I am delighted to name Akada Children’s Book Festival (ACBF) held in Lagos, Nigeria the 2023 Literary Platform of the Year for championing children’s literature in Nigeria and fostering a safe and inspiring space for children to explore books and ideas. The festival was founded by Olubunmi Aboderin Talabi, a children’s book author and influential figure in the Nigerian publishing industry. The festival is the first and largest Nigerian book festival exclusively for children.

Talabi’s work is an important contribution to the African literary space, and we want to celebrate what she has accomplished through this platform. Many of us know Talabi as a children’s book author but she has been in the Nigerian publishing space for much longer and in other roles. She is currently the chairperson for the Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Nigeria. Although her professional background is in corporate directorship, her true passion lies in writing for children, with 12 books published. With a career spanning 29 years in the publishing industry, primarily in newspaper publishing, she also holds an honorary doctorate in Media and Communications and serves on the board of The Punch, one of Nigeria’s top newspapers. She is deeply committed to improving literacy and ensuring that children have better access to books, particularly, to read for pleasure.

ACBF joins what one could term the festival wave in Nigeria. The current style of book festival that caters to a broad cultural palate that includes art and performance began in its current international scale with the likes of Ake Festival and LABAF. Many festivals have since joined the movement, organizing events centered around various Nigerian cities and ethnic communities. But ACBF stands out as the first ever festival dedicated to children. For Talabi, making the decision to strike out in uncharted territory came easy. She believes that inspiring children to fall in love with reading is a worthy cause:

I think it’s important to have book festivals that are specifically dedicated to literature for young readers because it’s important to show children that they matter. It’s important to instill a culture of reading for pleasure. And it’s important to create – dare I use these words – excitement and buzz – about books and make them something to be eagerly anticipated.

The inspiration to launch Akada Children’s Book Festival came from her experiences at book fairs and festivals in various countries. Witnessing the positive impact these events had on children and families, she envisioned a similar festival in Nigeria, where children could discover new books that resonated with their experiences. There was clearly a gap in the Nigerian literary culture that needed to be filled. Talabi convened a one-off event in April 2019 and projected an attendance of 300 people but between 1,400 and 2,000 people ended up attending. This overwhelming turnout led to a swift response from the organizers, who had to coordinate with the venue owners, initially unprepared for such a large crowd.  Every available space, including canteens and gardens, was used for various activities, with the festival being fondly described as a “book heaven” by a young attendee. This success was enough evidence that Talabi and her team had hit on something the Nigerian literary scene had been missing. In 2021, the festival grew to a three-day event, continued online from the previous year’s adaptation to the global pandemic. Today, ACBF is an international festival that draws guests and audiences from all over.

There is no doubt that ACBF is shifting Nigerian literary culture in ways that speak to the broader growth we are observing in African literature globally. First, it has enabled infrastructural impact in the Nigerian literary space by signaling the possibility of a market and industry around children’s books. Nigerian literature is centered around books for adults, like most of the continent. Though there are children’s book authors, illustrators, and some amount of publishing, children’s books are seen as existing on the fringes of the literary culture. ACBF is changing that by providing a space for self-published authors, particularly women and mothers, providing them with opportunities for distribution and recognition, both locally and internationally.

Secondly, the festival is advocating for a rethink on the way children encounter books. Books for children tend to be seen from a utilitarian point-of-view as things that children encounter in school for mostly educational purposes. The idea of reading for pleasure is something that is not cultivated in childhood and this carries on into adulthood, stifling an organic and enriching relationship to reading.  ACBF was born out of a need to encourage a culture of reading for pleasure among young readers and to support parents in figuring out how to foster a love of reading in their children.

It is impossible to build a vibrant young readership without access to books. This is another area where ACBF is making significant impact. The festival makes it possible for parents to find age-appropriate books for children, books that speak to local cultures, books written in Nigerian languages, and books that speak to underrepresented experiences. The festival has become a space for children to explore literature that resonates with their lives and sparks their creativity and imagination. That ACBF connects readers and authors, publishers and booksellers, educators and scholars, makes it a powerful force for industry in the Nigerian literary scene. Talabi sees ACBF as intervening in a still evolving children’s book publishing market in Nigeria. Children’s books, especially picture books, are expensive to produce, leading publishers to favor adult literature. She sees ACBF as playing a leading role in fostering a conducive publishing ecosystem, raising awareness for new books and authors, and providing a direct connection between self-published authors and their audience.

Over the years, Talabi and the Akada Children’s Book Festival (ACBF) have received significant support, both in terms of resources and collaboration. As she puts it: “It takes a village of selfless and generous people who have a heart for children, love books, and understand the importance of literacy.” Schools, reading clubs, parents, volunteers, and the media have all played a crucial role in the festival’s success. Key partnerships, especially with venue owners provide spaces free of charge and media outlets that offer extensive publicity, have been pivotal in the growth of ACBF:

Again we were blessed with a very supportive venue owner and I want to say a big thank you and give a shout out to Upbeat. They allowed us to use their space completely free of charge for the 2022 festival. It was a one-day event, because it was the first time coming back as an in-person festival and some people were still wary of large gatherings after the pandemic.

The festival’s team, comprising 95% volunteers, including Talabi herself, is a testament to the communal spirit underpinning the event. These contributions are crucial in bringing the dream of ACBF to life, demonstrating the power of a community united by a love for children, books, and literacy.

While the ACBF has been successful and well-received, operating it in Nigeria comes with unique challenges. Funding remains a significant issue, as the festival strives to be accessible to all without charging attendees. Despite these financial hurdles, Talabi’s commitment to the festival is unwavering.

And as Othuke Ominiabohs, the publisher of Masobe Books remarks, this commitment is making real impact:

“Olubunmi Aboderin Talabi has been quite intentional with the Akada Children’s Book Festival. A festival for children and one of its kind in Nigeria, it pools the largest gathering of kids every year to celebrate literature and the arts. She has done and sustained a phenomenal thing, and deserves to be celebrated. Because of her and the ACBF the future of literature and the continent at large is so much brighter: for a child who reads is an adult who leads.”

The ACBF has grown to be more than just a festival; it’s a powerful advocacy platform for the intellectual and imaginative lives of children, emphasizing their importance within the broader literary culture. Hurdles or not, Talabi is committed to the vision of expanding the festival. Ultimately, the festival is about impacting the lives of children, which is no small charge.

When we asked Talabi what brings her the most joy as the founder of the festival:

It’s seeing children have better access to books; seeing parents bring their children to a productive book event where they discover new books; it’s seeing authors meet their audience; and it’s giving schools in the local area an event to which they can take their students for a day out…When I see children like that girl at the first festival that called it ”book heaven”, when I see children in the Pop Up Library, happy to have access to books, happy to have a comfortable, conducive environment for reading, when I hear the exchange of ideas that eventually get enacted into policy, all of this is rewarding.

Congrats to Talabi and the whole ACBF team! We see you and celebrate you.