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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Seasonal eating with Neema

Posted by Menaka Raman on January 10, 2017

By Bijal Vachharajani 

When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading Harry Potter, she can be found looking for tigers in the jungles of India. In her spare time, she works to fund the trips and books. She did this by working as the Editor at Time Out Bengaluru. After having studied climate change at the University for Peace, she now writes about education and sustainable development and is a consultant with Fairtrade Asia Pacific. She is also one half of BAM! Booksan Instagram-led project which talks about children's and Young Adult books. She tweets at @bijal_v. 

My mother’s kitchen operates on a seasonal calendar, something I took for granted for a long time. As winter would approach, wondrous smells of ghee, whole wheat flour and jaggery simmering in a kadhai would tell us that godpapdi was being prepared that day. When rain would slow down our work schedule, spinach would no longer be cooked in the house, because mum believed that insects nestled in the palak leaves during the monsoon season. Summer would herald the impatient wait for our regular mango seller, until finally bowls of aam ras, chilled to golden goodness, arrived on the lunch table.

There’s an anticipation to eating seasonally – nothing beats drizzling notun gur over your creamy white dahi in winter, nibbling on slices of raw mango slathered with salt and red chilli powder at the beginning of summer, and wrestling with masala bhutta cobs in one hand and umbrellas in the other during the monsoon season. Which is pretty much what Neema, the protagonist of the picture book "What’s Neema Eating Today?" does – eat with relish but seasonally. And Priya Kuriyan has created the perfect Neema – a child who eats with abandon, enjoys her food, while revelling in nature’s bounty. Really, this picture book is all down to the extremely talented Priya!

Today with technology, our food’s taken on a homogenous quality which while convenient, is almost boring. Watermelons are available through the year, never mind that they taste bland most months. Strawberries taste like little cardboard pieces, while the mysteriously-available-in-March-mangoes are best left on trees to ripen naturally. I stopped eating bananas for a while when I read this story about how to keep up with our insatiable demand, farmers were being forced to ripen the fruits with the help of harmful chemicals. And I suspect Neema would definitely turn up her nose at it as well.

Which is why I was excited to do a book on eating as per the season, when Yamini Vijayan of Pratham Books StoryWeaver asked me to write one (I commission and edit a set of STEM picture books on environment for them). Of course, one of the challenges was leaving out autumn and spring. In school, we learn about the five types of seasons – spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. But most parts of India experience summer, monsoon, and winter, and which is why we decided to concentrate on those seasons. And Priya has captured the seasons beautifully – from the glowering clouds that roll up during the monsoon to that gorgeous feeling of being outdoors on a crisp, winter day. It’s all in there.

Neema is inspired from some of the work I have done with Fairtrade over the last couple of years – I have had the privilege to meet farmers and I am always gobsmacked at the kind of seasonal and local variety you find in our country. At the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala seed fest, a farmer from the Mananthavady taluk in the Wayanad district of Kerala had put up a dazzling display of 26 kinds of chillies. Another farmer who is part of Chetna Organic in Telangana is saving a local variety of red gram seed and growing it for her family. In Odisha, I sampled kala jira rice, which when cooked is so fragrant, that you will forget basmati in a trice.   

 

   

Copyright Bijal Vachharajani/Fairtrade India

However, not all’s well in the world of food diversity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that since the “beginning of this century, about 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost.” And climate change is impacting agriculture at an unprecedented pace – the FAO says that the “change in seasonality attributed to climate change can lead to certain food products becoming more scarce at certain times of year. Such seasonal variations in food supply, along with vulnerabilities to flooding and fire, can make livelihoods more vulnerable at certain times of the year. Although these impacts might appear indirect, they are important because many marginal livelihood groups are close to the poverty margin, and food is a key component of their existence.”

Atram Kusu Bai is a Fairtrade farmer with Chetna Organic in Telangana. A cotton farmer, she's also preserving a red gram seed that is indigenous the region. Image copyright Bijal Vachharajani/Fairtrade India

It’s not easy always to eat seasonally, when you’re shopping online or faced with a dazzling array of apples, kiwis and oranges from far-flung corners of the world. Our food system has increasingly become complex. But ask your fruit seller, keep a track of seasons, and enjoy eating them. After all, fruits and vegetables taste best when in season. Or simply like the meme goes:  Neema eats with the seasons. Neema is cool. Be like Neema.

(Psssst... we had a super fun, informative twitter chat with Bijal on January 4th. If you missed it, you can read it here on Storify!)

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Stories for 2017: 10 Themes for a Happy New Year!

