Books for young readers are PROPER!

Enraged this morning by Radio 4’s Today programme’s coverage of France Hardinge’s win of the Costa Award for The Lie Tree I have found myself trying to answer the core prejudice in their coverage. That children’s books are inferior, jolly and a bit of a ‘lark’ That the prizes awarded to them aren’t ‘proper’ (which is how adult awards were described) and that the audience are somehow a little infantile – even when they are adults reading the book.

So, what is the difference between a book for young readers and a book for adults. It is not the quality of writing or the sophistication of the plots, or the handling of difficult themes or the scope of the landscape. It is not in the development of characters or the exploration of life’s meaning. It is not in the ability to handle terror or humour or fear or insecurity. So, what is it. I think it is simply the focus of the story being on a young persons point of view. When political tyranny is being explored, as it is in Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, it is done so through the prism of the friendship between two boys. When issues of right and wrong and racial injustice are being written about it is through an ill-starred love affair between two teens as in Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, when matters of gender prejudice are being portrayed it is through the story of a girl accused of witchcraft in Witch Child by Celia Rees.

None of these authors patronize their readers. None of them write thinking that they are doing so for an audience that cant handle the sophistication and complexity of James Baldwin, Angela Carter or George Orwell. They are instead writing a story in this moment of a great wealth of publishing for young readers that puts the young person at the center and sets the story about and around them.

Today Programme on Radio 4 raise your game, gain an understanding and perhaps even start reading some of the books you clearly have no idea exist.

Boost a child’s brain for 56c a day (.023 pence!)

So, I like to imagine that I’m a pharmaceutical rep, and I’m selling a drug that’s been proven to dramatically enhance brain development in young children. It’s been proven to be safe, and it’s easy and quick to administer – in fact, children love it so much they ask for it.

Till now, only wealthy families have been able to afford the drug: till now, it cost about R6 per day, which is over R10000 by the age of five. But – now! – we’ve found a way to reduce that cost tenfold: to less than 56 cents a day (that’s USD0.05). And we reckon it’s time that, as a country, we started giving it to poor families to give their kids a boost. (1)

That drug, of course, is a book. And we’ve found a way that just 56 cents a day can buy a child a hundred books by the age of five.(2)

That’s also our vision at my non-profit, Book Dash – what we want for the world: that every child should own a hundred books by the age of five.

The books in my slides (more here) were produced by teams of professional writers, illustrators and designers, volunteering their time to create new children’s books that anyone, anywhere, is free to download and adapt, translate, print, republish, sell or give away.

When you print 5000 copies or more of a book, it costs less than R10 a book. At that price, a child can have a hundred books in five years for 56 cents day. (3)

I’ll explain how we’re making that possible, and why it’s important and special.

But, first, why do I think it’s necessary to create and give away free, paper books? Surely the publishing industry is growing the market? Surely technology is solving our problems?

I’m a book publisher, and I worked in big educational publishing companies for many years. And I happen to have an especially strong love–hate relationship with technology. I’m a keen technologist, I live and breathe technology, and yet I think technology is our age’s greatest distraction to real progress, and our biggest money waster.

Back in 2006 I left my corporate publishing job, sold my little red sports car, and struck out with some friends to start Electric Book Works, a small agency where I wanted to reimagine publishing for emerging markets, using technology sensibly and humbly.

In South Africa, our environment is so very different from the places we inherited our publishing industry from, the UK and the US in particular. We inherited royalty schemes and bookshop relationships and price points and technologies and job descriptions. But our languages, our histories, our physical spaces, our ambitions and our daily lives are different.

So the book publishing industry, as it stands, doesn’t really work here. And by ‘really work’ I mean it has not and cannot make books a part of everyone’s lives.

Over the years I’ve tried dozens of experiments to tackle this problem: I’ve published ebooks with musical soundtracks (they didn’t catch on), a self-publishing service, a youth magazine. My biggest recent project was Paperight, where I was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation to turn copy shops into print-on-demand bookstores. And my longest-running project is Bettercare, which creates learning programmes for nurses that anyone can use online for free.

The point is to keep trying something else, anything that isn’t the usual way of doing things, because the usual way has left our country with very few, very expensive books.

After all my experimenting, I’ve come to believe that there are no ‘market solutions’ to growing a book-loving nation. For most South Africans, books are a luxury they can’t afford, not when food and clothing is already hard to come by.

Recent research from UCT’s Unilever Institute showed that most families in South Africa live on less than R6000 a month.  (4) They regularly turn off the fridge before the end of the month – they’re out of electricity, and there’s no food in it anyway. Many of them skip meals towards the end of the month. It’s mad to think they’ll ever be able to buy books, at any price.

The only way to grow readers is the hard way: we simply must give away vast numbers of free books to young children.

And this isn’t some idealistic third-world charity idea. In the UK, for eight years already, every school-going child has been given free books on World Book Day. Why do our children deserve any less?

I’m not the only one who wants to give away free books: many great non-profits are trying to do the same. The Shine Centre is a shining example. But they have to buy expensive books from publishers to do it, and there are very, very few books available that are:

  • new, high-quality stories created here
  • with scenes and characters our children recognise
  • in languages they speak
  • beautiful enough to love for a lifetime.

Who here has recently tried to buy a good, local children’s book in a bookstore? A friend recently tried to buy a book by renowned local author–illustrator Niki Daly, and found that many of his books are out of print in South Africa, even some that are still in print abroad.

Why are books like this so rare and expensive? Well, traditional publishing is an expensive process.

When you pay, say, R100  (5) for a book in a bookstore, you’re paying for writing, development, editing, design, proofreading, the to-and-fro of disks and paper, project management, marketing, sales, printing, ebook conversion, shipping, warehousing, wastage, the retailer’s cut, returns of unsold books, the publisher’s profit, and VAT. And in between each of those pieces there is a lot of expensive time wasting.

Are there authors here? Publishers and editors? I’m sure you’re familiar with this.

This process is expensive, requires rare professional skills, and takes a long time. The average book-production process, after writing is complete, is about six months.

