‘There appears to be a resurgence of quality writing in children’s literature’
You published two books that were in the race for the highest literary prize in Africa, with one eventually winning the prize. How does this make you feel?
I WAS very delighted when the news broke that the two books, Boom Boom by Jude Idada and Igho Goes to Farm by Anote Ajeluorou, had been nominated for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2019. They are, without sentiments, two of the most impressive children fiction works I have seen in recent times.
Children’s literature is a niche market and the dearth of good quality books in that sector has always been a source of worry to me. There are so many badly written, badly published literary texts on the prescribed reading list in primary and secondary schools across the country. It leaves you wondering how these books made it past the gatekeepers.
Perhaps, through some kind of systematised injustice fused of connivance between our educational authorities and certain authors and/or publishers. In the end, the young reading population is the primary victim of this disservice. I mean, I can only imagine how gruelling it will be for the children forced to read those books. So, as publishers, we set out to do better, to make quality books that every stakeholder would be proud of at pocket-friendly prices. It was in the light of this that I was glad to work on the two titles, among a few others, and was elated when we were nominated for the prize which Idada’s book eventually won.
Is this an indication that things are beginning to look up for publishers in Nigeria?
I think it will be dangerous for me to speak for other publishers, especially since Nigeria is a tough and uncertain country to run a publishing firm. If you look through the value chain, you will see that we do not manufacture any of the production inputs used in book publishing here, that is, talking of paper and the other materials. We import all these and when you look at the price of the rising dollar, you note the higher prices of books. There is also the non-existent distribution system, which leaves every publisher to devise ways to spread their books to bookstores. There are so many readers hungry for good books but it is too expensive getting the books to them when they are outside the major cities. Sadly, pirates sometimes cash in on this distribution gap.
If the publishing industry is going to grow, I think that publishers will need to form working alliances that will bring much-needed development to critical aspects of the industry. Educational publishing appears to be in bloom because it does have a guaranteed market, schools. However, literary publishing in Nigeria is essentially a labour of love. So, having a fair mix of titles in both ranges does seem like a good survival strategy for independent publishers like us.
I guess what I am trying to say is that in the long run, the nomination of books for a prize or winning it by a local publisher does not automatically change the state of things. We have systemic problems that need to be tackled at source if we are to progress.
How do you select authors to publish?
As independent publishers, our authors are carefully selected based on our understanding of the market and the company’s role in it. We do not have as deep pockets as the major publishing conglomerates. We are particularly interested in younger writers who are unafraid to tell their stories in rich and engaging ways.
Looking at the two writers that were nominated, what would you say about their individual strengths in this genre of writing—children’s literature?
It is easy to see, from their writings, that Jude Idada and Anote Ajeluorou have a love for children. I think this made it easier for them to reach into their inner child and create authentic, relatable characters that young readers find enthralling.
This is something I have also found in Olubunmi Familoni’s I’ll Call My Brother for You and Su’eddie Vershima Agema’s Once Upon A Village Tale. One can easily see that these are brilliant talents who have consistently worked hard at becoming better writers with each new book.
Igho Goes to Farm and Boom Boom deal with different themes. How and why did these themes appeal to you as a publisher?
They truly had different appeals but between both of them was a similar appeal of reaching out to us, as adults too while not losing the beauty of focusing on children. We loved how Igho Goes to Farm introduces young readers to life in the countryside and the sense of nostalgia it would obviously evoke in older readers. The book is a celebration of nature, culture and family values on a scale that is impossible to experience in the throes of our fast-paced cities. And it does have the potential to spark a curiosity to explore our nation and ancestral roots more.
Idada’s Boom Boom, on the other hand, challenges the stigma and stereotypes we have long associated with Sickle Cell Warriors. It is a moving story of love, friendship and a family’s quest for better health for their beloved daughter. Our team loved the book’s light on Eghe’s plight and its potential to inspire hope in and empathy towards these warriors. It shows that it is our collective responsibility as a society to forge a united front in protecting the vulnerable, combating stigma, shattering stereotypes and solving our most pressing challenges.
So, if you look at it, on the whole, these books go beyond entertainment to also be advocacy tales that have the potential to spark change in readers. Who would not love them?
From your assessment of the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA)-Book Party held on July 28 and the jury process, what do you make of children’s literature in the country?
Having read Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, Anisa Daniel-Oniko’s Double ‘A’ for Adventure, Dunni Olatunde’s Mysteries at Ebenezer’s Lodge and O.T. Begho’s The Great Walls of Benin, I was highly impressed by the quality of the books on this year’s longlist. There appears to be a resurgence of good, quality writing in the genre. I suspect that we are just now at the beginning of the resurgence. Many writers who had hitherto overlooked the genre are now paying more attention to it. Perhaps, the workshops organised by the Nigeria Prize for Literature and the Nigeria Academy of Letters (NAL) in 2015 have aided the birth of this resurgence? One can only hope that this is strengthened as the years go by.
Young readers are very impressionable and deserve the joy of reading the very best literature that every generation has to offer. They will eventually grow to become lifelong readers depending on how well we are able to mold them during their formative years. Publishers, schools and other stakeholders need to ensure that quality standards are maintained and that these books are easily accessible to readers at pocket-friendly prices.
Surprisingly, the Book Party organised by CORA pulled a very large crowd for a book event which is not usually the case. Is this an indication of the resurgence of interest for books or just happenstance?
It is tricky assessing the reading culture in our country but I have found that there is a lot of reading taking place amongst our children and youths. The question therefore should not be whether they are reading but about what they are reading. If we are able to discover what they are reading and why, publishers and other stakeholders would be able to use that information in creating better publications, as well as policies and programmes that will ultimately bring growth to the industry. The readership and patronage of books of indigenous authors are on the rise, no doubt, but there is still a lot that needs to be done for it to become widespread.
This particular prize was not awarded in 2015 on account of poor submissions. Now that it has been awarded, what are your expectations from it going forward?
I’ll speak in general terms about the need for all stakeholders to do better in promoting quality publishing and improving the standards of our educational institutions. We need to reintroduce well-stocked libraries to schools and communities across the country using sustainable tech-based models as is the practice in the West.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature has done a lot to encourage writers in its 15 years of existence, but we need to have the entire ecosystem running if our creative industries are to become the economic powerhouses that they can potentially become. Other corporate bodies and private individuals could also endow residencies, prizes, grants, workshops and fellowships so that authors, publishers and other creatives across the country would be able to earn a decent living from their efforts.
Departments of English and Literature in Nigerian universities don’t teach and research into children’s writing. Do you think this is a hindrance to the development of the genre?
I think that this will change with the resurgence of this genre, which, as I mentioned, is evident in the submissions. We have had these problems for decades and it will be a dream to hope that the problems will be resolved immediately or at the press of a button.
Literary scholarship and quality criticism are integral parts of the ecosystem we need for children’s literature and all other forms of writing to flourish. Having these research papers and reviews published in reputable and accessible media is also another hurdle that we will need to cross. Thankfully, the technologies that we need for these are becoming more affordable by the day. Literature, just like our dearly beloved nation, is a work-in-progress and as long as we are all selflessly committed to its development, it’ll surely get better with time.
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