Sunday, 21 August 2011

Six authors, one prize… Mastering the delicate art of children’s writing (Friday, 19.08.2011

By Anote Ajeluorou

Last Sunday, the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) organised its yearly Book Party to celebrate the six authors, who are nominees of the Nigeria Prize for Literature this year. The prize was endowed in 2004 by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) to grow literary engagements in the country. But there was so much fanfare at the book party held at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. Remarkably, children made up about 60 per cent of the audience. This was deliberate; this year’s edition of the prize is on children’s literature. Invited guests had been urged to bring their children along to be part of the celebration, to meet and interact with the six authors.
  All the readings were done by children while the authors looked on in admiration. Children also asked the authors interesting and probing questions about their works. These questions generated so much attention and excitement amongst the adult audience. After all, the book feast was theirs and the children took ample advantage of it. It also showed that the authors had done their best, and could only wait for the verdict of the judges, which would come sometime in early October, when the prize is given out.
  Notably, however, the question of how difficult it is really to write for children came up; and, indeed, what it essentially took to write for children. Children writing expert, a former laureate of the Nigerian Prize for Literature and university teacher, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, who won the prize in 2004 and is head of jury this year, was first to point the way on mapping the delicate art of writing for children.
  She said, “To write for children, is not as easy as some people think. To write for them, you’re thinking of content, the level of children you have in mind; how they can understand your writing. You’re thinking of relevance; what children will take interest in. Then you’re thinking of form; the technique and style. Then, of course, you’re thinking of editorial standard, a work that would be without blemish.
  “Also, you think of plot and dialogue. Is the dialogue suitable? Then, of course, there is the vocabulary control; what level of words to employ. Words should not be too hard; but give them something to look up in a dictionary to help build their vocabulary. Then plotting the characters; then the morals a child should take away from the book or story. A child should take away something from the characters in the book. There should also be illustration to make the book appealing to them”.
  The six laureates later recorded their individual experience thus:
Thelma Nwokeji (author of Red Nest)
IT wasn’t easy at all. You’ve got to choose your words; you have to pay attention to your language, and the things that are morally good enough for them; issues that could hook up with their minds and that could educate them. You also have to write on the issues that would grip them; otherwise they wouldn’t have interest.
  Interestingly, I have five children, and I can say I know a lot about children. I know what they feel, and so it was easy to enter their minds from what I see of my own children. But, of course, that didn’t mean I sourced my material from any of them; characters from my work are different from them though. I just used children’s reasoning as raw material.
  This is my first published story; I have other manuscripts in waiting. Although I’m an architect, I actually wanted to educate children more. I would say this particular book is timely. Stubbornness amongst children, child labour, kidnapping, poverty as it relates to children, are among the issues that confront children these days.
  Actually, why I chose to publish this particular one is because I have noticed in society that a lot of children are no more interested in education. They are no more as interested in education as children of those days were. They are now more materialistic; they want to go into yahoo (419 or scam). They just want to make money, even without working for it. So, this book will teach them moral values, that there are much more valuable qualities to seek after than wealth; instant wealth, for that matter.
  It will teach them honesty, benefits of hard work and sincerity as values that ennoble human beings. And, I think I have a fair chance of winning the Nigeria Prize for Literature. The book is well-written, well-illustrated, and the story is gripping.

Uche Peter Umez (author of The Runaway Hero)
I THINK, generally, writing for children is difficult. Indeed that, writing generally is very difficult because you’re trying to recreate something that doesn’t have any reality. So, I still find writing for children very difficult even though I have written a couple of books. When you write for adults, you don’t look at age limit, but when you write for children, you have to determine if it’s for easy readers or the older category. When you write for adults, you’re not too mindful of the language; you’re not too mindful of the figurative expressions you use. In writing for children, you try to make it a bit easier for them to read; that is, you reduce the kind of metaphors and figures of speech you use.
  In my book, characterisation rather than content proved trickier to deal with because I wanted to create a boy who is so convincing, a boy you don’t need to like because he isn’t a good boy; he has a lot of rough edges around him. The boy is headstrong, naughty and gets into trouble often. So, my biggest challenge was trying to paint this kind of character, who is not likeable but has something about him that you can’t help admiring.
  As for the prize, I don’t want to think about chances or about expectations. All I want to think about is trying to be a very good writer and mastering the art and craft of writing, and then complete my adult novel. For now, I don’t want to think about the outcome so I don’t get unnecessarily anxious or uneasy over the result.