It’s also hugely competitive, especially in children’s books. This all makes publishing very risky. It’s almost impossible to make back your investment as a South African children’s book publisher, especially when you’re up against imported books that were created in London or New York and shipped all over the world in massive quantities.

Most children’s books published in South Africa are effectively cross-subsidised by textbook sales to government schools.

This is why there are so few South African children’s books. And why so few are in African languages.

In 2013, the latest year we have stats for, of R312 million in local trade publishing revenue, only R1.7 million, or 0.5%, came from books in our nine official African languages.  (6)

But here’s an interesting thing about the cost of book publishing: book publishing is 90% air and wages.

What I mean is that if you were to squeeze it like a sponge, removing all the air and wages, you could still make beautiful books, but for a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time. The trick is knowing how and what to squeeze.

About a year ago, I began working on that. We started asking professional writers, illustrators, designers and editors to volunteer their time to create new, high-quality, African children’s books. Working in teams for twelve straight hours at a time, they started making books together.

Here’s a clip from a book-creation day last year, to give you an idea of what it’s like.

Each team has a writer, an illustrator, and a designer, and twelve hours to create one book. Usually the writers have developed the idea for their story in advance, and the designers have thrown together some concept sketches. Expert editors then work with each group to help refine their story. We also bring in art directors and tech support, in a great venue, with great food and lots of coffee.

The room buzzes with creative energy and inspiration.

Has anyone here run the Comrades before? We call this the Comrades Marathon of creativity: not just for the long, hard day, but for the incredible solidarity it produces.

Before our first Book Dash, I’ll admit, I was really worried about the quality of the books we’d get. But what we found was astonishing: the books are just so good, and so beautiful. Committed volunteers really bring their best, because they know this is a rare chance to do something special.

Also, real-time teamwork knits the writing, illustration and design together powerfully – something that’s almost impossible in lengthy, traditional publishing workflows. One of our volunteer editors, who works by day for big publishing companies, said that this is how all children’s books should be created: with the creators sitting around a table together thrashing out every spread.

Most importantly, all our work is our gift to the world: everything is open-licensed on the day so that anyone afterwards can download, translate, print, and distribute it.

Already our books are being reused in print and digital forms around South Africa and beyond. Nal’ibali, the national reading campaign, has reused and translated our books in their newspaper story supplements, and they contribute those translations back to us. The African Storybook Project (who’ve sponsored two Book Dashes before) has republished and translated them for use online in several African countries. And we’re working with FunDza and Worldreader to put them on mobile phones here and around the world.

We’ve used crowdfunding, partnerships and corporate sponsorship to print and give away over ten thousand books in our first year, which is a small but promising start. They’ve gone to children and libraries in literacy programs, ECD projects, schools and daycare centres.

Whenever we do a give-away, we go and meet some of the children and give them books in person. And there’s nothing more wonderful for me, as a book publisher, especially one who’s buried behind a computer most days, than to give a book to a three-year-old and see them dash to a corner, open it up and start reading.

After all my experimenting, that’s the result I’ve been looking for.

Thank you.

You can follow Book Dash on twitter @bookdash

A NOTE ON THE VALUES …   Today’s exchange rate is R23.70 to £1.00 so (1 & 2) .56cents is 0.0236 pence.  R10 is .421 (3)  R6000 is £253.053 (4) R100 is £4.21 (50 and finally, R312 million is £13,158,712.14 and R1.7million is £71,725.74p (6)


Watch Phil Earle’s first vlog for BookTrust

It was announced this week that the author Phil Earle is the new Writer in Residence for BookTrust.  You can watch his first vlog here as he kicks off his six month residency talking about his belief that everyone is a reader and that there is a story out there for everybody.

Kalimat Group – Producing Innovative Arabic Literature in an Increasingly Globalised World

Contemporary Arabic story telling for children is based on a rich and ancient literary tradition.  Here Kalimat Publishing look at their place in the new Arabic publishing reality.


Throughout the world and across different continents, storytelling has long existed among various communities, and in a multitude of languages. Verbal communication came long before the written word, and with it began a primitive culture of sharing tales – to forewarn of dangers, help children to fall asleep, or simply serve as entertainment.

The Arab world has a strong culture of storytelling that stems from a variety of subjects (namely religious, informational and educational) and these stories are often based on local culture, heritage and history – all of which remain ingrained in the Arab conscious.

With roots dating back to more than 1,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, Arab storytelling has inspired some of the world’s most famous collections of Arabic literature, such as the 9th century epic fictional tale, One Thousand and One Nights, which has had a major literary influence on the Arab and Western world alike.

More expansively, the Quran is the first book written in the Arabic language of notable length and intricate structure, consisting of 114 suras (chapters) that comprise 6,236 ayat (verses). The holy book, which contains narratives delivered directly from God, has been revered by Muslim societies for centuries, but is also admired by people from different religions and backgrounds for its eloquent and beautifully written stories, and these tales have had a significant impact on the themes of Arabic literature over time.

Whilst religious Islamic principles have been taught to children since the early 7th century, in recent decades it has become widely agreed upon that educating younger generations is the key to spreading an appreciation of literature, reading and the arts. The Emirates Publishers Association, the Arab Publishers Association, the International Publishers Association and individual publishing associations from a number of Arab nations, frequently coordinate with one another and with prominent literary figures from around the world, to discuss the latest innovations in publishing and the effects of the digital realm, school curriculums, and specific content on readership and education.

The regional Arab publishing scene is also expanding at a remarkable rate, and it continues to find ways with which to revolutionise the way Arab society perceives literature, whilst also encouraging youths to embrace reading, whether electronically or traditionally.

20150602_093147The United Arab Emirates publishing group, Kalimat Group (which now comprises of three imprints) started with Kalimat – a children’s publishing house that has produced over 160 titles. It is a prime example of an organisation within the Arab world that fully dedicates itself to publishing unique Arabic children’s books with the purpose of sparking an interest in learning and reading. Kalimat was established by Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi in 2007, with the aim of encouraging a love of books among Arab children, who, not long ago, found it nearly impossible to find literature that applied both to their lives within an increasingly modern world, and to their cultural surroundings.


book 1-(1)The award-winning organisation goes to great lengths to make reading a priority amongst youths in the Arab region. It welcomes Arabic authors and illustrators from all walks of life to contribute to its wide range of publications, which are aimed at children up to the age of eleven. It also participates in regional and international book fairs in order to promote its books, as well as sharing industry knowledge and expertise with members of the global publishing community.

