By Zubeida Mustafa
AN email circular drew my attention to The ABC of It, an exhibition of children’s books that opened in the New York Public Library last week. The NYPL website announced that literature for young readers is important as through them one learns what books are teaching children. It also added that such books reveal a lot about the societies that produced them.
This observation provides food for thought. If I were asked to devise a yardstick to measure how child-friendly a society is, I would base it on the volume, quality, diversity, content and, above all, authorship of the children’s literature it produces. All authors and poets who have made a name for themselves in the literary world by writing for adults have always found time to write for children.
Two years ago, the British novelist, Martin Amis, created a furor when he remarked in a BBC programme that only brain injury would make him write a book for children. Mercifully that is not the conventional view and I wonder what Amis thinks of Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde and Aldous Huxley some of whose best writings were for children. And the NYPL reminds us that W.H. Auden says, “There are no good books which are only for children.”
In that respect we have been blessed with a rich tradition of our top authors and poets writing for adults also venturing into the challenging world of children’s literature. Who doesn’t remember Allama Iqbal’s poems which still captivate children. Nikhat Sattar, a development consultant, who loves to read and translate good literature, touched a nostalgic chord in me when she told me that she had a complete collection of the famous Urdu magazine Khilona that was launched in 1947 in New Delhi by the illustrious Dehlvi family, Khilona provided hours of leisure and pleasure to many of my generation. Nikhat tells me that the magazine which proudly proclaimed to be for “aath se assi saal tuk ke bachhon ke liyae” (for children aged eight to eighty) ceased publication in 1987. But for Pakistani readers the end came in 1965 with the India-Pakistan war which cut off all communications between the two countries.
Although there have been quite a few children’s magazines around in Pakistan – Naunehal, Taleem-o-Tarbiat, Phool, Bachon ki Dunya, to name a few – what distinguished Khilona from the others was its success in regularly attracting writers of the calibre of Sufi Tabassum, Ismat Chughtai, Khadija Mastur, Krishan Chander, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The last mentioned wrote poems for children and there is one he wrote for his daughter Moniza on her sixth birthday.
Another feature that kept the magazine lively was that it never became outdated. The themes of the stories changed with the changing times. While they usually had a moral, it was subtle, the aim of Khilona being primarily to entertain and make reading a ‘fun’ exercise Nikhat is only one of many for whom the spell that Khilona once weaved is as yet unbroken!
It is a pity that this tradition could not fully take root in Pakistan. Rumana Husain, who can enchant children by the magic of her exquisite storytelling, feels our society does not value authors who write for children. “What incentive is there for writers who have made a name for themselves by writing for adults to address a youthful readership when that is not appreciated?” She also complains that there are not many avenues open for writers of children literature.
The fact is that writing for children requires greater skill than writing for adults. The author has to communicate with his/her readers on an equal plane and on no account should s/he be talking down to them. It is also important that a children’s magazine must keep pace with the times. Top ranking authors have found place in contemporary children’s magazines but sporadically or even posthumously. A lovely poem by Shanul Haq Haqqi appeared in Naunehal’s special issue in June this year when Haqqi Sahib died in 2005. I do not quarrel with that but I wish writers like Intizar Husain Sahib would make regular appearances.
Against this backdrop, there came a breath of fresh air in the form of three books I received from the historian Dr Hamida Khuhro, who has earned fame by her scholarship. Inspired by her grandsons, she decided to write the history of Sindh not just for her progeny but also “children everywhere, especially those who live away from their homeland and deserve to know their own history”. The history of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtubkhwa by the eminent writer came in quick succession. Balochistan is to follow.
These books are engaging and, as Khilona did, are bound to also attract readers of “assi saal” who would want to refresh their memories of what they studied years ago. Children in their pre-teens would be fascinated by the racy style of the writing which is interspersed with delightful pictures.
Although Dr Khuhro says these books are for Pakistani children living abroad, one feels that even children living here are losing touch with their own history. The books will benefit them.
With millions of them not well versed in English, one hopes these books will be translated into the local languages. If youngsters have to struggle to read a book because they are not at ease with its language, they fail to experience the ‘joy of reading’ that Khilona tried to create.