By Zubeida Mustafa
IN his informative book, A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel does not touch on any aspect of children’s reading. It is a glaring omission as it is unlikely that children’s reading has no history.
Three developments described by Manguel, however, have implications for children and reading. In 200 BC, Aristophanes of Byzantium invented the punctuation marks. “Before then, written words were strung together in one continuous line,” the author remarks. Punctuation marks must have facilitated children’s reading of the written word.
Another landmark event was Julius Caesar’s invention of the codex (primitive form of book which had pages folded together) in 55 BC for his dispatches. This was easier to carry and read than the scroll which had reams of paper rolled up that no child could have handled with ease.
More than these developments, what must have influenced the interest of children in books over the ages comes in the chapter on ‘Being read to’. Manguel writes about his romance with books that started in his childhood when his nurse read out stories to him that made him “nothing but hearing”. Her voice “made me feverish with excitement and I urged her to read on”, he writes.
So these are the secrets that have helped the book industry attract children to their product. Make the book’s format comfortable to handle and the text exciting to read.
Now they know this is not enough. It is the third element — being read to — that is equally if not more important. Initially, reading has to be a joint activity. Had parents and teachers been doing this, we would not have been lamenting for decades the lack of interest in reading and the low sales of books in Pakistan. After all, the reading habit has to be cultivated in childhood and when firmly ingrained stays for life.
There are some enterprising individuals who are trying to change this. On Nov 25 and 26, the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) to be held in Lahore — the first event of its kind on a national scale in Pakistan — will hopefully set new directions. The organisers, Baela Raza Jamil of the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi and Ameena Saiyid of Oxford University Press, have announced two days of fun and excitement that will help connect children with the “world of words from which they can develop the taste and love for books and reading”.
Saiyid, who is a leading publisher in the country, says children’s books have enough sales to sustain their publishing and to encourage investments. She notes that these sales are mostly coming from schools. “Parents still tend to focus on buying textbooks,” she observes. “They still have to understand the importance of reading outside the curriculum,” she adds, and the festival is designed to do just that.
Two full-day sessions of reading and storytelling, workshops for creative writing, puppet shows, cartoon-making, competitions and conversations on books should create an interest among children in reading. The agenda is enterprising and shows imagination. When children read books, adults also read.
This experiment has a long way to go given the low ratio of children and adults reading books in Pakistan. Many factors account for this. The literacy rate is low and school enrolment should be higher. Although publishing for children has come up in a big way and colourful books illustrated attractively are now available, many of them lack the professional touch.
They are generally not graded, indicating a random approach to their production. At times, the language and the text are out of sync with the cognitive level of the reader. Only OUP has been professional in that respect as the many series it publishes are graded and produced by experts who know their job. Thus a step-by-step approach, as adopted by the Oxford Reading Tree, seeks to provide children practice in reading making them fluent and confident readers. One only wishes the OUP books were priced more modestly.
A problematic feature of most education-related activities in Pakistan is the class divide that causes all the benefits to accrue to a small elite group receiving English-medium education while the underprivileged are denied the facilities that they need more. Jamil has promised “this will be a truly popular national festival with more children coming from government and non-elite schools”. She dubs it as “a real equaliser”. Many schools are bussing children from distant places — also from other provinces. This should provide these children an “experience to remember” to quote Jamil.
The CLF and the others that are expected to follow in other cities should generate interest in reading among children. It is now up to the publishers to respond to the demand that is bound to be generated. The least they could do is to recognise that this is an age of specialisation, and the need is to train authors, editors and illustrators in the art of producing books for young readers. Considering that children can be harsh critics and difficult to please, it is time the publishers came together to create a training institution to address these issues and offer the needed facilities.
The CLF should draw a crowd of young bibliophiles who will be exposed to techniques of creative writing and reviewing books. Publishers willing to experiment should seek out some bright youth to create a pool of child reviewers to vet all manuscripts before they go to the press. Who can be more suitable to judge a book for children than children themselves?