HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksKavita Gupta Sabharwal: ‘Children need to see affirming images of themselves’

Kavita Gupta Sabharwal: ‘Children need to see affirming images of themselves’

Known for promoting and supporting children’s literature in India through festivals, reading challenges, and book awards, the Neev Literature Festival (NLF) has now launched a fellowship for writers and illustrators of children’s books to help them produce high-quality, richly detailed work that has the power to connect with young readers universally.

Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, co-founder NLF (Courtesy Neev Literature Festival)

READ MORE: Neev Literature Festival: Nurturing a love of reading

Co-founded by Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, the NLF Fellowship will support four book creators with a grant of 6 lakhs each for a period of one year for researching and writing their book.

Tell us about the conception of the NLF Fellowships? 

NLF commissioned a study of the Indian children’s literature sector in 2022 and found that there is a lack of funding across the Indian children’s book market resulting in diminished interest from publishers, distributors, and retailers to truly push sales. There is extremely low visibility due to the absence of prominent voices in the media to champion quality work in this sector. With little impetus to spur them on, creators often feel pressured to produce more books within short periods of time so as to remain in the public eye.

The idea of this fellowship came into being because we believe that there is so much scope in this space. NLF endeavours to support and nurture children’s writing in India. We have great talent here to create bodies of work that can compete with the global greats. However, we recognize that it takes time for a great book to be written. We would like for young readers today to have access to books where writers and illustrators are able to afford the luxury of time to develop their manuscript at length.

232pp, ₹211; Puffin
232pp, ₹211; Puffin

Do you think children’s literature in India has got its due?

The print book market in India is led largely by textbooks. Parents place a strong focus on academic achievements which tends to impact children’s reading for pleasure. As a result, books that are educational, often end up being bestsellers. To give you an example, two titles that were the second and third highest-selling children’s books in India in 2021: My First Book of Patterns – Pencil Control and My First Library.

And then there are books by popular authors such as Sudha Murty and Ruskin Bond that remain bestsellers as parents are familiar with these names. We believe that in a country as diverse as ours, there is room for contemporary authors to tell fresh stories that reflect the lived experiences of children across the country today, to create books that have the potential to become bestsellers.

What according to you have been the various challenges with regards to publishing books for children?

There are challenges on multiple fronts. The market is highly fragmented and competitive, often with books being published at high production costs but with low-profit margins. Children’s book authors and illustrators are offered relatively smaller advances and lower royalties when compared to authors who write for adults.

As the market is small and doesn’t generate high sales, there isn’t a strong marketing push nor does the distribution process occur effectively. 

The community of children’s book reviewers in India is also rapidly dwindling due to which the sector doesn’t get covered in the media, thereby contributing to its reduced visibility.

Do you feel children’s authors address long-standing gender and culture stereotypes in their books? 

Most definitely. We have seen authors effortlessly overturn stereotypes for books across different age groups. This includes titles such as the Queens series of YA books by Devika Rangachari (Queen of Ice, Queen of Earth, Queen of Fire); Rain Must Fall, a graphic novel by Nandita Basu; Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush by Anita Vachharajani; Bumoni’s Banana Trees, a picture book by Mita Bordoloi.

READ MORE: Nandita Basu, author, Rain Must Fall: ‘Basic human nature doesn’t change’

128pp, ₹299; Duckbill Books
128pp, ₹299; Duckbill Books

However, it’s a small section of parents across the country who are aware of the exciting work being done by such children’s book creators. With the NLF Fellowships, we aim to give incredible Indian children’s books wider visibility and attention.

What are some of the new trends you have seen emerge in this genre in the recent years? 

In addition to the robust sales of “Early Learning” and “Activity Books”, we are seeing that anthologies are doing well, as are book series such as Hole Books, Hook Books, the Dreamers, and the Little Leaders series. 

Audiobooks and e-books are catching on, with digital music services acquiring the rights to the stories of Indian picture books alongside the availability of a platform such as Pratham Books’ Storyweaver to read books online.

We’ve also seen genres such as ecology and climate change achieve critical and commercial success, with titles such as Naturalist Ruddy: Adventurer. Sleuth. Mongoose by Rohan Chakravarty; Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India by Meghaa Gupta; and Bijal Vachharajani’s books, A Cloud Called Bhura and Savi and the Memory Keeper.

READ MORE: Review: Savi and the Memory Keeper by Bijal Vachharajani

244­ pp, ₹350; Hachette
244­ pp, ₹350; Hachette

What themes do you think children’s literature need to explore more? 

We would love to see children’s books that are rooted in Indian sensibilities but carry universal appeal. We have not seen as much of visual narratives such as The Arrival by Shaun Tan; novels in verse; accounts of immigration from countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar; pairings of related fiction and non-fiction, are a few genres that would be nice to see more of.

128pp, ₹1924; Available on Amazon (Courtesy Amazon)
128pp, ₹1924; Available on Amazon (Courtesy Amazon)

Your thoughts about the popularity of foreign authors as compared to Indian authors in this field?

We believe it’s important to have a gamut of choices available to anchor one’s reading life. However, if the visible selections and displays of books at bookstores are skewed towards foreign authors, how do our children get to understand what Indian lives are like?

In a country as varied across territories as ours, our choices are dictated by a pluralism of values that may arise from our polytheism, heterogeneity of culture and geographies. Instead of one overarching value, might there be a set of universal values that our children may absorb from the stories that they read?

We want children to have access to books that go beyond telling a single story of what it means to be Indian, that speak more honestly about our lived realities.

We believe our children need to see affirming images of themselves in a wide range of Indian stories in order to develop a strong sense of identity.

The desire to read Indian books is beginning to take off across the country, but we need a body of work that compels readers to share their shelf space accordingly. 

Applications for the Neev Literature Festival Fellowship are now open and the last date for applications is 30 June 2023.

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

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