Empowering Children through Literature: An Interview with Vandana Bhagra

By Neha Arora

Vandana Bhagra, a dynamic individual hailing from the picturesque town of Shimla, is a multifaceted professional with a rich background in journalism and publishing. With a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Himachal Pradesh University, Vandana has over twenty-five years of experience in the publishing industry. Her journey includes contributions to esteemed publications such as Himachal Times, Consumer VOICE and Energy India as well as publication houses such as Project Editor with Encyclopedia Britannica, Dorling Kindersley, Oxford & IBH Publications to name a few.

Beyond being a seasoned editor and writer, Vandana is the founder of KEEKLI, a noteworthy children's webzine and bilingual monthly newspaper (now discontinued due to financial constraint after Covid-19) established in 2013. Her passion for literature extends to freelancing with local dailies, as well as covering school and literary events for her news channel Keekli – Vandana's commitment to fostering a love for reading and creative writing among children led her to initiate the Keekli Book Club and later establish an NGO, with her friends, Keekli Charitable Trust.

Despite facing personal challenges, including the untimely loss of her husband in 2016, Vandana remains resilient. Blessed with two daughters, aged 15 and 7, she strives to strike a balance between her personal and professional life. Vandana's dedication and achievements have not gone unnoticed, as she has received accolades such as the 'Encouragement in Best Women Entrepreneur Category' award and the 'Swayamsiddha Srijan Samman' for her contributions to journalism and creativity among children.

Her recent recognition includes the prestigious Sushma Swaraj Award in March 2023 for her exemplary work in literature and promoting the habit of reading and writing among children. Furthermore, Keekli Charitable Trust, under her leadership, was honoured with an award for their 2021 anthology '51 Scintillating Tales – Short Stories by Children' from the A3F Foundation, Chandigarh. Vandana continues to contribute to the literary world, whether she is freelancing with AuthorsUpfront and TheWritePlace as an Editor, or always seeking innovative ways to engage and inspire children. She stands as a shining example of an empowered woman who perseveres in chasing her dreams and creating meaningful experiences for the children of Shimla City.

1. Can you share the inspiration behind starting KEEKLI, and how has the journey been since its inception in 2013?

Moving to Shimla City after my marriage, in 2005, was a big step down from my professional career as opportunities in Shimla were very limited to none being an Editor. However, I did write for a few local dailies including the Shimla edition of Times of India, while continuing to undertake editing freelance assignments from Delhi publishers. It was during this period that I noticed a lot of events that took place at Gaiety Complex targetted for children were only dancing or singing competitions. There were hardly any literary events for children per se. That is how I was inspired to start Keekli. Second, the media coverage of school events and children’s achievements hardly found space in print media. Internet has opened vast opportunities, big houses already had online presence but there were very few digital platforms working locally. Hence, all these factors became the foundation of starting Keekli.

A decade of Keekli has been far more rewarding on a personal scale so far. It is purely driven by passion and not profit. Each and every event is thoughtfully curated for children to engage them by organising creative writing sessions, story writing competitions among others. From the very beginning the focus was on giving a free platform to children, and even later on, when my friends joined me when we started the Keekli Trust, same parameters were adopted.         


2. Your late husband, Mr. Amit Doegar, played a role in fuelling the dream of KEEKLI. How has his vision influenced the direction and purpose of the webzine and newspaper?

His only regret was that I had to leave a promising job in Delhi and move back home. Though he did give the option of staying in two places, but for me marriage meant living together and not traveling the distance to meet randomly. But this one thing never affected our relationship. He was very supportive of my work and gave me all the space I needed. When I shared my idea of starting a monthly newspaper for children in 2011, he was very excited. But my RNI application took very long to process, so finally I registered my website Keekli. It was his caring attitude and complete faith in me that fuelled my passion further. Most importantly, even though funding wasn’t coming in due to my zero marketing skills and no commercial advertisement, he never had a negative word for it. My focus was always about creativity and how and what kind of exposure I could provide to children through the events; monetary gain was never the target. Even after so many years, I haven’t monetised Keekli!     

3. Balancing personal and professional life can be challenging, especially after the loss of a loved one. How have you managed to maintain this balance, and what advice do you have for others facing similar challenges?

Agree it is a huge challenge, one that we live together to survive another day in the hope that things will improve. There are happy days and sad and then funny, or uneventful ones too, but I make sure my daughters don’t feel the burden or the loss as hard as I have. No one can take that pain away, it just becomes a part of you over a period of time, subdued only to resurface again when you are the happiest. 

