#INDIAKIDLIT – Breeding Readers

by Kavita Gupta Sabharwal

Lifelong learning depends on reading. Parents and teachers are aligned but need the ecosystem to create access and guide choices

Jonas Salk – the inventor of the Polio vaccine – suggested the most important question to ask ourselves is, “Are we being good ancestors?” This question nudges us toward ethical choices that perceive and internalize the long and short-term impacts on future generations. Neev Litfest aims to be a good ancestor by growing the number of children reading in India. Increasing reader numbers ride on three pillars, global context, the case for India, and strategy for India.

First, global context. Reading is a hard habit getting harder in a world where digital distractions are getting stronger. Neuroscientist and ‘reading warrior’ Maryanne Wolf says an average person consumes about 34 gigabytes of data, equivalent to some 100,000 words consciously or subconsciously, commuting through the city, across devices and media. But neither deep reading nor deep thinking can be enhanced by what she calls the ‘chop block’ of time we are all experiencing. Young children globally ‘read’ a lot each day, but are they reading? How can we get reading to compete with addictive digital fast food?

Reader Come Home” –  online ‘book club’ at Neev Litfest in 2020, ran over 4 weeks, seeing participation from Educators and Parents across India, with expert talks moderated by Neev Literature Festival jury and team; ending in a wonderful interactive session by Dr. Maryanne Wolf

Second, is the case for India. India’s pandemic experience offers strong evidence for our new National Education Policy’s (NEP 2020) observation that Grade 3 children who are not reading get left behind because that is a phase shift from learning to read to reading to learn. My volunteering to help improve reading skills at a government school in Grade 4 experienced the brightest student hearing the word ‘stamp’ called out in a bingo game, reading the first word in her box alphabetically C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N, and then saying ‘Stamp.’ Grade 4 is a critical step in public schools, where children need to clear a lower primary exam, and another older child in the same class has been there for a few years already. These kids cannot read. They often copy patterns from the board, not recognizing the words. We cannot guarantee equal placement at the finish line, but reading reduces starting line handicaps because it is a superpower that unlocks the world. Research shows that PISA scores of a country are positively correlated with a culture of reading for pleasure because it builds reading proficiency. 

In India, children’s books are also recent because traditionally, stories were just a grandmother away, as the Kannada poet AK Ramanujan said. There were just a few early, great examples, like Pardanashin writer Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s, Sultana’s Dream, a speculative science fiction piece that reflected the writer’s own life, living in Purdah, in the early 1900s India, imagining a world where women were out and free to invent, create, socialize and defend, and put men into the zenana for their safety.  I read no children’s books growing up. I related to John Wood’s narrative for “Room to Read’ about there being no books in rural Nepal schools from my childhood in very urban India. And then we hit British literature, like the Enid Blyton books, in the middle years. My love of picture books grew with my own children in lovely independent bookstores in Singapore, America, Florence, and London. And I was surprised to find too few Indian picture books.

Begum Rokeya lived in current day Bangladesh, finally settling in Kolkata, from the early to mid 1900’s. Her district collector husband did not want her to while away time with the women of the household and instead got a tutor to teach her how to read and write in English, expecting that on his return home, she would share her writing. Sultana’s Dream was a short story she wrote, that he insisted on publishing. After the death of her husband, Rokeya founded the first girls school in Kolkata.

Even today, India has few bookstores that sell curated children’s literature where parents and children are not ambushed by activity books, ‘learning’ books, or mindless and repetitive international series. And there are very few Indian books in most stores, school libraries, or reading programmes. The children’s literature market is tiny, unable to sustain writing careers, yet our passionate writers write.

Third, the strategy for India. Reading will flourish when it happens regularly and builds skills systematically and read at home, in school, across genres, and beyond textbooks. Reading will flourish when children see characters and experiences that are literary mirrors of children’s own life experiences.  Reading will flourish with books with higher production values. 

Reading seems like a solitary habit but is profoundly social and needs the conversations and community experiences that litfests provide. Reading will flourish when we reduce search costs by longlists, shortlists, and book awards. The Neev Literature Festival (NLF) was born in 2017 to create a platform dedicated solely to children’s literature. In 2018, its purpose evolved with the Neev Book Award. This year, NLF has also commissioned a ‘State of children’s literature in India’ report to understand and question the status quo.

The intellectual buffet that is NLF has many faces including storytelling, book award, panel discussions, and a curated marketplace that is the best of Indian and global kidlit. Though we moved online for two COVID years, nothing can replace the drama and excitement of the physical event. NLF returns to the physical festival in 2022.

By 2019, NLF became an intellectual buffet of conversations and books for children, and we had our best shortlist of picture books and YA fiction. And then the world changed in 2020. Neev Litfest went online, adding a summer reading challenge that runs across the country, with school groups across geography and socio-economic strata, reading 40 books in 4 months, authored from India and elsewhere, and finally participating in a tournament. The deluge of online content had a flip side to the reading challenge, which we could not have done without online. But the drama and coolness of the physical festival are irreplaceable, and we are back in 2022.

NLF Reading Challenge is an online structure for readers between grade 4-7, and its second edition, had 90+ participating teams across India, with a wide diversity of books and online author sessions, with leading western writers, award winning Indian diaspora writers, and pioneering Indian writers, like BBC journalist Divya Arya, who shared her Kashmir story, even as she spoke from Poland, covering the early stages of Russia’s Ukraine invasion. 

Our considerable Indian talent for writing for children today doesn’t serve a market large enough to support sustainable writing or illustration careers. Most books see small, single print runs, with little or no writing fee or royalties. NLF, a non-profit foundation, aims to change this with a strategy that has three interventions. First, we must get children reading by making it cool, building reading networks, and learning how to read. Second, raising the share of Indian children’s books because many ‘Ideas of India’ are missing from global narratives. Gaps exist on the demand, and the supply side and fixes lie in collaboration across stakeholders. Finally, NLF will honor, celebrate and market the creators of our stories – writers, illustrators, and storytellers.

Being a good ancestor in business involves balancing the next quarter with the next quarter century. Being a good ancestor in politics is thinking about the next generation rather than the next election. Being a good ancestor in education is growing readers, because reading is the foundation (Neev) for lifelong learning. Our teachers and parents need all the help they can get. Let the work begin.

Kavita Gupta Sabharwal

An avid reader, who believes in the power of books to change lives, Kavita Gupta Sabharwal is a co-founder of the Neev Literature Festival, that aims to grow and recognise the impact of children’s literature in India, through multiple initiatives, including the Neev Book Award. She is also the Head of School, Neev Academy.

With a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology from Mumbai University, she completed part of the MBA programme at Harvard Business School before returning to restructure the family business. Kavita’s professional experience till 2002 was largely in corporate strategy and finance functions that she headed for one of India’s largest publicly listed firms, Lupin Pharmaceuticals. She switched to education after frustrations with pre-school education for her own children – starting Neev Academy in 2005 with a vision to avoid the extremes (overly academic/overly unstructured) and strike the right balance for overall early childhood development.

This vision then moved to starting a grade school which works with the programmes of the International Baccalaureate. Besides the teacher training institute, Kavita also aims to start a community school for under-privileged children bringing Neev’s education to impact children across socio-economic strata.

September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult

2022 GLLI blog editors for #WorldKidLitMonth
  • Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.

  • Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School.  She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.

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