Kalimat Group has also launched two other imprints over the years, with each of which focusing on a different age bracket. Horouf, established in 2013, supports the teaching of Arabic in a fresh, new way to preschool and primary school students, by helping them develop their physical and intellectual skills, and by creating a successful learning relationship between their peers, their teachers and society as a whole. The aim of this imprint is to help students cope with the requirements of their future growth, and provide them with unique learning solutions when being taught Arabic at school.

Horouf has published eighteen books under ‘The Big Book project’ – a scheme which provides clear, colourful books for teachers to read and share with their young students – as well as publishing twenty titles in its Imrah Series, which encourages a love of reading in children via a range of fun, exciting and diverse topics.

Its third project, ‘Concepts’, focuses on matters that children experience at home and at school, based on their surroundings, daily activities and family life. It aims to teach children using simple and interesting techniques, such as 3D animation and songs. Horouf’s fourth concept, ‘Family Letters’, helps young children learn the alphabet in an easy manner, also with the use of music and 3D animation, and its products consist of CDs, flash-cards and workbooks.

Meanwhile, Kalimat’s latest imprint, Rewayat, publishes contemporary young adult fiction and short stories written by award-winning Arab and international authors.

Kalimat continues to grow, innovate and succeed, and it has received numerous international awards (such as the Kitabi 21 award from the Arabic Thoughts Foundation, both in 2012 and 2015) as well as being shortlisted for Best Publisher of the Year for the Asia region at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

It goes beyond typical subjects of children’s books, and brings Arab children storylines that are culturally relevant, fun and useful in their day-to-day lives. With continuously evolving imprints, Kalimat Group is creating an impactful culture of reading among children in the region. The Arab children’s publishing sector is noticeably paving the way for fresh talent to produce rich content for young people so that they can find joy in books. A combination of Arab tradition and modern innovation makes this publishing house a unique, powerful force in the Middle Eastern as well as global literary spheres.


Kalimat, Horouf and Rewayat allow the art of storytelling to reach a variety of young audiences, and they keep them captivated and absorbed in reading and learning. The result: the children’s imaginations have space to grow, and they are provided with the inspiration to pursue their dreams and mould a positive, exciting future for themselves and their peers. Storytelling is a vital component of Arab culture, and the books Kalimat publish ensure that it will remain so for new generations of Arab children in an increasingly globalised Arab world.


Follow kalimat on twitter @kalimat_books and on facebook

It’s not a book. It’s a doorway. By Gemma Malley

Over the coming months The Read Quarterly is going to follow the work of BookTrust.  We shall explore their wonderful (and creative) initiatives as they work tirelessly to encourage people to find joy, satisfaction, information and meaning in reading.  From Children’s Laureate to YALC, from free books for babies to encouraging parents and carers to read with their children BookTrust’s work really does reach readers of all ages, and all reading abilities.

Based in London the work they do is national and they are the largest reading charity in the UK.  They give out over two million carefully chosen books to children throughout the UK. Every parent receives a Book Trust book in their baby’s first year.  Their  books, guidance and resources are delivered via health, library, schools and early years practitioners, and are supported with advice and resources to encourage the reading habit.  Here is an introduction to the organisation by Gemma Malley, Director of Marketing, Communications and Engagement.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 17.15.55


Reading matters. We all know that. We know that children who read will have richer lives with far better outcomes. Reading opens doors, brings knowledge, empathy, confidence, vocabulary; it transports us to new worlds, calms us, excites and thrills us (and occasionally makes us bang our head against a hard wall). But when we say that reading matters, what exactly do we mean? Is it that children should be able to read, or is it more than that?

At BookTrust, we know that the answer is ‘more’ – much more. Children who read for pleasure – that is, children who choose to read, who enjoy reading, who are not intimidated by the prospect of reading – see their life chances far outstrip those who can simply decode. In fact reading for pleasure is a more accurate predicator of life chances than socio-economic factors. Which is why our mission is to encourage and inspire children to read. We want people to see reading as an aspiration that’s as important as ‘eat your five a day’. We want bedtime stories to be at the heart of family life, and we want children everywhere to see books as their ally, not something to be feared.

BookTrust works at scale – our  nationwide programmes get books and guidance to families across the country at key points in children’s development (for instance, our flagship Bookstart programme which reaches every child before their first birthday), encouraging parents and carers to read with their children, share stories and encourage a life-long love of reading. We also provide targeted programmes for those who need additional support. We work with local authorities, health visitors, libraries, early years settings, schools and more to ensure that families have access to inspiring books, understand the importance of shared reading, and are helped to ensure that reading becomes part of family life. We also campaign, and  provide guidance on great books – books that will excite and engage children of all ages.

Funded by a mixture of Arts Council grants, corporate donations and individual giving, BookTrust works tirelessly to ensure that no child grows up without experiencing the joy of stories, the knowledge that comes from reading, or the opportunities that come from reading confidently. We like to say that a book is not a book – it’s a doorway. We hope you’ll support us in opening as many doors as possible.

Follow bookTrust on twitter @Booktrust and visit their website

COME HOME, YEH XIAN – Reclaiming Cinderella by Nury Vittachi

One of the world’s most famous princesses is an imposter, claims writer Nury Vittachi. So what are we going to do about it …

EIGHTY-FIVE people turned up for my creative writing class, and all of them were Chinese.

I asked them to tell me the name of the story about a girl who wins a prince because her foot fits into a tiny slipper.

“Cinderella,” they chorused as one.

And the name of the author?

“Walt Disney,” they trumpeted in unison.

And where was the girl from?


