Saturday, April 14, 2012

[Interview] Virginia W. Dike

Virginia W. Dike is Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Nigeria where she specialises in school libraries, children's literature and library services.

She is also one of the founders of The Children's Centre, a comprehensive educational and recreational facility for children and young people that includes a model children's library.

In addition to that, she is a director with the Libraries for Literacy Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that works to extend library services to schools, communities and prisons and to generate local learning resources.

Her books include Library Resources in Education (Abic, 1993) and the children's non-fiction books, Birds of Our Land: A Child’s Guide to West African Birds (2nd ed. Abuja, Nigeria: Cassava Republic, 2011) and Why We Need Trees (Cassava Republic, Forthcoming).

In this interview, Virginia Dike talks about her writing and about the state of Nigerian children's literature:

When did you start writing?

I began writing during my teenage and college years, with journals containing my thoughts and experiences, a little poetry, and long letters to friends. This was writing just to express myself and communicate with others. Writing became especially important as a means of expression during the two years I spent in Tanzania after graduating from college. I was living in a small village where no one spoke English, only Swahili and KiBena - so I relied on letters home to articulate my experiences and keep my English, even.

Having said that, I now remember childhood beginnings - in second and third grade we wrote compositions, with a drawing, of an experience we’d had each week. It was pretty rudimentary (mine usually ending with “We had fun.”), but I took great pride in it. In the middle grades, I wrote an episodic chapter book about two girls’ primary school adventures and a musical play of medieval romance (perhaps inspired by Robin Hood and Ivanhoe movies), performed in my neighbourhood and on a visit to family friends. Those were my last forays into fiction.

In adulthood, most of my writing has been academic, as a lecturer in library and information science, until I started writing for children.

Looking at this background, I wonder if young people today have the same opportunities to develop writing craft. Education in Nigeria, as I’ve known it through my children’s experiences and my work with primary school pupils, often lacks these kinds of writing opportunities, both in creative and expository writing, as well as the copious voluntary reading on which writing skills are based. And looking at the world generally, others have as well commented on the decline in thoughtful journal and letter writing in an age of e-mail and text message communication, and the implications of this for writing craft, as well as for historical records.

I think we have much to do to encourage writing and the development of written communication skills.

How did decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I don’t remember deciding that I wanted to be a published writer. What happened was that I came to Nigeria and fell in love with the beautiful and fascinating birds I discovered here. I wanted a book that would allow me to share this excitement over West African birds with my children - and I couldn’t find such a book. This was about 1979, the International Year of the Child. Conversations with a friend, Miriam Ikejiani-Clark, about the possibility of our teaming up to write books on birds and trees for IYC led to contact with her cousin Arthur Nwankwo, the owner of a local publishing house. Fourth Dimension had just embarked on publication of a picture book series, and the first edition of my bird book, Birds of Our Land, eventually became part of this series.

It was a long process at that. I had to do considerable lobbying for the book, even though my friend Judith Osuala was their very knowledgeable and committed children’s editor at the beginning of the process. After Judith left to join the University of Nigeria, the publishers tried to veer it toward being more like a textbook and for a higher level. In response, I added a brief guide for parents and teachers, which turned out to be a good idea retained in the new edition. But due to their lack of conviction about a market, few copies were printed and the book almost immediately went out of print, without reaching the intended audience, this even though there were indications of high demand.

The other problem had to do with illustration. A picture book, and a guide to birds at that, absolutely depends on illustrations of the highest quality and appeal. I was left to find an illustrator. My observation was that most Nigerian artists are more inclined to abstract or impressionistic art, rather than the naturalistic style required for a book off this nature. I was fortunate to locate a budding landscape painter, Robin Gowen, a young American woman visiting her parents in Nsukka that year. She had grown up in Nigeria and loved birds, so it was a perfect match. However, the publishers did not see the role of the illustrator as we did, as an equal partner in creating a picture book, which is a holistic blend of text and illustration. In spite of all our protestations, Robin’s name did not appear on the title page, nor was she given copyright to the illustrations. I am happy to report that these problems did not re-occur with the new edition, also illustrated by Robin and published by Cassava Republic.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

Nonfiction literature for children.

While I very much enjoy fiction for all levels, I have not felt inclined to write fiction or felt that I have a gift for it. I began writing for children as the result of the need I saw for a particular book, a guide to West African birds. Then in 1994 I participated in a workshop organized by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), Nigerian Section to create nonfiction literature for children, which had been identified as a major need. For that I produced manuscripts on the uses of trees and the West African seasons.

