The last few days began on a low note - open the newspaper to read about governors being transferred, war against ‘love jihad’ and other such absolutely ridiculously demoralising stuff. The kind that makes you swear off the news and the country.
Which is why I was thrilled to attend Jumpstart 2014. It made me upbeat. It made me happy. It made me hopeful about the state of at least something in this country – in this case, children’s literature.
The theme this year is Let’s Play and boy, did we play! The session was inaugurated by Dr Martin Hanz, Deputy Chief of Mission, the German Embassy, New Delhi. Split across two days, the first day is called Inspiration and the very inspiring Nury Vittachi gave the keynote address. His sense of humour and comic timing is impeccable and even if you’d never read a book of his, it was easy to see why his books are such a hit. He had the audience in splits and it was the perfect note to set for the day. He made some remarkably funny observations about Disney hating mothers, hence killing them all off – from Cinderella to Finding Nemo.
The first discussion was by the books panel and they spoke about the idea of game or play in children’s books and their experience of playing with books. Nury spoke about what it takes to write a good book for kids. In a culture of storytelling, your story needs to be better than the ones every mother and grandmother are telling. The message of the story, needs to be one that is international. As he pointed out, it’s easy to be a star within your own community and friends – what shows that your idea is valuable, is international acceptance. The stories that make it, are those that carry deeper messages than what is obvious. Even a simple fairytale like Cinderella says, your mama will die one day, but you’ll survive and eventually it will all be okay.
For those who don’t believe that writing for children is a real job, they need only look at the books that have supported the industry and raked in millions – the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games and most recently, The Fault in Our Stars. Currently, children’s books dominate the industry and one would be have to be blind to miss it. What is interesting is how many other industries are depending on them, from film to chart topping music with Frozen and the FIOS.
It is, however, a pity, that none of this work is coming out of Asia – and leaves us a lot of room for growth.
Author and illustrator of children’s books, Sophie Benini Pietromarchi (Bangalore folk, you’ll regret missing her so check out these dates and venues) is exactly as I’d imagined someone who wrote such books to be. Very much the artist, she’s more at ease demonstrating than speaking and I was fascinated by the work she’d brought along to display. She points out that children learn to play with colour early in life. From mixing different foods on their plates to exploring their surroundings. To write for children, she says, you need to play all your life. Pick up mundane stuff around your house and create a treasure map around it. Her Colour Book gives you a good idea of what she means.
Asha Nehemiah has written thirteen books for children and is much loved by the Brat and the Bean. Perhaps, because of the way she looks at her audience – children can spot the enchanting in the most mundane she says and one is reminded of her book The Mystery of the Silk Umbrella. She works with schools for marginalised children and her word-a-coaster game requires them to make up entire sentences with each successive letter of the alphabet. Like – A Boy Can Dance Everyday For Good Health. And I picked this up just during that short session with her. She says the children can go through the alphabet twice without stopping and I am not surprised. A child’s imagination is boundless. Children’s writers who can capture that are the successful ones.
After the book/authors panel, the pedagogy panel came on to discuss Play in and as Pedagogy. Amukta Mahapatra, Director, SchoolScape, a centre for educators made a very spare presentation – concise, precise and very interesting. There are certain universal tendencies, she said and one of them is that humans have a tendency to explore from the time they are born. Next, they try to create order, or a pattern in their discoveries. Then they use their intelligence and imagination. And finally, they strive for perfection.
Children do all of this in play. She talked of the Victorian attitude we have towards play, where we dismiss it as diminutive, not recognising that it requires rigour, effort and all of a child’s faculties. Instead we patronise it, because children, like women, have traditionally been dismissed and oppressed. One might not agree entirely with that thought process but it’s food for thought.
She pointed out that our homes and schools no longer have space, nor give children the opportunity to play as much as they need. Very well said. Homes are smaller, schools have no space for outdoor activities and they’re entirely landscaped to prevent accidents during school hours and avoid rousing parental ire. Her presentation was over almost too soon and I realised she’d given me more to think about in those 7 odd minutes than anyone has in a long time.
Years ago I had interviewed EK Shaji and fallen in love with his methods. I picked up all the Jodo Gyan products that I could find at the Jodo Gyan resource centre and the Brat and the Bean learned maths the way he had demonstrated to me. I shop there every couple of months and give the maths aids as birthday gifts.
So it was added joy to see him at work again – he demonstrated a few simple ways to teach children maths based on the montessori method of going from the known to the unknown. What is missing in maths, he said, is purpose. So simple! For instance, why should a child care what 4 + 3 is? How does it affect his life? On the other hand, if you connect in an emotional, physical and intellectual manner, ask him guess how many pears in a bag, show him another, let him count the pears, ask him to divide it among his friends and now you’re connecting. After all, what is so romantic about counting rajma, he asked!
