In conversation with writer, editor Payal Dhar

Posted by Menaka Raman on July 04, 2017

Payal Dhar is a writer and editor. She writes on computers, technology, books, reading, games and travel, and has written on sport in the past. She also writes fiction for children and young adults, and has a number of books under her belt. You can read more about her on her website: http://writeside.net. Payal edited a number of titles from our set of STEM books, and we caught up with her about her experience. 

You commissioned and edited picture books that explored science, technology and engineering topics. As an Editor, how did you make these stories appealing for early readers?

Well, it’s probably fairer to say that we tried our best to make them appealing for young readers—whether we succeeded or not is quite another story. I was lucky to be able to entice a bunch of enthusiastic, eperienced and talented writers to work with, who understood what we were trying to achieve and were fully on board with it. That really made my work easy. The illustrators also played their role in making the stories well rounded and entertaining. I think that what we were all (writers, illustrators, editors and you good folks at StoryWeaver) completely clear about from the start was what we didn’t want, that is, no lessons disguised as stories. The rest was (relatively) easy.

What did you enjoy most about the process?

Figuring out a way to stick to a subject or broad theme without being that aforementioned lesson-disguised-as-story. The ones I enjoyed most were what I call the ‘fictionalised non-fiction’, especially Roopa Pai’s Bonda and Devi, Anil Menon’s Manikantan Has Enough and Richa Jha’s Gul in Space.

What were the challenges?

In the first year of commissioning I did struggle with finding a balance between keeping things simple and not making them simplistic because of the particular demographic that Pratham Books caters to. I couldn’t exactly say that I’ve figured it out since, but it has certainly become a bit clearer. The other challenge, of course, that always crops up in projects of this sort, was dealing with difficult authors. But that was a very small minority, so no blood was shed. :)

Which are your favourite STEM books for children?

Among others, Esther Porter’s Peeking under the City; the Nick and Tesla books by Bob Pflugfelder; and David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work.

The books that you’ve worked on are so diverse in themes, style and structure. Tell us a little about working with so many different writers and your approach as an editor. 

I was pretty privileged in working with writers who were already pretty experienced—you could say I had it easy in that regard—so there was little or no hand-holding required. Most of the writers understood the brief immediately and came up with brilliant ideas of their own. Most of them were able to self-reflect and improve on their own work as well, and this was critical in the revisions. All in all, despite a few roadblocks, I had a pretty uncomplicated time of it.

Read  our STEM titles in English and a range of Indian languages for free on StoryWeaver.

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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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by Rahel Rao, Intern, Pratham Books StoryWeaver.

All children love stories. Especially when the stories are told to them in an animated manner or the stories come with illustrations, bringing them to life. With this in mind, on the 21st of January, 2017, Oracle India Volunteers partnered with Mantra4Change and Pratham Books StoryWeaver to conduct a storytelling session at Citizens Schools in Bengaluru.

The session was for classes 5 and 6 and the stories read to the classes were: Reeti and Mithu (Anupa Lal, Soumya Menon), Up Down, Down World (Padmaparna Ghosh, Sunaina Coelho), and Let’s Go Seed Collecting (Neha Sumitran, Archana Sreenivasan) along with a bonus story - Ammachi’s Amazing Machines (Rajiv Eipe) - read by Menaka Raman, from Pratham Books.

All these stories sparked discussions about animal abuse, deforestation, and other such topics which the children had an acute awareness of and were ready to engage in discussions about - they only needed an opportunity to voice their views.

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The children in Class 6 gather around Menaka to see the illustrations of ‘Ammachi’s Amazing Machine’

The children enjoyed the sessions very much and their infectious enthusiasm made the experience better for the storytellers. You could see their faces lighting up when they realised that they were going to be told stories. They were alert and interactive throughout the sessions, ready to answer any questions asked and were even more excited when they realised that pictures were being taken of them. As Rashmi, an Oracle volunteer said, “[their reaction] was really awesome”.

They clearly enjoyed the stories too. Oracle volunteer, Pranjala, said that the stories available on StoryWeaver are filled with so much positivity. She added that it was very important that children from the underserved sections of society get the right values, saying, that "stories are a wonderful way to impart values to kids at this age, which  they can carry with them for the rest of their lives”.

It was clear that initially the children weren’t very certain how to act around the storytellers. But they soon settled down, realising that it wasn’t a formal setting. This feeling was common even among the storytellers. Rajeshwari, who works with Oracle and was doing this for the first time, said that although she was a bit apprehensive when she heard that this was for the fifth and sixth grade, she found that they were really excited and later said that “overall it was a great experience” - an observation made by all the storytellers.

 

Storytelling session by Oracle at Citizens School

Rajeshwari with Class 6 after reading ‘Let’s Go Seed Collecting’

Rajeshwari also brought a guest, who used to be a teacher in a playschool, to do a storytelling session. She said that “storytelling is not just an oral rendition, it's more of an art to get children involved. They learn faster through stories” and was very excited when this opportunity came to her. She said that the stories on StoryWeaver were “told in such an adventurous way” and so the “small things which have been added in the book which they [the children] tend to overlook” were brought to their attention through the discussions that followed each story.

The entire morning was very heartening and the children even asked some of the the volunteers when they were coming back to do another session. Their level of interest and their love for stories was apparent, which only made the entire experience better and completely worthwhile.

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Menaka (left) and Rashmi (right) talking to a class after the storytelling session.

Have you used StoryWeaver to conduct a storytelling session? Would you like to write about it for our blog? Send us an email at storyweaver@prathambooks.org

 

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