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A few years ago, it would have been packed, end to end, with Enid Blytons and perhaps the occasional Dr Seuss book (frowned upon by parents because it wasn’t “meaningful enough” for young children). But now there’s an abundance of titles by Indian writers such as Chattarji, Anushka Ravishankar, Paro Anand, Venita Coelho, Ranjit Lal and Aniruddha Sengupta — all of whom are present at this festival, hosting interactive sessions and workshops, and having a rollicking good time by the looks of it. And all of whom are refreshingly open-minded about the possibilities of children’s literature.
“We’ve finally outgrown the patronising idea that a good children’s book must have an obvious moral attached to it,” says Sayoni Basu, publishing director, Scholastic India, pointing out that it’s possible now for children’s writing in India to be fantastical, silly, irreverent, even dark, as long as it doesn’t get too negative. “People are realising that kids are tougher than they get credit for.”
Scholastic India alone has published around a hundred original children’s titles this year, and other publishers such as Pratham Books (which co-organised Bookaroo), Tara and Puffin are expanding their catalogues too. Another key development, says Basu, is that the quality of illustrations has vastly improved: “a children’s book now looks like something you might actually want to pick up”.
FOR MITA KAPUR, a co-organiser of Bookaroo, one of the best moments of this first-of-its-kind children’s book festival was watching a mother sitting on the lawns with two children on her lap, reading to them from a book. When she looked again, a few moments later, the mother was surrounded by about 15 children, all wanting to hear the story.
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“On a normal weekend”, she says, “they might have been in their own, separate rooms, watching television”.
There was a definite warmth to the event, not least that of the winter sun falling on the friendly green lawns, compact amphitheatres and gravelly paths of Sanskriti, on the outskirts of Delhi. Children ran around the grounds in between sessions of storytelling, comicsmaking and painting. There was none of the yelling for quiet that often becomes a parent’s public face.
Books open up a world of adventure, fun, magic and enchantment. How would it be to meet the people who created this world? That is what happened at Bookaroo, the Children’s Literary Festival, held recently in Delhi. For the first time ever, there was a festival to celebrate children’s books.
Most of them came to have a good time, and a good time they did have. It is not often that one gets to meet the minds behind the books you have read and ask them the reason for writing these stories or what inspired them. Stories set in times and places you have not been to and in journeys you have never been.
Subhadra Sengupta, an author and one of the organisers said, “we were a little sceptic whether a fest around books would get a good response. The standard comment was that people don’t read and so a fest without magic shows and giant wheels will fall flat. So what Bookaroo did was prove that books are important to a lot of parents and kids and they can generate real excitement.” Manisha Choudary of Pratham books, who was instrumental in doing the city outreach across MCD schools in Delhi with eight authors, feels that the time was right for a book fest. “Whether it was the people in Pratham or friends, everybody is waiting for a well done, imaginative event around books. We had great luck in getting Sanskriti, lovely weather and such a wonderful mix of speakers! In all the MCD schools, the events were hugely enjoyed by the children and there is great scope to do Bookaroo events round the year in schools — events such as plays, readings in both English and Hindi for mixed groups of kids from both public and government schools.” Urvashi Butalia added value, “What Bookaroo showed is that if you make books available and exciting, kids will rush to read them, they’ll flock to book-related events in droves, as they did in the MCD schools and here and they’ll exchange their ideas and dreams with people who they think are interested in them. I told a young boy in my neighbourhood about Bookaroo. He couldn’t make it to Sanskriti but he came round the next day with a bunch of his stories, saying, ‘auntie, if you like children’s books, would you like to read what I have written; and so I did, and they are utterly brilliant — mature, nuanced, wonderful, how’s that for collateral?”
A hundred fresh-faced nine- and 10-year-olds sitting packed three to a bench gazed at me curiously.
Vanakkam! I said, again. And again. From the general silence spluttered a few murmurs of ‘Welcome’. I continued to talk in Tamil, holding up a picture book, till a relaxed buzz started to fill the room full of Hindi-speaking children who had probably never heard Tamil before.
After that, when I asked, “Shall we read this book in Tamil?” the response was a resounding “Yes ma’am!” So we read together stories about paatis and naanis and grandmas and dosas in Hindi, English and Tamil!
I was at a primary school in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar Phase 3 as part of Bookaroo in the City, taking writers and illustrators of children’s books to municipal schools during the country’s first-ever children’s literature festival in November.
About seven others were at schools in places such as Shalimar Bagh, Karol Bagh, East Patel Nagar and East Lakshmi Market. Organised by Bookaroo, a registered charitable trust, the event was held in November in municipal schools, and at the Sanskriti Anandgram, an aesthetic and spacious venue just beyond Mehrauli, provided free of cost by its owner, O.P. Jain.
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