The last on this panel was Sujata Noronha of the Bookworm Trust and Library, Goa. She confessed upfront that she isn’t popular with conventional schools because her classes are noisy! She works with the underserved in the area and helps them connect with the written word in ways that excite them. A story about journeys might involve them forming a train, bumping into other carriages, whistling, hooting and running around. A good children’s book is deceptively light on the surface, but has a strong foundation in the ways that matter, she said. Books that deal with death, moving home, the loss of friendship, legitimise experiences. And then she quoted Cat Stevens and asks - Where do the children play? And no, this isn’t the physical space alone. She asked if we leave them enough space in their mind to play with. She and Shaji made very similar points about the lack of contemporary stories and material that a child can relate to. Black haired dolls, dark skinned characters in the illustrations.
The discussion was thrown open to the audience and was extremely lively. Some of the points that came up were – The stories you tell needn’t necessarily be your own, you need to learn to harvest them. And it’s not always school that can engage your child in play – flip the question around - how much time are you spending with your child, just playing? Does the current schooling system give children time to play? While telling a child a story, do you impose your morals on them? Do you suggest that this character was ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ for making the choice he did?
Post lunch, Mr Appadurai of Hewlett Packard spoke briefly about the innovations in print and the advantage that digital printing gives you, of personalising content for your reader. Of printing it on synthetic paper so that a child can take it to the bath, to the pool, drag a favourite story around the world without fear of ruining the book.
Author, game designer and screenwriter Anshumani Ruddra then came on, divided the audience into two and had a bunch of until then rather well behaved adults, screaming and clapping as he divided the room in half and turned us against each other as the Knights of Order and the Crusaders of Chaos. And this, he pointed out triumphantly is how a game builds a story and allows you to be a part of the decision making. Much like the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys we grew up with that allowed us multiple choices and endings.
Books are 600 year old technology, he said. Whereas games are as old as time and were played across every society. They were about rules, consequences and interesting choices. Which is precisely what a book requires too. Put it like that and even a purist like me finds it hard to object! While in a book the writer makes the choice for you, in games, you make your own choices. And a game offers you hours and hours of content. It’s up to a parent to decide how much time a child should spend gaming, just as its unhealthy for a child to read all the time. This one hit rather close home. The Brat is a voracious reader and I find myself loathe to push him to play outdoor games. Because you know.. reading is good! But then I remind myself that I’m the adult here, that giving him some balance is my job and so no matter how overjoyed I am that he reads, I shove him out for some fresh air.
Anshumani addressed that fear that many have and said it out loud – Books will not disappear, it is just the channels of distribution that will change. A book may not work in the same format on a screen and that is perfectly fine. It will be reworked by experts to fit the medium it is shifting to.
The final session for the day was Transmedia Storytelling: From Life to Books to Movies to Games to Apps. This began with Padmini Ray Murray, Digital Humanities expert spoke on transmedia tales and how to tell them. I took a special pride in this because 15 years ago we shared a college bench and here she was, giving us a talk that I had paid to attend! She broke down story telling into its main features – form, content, story and character, and the importance of each one in making a successful story. She also spoke of this being the golden age of writing. Of instant feedback (for instance, I write a bad post, you readers tell me so within minutes!) and so on. Of prosumers – consumers who create content around their favourite games and books, fan fiction on blogs and forums, getting instant feedback, and re-writing to suit their audience.
Publishers are the gatekeepers she said, but their role is being eroded. And as content moves from one form to the other, as your book becomes a film, it is only wise to work with those who are converting it to ensure that one form does not cannibalise another. So that the books continue to sell after the film is released. That the game does not kill interest in the film. The one sound bit of advice she offers finally is that as authors, just writing a book is no longer good enough. If you want to see it through all its avatars, you need to come to your publisher with a sound transmedia strategy.
Ralph Mollers, owner and publisher of Terzio Verlag, Munich spoke next. Terzio publishes children’s software, music and books and he spoke about his initial experiments with CD Roms and the beginning of the interactive experience.
The session was rounded up with Jiggy George. No medium is bad, Jiggy pointed out, while I argued that in my head – they’re all just different ways to engage. Be it the Eric Carle museum that gets you to engage more deeply with the Hungry Caterpillar or the fact that the Cat in the Hat is a book, a movie and an app. Digital media should be seen as an extension of the form of storytelling, not a substitute, or competition. Don’t try and do the domain expert’s job, he warns, do your bit and let it go. If you’ve written a game and want to see it converted to a book, give it to a writer to do, as in the case of the Angry Birds. A gamer knows what a game requires to be a hit and a cartoonist knows his turf best. As a creator, give your blessing and lay off. Every product should stand on its own merit, so an Angry Bird app will need to fulfill different criterion.
The day ended sooner than I wanted it to, leaving me with a hundred thoughts buzzing around in my head. Some I agreed with entirely, some I felt conflicted over and some absolutely new and needing a lot more time to mull over. But I have another day at Jump Start to go and I’ll be sure to come back and share it with you.