The winners of the Neev Book Awards 2020, given to children’s literature in India, have been announced. A winner has been named in each of the four categories – Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adults. Part of the Neev Literature Festival, the awards have been running for four years now.

Here are the winners for 2020, along with short excerpts. They were chosen by a jury comprising four educators – Colin Kelman, Anuradha Ruhil Barua, Dhooleka Raj, and Myra Garces-Bacsal – three writers – Rasil Ahuja, Gita Vardarajan, and Kamakshi Murti, and two teacher-librarians – Katie Day and Nadine Bailey.

Early Years: Ammu and the Sparrows, Vinitha R, Pratham Books

Emerging Readers: The Miracle on Sunderbaag Street, Nandita da Cunha, Kalpavriksh

Publisher’s blurb:

Young Zara sits alone every evening, in a dump yard on Sunderbaag Street. One day, Miss Gappi plants an idea in Zara’s mind. This sets them off on a mission that changes Zara’s life… and the lives of many who live on Sunderbaag Street.

Junior Readers: The Adventures of the Kohinoor, Devika Cariapa, William Dalrymple, Anita Anand, Juggernaut Books

(Devika Cariapa has adapted the original book for grown-ups by Dalrymple and Anand to make a children’s version).

If the maharaja was frightened, he didn’t show it. Ten-year-old Duleep Singh looked every inch a king as he stepped into the dazzling Shish Mahal, the throne room of the great Lahore fort. But as the serious-looking men in red coats and plumed hats surrounded him, he gripped the hilt of his jewelled sword tightly to stop his hands from shaking.

Words from their strange language floated above his head as he looked around desperately for a familiar face. Perhaps a brief nod from someone to tell him that he was doing the right thing.

But he found himself quite alone. His father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was dead. As were his half-brothers. His mother, Rani Jindan Kaur, had been taken away and locked up in a palace outside the city. The few remaining nobles of the Sikh court watched in grim silence. The red-coated men now smiled and nodded encouragingly as the boy walked to a desk.

29 March 1849. The Treaty of Lahore awaited the signature of the young maharaja. The independent Sikh kingdom of Punjab was being handed over to the East India Company.

This private British trading corporation had recently become very wealthy by helping itself to large chunks of Indian territory. To aid them was an army twice the size of Britain’s. They had been eyeing the kingdom of Punjab for many years. But it was only after the death of the powerful Maharaja Ranjit Singh that they had their chance.

Power struggles within the royal family, poisonings, brutal assassinations and finally two fiercely fought wars had led to this point. The young Duleep Singh, isolated from family and without any trusted advisers, gave in to the intense pressure on him. Great swathes of some of the richest lands in India were now signed over to the Company.

And there was something else. Something that those ‘red coats’ wanted above all else. The single most valuable object not just in Punjab but possibly in the whole of India.

Tucked away somewhere in the pages of the treaty that Duleep Singh was shakily signing were the words “The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken away from Shah Shooja ool-Moolk by Maharaja Runjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharaja of Lahore...”

Young Adult: Oonga, Devashish Makhija, Tulika

Oonga scurries to the peepal tree and scampers up its side like a squirrel. He stops at a low branch, wonders if he should settle down here. But then he changes his mind and climbs higher, to the highest branch that will bear his weight. From here he has a clear, uninterrupted view of the horizon. He’ll be the first to spot Hemla didi and her cycle. The only creature that might spot her before him will be the eagle. So he looks up into the sky above the treetop and tells the eagle to let him know if she spots Hemla didi.

The only eagle circling the treetop must have heard little Oonga’s plea, because she breaks her circling and soars higher and higher till she dissolves into the midday sun.

The hot black road glistens in the blinding white sun, its tar melting in some places. Hemla cycles carefully, watching out for the sticky spots. If her cycle tyre hits a single one of them she’ll have to walk back to Oonga. By the time she reached him on foot the sun would have set. And she can’t afford to break her favourite little man’s heart all over again.

One part of her is angry. At the contractor who was given charge of making this stretch of road. She knows him to be a corrupt man. Like most of his kind. If the tar had been of good quality this road wouldn’t be in this state. In fact when this road was kuchcha it was a lot sturdier. The locals know how to make pathways that last them years. But these contractors, they get sent in by those money-guzzlers, and decide that anything kuchcha needs to be made pukka, no matter how useful or not it may turn out to be.

How can I ever convince the adivasis that they must be open to the idea of development, if this is what they get in the name of it? thinks Hemla, a cloud of worry starting to descend upon her all over again.

So lost in her own worrisome thoughts is she that Hemla does not notice a dusty jeep lying in wait off the side of the road. It sits there – a hunting beast made of cold metal – as still as the hot thick air in these parts, as if waiting for its prey to amble by unsuspectingly.

This is the last stretch of pukka road before Hemla needs to turn off into the jungle pathway. She can see the jungle trees up ahead. The shade they promise is inviting. The kuchcha pathways of the forest may be bumpy but the softness of the dirt and the cool of the shade and the absence of noise more than make up for the bumpy ride.

In her eagerness to dive into the forest once again, Hemla starts to pedal faster. She doesn’t notice the high-pitched rumble of the jeep as it drives past her and slows down. And just as she’s about to pass it again, it swerves sharply into her path. Hemla screeches to a halt, hops off her seat. She’s not sure why but she’s unwilling to engage with whoever might emerge from that jeep. Today she must get to Oonga at any cost.

She holds her handlebar and walks briskly with her cycle, hurrying towards the trees. As the jeep shudders and dies, it coughs out two men. Their uniforms have the same camouflage print as the CRPF soldier Hemla saw just a little while ago. She tries her best to walk past their enquiring gaze, but the older of the two strides up behind her, grabs her cycle carrier, and she’s forced to stop. The younger one hurries over to block her path.

Pradip pulls the carrier clamp open and slides out a package. Covered in postage stamps, this parcel has clearly travelled a long way to reach Hemla. Pradip reads her name on it, “Hemla Mandingi.” Hemla is quiet, her face shuttered. “That’s you, right?” Pradip asks, in Hindi.

“Yes, why?” asks Hemla, starting to get very uncomfortable.

“Take that radio off you and get in the jeep,” Pradip says, and reaches to grab Hemla’s elbow.

Hemla shrugs his hand off, demands to know, “Why? What have I done?”

Pradip is in no mood to chat. “Ask the sahib when you meet him,” he snarls, and tries to pull her transistor radio off her shoulder.

Hemla jerks her arm away, almost stumbling. “Show me a warrant first,” she shouts defiantly.

Pradip looks at her, incredulous, scoffs, grabs her elbow hard, rips the radio off its strap, tosses it to the ground, and tugs her towards the jeep. Sushil has been holding onto the cycle by the handlebar all this while. He looks a little perturbed by all of this. He watches Pradip jostle with Hemla and shove her into the back of the jeep. Sushil quickly wheels the cycle off the road and allows it to clatter into a ditch by the side. He clambers into the back of the jeep as Pradip starts the engine in the front.