The world is now filled with an endless array of media and content and it has become an increasingly complex and complicated world for parents to shift through all the millions of news articles and videos, both online and offline, for ‘safe’ material. Luckily, there are still many well-meaning writers and editors to whom the truth and facts are sacred and who are still plugging away at presenting news without sensationalist headlines and biased opinions. One such operation is “The Curious Owl” which is India’s first weekly current affairs newspaper written specifically for children and their parents / guardians.
‘The Curious Owl’ is a 16 page newspaper which was the brainchild of friends, Anjali Gadre and Vinni Timblo, who decided to shake up the world of sensationalist media by simply going back to basics; the news presented in an easy to read format and just the simple facts. From humble beginnings, “The Curious Owl” has expanded beyond the reach of India and now has readers all around the world.
In an exclusive interview, one of the editors of the ‘The Curious Owl’, Anjali Gadre, talked about the origins of the newspaper, the significance of the launch day and how long it took to plan and devise a newspaper from nothing but an idea.
“Myself and Vinni Timblo started our first issue on the 14th of November 2014, which in India is children’s day. We chose the day as November 14th is Nehru’s birthday so it is celebrated in schools all over India as ‘Children’s day’. Vinni and I started to think about this idea, several months before our launch and it took us four to five months of planning. It took us a long time to start the planning and to start thinking of the name for the newspaper. The writing I had done was with BC Magazine and a couple of magazines in India. In terms of running our company, neither of us had any experience so it took a bit of planning.”
Gadre expressed that it was overly sensational news coverage that started a conversation about how news was being presented and whether or not some news outlets were actually presenting the actual story with facts and unbiased opinions and if this news coverage was infact suitable for children and teenagers.
“What got us thinking about this idea was that a large number of Indian newspaper and television channels are very skewered so it is like watching CNN and Fox news; you know which channel you are watching, you know which way they will be reporting so the same story might get a completely different type of reportage from one channel to another. Whether the news coverage is pro-government or not; the newspapers are pretty sensationalist. An example would be the 2014 World Cup as I remember coverage being a real discussion for Vinni and I as I remember one newspaper had done a double spread on footballers and the footballer’s girlfriends though the coverage of the footballers was just photos of the players being bare chested and their six packs, ‘Like this guy is handsome’ and photos of these women and this is what the news is!”
All great ideas are developed from simple conversations and both spotted a gap in the Indian media landscape for a child friendly newspaper which would cover both local and global events though not in a sensational way that could be deemed skewered or biased in anyway. Importantly, the newspaper would be written in proper English without any short cuts or short-forms or slang, in order to model proper use of the English language to children.
“Vinni and I thought we would come up with a 16 page newspaper which has the look and feel of an adult regular newspaper which a parent can hand it over to a child and be safe in knowledge that the kind of stories we cover are appropriate and we will not have grammatical mistakes. For example, we would not have short-forms, like when Trump was in India for example, newspapers may have had a headline like “US Prez in Town’ with a ‘Z’ for President. That is like social media short-form and this is not the kind of language I would like my children to read in a newspaper so we are correct on how we write our English.”
Gadre stated that yes, current events would be covered, though the articles would not give their own personal opinion as it would be left to the children to make up their own minds on the topic matter with some guidance from their family.
“In terms of current events, we started to move away from discussing or at least giving our opinion on religion and politics but we do mention items like the Kashmir issue and the revoking of article 370 and the recent CAA events and we explained what the CAA was, without giving our opinion on it. We have readers aged up to 14 to 15 and some as young as 5 so we have some enthusiastic parents who want their children to develop a habit of reading but you have older children who do need to be aware of these new items but without giving our biased opinion but absolutely just presenting the facts so that it is the whole premise of the paper; we present the news in the way that parents would like have it explained to their child.”
Life is full of tragic events and turmoil and to shield a child from these types of news event would not be beneficial to them in the future so these types of stories are covered though in a way that is not too distressing or alarming to the child.
“For news stories, like a terror attack or a volcano eruption, we are not only trying to cover the happy news as there are sad stories which do occur though how would you, as a educator or a parent, present this news to a child without alarming them but presenting them the facts in an unbiased way.”
Children will eventually have to be independent and improve their critical thinking skills and these are vital life skills which should be learnt at a young age.
