BookBox: Scaling children's reading

Children's books have not scaled

Few would disagree with this time-honoured prescription. Children need to grow up reading children's books, or being read to by parents, especially in the pre- and early-school years. Reading is a foundational life skill upon which, nearly all of education and access to information and knowledge in life, depends.

The prescription, however, comes with three critical assumptions. One, age-appropriate children's books are easily available to families, in their language(s). Two, families can afford to buy books, or have convenient access to them in a library or school. Three, parents actually have the required reading skills, commitment, time, and acceptance of the importance of reading to their children regularly, from birth.

In a developing country like India, with 270 million children in the 0-10 age group, how many children grow up reading children's books, or being read to, on a regular basis? Not more than 20-30%, because affordable books are generally not available to 70-80% families, in their language(s), and many parents cannot read or are unaware of the importance of reading to children.

Around 200 million children in the 0-10 age group in India are being deprived of a children's reading experience. The market compels children's book publishers to mostly serve privileged English speaking families, or 10-15% of India. A handful of non-profits, struggling for-profits and the National Book Trust (NBT) serve the ocean of children speaking one of 22 official languages, and over 700 dialects. Collectively, they are at best serving another 10-15% of children in Indian languages.

How then can we expect the overwhelming majority of children in India to grow up reading? The standard response is generally some form of more children's books. But this model has failed 200 million children, aged 0-10, in India alone! Printed children's books, as valuable and necessary as they are for ALL children, have not scaled sufficiently in linguistically diverse, low-resource and low-income countries, for the majority of the population.

Children's reading in India is in desperate need of innovative, complementary, and scalable models for the highly diverse, 200 million underserved children. The key word is complementary. There is no better alternative to printed children's books, IF we can get them in the hands of ALL children. Unfortunately we haven't been able to, by a long shot!

BookBox: A scalable model for children's reading

BookBox is a social enterprise born in 2004 from a student-driven competition, Social e-Challenge, at Stanford University. Our winning team that year included four students and me. The Director of the Reuters Digital Vision Program I was in, joined us later in co-founding BookBox.

BookBox builds on two established findings. The world over, children like to watch cartoons. That is well-known to all of us, especially parents. Much less known is a well-researched conclusion that a viewer who watches video content with subtitles, will try to read along inescapably and automatically, assuming a passing familiarity with the script.

Subtitled animation is, therefore, more than entertainment. It is entertainment plus reading! When the subtitles are in the "same" language as the audio, and the words are individually highlighted in timing with the audio - think karaoke - the viewer experience is one of reading practice for those who can read along, and of being read to, for early-readers. Either way, reading skills are subconsciously reinforced as part of entertainment.

"AniBooks" is what BookBox calls its animated stories with Same Language Subtitles (SLS). Sample The Greatest Treasure in English, BookBox's most popular AniBook on YouTube. It has well over 3 million views, or more importantly for the social enterprise, that many AniBooks read.

By replacing the audio and text in other languages (Spanish, Hindi, or Mandarin/Chinese) the AniBook is made available to other globally large demographics. African languages are some of the most under-represented in children's publishing. BookBox, produced several AniBooks in Swahili and a sample in Asante Twi.

In the last 365 days, BookBox's 50 AniBooks have garnered 9 million views, globally: 2 million from India, 2 million from Europe, 1 million from US, but only 0.3 million each from Africa and South America. In an earlier 365-day period, BookBox had 7 million views, affirming the model's growth potential.

BookBox is entering language geographies where children's book publishers will generally not venture. Crowd-collaboration through Add My Language invites translation and narration into any language.

Take Chatino, an indigenous language spoken by just 45,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico. Emiliana Cruz, a doctoral student in linguistic anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, translated and narrated an AniBook she chose, into Chatino. Sharon Mbeyu and Raphael Kaume Raphael Marambi based in Kenya, converted 6 AniBooks into Swahili. Such virtual collaborations have helped grow the BookBox collection into 40 languages (although, not all AniBooks are available in all 40).

So far, BookBox's AniBooks have clocked 27 million views on YouTube. While a children's book publisher might draw satisfaction from that many readings of their books, for BookBox it is a beginning, a proof of concept that ultimately aims to benefit 200 million pre- and early-reading children in India alone, and as many if not more, globally.

BookBox's distribution strategy to deliver reading to all children relies on the proliferation of screens and the internet. India is on course to have 200 million smartphone users and 800 million TV viewers by the end of 2016. BookBox is gradually moving toward the distribution of AniBooks via mobile phone apps and TV programming.

Printed children's books will always have an important and exalted place in getting children to read. But in the developing world, this model has proven to be grossly insufficient in bridging the enormous chasms of language, affordability, and scale. BookBox offers a complementary model that says 'yes' to more children's books but, equally, 'yes' to many more innovative and scalable approaches to reading.