At the recent African Literature Association conference in Atlanta, Africa in Words had the opportunity to speak with Ernest N. Emenyonu, Professor and Chair of the Africana Studies department at the University of Michigan-Flint, about African Literature Today’s latest issue, “Children’s Literature and Story-telling” (ALT 33).
Stephanie Santana for AiW, with questions provided by Tamara Moellenberg
What inspired you to feature children’s literature in the latest issue of African Literature Today? Why children’s literature now?
It’s really because it has been a very important genre that has consistently been ignored. I did a random survey—teachers, critics who came to conferences—about their feelings, attitudes, and perceptions of African children’s literature, and I was horrified that they continued to put it down as not being a serious genre. I also had contacted a number of publishers, and I found out that books for children were actually at the bottom of their budget list. And yet, if you go back to traditional African society and social values, what we now call children’s literature has always been there as a tool for raising kids. These stories are drawn from the oral tradition, and the oral tradition, in terms of folktales, always has a reason and a lesson. That’s why we say that the literature is good, instructive, and entertaining. You tell a story then you ask a child, “What do we learn from this?” Some people say that children’s stories have extensively moral-laden plots, but what’s wrong with that if that leads to better behavior in kids? So we decided in the editorial board that we should revisit the issue of children’s literature. My editorial in the issue is titled “Time to Rethink Attitudes and Misconceptions.” It’s time to revisit them and refute them. I further was horrified when a professor in Nigeria told me that there’s somebody who has been making the rounds, lecturing, giving talks, saying that children’s literature is nothing more than children’s literature. We are really doing our best to change that perception and show that it’s a rich literature. In fact, this is one of our largest volumes [of ALT] in the recent past.
Why do you think there is this persistent trivialization of the genre?
Because people are not reading, they are not aware of it. Go back to Chinua Achebe. He said he was horrified when he saw his children, his first daughter, coming home from school full of strange ideas, full of unimaginable perceptions and views. He and his wife were concerned, and they traced it to the school—to what they were being taught, to what they were reading. He said it was time for him to begin to at least take care of his own household, so he began to write for his children and their friends. Some publishers are also now reviewing their stand that children’s literature books don’t make money because they make a lot of money. In fact, the highest selling book I have in Nigeria now is my second children’s book, Uzo and His Father. It makes more money than everything that was critical and so on and so forth. Besides that, it gives us an opportunity to really get these kids to start reading and enjoying storytelling as early as possible. You’ve got to catch them young with something that’s really appropriate.
Many of the essays in the issue focus on how children’s books connect children to their cultural heritage and/or teach them moral lessons. It sounds like from what you’ve said that you find this didactic element to be very important. Are there other things, too, beyond this that are also important?
Yes. I use Nigeria as an example because that’s the country I know best. It’s not at a point yet where you can say that we’ve become fully and consciously a reading culture. We are not. My wife did a book on reading and the Nigerian cultural environment and found that there, unlike in the Western world where many parents—especially moms, but dads these days also—read stories for their children when they want to go to bed, in the Nigerian, African cultures we sing lullabies to them. But every song is also a story. So one of the major reasons also [for the issue] is to make our own little contribution towards raising the interest in establishing a reading culture not just in Nigeria, but across the continent. We want to engage them. We want to get them interested in interesting stories. We want to teach some moral lessons—especially at this time—through the stories.
You’ve talked a bit about Achebe’s reasons for starting to write for children. What inspired you to become an author of children’s literature?
It was a little bit like what Achebe himself also encountered. My first granddaughter was born here the US. My second granddaughter was also born here in the US, and they are going to school here. One is 14 now. The other one is 13. I wanted to make sure that while growing up here and enjoying all the benefits of being in the Western world culture that they also have some of their African heritage. They can read about snow here. They can read about Santa Claus, but I also want them to read works with heroes, who are the equivalent of Santa Claus in popularity, set in another culture. In fact, this children’s book that I told you is the best selling of all my books in Nigeria was based on my father’s life. I thought my children should be able to read about him.
What are your hopes for African children’s literature and its publication over the next decade? How should scholars be aware of and responding to these developments?
In the editorial that I did for the issue, we’re calling for more enlightenment and partnering with publishers that are now realizing that it’s ok to make money, but it’s also important to render a kind of service, to help children to acquire the reading culture. We’re hoping to call on scholars to now begin to revisit children’s books. I thought I’d also mention that in our universities, when you assess people for professorship, you find that there’s virtually no score allowed for children’s works. We are hoping that universities will also catch up and recognize that children’s literature is even more important than adult literature in certain areas in terms of particular values that we want to instill in children. We also hope that in universities, high schools, and primary schools—especially in primary schools—storytelling hour will come back into the curriculum.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the volume?
The volume is doing very well. We were hoping that teachers, parents, and publishers would be interested in it, and we are following up, talking with these groups. I’ll be attending three international conferences in Nigeria in May, July, and October. At each event, no matter what my topic is, I still talk about children’s literature because in a lethal age, an age of terrorism, we have to try and guard our children against these exposures.
I hope that it will get to a point where we can have enough resources or donations to distribute issues like this for free. At the moment, a private foundation in UK pays for several hundred copies of every issue to distribute to libraries in selected countries in Africa. We are hoping that this will increase so it will also go to schools. And we are hoping especially, I will continue to call on the people in our school systems, to please return the story hour in primary schools.
Very best of luck with all of these endeavors. Thank you very much for speaking with Africa in Words.
ALT 33: Children’s Literature and Story-telling
“Africa’s encounter with the West and its implications and consequences remain far-reaching and enduring in the craft and thrust of its creative writers. The contributors to ALT 33 analyse the connections between traditional stories and myths that have been told to children, as well as the work of contemporary creative writers who are writing for children in order that they understand this complex history. Some of these writers are developing traditional myths, folk tales, and legends and are writing them in new forms, while others focus on the encounter with the West that has dominated much modern African literature for adults. The previous neglect of the cultural significance, study, criticism and teaching of children’s literature is addressed in this volume: How can the successes and/or failures of stories and story-telling for children in Africa be measured? Are there models to be followed and what makes them models? What is the relationship between the text and the illustration of children’s books? What should guide the reader or critic of children’s literature coming out of Africa – globalism, transculturality or internal regionalism? What problems confront teachers, students, publishers and promoters of children’s books in Africa? Ernest Emenyonu is Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint, USA; the editorial board is composed of scholars from US, UK and African universities.”
“Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (FNAL) and Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Education (FNAE), Professor Emenyonu is a specialist in African Literature, he has taught African Literature at various institutions of higher learning in Nigeria and the United States, and has published extensively in the field. His publications include articles in leading journals of African Literature and chapters in books and anthologies on the criticism of African Literature in Africa, Europe, India and the United States. He has edited several works of criticism on African Literature including Emerging Perspectives on Nawal El Saadawi (2010), Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe Vols. 1 & 2, (2004), Goat Skin Bags and Wisdom: New Critical Perspectives on African Literature (2000). He is also the author of: A Good Shepherd: A Biography of the Most Rev. Benjamin C. Nwankiti (2003). His works of fiction include: Tales of Our Motherland (short stories) (1999) and a number of children’s books including Uzo: A Story of African Childhood (2011).”