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For a Generation that Reads

As readers of this newspaper; you naturally take reading for granted. We all take books for granted. We take neighborhood libraries for granted. We understand clearly what role they have played in our lives, and especially during our childhood, when we would curl up with a book that was also a complete world in itself.

Not every child in India, unfortunately, can say the same. Not only do children from underserved communities have no access to books; around half of the 160 million elementary school-age children cannot even read. Even after being in school for three to four years.

This is a good time to remind ourselves of just how far we as a nation have to go, September 8 is celebrated as ‘International Literacy Day’.

This special day was created by UNESCO in 1965, and each year, around the world organizations and individuals that promote literacy use this day to renew energies and take stock of where we are in the campaign for a fully literate world.

For us, at Pratham Books, it is also our anniversary. In 2003, we launched the first book of our first imprint Read India. We have come a long way since then, with nearly 200 titles in six languages and a print run of more than 800,000 books, reaching out to 50,000 children in 3,500 community libraries across the country.

Pratham Books is a non-profit trust that was created to publish low cost, high quality books for children in as many Indian languages as possible. We are part of the larger network of Pratham, an education NGO whose mission is to see “every child in school and learning well”.

Two years ago, Pratham had successfully launched an ‘Accelerated Reading Programme’ in schools and communities for children to become independents readers in a short span of time. We had followed that up by setting up libraries wherever possible so that these eager new readers could continue reading for its own sake.

And then we found that there are simply not enough childrens’ books in prints in the local languages in India, which are not only affordable but also appropriate for today’s rather advanced young minds. So we decided to start up our own publishing company.

A small group of people who knew nothing about publishing but were willing to learn because the cause was important had tried to recreate a reading movement among children who would not normally have experienced the joy of reading.

Our books have gone into libraries across Pratham, into schools and into the hands children in hundreds of communities where such colourful, lively books had simply not been seen and touched and read and heard about before.

Recently, I met Manjunath, a boy of 12 years perhaps, enrolled in the 7th standard of a bare bones government school on the outskirts of Dharwad. He belongs to a very insular tribe called the Sudagadusiddaru, who continue to eke out a living as nomadic astrologers/healers. His father had enrolled him in the government school in the hope that he would carve out a new future for himself. “ I do not know what that future is, because I do not know what possibilities exist,” his father, Basavarajappa said, his eyes brimming with uncertain tears.

But the young boy, Manjunath, himself seemed fairly certain. He had joined the school barely six months before. To my enduring surprise and to the unalloyed and unenvious delight of his peers, he stood up and haltingly read out an English book from our Read India series. It was a 24-Pager titled The Generous Crow, and he did not hurry. At the end of it, his eyes were shining and he looked at me with a mixture of apprehension and confidence. Before I could react, his young friends had broken out into thunderous applause. We all joined in.

“You read well. What do you want to do with your life, Manjunatha?” I asked. “I want to go to an English college and become an engineer,” he said, very matter-of-factly.

This is the miraculous fertile ground into which Pratham’s Read India Books are being sowed. But this is only a small beginning if we want all our children to be literate and reading in the next few years, we need to make sure our publishing houses and our libraries gear up to give children enough to keep their minds occupied. We need to create revolution in the thinking of our young citizens. What better way to engage in this work than to drown them in good books?


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