There is pure delight in the oral tradition of storytelling. Children gather around a parent, grandparent, aunt or teacher, eager and attentive, hanging onto every word until the main characters ‘lived happily ever after’. In the Subcontinent, though the oral tradition has long been a staple as in many other places around the world, children’s literature in the book form has developed only recently.
Since before Partition, the famous Urdu weekly magazine Phool has been published from Lahore, marking a significant and long-lasting contribution to children’s literature. Other Lahore publications, and Khilona from Delhi, likewise offered critical platforms for a nascent Southasian children’s fiction in those early years. After the birth of Pakistan in 1947, Hakeem Saeed of Hamdard Laboratories started to publish, for children, the famous monthly magazine Hamdard Naunehal, the first issue coming out in 1953. The Paramount Publishing Enterprise, founded in 1948, is worth mentioning as one of the largest wholesale and retail distributors-cum-publishers. But undoubtedly one of the grand old publishing houses in this regard is Ferozsons, founded by Maulvi Feroz-ud-Din in Lahore in 1894 not only as a business venture but also to spread literacy among the masses. Given this aim, one of the publisher’s first projects was the publishing of children’s books, with the idea of educating the Muslim children of India. Like Hamdard Naunehal, Ferozsons’s monthly Taleem-O-Tarbiat became a staple source of entertainment for many children, both before and after Partition. Beyond periodicals, however, books specifically for children have come of age in Pakistan only in the past three decades.
It took almost a century for the logical extension of the Ferozsons initiative, with the 1978 introduction of Pakistan’s first lending library for children. The Book Bus, a brightly coloured double-decker bus specially converted for the purpose, was the brainchild of an American psychologist named Nita Baker, who used inheritance money to purchase the bus library’s first books. From there, an educationist named Basarat Kazim took over, setting up the formal Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS) in Lahore, which was aimed at providing meaningful education to children, especially girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Within the first few years of its existence, the ALBBS had persuaded the Punjab government to construct a reference library next to the bus, and to convert the park where it was stationed into a space solely for children. The reference library now contains magazines, games, puzzles and photocopying facilities, as well as a television set on which educational films are shown regularly.
Next came the ALBBS mobile library, called Dastango (Storyteller), which visits schools in towns surrounding Lahore. Alif Laila has also set up libraries funded by other organisations in Muzaffarabad and in schools in 59 districts of Punjab province, as well as resource centres-cum-libraries in Bagh, Abbottabad and Mansehra. Even after more than three decades of the Book Bus initiative, however, the government has neither replicated nor helped to ply the ALBBS’s buses in all of the towns and cities of Pakistan. Nonetheless, this project’s decades of experience have since inspired some similar initiatives. Today, one hears of donkey libraries, book boats, ‘single cupboard’ libraries, libraries on bicycles – any number of modest means to bring books to children.
The Alif Laila initiative has also had a transformative effect on children’s literature itself in Pakistan. When the Book Bus library began, there was at the time a dearth of good Urdu books for children. Those that were in circulation lacked not only good illustrations, but also content that could interest children – instead, in a failing that has been widely seen in early literature targeting children, focusing on highly moralistic subject matter. The first wave of foreign books, translated into Urdu in a way that was both suitable and appealing for children, came during the 1970s, particularly from China, Russia and India. Suddenly, an entire world of issues and interests opened up for Pakistani children – adult guidance in choosing a vocation, for instance, dealing with sibling jealousy or mourning the death of a parent or grandparent. All the same, even though these new books were far better than their predecessors, they were still quite alien, as neither the characters nor their culture or environment were familiar to young Pakistani readers.
By the mid-1980s, however, significant momentum had gathered for children’s books in Pakistan, and a number of publishers had entered the business. The contemporary illustrated book, having weathered a variety of trends in design, thus emerged, where the increased use of modern printing techniques enabled the artist to paint in a variety of new mediums (including wash and watercolour), and to integrate the text with the artwork attractively yet economically. Later, during the early 1990s, laborious hand calligraphy was replaced when simple digital Urdu fonts became available on personal computers, reflecting a similar transformation that took place with regards to computer manipulation of illustrations themselves.
In recent times, two publishers that have arguably done the most for children’s literature in Pakistan – Ferozsons and the Bookgroup (the latter co-founded by this writer) – have also tapped into an innovative resource, whereby children’s literature is written by children themselves. Many children have penned short stories, of course, but in 1997, Nayantara Noorani, then an 11-year-old girl, wrote the much-acclaimed A Dream Come True, an English-language novel for children. This happened quite accidentally, as Ferozsons had first requested Nayantara’s mother, an English-language teacher, to write a novel, though she declined saying she did not have enough time. But her enthusiastic daughter had picked up parts of her mother’s phone conversation, and insisted on offering herself to write the requested book. Due to the positive reaction, Ferozsons later printed a second novel by Noorani, Reflections.
Noorani’s first book focused on a circus – an odd choice, given that there is no strong circus tradition in Pakistan. When asked about this, the young author said that, though she had never been to a circus herself, she had read much about the experience. “As a child, I had wanted to become an acrobat,” she said. “My favourite authors were Enid Blyton and Toby Tyler, and I was fascinated by the idea of a free life in which my house could move with me, and there was no school.”
Still, good business
It is impossible to discuss children’s literature at any length without delving into the illustrations. Children love humour and animation in book illustrations, and their primary interest in any book is its pictures. Unfortunately, in Pakistan today illustration too is an example of only stuttering progress. Art schools in the country have indeed begun to teach book illustration and design, drawing from the Subcontinent’s long tradition of Persian-influenced ‘miniature’ artwork style. In turn, publishers too are finally taking seriously the need to employ artists and designers to plan books with attention to style. Still, adequate attention has not been paid, with market forces having largely been responsible for leading most artists to improve their artistic understanding and technique – through their own initiatives. For better and worse, this process has been helped along significantly by artists studying and copying the visual approaches used by children’s books printed in other parts of the world.
Similarly, while the better-rated publishers look out for original stories, many prefer to guide their writers towards adaptations or retelling of folk tales in easy and concise language. Since there is no training ground for children’s writers, anyone who has interest, inclination or the right contacts can submit a story – and there are very few financial rewards for children’s writers. Either to save money or out of lack of good taste, many publishers employ mediocre professionals, and dictate how a book must be written and designed. Almost inevitably, such a process results in poor-quality books that can hardly leave a lasting, positive impression.
Nonetheless, due to their use as supplementary texts by a few hundred private schools throughout the country – thus making it mandatory for parents to purchase them – the production of children’s storybooks in Pakistan today thrives as good business. Ironically, a lack of initiative by school administrations, coupled with a continued lack of libraries in many poorer schools, continue to deprive a majority of the country’s children of the pleasure and education inherent in reading child-geared books. The price of full-colour books is also a significant deterrent for parents who might want to buy them on their own. Colourful books are expensive to print not only due to high prices for good-quality paper; in addition, low literacy levels result in low print runs, in turn leading to high per-copy costs of PKR 35 to 50 for a book of just 10 to 14 pages. While a few NGOs have been able to subsidise books for poor and government-run schools through foreign grants, there has generally been no follow-up on these projects.
Ultimately, then, we are left with a strikingly symbolic, and unfortunately common, image: that of books donated through government channels being locked up inside the principal’s office, as the administration is afraid of being held accountable for any loss or damage. While children’s literature in Pakistan has come a long way in the past several decades, changing this type of mentality is now its most significant obstacle.
~ Rumana Husain is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, based in Karachi.