It is always difficult to put your finger on exactly when something changed your life. Ask someone to identify their defining moment of the year and the answer would be connected to an event or series of events, the date just a vague blur. But for us at Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, the defining moment of 2020 that somehow remains etched in the mind is March 5.
On that day, two text messages showed up on my mobile screen in quick succession in the middle of the morning. “Hi, can we get on a call today please? It’s urgent,” read the first. And the second one just had a query: “You heard the news?” followed by a terse “We need to talk.” Thousands of similar such messages must have been circulating all over the world around that time. The two messages just confirmed that what had begun the world over had come closer home.
From February 24 onwards, news had been drifting in about several marquee book industry events being deferred or cancelled. The Paris, Leipzig and London Book Fairs were among the first to be axed (the last one holds fond memories for Bookaroo as it had won the LBF International Excellence Award in the Literary Festival category there three years ago). Worse news was to follow. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair that had been initially postponed from March to May was cancelled too. The contagion of deferrals and cancellations spread like wildfire thereafter.
Those two text messages had been sent by two of our collaborators for Bookaroo events slated for mid-March and late March-early April. Later that day, when we met, it became clear that the number of positive cases of Covid-19 was set to shoot up in the coming months. The indications from government sources as well as the public health advisories pointed to an immediate closure of schools, cinemas and other public spaces up to March 31.
Concerned about the threat to the health and well-being of all our stakeholders – the speakers, the children, the collaborators, the festival team – we postponed both events. The expectation was that this would blow over and one could look at new dates in April. However, the rampaging coronavirus has well and truly stymied us, altered lives forever and impacted everyone across the board. Children’s literature festivals are no exception.
Doom and gloom
A children’s literature festival needs children. Period. Like many other children’s literature festivals, Bookaroo is an open-air festival where we let children be and choose the programmes they want to attend. The Bookaroo weekend is a family event. Bookaroo is also a much-travelled literature festival – it has been to 16 cities with 36 editions up until 2019 – and the pandemic delivered a multiple whammy. Other children’s literature festivals across the world were not immune either. Many realised that a wait-and-watch approach had to be abandoned for a move-and-adapt-now approach.
The hardest hit were cultural events in the European nations, where summer time is “open season” for book fairs and literature festivals. This year, it is going to be a quiet summer but the disquiet is palpable. The list of cancellations now includes the biggies – the Edinburgh International Book Festival (originally scheduled for August), Hay Literature Festival (originally scheduled for May), the Oxford Literary Festival (scheduled for March-April), and the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival (28-29 March).
In the US, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (scheduled for April) has been postponed to October. In Canada, Hamilton’s prestigious gritLITFestival announced in early May that they would host a scaled-down version of the event online. In Asia, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (scheduled for mid-April) has been cancelled, and so has Australia’s headline literary event, the Sydney Writers Festival (scheduled for April-May; it has a very good children’s section too).
It is not just the literature festivals. Other book-related events too preferred to take a watchful stand. For instance, the announcement of the International Booker Prize Winner has been moved from May to “sometime in the summer”. Those who were willing to wait had to give in to the situation.
The Barnes Children’s Literature Festival, which was to take place from June 9 to 14, remained hopeful of the event happening as per schedule. Billed as London’s largest dedicated children’s literature festival, it finally had to adhere to the government lockdown restrictions. Amanda J Brettargh, director of the festival, said, “It breaks our hearts to say that we are going to have to reschedule this year. We have not thrown in the towel here and we are not cancelled, we have just popped ourselves on pause while we try and sort out some new dates for later in the year.” Others like the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, scheduled for late September, are still hoping they don’t have to reschedule.
Literature festival organisers in India probably have the comfort of knowing that there is a buffer of five or six months by which time things might be normalised. With Covid-19, however, nothing is certain. There is no doubt that the literary festival community is entering uncharted territory, where it has to tread gently and warily. The question on every literature festival team’s mind is: Can we go on bringing readers and writers together in an increasingly socially distant world?
Taking a long count
In India, late autumn and winter is when most children’s literature festivals in India flower. And that has mainly to do with the weather. There is a four-month window beginning October which most of our festivals are crunched into. But since plans for these are made very early on, festivals have had to factor in the uncertainty.
