COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Janaki Sooriyarachchi’s phone rings nonstop. But the Sri Lankan children’s books author is not tired of answering the many calls from her young fans.
Rather, these calls inspire Sooriyarachchi to be more committed to her work, she says. A child’s voice on one phone call thanks her for creating a beautiful movie – the author’s first foray into the film industry.
Sooriyarachchi released an educational cartoon movie for children in September 2013 titled “Pinchi & The Alphabet.” Since then, it has gained popularity in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.
The film is Sri Lanka’s first Sinhala-language video that teaches the alphabet to children, Sooriyarachchi says. Sinhala is a phonetic language spoken by the Sinhalese people, the country’s majority ethnic group. Children typically first learn the 32 basic letters of the 54-character alphabet.
“My main intention in creating the movie is to make the alphabet easy to learn,” Sooriyarachchi says. “I want small children to enjoy learning their ABCs in the native language alphabet so they have lots of time to play.”
She has noticed that children have less time to play these days.
“When I was a small girl, I had enough time to think and be creative,” she says. “But today, it is sad that small children as young as 2 or 3 years old are saddled with studies. They have lost their playtime.”
For “Pinchi & The Alphabet,” Sooriyarachchi did the preproduction research, wrote the script and lyrics, created the illustrations, provided the voice of the fairy, composed the music for the songs, and sang some of them. She also produced and directed the cartoon under her video animation production house, Tikiri Animation Studio, which she launched in 2012.
During more than 18 months of research for the movie with children under 5 years old, Sooriyarachchi found that animation was an effective tool to teach them letters, she says. She observed that children could identify and memorize the letters faster and with less effort than by reading alphabet books.
“They learn the letters faster when they are watching a movie with songs,” she says.
Sooriyarachchi says that a good children’s book is like “a sweet that is wrapped with many good lessons” to influence children to lead better lives. The cartoon, which spans 106 minutes, also teaches moral values, such as love and kindness.
Creating the video was a dream come true for Sooriyarachchi. Her current goal is to bring the cartoon alphabet to children in poor villages and primary schools in the country’s rural areas to offer them the opportunity to learn as well.
“I will have a mobile studio – a van with a fixed TV – to display the video for them,” she says.
Sooriyarachchi says she lived in her own world of imagination as a girl. She wrote her first book about an adventure to fairyland with her dolls when she was 8. Since then, she has written children’s books on diverse topics such as how rain is created and how to become a young entrepreneur.
Sooriyarachchi has written and has illustrated 206 books, she says. She also publishes them under her own company, Tikiri Publishers (Pvt) Ltd.
More than 15 of Sooriyarachchi’s e-books have been translated into Tamil, English, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic, she says. She has also written 30 children’s books in English.
The digital library at the U.S. University of Maryland selected three of her books as Book of the Day in 2009 and 2010, she says. This gave her an opportunity to reach children around the world and also inspired her to launch Sri Lanka’s first e-book website. She is also the first Sri Lankan author to release a digital audiobook for children.
Sooriyarachchi won three State Literary Awards from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs – now the Ministry of Culture and the Arts – in the children’s literature category in 2004 and 2007, among other awards.
Kusuma Karunaratne, professor emeritus at the University of Colombo, confirms Sooriyarachchi’s success in this genre.
“Sooriyarachchi holds a record as the author who has written the largest number of children’s books on such a wide variety of subjects and themes in the country,” she says in a telephone interview.
“With lots of round-shaped letters with flags and knots, our Sinhala alphabet is a little difficult for small children to learn at the beginning,” she says.
Children, parents and teachers will appreciate Sooriyarachchi’s movie, Karunaratne says.
“In this movie, which is full of music, she has made it very easy for children to learn, recognize and remember the letters,” Karunaratne says, “and, in addition, it helps to derive pleasure out of learning. It is very interesting and useful work that helps our children to learn the alphabet easily in a correct form.”
Chirath Gunarathne, 3, learned the Sinhala alphabet by watching “Pinchi & The Alphabet” and learning its songs, says his mother, Varuni Gunawardana, 32.
Glued to the cozy chair in the living room of his family’s home, Chirath watches the video and takes no notice of what happens around him. He sings and pronounces the letters along with Pinchi, then giggles as he writes the letters in the air, mimicking the action of the fairy as she writes the letters in the sky.
“We started teaching him letters when he was 2½ years old,” Gunawardana says. “He refused to read Sinhala letters. My husband and I didn’t push him, as he is very young. But when I showed him the video clips of this movie, he started staring at it with a deep interest and said he wants to see them again. Then, I bought him the movie, and from day one, he really loves to watch this movie.”
Chirath’s room is full of English storybooks. His mother points out that he does not own a single Sinhala storybook because he was not interested in learning the language until he started watching “Pinchi & The Alphabet.”
“Whenever he remembers Pinchi, he wants to watch the movie,” she says.
Gunawardana is happy that her son is able to pronounce all 32 letters of the basic Sinhala alphabet at his young age, she says.
“He will be going to preschool in 2014, and this movie has helped him to study the Sinhala letters fast,” she says.
Ruchira Maduranga, the cartoon animator for “Pinchi & The Alphabet,” compliments Sooriyarachchi’s ability to connect with her young audience.
“It is easy to work with Sooriyarachchi, as she is highly talented in drawing sketches and writing lyrics as well as dialogues which are suitable for small children,” he says in a telephone interview.
Once Sooriyarachchi recovers the expense of creating “Pinchi & the Alphabet,” which cost more than 10 million rupees ($76,500), she plans to execute her goal of bringing it to children in rural areas of the country. She also intends on creating more educational videos.
“Pinchi, the main character in the cartoon movie, will have a long journey with me in this endeavor,” Sooriyarachchi says, “and she will also be there in my future educational movies, which will be animated to help study the difficult subjects like science and mathematics easily in their primary grades. We are doing research on these now.”
GPJ translated interviews from Sinhala.