When award-winning children’s author Anushka Ravishankar finished her short story It’s All The Cat’s Fault last year, instead of publishing it as a book, she chose an open-source website that allowed anyone to rework, translate and download it for free. A year later, her story of a boy who tells his schoolteacher that he could not complete his homework because of his mischievous cat, had been translated into 29 languages, published with 48 versions and read over 13,000 times.
It’s All The Cat’s Fault was one of the early successes on StoryWeaver, India’s first open-source digital repository of multilingual children’s stories. Started by Bengaluru-based publishing house Pratham Books in September 2015, it is trying to leverage the reach of the internet to make books accessible to kids across India.
“Pratham Books was founded with a simple mission: ‘A book in every child’s hand’. Yet, we still had a long way to go to reach every child,” Pratham Books’ chairperson Suzanne Singh said. “The challenge was to massively scale the creation of content for a highly multilingual and multicultural country like India.”
A year after its launch, StoryWeaver has collected 2,000 stories in 51 Indian and international languages, which include Tibetan, Sanskrit, Santhali, Gondi and Khmer. By February 2017, it plans to add 15 more languages to this list as part of its ‘Freedom to Read’ campaign.
In India, there are critical supply shortages for reading resources for children — not enough books, in not enough languages, compounded by poor access and issues of affordability.
The seeds for StoryWeaver were sown when Pratham’s team discovered the Creative Commons philosophy in 2013-14. It initially experimented with releasing a few books under the Creative Commons license, which allowed anyone to distribute, remix, tweak and build upon their work, even commercially. As a result, many of its books ended up being translated in new languages such as Sanskrit, Ladakhi, Konkani and Malayalam. Some were even turned into audio stories, Braille books, YouTube videos and apps.
This was an alternative to traditional publishing. “In India, there are critical supply shortages for reading resources for children — not enough books, in not enough languages, compounded by poor access and issues of affordability,” Singh said. “As most publishers cater to middle and upper income urban audiences, demand-based economics dominate, to the detriment of creating books for economically weaker groups where the profit motive is low.”
StoryWeaver goes beyond just publishing books for children, by encouraging interested users to translate, reinterpret and modify existing stories to create new versions using its bank of 2,000 openly licensed images. Users can read, download, print and distribute the stories free of cost. The website can also be accessed on mobile phones and has Unicode compliant tools for translating stories in various scripts, changing the page layout, and rewriting stories for higher and lower reading levels. While quality can vary, the stories are periodically reviewed by professional translators for accuracy.
“For a community author this manifests itself in their stories being read and shared widely and translated to more languages for more children to enjoy,” Singh said. “For an illustrator this means the joy of seeing their art used in myriad ways — stories, flashcards, and animations.”
Today, StoryWeaver’s community includes librarians, parents, teachers, translators, and storytellers, ranging from an English teacher at a Tibetan school in Himachal Pradesh to an NGO working with the Santhal tribals in Jharkhand. In remote areas with poor Internet connectivity, teachers often download and print the stories for offline storytelling sessions or distribution.
Stories that originate in one language can find readers in other languages as they get translated and versioned.
The model was inspired by India’s tradition of storytelling. “Stories that originate in one language can find readers in other languages as they get translated and versioned. The joy that these stories being, no matter what language they were narrated in, is universal,” Singh said.
In some instances, the website has also played an important role in preserving tribal languages. For instance, the NGO Suchana used Storyweaver to translate 50 stories to Adivasi languages such as Kora and Santhali, which are spoken in pockets in Bengal and north Odisha, using the Bengali script. This was the first that the Kora dialect, which is primarily oral, had been written down in the six villages where Suchana is operational.
The stories have even travelled outside India through global collaborations with organisations such as the African Storybook Project and Bloom library. Within India, Storyweaver is also being used to supplement literacy and children’s education efforts in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.
It’s real achievement lies in using the Internet to reach out to newer readers. “By harnessing the power of technology and open licenses we hope to create a multiplier effect to address the scarcity of multilingual reading resources in India,” Singh said. “We believe that by creating a participatory framework, we can help create more stories for children in many more languages. The last one year has shown us that StoryWeaver is on its way to achieve this.”