Nita Berry


Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 8:30-10:30 Room II

Speaker: Nita Berry (India)


- Enriching Textbooks for India’s Children

- Nita Berry


The subject of my paper will sound like a cliché. For isn’t this what IBBY Conferences are all about – books and children for a better world - ?

However, taken in the context of my vast and overpopulated country - India - which is also a country of extraordinarily complex diversities, standard meanings change and conventional solutions become unfeasible. For the statistics here are simply staggering. In a country of over 1 billion people (we are indeed fast overtaking China), we have about 210 million children in the 6-14 age group alone. Our children live in thickly populated cities and towns, in arid desert areas and in the remotest valleys and mountains. What is more, ours is a multicultural society made up of numerous regional and local cultures. We speak 22 official languages and around 2000 dialects. Religious beliefs and ways of life are quite distinct from one another. There cannot be one yardstick for all.

Ancient India was once a centre of learning and culture, but long centuries of exploitation saw our land decline into poverty and backwardness. After our independence in 1947, the new Indian republic had ambitious goals but it faced an enormous task. There were vast underdeveloped regions, a mushrooming population, rampant poverty, illiteracy, disease and a high mortality rate. Resources for child development were very limited and schools and more civic amenities were set up all over the country only in stages.

One crucial concern was - how could we reach out to our children to equip them with desirable values and attitudes? After all it was imperative to shape a generation of good citizens, able to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

“Better Books Make Better Human Beings” – this universal truth was recognised a long, long time ago in India. Long before there were even any books! 3000 years ago we had no books in Ancient India but our ancestors were deep thinkers and learned men. They recognised the story as an ideal tool to impart knowledge and wisdom and to shape ideas and attitudes in accordance with certain social values. It was veritably a sugar coated pill. The storyteller had a special place in Indian society. During festivals and special occasions he narrated stories which were moral, religious, mythological and entertaining. A rich oral tradition of storytelling grew in ancient India where folktales, folklore, myths and epics reflected our ancient wisdom. These stories travelled to near and faraway lands through travellers, traders and pilgrims, taking along with them universal human values. Many western fairytales and fables originated in the vast Indian ocean of stories.

Could we draw on the story as an educational tool just as our Ancients did 3000 years ago? As every mother and teacher will know, when a child cannot read or write the magic of storytelling opens up a whole world to him and enables him to relate to people, situations and things. He is stimulated to question, to know and to read. What is more a story promotes good listening, develops vocabulary and literacy skills and reinforces confidence in predicting what will happen next after a second and third listening.

Better books do make better human beings - but wasn’t this a pipedream in a vast and developing country like ours where resources for good books and libraries were limited and parents illiterate or unmotivated? Even today only a handful of Indian publishers bring out books just for children. Of the 50,000 public libraries scattered all over the country, many dilapidated, only 1000 have a children’s section. There are virtually no public libraries exclusively for children and school libraries exist only in urban public schools. Most government schools do not have libraries. Some voluntary organisations like the AWIC* which is the Indian section of IBBY run small libraries from homes, parks or community centres, but these isolated efforts are a drop in the mighty ocean.


Given the enormity and importance of the task of educating the country’s children, the textbook in school - printed in hundreds of thousands by an apex government body, the NCERT*, became the most practical way of reaching out to all our children - from the underprivileged sections to the public schoolchild, in both urban and rural areas.

The Government of India launched a massive nationwide programme of spreading elementary education. This has been made a fundamental right of every child across differences of caste, religion, gender and disability. Every Indian pays taxes to provide elementary education to the children of India.

Recent statistics show that today 85% of children are enrolled in schools. We have 5.5 million teachers spread over about 1 million schools to educate these children. However the dropout rate after the primary level is an alarming 50%. Also, elementary education has not percolated to the marginal social groups and a sizeable section of disabled children.

Despite our Government’s intensive efforts, recent reports paint a gloomy picture of the level of learning. It is evident that the burden of the school curriculum on children is enormous. What is more, textbooks have been uniformly drab, unimaginative and moralistic.

Acknowledging this, the Government is presently working towards improving the quality of learning in elementary schools. The new National Policy on Education has stressed the need to make primary education more ‘joyful’ and child centred and decrease the burden of non-comprehension for children.

