Neev Literature Festival: Nurturing a love of reading
Children and young adult readers enjoyed interacting with authors, illustrators, publishers, storytellers, and librarians from different parts of the country at the Neev Literature Festival in Bengaluru on September 24 and 25
If you are an adult who reminisces about growing up surrounded by books, you would have loved attending the Neev Literature Festival (NLF) in Bengaluru on September 24 and 25. The volume of Indian writing for children and young adults has grown, and it was magical to be immersed in it at the sprawling campus of Neev Academy, an international school in Yemalur, that has been hosting the event since 2017.
Co-founded by Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, Ameen Haque, Rasil Kaur Ahuja and Sneha Iype Verma, this year’s festival with its theme of “Reading takes you places” was celebrated with much fanfare as the last two editions were held online on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A variety of reading options exist for today’s children and young adults, so parents can no longer complain that India produces nothing other than retellings of folktales, myths and legends. Indian authors and illustrators enjoy a substantial fan following, which was evident from how excitedly fans queued up for autographs and selfies. Some toddlers even gasped with delight, telling their parents how thrilled they were to see their favourites in person.
In addition to authors and illustrators, the festival hosted publishers, storytellers, and librarians from different parts of the country. These speakers were programmed into a hectic itinerary at five different venues. There were panel discussions, masterclasses, interactive sessions, storytelling, and book readings. Audience members who wanted a break from intellectual nourishment could get some ice cream, run to the pizza truck, or relish dosas.
Festival attendees met author Devika Cariapa and illustrator Satwik Gade, who collaborated on a book about Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s elephant diplomacy, Paro Anand, author of a book of short stories set during the Covid-19 pandemic, drama-in-education practitioner Kapil Pandey, Samhita Arni who began writing and illustrating her first book at eight, and librarian Sujata Noronha.
The 60 speakers at the event included names like Sandhya Rao, Roopa Pai, Venita Coelho, Kripa B, Devangana Dash, Scharada Dubey, and Arefa Tehsin, among others. There were sessions on justice and tolerance, gender stereotypes, real-life heroes, and books dealing with identity and loss. Also discussed were local and national histories, the climate crisis, book cover design, narrative non-fiction, and using archival material to make biographies come alive. Other sessions focussed on the creation of editorial cartoons, using typography to convey emotions, developing a writing style, finding hope amidst helplessness, and the significance of community libraries.
There was much genuine cuteness on display. On the first day, when author and editor Bijal Vachharajani asked the audience why trees needed to be saved, a little girl raised her hand and said, “Because trees give us love!” On the second day, when illustrator Shrujana Shridhar was talking about fears, another little girl said, “When my monkey is scared, he hugs my teddy bear.” The illustrator asked her, “What do you do when you are scared?” The girl said nothing but enveloped her mother in a warm hug.
Author Anushka Ravishankar said she does not write books to “improve children” or “impart lessons”; she wants them to have fun when they read, which is why she gravitates towards the genre of nonsense verse. “I like to write stories that are quirky. Books don’t always have to be solemn and serious. I don’t like to assume that a child’s mind is an empty pot for me to fill,” she said.
Author Shabnam Minwalla struck a similar chord when she opened up about her transition from journalism to children’s literature. “I felt such a sense of relief because there was no pressure to change the world. I could just play with language, have fun, and share this joy with my readers. I don’t like to write books that are only about issues,” she said. Those who expect books to serve as moral guardians were probably scared out of their wits.
Conversations at the festival revealed that many authors feel pressured to write books that come with a message at the end – a sort of neat takeaway – because adults who make purchasing decisions expect learning outcomes. The book needs to be informative or educational in some way; reading for pleasure is seen as a waste of time. This is possibly true though sweeping generalizations cannot be made about all parents, some of whom were enthusiastically volunteering their time for the festival on a weekend. It was clear that they saw value in nurturing a love of books outside the curriculum.
The Neev Book Award (NBA), which carries a cash prize of one lakh rupees, was a key component of the festival. Awards were given out in four categories to “recognize outstanding writing that leads to a fuller understanding of India, Indian lives, and Indian stories.” The winning books were chosen from a long list of 148 titles submitted by 33 publishers. Mita Bordoloi and Tarique Aziz’s Bumoni’s Banana Trees got the Early Years award while Samina Mishra and Tarique Aziz’s Jamlo Walks won in the Emerging Readers category. Jane De Suza’s book When the World Went Dark won the Junior Readers award and Nandita Basu’s graphic novel Rain Must Fall won in the Young Adult category.
There was no entry fee and all the sessions were open to book lovers across age groups. It came as a surprise to see many adults devouring stories written for children and teenagers. As one of those adults, I was excited to meet kindred spirits who spoke animatedly about their favourite titles, and dashed from one venue to another. Many also went on a shopping spree at the festival’s Sahitya Santhe (Books Marketplace).
Author Andaleeb Wajid provided the most striking insight when she was asked about the representation of Muslim characters in her books: “I write from my lived reality but I don’t want to carry the responsibility of normalizing Muslim characters in Indian children’s fiction. I have never seen myself as the other; I see myself as part of the mainstream.”
Hopefully, future editions of NLF will continue to engage with the question of representation in children’s and young adult fiction vis a vis not only Muslims but other religious minorities and also sexual and gender minorities. As illustrator Satwik Gade pointed out, it might be a good idea to invite children and teenagers as discussants on panels since the festival believes in children’s agency in shaping their future. The festival seems to be moving in that direction with children as NBA Student Chairpersons.
The NLF felt like a coming together of a dedicated community of professionals interested in creating books, promoting reading, and upholding the power of the imagination in a world that can be depressing. As I was leaving the venue, my eyes were drawn to an Oscar Wilde poster with a quote from the poet-playwright: “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Indeed.
Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.