It is particularly disconcerting for new festivals. The Vizag Junior Literary Festival (VJLF) is one such new literary kid on the block. Andhra Pradesh’s first children’s literature festival, VJLF kicked off proceedings in 2018 but has made a name for itself in just two years. Its setting is the Hawa Mahal, a prominent 100-year-old beach-side mansion that was a summer house for the royal family of Jeypore (Odisha) and has played host to luminaries like Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad,”
“With such uncertain times ahead, it is difficult to even arrive at an alternative date,” admitted Priya Gopalakrishnan, organiser of VJLF, who is clear about the festival adopting a safety-first approach. “This year, with the economy affected, the prospects of securing sponsorship too looks bleak. We are likely to wait it out until a new level of normalcy is in place.”
Mumbai-based Peek a Book Literature Festival for Children, which has been scheduled for the first Saturday of December, has left the door open. It will take a call in August or September if the situation does not stabilise.
The Bangalore-based Neev Literature Festival has pencilled in the last weekend of September for its fourth edition.cEstablished three years ago, the festival prides itself on taking children’s literature “seriously”. It is held on the Neev Academy’s premises, unlike Bookaroo and VJLF, which are held in non-school venues. Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, the brain behind Neev, said that while online experiences “have helped us cope with this cataclysm that is Covid-19, the energy, intimacy and inspiration of physical events is hard to replicate. I am hoping for a return to normalcy that will allow us to safely have NLF2020.”
Call to action
In ordinary circumstances, a host of external factors – funding, speaker availability, publisher support, local permissions, weather and so on – dictate whether a children’s literature festival can get off the ground. With the ominous Covid-19 cloud hanging over everyone’s heads, newer factors and obstacles have started presenting themselves in an alarming manner.
Is it safe to have children milling about the festival premises not knowing what’s in store? Will speakers want to travel to the festival, especially those from other cities? Sponsorship, even at the best of times, has always been a bane of children’s literature festivals. With the economy in a shambles, this vital source of funds has probably been shut off at the tap. A literature festival depends heavily on an army of young volunteers, who work invisibly to seamlessly pull off a logistical exercise that is mind-boggling. Now, with the fear of a virus at the back of their – and their parents’ – minds, will they jump in with the same enthusiasm?
Gopalakrishnan of VJLF feels that on-ground events can be an option only when public confidence has been fully restored in travel and visiting crowded spaces. Bookaroo, meanwhile, has decided to postpone its Srinagar (scheduled for October 10-11), Varanasi (October 31-November 1) and Baroda (December 19-20) editions. The flagship Delhi edition, slated for the last weekend of November,is scheduled togo ahead as planned. We are keeping our fingers crossed. So are our many supporters and admirers in the industry.
Is it all right to roll over and wait patiently for oblivion to take over? Not really. Digital channels offer numerous possibilities as a virtual replacement for the physical festival. Even though there is an uneasy feeling everywhere that it is the game that is controlling us and not the other way around, digital reach seems to be working its magic.
It is downright cruel to keep children indoors all day long for what seems like eternity. Covid-19 did not give anyone a choice. Cooped up in the house, they have had to deal with online lessons. Even when those are out of the way, there is only so much television that children can watch, so many indoor games that they can play and so many books that they can read. To their credit, the children’s books publishers and almost everyone else connected with children’s literature have risen to the occasion. Interactive Facebook Live sessions with authors, illustrators and storytellers have kept children entertained.
But can this be extended to a book festival for children? After eleven years in the business, Bookaroo has just begun experimenting in the digital arena with virtual author visits to schools. The first few author-student-school interactions have turned out to be interesting. We also launched the BookarooLitHouse online, which offers paid sessions for children by age group and genre. The BookarooLitHouse’s virtual rooms (the Story Room, the Art Room, the Craft Room and the Writing Room) on www.bookaroo.in showcase options that parents can choose for their child, after which they are required to log in for an online video session on a schedule date. As for a full-fledged online festival, we feel it is possible.