More recently I have written on flowers. Natural history then seems to be my niche in writing, which is interesting since my background is history and social studies.

Long after I started writing, I began to read more about nonfiction literature for children as a genre - its importance as well as its under-valuation, the observations and insights of writers specializing in nonfiction literature - and so to place my writing in a larger context.

Who is your target audience?

Children from about 3 to 12 years.

My areas of specialization within library and information science are school librarianship and children’s literature and library services, so I am concerned with literature for this age-group in my teaching future librarians and teachers.

Most of my experience in sharing literature is also with this age group - first with my five children - then through the Children’s Centre Library I helped develop at the University of Nigeria and my work with local primary schools.

There is also a great need for Nigerian children’s literature at this level. It is ironic that the ages that need local literature most have the least. From the beginnings in the 1960s, the emphasis in Nigeria has been on fiction for pre-adolescents and secondarily for adolescents. There have only been a handful of picture books over the years. Yet these should be a child’s first books, since they build up an association between reading and pleasure, develop language skills essential for reading, and foster personal development in all areas.

Three major gaps in Nigerian children’s literature that impact particularly on younger children are locally based picture books, nonfiction literature, and books in Nigerian languages. I have tried to contribute to meeting the need in the first two areas by writing nonfiction picture books introducing the local natural environment.

As a writer, which authors influenced you most?

I read general literature before I came to writing for children. I believe the aspect that influenced me most in terms of my own writing style was the poetic prose found in some novels. Among those that made a deep impression were the opening of Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times...”) and for African novels, the description of goldsmithing in Camara Laye’s African Childhood and the opening passage of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Then there was poetry, including the descriptive poetry of the Bible, as found, for example, in the books of Job, Psalms and Isaiah.

More directly, in the course of sharing books with children, I came across many picture books that made such wonderful expressive use of language. One from my own childhood is The Littlest Angel, by Charles Tazewell, with such wonderful words as “precipitous,” “vociferously,” and “disreputable” - no controlled vocabulary there!

A few of the many examples I could mention, especially where the prose has a poetic quality, are Tomie de Paola’s The Legend of the Bluebonnet and The Clown of God; William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; James Riordan’s The Three Magic Gifts; and Gail. E. Haley’s A Story, a Story. There are so many others, including humorous stories in rollicking verse, like Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss and The Duchess Bakes a Cake by Virginia Kahl. What I learned from these is that literature for children can be of the highest literary quality. It can help develop a sense of beauty in language, as the illustrations can also do in terms of art.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I grew up attuned to nature wherever I found it, including my childhood home in urban Indianapolis. Then there were family vacation trips to my grandparents’ home in Texas, the Rocky Mountains and Southwest desert, the land-of-a-thousand-lakes in Maine. When I was 1l, my parents bought a vacation home in beautiful northern Michigan - an old one-room schoolhouse overlooking the lake; surrounded by pine woods, meadows and cherry orchards; a land filled with birds, trees and wild flowers. My parents were both enthusiastic birdwatchers and given to long walks down country roads, through the woods, along the lake.

Through my mother and secondary school English literature classes, I was also introduced to poetry, especially romantic poetry describing nature. Towards the end of secondary school, I became very interested in Eastern religions and wrote a term paper on the Chinese religion Taoism, which emphasizes wholeness with nature. I was also drawn to Judeo-Christian traditions that envisioned the inter-connectedness of the whole spiritual, natural and human world, for instance as found in St. Francis of Assisi. This fed into a growing awareness of environmental issues and the need for environmental conservation and biodiversity.

When I moved to Nigeria in 1975, I was immediately taken with the many beautiful and intriguing birds I found there (like the brilliant blue and orange kingfishers and wing-beating flappet lark). I began to keep a journal sketchbook of my observations and consulted guide books in the library to learn more about them. However, when I wanted to share these birds with my children, I discovered there was no children’s book on local birds.

I was also interested in learning more about Nigerian trees and flowers, tasks which proved even more daunting since even adult guides were missing. Again, in the Children’s Centre Library there were numerous books informing about the seasons of the temperate zone (winter, spring, summer and fall), but nothing about tropical rainy and dry seasons.

I also found that many children as well as adults lack an appreciation of nature and the need for a healthy environment.

All these helped lead to my choice of nature books for young children as the focus of my writing.

