DO our children read books? In the absence of reliable statistics, one must turn to anecdotal evidence, which suggests that the book reading culture does not exist in Pakistan — be it among adults or children. I have yet to meet a publisher who is satisfied with his sales. School textbooks are the publishing industry’s bread and butter. Hence publishers do not focus much on storybooks for younger readers.
It’s no wonder then that Pakistan has traditionally lacked a thriving children’s books industry. Popular authors such as Sufi Tabassum and poets like Allama Iqbal notwithstanding, the industry never picked up. Educators noticed this vacuum and individuals stepped in. The Bookgroup, Nigar Nazar of Gogi fame and the Alif Laila Book Bus Society emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, with exciting, innovative books that attracted children. But they were not enough to turn around the non-reading culture.
To break this resistance to book-reading, a massive multidimensional effort is clearly needed. First, attractive and colourful books based on our own cultures have to be published for children. Second, these publications must be made accessible to all students through a network of school libraries. Third, the concept of the ‘book mentor’ must be developed.
Librarians can play a role only if they understand clearly what is expected of them. They are not just ‘book keepers’, who arrange their ware on shelves and issue them to students, ensuring that the books are returned on time. More important, they should stimulate children’s interest in the books they issue and be capable of discussing it meaningfully with them. That presupposes that librarians too have read the books in their care.
The engagement of ‘book mentors’ is required.
A beginning has been made in this direction and the much-needed massive push has come from the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi (ITA), organisers of the Pakistan Learning Festival (previously the Children’s Literature Festival). It has set the ball rolling, with countless storytelling sessions apart from other enjoyable learning activities. True, the child also learns informally from her experience and exposure. But will she start reading books by attending festivals on and off when they are held? Unlikely.
Still, ITA director Baela Jamil, an incurable optimist, is hopeful, as she is also a doer. Baela is working on a number of fronts. To make children’s books easily available, she has gone into publishing and setting up libraries. ITA’s activities have been diversified. It has set up a number of low-cost libraries, such as the rickshaw library in Karachi and the Digi Kutubkhana in Mubarak Village, which was initially housed in a trunk. They serve as inexpensive models for others.
Recently, 48 stand-alone libraries and 200 classroom libraries with open shelves and 2,000 books were set up in 68 government schools in Lahore and Bahawalpur districts, thanks to an agreement between ITA and Room to Read (RtR), a California-based non-profit organisation that seeks to promote literacy and gender equality in education in many Afro-Asian countries in the latter’s own languages.
ITA has also been taking initiatives to boost children’s book publishing in Pakistan. It instituted the Young Authors’ Awards a few years ago to encourage children with writing skills to write books. Promising authors were provided mentoring by Rumana Husain, a writer, an illustrator of 75 books and co-founder of the Bookgroup.
The RtR agreement goes much further. In the first phase, Rumana as team leader selected 28 English books from RtR’s cloud collection and had them published in our languages. They became instant hits. The next phase promises to be more significant; it will induct local publishers, writers, illustrators and editors into the children’s book industry. Training workshops have been conducted by RtR’s resource person and 15 titles are in the pipeline; 6,000 copies of each will be printed to be distributed free of cost to public and low-fee schools. The publishers will be allowed to print and sell more than the stipulated number at affordable prices.
The project has made remarkable progress in just three years and should succeed if expanded exponentially, especially to higher levels. Promoting the culture of reading among children calls for the deep engagement of ‘book mentors’, including principals, teachers and librarians. They have been trained by RtR and a library period has been included in the timetable. But the real challenge is to get teachers genuinely interested in reading, which is not a solitary activity as is widely believed. It has to be followed by an interactive discussion between the participants who are also engaged with the book. The book culture is a collective pursuit to encourage further reading. That is why the success of the project will ultimately depend on the mentors.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2023