Thursday, September 25, 2008

Reading, Pratham and cbeebies***** part IV

Yesterday, musing about whether people around me are interested in books at all, I started to wonder how there is it that there is no real book reading culture in India. Pockets of literati do not compensate for the absence of mass inclination towards reading as a valid and valuable leisure activity. So, why not?

Reading is an intellectual activity, as opposed to the passive avenues of escape such as watching a movie or street theater, or listening to a folktale, or getting drunk. The mind is able to engage in active and constructive thought, and most definitely philosophical thought, only when it is free of the stresses of daily living. Fear of hunger, of death, of dispossession do not induce a desire to spend an hour or two sitting and pondering upon the meaning of life or falling apples. Even if you had some free time, in such a situation, you would be unable to direct your mind to free wheeling thoughts unless your life was stable, predictable and comfortable to some degree. Reading a book is a corollary to thinking - for what is reading if not opening up to new thoughts, even if they come from fiction? (Question to myself - would one make an exception of the cheap thrillers of railway stations?) Reading is escape, but not necessarily from your life. It is an entranceway into an idea, and it requires that your mind be an active participant. That is when you really understand and enjoy reading. That is when the narcotic value of the 'cheap thrillers', even the predictive corny 'bestsellers' is nullified. So reading as a culture can be cultivated only when the country as a whole has a sufficiently elevated status of living. But that is not all. Even for the middle class, the daily push and pull of life is wearing enough, for most of it is so pointless, so unnecessary. Consider the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the policing, the health care - any system you can think of, has totally avoidable delays, utterly useless procedures and grossly inefficient performance. When the majority of your life is spent fighting such a fog, all the more deadly because there is no getting away from it anywhere, there is precious little life force left to spend in thinking.

Unless you are in the habit of doing so. Unless you are already addicted to books, opened to new ideas, new thoughts, receptive to the world outside your little gulli-mohalla. Unless, as a child, you were given books to read, and your young mind soared in imagination so that even the chains of l-i-f-e can't totally shackle it now. We need to do that. We need to build up a habit of reading something more than essentials. We need more children's books. Cheap books. Imaginative books. Good books. Many books.

Which is why I applaud the work of the new small publishers coming up like Pratham books. This is a non profit trust affiliated to Pratham Education Initiative, which seeks to "publish high-quality books for children at a affordable cost in multiple Indian languages". The proceeds from sale of their books go directly into teaching children somewhere in India to read. The books are not bulky, but published on good quality paper, and cost a fraction of comparable books from the behemoths of children's publishing. The concepts and art work are variable, so while there are real gems hidden there, there are also occasional duds. Nevertheless, these are 'real' books, not just rewording of old classics or counting or ABC books. The problem lies with availability - I have so far only found them in book fairs, and been so lucky as to visit their office where I was able to browse the entire range. If you have a chance, do check their offerings. They do have an online catalogue, but you have to buy at least ten books, and you have to send a Bangalore check or demand draft to do so. When you are working on shoe string budgets, every little penny saved is important. (I do wonder though if there might not be a possibility of turning such a venture into profit making one, thus ensuring that it expands and is further able to fulfill its mission.) They do have education initiatives in 21 states, so you might try writing to them to find out if there is any office near you where you could purchase these books as well.

Back to another series that had been left unfinished - cbeebies, the last part: stories and rhymes. Another superb collection of stories for young children, even the very young. The older ones - older than seven or eight, may not find these so amusing.

As usual, it is possible to select by the show, theme (animals, everyday life, seasonal, traditional and fantasy, poems and rhyme and around the world), accompanying audio (read, print and colour, watch and listen, watch and read along, and sing along) and A to Z. There is no need to rave about the marvellous quality of the visuals, or the imagination involved, because you all know I like the BBC. Even if they don't reply to my mail/comments. Oh well!

The younger children like stories like Bonny, Banana and Mo as below, or the Blue cow stories, but there are plenty of other choices. The stories range from the interactive -

to sing alongs -

to just plain old read from small window ones.

I rather miss the older library sort of set up they had before streamlining the site to this organizational structure - there were shelves of books and you could choose a theme, after which you picked a book off the shelf. I suspect that they also did away with a few books when they changed, for I just can't find the little bird's "I am not sleepy" book anywhere, and I am sure it was BBC. Nevertheless, another jewel of a site, not to be missed.

The url -

P.S. Some figures I looked at for Indian education - the literacy rate was 61% in the 2001 census (source National literacy mission). And this was defined as those 15 years or older able to read and write. Quite certainly the census workers did not carry a primer for reading and an exercise book for writing, so the question that decides whether or not you are literate is if you can read and write your own name. A simplistic approach perhaps, but with a population of 1,134,224,000 (source National Commission on Population), is there any other practical way of answering the question?

