Writing And Publishing For Pakistani Children

Writing And Publishing For Pakistani Children
Rumana Husain started her career as an artist by making stuffed toys for her children, which eventually led to her having exhibitions of her artwork. She also taught art to school children and trained teachers in innovative approaches to language-teaching. Husain co-founded the publishing agency Book Group, where she volunteered for eight years writing and editing children's books and creating an integrated curriculum. She later became the head of Activism and Outreach at the Children's Museum for Peace and Human Rights, a founding member of the I Am Karachi consortium and a co-founding Senior Editor and partner of NuktaArt. She is also an honourary member of the board of directors at the Children's Literature Festival and the General Secretary of Karachi Conference Foundation.

Husain is the author and illustrator of over 60 children's books, including Karachi Wala and Street Smart, and has contributed to various magazines and newspapers. She has also presented over 30 programs on art and architecture for TV One. Her murals are displayed at various locations including the Children's Ward at AKUH and IUCN's headquarters.




Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you first became interested in writing stories for children?

I trained in Arts at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Karachi for four years. I have always been interested in writing stories and reading books. So, when I joined the private school, I became head of the school in the junior section, it was felt that children did not take any interest in books, especially Urdu textbooks. I decided to do an experiment.

In 1986-87, my husband had children’s books from Russia, India, and China in Urdu. Many countries do this. I mean they write books in their national or regional languages and translate them in other languages such as Urdu. Then, they send these books to other countries. During that time, there were quite many book fairs that used to be held in Karachi. We used to like those books, their illustrations and collect those books. As an experiment, I told the teachers to use those story books. You know the first stage always is to develop an interest in a child. It became a very successful experiment. From there on, I thought to publish my own books.

I co-founded the Bookgroup. I wrote and had illustrated many books. Also, I developed guides for teachers, because sometimes they were confused on how to teach these books. I trained teachers across the country. I worked with different schools and served as the head of Bookgroup for fourteen years. But I never stopped writing. I write every day. Up till now, I have 70 children’s books to my credit.

I was also very interested in knowing the people living in this city, Karachi, because it is a very diverse city unlike other cities. You have people from entirely different backgrounds here. They speak different languages, have different traditions and customs. So, I wanted to go into their homes and talk to them. Karachiwala: A Subcontinent Within A City came about. I worked on it for two years. It was like spending 18-19 hours a day on this book. I met different people and networked with them. It was bit difficult because first you have to find those people and then seek their permission because I was getting information and photographing them for my research.

After I left school, I joined an NGO as a head activism and outreach. It is the “Children Museum for Peace and Rights.” In this way, I never stopped working with children. I worked there till 2008, but then I left saying that I have to do a book of mine and focus on it completely. I left my job, but I never left the center in a sense that I continued to serve as a consultant in content for them, content for their campaigns, training teachers and so on. Unfortunately, it closed last year. So, it was my journey.

Karachiwala came around in 2010 and in 2015, I wrote another book. It is called Street Smart: Professionals on the Streets. For Karachiwala, it was about diversity and going into their homes across the city, across different income groups and ethnicities. But the next book is about the professions that happen in the streets. In Western countries, they do not have this. But in Asia and to some extent in Africa too, we have this tradition of carrying out so many different tasks in the streets. I was very interested in that thing, in a sense, to know about these people. I wanted to ask questions such as “Who are they? Where do they come from? How do they carry on all this work? How much do they earn? What are their problems, daily challenges, and their solutions etc.? I got all the answers by talking to them in the streets. Both these books were well received, and I am glad about this.


What do you think is the role of children's literature in promoting cross-cultural understanding and empathy?

Well, I think that it is unfortunate that in Pakistan, apart from Lahore which has the Children’s Library Complex, even a big city like Karachi does not have any place for children. There are no libraries in this city. If you have libraries, then you will have children’s literature not only from Pakistan, but from across the globe.

I am speaking this from my personal experience. My son and daughter-in-law live abroad. Right from the beginning, when two little girls were born to them, they have been collecting children’s books from across the world. They have thousands of books in their home library. I think it’s so helpful because you learn from other cultures and promote empathy for each other. You understand each other better. I think books can do a great deal because not everybody can travel. Books are like windows. They open the world for you.


You've written and illustrated many books for children. Can you briefly talk about your process for creating a book, from the initial idea to the finished product?

