Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival: Carving Out a Path
There is much pleasure in spreading the joy of reading and reading for pleasure. Ask the people behind the pioneering 15-year-old children’s literature festival.
It was a chance announcement at an official conference of publishers, arts councils, writers and illustrators way back in August 2008 that triggered off a chain of events – and a commitment that has lasted a decade and a half – and counting. Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival hopes to carry on in that vein.
Going back two decades, the story starts in a tiny bookshop, Eureka!, that was India’s first children’s-books-only bookstore. Set up in 2003 in Chittaranjan Park and then moving to Alaknanda, the Delhi-based bookstore ran small sessions and events for children by inviting authors, storytellers and illustrators to meet children. The audience grew, but the size of the bookstore remained the same. At times, it required them to move the sessions to nearby parks or community centres. And so it continued for four years and a little more when it dawned that such sessions could be conducted on a larger scale and not disappoint the children who could not be accommodated for various reasons– ranging from the matching the right age to the right session and the paucity of space.
Once that idea was firmed up and announced at the conference mentioned above, the Who’s Who of the children’s book world stepped up to pitch in. Curious enquiries started coming in even before one could arrive back at the bookstore after the meeting. Everybody wanted to do something to help the festival to take off and take root.
The inaugural team included Urvashi Butalia, Anita Roy from Zubaan and Young Zubaan, Manisha Chaudhry of Pratham Books, authors Subhadra Sen Gupta (sadly, the pandemic took her away from us) and Anushka Ravishankar, Jo Williams from the Red House Children’s Book Awards, Swati Roy and Venkatesh of Eureka! and literary agent Mita Kapur. From a global point of view, Wendy Cooling, the founder of the Bookstart programme in the UK, stood staunchly by the festival travelling up and down from London and not missing a single year’s edition up until 2018 when cancer suddenly struck and two years later she left us.
Then and now…
So how has the mission evolved since the inception of the festival? “Now, we have many more publishers participating. We have moved from a single city in the first three years to 17 cities. We have added many more new voices to the list of speakers. Families as well as schools look forward to the dates and plan their year around it. More festivals have spawned across the country. Internationally, too, the kidlit community is aware of Bookaroo and a strong network has been created that helps us introduce speakers to Indian audiences,” says Swati Roy, co-founder of the festival, and managing trustee, Bookaroo Trust.
The programme curation…
“While planning, one of the first things is to find the right partners. Bookaroo is a Trust so having like-minded, invested-in-the-idea partners are essential. As for the content, having a bookstore is a huge bonus as it helps research genres for different age groups. Our team works closely with publishers, arts councils to work on the programme. Since the programme is arranged by age, we try and have different genres for each age group. We take into account the fact that different children have different tastes, even in reading,” explains Swati.
The jigsaw comes together
“It was a thrilling exercise putting everything together in less than 100 days,” recall co-founders Swati and Venkatesh. Publishers (both mainstream, independent and parallel, established as well as new), authors, illustrators, storytellers and arts councils of various countries, having realized the significance of such a festival, left no stone unturned to help make it a success.
All of it resulted in a resounding thumbs-up for Bookaroo’s very first edition in the pretty grounds of Sanskriti Anand Gram, an artists’ residency, in the south west corner of Delhi. The setting was festive, the interest was serious and the joy was infectious as 3,000 eager visitors strode in purposefully and stayed put for two days soaking in every session chosen with care for age appropriateness.
That unforgettable weekend set the tone for 43 editions to follow. Bookaroo is about many things for children From craft workshops to dramatized readings to art to walks and activities. Every session in the two-day festival is connected to a book that has been published. Bookaroo is not just about children. It is also about parents, teachers, librarians and anyone who has ever met or known a child.
“Funding,” says Swati, “is the biggest challenge. Reading for pleasure, that the festival advocates strongly, is under threat a lot these days. Life has become more competitive it would seem and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of myriad exams, competitions and activities. Digital interference in attention spans has affected the reading habits to some extent. The pandemic too took away vital years of the reading journey of many children. The continuity was broken, we feel, at times. While a lot of parents came back with renewed fervour after those dark years many also complained that the child’s interest in reading has reduced.”
Selecting authors, illustrators, and other participants…
Say Venkatesh and Swati, “In order to give a balanced measure of all genres we ensure that speakers are selected accordingly. We also try and have a representation of new voices in each edition. Language programming too is a certain percentage in our programme mix. We also do not repeat speakers in consecutive years.”
