LITERATURE FESTIVALS

What did it take India’s Bookaroo to win a global award for best literature festival?

‘Children’s literature festivals don’t work on star power or provocative debates.’

Over nine years of its existence, Bookaroo, India’s own festival of children’s literature, has not only held it own against the heavyweights of Indian literature festivals, it has just achieved what none of the others has. On Tuesday, March 16, Bookaroo won the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair International Excellence awards. Excerpts from a collective interview with the three-member team behind Bookaroo: Swati Roy, Jo Williams, and Venkatesh M Swamy.

From a festival that was forced to resort to crowdfunding as recently as 2015 to becoming the only children’s festival to have won the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair International Excellence awards, it’s obviously been an extraordinary ride for Bookaroo. Tell us about the journey so far.
It has been a phenomenal journey with its fair share of twists, turns and challenges, ranging from unpredictable sponsors to even more unpredictable weather. Even without any guaranteed sponsorship, Bookaroo has travelled from one city in 2008 to seven cities in India and one in Malaysia. Building a community of readers, writers, illustrators, poets, storytellers and well-wishers across continents has brought its own rewards. The award is an affirmation of our mission.

Venkatesh, you come from journalism. Swati, you’re a former marketing professional. Jo, you were one of the people behind the Red House Children’s Book award. Quite an eclectic set of people to become the founders of a children’s literature festival. How do your skills and experiences complement one another’s?
We all share the same deep-rooted commitment to make books come alive for each and every child, and are willing to go that extra mile to make this happen. Although we come from different professional backgrounds, we all made a choice to work in the field of children’s books. Swati and Venkatesh set up Eureka, the first children’s bookstore in Delhi, while Jo had also worked in a children’s bookstore in the UK.

What are the unique challenges of running a children’s festival in India?
Overcoming the scepticism that a standalone family literature event for children could ever succeed without having schools send busloads of children is a constant battle. Reading for pleasure has lost its appeal in India in recent times, so changing that mindset has been, and continues to be, a challenge.

Unlike adult festivals where only genres have to be taken into account, we have to consider the ages of the children carefully for a balanced programme. Securing funding is an issue for all festivals, but a children’s literature festival is even less attractive. And it’s always a challenge to ensure that a children’s literature festival remains true to its objective and does not become a circus.

I have seen Bookaroo highlighted in publishing companies’ marketing plans for children’s authors. Some publishers even bring out their titles at the same time as the festival. Yet, children’s publishing – at least of the trade variety – remains very small with conservative print runs and ambitions. Some multinationals and leading independent publishers don’t even have a children’s list. Why do you think this is the case?
This is actually a question for publishers. It is generally accepted that children’s books are given neither the recognition they deserve nor the budget they need for promotion.

The scenario is even worse for tween and young adult books. The target audience seem to be led by the West. Reading a book by a foreign writer, thus, becomes an extension of watching foreign films and shows. Your thoughts?
Overall this is true, partly because until quite recently there has been a dearth of contemporary fiction by Indian writers for these age groups.

Do children from different cities and even countries where Bookaroo has been held come with different sensibilities?
Of course children from each state and each country have different experiences, backgrounds and languages, which we take into consideration when curating the programme.

Who have been the biggest draws at Bookaroo? Do children warm up to local first-time writers, or do they still hanker after big names and foreign writers?
Names and nationalities do not matter to children, it is the connection that the speaker establishes with his audience which counts.

Bookaroo doesn’t seem to be getting much patronage from big corporate brands. Could this be because of the lack of star power, or the lack of potential for provocative debates around burning issues? What are the opportunities for contemporising a children’s book festival?
When it comes to sponsorships from companies or brands, a children’s literature festival is dependent neither upon star power nor provocative debates. Moreover, Bookaroo is a festival which deals with contemporary issues quite extensively. Any attempt to compare the quantum of sponsorship received by adult literature festivals with that received by a children’s literature festival is like comparing apples with pears.

How big are children’s book festivals outside India?
There aren’t too many literature festivals dedicated exclusively to children. As we have not attended any, we cannot comment on their size.

Like the Jaipur Literature Festival did, Bookaroo too has spawned other children’s literary festivals in the country.
Yes it has, several.

Do you see things becoming easier after this recognition? Do you plan to take Bookaroo to the UK, US and other foreign countries?
We hope that the award and the recognition which it brings will help in our search for funding. At the moment we are looking to take Bookaroo to other Asian countries.

Do you have plans for diversification?
Watch this space!

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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