Among the Smallest Storytellers

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Notes from a weekend spent at the Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature—a buoyant breeding ground for young readers

The Bookeroo Festival of Children’s Literature is an unstoppable, joy-inducing labour of love. It leapt out of the collective hearts and minds of M Venkatesh, Swati Roy and Jo Williams in 2008, and became a living, breathing, beautiful thing in a mere matter of months. It has toggled between Srinagar and New Delhi since, and will announce its presence in Pune next.

Charming over 15,000 children silly every year, Bookeroo brings together writers, dreamers, storytellers, illustrators and poets from around the world to celebrate children and their love of literature. It is a carnival of colourful workshops, craft making, performance art, storytelling and skill-building where authors, publishers and artists engage with a sea of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young people. The message is straightforward: the world is your oyster and imagination will set you free.

Over the 23-24 November weekend, Bookeroo fills the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts with its magic. With sessions running in English, Hindi and Tamil, the effort this year is to widen the canvas and be as inclusive as possible. Set outdoors, the festival rolls over the greens and spills into gleaming white tents. It gathers under kahaani trees and slips into beautifully decorated mounds of mud. The open-air theatre and soundstage are already crackling with activity.

Snatches of conversation fly at me as I scramble past the registration booth:

“No it’s a chameleon.”

“But why isn’t it a frog?”

“Because it’s a chameleon.”


“Sir, would you like a map? Or a sip of water?”

“We are collecting pre-loved books to make them available for people who don’t have as many books.”

“Mumma? Mumma! Jaldi chalo jaldi chalo jaldi chalo jaldi chalo…”

“Juzt jelly?”

As I skip past some of the tents, I spot Eureka! Books, the Bookeroo Trust’s festival partners. The beloved bookstore has a tent all to itself, carrying specialty, independent children’s literature. It is busy. Stacks of books with tiny feet beneath them traipse out with a spring in their step. I decide to pop by later and catch a performance or two in the meanwhile.

Swarms of beaming student-volunteers are on hand to whisk folks away to events that catch their fancy. I am practically flown to the nearest sing-a-long where I meet Jeeva Raghunath who is here to entertain the six-year-olds present. (The 35-year-olds accompanying them are far from immune to her foot tapping tunes, rooster impersonations and feisty stage presence.)

Jeeva is passionate about telling stories and wants aspiring artists to know that “there is no right or wrong way to tell a story and that you most definitely do not need to have a purpose to your story”.

She wants every young person to understand through experience that stories have souls; that to whittle them down to size and package them just so would take from them the very quality that makes you want to sit up and listen. “Never overthink your stories. Do not dilute them. If you allow yourself to get to the emotional core of your story, everything else will follow. The trick is to let the story go.”

Interestingly, Cornelia Funke’s conversations with aspiring 12-year-old writers about breathing books and following the imagination reveal that “paying attention to the little details is so very important and makes all the difference.” She chews thoughtfully on her words as she describes how fascinating it is to her that stories should travel and should have the ability to influence so many scattered and diverse people in such profoundly different yet similar ways. Her ideas are received with thunderous applause and heartbreaking choruses of “autograph, please?”

If I hurry I can catch a segment of Rukhsana Khan’s session on ‘writing in times of trouble’. Her audience is meant to be 14-year-olds thirsting for what feeds into the creative process. I bump into Jo, one of the three spirits behind Bookeroo, as I pass a sea of people all headed for an amphitheatre. I cannot resist chatting with Jo, and she is kind enough to agree to a little sit-down on the grass.

“Bookeroo really is about spreading the joy of books,” she tells me, “bringing children and books together, opening windows and doors into other worlds…” Jo feels very strongly that there is a book for every child, “which is why it is so important to have variety and to celebrate that. You have to appreciate that we are all different. Children will discover the sorts of books that speak to them if they are given the freedom to find out for themselves.” That seems to be the running theme, and it makes perfect sense. The love of stories comes easy if there are authentic choices available to children—and enough colours to play with.

