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Growth of children’s literature is critical for a nation: Kavita Gupta Sabharwal

The co-founder of Neev Literature Festival on their new NLF Fellowship for Children’s Book Creators, what the jury looks for in applicants, and more

Called the NLF Fellowship for Children’s Book Creators, it will award the selected applicants a grant of Rs. 6 lakhs each for a period of one year for researching and producing a book.(Unsplash)

By Vangmayi Parakala

LAST PUBLISHED 04.04.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

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The Bengaluru-based Neev Literature Festival (NLF), which focuses on young readers, on Friday announced a fellowship for children’s book writers and illustrators. Called the NLF Fellowship for Children’s Book Creators, it will award the selected applicants a grant of Rs. 6 lakhs each for a period of one year for researching and producing a book. Each fellow will be chosen through applications received via the call that opened on March 31st; and the window will close on 30 June.

The initiative to support children’s book creators comes after a detailed study that the NLF had conducted to understand the needs of this market in India. According to the statement shared at the time of announcement, the NLF’s study of the market “revealed that Indian children’s and young adult publishing was estimated to be about 25% of the total trade market in India in 2019-2020 (INR 28.24 billion), thereby pegging its value to be INR 7.206 billion (as per the 2022 India Book Market Report by Nielsen)."

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Currently, the jury to select the fellows consists of the founder of the Neev Trust and co-founder of the Neev Literature Festival, Kavita Gupta Sabharwal; the founder of Storywallahs, Ameen Haque; and Karthika Gopalakrishnan, director of the NLF.

They also "hope to bring in other jurors from within India, who are discerning and knowledgeable on both, global quality and issues that matter in India today," says Gupta Sabharwal.

In an interview with Mint Lounge, she talks about the need to set up the NLF Fellowship for Children’s Book Creators, their takeaways from studying the market, what the jury looks for when selecting their winners, and more. Edited excerpts.

How many applications do you expect, and how many do you hope to award in this first edition of The NLF Fellowship for Children’s Book Creators?

We would love to be besieged by applications! It could be 150 applications, or 400. This is why we are keeping it tight, starting with only 4 fellowships in the first round, and aiming to grow to 10 eventually.

What will the judges consider while selecting the Fellows?Do you look for anything specific from the applicants?

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The jury will look at the applicant’s body of work and background in children’s book writing and illustration. We will look at the novelty of a proposal: is it an exciting idea that’s never been done before which depicts an aspect of India that children’s books haven’t ventured into, thus far?

Mature kid-lit markets like the US and UK have a 150-200 year-old history with evolving genres, forms and topics. Great awards have now existed for nearly 100 years, operated by a mature library community. In India, however, the history of children's literature has been stories that were told not written, which changed with context. Written books are a comparatively recent phenomenon, gaining traction with the establishment of the National Book Trust and the Children’s Book Trust in 1957.

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While there has been more work, in recent years, for these oral stories to make their way into books, there is a considerable number that didn’t and risk being lost. We hope to see applications for stories that cover the essence of pluralistic India in all its grandeur and reality, besides extremes of realism and fantasy, coupled fiction/ nonfiction books and much more, beyond the traditionally funded mythology and biography genres.

We tend to also stay away in our education from deeply exploring and sharing cultures. We hope that we can find stories of unifying values and constructs, such as described by Tagore in his essay Bharatbarsher Itihaas (India’s History). We will also look for demonstrated research capability and commitment towards the project.

What exactly can the Fellows expect from the editorial and mentorship support? Does this include later publishing support, too?

There will be an editor on board who will work with each Fellow individually to fine tune their manuscript. NLF will not provide publishing support, as we trust that the work done over the course of the Fellowship will speak for itself.

What was your biggest takeaway from your study of the children’s literature market in the lead up to instituting this fellowship? How big is the children's market currently, and what is the scope for its growth?

The key point of our report and these Fellowships is the quality and quantity challenge in Indian children’s literature. Indian Children’s publishing is 96% textbooks and academic publishing. Of the small segment that is literature at around 4%—half in English and half in other languages—children's literature is an insignificant 20-25%, at around Rs. 700 cr, and this includes activity books quite prominently. For a 6-16 year old school going population of 270 million, that amounts to just Rs. 25 per child per year. When we expand that for 5-18 year olds, which is preschoolers through grade 12, this makes it even lower, around Rs.16. Recent surveys suggest that 1/3rd of Indians have never read a book, compared to 2% globally; India at large is essentially a pre-literate market.

While the whole print market is estimated to grow (Nielsen’s India Book Market Report 2022) at 19.4 % per year through the next 10 years, literature is expected to grow much slower at 12%. Compare this with China, which in the last decade and a half has appeared from nowhere to compete for first place in kid lit globally with the US: a strategic, if autocratically driven pattern, relating directly to pushing the rise of literacy, research capability, and innovation.

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Growth of children’s literature is critical for an aspiring nation, given the positive correlation between leisure reading and PISA scores (Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students of participating countries) in countries as per the 2021 EY-Parthenon report. In India, we are still looking for the growth of this market, for its linkages with publishing and related jobs and growth of the paper industry, while the higher order impacts of growth in creativity, innovation and a less derivative identity through Indian stories currently remain out of our purview. We need to create great Indian stories, and a larger market for children's reading.

Wordless books that have evolved in the children's space seem to tackle nuanced subjects, and also reach out to a larger demographic. Did you see any noteworthy trends or names in this space during your study/report? Any follow through for this in the Fellowship?

Wordless books are often universal messages for all ages. Globally they have been illustrated by great artists to carry profound messages that get read differently based on who is reading it, when and where. The first ever wordless picture book published in the United States is reputed to be Ruth Carroll’s What Whiskers Did (1932), and is said to have been followed by another wordless book a full three decades later.

Among our favourite global masterpieces of the genre are The Only Child by Guojing, which is tender, evocative and imaginative on the social problems of the one child policy, as well as The Arrival by Shaun Tan, stunning in its depictions of bewilderment, melancholy, and wonder. In his essay, The Purposeful Daydream: Thoughts on Children's Literature, he speaks about his work demonstrating “a strong relationship between private thought and public culture."

In India we have seen this form emerge in the last 3-4 years from powerful creators like Priya Kuriyan, Lavanya Karthik, Rajiv Eipe, and Sunaina Coelho, brought out by publishing houses like Tulika Publishers, Karadi Tales, and Pratham Books.

We would love to see more people wanting to create timeless works of literature in this form, too, building thought across ages. For a nation with 22 scheduled languages and 100s of spoken tongues, this certainly is an opportunity for greater dialogue across cultures.

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