Ayodele Olofintuade (author of Eno’s Story)
IT was a bit tough because I was talking about a topical issue happening in Nigeria right now, and I wanted to talk about it in a language children will understand. It’s  a deep, dark subject (witchcraft); but I didn’t want to make it too scary for them. I wanted to make something that would be interesting and funny for them, but at the same time teach them the moral around it. So, I had to find the balance because of the nature of the story itself. So, I can’t say it was so easy for me to write it.
  I won’t lie to you; it was tough being that it’s a complex subject fit for adults. It was tough because I had to be sure of my language; the way I use my language. I had to be sure of things, the context, and situation in which child witches are said to be prevalent.
  And also, I hadn’t quite been to Akwa Ibom State, where child witches was a scourge although I had lived in the South-East for a while, about three years and I did a lot of travelling. And I have a lot of friends from the South-East; so, I had to research the names and locations but I don’t know the places. A friend of mine, Esther, a Calabar girl; she was very fantastic. She gave me background and explained things to me. I did a lot of research so I don’t misrepresent things; you don’t want to write about something you don’t know much in an authoritative way. See?
  And then, I was looking for the magic way to best put things and make it memorable for children. So, when I got to where the father and the daughter were talking about witchcraft, I was looking for a word that would qualify a person that talks about something that he doesn’t know anything about, and I wanted a word that is catchy, a word children can easily identify with, and I was stuck for a while; and one day, my son came home and said, ‘I met an ignoramus today’. And I said men, that’s the word! I think my son and so people were arguing about music or something and one was talking about what he did not know. And I told him he had just brought home my ‘word’. My son’s name is Alexander; he is 13 years old; but he was about 11 when I wrote the book.

Chinyere Obi-Obasi (author of The Great Fall)
 I’M sure you heard Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo talk about children’s book not being very easy because of language. If I’m writing for adults, and they don’t understand a word, they go and look it up in a dictionary. But when you’re writing for children, you have to get down to their level; you have to think like they think. Children don’t think the way adults think; they have this child-like innocence, and that innocence has to appear in your book.
  But that is easy for me because I have five children, who are between 5 and 15; so, I do a lot of observation: Watch how they talk, how they do things so I can make it part of the book that I write.
  In any case, it gets to a point where you don’t see it as easy or difficult; writing is your vocation. So, you don’t even complain.
  For me, who is a lawyer and works in a bank and have five children, when I wake up to write at night, I don’t think of it as being difficult or hard; it’s something you must do. Your name cannot appear on a book unless you write it. You must write; so yes, it’s not easy; it’s not hard. It’s just there.
  In my book, there are characters in it that are close to home. There’s an Obinna, who eats a lot; a Suzan, who asks very innocent, stupid questions that her sisters ask her to shut up. So, naturally, you have all those characters; there are three characters in the book, but it’s not as if I lifted them straight from my own children. But I’m sure that when my children are reading it, they might be able to point themselves out in it. It’s not that it’s them I set out to write about; it’s the possible things that they can do as normal children.
  My word for Nigerians is, time has come for us to believe in our own writing, especially writing for children. Those who import or use only foreign books in Nigerian schools should begin to change and use local books like the ones we have gathered here today to celebrate. The trend is fast changing even for adult books; local is the preferred. And if a group of eminent judges (all of them professors of English) pick out six books out of the over one hundred that entered for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, then it’s something we should take special interest. I don’t see why anybody should hesitate to use or recommend such books in his or her school. Unless they are saying that the people who chose the books don’t know what they are doing.
  So-called elitist schools should start using Nigerian books for Nigerian children. Importantly, these books are localised: Names of places and people, objects and content in these books are things children are familiar with. You use these foreign books and they are talking about snow or Father Christmas or talking about alien things to the children. But when you’re using a book that is localised, the children’s culture and everything he knows are there to aid the child’s learning and understanding.
  I think with time, elitist schools will understand and begin to accept and use our books to teach our children. With time, it will happen. The gap lack of publishers created needs to be filled; with these publishers doing what they are doing now, things will change; so, it’s a gradual thing. But then, we need government’s intervention. Not because my book is there, but the Ministry of Education should be able to call for these books and make them part of the curriculum. If these judges recommend these books based on certain strict criteria, they should use them. When schools that believe in imported books are forced to take them by the education ministry, they will begin to see the merit in these books.

