Today we learn more about Eklavya Foundation and its publishing arm, with several locations throughout the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. WKL contributor Mia Spangenberg speaks with Shailaja Srinivasan, Editor, International Rights, and Tultul Biswas, Coordinator, Teacher Education Advocacy and Outreach.
By Mia Spangenberg
WKL: Welcome to the WorldKidLit blog! It’s wonderful to have you. Could you start us off by telling us about Eklavya Foundation and your publishing program: How did you get started, and where are you today?
Thank you, Mia! It is lovely to be here.
Eklavya is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that develops and field tests innovative educational programs and trains resource people to implement these programs. It functions through a network of education resource centers located in Madhya Pradesh.
For over four decades, Eklavya has sought to relate the content and pedagogy of education – both formal and non-formal – to social change and the all-round development of the learner.
It evolves learner-centred teaching methodologies that foster problem-solving skills in children and encourage them to ask questions about their natural and social environment. This approach helps children become life-long self-learners.
Eklavya looks at innovation holistically, which means that reforms in classroom practices are accompanied by reforms in examination systems, teacher training methods and the way schools are managed. It also means that learning spaces are extended beyond the school into the community.
Eklavya has built up an extensive base of resource materials that includes educational literature, children’s literature, magazines, textbooks and other learning aids. It all began quietly and humbly in the form of a few reports and booklets that emerged out of our field work and interaction with children and teachers. Within a few years, we realized that publishing quality material could be a vital supplement and valuable addition on the way to the goals that we were out to pursue. We thought it to be an efficient medium to increase the reach of our philosophy and ideas way beyond the restrictions that our limited resources and activist power imposed on us. Bit by bit the caravan of books grew to include educational classics, educational modules for teachers and children, picture books, material for young readers and beginners, activity books, fiction and non-fiction, books on various social issues and so on.
We have published over 500 books in this period of time, and the majority of our publications are in Hindi. Books in English comprise around 25% of our creations; we also take on the odd book in other languages such as Kannada, Odia and Mundari as part of collaborative projects. We are one of the few publishers to also publish books written by children.
Featured titles from left to right: Guthli to Pari Hai (Guthli has Wings), O Ped Rangrez (Tree of Colors), and So Ja Ullu (Good Night, Owl)
WKL: As you noted, you have a very holistic approach, engaging with children in the many spheres they occupy, and you have books for children of all ages – are there differences in how you gain access to readers of different ages?
A lot of the material we develop is used in field programs to give curricular support for school programs. During the pandemic, we also set up ‘Mohalla libraries ‘ (community reading programs). With initiatives such as these and retail outlets for selling books, we are able to reach readers of different ages and across the cross sections of society.
WKL: I understand your organization is named after Eklavya, one of the characters in the Indian epic the Mahabharata. Could you tell us a bit about this character and how he inspires your work?
Eklavya was a Bhil (tribal, aboriginal) boy aspiring to learn archery from the guru Dronacharya who enjoyed royal patronage. But owing to his “low” caste status, he was refused the tutelage. He then went on to install a statue of Dronacharya and taught himself the skill. When Dronacharya came to know about it, he claimed the right hand thumb of Eklavya as “guru dakshina” or tution fees, since Eklavya claimed he was Drona’s disciple.
This story inspires us to work in education so that no Eklavya is ever refused education due to her/his birth, race, gender, language or any other social or economic status. It angers us that Eklavya had to give away his thumb, and makes us resolve that every Eklavya of today be educated in such a manner that they are able to refuse the injustice of losing a thumb (a crucial body part when it comes to using a bow and arrow).
Pedagogically, it also reinforces the fact that learning itself is at the center of all learning. That the teacher can at best be a facilitator who creates an enabling atmosphere and helps walk the student on the path of learning.
WKL: Could you tell us a bit about a few of your bestsellers or favorite books you have published in recent years?
Some of our favorites (it is really a difficult choice!) that have done well in the past few years:
Guthli to Pari Hai. We love Guthli! Our very own Kanak Shashi, Design Head, has written and illustrated this story of a child named Guthli who is told one day she must wear her boys’ clothes and not her sister’s dress that she loves. Issues faced by the LGBTQ community are not only problems faced by adults or only in urban geographies – that is a grave misconception. All the circumstances that become issues as adults have the seeds / beginnings in childhood. Guthli is dear to us as it brings out the issues of acceptability of being different at the family level in childhood in a rural setting. It is a very gently told story and reaches out to children who may need that support. We are also very proud of this title as the English translation (Guthli has Wings, published by Tulika Books) was selected for the WHITE RAVENS catalogue in 2020.
