Diversity in Childrens' Books
„Storymakers“: Centring the Cultural Realities of Nigerian Children
Reading is a childhood experience with impact that extends into adulthood. Studies show that what children read influences how they see themselves and how they engage with the world around them.
In her famous Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie opened with the story of how as a child she read books about American and British children and because of this, her early stories were filled with things and people with whom she could not personally identify. This experience is not hers alone. A conversation with Nigerian millennials about the books from their childhood will result in lists that are filled primarily with titles from western writers. From the 1960s to the 1990s, publishers of children’s books in Nigeria focused on the publication of textbooks with only a few non-educational titles available in bookshops.
However, since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999, children’s book publishing has witnessed significant growth, with the establishment of more independent publishing houses and the proliferation of the Internet which has made self-publishing and marketing of books less cumbersome for writers. Stories that draw from the country’s rich folklore, riddles and folktales as well as contemporary stories featuring technology familiar to younger audiences are being published.
As a part of their contribution towards fast-tracking this growth, Goethe-Institut Lagos brought together children's books writers and illustrators at the Storymakers Workshop. The two five-day workshops were held in May 2019 and March 2020 with the aim of developing affordable children's books for the Nigerian market. Journalist, illustrator and cartoonist, Abdulkareem Baba Aminu was one of the two key facilitators of the workshop. The second facilitator was Ute Krause, a celebrated writer and illustrator of more than sixty children’s books. Krause spent part of her growing up years in Nigeria and her knowledge of the geography and cultures of the country was essential for the project.
A recurring theme at the workshop was exploring fresh perspectives as well as time-tested techniques for creating high-quality children’s books. “I learnt that a writer should sometimes think like a filmmaker or cinematographer by understanding good visual storytelling in terms of camera angles. Ute stressed the importance of keeping a children’s picture book simple.” Henry Ezeokeke, illustrator and participant said.
During the workshop, Ezeokeke worked with writer, Funmi Ilori on a book about Tortoise, a beloved character in many Nigerian folktales. In their book, Party with the Sky King, the greedy Tortoise renames himself “Everybody”, claims the food and drinks meant for the birds at the king’s party and causes the angry birds to turn against him.
All the other participants were similarly paired into writer/illustrator teams to create six children’s books for publication. The other participants include Baba Aminu Mutafa, Edwin Irabor, Folashade Adeshida, Francis Umendu Odupute, Olanrewaju Gafar, all illustrators; and writers: Bukola Ayinde, Aduke Gomez, Sope Martins, Ugochinyelu Anidi and Hadiza Muhammad.
Muhammad's and Odupute’s Lami and The Singing Fish is a folktale adaptation in which a little girl does a favour to a fish that keeps its promise, while Martins and Irabor’s Nosa has one weekend to learn how to fly in The Adventures of Nosa the Superhero. Ola loses her family's most precious possession and goes on a neighbourhood adventure to replace it in The Missing Chicken by Anidi and Adeshida. Gomez and Gafar bring the animal kingdom to a feast with a twist in The Monkey’s Wedding. Dog on Wheels by Ayinde and Mustapha is a story of bravery even in the face of unkindness. The teams created characters that are diverse and unique and centre the social and cultural realities of Nigerian children. The books set for release in November 2021 will be published in collaboration with Kachifo, a leading independent publisher in Nigeria.
Another welcome outcome of the workshop is the networks formed between the participants who have gone on to collaborate on other projects. “I met my writing group at the workshop and also met some of the best illustrators in the business,” Sope Martins says. “Spaces like the Storymakers Workshop are so important because they are wonderful access points and they are necessary amplifiers for people in the creative arts.” For Ugochinyelu Anidi, the workshop was her first opportunity to meet children’s books writers and illustrators in Nigeria. She has gone on to form creative partnerships with some of the participants with whom she started an organisation that provides training and resources for its members.
With the tools and spaces for interactions provided by the Storymakers Workshop and similar initiatives, children’s book publishing in Nigeria will continue to grow and win new audiences in other African countries, African communities in the diaspora and be found on bookshelves all over the world. The coming years hold plenty of promise for the children’s literature scene in Nigeria and an exciting era for the readers.