Children's reading list during the pandemic
Fresh surprises tumble out of bookshelves with writers and publishers summing up the children’s reading list during the ongoing pandemic
Six-year-old Tisha will not allow her father to turn in for the night unless he has read her a bedtime story. Hugging her best friend—Piglet—she impatiently waits for him to snuggle into the covers and put on his The Jungle Book act. In another part of the country, nine-year-old Vidhya TK fills her free time with her new passion—reading about the adventures of Gajapati Kulapati. Like Tisha and Vidhya, many of their peers are equally busy, with their noses deep into the pages of their favourite books.
Ten-year-old Abhinav’s father, Harsh Parekh, sums it up all too well, when he says, “It’s like the kids have discovered their own little world during this pandemic.” According to UNESCO, globally about 1.3 billion children and youth are at home thanks to the pandemic. With schools and colleges shut and Zoom meetings and HouseParty replacing the playground, children are spending more time restricted to their homes. Gadgets and online classes are their only intellectual redemption.
But there is only so much that such fixtures can keep up with the creativity that a growing mind needs. It was exactly this that prompted Sanya Podar to launch the children’s boutique publishing house Daffodil Lane Books. Her aim was simple: To salvage children’s reading habits and lure them towards the world of books. A new entrant into an already cluttered market, the brand is distinguishing itself by using recycled paper and creating meaningful stories by young, emerging talent.
The Mumbai-based brand is out with its first four picture books, Cat’s Diwali, One More Does Matter Lana, Sticky Scapes and Try Your Best Patrick. Aimed at ages four and above, the books are based on various contemporary subjects ranging from issues like low self-esteem to deforestation and empathy towards animals. “In this age of screens, books with cognitive and emotional benefits are the need of the hour. They introduce children to vocabulary, develop comprehension and help them learn perspective,” says Podar. She believes that parents too are looking for traditional alternatives such as picture books and board games.
Learning to read has always been important, but now more than ever. Kids learn while interacting with the outside world. In a situation where this is near-impossible, books have stepped in to help. While the pandemic saw a healthy rise in first-time readers among children—as per Nielsen Book’s extensive survey—respondents with children aged up to eight showed increased interest in picture books, activity books and animal stories; while those with children aged 9-17 stressed buying spy/detective/mystery stories, fantasy and classics. Sale of activity-based books and learning material for children also skyrocketed. With parents and educators grappling with an unusual time, everyone resorted to buying more educative, skill-building and activity-based books.
Tina Narang, Publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books, says that one of the biggest outcomes of the post-pandemic scenario has been the dramatic shift in buying behaviour. “The online space has been used very effectively to engage the young reader through author readings and activity-based sessions,” he says. Sohini Mitra, Publisher—Children’s division, Penguin Random House India, agrees. She also believes that the crisis has made people more sensitive in general, and that readers have been looking to read more uplifting and positive stories that reassure and provide hope, give strength and sustenance. The same is also reflected in the kind of submissions they have been receiving from authors.
“From books with engaging content and interactive activities to great and timeless stories, all sorts of genres have continued to find readers,” she says. Penguin’s recent release—Grandparents’ Bag of Stories by Sudha Murty has stories with lockdown as the backdrop. Penguin has also been actively publishing and promoting books with learning and activity content, such as the Fun With series, the Discover India series, the Learn at Home series, and the like.
With parents looking to keep their children engaged in as many indoor activities as possible, Hachette India too observed an almost two-times growth this year, as against last year, in puzzle and activity books like Brain Games for Clever Kids and Maths Games for Clever Kids. The company also noticed a general upswing in the sale of old favourites, which led them to release two volumes of evergreen classic stories for children from both India and abroad—50 Greatest Stories for Older Children and 100 Greatest Stories for Young Children. The LEGO Foundation also published a series of books titled Hope, Where Are You?