Mai Nasara (author of The Missing Clock)
WRITING for children is not straight-forward. Well, I suppose I got luck here because I’ve always been working with children. But it’s not a world adults get into easily. To get it right for children at all means you’re getting it right not just for children but for adults as well. So, it has to be good for children and adults. Think of all the classics for children and the phenomenon, Harry Potter series; it’s done for children, but because it’s so good, even adults like it. But if it was done solely for adults, children wouldn’t even bother to pick it up. But I’ve found that they speak to fundamental issues of our lives.
  Children’s writing takes us back to the things that really matter without the outer coating. They give us a rude awakening. Most people think, ‘oh! You write for children; you couldn’t have done it for adults’. They are actually missing the point. To write for children at all, you’re a child, thinking like a child, entering their world; it’s something that I have enjoyed because I work with children in Sunday School in church and working with them in camp creating awareness.
  So, we’re filling a void by bringing to the public domain children’s books authored by Nigerians. What the NLNG is doing by endowing a prize for Nigerian literature, I believe, is to call attention to the authorities that, ‘look, charity should begin at home because charity does begin at home otherwise it’s not charity.’ These works will stand not just the test of time, but of space, as in terms of wherever you take them to; they will stand the test of time. So, look at them; they reflect our realities and their characters are such that our children can relate to. The legendary Chinua Achebe talked about taking up writing for children because he wanted to write stories for his children because there was no African book to reflect African reality for them.
  Chimamanda Adichie also talked about how she grew up reading characters in books that were unlike her, about things like snow that were not part of her reality, and so felt challenged to write stories that reflect her reality, African reality. We have written stories, my friends and I that reflect local reality. They are local content, but for global audiences. So they are about local realities, local experiences but globalised. I believe these are stories that may be adopted in Canada, America or Europe before they are adopted in Nigeria for the school system. They understand that there’s strength in diversity; they understand how to take from all cultures to enrich their own.
  Already, with the spotlight beamed on us, I won’t be surprised if they are first to request to have our books before we even do so here at home. They have libraries over there; we don’t have libraries here. Their public libraries work but not so here. We’re cut off from the stream of humanity in not knowing what others are doing, the stories they are telling, how their cultures are being transmitted through stories. It’s stories that make us human beings; we’re not human beings by default. Stories people tell do, indeed, take care of them. Stories can be more important than food; they sustain. Dying starts from the inside, and without stories to reconstruct the past and nourish the soul, people die. Stories build courage for people to live for another day, and yet another day. We need stories to grow into global citizens, who can take on the world with renewed courage.

Philip Begho (author of Auntie Felicia Goes to School)
THERE’s no work that’s easy or hard in that sense. First of all, it’s the work you’re cut out for; so, it isn’t hard. It takes diligence and hardwork. There’s a way that children’s writing is difficult and not at the same time. If you don’t have interest in children, don’t live in their world, or have left their world, grown out of it, it’s going to be hard for you. In writing for adults, which is a complicated world, you have to do research. You must know a lot before you can write about adult world, but not so in children’s writing where you have to cut out some of the details. I have an informal playgroup for children; so that helps in relating with them and entering their world easily.
  I came into writing as a mandate from God! Working with children has been God’s calling. And children’s writing became my ministry because of the talent they have got and how parents don’t take care to spot such talents and help their children nurture their talents. I was a successful lawyer, banker, lecturer and all that but I didn’t enjoy being any of those; I was frustrated. I got the calling to be a writer and left for England without a dime. These jobs didn’t give me satisfaction or joy. I knew within me I wasn’t doing what God created me for. In fact, I wanted to commit suicide.
  In England, I began to clean toilets just to survive and get the training I need as a writer. In the midst of so much frustration, I had to look for God, my maker, to seek my purpose in life. And until you find that purpose in your life, you can’t find joy. So, I found Jesus! You see, I quit law for writing even if I didn’t know how to write; it was God’s mandate. I went to libraries to read. Needed money but got a job as a cleaner; then began to read reviews of writers in newspapers I found abandoned in the train I commuted to work daily…

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