At the court of France's prince of pre-school books

Prince of Pre-School Books in France: The tag sits lightly on his wavy mop of hair. 54-year-old Hervé Tullet believes in taking the concept of reading to another plane altogether. His methods of teaching young minds, in an imaginative, free thinking and creative manner, have earned him acclaim across the globe. 

A colouring session at Jump Start 2012 where Herve Tullet (foreground) was one of the speakers. Pics Courtesy/ Vivek Singh

Recently, the unassuming teacher and author of nearly 60 play-read books was in New Delhi for Jump Start 2012, a convention to chart the strides made in the Indian children’s publishing segment. In between sessions and his packed schedule, we caught up with the innovative bookmaker who believes that books need not lose out to the online revolution.

You have been dubbed as the prince of pre-school books; how did that happen?
(Laughs) A French journalist as a joke coined this term. Soon, it was adopted by the press in the US and UK. The term returned to France. Soon, I came to be known by other titles including the Dictator of Freedom! I guess I am perceived as someone who provides different ways to express freedom.

Tullet’s most popular book, Press Here, has been translated across the world, into nearly 30 languages as a radical teaching tool; sadly, it is not available in any Indian language.

I consider myself the trigger — to give children the freedom to draw. Like a good artist, I have to lead them to feel the music, follow my voice, my prompts. From this expression it is up to them to go into their books. It’s all about the freedom of imagination. I am not here to build artists but to build individuals who will feel free with my books. I work with young people as well as the underprivileged.

Before now, I have had no links with India nor have I had specific ideas about children’s books here. Yet, I believe that it is always the same everywhere. To give you an example, I was at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art yesterday, where I had a session with 220 children.

It was so different from the smaller groups that I am used to working with. I gave my prompts — there was enough colour and music floating around. I stepped back and told the kids that it was up to them to let the colour flow. The universal language of words, colour and expression works wonders, always.

According to you, what age group remains the biggest challenge?
The age group doesn’t really matter. I have taught 18-month-old babies as well as young minds from jails and hospitals. However, if I had to pick, it would be the 12 to 18-year-old bracket. Most of them don’t buy these ideas…you can almost read their mind where they are asking, “what is this guy doing here?” My books are made from ideas. It’s always about relationships that get built by working together with the children. I use methods that play with songs, and ask for a response from the audience. It’s amazing to see these responses.

Do you believe that the interactive method of teaching is the way ahead for children?
Everything is a work in progress. It’s always about improvisation. Dialogue usually, starts it off. We must feel equal and love the idea before sharing it with the rest. I am able to figure this quickly. If kids feel the “wow” factor, then I am sure it will find a way into their minds. My main aim is to create a special moment. There must be a specific energy towards an idea. If they get this aspect, they can take it forward. The intent is to make them aware of finding an idea. My interest is to speak to the mind. If I can find this in a mind, it’s possible to solve any problem.

As a teacher, where do the new challenges lie in mentoring young, impressionable minds?
I focus of making children figure three questions — What is a book? What does it carry within? What is the role of teachers and booksellers as they are important to this process? I am merely a piece of this puzzle; I need to think of innovations and new ideas for the mind. Essentially, I need to be a social actor across barriers. I go to different parts of the world to help channelise my energy, and to simplify complicated elements in teaching young minds. I am very proud of this work, which is a combination of creativity and travel. My books like Press Here have been successful without being translated in countries like Korea and Israel. Isn’t that wonderful? I am already excited about my next destination, which will be Malawi.  

55% the percentage of children who attend pre-primary school in India, according to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics

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