Reading for pleasure

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 5 August 2017

Swaha Sahoo, head of Parag Initiative, Tata Trusts, shares details on the upcoming Big Little Book Awards and how skill building in and around children’s literature will continue to be an important area of work

A former journalist on education beat, Swaha Sahoo, is currently heading Parag Initiative of Tata Trusts. Speaking to us ahead of the Big Little Book Awards (BLBA) nominations, Sahoo outlines the achievements of the initiative and their plan to strengthen the practice and discourse around children’s libraries in India.

How do you decide on the ‘language of the year’ for the BLBA award?
The criteria for the award has guided our choice of language. The language we choose (this year it’s Bengali) must have some authors writing dedicatedly for children over the last decade. Authors should have an original body of work, must have contributed to creating readers and demonstrated growth and willingness to break known barriers in what defines a children’s author.

At the same time, they have not been recognised widely outside of the state. And there is enough scope for the Big Little Book Awards to create that platform, promote their work and take it to a wider audience.

Which Bengali titles and authors are in the reckoning?
Personally, I have read only English translations of children’s literature written by Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury and Mahasweta Devi.

This year for Bengali, we have received 23 unique nominations under the author category. We have arrived at a longlist. The jury will announce the shortlist in September 2017.

Can you explain ‘capacity building for librarians, teachers and
educators’?

It has been our experience that just creating libraries and giving children access to books is not enough to ignite a love for reading. Children, especially first generation learners and those struggling to read, need support in various ways inside a library.

If they have a caring adult who understands books and their struggle, and is able to help them connect with books, children stand a better chance to become readers.

Parag’s flagship Library Educators Course (LEC) aims to do this. The professional seven-month dual mode course is meant for teachers, librarians, facilitators working with books and children and equips them with the skills to run vibrant and engaged libraries.

There are some elements necessary for running vibrant libraries — an engaged librarian, a curated collection of children’s books that takes into account children’s reading levels, interests and language and an inviting space. We support libraries to bring all three together.

What is the region-wise data for the aforementioned project?
At present, Tata Trusts’ Parag initiative supports 600 libraries across eight states in various capacities, reaching out to 40,000 children. These include Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka. Most of our work happens in government schools and some of it through community libraries.

How can one access books published by Parag? Is there a website?
The Parag website is being set up and should be ready by September. But books can be accessed through the websites of the various publishers and partners we work with. We do not publish books ourselves and therefore their dissemination is also not done by us.

Please tell us about the achievements of Parag Initiative?
When you are trying to bring about a cultural shift in how reading for pleasure and children’s books are perceived, talking about numbers often seems inadequate. Any real impact will be long term.

Over the past 14 years, the Parag Initiative has supported publishing 420 original children’s books in multiple Indian languages reaching over 20 million children. Parag has published books in nine Indian languages so far and some non-mainstream languages such as Mundari, Bhilori and Pawri.

Two years ago, Parag launched the Riyaaz Academy for Illustrators, which is a one-year professional certificate course to train young illustrators to illustrate for kids books and magazines. The continuing discourse around the need for children’s books and reading for pleasure, that Parag engages in, is perhaps our biggest achievement.

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