Few writers in Nigeria have shown the level of commitment shown by Teresa Ameh towards the juvenilia in Nigerian literature. Not only is she prolific, with eight children’s books so far, she also runs a children’s book club and a pet project, Aunty Tatalu Read. The Abuja-based writer is the author of The Stepmother and Other Stories, The Twins Visit, Funmi the Polite Girl and Other Stories, Aunty Talatu and the Only Son, Drop that Phone, Freedom Day Party, and the Torn Petal. The author is interviewed by HENRY AKUBUIRO on her focus on children’s literature. She discloses that she started writing after her first child in the course of telling him moral stories.
Did you plan from the beginning to have a writing career in children’s books?
Not really. My interest in children’s writings got spurned when I was in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As a Library Science student, I had my practice Student Librarianship at the Children’s Library of the University. I was amazed at the numbers of children’s books I saw at that library, books by Mamman Vatsa, Mabel Segun, Teresa Meniru, among others I took time to read them, and found them really interesting. I also did Child Psychology (education) as an elective course. It was an awakening for me –a realisation that one could write a children’s book successfully.
However, I did not start writing until I had my son. We had storytelling sessions every night. Each story had a lesson. We took turns to tell these stories. After a while, I decided to put the stories in writing, and that was how I published my first three books: The Stepmother and Other Stories, The Twins Visits, and Funmi the Polite Girl and Other Stories. I felt quite fulfilled and decided to write more stories for children. I came up with lessons from Aunty Talatu and the Only Son. So far, I have published eight books for children.
Considering that you also have a regular job, do you feel under pressure to write effectively? What is your writing routine like?
It can be crazy sometimes. An idea comes to mind, but I am so busy dealing with office matters that I cannot put it down. What it means is that some thoughts get lost forever. I have my hands everywhere. I am a mother; I write; I read; I mentor; I am so involved in my project, Aunty Talatu Reads. I run a book club for children and so many other things. However, I learn to balance all of them and make sure no department of my life is ignored. I am always there for my family, my job, Aunty Talatu Reads, my book club, and so many things. It has not been easy, but, somehow, I wonder how I cope. It is the Grace of God.
What do you consider the sterling qualities of a good children’s book?
A good children’s book should be well illustrated. Children are attracted to colours. Therefore, the illustrations should be colourful, too. They like to put a face to what they read. Children’s books must not be voluminous. We need to take into consideration the attention span of the child. They get distracted easily. So, we get them. Although, a collection of stories could be voluminous (depending on the number of stories), each story should not be too long.
Again, the prints must be bold. Tiny prints make concentration difficult. No child will want to strain his eyes to read. Reading at that age should not be an effort. It should be made as easy and interesting as possible. When one writes for children, you don’t just write about children. You write for children. I have come across books that were written about children. If books do not have the features of a good children’s book, they are not for children.
Children stories must be appealing to them. It could be educational, travel, scientific or adventure. It could be folklore or even old mama’s tales. Let us try not to be too preachy in our stories. My book, The Twins’ Visits, is pure adventure. Indeed, the twins’ visit to the village exposed them to a lot of things. They got to know how garri and palm oil were made. They learnt to climb trees, pound yam and roast corn. The story takes the child to the village. My other book, The Only Son, is about a child who leaves the village to the city. His experiences made him realise life was better in the village, where everything was clean, fresh and natural.
Children’s book should not be too preachy. They get enough of that at home, in school, churches, mosques, etcetera. Give them something different and refreshing. Children’s books must be enjoyed by them. It must be full of humour and you tell them about events/situations they can identify with.
How important is illustrating books for children?
Illustrating books for children cannot be over-emphasised. The child will always want to put a picture to whatever he is reading. He always wants a pictorial impression of the story/ characters. Illustrations enhance the beauty of what is being read. However, the volume of illustrations depend on the age range one is writing for. Books for early childhood should have more illustrations than books for the later childhood.
Writing for children is often seen as an easy endeavour, is it as easy as it seems?
I have heard a lot of people say things like ‘I must publish a book this year, at least a children’s book.’ I laugh, because writing for children is not as easy as people think. You need to know a bit of everything before you write a good children’s book. Child Psychology – what interests the child? What is the attention span of the child like? What are the features of a good children’s book? What age range do you intend to write for? What kind of books – picture books, pop-up books or chapter books.
Do you intend writing adventure, educational travel?
Writing for children is not easy at all. A children’s writer must try to make her stories as interesting and captivating as possible.
Two of your earlier writings include The Twins’ Visits and Funmi the Polite Girl. How did you get the ideas?
