Try sitting your three-year-old down with a wordy book and chances are you’ll lose interest five minutes later. The beauty of interactive books is that they grab their attention with engaging visuals and fun elements they can touch and feel – keeping kids interested in the story and enhancing language learning.
While interactive English books for children are flooding the market, those in Tamil are rare. For young Tamil parents eager to enrich their children’s education at home, this lack is a source of frustration and anxiety.
Enter Books. This newly launched publisher fills the gap with interactive Tamil language books for kids. Co-founded by childhood friends and young mothers Usha and Razmiah, here you’ll find books with all the cool bells and whistles – tabs to pull, flaps to lift, textures to explore and even QR codes that lead you to digital translations and transliterations.
We catch up with Usha and Razmiah to find out how Chellamey Books hopes to foster an appreciation of Tamil language, culture and issues from an early age.
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Hi Usha and Razmiah, thanks for joining us today! First, tell us about your long friendship.
Razmiah: Usha and I have known each other since high school where we were in the same upper class of Tamil. We were always the two worst students, so as the worst two, we came together to copy homework and share resources and knowledge. That’s how it started.
We were in the same form class in secondary three, then we went to the same college and the same university. We got married around the same time and got pregnant around the same time – so a lot of similar experiences. We basically stalk each other.
Before Chellamey Books, what did you read to your children?
Razmiah: We mostly read books in English. My kids love interactive books, the ones where you can pull the tabs, lift the flaps, and explore different textures. I couldn’t find that level of interactive elements in Tamil books, so we had these softcover books which are very wordy and have bad illustrations.
Usha: My daughter doesn’t read as much as Razmiah’s son, but she liked to play with books. We might think books are all about reading to your kids, but at such a young age it’s more about keeping their brains engaged because the whole world is too stimulating for them. With the English books, I couldn’t read normal picture books – I needed some sort of interactive element to have a chance of my daughter sitting in them.
What motivated the decision to launch Chlamey Books?
Usha: There is a great fear of losing contact with Tamil. Razmiah and I are both good at writing Tamil, but you would never catch us speaking it. It was later that we realized how beautiful language is and how much our culture and traditions are tied to language. There’s so much you say in Tamil that can never be captured in English, so just the fact that we could lose it all if our kids don’t appreciate the language really got me going.
Razmiah: Same – it took me 18 years of my life to love the native language I had. It was only when I studied Tamil literature that I started to really appreciate Tamil plays and poetry and appreciate its beauty. I don’t want my kids to wait until they’re 18 to learn to love their own native language – I want to give them opportunities at a young age to realize that damn this language is really beautiful.
It took me 18 years of my life to love the mother tongue I had. I don’t want my kids to wait until they’re 18 to learn to love him too.
Do your Tamil peers and other friends have the same concerns?
Usha: Yes, I think a lot of people realized how much we let Tamil slip through our fingers after becoming parents. Mere consumption of Tamil movies and songs is not enough if we want our children to understand them, and we owe it to them. If they have to know the culture, it will be through us, they won’t learn it anywhere else. It is our responsibility.
Razmiah: Some of the parents we contacted also belong to mixed families. Some people can’t read Tamil anymore, so that’s something we took into consideration. Our books offer translation and transliteration in a virtual space accessible via a QR code so that even if they can’t read Tamil, they can still do it for their children.
Tell us more about the collections available at Chellamey Books and how they address these concerns.
Razmiah: We have two collections. The Classics collection is based on traditional Tamil nursery rhymes that most of us learned growing up, and that’s great because poetry and nursery rhymes are a wonderful way for children to learn languages and improve their pronunciation.
Our second collection is The Originals – a passion project of ours that reflects our Tamil community and the issues we face, so parents can use these books to have important conversations with their children.
Usha: These topics are very close to my heart. I am a dark skinned Tamil girl who works in an extremely male dominated environment. Growing up, a lot of the discrimination didn’t necessarily come from outside the community, and it didn’t necessarily come across as bad discrimination.
How do we respond to those who give us backhanded compliments? How do we really feel proud of who we are? We try to convey these topics of gender, race and discrimination in a friendly and accessible way so that Tamil parents can start having these conversations with their children and not just view them as something that happens.
And where do you see Chellamey Books in five years?
Razmiah: We have so many aspirations that we are tempted to get rid of our full-time jobs to work on them fully. We hope to work with many different Tamil illustrators and writers and help them gain exposure through our books. We also hope to go beyond books, perhaps to play items that children can use in their language learning or even delve into other non-Tamil Indian languages.
Usha: As Razmiah said, we are a couple of very imaginative friends. We know there’s huge potential, but it’s scary when you’re just two young moms with full-time jobs. So we’re going little by little. One day we hope to partner with others to bring more interactive activities, subscription boxes – all the things parents see everywhere but are now all in English.