CINDERELLA MEETS HER OLDER SISTER (Montage by Mr Jam includes material (c) Walt Disney Co., used for educational purposes as provided for in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of US copyright law)
CINDERELLA MEETS HER OLDER SISTER (Montage by Mr Jam includes material (c) Walt Disney Co., used for educational purposes as provided for in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of US copyright law)

I had the same conversation with my own three children, all of whom are Chinese and adopted, and they gave exactly the same answers.

In fact, the name of the girl with petite feet was Yeh Xian. She lived in China, the same country where my students and my children were born. She had black hair. The author was a man named Tuan Ch’eng-Shih. The story was anthologized in a Chinese short story collection more than a millennium ago. It was lifted by Western authors in the 1600s, making it one of the first notable examples of the piracy of creative intellectual property.

As a novelist living in Hong Kong, I spend a lot of time thinking about story structures. Anyone who knows tales from the east as well as the usual Western canon of folk stories cannot help but notice something about Cinderella. In Western folk tales, girls marry princes because they are beautiful, or clever, or both. In no Western story does a commoner win a prince because of a body part measurement (“Your tibia is 32.5 centimeters! Marry me and share my kingdom!”).

Yes, there are quibbles from folk tale historians about bits of the Cinderella story possibly being from even earlier sources here or there, but those are merely quibbles.

You only need to think about it for ten seconds to realize Cinderella could only have come from ancient China, where the smallness of a girl’s feet was a key factor in the measurement of her beauty. Only there does the story make any sense at all.

But let’s not make this just a dinner party observation, or a footnote in literary history. Let’s make it what it is: it’s a tragedy. Yeh Xian has been kidnapped and has been replaced by an imposter: a characterless Disney blonde. We need to rescue her. This actually matters.

My local newspaper here in Hong Kong, China, regularly reports that people are arrested in my hometown for piracy, which tends to mean the duplication of Western movies, which surely included Disney “princesses” such as Cinderella.

In 1999, Adeline Yen Mah wrote an autobiography called A Chinese Cinderella. No, Ms. Mah. You’re not a Chinese Cinderella. You are Cinderella.

Jacket of Adeline Yen Mah's Chinese Cinderella Published by Puffin Books
Jacket of Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella Published by Puffin Books

And the tale of the girl with the petite feet is not the only example. Many people know the story of the banquet in hell. The diners have a huge buffet and extra-long utensils. They can pick up the food, but they cannot get it into their mouths. The twist in the story is that the observer then goes to heaven and discovers that everything is the same, including the extra-long utensils–the only difference being that the diners feed each other. I’ve had this story quoted to me as being European, American and Russian. Actually, it’s a very old story indeed, yes, from Asia (originally Indian).

But the problem is not merely a historical holdover. Writers of children’s stories in Asia today are finding they have an impossible mountain to climb. Our stories don’t stand a chance against tales created in the West by firms with enormous marketing budgets. If we write stories of children who do magic, our audiences decide they would rather have ‘Hah-Ley Boh-Ta’, which is the Chinese transliteration of Harry Potter.

If I do what Asian parents have done for hundreds of years, and tell the 500-year-old Ming Dynasty story of Sun Wukong (The Monkey King), my audiences think I am ripping-off Mojo-Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls, a US cartoon which was, ahem, “inspired” by a Japanese cartoon called Sailor Moon.

And most humiliating of all is when storytellers follow the ancient Asian folk tradition of telling stories about talking animals in the jungle. The kids abandon our story-circles to head to the mall to buy lunchboxes emblazoned with pictures of the characters from Winnie the Pooh, a series of very English tales celebrating imbecility.

People on the Eastern side of the planet have long felt swamped by Western media, but the situation is turning into a crisis. Now we are losing the rights to our own stories. So what if we have treasured our older tales for millennia? So what if our newer stories are better for our children, because they are generated for a purpose, and they are right for the time and the place and the audience. We still lose the battle. How can we fight corporations who can spend US$200 million on marketing a single story?

But we must. Yeh Xian, the original Cinderella, represents the dramatic imbalance between the West and East; she sums up the way the right and wrongs of intellectual property have been turned upside down.

It’s wrong that I should have to worry about being prosecuted by Walt Disney for writing a book which tells a Chinese story about a Chinese girl to a Chinese audience. We’ve got to rescue Ms Yeh and put her back to where she belongs. What that means is that we have to find what’s wonderful, and unique, and creative, and magical, and traditional, about Asian stories, and we have to put it back at its rightful place, at the centre of our children’s vision.

Fortunately, there’s a wonderful treasure house of resources on which we can call. The Jataka and Panchatantra tales from ancient India are a good start. So are the folktales of China and Indonesia. And so are some of the lively modern stories coming out of east Asia, including Japan’s anime tales.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s all about merit. We are going to have to write stories better than the Harry Potter tales and the Narnia books and the Philip Pullman stories and so on; we’re going to have to make movies better than Shrek; we are going to have to draw comics better than Spider-Man; and we’re going to have to do it all and sell it all, without the huge staff or massive marketing budgets of Western entertainment empires.

The odd thing is that we are probably going to win this battle, in the long run. Look at the numbers and it becomes obvious that the odds are on our side. The vast proportion of the world’s creative endeavours, such as books, movies and music, come from the US, the UK and a very small number of other places. Yet there are 200 countries on this planet, containing 6.2 billion people, of which more than 60 per cent (that’s not a misprint) live in Asia. The thing about anomalies, or at least large anomalies, is that they eventually fix themselves. Earth is primarily an Asian world, and an Asian world is going to need Asian culture.

The creative powers in America have already realized this, and are working hard to make their products look and feel Asian. My three Chinese children are all hooked on a Chinese-looking television cartoon series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. How Eastern is it? It’s not Eastern at all. In fact, the series is American and was produced by a pair of bright graduates from the Rhode Island School of Design. It’s not an accident that it looks as if it belongs in China or Japan, nor is it chance that the title is an Indian word: Avatar.

When The Powerpuff Girls cartoon was launched in America, it was greeted as dazzlingly original: a cartoon series about girls in school uniform with round eyes and no noses battling monsters. But in east Asia, we could see it for what it was: a detailed lift of our own Sailor Moon series, from Japan.