Another Hindi title by Kanak Shashi – and hot off the press – is O Ped Rangrez. It is all about painting with natural colors. Kanak tried and tested all the recipes in the book to make colors using natural ingredients. It also includes delightful poems by Sushil Shukla.
So Ja Ullu (illustrated by Bhuri Bai) is a folktale presented as a board book that has just been reprinted. The story is about an owl trying to sleep during the day, who is constantly disturbed by noisy animals and other birds around him. We are very excited by this title and its production; it is bright and colorful, and we hope it is going to continue to delight everyone as much as it thrills us!
WKL: These titles sound delightful, and I love the owls on the cover of So Ja Ullu! You mentioned at the start that you sometimes publish books in other Indian languages such as Kannada and Odia. I recently read Martha Halford’s article “The Gita for Children” on the WKL blog (here) in which author Roopa Pai remarks that the literary traditions of the Indian states are generally only known locally. Do you also translate works from other Indian languages into Hindi or English? Do you feel the Indian children’s book market is growing and adapting to capture the richness of the many different literary traditions? What else needs to be done?
I agree with Roopa Pai’s observation. While the epics and folk stories are common across languages with regional flavors /variations, it is difficult to find translations of stories from one region (language) into another. We have published translated stories, few, not too many, for example the series Different Tales in which one title is translated from Malayalam to English as the The Sackcloth Man. Translated by Jayasree Kalathil, the story addresses mental health and an unlikely friendship between a young girl and the village “madman.” Another tale, translated from Bangla to Hindi, Maikal Pahadon Ke Baaagh, or The Tigers of the Maikhal Hills (written by Subhadra Urmila Majumdar, illustrated by Krishnendu Chaki and translated by Poorva Yagnik Kushwaha), is a survival story about tigers in the Maikhal hills of Madhya Pradesh.
The Indian children’s book market is growing rapidly, and I feel it is poised and ready to capitalize on the rich diversity of different literary traditions. In order to be able to do full justice to this treasure trove of stories waiting to be told, we have to nurture a pool of translators and expert readers. We are seeing some amazing work in illustration in Indian children’s literature as well. These are exciting times for the sector in India!
WKL: You have also published children’s books from other parts of the world. Could you tell us about a few examples: How did you find these books? What was the process like of acquiring these books and bringing them to India?
We saw some very good Iranian books in the international pavilion at the New Delhi World Book Fair about two decades ago. And we pursued them, first through a partner called Sampark in Kolkata, and later directly. This has led to a lasting relationship with Shabaviz Publishing Company, and also a friendship with Farideh Khalatbaree – the publisher. A few recent titles from Shabaviz that we have published in English and Hindi include Moon Hunters (written by Mohammad Reza Shamsby, illustrated by Amin Hassanzadeh and translated by Farideh Khalatbaree), and Awakening Dream (written and translated by Farideh Khalatbaree with illustrations by Ali Namvar). Moon Hunters is about a boy who goes fishing at night with his father. The little boy dozes off to dream about the world under the sea, but his father suddenly wakes him when they’ve caught something – what could it be? Awakening Dream tells the story of a sad girl ridiculed at school. She withdraws into herself and her passion for clay modelling. In the summer holidays, she visits her grandmother. Her grandmother’s unconditional love helps restore the young girl’s confidence and awaken a dream. . .
In the initial years, some Rights Tables organized by the National Book Trust, Kerala State Institute of Children’s Literature, and the German Book Office were also helpful. In recent years we have explored Norwegian and French children’s literature. Celebrated Norwegian children’s author Hans Sande’s books came to us through a common friend, and we were able to bring the project to fruition through NORLA’s translation and publication support (NORLA is Norway’s literary export agency).
We have translated one book from a series about Archimedes, a cat, and its owner, a young girl named Eureka. In Archimedes and the Slice of Bread, our young protagonist Eureka likes to try out experiments on Archimedes! In this story Eureka tests out nature’s laws as explained by her father – a cat always lands on its feet, a slice of bread always falls buttered side down and a blowing breeze can freeze a scowling expression on your face.
The ‘laws of nature’ have universal appeal – the breeze freezing a scowl on your face is told to many children in India, too! And we loved the thought of a young girl busting myths through experiments.
We have explored French children’s literature through the initial visit and collaboration with the Institut Francais in India and by participating in the French Book Market preceding the Festival of Books in Paris. We were exploring nonfiction titles to compliment our list. We are excited to translate Bio-inspires! (written by Muriel Zurcher and illustrated by Sua Balac), a book on taking design inspiration from nature, into Hindi and English for our readers, due out in early 2023. We are also translating and publishing animated board books from France for our youngest readers. Mer (written and illustrated by Amandine Laprun) will help our youngest readers discover the sea and the creatures in it, with elements of surprise – black-and-white illustrations explode into all of the colors of nature. This will be our first animated board book; the push-pull tabs help toddlers master fine motor skills while the intimate interaction will inculcate a lifelong love for holding and exploring books – and develop a reading habit. We are pricing it to be accessible across economic barriers.
