India's first literature festival for children is a reminder of the expanding market in kids' writing.
Isn’t it so much fun to read stories set in our own time, with characters we can relate to?” asks Sampurna Chattarji as she prepares to read from her book Three Brothers & the Flower of Gold, a modern retelling of the Panchatantra. “Yes!” trills her audience, mostly comprising children aged between six and 14.
So Chattarji relates the tale of three princes who decide to give themselves cooler, more contemporary names (while retaining their initials in a token nod to tradition; thus Ugrashakti becomes Uber-cool) and then, along with fellow authors Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, participates in a panel about new ways of interpreting old stories. Within a few minutes, even the parents in the audience — initially playing the role of indulgent escorts — seem genuinely interested in the discussion.
The location is the picturesque open-air amphitheatre at the Sanskriti Anand Gram, off the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road, and this is the opening session of the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival. Billed as the first fest of its kind in India, Bookaroo hasn’t come a moment too soon, given that children’s writing has been making big strides in recent times. Not convinced? Just peruse the stall set up by Eureka! Bookshop at the venue.
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”.
Aesthetics are equally important for a festival, and the Anand Gram is the perfect setting for an informal cultural event during a Delhi winter. It’s verdant and well-maintained, and no two events are separated by more than a brisk minute’s walk. In the “Tent”, comic-book artist Jeff Smith shows his audience how to draw his popular strip Bone and much chortling ensues when he introduces a pani-puri into the panel. Ranjit Lal walks through the nearby garden with his listeners, explaining why “insects are just like us”. In a wonderfully performed session, Venita Coelho reads from her book Dungeon Tales, while an actor plays the part of a “Badmash Badshah” alongside her.
A telling sign of the growth of the children’s literature market is the increasing willingness of publishers to invest in this category: this is significant because good books for children are costlier to produce (higher-quality paper, illustrations) and in India, they can’t be priced too high because of the competition from smaller publishers. So there’s clearly a long-term vision at work here. “The idea that children don’t read nowadays is a vastly overstated one,” says Chattarji. Going by the enthusiastic response to Bookaroo, she’s right.