Shows like those confuse our children, but at least show us that forces around the world are quietly enjoined in a huge battle for the hearts and minds of young Asian consumers of stories. It’s going to be tough to go to war against the giant entertainment corporations of the west, but Asian authors have no choice but to take up arms. If the shoe fits we have to wear it. Which brings us back to where we started.

Yeh Xian? Hang on in there, Princess. We’re coming to get you.

Photograph: Allstar/Disney Allstar/DISNEY/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
Photograph: Allstar/Disney Allstar/DISNEY/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar  (Image used for educational purposes as provided for in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of US copyright law)










Nury Vittachi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Writers’ and Translators’ Association.   Follow Nury on twitter @NuryVittachi

Book Aid International – getting books to readers


I live very close to the wonderful Book Aid International offices.  This is an organisation I have long been aware of for their pioneering work in getting books to communities of readers who would otherwise find it difficult to have access to reading matter – both for pleasure and for information.  They are a charity whose work is hugely important and has the ability to directly affect the short and long term quality of peoples lives.

Book Aid International is an organisation that has been working to get books to readers in  sub-Saharan Africa and the occupied Palestinian Territories for over 60 years.  They work in countries from Cameroon to Palestine and Zimbabwe and last year ensured that over 1.1 million books were sent to over 3,400 libraries in schools, universities, cities, slums, remote villages, prisons, hospitals and refugee camps on the continent.  Each book that leaves the Book Aid International warehouse in Camberwell has been selected by the charity’s team of professional librarians according to the needs of their library partners in Africa.  The charity also runs specialist programmes in partnership with their library partners including the establishment of Children’s Corners in public libraries, a school book box library scheme, librarian training and the provision of medical and healthcare books and information.

Alison Hubert, Director of Book Aid International said: “Books are scarce in many of the communities where we work so we are delighted to have been able to send over 1.1 million books to the libraries we support in 2015. We work closely with our partners in Africa to ensure the books we send are useful and relevant and we are delighted that even more of these carefully selected books will now be on the shelves in libraries that need them the most.”

Book Aid International receives no grants from the British government and so every penny they need to undertake their work has to be raised from voluntary sources like individuals, grant making trusts, companies and community groups. For more information about how you could help, take a look at their Get involved pages.

Follow them on twitter @Book_Aid  and visit their very informative website

An interview with Olivia Levez debut author of The Island

Thanks to Vivienne Dacosta @Serendipity_Viv for allowing us to repost this lovely interview with Olivia about the writing and publishing process of her debut novel The Island.  You can follow Olivia on twitter @livilev