By the time I get to Rukhsana, she is talking about “feeling the pulse of the hard work [that] is essential to do in order to be who you are as you tell your story.” Her writing often wrestles with the layered complexities of identity and a fragmented sense of self, growing up. She is both affecting and truthful in her descriptions of having been bullied young and the weight of the experience through the years that followed. The 14-year-olds she is speaking with are transfixed in equal parts by her candour and her resilience.

The pace at which things move at Bookeroo is dizzying. If I don’t leave now, I will miss Sally Gardner’s ‘What if?’ performance. Sally is the recipient of several awards. Sally is also dyslexic. In her intimate corner of the festival, she describes having been written off as totally un-teachable at school. She was told that her brain was like a sieve and that “everything that went in fell out the other side.” Hurtling back and forth from one school to the next, Sally says she had “more God-awful schools than hot dinners.”

Finding herself severely bullied and in a school for the mismanaged, she would think up ways to escape that world, the sheer incessant noise of it. “Dyslexia gave me imagination. I actually do remember falling into a book for the very first time. Suddenly the world would disappear. I polished my stories till they got better and better. Dyslexia was a gift and I found that as soon as the agony of school left me, I shot to the top.” Sally went on to learn about art and performance theatre. She credits her ability to tell stories with having saved her and helping her rise above those who dismissed her.

Stories are the ability to dream, she says, “which is unmistakably the most important thing a child can have. The imagination is everything. It is so important that we nurture the ‘gold dust’ in our little heads while we still have it. Don’t give it up to televisions and computers.”

The audience is rivetted and questions come in big rushes. A lot of the adults present want to know if things have in fact gotten better with time for dyslexic children. “There is still a lot of ignorance , there are still far too many clever children going unnoticed. If education stopped being so narrow and we found a way to open it up a crack, make room for different ways of receiving and responding to information, then we could begin talking about changes in attitudes and the bigger things.”

“Is there room for quiet stories with children today? Doesn’t everything have to be fast paced and titillating?” asks a voice in the crowd. Sally pauses to reflect. “Fairytales are great ways to build appreciation for things building in gradual ways. But I don’t mean sanitised fairy tales. Fairytales are meant to be the dark woods of the imagination.”

I make my way past the ‘Doodle Wall’ where children are spraying an enormous stretch of paper with their very own works of art. I chat briefly with one of the volunteers, a pleasant girl with a steady hand who cannot resist a doodle or two of her own: “My memories of art class are sprinkled with ‘Ma’am, may I use this colour?’ or ‘Sir, I cannot draw this shape’ or ‘Copy the flower pot’ . Never once did someone say to me, ‘Draw whatever you like, anything at all.’ This wall is the art class I never had.” The row of people splashing about beside her appear to nod at me in agreement.

I’m eager to experience Ulf Nilsson before I call it a day. The author of over a hundred well-loved children’s books in Sweden, Ulf has a gift for communicating difficult realities in the gentlest possible way. His interactive session for 8-year-olds today explores the theme ‘pet loss’.

It does this ever so lovingly without talking down to the audience or being too aware of itself. “The idea is to banish fear. To feel loved and connected and secure in how one feels while learning to accept things that are sometimes sad.”

Ulf is drawn to the festival because it encourages children to trust their own creativity. “I want to tell children to find a way to make their own story, write a little book and start early. Six-year-olds are great; ‘Oh yes I can’ comes so easy to them. I want them to know how valuable their thoughts are, how important it is for them to feel encouraged to express themselves, to want to tell stories. I also want to urge parents to listen to their children carefully, so they can share in moments where they find absolute joy.”

The right to retain the parts of ourselves that make us whole makes up a lot of Ulf’s writings. “When you write for children, you have to be able to go down in the mud and play. A mind that is playful is unafraid. It will not filter the little things out.”

Ulf gets a pretend funeral for a stuffed toy moose out of his audience. Children take turns cradling the moose and placing it lovingly in a hole in the tree where it is sung to in an effort to be given the send off it deserves. Some parents in the audience shift in their seats. Others look on in wonderment and gratitude. The children race to hug Ulf. Their applause is implicit.