Monday, November 9, 2009

Interning with Pratham Books : Naomi Alexander Naidoo

Pratham Books has two enthusiastic interns working with us during the month of November. Naomi is one of them. A bundle of energy and a pizza shunning, masala dosa loving girl = Naomi! Naomi begins her blogging experience with the following post on her love for books and her experience with Pratham Books till now.
As a child, growing up in the east of Oxford in England, I was addicted to the “The Magic Key” series or, as my peers and I called the books, “Biff and Chip”. Later turned into a- obviously not even nearly as good!- TV series for the BBC, “The Magic Key” followed the three siblings Biff, Chip and Kipper Robinson and their dog Floppy on the magical adventures that they found themselves on thanks to their very own Magic Key. From “The Magic Key” I graduated on to Roald Dahl, whose books I still love today. “The Twits”, “The BFG”, “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda” (though the movie depiction of a certain Miss Trunchbull in the latter had me running out of my local movie theatre in tears, after having begged my dad for over an hour to let me see the film!), I shared my favourites with most of the reading world and I’d imagine we fell in love with these books for the same reasons- the ghastly adults, the victorious kids and most of all the magic. Roald Dahl’s writing brought my reading ability up to slightly above The Magic Key level and moved me swiftly on to my next literary obsession: “The Chronicles of Narnia.” This one lasted quite a while, as the un-chronological nature of the Narnia books meant you were constantly re-reading and jumping back and forth, filling in the gaps. I still remember when I finally finished the last book, appropriately entitled The Last Battle, and shoved the book back into my bursting bookcase with an air of “Aha! Finally I am completely done!”, when in actual fact I realised only hours later that I was sad that there was no more Narnia magic for me to discover.

Arriving at Pratham Books earlier this week my first task was to read and review, from my own British perspective, their vast collection of children’s books, both individually and as a whole. Given their impressive number of publications this perhaps seems quite a daunting task (as my best friend, writing from university in middle England over Skype put it- “you’re reviewing 170 books!? 170!?!”), but I was excited at the prospect of being able to be a kid again and reading books which would not require me to look up words and references on Wikipedia every other sentence! Most of all I was excited to read books which contained that element of magic that I loved above all else when I was a child, which is sadly (okay, fine, apart from Harry Potter) absent from my reading list these days. I was not disappointed.

I really enjoyed the incredible variety in the Pratham books range, varying from the very simple “Tell me now!” and “Going to…” series’ for 3-6 year olds, aimed at starting their reading and developing their basic skills; to the books in the 7-10 age range which vary from fun, amusing stories about animals such as “Grandpa Fish and the Radio” and “The Hare and the Tortoise (again!)” to books with a strong social and moral message like “Chuskit goes to school”, the story of a disabled girl who desperately wants to go to school but is not able to. Aside from the language progression, this is maybe the biggest difference between the books in this age range and the younger one: even in many of the more basic, fun stories a subtle moral message is delivered. For example in “The Generous Crow” children are reminded about what qualities are important to have and what qualities are less so, and in “The Mouse with Seven Tails” the importance of being happy with oneself is stressed. The major difference in the 11-14 age range is that many of the books become very informative, such as in the “Once upon an India” range where historical facts are conveyed to children in a fun way, so that they learn about certain times in India’s history without feeling as though they are reading a text book. Likewise in “Ganga” where children learn a lot about the river, “Freestyle!” which tells the life (so far!) story of young, Indian Olympic candidate Virdhawal Khade and “Turtle Story”, “From Submarines to Skyraiders” and “Nature’s Webmaster”, which teach children about turtles, dragon flies and spiders respectively.

However this is not what I, as a foreigner, feel is most unique and therefore special about Pratham Books. As most of the books are set in India I feel that many of them have a certain air of magic and enchantment about them, without having to include the likes of wands, broomsticks and wizards, as are now sometimes over-used by kids’ books in the UK. In the Pratham Books stories the enchanting, charming atmosphere is built up a lot more subtly, and often furthered somewhat by the illustrations used, particularly by the extensive use of beautiful watercolour paintings. This is evident in the wonderful story of nature in “The Whispering Palms”, the tale of the tree in “Shanti’s friend” and in “The Case of the Healing Herbs” and the other “modern folk tales” involving Jeeva and Jatin in their little village Jhilmil. That said, I felt that many of the highlights of the Pratham Books range were the several interpretations of stories from other countries: the four legends from the Americas aimed at 11-14 year olds, The Warli Folktales complete with traditional Warli illustrations and other folktales from around the world, even unlikely origins like Norway in “The Man Who Thought He Was Smarter Than His Wife.”

Sadly the other main difference between the children’s books I have read at Pratham and those that I have come across in the UK is not quite so positive. When reviewing the books I was asked to suggest what age range they would be suitable for in the UK and almost invariably I suggested one below what was suggested by Pratham Books, sometimes more. Although, obviously, a difference between literacy levels in the UK and India is to be expected it is worth noting that this is quite a big leap, as it is suggesting that a book suitable for a 14 year old in Goa could be read by a 7 year old in Glasgow; a book suitable for a 10 year old in Bangalore could be followed by a 5 year old in Birmingham. This large gap demonstrates to me clearly the importance of the work that Pratham Books and other educational NGO’s around India do, and I am greatly looking forward to working more with Pratham books, and then with the Akshara Foundation, over the coming weeks and getting the opportunity to meet some of the children whose lives these organisations are so positively affecting.
Stay tuned for more guest posts by both our interns - Naomi and Amani! They have completed the task of reviewing our books. So, stay tuned for reviews from an English and South African perspective. If you want to review our books, mail us at web (at) prathambooks (dot) org.

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