Day 5 already of the Debuts of 2016! Where is the time flying to? I am really enjoying hearing about the hopes and fears of our forthcoming debuts. Today I am pleased to welcome Olivia Levez as one of our featured authors of 2016.
Olivia’s book The Island is published in March by One World Publications. 
What did you do when you found out you were going to be published?
I was at school, teaching 11YMI or 9XJU or 8YLE, all the while secretly listening for my phone buzzing from the drawer where I keep controlled assessments. My agent Clare was due to text me about book offers after an exciting day visiting publishers in London. Impossible to concentrate on Of Mice and Men or Macbeth or poetry analysis or learning objectives or success criteria or differentiation or where the heck I’d put the carrier bag containing that class’s exercise books. ‘Miss’ did her best, and kept darting back to her drawer if the class was one of those that could be trusted to get on without someone kicking off or falling off their chair accidentally-on-purpose.
My TA kept whispering, ‘have you heard yet?’ and other teachers I rarely spoke to kept coming up to me: ‘Have you heard yet?’
‘No,’ I kept saying. ‘Not yet.’ All the time in the back of my mind wondering if the offer/advance would be significant enough to a) pay my mortgage off and b) get George Clarke from Amazing Spaces to come and build me a writing shed at the bottom of my garden.
My phone buzzed.
A text from Clare.
Okay, so I wasn’t going to be getting George in to build me a treehouse/gypsy caravan/hobbit hole any time soon, but here it was: a Real. Live. Offer.
And then another. And another. Three from which to choose!
This is where an agent comes in. Clare held out and negotiated to get me a little more money, and set a deadline for the final offers to come in. Definitely not skills I possess.
My own children listened very nicely when I told them, and showed polite interest. After all, I’d had near misses with being published before, so it was more of a, ‘so, is it actually real this time, Mum?’ response. My friends at a theatre visit that evening bought me surprise prosecco when I told them, and I did feel fairly starry until a friend who arrived late thought I must be celebrating being pregnant!
And then a wonderful weekend in London, having lunch with Clare whilst we decided which publisher to go with, and I stayed with my husband in a hotel opposite Fortnum and Mason, looking all over London and rereading the letters and offers.
A text from Sarah Odedina, looking forward to working with me.
And so it began.
How has your life changed since getting a book deal?
Mostly, life stays the same: it’s still you, alone at your laptop, tapping away.
Life continues as before. Work. Home. Writing. Work. Home. Writing.
But there are occasional lovely perks: meeting bloggers at my publishers, Oneworld, in their gorgeous Georgian townhouse offices on Bloomsbury Street. (Even the word Bloomsbury always seems wonderfully literary and evocative.) Being given the opportunity to talk about my book to fellow book addicts, and listening to Sarah Odedina pitch my book so thoughtfully and skilfully, and thinking, there’s someone I am really glad is on my side. Lunch with Sarah O, discussing book Two, full of ideas and passion and enthusiasm. ‘This is my favourite part of working in publishing,’ she told me, stabbing at her egg with her fork.
Increased Twitter action, when proofs are sent out, when the cover is revealed. An exciting photo from Frankfurt, seeing an enormous poster of my book placed next to other Oneworld books: Behavioural Economics Saved my Dog and the Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.
And in between, lots of hard work: the many layers that build a book – restructuring, more restructuring, line edits, copy edits, proof reading, more proof reading. And publicity stuff: writing press releases, blog posts for bloggers (thank you, Vivienne), Words and Pictures magazine, message in a bottle to go with early proofs, author videos, more visits to Oneworld offices to meet journos…
I have realised that copy edits give me nausea if I stare at them too long (I think I am actually allergic to them.) So every two hours, my little dog, Basil, is taken on yet another walk, much to his delight (he really likes copy edits).
The other thing that has changed is what to answer to that favourite question of hairdressers: what job do you do? Which to choose: teacher or writer? It still feels incredibly pretentious to say, ‘Oh, I’m an author.’ The reaction is always the same. Students (politely impressed): ‘So will you be really rich then, Miss?’ Others: ‘Are they going to make a film of it?’ and ‘Will you give me a (free) signed copy?’
But mostly, life goes on as before. The buzz of reaching your ‘ultimate goal’ of being published soon settles into another goal of actually selling books.
And so it continues.
What is your biggest fear about publication? 
I always thought standing in front of thirty students and having an Ofsted inspector walk in with a clipboard and settle herself down in your classroom was pretty fearful, but there are more subtle horrors associated with being an author. Here’s my current list:
Bad reviews. Being tempted to obsessively trawl the internet, comparing myself with other authors. Not selling any books. Getting brain freeze with second book. School visits. (Even though I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, talking to pupils about your own book instead of other people’s is like ripping your heart and guts out and leaving them out in the sun for birds to peck.) Assembled rows of sardonic eyes, coolly appraising, then stifling a yawn and nudging friends. Nobody coming to my launch party. Pressing ‘send’ and then finding a glaring error. Being too pushy. Not being pushy enough. Being invisible. Not being liked.
But the worst fear of all is doing nothing about your dreams. Statis. Stagnation. Creative vortex. Stultification. Death without creation. The worst fear, in the words of T S Eliot, is ‘to measure out your life with coffee spoons.’
How to combat fear
Always do what you’re afraid to do.’ I copied this motto from the wonderful book, We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. I have a signed poster of it on my classroom wall, and it’s a great maxim for life.
Richard Branson: ‘If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes and learn how to do it later.’ Another great maxim.
Read Quiet, by Susan Cain. Feel the power of thoughtfulness, observation, listening skills, empathy, persistence, planning, patience. Lose the label ‘shy’ and reinvent yourself as a Quiet. Nearly all writers are secret Quiets. Even the ones who entertain children effortlessly, whilst dressed up as pirates, space crusaders, sea dwellers. Find your niche. Take Candy Gourlay’s advice and ‘be shiny’.
Advice: Survival tips for pre-published writers
Always act like an author. At SCBWI, you are not unpublished, you are prepublished. There is a difference. It’s all in the mindset. How do you act like an author? Have authorly habits. Write 1000 words a day, like Stephen King, or keep a dream diary like Will Self, or start a crit group (you only need one other person to make it successful, but 5 is ideal). If you are a teacher, start a writing club and give assemblies to ‘sell’ it to students, cunningly weaving in your own journey so far. Teachers, you are lucky; you are surrounded by your demographic.
Keep all those rejection letters. Print them out and put on a nail (and later, a spike – see Stephen King again) because you will need those to refer to when you are rich and famous. To fail is part of every learning journey. Share your failures with kids at schools and with crit friends. Learn from feedback. If you get a personal response in an agent rejection, give yourself an air-punch.
Remember that the slushpile is not a lottery. Despite its slithering layers that are 14000 high (or something), 70 % (I’m just making up figures here) will be from writers who are not SCBWI members/are not part of a crit group/are trying their luck/can’t write/wrong genre/age group/haven’t read the submission guidelines properly/are mad.
Most people claim they want to write a novel. But only 5% actually do this. So, by being in that 5%, you have already proved yourself to have authorly skills of persistence, tenacity, resilience, stamina, patience, ambition, drive, willpower, and being completely anti-social for sustained periods.
Keep going. Get beaten down. Pick yourself up. Keep going. And repeat. There is no time limit. You have all of your life. Be patient. Keep going. It will happen.
Have you seen the book cover, and how did it make you feel?
Nathan Burton, who designed The Island’s book jacket, used to work with Sarah O at Bloomsbury, and he did the iconic cover of Holes by Louis Sacher – the one with the lizard and the blue sky and the desert. He’s also designed covers for Patricia Highsmith’s novels, which is very exciting, as I adore her Ripley books.
Sarah O showed me the jacket, and it was a really strange feeling, looking at another person’s vision and concept of your book. A sort of out of body experience. It has a fresh, naïve style and I think will really stand out on the shelves. It reminds me of contemporary YA books like Jandy Nelson’s I Give You the Sun or Non Pratt’s Trouble or Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds.
Everyone was adamant about it not having a girl’s photograph on the cover, to keep a more abstract feel. I like the simplicity of it, the artist’s mark-making and pared back style. The loneliness experienced by my castaway character, Fran, is represented by the scribbled-in mountains, and the framing of the island itself.
The only thing we changed was the figure of the girl, to make her more edgy, and Sarah managed to add a little dog on the spine, which is adorable. My own Jack Russell, Basil, agreed to model for this drawing, so I sent some photos of him (he’s seriously photogenic.) Oh, and I have a name with lots of Ls and Vs, which weren’t very clear in cursive script, so I asked if they could be separated a little, and changed to a darker colour, to make my name stand out. What a diva!
My real little dog, and constant writing companion, Basil.
Thank you Olivia for a most encouraging post. Good luck with your debut year. 





Tara Books: The Making of a Publishing House by Gita Wolf

I am delighted that our blog post this week is by Gita Wolf.  She is talking about Tara Books, the company she founded 20 years ago and which has worked to produced high quality, innovative and content rich books for young readers ever since.  Tara Books is a truly inclusive organisation, having its books manufactured by a local printing collective, working with folk artists from around the country and concentrating on creating content that abides to its core values of respecting individuals and their cultures.  It is a unique publishing house, based in Chennai and with an impressive international reach.

Sarah Odedina, The Read Quarterly.


