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#ALitFest20 – The Art of Empathy #3

12-15 August 2020

This year the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival threw its doors open online. As I wrote in The Art of Empathy #1 and The Art of Empathy #2, the programme was jam-packed with events, many more than I could possibly take in fully. As a fan of KidLit and YA from around the world, I quickly added the Little Lit Children session to my diary, eager to hear from Africans writing for children.

Can children learn empathy from books? That was the first question Tolu Habib, founder of the Young Readers Library, put to Chimee Adioha, Ayo Oyeku, and Dr Modupe Adeyemo Oyetade. Empathy involves trying to let someone understand what the other person is going through, explained Adioha, as he talked about the childhood feminism he tries to create with his work, aware that gender roles are often fixed as early as the age of seven or eight. Oyekuhighlighted the difference between sympathy and empathy, and the importance of empathy in building society and creating a culture of communities, a skill that children can learn at a young age. Dr Oyetade mentioned the cognitive, emotional, and compassionate aspects, and how children should be able to relate to others and feel their pain, referring to her experience as a dental surgeon and how children often cry when they see their mothers receiving treatment in her surgery.

As would be expected at a literary festival, the panel quickly moved onto the question of whether children can learn empathy through books. The resounding answer was of course yes. Dr Oyetade stressed that children are like sponges, absorbing information and what they are told, being moulded by their parents and the environment around. It’s up to society to shape children, she said, adding that unfortunately people in Nigeria often did not seem to show much empathy. Oyeku encouraged the audience to give children the right kinds of books, and books that the children themselves are comfortable with, not simply sticking with rigid categories. Moderator Habib mentioned her library’s 30 books summer challenge, adding that the majority of the books children read were not written by Nigerians, and asked if Nigerian writers were doing enough for children. Adioha answered that solution-based creative writing for children was required. Writers couldn’t keep writing the same things, because the world is changing. Oyeku said there weren’t enough books that children wanted to read, describing the changes in the publishing landscape from the 1970s-1990s as the big publishing houses left Nigeria. He emphasised the importance of getting more training and more access to publishing houses through workshops and networks. Parents are also important, he said. Children’s writers are addressing the whole family, and parents won’t buy something they don’t like themselves. He highlighted the need for writers to use all sorts of sales channels - digital, paperback – and to work on soft animations or cartoons that can be shared easily on social media.

The panel concluded with some great top tips from each of the three speakers. Dr Oyetade encouraged parents to get their children a pet as so they could learn empathy by caring for it. Oyeku was keen to see children given space to ask questions as they read and encouraged the audience to treat every child as their own child, lending them a hand, sharing a book with them, and reading along with them. Adioha wrapped up with a call to writers to write intentionally.

My three posts about #ALitFest20 are just a tiny glimpse into to the fantastic range of panels at a festival that was full of energy, life, and inspiration. Check out the #ALitFest20 Twitter account @alitfest to get a feel what struck a chord with others at the festival. And above all, check out the books by the writers who took part. I know that my TBR list will definitely keep me going well into 2021!

Chimee Adioha is a Nigerian writer and photographer. His children’s book Amara comes out in early 2021. He is also the founder of Black Boy Review, an online literary journal, celebrating fresh talents springing up from Africa. You can follow him on Twitter @chimeeadioha.

Tolu Habib is a Nigerian writer and founder of the Young Readers Library set up to foster a love for reading and creative writing and to equip children and young people with the literacy, leadership, and life skills they need to reach their full potential.

Dr Modupe Adeyemo Oyetade is the author of the Ivana book series used in the primary school curriculum. Her other children’s books include Wura Gets a Goat, Manna Smells a Rat, Adisa and the Easter show, Abi and the wicked teacher and Is that What It Is? She has also written two novels, F'resyne, and The Horse in the Storm. You can read more about her here and follow her on Twitter @drmodupeauthor.

Ayo Oyeku is an award-winning Nigerian children’s writer. His first book First among equals (2004) was was selected by the World Bank for distribution across schools and libraries in the country. His first novel won the Ezenwa Ohaeto Prize for Fiction, by the Society of Young Nigerian Writers. He was shortlisted for the prestigious Golden Baobab Prize in 2016 with Maya and the Finish Line and in 2018 with The Era of the Afrocubs. You can follow him on Twitter @ayo_oyeku.

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