We research titles from rights catalogues of children’s publishers as well as look at the titles being exhibited in major book fairs. Collective catalogues compiled by organizations like BIEF (the International Bureau of French Publishers) are tremendously useful and, of course, the books and lists maintained on the WKL website!
The process of acquiring the titles for translation and publication has been very pleasant in my experience and one that allows you to meet and get to know your counterparts in publishing houses around the world. It takes a little time to understand the different markets and publishing culture, but it is fascinating!
There are challenges, sometimes, in translating from the original language to the target language directly. For example, this was the case for our Norwegian to Hindi titles – we translated from Norwegian – English – Hindi. French being a popularly studied language in India, it was possible to find good translators for French – Hindi and English.
WKL: What kinds of challenges do you currently face in publishing content for children, and are there new or changing trends that impact your work?
We are hopeful that in due course of time we will be able to resolve the upheaval caused by the pandemic. As we are a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization, and we rely on funds from CSR activities for book development and production – diversion of support from funders for health care activities meant that we had to raise funds through crowd funding for publishing children’s books. Lockdowns resulted in school closures and isolation, and the response has been vastly different between urban and rural spaces and along the socioeconomic lines, with rural underprivileged children suffering the most.
We found a number of children who were part of our primary school engagements in rural India in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra being pushed into child labor of various kinds. As a response, Eklavya restrategized its work in education to start Mohalla (neighborhood) Learning Activity Centers – spaces for children within a neighborhood to come together to interact with each other and a friendly adult – a local youth from the same neighborhood – and learn together. It has been a successful model. Ebooks, audio books and internet based digital resources were popular in the urban areas; in rural areas where internet penetration or access to devices to avail digital services remained a challenge either because of technology or economic barriers, printed physical books have been in demand. We are mindful of pricing our publications to be within reach. We are conscious of providing quality content at very affordable prices.
As for trends, there has been a perceptible shift towards online reading and eBooks are in demand. We have experimented with different formats. Children have been exposed to eBooks, pdfs, readers and audio books, perhaps more during the pandemic than before. Our eBooks, audiobooks, and magazine flip books can be viewed on our website.
And as is inevitable when you go through a global event like the pandemic, it will become publishable content. While other publishers in their first response brought out non-fiction titles on the virus and good practices, we have published a few titles on experiences during the pandemic. Talabandi Mein Balbeeti (Childhood Experiences of Lockdown, by Ankur’s community of writers and illustrated by Harmanpreet Singh), is a collection of stories by children and young adults from the wage-earner communities, narrating their experiences of the lockdown.
Jamlo Chalti Gayi (written by Samina Mishra and illustrated by Tariq Aziz, translated into Hindi by Sushil Joshi) also deals with the pandemic. This sensitively narrated tale portrays the disparate, parallel worlds of urban children named Tara, Amir and Rahul, and a migrant labor child named Jamlo. Mishra, an award-winning children’s book author, has captured the tragic true story of 12-year-old Jamlo, who died four kilometers from her native village of Aaded in Chattisgarh. She had joined a group of farm laborers in faraway Telangana when they were ordered to leave with only a few hours notice, on the 24th of March 2020 when lockdown was announced. She had been walking three days when she died. Poignant but sublime, this book raises questions about social justice for all readers.
WKL: Can you tell us about some of your forthcoming books you are excited about? How did you come across them, and what made you think that they needed to be published?
Mari’s March (written by Lavanya Karthik and illustrated by Anarya) is a picture book on elephant ecology as seen through the eyes of Mari, a young calf. This book fills two gap areas – narrative nonfiction and elephant ecology. And I already mentioned O Ped Rangarez, a delightfully illustrated book on making and using natural colors.
WKL: Do you have any last words for readers, translators, librarians, and the WKL community? Do you have opportunities for collaboration and submissions? What can we do to support you?
To the WKL community, translators and librarians I would like to say a BIG thank you – for being there and doing what they do with dedication and enthusiasm. And for readers – keep reading, to encourage us to do what we are doing!
Thank you for highlighting our efforts, we appreciate it. We would dearly love to share our stories and books with children of the world and look forward to some of our titles being translated into other languages.
Shailaja Srinivasan is a children’s book editor and enthusiast. She is with Eklavya and looks after translation rights and book promotion. In her spare time she loves gardening.
Tultul Biswas is with Eklavya Foundation, engaged in designing learning opportunities, workshops, short courses for teachers and grass–roots level education activities, and in bringing about changes in classroom practices.