But it has not all been a smooth nine-odd months for the publishing industry. Like most businesses, it has also been severely hit. “Bookstores closing down, not being able to publish in ways we had planned for and making do with digital sales,” were some of the repercussions, as stated by V Geetha, Editorial Director of Chennai-based Tara Books. Mitra adds how spreading awareness about new books being published has been a challenge, with no real interaction or an opportunity for kids to browse and discover the books in stores or literary/school fests. Since most books are selling from online platforms, many independent physical bookstores and retailers have had to adapt to the times and offer online sales and pan-India delivery options.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, Publisher and Editor at Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger, says that the months of the pandemic have been both challenging and heartening. “Challenging, because it meant closure of bookstores and printing activities, and we could not send the books we had out there in the same numbers, and neither could we print the books we had planned the way we wanted to,” she says. However, at the same time, there were also bookstores offering home deliveries, and children’s libraries were seeing a steady inflow of queries on books.
Talking Cub continued with its publishing plans by releasing a number of new titles since July, once printing presses were working again, ranging from fiction and translation to non-fiction and anthology: A Bend in Time: Writings by Children on the Covid-19 Pandemic, Habber-Jabber-Law (a translation), Dilli Ki Shaan: Discovering Delhi, The Adventures of Goopy the Singer and Bagha the Drummer (translation). Having to find new and innovative ways to promote the books due to the limited access to schools and bookstores, the response has been slow but encouraging, the group says. Ghosh expects the demand to pick up in the coming months.
Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, Publisher, Children’s & Reference Books, Hachette India, says that the earlier part of the pandemic saw a significant transformation, such as online book-related sessions across a range of topics, anchored by authors such as Roopa Pai, Anupam Arunachalam, Deepa Agrawal, Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam, among others. “While bookstores were shut, there was a sudden and steep rise in the sale of e-books—87 percent higher than previous months,” she adds. However, even now, as bookstores slowly open, footfall is expectedly low. Against this, online sales are still dominating.
Further, “Reading choices tend to be interest-based, pandemic or no pandemic. If a child likes a particular kind of story, he or she will instinctively reach out for it,” explains Meghaa Gupta, Manager, Rights and Business Development at Chennai-based Tulika Books. During the pandemic, Tulika released the fourth book in their Gajapati Kulapati series, which was a huge hit. The success led them to release another picture book, Henna on My Hands by internationally acclaimed children’s author Fawzia Gilani-Williams.
Yogesh Sharma, Senior VP Sales & Marketing, Bloomsbury India, says that they collaborated with bestselling author of educational books, Andrew Brodie, to organise online workshops on mental maths, grammar and comprehension. Bloomsbury also organised online sessions with Rachna Chandaria and Kavita Bafna, co-authors of the Namaste series, which introduces Indian cities to young readers. “Where live sessions couldn’t be organised, authors shared videos of them talking to children on a range of topics such as mental health, making learning fun, developing confidence and creativity in communication,” adds Sharma.
Vidya Mani is a children’s writer and editor, who has put together a number of children’s magazines, such as Chatterbox, Quest, Junior Quest, Hoot and Toot over the last two decades. A founder-member of Funky Rainbow, a travelling bookshop and book consultancy run by children’s writers, illustrators and creative professionals with the aim of introducing books to young audiences, she is also the managing editor of the children’s book review site, Goodbooks.
Pre-Covid, Funky Rainbow would travel almost every weekend to lit fests, environment melas, craft fairs, sustainable living santhes, save-the-lake campaigns, pet carnivals, food fests and more. One of their latest offerings, designed specifically to deal with the challenges posed by the pandemic, is the Book Buzzaar, a first-of-its-kind online book shopping experience that showcases a wide range of books from its curated collection, live on video. After the huge success of its first episode, they have now made the Book Buzzaar a weekly affair.
