India's stories are a necessity for our children to have affirming images of themselves, and to build a strong sense of identity, says Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, co-founder and curator of the Neev Literature Festival (NLF) that has just concluded its sixth edition, the first in-person after being held virtually for the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"The Neev Literature Festival was started in 2017 to fill the gap of a platform in India that takes children's literature and their reading seriously. And then we launched Neev Book award in 2018 to celebrate children's books from and about Indian lives, that are literary mirrors to Indian culture and identity," Sabharwal told IANS in an interview.
"India's success in literature for adults is well established globally and is now emerging in children's books, moving beyond the folk tales and mythology segments as well. Our children's writers experiment with diverse genres, but access to these books is a challenge given the small market for reading beyond academics. As a result, writing careers remain challenging too."
"But India's stories are a necessity for our children to have affirming images of themselves, and to build a strong sense of identity. Finally, there is the challenge of reading skills in our school system, with the over obsession with writing and assessments. Good readers finally make good writers," Sabharwal explained.
Noting that success in PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores, "something that has eluded us", also correlates with reading wide and deep, and beyond academics, she said NLF had also launched a cross-country summer reading challenge to encourage children to read more and open their world through books.
In this way, NLF "upholds and celebrates the dual cause of Indian children's writing, bringing it centre stage and of reading as the fount of lifelong learning, creativity and imagination", Sabharwal elaborated.
Additionally, the Neev Book Award, now in its fifth edition, "recognises the power of Indian stories for building identity. With changing family structures and constant digital invasion, children's books are now the literary mirrors, and windows to the whole world of possibility".
Four categories of awards were given at the NLF:
Early Years: "Bumoni's Banana Trees" by Mita Bordoloi (Illustrated by Tarique Aziz, Published by Tulika Publishers)
Emerging Readers: "Jamlo Walks" by Samina Mishra (Illustrated by Tarique Aziz, Published by Puffin Books)
Junior Readers: "When the World Went Dark" by Jane De Suza (Published by Puffin Books)
Young Adults: "Rain Must Fall" by Nandita Basu (Published by Duckbill)
"Indian books focused on personal chronology, mythology and folk tales are wonderful, but must also convey the Ideas of India@75 and the hopes of India@100," Sabharwal maintained.
What has the response been from the stakeholders?
"We aim to build the community at two levels. One is the book creators, through work we do on the book award, and this year we also did a retreat with authors and publishers. The other is building a community of readers, through the reading challenge and of course the physical celebration of the LitFest itself.
"Authors and publishers recognise the quality at which we work is unique in India. Readers are growing significantly as well. The number of participants in the reading challenge and the festival are continuing to grow steadily," Sabharwal elaborated.
This year, nearly 100 groups of children from schools across the country participated in the summer reading challenge. And the festival, with 60 speakers, a 2,500-titles curated children's book marketplace, and 100 sessions - including book discussions, master classes, readings and sessions on building the reading habit - had 4,000-plus visitors.
"This year we also integrated all the sessions with storytelling to bring this celebration of children's literature unparalleled in India and recognised by the book creators, book sellers, readers and their influencers," Sabharwal said.
What has been her learnings as the organiser of the festival?
"NLF this year was special, and about community, learning and fun. Community because thousands of readers, authors, teachers, publishers, readers, parents, students, and volunteers came together to celebrate the most powerful form of lifelong learning. Learning because it was an intellectual buffet of diverse views of contemporary and historical India. And fun because getting together physically after the ravages of Covid reminded us of the energy that comes from being in the same space with people who care about the same thing.
"Most of our sessions have historically been in English. The rhythm, imagery and metaphor of regional languages has yet to make its way in a rich manner into children's books, and this year we started to bring in Indian languages including Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, etc. through short performances throughout the two days. A future direction for us has to be moving to more work in Indian languages somehow," Sabharwal said.
"In a world where Google knows everything and our children will have 55-year careers (we will have 45 and our parents had 35), reading is probably the most powerful way to stay relevant, interesting, and smart," she maintained.
What are the plans for the future?
"We will continue to invest in this space, with the goal of growing the body of globally benchmarked stories about India and strengthening the community of book creators. We are questioning the status quo of why India's children are not reading beyond textbooks, the status quo of why the children's book market is so small, and whose role is it to change this? Is it parents? Is it platforms like us? Is it publishers? Is it authors? We need to work and collaborate together to change this status quo for the future of our children," Sabharwal concluded.