‘Parents can spend Rs 200 on a cup of coffee, but hesitate when buying a children’s book’https://indianexpress.com/article/parenting/learning/parents-can-spend-rs-200-on-coffee-hesitate-buying-childrens-book-5481037/

‘Parents can spend Rs 200 on a cup of coffee, but hesitate when buying a children’s book’

If we look at the entire population, an average child under eight in the UK has six books outside of his/her school books. In India, understandably because of poverty, illiteracy etc, the figure would be lower. But can you believe it is less than one book per 100 children? We have a long way to go.

children's books, childrens publisher
Preeti Vyas, publisher and author of The Adventures of Woka Chimni (Source: FunOkPlease/Puffin)

Publisher Preeti Vyas has just turned author with her book The Adventures of Woka Chimni, a storybook for kids about a sparrow’s exciting travels through India. She talks about first turning storyteller for her son and how her publishing house FunOkPlease focuses on books for Indian children growing up in India.

What prompted you to turn author?

Turning author was never the plan. I love being a publisher, and putting a project together. I love working with different voices (of authors) and art styles (of illustrators). And I never harboured ambitions of being author.

But, I am a storyteller to my son, like many parents are, to their kids. This character was something I created for him. There are multiple story series we have running (including a dystopian sci-fi set in the year 3023!) and Woka Chimni was one of them. While discussing possible co-publishing ideas with Puffin, I happened to mention Woka Chimni, and they loved it. I had to take permission from my son to share it with a larger audience, as he is possessive about stories created for him. This book is the first in our co-publishing venture with Puffin and I am thrilled it began with Woka.

Being a published author is a very different experience for me. I realised that, as a publisher, I am confident, articulate and opinionated. But as an author, I am highly insecure, desperately seeking approval and very nervous about how kids will react to the story. If Puffin hadn’t decided to back it, I don’t think I would ever have published a book written by me. In fact, I tried very hard to not mention in the marketing posts that I was the author, until my best-friend yelled at me and said I was doing a great disservice to Woka by distancing my name from the story and character.

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How did you decide on the story? Is this going to be a series and what age group is it aimed at?

childrens books, children's publisher
Woka Chimni visits the Sunderbans (Source: FunOkPlease/Puffin)

I love travelling to new places. A great vacation destination, for me, is never historical sites or cities – it’s a place of natural beauty. Woka Chimni is inspired by the gorgeous natural beauty of India. Woka’s eco-consciousness however, comes from my son. My little in-house naturalist ensures that most of the stories I’ve made up for him over the years have had some environmental flavour to them. Also, as a travel enthusiast, I feel it is very important to promote the idea of responsible tourism. We only have one planet to call home. It’s critical to take care of it. Chimni is the Marathi word for ‘sparrow’. But she needed a first name. My son came up with ‘Woka’, and it means absolutely nothing! But everyone loves it. It has a real nice ring to it, I’ve been told!

The story is aimed at a 4-8 yrs age group. And yes, I do hope it will be a series. After all, India has over 114 national parks and thousands of places of breathtaking natural beauty!

Were you a storyteller as a child? Tell us about your storytelling influences.

I grew up in a family of voracious readers. Everything from spirituality to science, homeopathy to poetry, Sanskrit shlokas to Renaissance art had a place in our home. My Dad made up a lot of stories for me. And I loved reading and making up new ones too. I was the school storyteller and would often be sent up to entertain the assembly if a chief guest was running late. Recently, at a school reunion, my friends told me that they knew all the Secret Seven adventures without reading a single one, because I would come to school every morning and re-tell what I had read the previous day. While my ex-colleagues, from my corporate retail career are often surprised that I am a publisher and author of children’s books, nobody who knew me in school is the least bit surprised. As they say, the dots always connect.

Does being a parent make for a natural storyteller? Are books a large part of your lives?

My son is thankfully as voracious a reader as I am. He reads 2-3 books a month and a very endearing quality is that he re-reads his favourite books. I love it when I hear him chuckle loudly while he is reading or when he comes up to me and reads aloud a sentence that he finds particularly well-written. I started reading to him when he was 10 days old. People around me thought I was nuts. But I had done enough research to know that this was one of the best gifts I could give him. There is nothing better to develop a baby’s mind and emotional security than the comforting sound of a parent reading aloud.

How did FunOkPlease start and how did it get its name? You have a lot of books around Indian culture.

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Woka Chimni visits the Pangong Lake

FunOKPlease grew out of a desire to create content that our children can relate to. I discovered through a lifetime of buying and selling books that it was easier to buy a book about London or Paris than our own amazing cities. To me, reading is synonymous with fun, with pleasure. Also learning happens best when you’re having fun in the process. Our books are not meant for a foreign audience or even the diaspora. They are meant for Indian children growing up in India. Hence the name, FunOKPlease.

