Rumana Husain is an artist par excellence, an educator, a storyteller and an accomplished children’s author. She serves as a director on the board of the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF). With over 60 children’s books under her belt, she loves interacting with children. Her storytelling sessions, both physical and online, are much cherished by all. In this exclusive interview with The News on Sunday, she speaks about what drives her to do what she does and how she excels at it so effortlessly. Excerpts:
he News on Sunday (TNS): What motivated you to start writing for children?
Rumana Husain (RH): I started writing stories when I was quite young. These would sometimes get published in newspapers and other times get rejected. Since 1987, when I co-founded Bookgroup, I have been continuously writing children’s books for various publishers and NGOs.
TNS: Do any of the books you write describe your own childhood? How do you bring real-life situations to fictional characters?
RH: Yes, sometimes the stories are inspired by my own childhood. When Pratham Books, India, asked me to write a story in Urdu, I wrote Laal Badaam, which had bits and pieces of my own childhood association with that tree. I would crush the hard outer shells (after eating the red fruit) between our house’s old wooden doors and frames to get to the delicious seed inside. In the process, I destroyed several door frames and got many admonishments from my mother. The book has that as a story. Similarly, I have used real-life anecdotes from my two granddaughters for the City Tales series, and my young grandson is central to the book that tells the tale of the coronavirus in rhyme.
TNS: What is the most difficult aspect of writing a children’s book?
RH: I quite enjoy my work, so I am lucky that I do not find it difficult. Finding a publisher who will also be good at marketing the book is more of a challenge.
TNS: Where do you get your story ideas?
RH: Frankly, anything and everything can trigger an idea. Sometimes, the first sentence pops up in my head and I start writing. Believe it or not, the story then carves its own route and takes shape almost on its own with very few interventions by me. I don’t always have the entire plot in my mind before I start writing.
TNS: How important is it for today’s parents to inculcate the reading habit from an early age, especially in a time when children are constantly being bombarded with new devices, reducing their attention span almost by the day?
RH: Children will become life-long readers if they see their role models enjoying books. I have been saying repeatedly that the reading habits of children depend on seeing their parents and teachers reading and discussing books. Mothers can start reading books to babies. Even if they don’t understand anything, the idea of stories and their association with books will become entrenched in their minds.
Every evening, before children go to sleep, parents need to spend a few minutes with them for storytelling. Unfortunately, most well-to-do parents nowadays shower children with expensive clothes, toys and gadgets but rarely buy books or care about building a home library for their children.
Children will become life-long readers if they see their role models enjoying books. I have been saying repeatedly that the reading habits of children depend on seeing their parents and teachers reading and discussing books.
Parents need to monitor and control screen time. Many parents find it convenient to make gadgets and television shows work as babysitters for them. I also feel that if parents give books as birthday presents and if they insist that other parents do the same when it comes to their own children’s special events, the reading habit can be promoted. Moreover, if ceremonial plaques and all kinds of prizes, awards and gifts are replaced with books, children will start valuing books.
TNS: How many books have you written? Which one is your favourite; and why?
RH: To date, I have written and/ or illustrated about 65 books for children, and two coffee-table books about Karachi’s people, namely, Karachiwala: a Subcontinent within a City and Street Smart: Professionals on the Street. I have also written hundreds of stories for children that have been published in children’s magazines or in anthologies. It is very difficult to answer the latter part of your question. It is akin to asking a parent who her favourite child is.
TNS: How do you feel when someone disagrees with something you have written?
RH: If it is positive criticism coming from someone I respect and know that it is a comment made with sincerity then I make appropriate changes in my text. If I don’t agree, then I try my best to convince the other person. Luckily that does not happen too frequently.
TNS: Which characters would you like to meet in real life?
RH: Oh there are so many! Sheikh Chilli, Tot Batot, Scheherazade, Mowgli, Heidi, Matilda, the chocolate-maker from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…to name just a few.
TNS: Please suggest some children’s books that five to ten-year-olds can read this summer.
RH: For two years, I was involved with a book adaptation project for Room to Read (RtR) and Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) as its team leader. I read over 60 books for Levels 1, 2 and 3 on RtR’s Literacy Cloud originally written in various Asian and African languages and later translated into English. I selected twenty-eight from those books that were then adapted into Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto and Dari. Together with those beautifully produced books, ITA’s other publications make excellent reading. They are available on the Pakistan Learning Festival website.
My own bilingual series, City Tales, and Village Tales with four books each, and several other books published by Oxford University Press would be ideal for children of the age group you mention.
There are great books by my friends Basarat Kazim of Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS), Fauzia Minallah of Funkor, Nigar Nazar of Gogi Studio, and Maria Riaz of Why Books, that children can read.
I recently read an article about children’s books by EdJAM – Education Justice and Memory Network, which has published eleven books written about “overlooked Pakistani personalities” and even though I have not read those yet, I am sure that books such as Jawari: the Legendary Queen of Gilgit, Two Strays Strike Out, and Make Krishna’s Karachi Real are great additions. Then, of course, there are books by the master storytellers: Roald Dahl, Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll and several others that must be read by all children.
The interviewer is the publishing editor at Liberty Books