All my ideas come from my environment, interaction with children and parents. I observe a lot. I pay attention when people, especially children, talk. I am a great listener. I am also a very creative person. I can develop a story from a sentence. The stories in the two earlier books mentioned were based on observations. My son and I took turns to tell stories based on what we encountered/experienced during the day. Story telling sessions are purely creative. They bring out the creativity in individuals. Fortunately, I was able to pen down my stories. I am so attached to The Twins’ Visits, especially “A visit to Grandmother”. As a child growing up, I used to enjoy our yearly visits to my village, Akpanya in Igalamela/Adolu L.G.A, Kogi State. When my son was growing up, I would take him to my mother in Ankpa. What he learnt from those visits cannot be quantified. Every child, especially the city child, needs to pay a visit to the village or vice versa (if the child lives in the village). There is a lot to be learnt.
In Drop That Phone, the reader is taken on a lesson related to etiquettes of driving. Why did you consider it an important subject for children?
There are child safety rules, too. I did a research and realised children were expected to know these rules, even if some adults didn’t enforce them. Sometimes you drive past a car, the mum is carrying the baby on her laps and driving! In other cases, the little child is standing on the front seat while an adult is driving.
I believe the Nigerian child is expected to be involved in his/ her safety. I think everyone should be involved in safety. The child has an important role to play as she is expected to help correct other children and adults. Safety on the road is everybody’s business.
The Freedom Day Party has cultural elements. Do you think a writer has an obligation to function as the culture tutor in our society?
We are pushing for writing our stories. If we don’t write them, someone else will give the world a distorted story. A writer should project the culture of her community. Writers need to sell our culture to the world through our stories. The Freedom Day Party is a story that tells the world we have the best dress culture in the world: the Iro and Buba, the Buba and Sokoto. We want to encourage our children to be proud of our clothes, food, dances and everything. We want them to appreciate how rich our culture is.
In every part of Nigeria, we have our distinct culture. In the North, we have the Tuwo, the Babariga, the Kunu, etc. In the Middle Belt, we have the Igala achi, the Igala akala, the Tiv luam, etc. In 2009, I read Marilyn Mills, The Cloth Girl. The narrative was so strong that I bought a flight ticket and took off to Accra. A writer should see himself as the eye through which the world will read about his culture, society and his immediate world.
The Torn Petal, one of your most recent books, revisits the Boko Haram insurgency and its effect on social fabric. Why has it become imperative to children, especially the aspect that has to do with unwanted pregnancy?
The Torn Petal is a book that deals with several issues. I wanted to pass a message – the vulnerable ones suffer most in any war situation, because they cannot protect themselves. Girls become victims of all forms of abuse. However, a society where education is disrupted is sad. How do you empower the citizens? Every child needs an educational foundation. When the child is deprived of the basics, she grows to be a woman without focus.
I do not refer to Hussaina’s pregnancy as just unwanted; it also deals with the issue of teenage pregnancy. Hussaina found herself pregnant after she left camp. We see a girl, a teenager who is unprepared finding herself abused and pregnant. We are faced with low education turnout. Our children are forced to stay indoors. Where do we see these children in ten years? Teenage mothers who cannot fend for their children. Little children who cannot go to school?
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I strongly feel the society needs to address these issues. We tend to look the other way, because we feel we are not directly affected. However, in a matter of years, our negligence will come to haunt us.
You are involved with the Northern Nigeria Writers’ Summit, what’s your idea of developing children’s literature in the region?
When available books speak a familiar language, children tend to be interested in them. My points on developing children’s literature are all based on availability of books that are in tune with what the child is used to. Writers should be encouraged to write/publish books that have local flavour appeal and content. There should be occasional workshops for writers which should address the needs of the children. State governments should adopt books with local contents for schools. Such books will be easy to access and understood since children can relate to them. Northern Writers who have well written books should have their books listed in the school curriculum.
State government should also establish libraries in schools across the region. Libraries are expected to play an important role in the reading habits among Nigerians. In addition, every writer will want to see his/her books displayed on school shelves. Schools should be encouraged to have literary competitions, for example, Spelling Bee competitions. Also, local writers should be encouraged to create nursery rhymes, jingles for children. Jingles carry the values, history, culture and morals of the child’s immediate society. These jingles could be in the native language or in English. In addition, writers could produce comic books.
I think storytelling periods should be in the school schedule. Storytelling sessions could be once or twice a week. A storyteller could be invited to tell the children our stories, because it awakens creativity in children. Storytelling could be participatory and evolving, and that is creativity we are talking about. Northern Nigeria needs to catch up with other regions. We really need to appreciate the fact that we need to start early. How? We start from the basics, which is the children. Let us tell our story.