“Children should make their own decision on certain things and make their own choice on what is right or wrong but they have to be aware of the facts and present it correctly. In the past, when we have stories which could alarm a child, then we write about it but we have a ‘parent / child’ icon which tells a child that if a story has troubled or upset you then please speak to an adult or educator that you can trust and speak and talk about it for example, in relation to terror attacks. It is sad that these things happen but they are few and far between and our governments are working hard to keep us safe and the people who commit these acts are not acting in the name of religion as no religion would ever say, go out and kill innocent people.”
Gadre said that having an unbiased and fair media was important as India was such a vast nation with a huge mix of people, religions and cultures. Objectivity was important as social media and news coverage was sometimes overwhelming to the point that people would not know what was true or not. As Gadre was a parent herself, she instinctively knew from her ‘parent’ viewpoint, what she would like her own kids to read.
“We have always told parents that our own children are reading it and that I am not going to present my own child with what I feel will present uncomfortable things for me to answer or what I feel is wrong for them to know. Parents can be assured that we as parents are using our own products which, for any product, is a sign that it works.”
As both Gadre and her fellow editor, Vinni, had children, it was just natural sometimes to ask their own children for ideas on content and to check for mistakes.
“Oh yes a lot, especially as now, as stereotypical as it sounds, the sports news, as a lot of the sports are items they like and sometimes the kids suggest what to write and things like that. Both my kids and Vinni’s kids will have a look at the paper and sometimes spot mistakes before we print or we have reported something a little wrong or they tell us something which they have heard in school. The children can really be up to date.”
Reading is seen as a fantastic habit to have though ‘reading’ itself has changed as more and more children have started to use devices to read.
“My kids, as much as I try to get them into reading books, actual books, two of three are not and are reading online and I think I have to come out of my mindset and agree that reading online is reading as it is still reading. I do think children now away days do read less than we did and they do not read books and pick up books as much as our generation did.”
“I do hope it is not a diminishing habit and again with the newspaper, what we have told parents that even if a child reads for fifteen minutes a day then that could become a habit with a child that could stick too as children these days do have short attention spans anyway and there nothing which holds their grasp and they won’t sit there and build lego for an hour so everything is quick and instant gratification.”
Gadre believes that reading can be built into a habit and like anything,it takes time and energy.
“So if you do not have the patience to sit down and read for an hour for twenty one days in which a habit can be built. I would like for the habit of reading not to die down as with a book, you do no need to go online and people can pick up a book at anytime. We tell parents that they do not need to read things from cover to cover as neither would you or I; I still get a newspaper delivered to my house as I like to see the headlines and skim the articles and it is a good habit even if it is fifteen minutes a day but these days everything is instant and fast.”
Gadre has three children and explained how she managed to launch a national and global newspaper while juggling her time with her children.
“I do a lot of work at home and office hours are nine to one Monday to Friday and I do it when all the kids are at school and not on a Friday as that is when we have gone to print. Friday is my free relaxed day and I don’t look at the news on Friday. I do work once they have gone to bed at night. The joy of writing is the ability to do this anyway and I do not have to be in my office writing and I try and not to work when the children are at home. We sometimes struggle with the time difference as Vinni is in England and I am in India and there are some compromises. For example, on Thursdays, when after going print, we start editing the paper which is still 4 am UK time in the morning for Vinni, she has to edit it before we wakes up her kids at 7 am so it is a little harder for her. We try and not work when the kids at home as we want focus the attention on them. I hope my kids can contribute in the future, at least with editing.”
‘The Curious Owl’ has now reached beyond the scope of India in terms of readers and now has a global audience which is still growing.
“We have readers in The USA, Malaysia, England and in Belgium and in Germany and most are living in those nations but are of Indian origin but anyone is welcome to read the paper as we have five pages of world news so we do have readers around the world.”
“We have had readers from one particular school in India who are taking the paper to use at school as it is a small town and most people don’t speak English as a first language in that town as they would in say Goa or Mumbai so they use it as part of their English curriculum as at home. These children would not be speaking English so these kids would be using the paper as a comprehension; like children read a story and then answer some questions. For example, we had a story about Greta Thunberg in Bristol and get the kids to read it and then the teachers would ask, ‘What did the world leaders say about Greta?’; simple things like that! So kids, who for English is not a first language, can read the article and answer simple questions related to the text.”
All products have significance attached to their names and Gadre was happy to share the reasoning behind the name of the publication. Firstly, what was the reasoning behind the word ‘Curious’?
“We would like to encourage curiosity in children and children should not stop questioning and no matter how old they are!”
And finally, why an ‘owl’?
“An owl is synonymous with knowledge!”
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