Which means that of every five people in the country, two can't even write or read their own name. Among the 'literate' population, one of six reaches college (source World bank quoting the ministry of human resources). Do you see reading as a leisure activity in this scenario? And this is not to mention the 25% living below the poverty line... (sorry, don't remember source right now; will correct or change if different)

P.P.S. Starting tomorrow, I am going to take a fortnight off, to attend to work which will take me off the net altogether, or very nearly so. I will most definitely be back after that, maybe sooner, but I can't, at this point of time, be very certain about when exactly... I will resume talking of the other inexpensive books available in India for children when I return.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Booksey! And ICDL*****

A currently continuing poll over at asks if you prefer to read fiction or non fiction books. So far, of the 2701 votes, 50% have gone to a bit of both, 26% to non fiction and 21% to fiction. Three percent have replied that they don't read at all. Two thousand is a very very small sample compared to the world's literate population. Even so, the tiny little percentage that says - honestly I think - that they don't read is interesting. Presumably these are people who have books available, or at least, can have books if they so wish - whether by begging, borrowing, buying or - no, not stealing :) So, not to read a book is then a conscious decision? What sort of world view does one need to have in order to find reading books superfluous? Or is it one of default, of the lack of motivation to overcome that inertia, or an honest lack of time from more pressing commitments like getting the daily bread? Who knows? But, looking around me, here, now, I see that this percentage has to be much much larger. Love of reading is a habit inculcated in childhood, and even then it needs to be nurtured. We all have our own obsessions - books happen to be mine, but that is my idiosyncrasy. Yours will be different. Even if you read voraciously as a child, once caught up in the daily grind of work-work-work, what would you take out time for? The garden, your music, your family, your growth, your religion, your stamps, your car, your - the list is endless. Where do books feature on your list?

International Children's Digital Library is an effort of the US based non profit organization ICDL foundation. Their mission, in their own words - "is to support the world's children in becoming effective members of the global community - who exhibit tolerance and respect for diverse cultures, languages and ideas -- by making the best in children's literature available online free of charge. The Foundation pursues its vision by building a digital library of outstanding children's books from around the world and supporting communities of children and adults in exploring and using this literature through innovative technology designed in close partnership with children for children."

Currently they have more than 2600 books online available for free! We are not talking of simple text availability here like the Project Gutenberg (God bless Michael Hart), but of full colour pages of great quality from scanned books. These books include not just English but various other languages - you might get lucky and find one in yours as well. Some are bilingual and others are being translated into differenet languages already. If you go to 'read books', and click on 'find books', you will find that you can search books by language, by age group, the characters or type (fairy tales, imaginary creatures etc.), the nature (illustrated or not), whether award winning or recent, and by the length of the book. You could also search by country with a spinning globe. Or by author, title or keyword. In addition, there are also historical collections of books for children from 18th and 19th centuries. It really is like having a library at your finger tips!

The books open in an easy to operate reader, which can be made full page and the icons minimized if you so wish. [Some books, however, do require a different kind of reader or are flash based - you generally have a choice when you open these, and if you don't, its always easy to install the required program.] Pages can be turned by clicking on them, or using the arrow keys, and there is a pretty effective zoom available for reading text.

Here is an example of the zoomed text. Navigation is using your browser bars. In case zooming on each and every page is irritating - and it can become so - try projecting from your computer onto a wall or screen (if you have the equipment!). Some books have the option of pop up text or translucent text i.e. text which increases in size out of proportion to the page size, thus ensuring legibility without changing the background view. No matter what the drawbacks, no book lover can resist the lure....

The url -

P.S. If you are a book lover, and are fluent in two or more languages, do consider volunteering for them :)

One of the comments posted in the poll says, "I am sorry for those who don't read. What do they have for an escape?" This I found even more interesting. Are books, even serious non fiction books which apparently more people read (again an observation not supported by sale of books figures, and by looking all around me), an escape mechanism? That and that alone? I know that fiction does function as an escape mechanism for me sometimes. Change your reality for a while and when you return, you might have left your bad mood elsewhere. But a history book? Biographies? Travelogues? Current affairs? Essays on theosophy? Is it possible for even these to be an escape mechanism? Is the world of words an alternate world, no matter how accurate it be? I am positive that the answer is no, but I feel capriciously quizzical at the moment, disinclined to analyze and answer. I am content to lift up stones and stir up the insect world, to shake the raindrops off leaves, to jump from stone to stone, singing, for I am thinking about books....

