By Sonya Rehman
In a bid to bring overlooked personalities and topics to Pakistani classrooms, the Education Justice and Memory Network (EdJAM) has spearheaded eleven children’s books that have been written and designed by local writers and illustrators.
From rising stars in Pakistan’s political sphere, to the country’s forgotten heroes, climate change, animal rights and more, the books offer insight and inspiration to young readers on both pressing issues that need to be understood, and extraordinary individuals that need to be celebrated.
“These books talk about events and personalities which are missing from mainstream curricula; themes concerning human, animal, land and environmental rights. They highlight the personal struggles and successes of poets and politicians from religious and ethnic minority communities,” states Tania Saeed, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and a Co-Investigator (for Pakistan) at EdJAM.
“The stories are meant to be a starting point for further exploration and discussion, for children to think, to relate them to their own context, and therefore learn through reflection,” she states, when asked about how the book series will aid students, given the newly implemented Single National Curriculum in the country.
“I think these books are incredibly important, especially now, as we move even further away from critical reflection and questioning with this new curriculum.”
Penned by undergraduate students in Pakistan and illustrated by local artists, the books have also been translated in Urdu, Sindhi and Balochi.
“In my own work, I have examined the curriculum and textbooks across provincial boards in Pakistan, so we had an idea of the kind of narratives that dominate mainstream textbooks,” Saeed reveals regarding the initial development stages of the series.
“In order to decide on the topics for these books we held discussions on themes that we had found were missing, either in our own research or experiences of students. We also wanted to make sure that these books featured examples from our own communities, which were relatable for the children, where they could see themselves and their realities.”
Under the EdJAM children’s book series, Shamim Bano, a 21-year-old undergraduate student authored a story on the 17th century queen from Gilgit, Jawari.
Titled, Jawari, The Legendary Queen of Gilgit, Bano states that her book not only highlights the queen’s reign, but also offers readers a fascinating glimpse into Gilgit’s socio-political landscape and Jawari’s life.
“I grew up hearing about Queen Jawari in Gilgit. It is a famous folktale there, but very few written accounts exist about her. Being a native, I had the opportunity to contact local people who had a better understanding of the local history,” Bano states, “I interviewed local elders and academics, followed by studying written accounts. I came across some books by contemporary Pakistani, as well as British and German historians and anthropologists of the colonial and pre-colonial era. I then compiled all these different accounts and wrote my version of the story, and then edited it down to a very short version. I had never written anything for children before, and it was quite challenging for me to edit a historical account that has political, social, and cultural significance to a small children’s illustrated book.”
23-year-old Zoha Batool Khan, the author of a book on animal rights (Two Strays Strike Out) and the other on land rights (Make Krishna’s Karachi Real) hopes her books will give readers a “quick crash course in urban feminist geography,” a subject she holds close to her heart.
“I want people to realize that it may be the default to live in cities designed to be hostile to children and animals but it should be challenged,” she says, “Why have we accepted it as a given that children shouldn’t be able to navigate buildings alone? Why is it okay for strays to die on the streets from traffic and starvation? Why do we think their experiences are somehow separate from ours? A city that acts like a child is a problem will treat every virtue associated with that child as a problem: the same vulnerability, the interdependence, the joy, etc. What if we reimagined our cities? What if we realized that making cities safer for both children and animals makes all of us safer in the long-run? What if kids realized that just because everything is currently inconvenient or outright hostile doesn’t mean it needs to stay that way?”
With plans on sending copies of the books to schools and education ministries in the country, Saeed hopes that the series will encourage important discussions both within and outside the classroom.
“We’ve deliberately kept these books short where the script is quite direct about these themes and personalities. We hope that students will start talking about these topics and will be curious to look up the personalities and events,” she states.