Tara Books turns twenty years old this year. When I started the publishing house two decades ago, I had neither a concrete business plan nor a definite programme. The project was tentative and exploratory, with only this overarching idea: to widen the scope of what we think of as children’s literature, particularly in India. I was also keen on exploring visual narratives, and the dialogue between words and pictures. So with the help of a few creative friends, that is what Tara set out to do.

From the very beginning, we felt that the entrenched form and content of children’s books needed to be challenged. Particularly in India, a limited range of themes, styles and renderings had to stand in for ‘what children like’ – and therefore, what they will be offered. But, in our understanding, it all came down to what children were exposed to. We also doubted whether all children (even within a particular age group) were alike in their tastes and preferences. Like adults, children are individuals – some like humour, others love a good mystery, some are serious, others more light hearted. So a genuine variety of perspectives was much needed.

That is what we have tried to create, over these twenty years, and it remains the basic direction that we continue to take. Meanwhile, Tara has grown into a collective of writers, designers and book makers, and it is owned by the people who run it. There are eleven of us in the office, and after years of working out of small rented houses, we’ve now built our own space, called Book Building. Our offices are on the first floor, and on the ground floor there is a bookstore and gallery where we hold exhibitions, events and workshops. Visiting artists have painted murals on the walls, and on the top floor, we have a studio apartment for the artists, authors and designers who come to work with us on projects. Book Building’s reputation as a destination for lovers of books and the arts is growing, and we’re pleased at the number of visitors who come by.1 Book Building_a


We generate most of our titles in-house, but we also collaborate with other adventurous professionals both from within India and abroad. It is these dialogues and interactions, between ourselves, but also with others, which allows Tara to grow – each creative individual sets us off in a new direction.

For instance, a serendipitous meeting with a wonderful silk-screen printer gave rise to the first book we made entirely by hand, from the paper to the printing and binding. That printer is now part of the core group at Tara, taking care of our entire production. Meanwhile his screen-printing workshop, which Tara helped to set up, has grown into an artisanal fair trade collective of twenty-five bookmakers. The unit is located a couple of kilometers away from our office, and is run as an independent entity, producing books exclusively for us.


The work of these printers and binders has ensured that over the years, Tara has come to be known for a range of handmade books, where the art, paper, printing and binding offer a supremely tactile experience to the reader. Because of our unique set up, we’re able to offer what are really limited editions of artists’ books, but at an affordable price to the average book lover.Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 15.39.58

Creation by Bhajju Shyam, with Gita Wolf.  A collection of origin myths from the Gond tribe in central India.

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Gobble You Up  by Gita Wolf, Sunita

A cumulative rhyming story of a jackal that swallows all the other animals. Illustrated in the Meena tribal art style. One of the favourite motifs of Meena women artists is pregnant animals ‑ which led to the idea for this book.

When we started publishing in 1995, there were hardly any interesting picture books for children in India. Ours has been a largely oral tradition, and the notion of children’s literature came from abroad, so Indian children’s books tended to be derivative. They were also very didactic. One of our aims was – and still is – to celebrate the sheer pleasure of reading for fun. All of us who love books first began to read because we enjoyed it. At Tara, we find it particularly vital to foster this enjoyment, as in India, most parents tend to be competitive and ambitious for their children, and are therefore disinterested in books which provide too little ‘information’. Our flouting of this received market wisdom certainly was (and continues to be) a risk, but it’s one we’re willing to invest in.  Two examples of the light-hearted and fun books that we publish are Alphabets Are Amazing Animals and Captain Coconut and the case of the Missing Bananas.

Alphabets Are Amazing Animals

4 Alphabets_CoverAlphabets are Amazing Animals by Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper

Captain Coconut

Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar and Priya Sundram

Ace Detective Captain Coconut, who can solve any mystery, is called in to investigate the case of the missing bananas. He soon finds himself on a slippery trail of peels and missing numbers.  This is Anushka Ravishankar at her absurd best. British-Indian artist Priya Sundram’s collage art brings together elements of popular Indian imagery.

At the same time we have always been interested in pedagogy ‑ not in terms of traditional ‘information’ books, but in exploring a more complex yet accessible approach to learning, which does not shy away from difficult social issues. We’d like our books to reflect our own ethical positions on gender equality, environmental engagement and human rights. So, our approach to pedagogy is to frame the theme around a story or an argument, and offer the reader ideas to ponder, as well as practical activities which lead to a more nuanced understanding.

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Trash!  by Anushka Ravishankar, Gita Wolf and Orjit Sen

A combination of fact and fiction Trash! tells the story of a runaway village child who ends up as a ragpicker in a big Indian city. Along the way, it explores a range of issues—from child labour and child rights to waste and recycling.

An area of learning that we’re particularly interested in exploring is art and craft education. For a country as colourful and visually exciting as India, the state of our visual literacy is dismaying. There are barely any art classes in schools, and what there is available tends to be stodgy and unimaginative.

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An art class in action in the Book Building


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8 Ways to Draw an Elephant by Paola Ferrarotti with various artists. An unusual art activity book featuring the Indian elephant that introduces children to a variety of Indian art traditions. The elephant is imagined and rendered in eight different folk and tribal styles, put together by Italian designer Paola Ferrarotti

Of all the art on offer in India, we’ve always been particularly drawn to the incredible wealth of folk and tribal forms. Unlike in most parts of the world, these traditions are not confined to history, and artists who practice them are very much our contemporaries, with a lot to offer us. They often come from rural or remote communities, and their images keep to certain traditional themes and styles of rendering. Originally painted on floors and walls, most of this art arose from common everyday practice: the decorating of homes, community spaces or places of worship. Over the course of time, these artists began to paint on paper, and also to sell their work.

Many of our artists come from poor and marginalized communities, and before they met us, hardly any of them had ever read a book, let alone made one. Some of them could barely read and write. But we found that they had an astonishing wealth of talent, imagination and intelligence – and, equally importantly, they came from a world completely unfamiliar to the middle class urban Indian child. This, to us, was one of their greatest strengths, for along with their skill, they also effortlessly brought in an entirely new way of looking at the world.