P.P.S. So I have begun, finally, the series about books that I had been thinking of ever since Priya Kuriyan's comment. I don't know if I will continue serially or skip hop and jump but watch out - there are more to come!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A whimsical look at writing + Animaland***

What can I say? Sandra Bell-Lundy says it so well! (Appeared on Sep 19th 2008)

If you are an animal lover, you would know about the site for ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). But have you also explored their site for children - Animaland? This features much the same material as their teaching program for elementary kids in the USA. To start with, the animation on the top had my then 18 month old wanting it "again! again!", so I had to keep reloading the page to make it run :)

Starting from left to right, there is the news section which features latest animal related news in a form that children can understand and relate to, followed by instructions for pet care, and an 'Ask Azula' section which has animal related questions posted by children. All useful if you have, or are planning to get a pet. The next section is for children who care so much about animals as to consider an animal related career - definitely information that you would not get compiled together elsewhere. Perhaps not as detailed as you might wish, but it is a beginning.

The next section, Animal ABC has just one animal posted for each letter, with a bit of information about it. Expanding on this to make it more of a resource would be a good idea. As it is, it has novelty value, but fades away once the child is familiar with this information.

Real issues next has short articles about issues that don't fit in anywhere else, like what to do when a pet dies, or when missing. In the next section, there are a few really short cartoons about pet advice - basically just one sentence long. Good for one go only, since their value lies in the information provided, not entertainment.

Activities has sheets for downloading for offline activities like making cat toys or guinea pig bookmarks - I haven't tried these yet. There are also quiz like sheets about animals which are meant to pique your curiosity and encourage you to look for answers online or otherwise. Henri's book club teaches how to run a neighbourhood book club and has a few suggestions about animal books as well.

There are two games, the first of which pops up in a new medium sized window. It has no animations, just informational pop ups when you click on an item potentially dangerous to pets. Little children would not play this alone - you'd have to be at hand to explain and discuss each issue.

The other game is on a full page, and has a dog which runs around the house, mucking it up and asking for food and water, and walks. In addition, it keeps ingesting toilet cleaner or chocolate (if you let it) and falling sick. Quite a fun game to let children know just how much of a responsibility a dog can be. Do remember that kids, with typical perversity, may just like to make the dog sick frequently just to get mamma to exclaim and hurry over to the computer so they can get a laugh! Every little while the game will pause and ask if you are ready to go to the local pet shelter and get a pet :)

Animaland is a good site in that it conveys well its mission and meaning, and so is recommended. If you are looking for more educational material - lesson plans etc, go to their sister site:
The url for Animaland -

P.S. I love it when authors - or artists - let us have a glimpse of what it might be like for them in the throes of the creative process. Might be is the operative word. We don't know that Sandra Bell-Lundy was truly overwhelmed by the extra work load her blog provided :D But we see that it might be so, and for a moment, see the person behind the name and the label. The label of a role that we fix on each and every person around us. Cartoonist. Painter. Doctor. Sweeper. Writer. Director....

And, in a similar vein, I love the character of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver in Agatha Christie novels, when she is talking about the process of writing books -
"... oh, Mrs. Oliver, it must be marvellous to write."


"Oh, because it must. It must be wonderful just to sit down and write off a whole book."

"It doesn't happen exactly like that. One actually has to think, you know. And thinking is always a bore. And you have to plan things. And then one gets stuck every now and then and you feel you'll never get out of the mess - but you do! Writing's not particularly enjoyable.It's hard work like everything else."

"It doesn't seem like work."

"Not to you, because you don't have to do it! It feels very like work to me. Some days I can only keep going by repeating over and over to myself the amount of money Imight get for my next serial rights. That spurs you on, you know. So does your bank book when you see how much overdrawn you are."

"I never imagined you actually typed your books yourself, I thought you'd have a secretary."

"I did have a secretary and I used to try and dictate to her but she ws so competent that it used to depress me. I felt she knew so much more about English and grammar and full stops than I did, that it gave me a kind of inferiority complex. Then I tried having a thoroughly incompetent secretary but of course that didn't answer very well either."

"It must be so wonderful to be able to think of things."

