The Festival of lights: celebrating Diwali through books

Today is Diwali, the Indian festival of lights! And given that 3.9% of Aotearoa’s population has an Indian background, it seems fitting to share a booklist of children’s books around the festival. This fantastic collection is courtesy of the lovely Pearl Dsilva!

I grew up in India, where Diwali was considered both the most auspicious time of the year and the beginning of a New Year. I love the cultural significance of the festival — the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and new beginnings. As a child, it was a time for celebration, visiting neighbours, and feasting on the yummiest treats. There was a general sense of cheer in the days leading up to, and during the festival.

Books are a great medium through which children’s cultural knowledge can be nurtured and this is evident in the growing number of books on different festivals. Most of the books I have read on the topic of Diwali describe the festival in significant detail, with attention to specific traditions, Rangoli art and other festivities associated with it. Here are some of the books that would be good resources to learn more about Diwali.

Hannah Eliot’s Diwali is perfect for infants and toddlers. It’s a beautifully illustrated board book that offers an authentic perspective into how Diwali is celebrated in Indian homes. The story has a narrative tone and gives the reader a sense of excitement with the different events that lead up to the festival itself. I love the aesthetic, kitschy illustrations that draw the reader to explore the book further.

Shubh Diwali is a book that has been told in simple and easy rhyme and describes a family preparing for and partaking in the festival. The colourful illustrations showcase an extended family celebrating Diwali with their friends. Many Indian families are non-nuclear; grand-parents, uncles, aunts and cousins sometimes cohabit together in one house. The illustrations in this book capture this well and can help children see their daily lives represented in books.

Diwali is celebrated over five days. Each day symbolizes a range of values such as prosperity, wealth and filial love. These ideas have been incorporated in books such as Let’s Celebrate 5 days of Diwali! where the protagonists learn more about the significance of each day. The illustrations are simple and colourful, lending to the overall appeal of this book.

Diwali by Asha Patel is a Ministry of Education resource published in New Zealand that recounts the festivities and is told from an Indian girl’s perspective. This is the only book in this list that is based in Aotearoa, which makes me wonder if we need to have more books supporting Indian children in this country. I believe that the audio recording of this story could have been narrated by a person of Indian heritage, to maintain authenticity.

Oral storytelling traditions are steeped in Indian culture. The idea behind this is apparent in the book, Amma, tell me about Diwali by Bhakti Mathur. The book begins with a child asking for a story on Diwali and goes on to tell the mythological story behind the festival. While the illustrations are vivid, the rhythm of the story is stilted, making it difficult to read aloud to children. Nevertheless, this book would be good for families wanting to educate their children about the religious and mythological significance of Diwali.

If you are looking for a resource to add to your library, look no further than Katie Daynes’ Diwali. This 47-page non-fiction book summarises the cultural aspects of the festival and features three simply told mythological stories related to the festival.

The Diwali Gift by Shweta Chopra is one of the few books with an actual plot (apart from recounting what happens at Diwali) that I have come across. The protagonists in the books are anthropomorphic monkeys who receive a special package in the post. As the plot unravels, the monkeys take guesses on what could be inside the parcel and are delighted with what it turns out to be! I read this one out to children in the local library one year and they loved it!

Binny’s Diwali is a recent picture book which I think will resonate with a lot of immigrant families. Binny is asked to tell her class about the festival and how she celebrates it. She’s hesitant at first, but with some gentle encouragement from her teacher, Binny shares her knowledge of Diwali. This book will help Indian children understand that they are equally important in the diaspora of the country, and that by confidently affirming who they are, they add richness to the cultural mélange.

Pearl Dsilva

A self-proclaimed Enid Blyton aficionado, Pearl Dsilva can be usually found at the topmost rung of the Ladder on The Faraway Tree, anticipating The Land of Goodies and Take-what-you-want. Pearl is an early childhood education lecturer and children’s literature enthusiast.