How Neev Literature Festival’s celebration of children’s books has become its own success story

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There is a silent literary revolution brewing in a tiny corner of Bengaluru.

Bellandur, known infamously for its frothing lake is also home to Neev Academy – a place largely responsible for the sudden rise in interest in Indian children’s literature. Over the past seven years, Neev Academy has been silently championing Indian children’s literature through the two-day Neev Literature Fest (NLF). A largely self-sponsored fest, Neev Academy has been responsible for bringing together all stakeholders in the Indian children’s literature world and facilitating the symbiotic relationship between creators and readers.

As I walked through the gates of the Academy, I expected to see a few tables, maybe one room with masterclasses, and a few families milling around. I could not have been more wrong. There were four separate outdoor venues for panel discussions, book launches, book readings, and performances. First floor classrooms for masterclasses, and an entire section dedicated to book sales and book signings. On the first day, there were more than 3,000 people studiously looking at the exhaustive list of sessions and marking what they wanted to attend. There was the hum of book conversation in the air and smiles all around when children spotted their favourite authors and saw the perfect opportunity for a quick picture!

The theme of the Neev Literature Festival 2023 was, ‘What’s Childhood Without Stories?’

What is childhood without stories?

Award-winning author Venita Coelho said, “We may not always remember the maths and algebra, but we will always remember the stories we read in school.” Performance artist and storyteller Kapil Pandey agreed, “Everything that has become a memory or a learning is because of stories. They are powerful, they help you reflect, they question your worldview, they are very important.” Robin Page, author of international bestsellers, said, “Our books and stories try to excite a child into thinking about their surroundings and their environment and to encourage a child to be curious and ask questions.”

With this theme, the aim was to create a space with ideas for children so that they could witness and learn from writers, publishers, storytellers, and educators and give them a platform to discuss the issues that matter to children today. Today’s childhood stories aren’t just about idyllic picnic lunches under majestic trees or fantastical creatures in faraway lands. It is also about climate change, questions about gender, artificial intelligence and robotics, and possible trips to other planets. The festival thus became the perfect stage for all stakeholders to have these conversations with children through books, masterclasses, and panel discussions.

“Having gone through the pandemic, with AI coming, with so much information that children receive, we thought we should expand the ambit of the festival,” said Karthika Gopalkrishnan, the director of the Neev Literature Festival. “So we thought it would be nice to bring in serious conversations on parenting, sessions for educators, and aspects like AI, get psychologists who have written on mental health, and have them have discussions with writers who have written on similar themes. Because we wanted a larger view of childhood, we were looking at the core of our messaging being stories, but to add more to it with stuff that impacts children’s lives today. So that’s how What’s Childhood Without Stories came about.”

The festival did in fact have something for everyone. For the very young, there were 15-minute book readings where authors had them laughing out loud. There were also 10-minute performances by Goshtarang where kids danced and sang along. For the curious young writers, there were masterclasses where they could get a glimpse into why their favourite author wrote their favourite story and maybe even learn a few tips on how to write their own.

Several books were launched with the author introduced their work and then followed this up with a small activity. There were sessions for parents and educators too. NLF brought together psychiatrist Pramit Rastogi, author and parent of teens Shabnam Minwalla, and author Tanu Shree Singh for a session on post-pandemic parenting. There was an insightful session by author and social worker Jane De Suza on how technology and social change will shape the way we communicate in the future.

There were also the all-important Neev Book Awards, where top honours were declared in four categories – from Best Picture Book to Best Young Adult Book. Add to this a vibrant marketplace filled to the brim with Indian and Western Kid-lit where books flew off the shelves and were constantly being restocked.

While I enjoyed the sessions, learned from the masterclasses, and met the loveliest people from the world of children’s literature – what made me happiest was watching thousands of people converge over two days of the festival to celebrate the world of children’s books. A place where children were not being coerced and coaxed and parents did not look rushed. Everyone smiled, interacted, and looked like they were having a great time talking stories.

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