Islamabad – From among the group of school girls, Ramsha Zafar admitted bashfully that she is fond of the stories of Amar Ayyar, popularly mispronounced as Umro Ayyar, the legendary trickster from the Dastaan-e Amir Hamza.
Ramsha, an eighth grader from the Al-Farabi Islamic School in Nilore, was visiting the two-day Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) with her classmates and teachers on Friday.
But she was the only one in the group who said she reads children’s storybooks and could recall a favourite character.
The inability of primary- and middle-school children, especially those from public and middle-income schools, to categorically talk about their favourite books and authors appeared to be a significant trend at the CLF, which ended on Saturday.
Most children named textbooks, or worse, school subjects, when asked about their favourite book.
“Today’s children are more interested in watching cartoons,” said teachers from Rawalpindi’s SS Montessori School who had brought some 95 primary-age school children to the CLF.
Cartoons can be educational and they do tend to appeal to children’s imagination. But the onslaught of cartoons through 24-hour programming on cable might pose risk to reading habits.
Even some high-schoolers at the CLF said they preferred cartoons over novels.
Ninth-grade students from the Islamabad Model College for Girls I-9/1 said they would much rather watch Keymon Ache, a popular Indian cartoon that airs on Nickelodeon. The teacher chaperoning the students said the kids are too busy with Facebook to read books.
Part of the blame lies with the older generation for not introducing the children with a rich and diverse collection of indigenous folk tales for children, said Rumana Husain.
Husain, a director of the CLF, is one of the few people who have been writing and promoting children’s literature for decades. At the CLF, which ended on Saturday, she launched her new book “Layla aur Munni Guriya” and read stories to children at multiple sessions.
She said the lack of introduction to local children’s literature among Pakistani kids is obvious from the fact that they would often name western fairy tales when asked about books they like.
“Look at the Grimms’ Fairy tales, they are still well-known two hundred years later,” Husain said, while admitting that pop culture has also contributed to the longevity of western children’s tales. “It’s also about marketing. One feels that apart from rote learning, Pakistani children are not exposed to literature.”
She said the CLF, organised by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi and Oxford University Press, was in itself an effort to initiate children in to the reading culture.
Where TV celebrity Adeel Hashmi introduced children to Sufi Tabassum’s evergreen children’s poems in one session, Nadine Murtaza recited stories to children in another and Hamida Khuhro launched her book “A children’s history of Balochistan” in yet another session.
There was also some hope among the children who attended the CLF.
Ramsha said she liked Ayyar for his mischief and trickery. Laiba Murtaza, a seventh grader from Asian Educators School, said she reads her mother’s Pakeeza digest. College students, attending a session on libraries, said they issue books by Ashfaq Ahmed and Wasif Ali Wasif from the college library frequently.
Seemi Mehtab, from the SLS School in Rawalpindi, said the teachers at her school ensure that children issue books from the school library and then return them after a couple of days along with a book report.
Among the dozens of posters made by students for the festival, one showed illustrations of children’s books by J K Rowling, indicating children were aware about contemporary children’s literature from around the world.
We also have to move with the times, said Husain.
“I feel that there is room for contemporary children’s literature,” she said. “But we must not forget about our traditional folk tales for children.”