After the success of the inaugural year, the focus of this year’s Big Little Book Awards (BLBA) is going to be on Bengali literature for children. Started by Tata Trust’s Parag Initiative, the award seeks to encourage quality children’s literature in regional languages in a bid to promote reading among children, particularly those from economically impoverished backgrounds. Last year, the focus language was Marathi. Winners included Madhuri Purandare and Atanu Roy. Incidentally, while the winning author is chosen from those writing in the language in focus, nominations for illustrators are from across the country.
With the establishment of Bengali printing presses around 1816, children’s literature had flourished in Bengal since the early 19th century. Writers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury, Sukumar Ray, Jogindranath Sarkar and Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Mazumdar have left behind a treasury of children’s work. “Bengali literature has a rich history of authors writing both for adults and children. There are some contemporary authors who have been producing some excellent books for children. However, children reading Bengali literature is not as popular as it was. At this point, some attention to authors and children’s books will go a long way in promoting them. Moreover, there is a lot of scope in translating Bengali children’s literature into other Indian languages,” says Swaha Sahoo, head, Parag Initiative, Tata Trusts.
Even though the efforts of publishers such as Tulika Books and Pratham have done much for regional language publishing, the focus, in most cases, still continues to be on English, and, at most, on Hindi. One of the reasons behind instituting BLBA was to encourage a diversity in children’s literature by providing grants to subsidise development costs. For smaller non-profit publishers doing niche work, some amount of print subsidy is also provided.
“There are many reasons for language publishing to flounder. Writing, editing and producing original content is time and cost intensive. To find contemporary stories, you have to nurture capacities of authors and illustrators. You need high production quality. But local publishers find it easier to reprint old content on cheap paper and sell it for as little as Rs 10. Government schools, which are the biggest consumers, don’t have budget to buy children’s books. Some states provide sporadic amounts, but schools are focussed on buying as many books, and, therefore, opt for the cheapest ones. This is a vicious cycle that leads to disinterest in reading. Once we start demanding good books and stories, publishers may find it easier to invest in quality books,” says Sahoo. Among the various initiatives undertaken under her are translations into Indian languages, including Kannada, Gujarati, Oriya and Marathi, and, non-mainstream languages such as Mundari, Khunti and Bhilori.
There’s also a project in which the Trust is identifying classic Kannada children’s books that are no longer available. “We will re-illustrate and print them so children have access to some doyens of Kannada literature,” says Sahoo. The nomination process for the BLBA is open to librarians, teachers and domain experts. Each person can nominate up to three names in both the categories. This year’s jury consists of a team of five academics and language experts, such as Abhijit Gupta, professor of English, Jadavpur University. For the author category, 25 nominations have been received, with some names being nominated multiple times. Similarly, there have been 30 nominations for the illustrator category. The awards will be given out at the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai Litfest on November 19.