What would you say are your main concerns as a writer?

As a writer of nonfiction literature for young children, specifically books in the area of science, my concern is to find ways of opening the natural world up to children, of exciting and involving them in the world around us. This involves increasing their knowledge about birds or trees or the seasons but also interpreting their prior experience with these in the local environment. It also concerns heightening their powers of observation and analysis. Equally important, I want to encourage certain values and attitudes - appreciation of the value and beauty of the natural world, awareness of the importance of a healthy environment for human welfare, scientific thinking and a sense of inquiry as well as a sense of wonder.

To accomplish this I have to find an approach that will speak to children, an approach that will meet them at a point of their own experience and stimulate their imagination and curiosity to explore further. I also need to find the words and mode of expression that will communicate effectively to children at their own level.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenges are two. One is getting and verifying the information I need in areas where there are few authoritative and accessible sources, even for adults. And these are in areas of science where I am not an expert but am learning as well. After all, I began this journey to answer my own questions.

I have tried to deal with this challenge by consulting experts in the field, for instance botanists; by broadening my search to materials on other tropical areas in Africa and the Caribbean; by consulting children’s books on these topics written in other countries; and by making informed use of the many sources now available on the Internet.

The second challenge is communicating what I have found in a way that will speak to young children. The concepts have to be expressed in simple and concrete terms that children can understand. This is a challenge often cited by well known writers of science books for children, like Millicent Selsam, since scientific ideas are often complex and abstract. Moreover, these must be expressed in simple language, simple in terms of both vocabulary and sentence structure. This can be a serious constraint. One must always strive to achieve a balance between saying things in the way that best describes or expresses a thought in literary or scientific terms and being understood by the children reading it. Having said that, I believe that reading good literature expands children’s powers of expression, both in terms of language expression generally and vocabulary, and that it’s better to err on the side of style than to produce writing that is ordinary and mundane.

Do you write every day?

Since my primary assignment is university teaching and administration, writing for children, while growing out of my area of specialization, is something I do on the side.

With the bird book, ideas often came on my morning walks - like the day I saw chattering weavers zooming back and forth carrying fronds from some palms to the tree where their nests were, and began playing with words and phrases to capture this sight for children. I can mull over passages in the course of daily life - walking; cooking lunch; driving on the highway; listening to music.

Since I’m writing nonfiction, once I get an idea the next step is usually research. In writing about birds, this was a combination of fieldwork (observing the birds directly and recording notes and sketches) and library research (checking the guide books and, in a few cases, the Internet).

In preparing to write about trees in the early 1990s, I discovered a wonderful series of old articles on economic uses of trees in Nigeria Magazine, like from colonial days. The problems were that many of the names given to the trees were no longer in use and information had to be updated, since uses of tree products have changed over time. I couldn’t find a satisfactory guide to Nigerian trees, but more recently I found a great source in the Internet, especially in getting details of some specific species. For flowers, I took a lot of photographs on morning walks, then consulted with a botanist friend to identify the flowers by name and pick up any interesting facts. I’ve also been to the Internet for specific species and consulted numerous American children’s books on flowers and plants.

Along with the research, I try to develop a focus, a central idea that will organize the content. This was relatively straightforward for Birds of Our Land, since it was organized as a guide to 25 West African birds, beginning with an introduction and ending with an activities section. However, several themes ran across the various entries - adaptation, classification, the interdependence of different forms of life, observation as a method for collecting information.

The book on trees posed a greater challenge in this regard. Information on individual species was less available and aside from economic trees, there were few common English names to easily identify them. I also felt that children, and most people, have a greater affinity for birds, which have so much in common with us (behaviour, social interaction, family life, movement), than for trees and other plants. For these reasons, I decided to focus on what connects trees to us - the uses of trees, both in terms of their role in the environment and products we get from trees. So the book is organized in terms of uses, the various environmental uses and the many types of tree products - artefacts, food, medicine, industrial products, etc. When this was getting a bit dry, I took my editors’ suggestion of including portraits of a few individual species as detailed examples. So the baobab is featured as an example of trees offering homes and food to animals, ebony as an example of numerous wood products, from chess pieces to piano keys, the shea nut tree as an example of foods, oils and medicines from trees.

