IMRANA Maqsood does not find writing for children laborious or gruelling at all. Within her there is a child — alive and kicking. “When I write, I become a child.” Not only that, she gets very close to her characters. “I get into them.” And when she gets into that mood ideas keep flooding in and there’s no stopping.
“It’s something like when the poets say they get the aamad. And within a couple of hours of feverishly penning down, I have written a complete story.”
Having edited about two dozen or so books (while she was working at the Oxford University Press as an assistant editor), Imrana is also a prolific writer. She has written some 30-40 stories in just five years. She also clinched the coveted Best Book of the Year Award from the National Book Foundation for the years 2001-2002.
She believes that whatever the content and whatever the story, it must send positive signals and present a positive image of any given situation. “We are too critical of our children and don’t leave them alone. Try looking for the positive qualities in them and in what they do and you will see the confidence they will gain.”
While she claims that modern stories around the world may not necessarily have messages, our culture is such that our writings come with certain lessons and instructions. But if it is handled with judiciousness, it will retain the educative flavour without becoming a dull sermon.
With the world becoming a global village, she concedes that children are finally being noticed and their literature given importance. “Standards have improved — in content, in layouts, in illustrations, specially if you compare them to the ones that were being printed a decade back. There is definitely a positive shift although more is desired,” she says.
While she loves the writing part, her grouse is with the publishers. “That is the flip side of writing. Once your manuscript goes into the publisher’s office, it is one long wait before you see it in book form.” This is the case with most publishers she’s worked with and she finds that an “immensely frustrating” experience.— Zofeen T. Ebrahim
Making the texts lively: Qamar Ahmed Ali Khan
NO computer, not even a typewriter around. But there are carefully and neatly written notes on one side and a Persian dictionary on the other. That was my first encounter with Qamar Apa, now an octogenarian, who sits across the dining table in grandmotherly fashion, serenely penning away stories for children. With years of experience in dealing with children of all ages and having studied their psyche at close quarters, she says that any story written for them should have a message. But it should be so subtle that it does not hit the child directly. Yet unfolding it, he/she is able to decipher it.
She first wrote in 1984 while teaching in Karachi Grammar School. “It was not a story book but a series of very simple books in very easy Urdu on the Urdu language and its various rules (qawaid) for her school. It was an English medium school and it pained me to see how little the students knew about, or cared for, their own language and how indifferent their parents were to this dismal state of affairs.”
It was this callousness which prompted the school administration to coax and cajole Qamar Apa to come up with quality books that could be taught in their school. She started with the Urdu alphabets, the various shapes they take (when used in conjunction with other letters) and how to break the syllables for phonetics. This was for nursery and the kindergartners. Next she started the rules of the Urdu language for grades 3,4 and 5 and is currently doing a text book for 6, 7 and 8 graders.
“The idea was for children to learn proper Urdu, for once they got over their fear of the language, they would automatically develop an interest in it,” she says.
She also believes that a language should be taught in an organized manner with attractive illustrations for a lasting impact.
She wrote her first story in 1987 for the school textbook. For her “there has never been a dearth of ideas” as her stories revolve around a child’s school life of which she was an important character. She has translated folklores from Japan, China and Russia as well as some of the famous Aesop’s Fables. “I try to use as few English words as possible,” she adds.
But for Qamar Apa, her greatest achievement has been the book titled Sirat-i-Mustaqeem targeting the teenagers and the youth. For many years, Qamar Apa had been reading both the Urdu and English translations of the Holy Quran. During that period she would also collect notes under various heads. About two years ago she came up with an English and an Urdu easy reference. This proved to be a big hit.
“The publishers wanted it to be in Arabic but I was very adamant and told them that it would become another revered book to be kept on the top most shelf which would just gather dust. I wanted this to be a well-thumbed book, kept on the side table for easy reference,” she says.
Her next venture, on which she has been working for sometime, is to come up with books on geography and history but a far cry from them becoming text-bookish.— Zofeen T. Ebrahim
Juggling with ideas: Saima Akbar
HOOKED on to Mulla Nasiruddin and Umro Ayyar, Saima Akbar was a complete bookworm as a kid. “My mother was forever after me to help her with the housework, but I could not be bothered. These stories held so much fascination for me and my reading habit took me into an altogether different world.”
Then, when she had kids of her own she desperately wanted them to have the same love for books that she had experienced as a child. She would take them to libraries and bookstalls, but to her horror, she realized that while they had cultivated the reading habit, they always picked up comics or English story books. “They had absolutely no interest in the Urdu books I’d choose for them. I realized the books were dry, the language not gripping enough and they hardly had any illustrations. Even their Urdu textbooks were devoid of any good reading material.”
That is when she decided to try her hand at story-writing for children. And in March 1999 she came up with a set of four books with a total of ten stories which were printed by Ferozsons. Her books are for children aged 8-10. Being a tutor herself, she has made sure the stories are lucid, the sentence structure simple and the contents interesting for children.
“I’ve used only one or two difficult words in every story. Thus the child’s vocabulary is developed, but gradually, and he is not inundated with difficult words making reading tedious,” she says. Her favourite stories are “Aaj ka kaam abhi” and “Sobia ki saer”. For the latter she even received the second prize from the National Book Foundation, while for her “Darakht ka bhoot” and “Aaj ka kaam abhi”, she received appreciation certificates. Saima believes that stories written for children should have an inherent message in them.
Currently she is trying her hand at writing longer stories for children between the ages of 10-14 although she says that reading habits have declined and children prefer short stories that can be read at one go. “These are based on adventure as that is what children like best. They want stories which are action-packed.”
She gets her story ideas from children her own and those whom she teaches. “They want stories in which there is a bit of magic, stories from outer space are also a hot favourite as are those which have a bit of computer technology.” According to Saima stories of today’s children have to be a good mix of fantasy, space age, sci-fi with computer gizmo, et al. She gets her inspiration “from around” her.
And that is perhaps why she finds writing for children a fairly challenging task. “Children get bored easily. So a lot of things have to be kept in mind while writing for them. One has to continuously juggle with ideas and the language to keep the child up to reading.” After all the writers have to compete with the more attractive audio-visual tools used for story telling.
“One has to be cautious that in no way should the stories seem like another one from their textbook,” she remarks. It takes her a week “from the conception of the idea to actually writing it and then fine-tuning to finally sending the manuscript to the publisher” to write short stories. Longer ones “may take a month or so”. — Zofeen T. Ebrahim