Posted by Sherein Bansal on January 06, 2017

‘If you’re skilled at something, don’t give it away for free’ is a piece of advice that we heard so many times growing up, that just the fact that a thing called CC BY License even exists seems absurd and foolish by today’s standards. But that’s what Pratham Books' 1.5 year old digital platform StoryWeaver, all its illustrators, authors as well as translators believe in – free dissemination of our books in order to achieve our ultimate goal: ‘A book in every child’s hand’. In 2016, with 5326 stories uploaded on StoryWeaver, 25 languages added, and 1,19,132 new visitors (A warm hello to you all!), we feel truly grateful. It is indeed a Happy New Year for the StoryWeaver family. So we would like to express our heartfelt New Year wishes to you all in the best way we know. By highlighting here just 10 of our books that speak of themes that currently are, and will remain, points of discussion and action in 2017.

 

Environment 

Chipko Takes Root written and illustrated by Jeyanthi Manokaran

We seriously need to drop the act that we are gracious hosts to nature, and are ‘allowing’ it to be. It’s the other way round. With some people claiming proudly that global warming is not real, and regressive environmental policies being made all over the world, it’s important to keep talking about conserving nature. Here’s a story about one of the bravest fights in India that made Chipko Movement a force to reckon with.

 

Technology

Bonda and Devi by Roopa Pai and Jit Chowdhury

Any one of us who successfully evaded technology as much as they could before, now must make their peace with it in this digital economy. We don’t know where technology will take us in 2017, but we know where it might reach in 2080! Read about this futuristic tale about two very unlikely friends. Maybe we can be friends with technology too, just like Devi in this story? Available in 9 more languages!

 

Education 

Counting on Moru by Rukmini Banerji and Nina Sabnani

It’s a failure of our education system for not recognizing students as individuals and keeping them at a ‘uniform’ pace of comprehension with each other. This moving story in Hindi, Kannada, Odia and Marathi, talks about how how easy it is to lose your spark when you're a student under the wrong teacher and regain it with the right one.

 

Community Activism 

Wildlife in a City Pond by Ashish Kothari and Sangeetha Kadur

When the good ones are silent, the misguided will shout and reign. Be the first voice to speak up against loss of beauty and justice. Here’s a story that flows like a poem and builds up your love for something that this neighborhood derives so much peace and wisdom from that you will want to protect it yourself.

 

Sports 

Dhyan Singh ‘Chand’: Hockey’s Magician by Dilip D'Souza and Mohit Suneja

Let’s, for once, not talk about Hockey with a sense of guilt at not having given it too much traction in life. Let’s just read this story about Dhyan Chand- one of the best things to have happened to Hockey and one of the worst that happened to Hitler. Win, win all the way and yet he stayed humbly devoted to the sport all his life. A man worth knowing about, he will teach you the true meaning of sportsmanship spirit.

 

Humour 

Yes, humour is indeed an important point of discussion. And more importantly, action. 2016 clearly needed a hug, and some jokes. So we are better prepared this time for 2017 with our fun story – Phani's Funny Chappals by Sridala Swami and Sanjay Sarkar, and our Spotathon entry Messy Miss Mitaby Jisha Unnikrishnan.

 

Art 

Dastkari Haat Samiti Books

Travelling inwards is just as important as travelling outwards. We need art now more than ever to connect with an ever-expanding world, and to convey our strongest messages and passions with more ease and solidarity. Experience beauty, talent and magic all woven, embroidered and sculpted together in our Dastkari Haat Books.

 

Health 

Gargi and Soapy by Preethi Unnithan and Sorit Gupto

Physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health. Let’s make a new year resolution to take care of it all. Here’s a story by our SW community member about a world where a soap called Soapy will fight the evil germs and restore balance and health!

 

Diversity 

Why is Nita Upside Down? By Roxana Bouwer and Sarah Bouwer

Dismissed someone lately or ridiculed someone in your mind (because doing it to their face would be politically incorrect) just because they did not look, talk or well… live, like you do? This one’s for you then. Let’s look at how a child sees a playground, and let’s compel ourselves to look at people and accept them the way they are in this judgment-reflexed world.

Family 

وصیت by Anis Azmi and Juhi Agarwal

There are all kinds of families. But as this Urdu story shows, not one can function without mutual trust and respect - Values that can make 2017 better for everyone. Ride a camel to Egypt and pay a visit to this family? Let’s go.

 

Which theme concerns you the most as we step into a new year? Tell us in the comments, or on Twitter and Facebook.

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