The root of all literature



Yesterday, we were excited to attend a panel discussion on Creative Storytelling in Nigeria organised by the Swedish Embassy in Abuja. Attendees discussed new ways of telling stories to children and examined the ways in which children’s literature in Nigeria still needed improvement.

Some of the complaints were that there aren't enough high-quality children’s books being published, not enough writers writing these books for children and not enough places for parents to access these books when they do exist. While there are a host of reasons why good children’s books are hard to find,  I believe the root of the problem lies in one simple fact: Most Nigerians don’t read for pleasure.

This is not unique to Nigeria. Publishers in Brazil and Zimbabwe complain of the same thing. In Brazil the problem is one of language. Written Portuguese is very different from its spoken version and often unfamiliar to readers. While in Zimbabwe, a sagging economy and harsh political realities have dealt a blow to middle-class consumers. Despite the country’s high literacy rates, many readers can no longer afford to buy books. But Nigeria has no language barrier and our economy, while still in dire straits, has been growing steadily over the last decade.

However, even those Nigerians who can afford books don’t buy them. Nigerians are some of the top spenders in countries like the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and India. However, most of what these spenders purchase are luxury items such as bags, shoes, jewellery and clothes.

I think this is because most of us do not think of reading as fun. As children, reading was something you did when you needed to study for an exam or write a book report. Many of our parents did not read to us when we were children and most of us did not have access to a library of books – either in our houses or in our communities. Even if you did have a library in your school, chances are there were few fiction books in it – and certainly none you could borrow and take home.

This lack of demand pulls down the whole industry. The quality of Nigerian literature has declined because people who don’t read for pleasure don’t make very good writers. The production of fiction books by Nigerian publishers has also declined because there is no point in publishing a book if no one will buy it.

If the demand for fiction rises, though, like a ship rising with the tide, all other aspects of the industry will improve. Investors who see money in selling popular fiction to Nigerians will do so. And as more companies start selling these books, the inevitable competition among them will improve the quality of the books they sell. The quality of writing will also improve as writers, in a bid to get published in a competitive industry, spend more time on their craft.

So raise the demand by going out and buying a book of fiction today. Or even better, buy a book for the child in your life. As we age it becomes more difficult to change our habits, and if you haven’t been much of a reader, chances are you’ll have a tough time becoming one. Luckily, it won’t be that hard for your children. Start by buying children’s books and reading to them when they are young. Keep up the habit by getting them books they’ll enjoy as they get older.

Of course, this isn’t a panacea. Reading regularly for pleasure may not be able to do much to improve the nation’s education standards or its infrastructure – that’s the government’s job. But parents whose children are readers will demand more from their schools and teachers. They and their children will be better informed, quicker to question their leaders and harder to hoodwink. In that scenario, it’s not just literature in Nigeria that will improve, everything will.

Comments

  • Perhaps publishers and schools should begin to look for new avenues for working together to help children read for pleasure.The sooner schools look for possible areas of integration between curriculum contents and well written stories the better.Publishers might start by encouraging the few who have the confidence to write to see how they can bring alive concepts learnt in schools in their fictional endeavors.And make schools see the place of stories in instructional designs and implementation. After all, children love stories. Oh,how blind our schools have been!

    Posted by Joseph Ogar on February 19, 2013
  • I’ve always wondered about the publisher’s perspective on African Literature for Children and I can understand where you are coming from. If we had a better “reading for pleasure” culture in Nigeria, there would be a higher demand for fiction books. But I think it’s a two-way street; educating parents and schools on the importance of developing a “reading for pleasure” habit is in your best interest as a publisher. While I can understand that publishers are not responsible for being sole change agents, I can’t help but think what would happen if publishers liaised with government agencies to promote better reading habits. Or is that too wistful? It seems to be possible with the Millennium Development Goals.

    On another hand (and from a consumer’s perspective), while I loved the books, I found them to be on the pricey side and was only able to buy a few (as opposed to buying the whole collection) I can only imagine what people who cannot afford a N1500 book would say, so perhaps this issue is largely due to what we all make of it.

    Posted by Daisy on December 04, 2012

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