"I can always think of things," said Mrs. Oliver, happily. "What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I've finished and then when I count up I find I've only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It's all very boring."...
Excerpted from her novel Cards on the table. I have removed the extra sentences of course, to get only the dialogue. But it is fun to imagine Dame Christie sitting on a dull day, cursing her writer's block and using it, in wry humour, as part of her story another day... But of course, it is all 'might have been'. For all I know, she had a dozen competent secretaries :)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Concerning lying, And Fisher-Price****

By Carl Sandburg, in 'The People, Yes' -

What kind of a liar are you?
People lie because they can't remember clear what they saw.
People lie because they can't help making a story better than it was the way it happened.
People tell "white lies" so as to be decent to others.
People lie in a pinch, hating to do it, but lying on because it might be worse.
And people lie just to be liars for a crooked personal gain.
What sort of a liar are you?
Which of these liars are you?

The Fisher-Price (Mattel, Inc.) site has online games specifically for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. [The links here are for the US site. I have checked only the UK site's infant section a bit more - it had slightly different games; similar in nature but referring to different toys and products. The toddler section had far fewer games, so I did not compare further. But you could try out the other international sites for Fisher-Price. (If you do find something, leave a comment for others to know please.)]

The infant and toddler section games feature cute simple characters in bright colours. Games are either in a separate small window, or if in the same, rather small in size.

Infants get to play by banging away on the keyboard, whether it is peekaboo, colouring or the alphabet game. This is a screenshot from the Sparkling Symphony peekaboo at the UK site -

The toddler section has games which require more specific responses, but are still sweet and simple. The counting and alphabet games are perennial favourites. The former features three choices of games, and three of the counting number, after which your character will score goals up to the chosen number to great applause. The alphabet game has animated animals complete with sounds, with each letter. Infants can play this by pressing any key and the alphabet runs in sequence, but older children can choose otherwise and only that letter will appear which is pressed.

There are other games as well in this section - like the bubble game, colouring or dressing up, and a few 'stories' -

When you reach the preschool section, the 'cute' factor decreases significantly, and it is because of this that we haven't explored it much, although there are educative games like the one on fire safety below -

I would definitely recommend it for the very young children, especially the alphabet and counting games. Possibly the only reason it hasn't made it to our favourite list is because I found it rather late, and by then had passed the need for 'infant' games.

The url -,game_toddler,game_preschool&site=us

P.S. It was a little, very little incident, but yet again, it left me much more disturbed than its magnitude warranted, and so, for the last day or so, I wanted to write about lying. About lying when there is absolutely no need for it, when it doesn't seem to serve any personal gain whatsoever - not even to enhance your appearance in your own eyes through reflection of what you imagine is elevated status in someone else's. Lying as easy as breathing, thoughtless, heedless, indifferent to truth. The sort of lie that says, with total disregard, what is truth anyway, why bother? And it was the kind of liar who won't believe you if you point it out, if you were so mistaken as to think of it as a slip of the tongue, or of the memory and you showed it to her, ever so gently. No, she won't believe she lied, that her version was a lie. You are the fool for believing that truth is absolute, that it should not be tampered with unless absolutely essential. You are the heartless rascal because you will not allow her little 'harmless' deceptions... It bothered me years ago, and it bothers me still. How can someone be like this?

We have all known people like this. From a distance or intimately, we have run across the kind of people who couldn't resist telling it 'better than the way it was'. But the habit, once ingrained, goes in further, and there is nothing that is not lied about. From the riches you have, whatever be your value system, to the amount of sleep you got in the last hour. Nothing is true any more. The official term, I believe, is pathological lying. Not a medical diagnosis, but a label all the same. A label in your own mind as to the other person's reliability. A label which says 'this person is incapable of telling the truth, ever, and possibly even of recognizing it'. I could not apply such a label, because the infraction suggested is so monstrous, that it is condemnation of the worst kind. A condemnation not to be made easy, even to the proverbial worst enemy. But no matter how truthful you are, how honest, when interacting with such a person, you have to be ready to take an emotional beating for favouring truth every few minutes or so, either wincing inwardly at the version of reality presented, or being the 'bad boy' for contesting it. Or you could change and try to stop letting it bother you, just go along the flow, ignore and comply, finally letting the label apply itself, letting that person be judged as being unworthy of truth from you. Change your own belief in truth, in reality, in the fact that things are the way they are - that A is A, when with such a person. Reserve a part of you in those conversations, suspend willingly disbelief, dismiss in your mind this talk, this interaction, as being totally inconsequential.

And what happens when you do that? Do you change, because after all, you are the sum of your parts? Does lying become easier, having so much practice? Do you get one step closer to being a pathological liar yourself? What if you can't avoid interacting with such a person? What if it is your sibling, parent, spouse, child? How much can you change this person, and how much are you changed by it?

So that is your homework, and mine. To examine this question and answer it.