Beyond textbooks and tests

January 26, 2020

The recently concluded Children’s Literature Festival offered a variety of sessions such as storytelling, book launches, panel discussions, theatrical performances, and creative writing, to an audience of students that was delightfully diverse in terms of their varying ability levels and social backgrounds

Fun activity. — Photo by Rahat Dar

Years back, when struggling to convince senior management in the education sector to launch a programme in children’s literature studies, I was given a harsh reality check: “Bibi, you are talking about literature for children in a country where many don’t have access to even basic rights.” This rang true back then and, sadly, holds true even today, despite all the progress we have made in the wake of various interventions by public and private entities. Pakistan still has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world. And out of those who are in school, only a few can actually read and write.

Education crisis aside, life and well-being of children are at stake, with reports of violence, exploitation and abuse increasing with each passing day. As I write this, the pleas of justice for a minor girl brutally raped and strangled to death in Nowshera are trending on social media, at a time when the country has just started to recover from the shock of a four-year-old boy’s kidnapping and, later, death by suffocation.

In a situation like this, the idea of a two-day festival dedicated entirely to the promotion of reading and fostering creative expression among children appears unimaginable. Yet, this week, Children’s Library Complex, Lahore, played host to Children’s Literature Festival (CLF).

Launched in 2011 by Idara –i-Taleem-o-Agahi (ITA) and Oxford University Press, Pakistan (OUP), CLF is the brainchild of Baela Raza Jamil, CEO of ITA, and Ameena Saiyid, who is widely recognised for her role as managing director of OUP Pakistan. Over the years, CLF has strived towards nurturing a passion for reading and learning “beyond textbooks and tests,’’ and reached out to over 1.3 million children in different cities of Pakistan, besides creating a wide network of academic and non-academic advisors, partners and sponsors including the British Council, Open Society Foundation and Oxfam. Since 2013, they have also been publishing a bi-monthly magazine, titled Urran Tashtree (The Flying Saucer) for children.

Ahmad Rafay Alam and others talk to children about environment and climate change.

Careeming my way to the venue, with the air of a Rebecca Bloomwood on her first assignment, I was amazed to see the number of school buses bringing children to the place. Consequently, there was a long queue at the entrance. As I waited for my turn, I started talking to the school teachers who seemed as excited to be there as the children they were chaperoning. Upon entrance, we were greeted by volunteers wearing CLF themed T-shirts who distributed the festival plan and guided us towards the ground where girls from Government Chauburji Special School were performing the national anthem in sign language, as part of the inaugural session that had just begun.

It was followed by a tableau by students of Government Shahdab Special School and a rendition of Zehra Nigah’s CLF anthem, Hamein Kitab Chahiye (We want books) by students of Sanjan Nagar School. Afterwards, there were short welcome addresses by CLC chairperson, Mariam Khokhar; ITA, CEO and the founder of CLF, Baela Raza Jamil who wittily termed the festival a “basant of books” at which the crowd let out a loud cheer; member of PTI, Talat Naghmi; and Punjab Area Director for the British Council, Maarya Rehman, among others.

As a token of appreciation, Jamil presented CLF Awards to longtime supporters of the event, including Basarat Kazim, Arfa Syeda Zahra and Fauzia Minallah. However, it was a Kathak performance by Harsukh students, on Bulleh Shah’s aptly selected verses (Parh, parh, alam fazal hoya), and readings of stories from young authors themselves that occurred in the interstices of these formalities that kept the young audience waiting and excited for more.

For me, one of the highlights was the simultaneous ‘translation’ of all proceedings in sign language, as this was the first time I saw such a step towards inclusion taken outside the Cbeebies’ programmes.

Following the inaugural session, the audience was free to attend the sessions they wanted, and with 50-plus parallel sessions ranging from storytelling, book launches, panel discussions, STEM activities, theatrical performances, cultural knowledge sharing, life skills, creative writing, illustration, publication and film screening, there was something indeed for everyone.

Amid sessions on Lahore and Pakistan’s history, a bit about the famous Pakistani children’s authors such as Saeed Lakht and Sufi Tabussam could have been included to connect children to their literary heritage.

There was also an open mic session, titled Bol Keh Lab Azad Hain Teray, in which the children expressed their thoughts. There also was a Kitab Gari, a rickshaw turned into a mini library where an animated story was being played on screen.

My next step was to check out the Interactive LHC Tunnel by Khwarizmi Science Society and the activities by Science Fuse, but I couldn’t reach there because both these sessions, like many others, were packed with crowds of children. Probably that’s the reason some of the sessions, for instance, How to Become a Girl Guide by the Pakistan Girl Guide Association, and On The Wings of Poesy I Will Soar, a poetry workshop by Tahira Mir, were repeated on both days so as to cater to as many children as possible.

A few sessions like those on the need for critical thinking in curriculum and the importance of libraries in classrooms, seemed geared towards adult interests, but others such as Mausam Mahaul Aur Hum on climate change and Hamari Hifazat Kaun Karay Ga on child protection attracted adult and child audiences alike.

Between sessions, the food and book stalls were competing for visitors’ attention. A wide array of children’s books and teachers’ resource materials were available at the book stalls, set up by OUP and Maqbool Books, among others. I wished that some discounts were offered to students, especially from government and low-budget private schools, because one could see children leafing through books but finding them unaffordable even at a price of Rs 95. This made me wonder how accessibility to children’s books is also an important player in developing a lifelong love for reading and specialist libraries such as Alif Laila in Lahore, or a regularly updated children’s section in other libraries are needed in every neighbourhood.

It is, however, commendable that the organisers had set up a books donation box, and it is hoped that they reach the most deserving readers.

As I look back at those two days of fun and learning that all children in Lahore had access to, I wonder what is the way forward as CLF completes a decade next year. It was wonderful to see the festival being inclusive in terms of its audience, with students of varying ability levels from both public and private sector gathered together through a shared appreciation of books and favourite authors. I recommend that the same level of inclusiveness is kept in the selection of authors and panelists too. There are some faces that are familiar to all who attend CLF each time it’s held, but along those faces there is a need to include other people who have kept the flame of indigenous children’s literature alive through magazine publication. While most of us got the reading bug through children’s magazines such as Phool, Taleem o Tarbiyat, Naunehal, Bachon Ki Dunia and Bachon Ka Bagh, no representation from the authors who write for these publications and the editors who source their content was seen in the two days the festival was held. Their contribution to children’s literature should also be validated through representation.

Similarly, amid sessions on Lahore and Pakistan’s history, a bit about the famous Pakistani children’s authors such as Saeed Lakht and Sufi Tabussam could have been included to connect children to their literary heritage. As much as I love the Harry Potter series, I wish that among Kitab Gali, Sana Mir ka Maidan, or Waris Shah ki Baithak, it wasn’t Harry Potter but Tot Batot that had been talked about as one of the most iconic characters in children’s literature from Pakistan.

Lastly, a responsibility to promote reading lies with parents too. The ITA already conducts a daylong professional development session for teachers, which ensures that the magic of CLF is kept alive in classroom activities. But all of us as parents and guardians also need to encourage a love of reading among our children. Only then we can achieve the mission of “life changing curriculum” that Zahra Nigah envisions in the CLF anthem.

The writer is a Distinction holder in Children’s Literature and Literacies from University of Glasgow, UK and currently works as a lecturer at UMT, Lahore. She tweets at @readlikematilda

Beyond textbooks and tests: Children's Literature Festival attempts to revive reading culture in Lahore