Government must vet storybooks in our schools

You are the books you read, the films you watch the music you listen to, the people you meet, the dreams you have, the conversations you engage in. You are what you take from these – Jac Vanek.

BY ASHFORD GIKUNDA

Not too long ago, a storybook by a local publisher sparked a national wide hullabaloo. Some unsuspicious schools had recommended the ostensibly provocative novel, Blood Ties, by Storymoja publishers for Std. 6 pupils. As is typical of Kenyan culture, there was public criticism of the book, noise was made on social media for a few days and we moved on with life. 

Sadly, no lessons were drawn from the entire chronicle, an opportunity squandered. 

It is very possible for storybooks to escape the attention and eyes of the education stakeholders and get to our classrooms. This is because there is no law regulating the writing and publishing of storybooks in Kenya. This lacuna leaves many schools, teachers, parents and learners culpable. 

Storymoja publishers were just doing what every business institution would do; availing the products to the end user. I wouldn’t fault them for that. Instead, I extol them for giving us variety from which we can make choices. I am yet to understand what crime Storymoja committed. Theirs was just a victim of circumstances. It could have been any other publisher. To demonize Storymoja is to miss the point.

Unlike the course books, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development does not vet storybooks. Consequently the Kenyan students are left at the mercy of publishers. Only the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) English and Kiswahili set books are scrutinized. 

Kenyan schools are flooded with very many junk storybooks most of which cannot pass the morality test. The standard of both written and spoken English in our schools is dwindling as a result of poorly written storybooks. The levels of creativity in some of these storybooks are wanting. The plots are haphazard. The themes are archaic and often advance violence, cruelty and drugs and substances abuse. Save for the secondary school set books, majority of the storybooks in the Kenyan bookshops hardly inspire the modern learners. They are simply commercial ventures that leave no impression on the readers. 

Roald Dahl, the late British novelist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter, and fighter pilot asserted that “If you are going to get anywhere in life you have to read a lot of books.” I can’t agree with him more but I want to add, ‘you have to read a lot of good books not junks.’ The reality in our schools is our learners are getting nowhere with the current crop of storybooks. 

Sometimes I laugh when I see schools using Peter and Jane series. What use is Peter and Jane in this era of competency-based curriculum? Peter and Jane only teaches sounds. The series lacks a local touch. Even our newly unveiled currencies advance local themes like agriculture, governance, social values, tourism and much more. Peter and Jane does not advance any of the CBC core values yet most schools have retained it on their booklist! This is an 8:4:4 handover, which needs to be uprooted sooner than later. To me, Peter and Jane is just a favourite for languid teachers. It is zero inspiration. I don’t know anything good that can come out of it. 

As a matter of fact, I dare say, some local television programs like ‘Inspekta Mwala’ are more educative and creative than the junks sold in the name of storybooks! Inspekta Mwala has a clear story line than most story books trending in the bookshops. Very few storybooks can pass the CBC test. The current crop of storybooks needs to be overhauled. To continue trading in these storybooks is giving Kenyan learners a raw deal. 

The ministry of education needs to go back to the drawing board and reinvent the wheel. With the roll out of the new competency based curriculum, storybooks must complement the course books by advancing modern themes and values envisaged in the new education dispensation. Changing the curriculum and ignoring key learning materials like storybooks is akin to changing the forest but leaving the old monkeys. Story books, just like the other learning materials must be aligned with the new expected outcomes otherwise it will be an exercise in futility.

The vision of the CBC is to produce an engaged, empowered and ethical citizen. To realize this, learning materials including storybooks must be overhauled. This will be painful and costly but it will yield the desired results than taking the short cut. The 8:4:4 course books and storybooks cannot deliver on this vision. They were meant to pass time and teach vocabulary. CBC is a skill-based curriculum so there must be novels on all learning paths as envisaged. 

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me,” says Emerson Ralph Waldo. Bad storybooks make bad citizens, good storybooks on the other hand, make ethical citizens. We must raid our schools of storybooks that enhance negative creativity like violence, horror, alcoholism and such. 

The starting point would be serious vetting by KICD. There must be legislation to create Kenya Storybooks Classification Board to vet and appropriately classify each of the storybooks in the market. A grade one learner mustn’t read a grade four material. Before then, we shouldn’t be surprised if we discover more ‘Blood Ties’ in our book markets and eventually in our schools. 

Writer is a teacher and MA student in Project Planning & Management at UoN.

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