There is no advise as such, just be honest and true to yourself, don’t let go of your individuality as the stronger you make yourself, the easier it becomes for you to survive. All emotions have to be lived through, you cannot pick and choose and this is part of life.  

4. The Keekli Book Club and Keekli Charitable Trust reflect your commitment to children's welfare and education. What impact have these initiatives had on the community, and what future goals do you have for them?

Keekli Book Club was started, in 2017, with the intension of engaging children who read books, to come out and share their views and discuss what they had read. These were held on a monthly basis and noted writer from Shimla Minakshi Chaudhry spearheaded the sessions. Engaging young minds by discussing what they had read and giving them key words on come up with stories, as an individual or in a group. These sessions were pure fun and were later held all over the town as well, a walk to the State Museum or a treasure hunt on Ridge, it was all about skill building.

Keekli which started as a media channel began to further diversify its working with the same vision and focus. The Trust was the next step, as my friends who were already helping me with my events, officially joined in my venture. Keekli may have been my brain child but soon it became a part of everyone, whosoever participated in our events. Our events went from local to pan India where we openly invited children to participation in our short story writing competitions which culminated into anthologies and were published as books. Our other projects such as  Mimansa – 2023, a Children’s Literature Festival where children themselves become readers of books to sit on a panel with the writers; and Children’s Theatre Festival, where stories written by Himachal’s writers were adapted into scripts by school students and then performed, were very well appreciated.

We wish to curate events that will help children in improving their writing skills and leads them towards books and interaction with senior writers from whom they can learn much. After the success of our pilot programmes, we hope to make them annual calendar events by improving them after the feedback we have received by all our participants.     


5. In your extensive career, you've worked with various publishing spaces and received several awards, including the 'Sushma Swaraj Award' in 2023. How have these experiences shaped your approach to literature and journalism?

Each experience has been quite fulfilling and with each event there has been scope for improvement. I am always open to ideas and experimenting with how to change lives or have a meaningful impact on children. I work at two levels, one as an independent journalist and an editor, and then as part of the Trust Team, but my vision and passion towards both has been my honesty to complete each and every task at hand. 

Awards do provide recognition to one’s work, but these are just one-time celebrations, the continuity of doing the work matters more as the sense of satisfaction and achievement of those smiling faces is the best reward we can get.     

6. With over twenty-five years in the publishing industry, you've edited and proofread numerous books. Can you share a memorable experience or a project that has had a significant impact on you?

Well, the first time was when after my submission the author wanted to speak to me. Usually that is never the norm, but then he wanted to, one, congratulate me on my insights since I had caught a few major discrepancies in the facts stated and, two, he was happy with the kind of editorial interventions done. The second time was when the author was rather touchy about his work and disregarded my feedback. You get all sorts of writers and work to read before it is finally published as a book. I really find it very interesting and love my line of work. 

7. The 2021 anthology, "51 Scintillating Tales – Short Stories by Children," received an award. Could you tell us more about this project and its significance in promoting creativity among children?

In 2020, almost year end we had organised all India multiple creative competitions and as award money, we ended up paying a huge sum, which of course in itself was quite innovative. But then when I calculated the amount, it was almost the cost of the production of a book. Thus, my team and I decided to organise a pan India short story writing competition for different age groups up to the age of 25 years for children. It was a huge success as we published our first book. The best part was that announcement of winners was not the target, but the aftermath. Our Jury members took creative writing workshops, skill building exercises, webinars to teach the nuances of writing. Children became their own first editors after the feedback and then received one-on-one feedback. Children were even encouraged to supplement their stories with art work, even the cover design is by one of the winners. The last step was editing and proofing before design. Thus, our first book was released as a Children’s Day Gift on 14 November, 2021 by the then Governor of Himachal Sh. Arlekar and noted lyricist Irshad Kamil.     

8.Do you see yourself as a successful entrepreneur? If successful means minting money, then NO, but if success means being able to make significant difference in the lives of children, then YES. From the very beginning I was always asked a question, ‘Are you making any money?’ and my answer was always NO. Many called it that I was being foolish, working for something I never make any money. Till date I have not made it a profit-making venture and whatever amounts I have received was always used to either maintain the website or fund my events. I am so grateful that whosoever participated in my events, never asked for any honorarium as they loved the idea and passion with which I was working. My success is the impact Keekli has or will ever continue to make.