Flowers presented even more of a problem than trees in terms of identification and human connections. I looked at a number of children’s books on plants, flowers and trees and found such a variety of approaches. Some were general guides to trees or wildflowers, for instance one in which children talked about their favourite tree. Some took up a particular group, like poisonous or medicinal plants. Others focused on a particular species; one I especially liked was on the banyan tree as the centre of an Indian village. Still others looked at the life of a tree, why we need trees, the role of flowers in plant reproduction, pollination, and the role colour plays in pollination. I decided to focus on colour as a way of introducing flowers to young children, with more detailed portraits of a few familiar or unique flowers. I also became interested in the socio-cultural role of flowers, as brought out so effectively in the book about the banyan tree. All this is preliminary to the actual writing.

How many books have you written so far?
  • Library Resources in Education (Enugu, Nigeria: Abic, 1993). A university-level textbook in three sections: the first discussing the relationship between modern education and school libraries; the second on various types of resources, nonfiction, literature, and audiovisual resources; and the third on the role of the library in promoting readings habits and skills, developing information skills, and expanding learning resources.
  • Birds of Our Land: A Child’s Guide to West African Birds (1st ed. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1986; 2nd ed. Abuja, Nigeria: Cassava Republic, 2011). An introduction to West African birds, including basic features of birds and hints for observation; portraits of 25 memorable birds; and bird watching activities. 
  • Why We Need Trees (Cassava Republic. Forthcoming). Focuses on the uses of trees, first in helping create a healthy environment and then in providing products of so many kinds, from furniture to musical instruments, from foods to art, from medicines to varnishes. Finally, a conclusion on how to save trees and activities involving trees.
Also books on flowers and seasons and perhaps more, all part of a nature series for children.

How did you find a publisher for your latest book?

My latest book, and also my first children’s book in a new edition, is Birds of Our Land: A Child’s Guide to West African Birds, published by Cassava Republic Press of Abuja in 2011, but just out. The name indicates the content: the new edition features 25 familiar or notable birds of West Africa. I wrote the original edition about 1980-1981, based on my observations of Nigerian birds carried out from about 1978.

The new edition developed out of my meeting with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Cassava Republic at a seminar organized by the Spanish Embassy in 2009. There was little additional editorial work: I added seven new birds and an activities section to the new edition, made more inquiries about names of birds in the three major Nigerian languages, and conferred with the illustrator in creating all new illustrations.

In this case, the publisher found me. Bibi was attracted to my book, which I used as an example during the seminar. It was just the kind of book she had been seeking for a new nature series of picture books that Cassava Republic wished to bring out. She immediately proposed they publish a new edition of my bird book.

What advantages or disadvantages did this present?

I already knew of Cassava Republic from their novels, which impressed me greatly both in terms of literary and production quality.

From everything said, it was apparent we shared a common philosophy about children’s books and a fruitful partnership was born. We agreed on the crying need for local nonfiction literature for Nigerian children. We likewise agreed on the importance of quality in every aspect of the work, including illustration and physical production, and on the need to acknowledge the crucial role of the illustrator in creating a picture book. I have also appreciated the very thorough editing of my proposed book on the uses of trees and the team of critics who helped to improve the work.

Any disadvantages have been due to Cassava Republic’s status as a new, small and yet to be fully established company. There have been delays in production - due to efforts to find sponsorship to support the work; due to locating a printer with the best balance of quality and cost and, as a result, relating to one in faraway India; and due to other unforeseen circumstances, like the January general strike over fuel price increases.

Marketing is also a major challenge for Nigerian publishers, especially those aiming at innovation and quality. But the need is so great, as are the possibilities: I feel Nigeria is where I can make a meaningful contribution.

What will your next book be about?

Three books in the nature series are at various stages - the one on uses of trees has been edited and is at the stage of layout and illustration, those on flowers and the seasons have been accepted.

Ideas for future books include small mammals and reptiles, insects, fish, foods... there is no end to possibilities.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I think it is too early to talk of significant achievement. However, I believe I have created a beautiful book that can open the world of West African birds to children, and even adults. (Actually, many of the same or very similar species occur in East and Southern Africa as well.)

I believe that the three of us working in cooperation - I as writer, the illustrator and publisher - have created a model for a quality nonfiction picture book based on Nigerian environment. I hope this book will call attention to the need and value of nonfiction literature for children as a way of opening up the world of knowledge and discovering the pleasure and excitement to be found in the natural world. I hope it will help begin to fill this enormous gap in Nigerian children’s literature and lead to more high quality books in the future.

Photo credit: Nigerian School Library Association

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