Women of the Warli tribe from Maharashtra depict the busy activities of their village on the walls, with special paintings done on ritual occasions. The iconic simplicity and dynamism of the form can translate into a wonderful children’s book as in our book Do!  which was inspired by traditional paintings on walls.  This is a set of action pictures, rendered in the Warli style of tribal art from Maharashtra, western India.

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Women of the Bhil tribe in central lndia draw in a typically colourful, joyous style of painting which uniformly dots all things and all beings and we worked with Bhil artists on both Visit the Bhil Carnival and Tree Matters

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Sample spread from Visit the Bhil Carnival.  Subhash Amaliyar with designers Catriona Maciver and Oliver Mayes.

Before we began working with these artists, Indian children’s publishing had not drawn on these traditions in any significant way. At that time in India, a form of Disney-inspired cartoony style of illustration was considered ideal children’s fare. So our work was quite pioneering, and at the outset we faced a lot of skepticism about how children would respond to such radically different visual languages. We ourselves never seriously considered this a problem as to us taste seemed largely formed by what was available and ubiquitous – how could we pronounce on what children liked, when they hadn’t been given enough choice to decide for themselves?

We are interested in Children’s Books with Folk and Tribal Artists

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Alone in the Forest  by Gita Wolf, Andrea Anastasio and Bhajju Shyam.           A powerful exploration of the psychology of fear, this is the story of how a boy slowly overcomes what he is afraid of. Illustrated by the well-known Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam, the inspiration for this book came from Bhajju’s stories of his own childhood.

 Over a period of twenty years, we have created a set of children’s books with folk and tribal artists that, through stories and images, offer very different perspectives on the world. The themes are quite varied, ranging from the artists telling their own stories to collaborations with authors from other background. If there is one basic premise on which this list is based, it is that when the artist is not painting her own tale, she has freedom to interpret a different story or theme in the light of her own visual tradition. In this sense, she is also an ‘author’ of the text, and actively creating meaning. And this in turn means that she actually reverses the usual anthropological gaze. Folk and tribal communities are usually described by others, we rarely find them speaking for themselves. In making this possible, we imply that their skills and experiences are valuable, and worth preserving and passing on.

What do such voices bring to children’s literature? Exposing children to a variety of perspectives sounds simple, but is in fact one of the hardest things to achieve, particularly nowadays. Today, it feels like we have more choice than ever before but in reality much of it is really homogenous – popular books are marketed worldwide, television programmes are beamed across the globe, internet content is available everywhere…This gives us an illusion of unlimited choice, yet all these things often originate from quite similar – and fairly limited – sources. Seen another way, it is the market and the media which largely decides on what is put out and what is worth taking notice of. There are a handful of independent publishers around the world who dare to take the risk of publishing truly unconventional books, but it is a struggle to survive.

One way for us to bring in radically different worldviews is through working with folk and tribal artists. Their perspective is unlike anything any of us normally get to hear or see, so it is not just a question of replacing a white figure with a brown one. Indeed the challenge here is not to set them up as exotic outsiders, or as a niche. We’d like them to be seen as our contemporaries and equals, and that what they have to say is as relevant as all the other voices we listen to every day. When a book is successful, the reader actually identifies with the protagonist, and if that protagonist happens to be an individual who is normally ‘invisible’, or not part of the reader’s everyday experience, then the book has the potential to be transformative. In this case, universality need not be a global sameness, but more an empathy with those who are not like us. We think this realisation is as valuable to an urban middle class Indian child as it is to a youngster from an entirely different background.

And in a larger publishing sense, this mirrors the way we see ourselves: our content may have arisen mostly from within an Indian context, but we think a sizeable number of our books transcend their location to become accessible to readers everywhere. This is obviously not the case with every title – and we do need books that have a purely local flavour and relevance. But by and large, our success with selling rights to our books (we’ve collaborated with about eighty-seven publishers around the world to date) bears out the fact that we are not niche; but rather we are actively a part of international publishing. This is quite unusual in the history of Indian children’s literature as India has always tended to buy in more books than we send out.

What enables so many of Tara’s books to travel so widely? Apart from the universal values which inform them, an important factor would have to be the focus we place on contemporary design and careful production. Clearly, good design plays an important role in re-framing tradition for the modern reader. But there is another reason why design is fundamental to how we conceptualize our books. From the very beginning, one of our core members (who is a designer) has emphasized the idea that the function of design is not merely to embellish a book, but also to contribute to the way that meaning is created.

Exploring the idea of ‘designer as author’ has been an ongoing project for us, not only in order to render traditional art into a more contemporary idiom, but also as an undertaking in its own right. We’re keen on experimenting with typography and layout, and also on exploring radically different forms of the book, to push the boundaries of book design as we know it. This is also where we see ourselves as part of an international conversation.

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Sample spread from Visit the Bhil Carnival.  Subhash Amaliyar with designers Catriona Maciver and Oliver Mayes showing innovative novelty elementsCombining the elements of a map, a puzzle, a pop-up, and a storybook, this interactive title is about a wonderful carnival called Bhagoria, celebrated by the Bhil people of central India every year


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The Enduring Ark

Joydeb Chitrakar, Gita Wolf.  This Indian version of the Biblical tale of the great flood is illustrated in the Bengal Patua style of scroll painting. Each flowing fold of the accordion takes the reader from a deluge of water to a rainbow of hope.

From the beginning, our publishing vision has always relied on dialogue. The process continues to be a very collaborative, and through the course of all our successes and failures, what we’ve always enjoyed are the scores of enriching conversations that we’ve had with people. We’ve learnt a lot along the way. Next season, we’re looking forward to a number of books in collaboration with young Japanese illustrators, and along with them, our quest continues to be an old one: what possibilities can we uncover in a world that is increasingly dominated by big business, much hype and the safety of homogeneity? We’re proud to be part of a small group of independent publishers across the world who continue to take the risk of this challenge.


Gita Wolf is a writer and publisher. She founded Tara Books in 1994.  Follow Tara Books on instagram @tara_books and on twitter @TaraBooks.  Their wonderful books are available from bookshops and amazon worldwide.