Our focus is contemporary Indian content for children in the 3-12 year age group. We don’t do mythology, history, nursery rhymes, fairy tales or any generic alphabet/numbers type books. It has to be original and it has to be set in a context that children growing up in a modern India can connect with and relate to. Apart from our independent publishing we also create a lot of interesting original content for schools and educationists, and we co-publish with other publishing houses too.

I’m particularly proud of our ‘Your Turn Now’ series, the ‘366 words in Mumbai/Delhi etc’ series, a unique look at professions/role play called ‘Alphabet Dress-Up’, a special book on embracing yourself called ‘Brown like Dosas, Samosas and Sticky Chikki’ and of course the adorable ‘Toto the Auto’ series.

What do you think of Indian publishing in English for kids, in terms of content and volumes?

It’s an exciting time to be in children’s publishing. There are more books written in English for children coming out now, than ever before in our history. Exciting voices, fresh genres, contemporary writing – not just Panchatantra and Akbar-Birbal stories.

But with the slow death of bookstores, discovery becomes a challenge. This is especially true in the world of children’s books as we are dependent on parents’ browsing the internet and looking for new reading for their children, which doesn’t always happen. Children’s publishers and authors have to tap into all available avenues to sell books, lit fests, school events, speaking invitations and even the neighbourhood Diwali or Christmas party.

What do you think about parents’ approach towards children’s books, particularly those by Indian authors? Any message for parents?

I wish Indian parents would start spending a little more on books for their children. It really makes me upset when I see a parent happily spending Rs 500 on Domino’s pizza or Rs 1,500 on a pair of branded jeans that their kid will outgrow in six months, but hesitate to spend Rs 500 on a book. When I look at middle and upper middle-income families, as compared to our counterparts in other countries, we spend far less on books. In most other categories, our spending is on par.

One of the big reasons why Indian publishing for children doesn’t take off, is the pricing. At exhibitions, I have seen parents pick up a beautifully, hand-drawn, all-colour picture book which costs Rs 200, flip through it and ask incredulously, “This has just one story?” They wouldn’t hesitate to spend the same on a cup of coffee at a coffee shop. I wish parents would start realising the value of a book in a child’s life. How much they will learn, or laugh or get inspired by it. How a good book stays with your forever! The same applies to book events. For some reason, people expect book events to be free while they are happy to spend 1500 on movie tickets and popcorn!

If we look at the entire population, an average child under eight in the UK has six books outside of his/her school books. In India, understandably because of poverty, illiteracy etc, the figure would be lower. But can you believe it is less than one book per 100 children? We have a long way to go. This is what keeps me in this industry. The desire to write and create books that reach children across the length and breadth of this beautiful country of ours, not just affluent pockets like South Mumbai and Greater Kailash, in Delhi. I believe that if a mother in a small town of India is ready to spend Rs 200 on a non-school book for her child, she should be able to find something beautiful and meaningful for her child in her city. IF we can actually reach middle-class India, the volumes are massive. Currently, we are only touching the tip of the iceberg!

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children's books, children's publisher
Woka Chimni’s travels start from home.

Getting to know Woka Chimni

  • Woka is an adult female sparrow. Being adult means she can live alone and she can travel alone. We don’t want kids to get the idea that they can travel unsupervised or use so many devices unattended. The feminist in me is also proud of her living life on her own terms and travelling alone!
  • Overall, Woka is feisty, friendly adventure-loving, curious, very compassionate, caring and tech-savvy, and a die-hard chai and India lover!
  • Each Woka story will always start in her home. This adds consistency and predictability which is shown to boost kids confidence and desire to read something from “known to unknown” Each story will also show her back at home on the last page, similar to the last frame of an Asterix comic book. Her book “My Beautiful India” will show her many new destinations. At the end of each story, I want the kid reading the story, to want to go to that place. Upon seeing the Sunderbans illustrations many of the kids in my test audience, said incredulously (and sadly), ‘Aunty is this place really in India?
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Woka Chimni celebrates her travels.
  • Woka will never visit a monument or city. It will always be places in nature. Human characters would never be introduced. At most it would be silhouettes. Research has shown that kids between the ages of 3-6 are most drawn to animals and in fact dream research shows that 70 per cent of dreams of kids under the age of six comprise of animals, as is evident by the success of so many animal characters/franchises in mainstream media for children.
  • This is meant to be a classic picture story book and the activities and extra information are just provided to deepen/enrich the experience of the story. In the future I can envision (hope for!) separate Woka activity books, colouring books, sticker books etc. If the character and franchise prove to be popular with kids.
  • The activities are meant to provoke discussion between the adult reading the book and the child. The activities would cover both the compassion/care/humanistic angle related to each story and a little about the environmental aspect. I will not focus on the environmental aspect in the story as the kids are not expected to know much- the story has just made them aware of it, in fact. So I would choose to focus on what they can identify with/relate to in their daily lives.