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At last a showcase for making reading a reality again for our schoolchildren happened at Lahore in the Children’s Literature Festival. The sultry winter morning of Nov 25 saw a swarm of schoolchildren enter the Children’s Library Complex to participate in a fun-filled activity-based festival to savour and enjoy just books. The Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, opened the Children’s Literature Festival by telling a story to the children. The brain child of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi’s Baela Reza Jamil and Ameena Saiyid of Oxford University Press, the festival was inclusive of both government and private school children, 20,000 of whom attended over the two days.

The Children’s Library Complex is spread over a few acres of land and is a government-owned project. Its buildings house a children’s library and has rooms galore and open spaces to accommodate exhibitions and children’s activities. To have used the premises for the Literature Festival made the purpose of the Children’s complex become a reality to be emulated for the future.

Publishers of children’s books circled the quadrangle of the complex with LCD’s displaying their products on screen and the never-ending stream of parents and teachers accompanied by children availed the opportunity of browsing through children’s books, videos and CDs. School administrators and teachers had a chance to look at valuable resource material. This was reinforced by sessions on “getting children to read”, “setting up and running a school library” and “making a book”.

The festival’s motto “unlocking the power of reading” manifests itself in the myriad of ways children can be engaged to tap their potential for a bright and positive future. Many famous academic and talented personalities from all over Pakistan graced the two days and made the activities come alive for the children. Writers, poets, novelists, actors and singers became one unending resource for the children to meet and learn from. Khalid Anam sang along with the children in the Arabian Nights tent put up by the Alif Laila Book Bus Society. Adeel Hashmi and Nadia Jamil, the youth ambassadors of the festival, delighted the children with their theatrical and narrative performances.

On a more serious note, young students benefitted from talks by Professor Arifa Syeda, Zakia Sarwar, Zara Mumtaz, Zubeida Mustafa, Naushaba Burney and Zubeida Jalal. In the realm of poetry reading, Naveed Riaz, brought back the magic of Sufi Tabassum’s children’s poetry to a rapt audience and Shahnaz Aijazuddin engrossed the children by her rendition of the Talism-i-Houshruba tales. Story telling in the regional languages was a greatly appreciated component of the proceedings and the acknowledgement of the mother tongue as the base for reading in any language.

Nothing is dearer to children than their talents being recognised and appreciated in a competitive mode. A host of competitions ran throughout the two days and kept them involved in poetry writing, drawing and painting and debates. The best among them received prizes as encouragement such as when a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl fascinated the audience with finger puppets speaking in Punjabi. The Khalqia Award for the Best Green Book Award went to a writer of children’s stories in Sindhi, Khalid Azad, and for stories in a regional language to a young Balochi girl, Maikan Gichki, a Class VII student from Turbat, and a Pushto writer.

Education and books go together and a session on “Textbooks: opening or closing minds” was extremely useful and relevant to students. In the first hour, students spoke on what their textbooks were like when Textbook Board representative Mr Sibte Hussain quizzed the children on their likes and dislikes vis-à-vis textbooks. Students amazed the audience by their confident and useful comments on what improvements they would like in their textbooks. Both adults and children managed to exchange views, opinions and argued for realistic and child-friendly Pakistani textbooks.

A corner of the complex had a stage put up for a puppet show arranged by the Rafi Peer Theatre Group mesmerising a never-ending stream of children with the performance by the puppets. The look of joy on their faces at being entertained by puppetry was interspersed at intervals by occasional deep breaths of appreciation which made it all so worthwhile to watch. Sheema Kermani and Lal Theatre Group put up a play for the children on the premises although many children had to forgo the pleasure as the hall was jam-packed. Another popular session turned out to be that of cartoonist Nigar Nazar, who delighted the children with her drawings and humorous take on cartoon making.

The flights of imagination and creativity evoked by storytelling and narratives in children cannot ever be enough. To read is to enter the world of imagination whose limit is the sky. One successful festival has proved that children love to read and inculcating a culture of book reading will go a long way towards realising quality in education.

The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore.