A Book for Every Child
The founders of Bookaroo festival have a vision: to make books part of children's lives again
Last year, the Bookaroo Festival of Children's Literature was looking at the prospect of a year without sponsors. "Running it is a costly affair. And then demonetization hit us," recalls M. Venkatesh, who along with Swati Roy and Jo Williams is one of the co-founders of India's only large-scale children's fest.
When the principal sponsor, a major newspaper, pulled out after years of association, they were determined to go ahead regardless. Bookaroo opened up to crowdfunding with donations starting at Rs 500 and, as the word spread, smaller sponsorships trickled in. With publishers and readers pulling together, Bookaroo was back! In fact, it was the first children's festival to win the International Excellence Award at the London Book Fair, 2017.
As I sit with Swati, Venkatesh, and Jo (on Skype, from the UK) one spring evening in Delhi, I'm struck by their unique brand of humour, optimism and zeal. Swati and Venkatesh were colleagues whose love for reading, especially children's literature, led them to set up Eureka, a beloved children's bookstore in south Delhi. In 2007, Jo joined them in their mission. "I had just moved to India, and read about their bookstore. Having organized the Red House Children's Book Award back home, I was drawn to it," she recalls. After organizing readings and workshops in the bookstore, they realized the need for a larger children's book event. "The festival was a logical extension of all the smaller related activities we had been doing till then. We had been discussing the idea of scaling up to reach out to more children and, while considering formats, the ambience that Hay [Festival in the UK] offered appealed to us. There were worries about us being first-timers, if there was an audience for this, not to mention sponsorship," says Swati. Fed up with the naysayers, Venkatesh announced the festival at a gathering of children's book publishers in 2008. "That stunned everybody," she remembers. It was already August.
Serendipity is a cornerstone of the Bookaroo story-like how they found their first venue. Jo lived in Chhatarpur then and stumbled upon Sanskriti Foundation in her neighbourhood. The first edition of the event was held in 2008 with 37 authors and there were 3,000 walk-ins! Year-on-year, the festival grew until they needed to shift to the larger Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts to accommodate the 5,000 plus visitors every day.
The Bookaroo founders always wanted their festival to be a family event, with no bussing in of children with schoolteachers in tow. "Once families see other families enjoying and reading together, exploring new kinds of children's literature, experiencing the storytelling, puppetry, craft, painting, mathematics and creative writing workshops, and then buying the books, the chances of those books becoming a part of children's lives is higher," says Swati.
This is central to the mission of Bookaroo: "We believe that there's a book for every child, and it is our goal to help them discover it by offering a programme which showcases a mix of fiction, non-fiction, art, mythology, science, environment and wildlife. We consciously invite both established and debut writers, illustrators and storytellers, in English and other languages," Jo adds.
The festival is now an annual fixture in the capital's cultural calendar, with speakers like activist Harsh Mander and Stephen Hawking's daughter Lucy, a children's novelist. Indeed, some of the first Eureka book buyers are now volunteers, authors and journalists intimately involved with the festival. "We have seen these children grow up. They would bring their friends [to the bookstore] and tell them, 'This is where I heard my first story'. The 'Little Princes' of then are now strapping teenagers and young adults," Swati says with a smile.
As the festival grew, it migrated to other cities. Again, chance was a factor. Jo ran into the administrators of Delhi Public School, Srinagar, at a children's workshop. They asked her if Bookaroo was willing to organize a similar event in Srinagar. She agreed immediately, and in 2011, they landed in Kashmir. "This was the first time we were moving out of Delhi. And our initial nervousness notwithstanding, the teachers and students enthusiastically helped set it up, painting and decorating the venue despite it being a 'first' for them. Children just loved the idea," says Swati. Local artists, storytellers and folk singers were also part of it. After three successful years, Bookaroo could not go back after 2014. The reasons ranged from elections being held to the unprecedented rains that badly damaged infrastructure. "But we've been asked to come back this year and we definitely will," says Venkatesh.
The festival travels to Kolkata, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Pune, Panaji, Srinagar and Kuching, Malaysia. "Our regional contacts are crucial to getting permissions, securing locations and introducing us to local sponsors," says Venkatesh, who shoulders the financial responsibilities.
Children everywhere form a strong attachment to the festival. Swati recalls a mother requesting her to convince her daughter that the Jaipur Bookaroo was over. The girl had refused to leave, insisting on checking out each session and stall, with her exhausted parents in tow.
Bookaroo, together with authors and children, has charted the evolution of children's book publishing in India. This was where 'dastan bachpan ki', the dastangoi-style of storytelling for children, debuted. Now, more books are written on contemporary topics and publishers have embraced the genres of young adult and contemporary retelling of mythology through picture books. Bookaroo also runs an outreach programme in schools in under-served, under-privileged and special-needs communities, with authors and illustrators.
Energized by their win in London, and powered by the hard work of volunteers and supportive publishers and literary institutions, the Bookaroo team is putting together the 10th edition of the Delhi festival. As Swati puts it, "This recognition will spur us on to continue making stories come alive for children of all ages."