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Bookaroo turns 10

Happy space: Puppetry with the Haiku Wall as backdrop, from the 2012 edition.

Happy space: Puppetry with the Haiku Wall as backdrop, from the 2012 edition.  

Bookaroo, the children’s literature fest, is 10 years old. And way past the tantrum stage

Ten is an awkward age. You’re past the tantrum-throwing preschool years, but you’re not quite an adolescent, so you don’t get to slam doors and negotiate money and media. Somehow though, Swati Roy and Venkatesh Swamy do 10 years of Bookaroo well. The children’s literature fest, India’s first, started in 2008, when publishing for the 4-14-year-old age group in India was just coming into its own.

The seed of Bookaroo was sown at Eureka!, a children’s-only bookstore (now shut down) that Roy and Swamy had begun as a little ground-floor venture in 2004, in Delhi’s residential C.R. Park. Roy would painstakingly put together library lists for schools, ‘return gifts’ for birthday parties, and advise any child who walked in asking for help on what to read next. They soon moved to a more commercial space, where, one day, in walked Jo Williams.

Play and read

She’d been on the team of a children’s book award back in the U.K., and worked with a kids’ bookstore. They chatted for hours, did a few events together, and that’s where the ‘rough draft’ of a children’s book festival was tossed across the table. “We put together a wish list of people we wanted,” says Roy. The publishers were thrilled and said they’d support them by bringing in speakers from all over.

Today, they’ve worked with 35 to 38 publishers and art counsels, with close to 600 authors, illustrators, and storytellers. Remembering their first year, Roy says, “We wondered: ‘Who will come?’ ‘Will anyone be interested?’ We wanted families, so we tapped into the 4,500-strong Eureka! database.” They aimed for 500 people in the first year and got 3,000. Williams put up a few authors; international cultural councils stepped in. Money didn’t come easy: every year is still a struggle, with no long-term sponsorship commitment from any brand yet.

They chose the venue much like they made their other decisions — on gut feeling, and with a commitment to the joy of reading — when Williams once walked into Anand Gram in a green Delhi suburb, took one look at the large banyan there, and immediately called Roy and Swamy. It became the Kahani tree.

While the venue of the festival is fixed now at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the Kahani tree, with large durries spread underneath, is still the place for young children to listen to authors telling tales. Sometimes, they’ll just play in the mud, or draw.

An outreach programme, called ‘Bookaroo in the City’ began, taking authors to schools, chiefly schools for the underserved. The goodwill generated through all their programmes is what has sustained Bookaroo.

Last year, the trio won the Literary Festival of the Year trophy at the London Book Fair International Excellence awards. “We lost the money we’d put aside for our travel,” says Swamy. But when they arrived in London, they were overwhelmed. Authors, illustrators, anyone whose lives they’d touched, trudged across town to meet them, drive them around, take them to tea.

Today, they take the festival to 11 cities across India, including Srinagar, and have a presence in Malaysia too. Each event is divided, much like any other literary festival, into different spaces, catering to various age groups, and spread out across all the elements of enjoying a book, with an illustrations gallery and workshops: storytelling sessions (with parallel sign-language sessions), writing workshops, meeting the author, book signing, shopping, and much more.

“We don’t ‘teach’ children how to read; nor do we ‘inculcate’ the reading habit,” says Swamy. The thrust is always this: books are fun, and Bookaroo is just a key to enjoying them. On a sunny lawn, with birds chirping, a milkshake in hand, it’s just the space to do it.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 11:06:16 PM |

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