Literary Notes: Need for a national book foundation for children’s literature
EVERY year, in the first week of April, International Children’s Book Day (ICBD) is celebrated. It is meant to inspire the love of books and reading in children and bring children and books together.
Celebrated since 1967, ICBD coincides with the birthday of Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875), a great writer of stories for children, who was born on April 2. ICBD is organised every year by International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), a non-profit organisation with an official status at Unesco and Unicef. Founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1953, IBBY now has a secretariat at Basel, Switzerland. In addition to giving children an opportunity to have access to books, the organisation aims to promote understanding through children’s books and protect and uphold children’s rights according to the UN convention on the Rights of the Child.
IBBY every year decides on the theme of the event. The slogan for this year’s international event is ‘The small is big in a book’. Making the access to books easy for children is indeed a great and noble cause, especially to the children who do not have any opportunity to read. But it is not always easy to bring books and children together, especially in a country like ours. To make the access to books easy for children, many countries have formed an institution or board, known as the National Section of IBBY. Pakistan, too, has such a section established at Lahore.
Making a difference or bringing on a change is easier through children’s literature as literature can contribute towards instilling humanistic thoughts and a different world view into children’s mind. Writers of children’s books can leave everlasting effects on children’s mind and that is how you prepare the new generations to bring out better in them. So making books easily available to children is one of the keys to social development and redirecting the thoughts of the younger generations.
But making books accessible to children, especially in far-flung or less developed areas, is a herculean task. Millions of children in Pakistan are out of school, which simply means they cannot read, let alone making books available to them. Secondly, books are becoming more and more expensive by the day and an overwhelming majority of those children who can read increasingly cannot afford books. The role and scope of national sections of IBBY and other such NGOs will always be limited.
What we need now is a National Book Foundation for Children’s Literature. In Pakistan, we already have a National Book Foundation (NBF). Surprisingly, it has been doing wonderfully well. I said ‘surprisingly’ because it is a government organisation, but plays a very vital and positive role in book promotion in Pakistan. Amazingly, the NBF sells books worth some Rs400 million, every year, and that too in a country like Pakistan which is notorious when it comes to literacy rates and reading habits. The NBF not only publishes books and sells them at a low price, it also promotes books in different ways.
The NBF has also been contributing to children’s literature in a positive manner. Aside from publishing a large number of books for children, a few years ago, the NBF held a story-writing competition for children. The writers of children’s stories — children themselves — were awarded cash prizes and certificates. On top of that, some of the best stories were published in book form. Titled Bachchon Ki Tehreer Karda In’aam yafta Kahaniyan, the book was received well and has run into four editions. The first edition had a print order of 5,000, a great success considering that the first editions of books by top Pakistani writers hardly cross the 1,000 mark. So far about 10,000 copies have been sold. Some of the stories included in the book have signs that some budding writers may soon bloom into beautiful flowers. Compiled by Afshan Sajid and Fareeda Hafeez, the book has 31 stories, all written by children. Though the 248-page book is priced Rs110, one feels it must have been subsidised further as many children from lower class would not be able to afford this low price even.
Sathee, an Urdu monthly for children, published from Karachi, has completed 40 years of its publications and has been contributing to children’s literature in a very constructive way. Of late, it has begun publishing books for children. But the new book published by monthly Sathee is in English. Named The Tale of Noses, it has 14 stories, all taken from previous issues of Sathee and translated into English. Translated by Fatima Noor Siddiqi, Rahima Khan and Huda Saad Syed, the book has colour illustrations.
But creation of an institution for children’s literature is inevitable. If we cannot have a separate book foundation for children’s literature, at least the NBF should be asked to establish a separate department for promoting children’s literature.