Festival Fights Illiteracy with Children's Books

Almost half of Pakistan’s population cannot read or write.  The country has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, a factor which has contributed to an overall decline in reading habits among the general population. According to a recent poll, only two percent of people actually read books, and among those almost half are interested only in religious books. The implications of this trend are not pleasant.

For those of us in Pakistan working to improve this situation, children are an obvious target audience. The recent Children’s Literature Festival in Lahore—an initiative of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi and supported by the Foundation Open Society Institute–Pakistan, Oxford University Press, and other like-minded organizations—aimed to tackle the literacy problem head-on.

The two-day event brought together children from a range of schools, public and private alike, in order to expose them to reading as a fun activity. Inaugurated by Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, the festival attracted nearly 18,000 children from more than 1,000 public and private schools. Many publishers set up stalls at the festival, which featured a huge collection of children’s books with colorful covers and magical characters. Hopping around in excitement, some children dragged their parents to each stall while others roamed around with friends–everyone’s conversation revolving around books and reading.

But the festival was not limited to showcasing books. The organizers tried to tap into children’s vivid imaginations. A group of children guided by Fahmida Riaz, a well-known Urdu author and poet, sat together and wrote a book based on a story from their own imaginations. The Rafi Peer Theatre group, with their intriguing characters and enchanting puppet shows, were a hit, and the children in the audience were fascinated by the performance of live puppet characters right out of fairy tales.

There were talks and readings by popular writers. Some children became literature critics and offered their own reviews of books, others joined the Creative Writing 101 course, while still others took part in a public speaking competition, Bol kay lab azad hain teray. The festival introduced children to young entrepreneurs who talked about their own path to success and inspired the young minds to read and dream big.

Stories were told in Punjabi, Balochi, and Sindhi, and complemented by a session that drew upon the importance of mother tongue as a medium of instruction. An introduction to Pakistan’s local folklore was offered by a session entitled “Pakistan ki Purani Kahaniyan” or Pakistan’s Old Tales, held by Hasnain Lalani and Mikail Soomro. Children were given a new window into their country’s history by listening to old stories and literature that have been associated with their own homeland for centuries.

The festival was not just about promoting reading among children; it also aimed to get schools to share in the responsibility. To that end, novice librarians were taught how to set up and run a school library, and sessions with regional and international experts explored possible ways to build reading habits among children. Participants had serious discussions on why some children can’t read, the connection between a decline in reading and closing minds, and promoting tolerance through children’s books.

Even though the current literacy statistics are not encouraging, the level of participation by children in this festival gives way to hope. Watching scores of children excitedly going through the displays and hearing them talk about books and stories in a tone usually reserved for toys, cricket, or video games was inspiring. The arrangement was on a pretty grand scale, but the response was beyond expectations.

Perhaps equally important, the festival didn’t just entice young children, but their parents and teachers as well, who scanned the book stalls with as much interest, if not more. In the face of bleak statistics, watching young minds happily milling around the endless displays of books and their obvious interest in listening to and telling stories is a reason to feel encouraged.

Events like the Children’s Literature Festival are a great step toward bringing children back into the world of books. Pakistan needs many more such events on a regular basis and in different regions. We can create a reading culture in our country, but we need to start with the children who have yet to be limited by the constraints of the “real world.”

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