Oh gosh! I suppose that it will be different for different people. For me, I am happy when even the first opening line of some story flashes through my mind. I do not even think about the whole story or plot. But when I start writing, I feel it’s coming. I am one of those people who may not have an entire plot in my head from the beginning, but I know that in the process of writing, one must be disciplined. I write every day. This is important that you have consistency. Every idea may not translate into a book, but its important to keep on writing. I would say that you write, share it with the people, and have their feedback. You know that there may be several drafts, you edit and re-edit. This process goes on.

You also have to look for a publisher and an illustrator. In my case, for lack of time, I have been writing more books than illustrating them. Although I love illustrating books, I do not get much time. We were in the USA for thirteen months, with our son, during Covid. I wrote three rhyming books, two of them bilingual rhyming books, and illustrated all three there. I had plenty of time there. That is how you do it.


What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to write for children, particularly those who want to incorporate themes related to culture, history and identity?

First, if you are interested in writing books for children, I would say: Go ahead and write. Do not expect any financial gratification from it. That is another subject. In Pakistan, books for children receive the least priority. The publishers are interested in printing textbooks that can bring them money. Even if they publish your books, they do not market them properly. So, you do not get any benefit.

If you are a writer, you write not only from your imagination, but I think books must be culturally relevant. I think that the illustrations should also be culturally relevant. Otherwise, there is no point. There are millions of books in the world.

We do not get inspiration from Western books, because in our society, suppose when children see homes with long chimneys ejecting smoke, they will draw the same homes on paper. This is because they have not seen books that reflect our own culture. It’s a sad fact. I think that the writer and an illustrator must work hand in hand and promote our own culture and settings.


How do you think children's literature in Pakistan has evolved over time, and where do you see it headed in the future?

Initially, there were hardly any books on children’s literature, but there were magazines like Nonihaal, Phool, Khilonay, Taleem-o-Tarbiyat etc. I had also read these magazines. My father used to subscribe to them for me. It started with that. I greatly enjoyed short stories, riddles, puzzles, general knowledge, and things like that. Of course, Feroze Sons did a lot of work. They were publishing books, but the quality started improving later.

When I started Bookgroup, our primary motive was also to enhance the quality of such books instead of moralising all the time. One has to have fun and interesting children’s literature. They should not be morbid stories full of moral lessons arousing no practical interest in children. It has been 75 years, but we are still not at par with Urdu literature.

Unfortunately, we hardly have any books in regional languages. It is very important to note that we do not make any books in languages like Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto and scores of other languages that are spoken in this country. Those languages will die because if you are not teaching those languages to children then how will the survive? This is important to note.


The current teaching systems have done one particular form of damage, which is a wide divide: social gaps, discriminatory behaviors, unacceptability of others, a love-for-self and hate-for-others attitude, and a patronage model that is continuing to function. How can we break this model and what should be brought in to replace it?

Children’s story books should be made available to everyone irrespective of class, for instance through libraries. We need to have libraries everywhere, in every corner of this city like the shops we have. Only then poor children can also have such books. During our time, we used to keep books for a whole week, by paying only eight paisas. But now, we do not have this facility.

In government schools, we need to have libraries. They should not be merely showcase material, where students are not even allowed to touch the books. In many schools, the administration puts a lock on book almirahs, and children are not permitted to access those books. We need to train teachers and librarians to increase the engagement of children with the books. You know, there is magic in stories. Teachers should be trained on how to read those books to children, keeping that magic alive. When all children will have access to the same books, then it will serve as an equaliser, eliminating all kinds of class divides.


Can you share any details about any upcoming projects or collaborations you're working on?

I am doing projects with “Room to Read” and “Idara Taleem-o-Aagahi” (ITA). There is a literacy project going on with ITA in collaboration with “Room to Read,” an NGO based in America. They produce very high-quality books for children. They have set up libraries in schools. In 2020, I got attached with them as a team leader on the Room to Read Literacy Cloud. I read around 70 to 80 books for children of level 1, 2 and 3. I did that. I selected 28 books which were then adapted in Urdu and later in Sindhi, Pashto and Dari.

Now, we are in the second phase of developing fifteen books for children. Instead of adapting books from the West and some from Africa, we are expected to develop books under the guidance of “Room to Read” because they have expertise. You know, there is a whole science involved in writing stories for children and illustrating them. There is a collaboration among writers, illustrators, and editors etc. In Pakistan, there is no concept of having editors. People write stuff and if, luckily, a publisher approves, then it gets published. We are changing this behaviour. At the same time, while I am sharing my skills, I am also being able to learn a lot from others. There are 39 people involved in that. We have fifteen writers, fifteen illustrators, three text editors, three art editors and three publishers.

We are currently involved in this. Additionally, I am also developing a series of textbooks with a local publisher.