Being a small player with limited reach, direct connect with the end user makes a difference. “This, and the beauty of word-of-mouth reach by friends and well-wishers,” says Richa Jha, founder and publisher at Pickle Yolk Books, another independent publishing house for children’s picture books in English. Recently, she offered five titles for Rs 1,000, and managed to receive about 75 orders through October without too much online promotion.
Where Jha is beginning to feel the heat though, is during the annual lit fest season (September to February), where one-on-one interaction with readers translate into a significant sale point. But not everyone is tech-savvy. In Ishani KB’s case, turning to e-books took time resulting in a dry run for her publishing house, Young Zubaan. Many of the titles have been put on hold until printing and distribution are possible without badly hampering a book’s chances in the market.
The lockdown also saw a number of publishers experimenting with digital media. Tulika, for instance, released videos of stories related to the pandemic, including English, Hindi and Tamil versions of Divya Thomas’ viral e-book Go Away Coronavirus read out by Kalki Koechlin, Shriya Pilgaonkar and Suhasini Maniratnam. Besides, they published another e-book, Zyrus the Virus, a sci-fi take on Covid-19, by widely acclaimed children’s author Zai Whitaker. Katha too adapted to the medium of e-books, uploading them on its website and selling e-books on Amazon Kindle.
They also had their books added to e-platforms and online libraries such as GetLitt!, and got various stakeholders and kids to narrate their books. Since the pandemic paved a way for children to read more, Katha also recently relaunched its subscription plan on the website, catering to children’s needs by grouping and curating books among several categories and interests.
The plan allows readers to pick choices and receive their favourite books in a bundle at their doorstep according to the plan they subscribe for. Further, data collected by global storytelling platform Wattpad shows a clear spike in authors moving their work online, and readers becoming writers themselves. “More books are being shared online and the digital author community is growing rapidly,” says Devashish Sharma, India Country Head, Wattpad.
From January through April, the number of new stories written on the platform grew by 151 percent. April also saw a 50 percent increase in user sign-ups compared to March. The stories that have been most popular during the pandemic span a wide variety of genres, from eerie science-fiction tales about a world in the throes of a pandemic, to romance novels imagined in a quarantine setting. In April, Welsh author of young adult fiction, Beth Reekles, started a quarantine romance called Lockdown on London Lane. The story quickly grew in popularity—it currently has more than 4,00,000 reads—and will be published via Wattpad Books next year. With such a humongous spread, Tisha and her father sure have their work cut out for them.
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray, Go throw your TV set away, And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall. Then fill the shelves with lots of books.
—Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
“You can travel to another world completely—meet new people, go on adventures, discover strange creatures, make real or imaginary friends and even travel through time.”
—Anita Roy, Author
All of us need a good dose of escapism and laughter to tide us over through this pandemic. Providing free, translated, printed copies of fun books to children is the need of the hour.”
—Sangeeta Mulay, Publisher, Groggy Eyes
“Reading choices tend to be interest-based, pandemic or no pandemic. If a child likes a particular kind of story, he or she will instinctively reach out for it,” explains
Meghaa Gupta, Manager, Rights and Business Development, Tulika Books.
“Parents seem to have become more interested in what children are reading. They bring their children to libraries and bookstores, and choosing books may be a joint activity.”
—Asha Nehemiah, Author
Pratham Leads the Way
Since March, Pratham Books witnessed a 350 percent increase in the consumption and readership of its digital books on the StoryWeaver platform. During the same period, the demand for their audio-visual books saw a 400 percent spike, says Himanshu Giri, CEO, Pratham Books. Further, the Bengaluru-based non-profit publisher noticed an upward trend in global traffic, particularly from countries impacted early on by the Covid-19 pandemic such as Italy, Spain and France. Pratham also came up with the Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno! campaign that addressed the digital divide. The campaign, which is currently in its third edition, allows children across India to listen to delightful stories from Pratham Books for free, in English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada, simply by giving a missed call. When it first ran in April, 2,00,000 children called in to listen to 3,50,000 audio stories.
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