The festival’s appeal also probably lies in the fact that day-long sessions are held in a mix of outdoor and indoor spaces. Venues are curated with as much care as the age-appropriate sessions for every age group from the 4-year-old to the 14-year-old.
Pune’s Sambhaji Park, for instance, is also a public walking space. On Bookaroo Day, in its debut in that city, surprised morning walkers discovered a child-friendly space that did not interfere with their activities. Bookaroo Ahmedabad, on the other hand, was hosted in the modern architectural marvel that is the Mill Owners’ Building. Designed by the great Le Corbusier in 1954, it had ‘atmosphere’. In Goa, it was set amidst the expansive riverside grounds of Campal Garden.
In Jaipur, Bookaroo made its debut in the magnificent Jawahar Kala Kendra. The multi-arts centre, designed by Charles Correa, is inspired by the original city plan of Jaipur, consisting of nine squares with the central square left open. In Kolkata, the venue was none other than the historic Indian Museum. Known fondly by the locals as Jaadu Ghar, this museum with its imposing vaulted corridors and green quadrangles, was the perfect oasis for a children’s literature festival. Another interesting venue was Freedom Park, a jail-turned-public garden in Bengaluru while in Kohima it was split between the Raj Bhawan and the Heritage Bungalow atop a hill.
In Bhopal, one can’t imagine a grander venue than the lakeside Bharat Bhawan. In Vadodara, an century-old chemical factory now repurposed into an art district is home to Bookaroo. Seven of the 14 editions in Delhi were organised in the three-decade-old IGNCA. That sanctuary in the middle of the bustling metropolis has now sadly been demolished. This year, the Delhi edition was set in the salubrious environs of Sunder Nursery, a UNESCO heritage site.
Bookaroo’s 16-city repertoire also includes one abroad. The festival’s only global port of call was Kuching in Malaysia. For three years, Kuching celebrated Bookaroo in Pustaka Negeri, the Sarawak State Library. Built around a lake, Pustaka is a dream library space as well as a dream destination for a literature festival. Plans are in the offing to take the festival to other cities in south and south east Asia.
There must be many memorable moments that stand out looking back on the 15 years of Bookaroo. Swati and Venkatesh say there are many but some of the more memorable ones would be the example of children who have attended Bookaroo over the years apply for volunteering once they outgrow Bookaroo to relive their moments. “Then there was one time when the Kolkata edition got washed out because of a cyclone. But the speakers performed/spoke even for one sole child in the audience. This was very heartening to see. In 2015 we went through a series of personal bereavements. It really looked tough to cope but the kidlit community came together to raise money to ensure the chain was not broken,” says Swati.
Bookaroo’s outreach programme, Bookaroo in the City, predominantly goes to children in under-served institutions who cannot come to the main festival. This year, 25 storytellers went to 19 institutions, some of which host children with special needs, the visually and hearing impaired as well as those taking care of street children.
“The one thing that we have maintained right from its inception is to have the festival non-ticketed. The venue chosen is also accessible for all. Bookaroo in the City covers a lot of schools and institutions that work with underprivileged children. Invitations go out to all at the time of the session as well as after and we do have a fair number of them visit the main festival too,” say Swati and Venkatesh.
Six years ago, on a January morning, there came a mail from the organisers of the London Book Fair informing the Bookaroo team that the festival had been shortlisted at The London Book Fair International Excellence Awards 2017 for The Literary Festival Award. Along with it came an invite to attend the awards ceremony in London a couple of months later. As it happened, the festival emerged winner.
So, what exactly does Bookaroo mean?
“In a nutshell it means books are fun. It also means spreading the joy of reading and reading for pleasure locally, regionally and globally. Producing a festival at this scale – Delhi witnesses an average of 10,000 visitors while the other cities attract around five to seven thousand each –year after year has its own challenges. It can get unstuck even if the tiniest thing goes wrong,” share Swati and Venkatesh.
“We wish to spread to many more cities, especially Tier 2. The idea is also to create an institution that will serve as a template and example for others to follow. As far as initiatives are concerned, each new book is like a new initiative. The planning that goes into how to curate the session to make it interesting is like a project for us. Yes, we do have a few more plans this year. We will reveal in time. What matters is that the festival has been fortunate enough to be loved by children everywhere,” sign off Swati and Venkatesh.