Taking Friendship and Curiosity to Classrooms

Posted by Menaka Raman on September 07, 2017

Zeba Imtiaz, Assistant Editor, Pratham Books writes about her experience at a recent storytelling session at Citizens High School, Bangalore.

We recently accompanied Roopa Pai, author and editor of a formidable number of STEM books, on a story telling session at Citizens High School in Bangalore. The STEM books have been written and created with support from Oracle, and the event was organised with the help of our partner organisation - Mantra4Change. The intent of these sessions is to bring creators and readers together to read stories, play games, and most importantly, learn more from each other.

Last weekend found us at the gates of the school, listening to the chirpy voices of the only other bunch of humans who can be as excited as us about a working Saturday morning – school going children. Citizens School, located on Davis Road, Bangalore, is an English medium school for children from low income families, and has a building for the primary section, and another building down the road for the senior kids.

Roopa had chosen to read ‘How Old is Muttajji?’ to a class of 6th graders in the senior school building. This is a story about two enthusiastic twin detectives trying to deduce the age of their great grandmother from various events in her life. And we decided to go along with ‘Same Same or Different’, a story of a sparrow and a snake who try to show their parents they can be friends despite their obvious differences, for a class of 4th graders.

In Grade 6th, Roopa had 35 kids on the edge of their benches wondering along with Putta and Putti what is their Muttaji’s real age. Gathered in their ancestral home in Mysore, the twins used History, Mathematics and General Knowledge to come to the exact birthday their great grandmother was celebrating! The kids were amused, intrigued and fascinated by the interesting bits of history spread through the book and the twins’ investment in cracking the clues.  After the story, Roopa quizzed the children on Indian history. The class was divided into groups and their knowledge on India’s history and culture was tested. There was a lot of competition and guess work in the air (not to say noise!) and  the session ended on a high with all the energy from the children!

We projected and read out the story  ‘Same Same or Different’  to the very excited class of 4C in a charming library on the sunshine-filled terrace of the school. The colourful characters, the emotions, and the very real problem of your friend not being approved of by your parents, made the story come alive for the kids and us. After some impassioned reactions to the parenting skills of Mama Sparrow and Papa Snake, we moved onto our activity for the day. The kids partnered up with whoever was seated next to them, and were given coloured pens and activity sheets. The activity sheet had a venn diagram, exactly like the one Sparrow and Snake use in the story. The kids talked to their partners about their hobbies, favourite foods and games and colours, and birthdays, and filled in what was common to both of them, and what was different. We then counted our ‘same-sames’ and ‘differents’ and talked about whether that affected our relationships, and whether that was even an important thing to consider.

After multiple photographs, viewings of activity sheets, and thank yous, we ended our session with many learnings on how kids view their friendships and parental relationships.

You can see more pictures from the sessions on the StoryWeaver Flickr Account.

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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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