Miss Laya, the Games teacher, picks up her motorcycle and rushes off to wherever a problem needs solving! Author Mala Kumar talks about the Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike series, published by Pratham Books, which is aimed at early readers and how it started as a story meant to be read on the phone.
What prompted the idea for Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike, which happens to be part of a PhoneStories series?
Over a discussion about print books getting into mobile-friendly formats, we wondered why we couldn’t create mobile-first books that could later be adapted for print if necessary. That was the starting point. So my brief was to come up with four stories with a super character, for very small children. Creating a book that young readers could read on the phone has many challenges. How do we get them to read, and yet not get them glued to the device? I wanted to create a book where the reading would be on the device, but the action would be out of it. Enter an energetic character called Miss Laya, who gets them to read, but also prompts them to jump and shout and do simple things that kids love to do.
Another big challenge was the length of the stories. Each story is just about 200 words long.
How important were the illustrations and what was the brief for them?
Illustrations are absolutely important in a picturebook. I envisioned Miss Laya as a fun, energetic, middle-aged woman, who was kind but not preachy. The bike had to be special too—bright, with a flag. Illustrator Abhishek Choudhury and editors Bijal Vachharajani and Aparna Kapur seemed to be able to look into my head. Abhishek quickly came back with sketches for Miss Laya and a motorcycle with a sidecar that we all loved….even though we did make him do some tinkering and paint job on it to accommodate all our tastes!
Is this a feminist statement in a sense, the fact that she’s a games teacher (usually, a male domain) and rides a motorcycle?
All the four stories in the series have evolved from real-life heroes, female and male who have touched my life in some way or the other. As a journalist, one of my first editors was a brilliant career woman who had also been a swimming teacher in a school. In small towns in India, we still see many women commuting on cycles and mopeds. Chandra, the character in Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike Does Not Like Fruits is based on a single mother who is a farmer, and rides a moped. Also, I feel very strongly that the Games period in schools is one of the most important period. Games, both competitive and non-competitive, teach children many life skills in an organic fashion. Unfortunately, in most schools, both the games teacher and the period are undervalued. Having a female games teacher is sure to make many girls play more and thereby, learn more through play.
During interactions with children, any interesting questions or anecdotes you may have come across?
We launched ‘Miss Laya and her Fantastic Motorbike’ in a tiny play-home in Jaipur. I stuck a flag on the back of a tricycle idling in the corner and told the kids that that was their fantastic motorbike. Then, I gave my Miss Laya sports cap to a little fellow and told him he was our Miss Laya. The kids had fun, but the little fellow refused to get off his fantastic motorbike till it was time for us to leave. In another school, with middle-school students who needed a post-lunch warm-up, I showed them the book, and very soon they were jumping up and down. We even used the story to do some quick exercises in math!
The beauty of stories is that it can be used in different ways for children of different ages.
There are very few children’s series, especially in this age group. How has the response been to this?
A writer needs a suitable word length to create the characters, set the story, and then tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. That may be one reason why we don’t have too many series for very young readers.
Pratham Books did a promotion for the series, one book at a time, both on social media, and on the ground with our NGO partners, teachers and students. The response was quite heartening. Some people have been kind enough to ask what Miss Laya’s next adventure is going to be. I need to wear my Games cap to do some thinking!
What are the advantages to the book being available in six languages?
These books work very well as read-aloud stories. Parents and teachers can read it to their children in any of the available languages. The first step to learning a language and appreciate its worth is to feel the words ring in ones ears. As more and more children enter English medium schools and stop speaking in their mother tongue languages even at home, multilingual books play the important role of keeping all languages alive for the new generation of readers.
What, according to you, is the right age to introduce kids to books?
Babies look at pictures, and can pay attention to something being read out to them. I would surround a child with books almost at the same time we would give them a teether! However, parents need to do this without putting any pressure on the child to become a reader. Not every child will grow up to be a reader, and that’s absolutely fine. As adults, it is our duty to give children access to different kinds of books so that they can pick up a book of their choice, and not judge them by their choice. Or judge them for not picking up a book.
What age group is your book aimed at? Any books you would recommend to kids of this age?
It is marked as Level 1. By Pratham Books’ categorisation, the series is for children who are beginning to read. It does not matter what age they are. My other two books for beginner readers is I Want That One! and Colours On The Street. I’m fond of these books because of their simplicity.
Other books I would recommend are Did You Hear? by Sejal Shah on Pratham Books Storyweaver, for its ability to keep children’s ears wide open, Herve Turret’s Press Here since it is guaranteed to keep children engrossed for long and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, a 1960’s book by Dr Seuss for its wild and fantastic pets.