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Books for understanding self, others

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Growing up comes with challenges, which a child has to contend with. In tradition-oriented societies, young people learnt to conform to the norms of their society, through folktales, which told about virtues and vices, justice and injustice, selfishness and selflessness etc. The dividing line between these opposites was made very clear.

On the contrary, in modern society the child growing up does not have the advantages of the extended family to provide the much-needed guidance that would help him or her to cope with the challenges of life. There is, therefore, need for books for the understanding of self and others – books about the emotional needs of people and their reasons for behaving as they do; books about growing up; books about family relationships; books about people who have special problems; books about the expectations of society and acceptable behavior patterns. We shall examine these in some detail.
Books about emotional needs

A young person needs to be helped to have a concept of himself as a worthy person who can succeed, a person who is loved and who can in turn, respect and love others. Psychologists tell us that deviance in a young person can be caused by a feeling of not being loved. A book that portrays this feeling of inadequacy can help young people to understand why others behave the way they do and ‘understanding’, we are told by the psalmist, is the beginning of wisdom. An understanding child can become a caring adult.

Understanding can come through identification with the characters in a book. A character may have similar problems with those of the child reader and this helps the reader to understand his own problems – shyness, for example, and being afraid. Fear is a universal emotion. A book can help a child to conquer fear – whether it is fear of the dark, of heights or of the elements; e.g. thunder and lightning.

A child can be helped to come to terms with physical disability: blindness, deafness, being a cripple, or just being “different” like having a disproportional nose or bulbous eyes.

Nana Wilson-Tagoe does this successfully in Efiok Begins Again about a boy who, it is said, “seemed to be afraid of his own shadow.” A tall, gangling boy, he is ashamed not only of his height but also of his long, narrow face and large, bulging eyes which earn him the nickname “Frogface.” One day, Efiok- goes into a dreamlike trance in which he meets two old women through whom he overcomes his diffidence and learns to stand up for himself and live with his unflattering features, to the extent of even laughing when called ‘Frogface’.

An awareness of the special problems of some individuals can be given to young readers through books. Examples are: the physically handicapped, the mentally challenged, the rural child who feels out of place in the city, the migrant child who feels “different” everywhere.

A good example of this type of book is Iheoma Comes to Stay by Helen Ofurum, which treats the subject of mental illness with understanding and compassion. Priscilla, a pregnant woman is mentally ill and walks about the streets. When she has her baby, she abandons it on the steps of Dr Uche’s private clinic. Dr Uche keeps the baby while the police hunt for the mother. His children look after Iheoma the baby. Talking about the police search, one of them, Chidi, says,

“Oh what a fuss. Why don’t they just leave the poor woman alone?”
“Because she has done wrong by abandoning her baby,” replies Ngozi in a prim voice.
“Nonsense! She’s mad anyway. She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” says Chidi.
“Well, Chidi,” says his mother, “that’s all the more reason why she should be found and sent for treatment so that she can be cured.”
“But, Mummy can mad people be cured? I thought that once people became mad, they stayed like that forever (Ofurum, 1982).”
Chidi’s mother then explains about mental illness and psychiatric hospitals. She tells them not to call people ‘mad’ as this is a pejorative term, which makes people laugh at such people. “What should we call them Mum?” he asks. His mother says, “Refer to them as ‘mentally sick. For that is what they are – sick.”

Certain universal problems can also be treated in books – problems of alcoholism and drug abuse, for example. Books dealing with the problems of adolescence and conflicts within families can also prove very useful.

• The 2016 Nigerian National Merit Award winner, Segun, who was 90 years yesterday, gave the lecture titled, Towards Nation Building: The Importance of Children’s Literature.


In this article:
Mabel Dorothy Segun
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