By Reya Mehrotra
In September this year, bestselling author Dan Brown will make headlines when he releases his debut children’s book, Wild Symphony. To be published by Penguin Random House, the picture book will be a “mindful, humorous musical”, as per the publisher. But that’s not the only thing bibliophiles are excited about. The book will also have an option for little readers to listen to the musical compositions as they read. All their parents would need to do is hold their phone’s camera over it and a free interactive smartphone app, using augmented reality, would play the appropriate song for each page.
Children’s books have undergone a huge transformation over the past couple of years. The latest rage are audiobooks. QR and AR codes at the back of books or inside, especially, are huge hits among children, who can scan them and then listen to the book anywhere and anytime. It wouldn’t perhaps be wrong to say that audiobooks are a child’s new best friend now, ensuring there’s a grandma for every kid yearning for a bedtime story.
It’s no wonder then that leading publishing houses across the world are cashing in on the trend. Not just Dan Brown’s book, Penguin Random House also recently released an audio series of author Ruskin Bond’s chapter books for children (narrated by the author himself), as well as an interactive audiobook of author Devangana Dash’s The Jungle Radio. “The future of audiobooks in children’s literature is very promising. There has been slow but steady growth in sales over the last few quarters for us,” says a spokesperson who didn’t want to be named at Penguin Random House India, adding, “The concept of audiobooks, however, is not recent… in fact, in the mid- to late 90s, there were many books for children that were sold with companion audio cassettes. This was mostly found in more developed markets. Audiobooks can improve phonetical understanding in conjunction to reading, and make reading multisensory.”
Agrees Tina Narang, publisher, children’s books, HarperCollins. “Print is no longer the only way to reach out to readers. We need to find new formats to get children hooked to stories and storytelling… podcast is an interesting way forward,” she says.
While Chennai-based children’s publishing house Karadi Tales has been doing it for a while now, Amar Chitra Katha, the publishing house which brings out the wildly popular comic books of the same name for children, plans to introduce audiobooks this year. “We will be launching the audio versions of Amar Chitra Katha stories on platforms like Audible and Bolo this year. One would then be able to listen to the books by downloading the apps… There will, however, be no QR code to be scanned from the hard copies. We also have our Amar Chitra Katha quiz on Alexa,” says Preeti Vyas, president, Amar Chitra Katha. At present, audio and video narrations of Amar Chitra Katha stories are available only on YouTube.
Vyas believes the medium does not matter when it comes to storytelling. “We have to take the story to the consumer and the story should be available to the consumer in the way the latter wants it to be, be it audio or video,” she says.
Vyas also negates the view that children don’t like to read these days. “It’s a misconception that in today’s time children do not read. In fact, with the benefits of reading coming to the fore with scientific research, parents are more and more encouraging of reading habits in their children,” she says, adding, “Families are far more educated and economically advanced today to encourage reading and buying of good literature for children. The sale of kids’ books has seen an upswing in recent years.” What’s sweetening the deal is the fact that audiobooks are now as easily available as physical books, with many online shopping websites like Amazon selling them.
A property of Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle Comics introduced QR codes for submitting feedback in their comics in February and there has been a 100% jump in feedback received. “We added the QR codes, as we wanted to give children a landing page for our contests and to give feedback,” says Rajani Thindiath, editor-in-chief, Tinkle Comics, adding, “And we saw a huge jump in the feedback received, as now children can just pick up the phones and write to us.”
While they don’t have audiobooks yet, they have incorporated some augmented reality (AR) features. “We do not have an audiobook yet, but we have AR features, which we introduced four-five years ago. Children can download the AR app and see the animations of the comics,” says Thindiath.
She believes comics are like 10-minute movies and QR/AR codes serve as great add-ons. “Children love reading comics and audiobooks just enhance the experience,” she says. Emboldened by the success of audiobooks, some publishers are also launching audio shows for kids. Juggernaut, for instance, introduced India’s first celebrity audio show for kids, called Story Time with Soha Ali Khan, in February.
Interestingly, traditional storytelling isn’t the only area, which is seeing this transformation. Audiobooks today are coming to the aid of educationists as well. “Audiobooks are an inclusive way to impart education as not all children can read in a similar manner… some need visual and audio guidance as well to grasp things,” says Amita Nowal, fellow, Teach for India. “Language courses especially, like English, necessarily need audio guidance as it’s a foreign language and many children don’t have access to it at home and learn it only in schools,” she adds.
Children with special needs, especially, can be greatly benefitted by audiobooks. “Digitally-interfaced texts and supplementary books especially help children with special needs as these are the only means to teach them,” says Bharti Kaushik, associate professor, Department of Education of Groups with Special Needs, NCERT. “For instance, children with blindness can either learn through Braille books, audio or the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) books… but DAISY books don’t have the look and feel of a book and that alienates the children using them. So the only way to create inclusion in learning spaces is by introducing QR codes on books… NCERT has mandated QR codes for all its textbooks and a number of them already have these,” Kaushik adds.
Such books came as a great help to Delhi-based Apala Bhargavi, mother of two twin special girls, when she was homeschooling them (one of them is going to school now). “After some time, classroom teaching gets monotonous,” says Bhargavi. “I always used the audio-visual medium to teach my girls when I was homeschooling them. I feel the audio-visual medium should be mandatory for all primary classes. Children can easily concentrate through such mediums… they get distracted listening to the same voice of the teacher everyday.”
The audio-visual medium is also a means of lighting up kids’ imagination. “Listening to audio-video versions of my favourite books like the Harry Potter series adds to the experience. It just opens up your imagination,” says 15-year-old Agra-based Kush Dembla.
Eighteen-year-old Hiranya Bhargavi feels both mediums are equally important. “It depends on an individual. In classroom teaching, the teacher knows where to appreciate the child and where to reprimand. There’s human touch which can’t be replaced… with audiobooks, one doesn’t need to exert oneself for reading. It’s time-saving, cost-saving and bridges the gap between storytelling and reading,” says Delhi-based Bhargavi, adding, “Though I love reading, I would rather prefer someone narrate a story to me as I enjoy the process of storytelling.”
Clearly, books aren’t just page-turners any more. “They talk, interact and express themselves,” says Nishtha Kapila, publisher, Rupa Publications.