The new school curriculum designed by eminent scholars, educationists, NGOs and the voices of thousands of people – students, parents and the public at large, marks a paradigm shift from the rote method to interactive teaching; going beyond textbooks to connect the child’s immediate environment to life and people outside the classroom in an interdisciplinary manner.

The primary level is no doubt a distinct stage that lays the foundation for life and learning. This is a crucial period of child development when lifelong attitudes, moral values and ethical norms can be instilled – perhaps the way our Ancients did. When there are few role models today in the child’s first learning places, the textbook becomes a vital guide- taking him from his close confines into the bigger world where he can one day play his part as a good human being.

Certain broad aims of education have been identified in the new curriculum. These include self reliance, sensitivity to others, responding to new situations in a flexible and creative manner, and promotion of values that foster peace, humaneness, and tolerance in a multicultural society, in view of the growing tendency across the world towards intolerance and violence as a way of resolving conflicts. The concept of equality, sensitivity to the environment and the need for its protection, the dignity of manual work, civic sense, hygiene, appreciation of beauty and art, gender equalities and the acceptance of disabilities are other issues that need to be urgently focused on. Again there must be a celebration of diversity and the richness which it brings to society in India.

The most important step in this far reaching experiment was to translate the new syllabus into books that addressed our vast and diverse readership with sensitivity and understanding. For this purpose teams consisting of educationists, experienced teachers, authors and children’s literature specialists were appointed. As the author member of the textbook development team I felt privileged - yet it the responsibility was an onerous one.


It was indeed a wonderful prospect to use the story as an educational tool. We tried to make learning fun through a variety of carefully selected poems, stories and plays which revolved around themes related to the child’s world and which he could readily recognise and identify. We subsequently tried to enlarge this world through related activities, word games and crosswords. The use of puppets, masks, drawings, acting, song and music adds new dimensions to storytelling and can stimulate a lifelong love for literature. We used all our resources to identify good writing from everywhere in the world, in addition to translations from Indian writing and original Indian stories.

The books are flexible in layout and design with lots of space for imagination and discussion. Appealing and colourful illustrations bring the text alive. Humour is an important ingredient of both the text and illustrations.

The Teacher’s Pages were inserted with practical suggestions on creative classroom teaching which should stimulate comments or questions among listeners. For instance, in a unit on Animals, we suggest a discussion in class on the decreasing number of tigers and other wild animals because of indiscriminate poaching, and imagine a future world without any animals.

In fact all the poems and stories reflect a value of some kind, humour or fantasy. Through the theme of Birds in one unit, we dwell on Differences and Disabilities and discuss how birds are different from humans. Imagine what two elephants would say to each other about people, we also ask in an exercise. For instance, let the elephants talk about what people look like (look at their noses!), what they eat and how they walk. Now people can be different from each other too and this becomes a good opportunity to talk about differences with reference to children with special needs, and to also discuss how such children can excel in other fields like music and art. This book has an interesting section on the use of sign languages.

Of course a system steeped in convention would take an enormous amount of time and effort to start the changes. Lack of funds and untrained teachers still stand in the way. The process of teacher training has already begun through seminars, training programmes and an ambitious satellite project called Edusat. The effort is to overhaul the entire approach towards classroom instruction and to make learning more enjoyable.

The mother tongue which was earlier given stepmotherly treatment in class in preference to Hindi, our national language, or to English, is now seen as a critical conduit and the textbooks encourage multilingualism. At the same time English is being introduced from Class 1 in recognition of its significance as a global language. In fact, it is spoken as a second language by more than 10 million Indians.

There is a place for dreams even in the most difficult of circumstances. By enriching our textbooks for primary children, the majority of whom have no access to computers or television or even story books, we have dared to dream of opening up a magical world without frontiers where the child can travel unhindered to distant lands, fly high without fear, and discover himself and the big world with confidence. Perhaps our collective dream of shaping good human beings will be the beginning of a better reality for India’s millions of children.


*AWIC – Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (Indian section of IBBY)

*NCERT – National Council of Educational Research and Training