9. As a woman entrepreneur, what challenges have you faced in the field, and how have you overcome them? 

Over the years I have been able to hold on my own whenever it came to my work, but when it came to Keekli, my biggest challenge was its funding. My creative, editorial and writing, skills were very good, but my lack in marketing was a drain on the finances. But Keekli was purely driven by my passion, hence to meet its growing demands, whatever remuneration I received for my editing assignments, I used it all for keeping Keekli afloat. And till this date, I pitch in whenever necessary to see through the success of my programme. I do try to get grants and donations for our events, but this part is a struggle.        

10. Your freelance work with TheWritePlace and AuthorsUpfront showcases your versatility. How do you approach editing, proofreading, and indexing to ensure quality in diverse projects?

Editing a book is a huge responsibility since the onus of the final print lies with you. It has to be done with patience and utmost care has to be taken with respect to the flow of the text, the overall story line for a fiction or facts if non-fiction. Once edited, in track changes mode, it goes back to the author for his review and to answer any queries marked in the text. After he/she reviews and is satisfied, then the document is cleaned and read again. Then it goes for design layout and comes back for final proofing. These steps are all very necessary for the final result. Till date I have edited over 100 books, since I started, with them now. And honestly it has been a very satisfying journey. Indexing is a little more tedious and mechanical however being well versed in editing it further helps in pointing out errors, if any, to the writer to be looked at. There is no compromise on quality.     

11. Looking ahead, what innovative means or projects do you have in mind to further engage children creatively through KEEKLI and other platforms?

We have already announced three of our events. First, is Mimansa – 2, from 22 to 24 March 2024, it provides a chance to children and young readers to sit on panel discussions with senior writers whose books they read and will review. Along with this we have poetry sessions, inter-school competitions, open mic reading and awards. Participation token or souvenirs are given to all. Second, is Keekli’s Angels – A Co-Authorship & Mentoring Programme in collaborating with Minakshi Chaudhry for the S.H.I.M.L.A. Investigators Series. She is co-authoring with young writers as this is a year-long project wherein, she shares the plot with them, works the story, improves their writing skills. The editing and design is then looked by me and the end result is the final book. Third is the pan India Short Story Writing Competition 2024 – here too best 51 stories will be selected and then published as a book. The winners will be a part of the creative writing workshops and webinars to improve their writing skills.

Keekli is my passion, funds or no funds, once I have an idea, I have to see it through. Few events are carried under the media channel or the book club and a few under the Trust. My family and my Team have always been supportive and participate with equal enthusiasm to see our events achieve the target we set out with. And without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.  

12. Looking ahead, what innovative approaches do you envision for Keekli and your other literary endeavours to continue engaging and inspiring children in Shimla and beyond?

Since I started Keekli and my first event in 2015, each event has evolved with time. While curating them, I try that our jury members or resource persons interact with children through a dialogue. As they say a curious mind is more powerful than an unimaginative one. So, for me innovation is creating question and answer sessions and not through a boring monologue lecture. Hence, an important reason for me to hold offline events and not online. Of course, but then this can’t be avoided when we are working with children on a pan-India level with our short story writing competitions. But the same is addressed when most come to attend the Book Release function.  

In this same league I would like to share that another idea was व्यक्तित्व – बातचीत का कारवां” – 52 weeks; 52 personas; 52 interviews; started in August 2023. An offline programme held at Brews & Books Café where a child sits with a senior writer or personality to interview her/him. Prior to this the young interviewer learns about the person and talks to learn more about them. This helps in confidence building, improving vocabulary skills as well opens the mind to the interviewees interesting journey to further learn. We have been able to conduct nine interviews before we had to take a break, but this will continue soon. 

Lastly, my own personal limitations restrict me to work on a small scale and I am confined to Shimla City. I do the best, I can. If children are happy participating, so am I!            

13. Your message to our readers!

Life can never be as you plan to envision it, you never know when you might receive a curve ball, but that doesn’t mean don’t stop living, and you can never prepare for it as well. Just adapt to live through. Family and friends are your biggest supportive tools, coupled with your honesty, faithfulness, integrity and zeal to fight. You just need to find the reason for your existence, mine was my children! We all have our demons; we just need to live through them!   


  1. What an insightful interview by a woman of tremendous substance, zeal, dedication, integrity integrity, open mindedness and courage. Like a committed potter Vandana has picked on the b'day creative potential of children to channelise it organically and artfully enabled children to believe that impossible can add week be "i-m- possible"! Her acceptance of the curve balls is evident when she talk of taking the pain of personal life in her stride that "just becomes a part of you over a period of time, subdued only to resurface again when you are the happiest." To be able to spread joy and hope overcoming such challenges defines her ability to walk to road less travelled. I wish her all the best in all show does and money invariably will follow from the abundance of the universe


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