by Gita Varadarajan
2021-22 saw a new crop of submissions for the Neev Book Award in the Junior Readers category, which included a variety of genre and formats.
From biographies, retelling of Indian mythology and creative non-fiction to realistic fiction and fantasy, the books submitted this year represented not just diverse genre but also diverse formats. We saw chapter books, books in verse as well as picture books and graphic novels. And the characters were diverse too.
The protagonists represented Sikhs, Dalits, and ones who defied gender stereotypes. There were animals too, like a dog, a tiger and even a ruddy mongoose. The diverse settings took us to many kinds of places and times, from a war zone in the Maldives, to the magnificent and breathtaking coral reefs, from Squatters Colony in Mumbai to the current world of Covid lockdowns where the world stands still. There were books that made us laugh, made us cry, made us think and empathize.
It was no mean task to select a winner! As my fellow jury member Suji DeHart says, “Books are almost like children to me – I love them all in different ways.” And we did love them all.
After much debate, conversations and thought, we finally shortlisted three incredible books, each so unique and different from each other.
Best At It follows an Indian American gay kid, Rahul Kapoor, who fights anxiety, homophobia, bullying and racism and finally discovers who he really is. The story reflects Pancholy’s real life experiences, but it may also be the solace so many kids like Rahul need as they struggle with their identity.
Uncle Nehru, Please Send An Elephant is built on the true story of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who on the request of the children of Japan, sent the beautiful elephant Indira as a gift. This led to requests from other countries such as Canada, Netherlands, China and Turkey. Nehru obliged them and these BIG gifts, a gesture of friendship from a newly formed India is charmingly brought to life in this book. Devika Cariappa tells a delightful story about the gentle giants who became India’s ambassadors of compassion and friendship.
And the winner of the Neev Book Award in the Junior Readers Category is…
When the World Went Dark — a novel set in an Indian city during the Covid 19 lockdown explores how a child’s emotions expand when the world they live in shrinks. Jane D’Suza deftly weaves mystery laced with word play into the multi-part journey of eight year old Swara going through the grieving process for her grandmother. While fully confined to her home, Swara busts a gang of thieves with her neighborhood accomplices and demonstrates what curiosity, kindness and persistence can accomplish in a community.
There were also other books in the longlist that deserve a special mention:
Pinkoo Shergill, Pastry Chef is the story of a budding baker, who follows his passion for baking over becoming the much expected competitive shooter which happens to be his family’s sport. He not only defies his father but also gender norms. The book handles this serious message in a light-hearted and sweet way. A fun and relatable read for junior readers.
In Gopal’s Gully, a young orphaned Dalit boy moves from a small village in Uttar Pradesh to Squatters Colony in Mumbai where he learns that when disaster strikes, it is the strange and diverse people of his neighborhood that he can count on as his family. This gutsy story shows how small kindnesses and brutal realities make up a life. While the protagonist is slightly above the age group of the Junior reader’s category, the book will give young readers an insight into the lives of so many children who have to work and earn their own living in order to survive in this world.
In The Badmash Badshah presents Dungeon Tales II, the magical words “Once upon a time… ” takes young Munni, who is forbidden from ever reading books in her village, on an extraordinary and terrific journey into the world of stories. As she reads the stories of an elephant named Mausiji, a professional assassin called Terminator, a weretiger Bagh Bangali and a churali and vetal, she learns to stand up for herself. The stories are laced with wit and humor, all told to please the fantastical His Huge Horribleness, the Badmash Badshah. This is such a fun read with characters from folk tales, pop culture and current events masterfully woven in. Humor may just be the medicine all young readers need as they heal and reorient themselves into a post pandemic world.
Chitty- A Dog and Her Forest Farm is set on a forest farm in the Western Ghats in rural Karnataka, filled with jackfruit trees, termite hills and many wild animals — and where Chitty, the loveable dog, lives a free- spirited life. This sweet story of friendship between human and dog also conveys important messages about the interconnectedness of the forest, climate, and natural cycles of life. Life on a forest farm is sure to delight all nature lovers and entice others into the world of Chitty and her forest farm. If that is not enticing enough, the illustrations are beautiful and will make you fall in love with Chitty and the beautiful farm she lives on.
My Name is Gulab is the story of a brave young girl, Gulab who builds a machine to help her father, whose job is to clear gutters. Gulab is indeed a hero who stands up to people who dehumanize her father for his job as a manual scavenger. Kolwankar brings his own experience growing up in a slum, and the caste discrimination he faced in everyday banter to bear in this incredibly thought-provoking book.
The books submitted this year are sure to serve as windows and mirrors, as well as delight, inspire and move young readers. It was a pleasure reading these books, and we hope the feeling is contagious.
Gita Varadarajan was born and raised in India and moved with her family to New Jersey in 2010. She has worked with children all over the world, earned her master’s degree in Literacy Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and has been teaching at Riverside Elementary School since 2014. She is also the co-author of the best selling Middle Grade novel Save Me a Seat. Her new picture book, My Bindi, came out in 2021.
Gita is passionate about using writing as a reflective tool, and spearheads reading and writing workshops in India, as well as being on the Jury for the Neev Book Award. She lives with her husband in Plainsboro, NJ and has 2 grown sons who are both in college.
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.
- 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.