Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Children's book trust and the Rosetta project****

Continuing our discussion of small publishers in Indian children's literature, I doubt if the Children's Book Trust can be called 'small'. Established in 1957, the trust publishes up to or more than 100 titles annually - but this data from their website is apparently from 1997, judging by their referring to CBT being 50 years old. In any case, it has been around for a very long time, though its visibility, even in the country is rather low. I wonder why that is the case, considering that the books are really pocket friendly - the picture books for example, may be priced as low as Rs. 15 - 25, and there is a significant, if not large, choice available. I haven't found these books at most of the big bookstores. Nor have I seen them in the nukkad stationery shops, where at least they could have jostled for attention with similar priced alphabet and number and picture and activity books from other publishers. There isn't even a possibility of buying their books online, so the nostalgic NRI must needs buy them in person on the next visit home...

The print quality is usually good, the storylines marginal to good - the art better. Once again, there is a wide difference between the truly creative books (of which there are more than a few) and the ones which appear to be written just by throwing a few sentences together. But for all that, they constitute a marvelous introduction to reading for the Indian child, because all of them are India centric. The characters, even the animals, are Indian, as is the milieu. The books are in English, and Hindi, but none bilingual. This I think is a major drawback, for at one stroke it alienates the entire non-hindi speaking populace, and does not allow for the possibility of a child learning to read English through these books.

The other problem I see is that there is very little of contemporary reference. I totally agree with the need for children to be exposed to the rural or semi-urban India, as well as the forests and tribes and ancient tales - all these are stories worth the telling. But we also need new stories, set in the new India, with new concerns and realities. Because when my child grows up, and looks to Enid Blyton for playroom adventures, and sees the tales of Munshi Premchand as distant as Raja Bhoj, I shall have nothing to offer as an alternative. No matter how rigorously I may discuss these picture books now, they are just as much of an 'imaginary' world as those of Finland or Ethiopia. Almost just as exotic. And so when the time comes to allow our children their choice in buying, where will the CBT be? I am supporting it wholeheartedly, but will my child - till a parent?

Children's books online: The Rosetta project is another book related website that I have fallen for. Quite the antithesis of the CBT site - it has freely downloadable (for personal use only) children's books of old which are out of the copyright domain.

Being a volunteer driven project, they are always in need of donations and volunteers - to give books, scan them, translate, and do other chores. You can see that I am setting up for another call to volunteer :) But worth it, don't you think? Especially if you have some old books up in the attic that will be out in the yard sale next. Or if you love the feel of old books, love looking at the illustrations from those times, or even, miss some book handed down from your parents or grandparents. For these books are scanned and posted. Simple, but effective. The text is easily readable as long as the book was well preserved, and they do take care to use only the unspoilt ones.

The books are surprisingly quick to display. Navigation is not thrifty - just arrows for next page, but it works. A few books have translations available, but you have to click for it on each page, and it pops up in a separate small window right in the middle of the page. There is no voice over or other animation. But can you resist looking at the old favourites? Featured here - The tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter,

The little engine that could, by Wally Piper,

and Kidnapped by R.L.Stevenson.

They also have a few multimedia downloads available for sale, along with tee shirts and such in their store.

The url -

P.S. Have you come across the Paper tigers? Reading one of their old blog entries about the Bologna book fair, in which they mention small publishers around the world, I was struck by this fragment - "for without quality it is hard to foster a love of reading and provide the key to the mirror/window." That is at least partly what ails the Indian scene at present: lack of consistent high quality of books. Not just the quality of the printed material, which is quite adequate, but of vision, and of storytelling. In the blog, they have mentioned Tara books, of which I was unaware till Priya commented about them. Now this is a publishing house which seems to have put in all their effort in selling to the global community. The books are priced in about the same range as those of CBT - but in dollars. Which makes it a simple choice for households struggling to manage their budgets - don't buy the book! On the other hand, I wonder what the quality is like? I haven't read any - surprisingly haven't even noticed any in the bookfairs either - so I would welcome information about their books, especially in comparison with the NGOs or CBT/NBT.

Edit 3rd Oct.2008 - I have received word from Guy Chocensky - the webmaster of the Rosetta project, that they are particularly short of funds, and books, at this time. As the traffic on my site is rather too sluggish (euphemism for nobody-reads-this-boo-hoo), I have no great hopes for an immediate response, but am still letting you all know :) Man lives on hope!

And oh, he also says that they have over 600 books :)


Marjorie said...

I've really enjoyed reading your post - what you say about marketing is very thought-provoking - if the word doesn't get out there, the printed word doesn't get read...

Being at the Bologna Book Fair was fascinating in terms of getting a glimpse behind the scenes of international marketing. As we wandered around the stands, one of the questions I asked myself was what is it that makes one book sell from one country to another and not others?

You mention Tara Books and I think it's very interesting (and saddening too) what you say about their international vs domestic presence. Their books are very special - and The Nightlife of Trees deservedly won the New Horizons Award at Bologna. Apart from the artwork and the book content, with their hand-made books, it is wonderful just to hold them, and even smell them! Of course, as the books are licensed to be printed abroad, that aspect will be lost... but as they become more diffuse, perhaps they will then find their way back intot the Indian mainstream...

Swati said...

Thanks for dropping by Marjorie.

Yes, I do hope that some day Tara books will be seen all over India. But with their pricing, I wonder how it will be. Is it really impossible to make and sell good books without this kind of price? I can understand one's wanting publishing to be a profit making venture like any other, but sometimes I do feel that the markups, and not just for children's books, are perhaps too high for a book to reach as many people as it might... I may be mistaken of course; I know nothing about publishing, nor am I making my living from writing or illustrating.