. Stories with diverse characters will help them realize that 'the other' – in any regard – is more like them than they had imagined. And that even if they weren't, these differences are to be celebrated.

If we want our children to be independent in their thinking, we certainly need to give them access to rich and eclectic narratives that not only only inspire curiosity, but also show rigid patterns being broken gracefully. In Ross Montgomery's recent article on 'Why Writing Diverse Children's Books is Tough', he addresses a lot of issues that well-meaning authors are likely to run into. After all, you don't want to include diverse characters in your book just for the sake of having diversity, do you? But as he points out, “We all have to strive to create well-rounded diverse characters and find new ways of writing. The fact that it’s hard isn’t a good enough excuse: we have to step away from the established paths and take more risks. Who knows - we might even find a better one.” 


And while you're (hopefully) contemplating these rather baffling questions, allow us to make suggestions of a few books that we consider diverse. Please add your book recommendations in the comments section below.

Favourites from StoryWeaver & Pratham Books

Please note that all these books are available in multiple languages.

1. Bonda and Devi
In this story of unlikely friendship, Devi – one of the protagonists – is physically challenged. Set in the future, we had to make the wheelchair kind of futuristic as well. Spot it?

2. Where Did Your Dimples Go?
Langlen's father is Tamil and mother is Manipuri. It was just before this story was illustrated that one of the contributors suggested that Langlen's (formerly known as Leela) mother be from the North-East region of India, since it is hugely under-represented in children's books. 

3. Dum Dum-a-Dum Biryani
Bored of seeing only women cooking in children's books? Finally, a boy who loves to cook! Meet Basha, who loves to hang around in the kitchen as his Ammi cooks all kinds of delicious dishes.

4. A Helping Hand
Told through a series of letters, this is a moving story of acceptance and blossoming friendship. 

5. Chuskit Goes to School  

Set in Ladakh, this is the story of Chuskit, a differently-abled girl who longed to go to school but was unable to because she could not walk. But after a nine-year wait, she is finally able to go to school!

6. Freedom Run
In many tiny villages in Uttar Pradesh, small children work long hours at the looms to create carpets famous around the world for their intricate designs. This is a story about the forgotten children of India.
7. Didi Ka Rang Biranga Khazaana
Living close to a garbage dump, these children run around garbage all day, without attending school. But then one day, Didi walks into the dump, changing their lives forever. Meet Didi and her young friends in this wonderful story that celebrates the joy of reading.
8. Adikhani series (a set of 10 bilingual books)
Drawing inspiration from the challenges facing tribal education, three organisations (Pratham Books, Ignus-ERG with the support of Bernard van Leer Foundation) held writing workshops with authors speaking Saura, Munda, Kui and Juanga languages to create picture books for early readers. These charming stories are drawn from the rich oral tradition of various tribal languages and the illustrations use tribal art with a contemporary twist. The script used in these books is Odia.

9. Chipko Takes Root

Dichi, a brave Bhotiya girl, takes part in the Chipko movement to save her beloved trees.

10. Manikantan Has Enough
Manikantan isn't pleased about having moved from his beautiful village to Smart City where his every move is being watched. But he did it for Amma, who is his mother and father and all the family he had in the world.

Favourites From Other Publishers
1. 'Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why' by Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade (Tulika)
2. 'The Princess with the Longest Hair' by Komilla Raote and Vandana Bist (Katha)
3. 'The Lonely King and Queen' by Deepa Balsavar (Tulika)
4. 'The Sackclothman' by Jayasree Kalathil (DC Books)
5. 'Dear Mrs. Naidu' by Mathangi Subramanian (Young Zubaan)
6. 'Simply Nanju' by Zainab Sulaiman (Duckbill Books)

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