Other children’s literature festivals too are open to exploring digital. “I think this is a great opportunity to develop innovative events in the digital space and we are surely exploring those,” said Lubaina Bandukwala, founder of the Mumbai-based Peek a Book Literature Festival for Children. “There is the added advantage of wider audiences and creating unique audio-visual experiences. In these two months many online platforms have come up that can be used by the festivals.”
However, she feels that digital is no match for the physical litfest, which are places where readers get to meet authors, Illustrators and the creators of books – places that spark conversations, allow children to build relationships with authors and discover books they may not get to hear of elsewhere. VJLF is perhaps the one children’s festival that is yet to consider the digital route.
Barnes in the UK too has its digital plans ready. “We are working on a programme of free virtual ‘events’ for both days of what would have been our actual weekend (June 13 and 14th), which would have been the birthday of our beloved Barnes resident, the children’s literature legend, Judith Kerr,” said Brettargh.
Kerr, who lived in Barnes for over 60 years, died in May 2019. She was one of the UK’s most beloved children’s authors, selling more than a million copies of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. This year’s programme featured a number of very special events to celebrate her lifetime, and Barnes will be attempting to recreate some of those online, as well as having events featuring other children’s book writers.
Going digital could also mean saving on costs such as travel, accommodation and set up. But it also means successfully pulling off an event on a relatively unknown platform. Not everyone can recreate a literature festival online as spectacularly as My VLF, a global virtual literary festival that connects authors with readers. This is how Bookseller magazine describes it: “Designed to overcome barriers to participation – such as a lack of time, money or ability to travel – the platform helps authors and readers connect, and is inclusive, free and accessible to all. With author interviews, live chats, a monthly book group and a virtual exhibition hall, MY VLF offers opportunities for writers to market their books and connect with their audience.”
Such initiatives need the support of government and cultural organisations that promote literature. Unfortunately, such support is difficult to come by in India. In its absence, children’s literature festivals have to resort to a mix of ticketing and sponsorship to meet the major costs, although the former is not a popular choice with Indian litfests.
Year to the ground
When it comes to ticketing, children’s literature festivals in India are mostly free. Some, like Peek a Book, are ticketed since they believe there is a value to book events and the amount raised helps with some of the expenditure. Neev and VJLF do not charge an entry fee. At Bookaroo, we work on the premise that the festival should be accessible to all.
When Bookaroo’s outreach programme, Bookaroo in the City, visits under-served schools, it encourages the heads of those schools to bring their children to the main festival. A ticketed event defeats that purpose. Each festival, therefore, has to depend on sponsorship, donations and rent from stall spaces leased out. Those purse strings do not look like they are loosening anytime soon.
This is the one big factor that will decide the fate of a children’s literary festival. Literature festivals for adults have more options when it comes to sponsorships, as there is an array of diverse products and brands that are willing to invest in them.
Globally, ticketing is an accepted revenue model for children’s litfests. For instance, 90 per cent of Barnes’ revenue comes from ticket sales. “So that is clearly our most serious issue and for every festival that has been cancelled this year,” pointed out Brettargh. “We are only able to survive at all because Barnes is the only top tier festival in the UK that is entirely organised and delivered by unpaid volunteers, and none of us receives any payment for our time or contributions.”
Bandukwala feels that it is harder to put up a children’s litfest than anything for adults. There are more sponsors for everything else except kid lit. “I feel that smaller events have a better chance of surviving this year since they work with fewer people.Social distancing requirements for smaller numbers might actually work in their favour. But maybe one will have to rethink the kind of sessions one does; scale it down a bit and ride this year out.”
These are trying times. However, despite the despair all around, hope floats. Bookaroo too would like to add some cheer. The later part of the year is when, experts predict, the world will be well into the healing phase. That is why we decided to stick to tradition and have the festival in the last weekend of November.
There are theories about a second wave of Covid-19 that will come rolling in when winter sets in. The challenge, if that happens, will be to move nimbly, manage expenditure, be able to wrap up things, and step back with minimum financial damage. That is one side of us speaking. The other says that this is not the time for thinking of money, this is the time for healing.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.