Ayo Oyeku is a writer of prose, poetry and screenplay. He made an early mark in 2004, when his first children’s book, First among Equals, was selected by World Bank for distribution across schools and libraries in the country. In 2015, his young-adult novel, Tears of the Lonely, won the Ezenwa Ohaeto Prize for Fiction, by the Society of Young Nigerian Writers. In 2016, his poem, Reeds on the Rivers, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was shortlisted twice for the Golden Baobab Prize in 2016 and 2018 respectively. In 2019, he won the ANA prize for Children’s literature for his book, Mafoya and the Finish Line. He recently published his eight children’s book, Queen Moremi Makes a Promise. Ayo Oyeku is a member of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Asides writing, he is the founder of Eleventh House — a creative publishing firm.
You’ve been writing children’s literature since 2004 when the World Bank selected your book for country wide distribution. What pushed you to start writing for children?
Right at an early age, I wanted to convey words with meaning. I was ready to use every possible genre of literature to do this. I wrote poems, short stories and plays too. When I turned 17, my first publisher told me to try my hands on children’s fiction. I did, just to test the waters. Interestingly, it worked. My debut was selected not only by the World Bank but also made it to the recommended book list in 4 States for a period of 3 years. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the success of my first book that spurred me on, rather my encounter with a mother who had bought my book for her children. She told me how she and her kids had been positively influenced by the story I published. That made me realise great things do come in small packages too. That became the beginning of everything good for me.
Do you think children’s literature in Nigeria lacks attention even when it’s supposed to be the most focus?
The educational system in Nigeria is screaming for attention. It’s almost impossible to separate children’s literature from the classroom. Both go hand-in-hand, as they serve as the foundation for every child. If the government can fix the educational system and also allocate a minimum of 15% of the annual budget to the education sector, we would be moving a step in the right direction. In the Nigerian literary circle today, more attention and conversations are being given to children’s literature. A lot more can still be done to push it forward, but at the moment, the genre is gaining momentum.
What has been your children’s publishing journey like? I mean, finding publishers, getting tired, then finding your own publishing firm? Promoting and selling children’s literature, what has been the hard part? And the good part too. Can you tell us everything about this?
I could fill a book with my experience. I got my first publishing deal through word-of-mouth. The initial sales were good and the royalties were paid. Three years after, the royalties became uncertain. I had to cover miles on foot to sell my books. Some bookstores and school administrators failed to remit money made from my book sales. Getting new publishers became difficult and I received numerous rejections. Each bad experience made me want to stop writing. I actually quit – three times. Yet, I found the courage within myself to come back, despite glaring uncertainties. One day, an angel smiled and my dreams began to manifest. In 2016, I got shortlisted for the Golden Baobab Prize. This milestone beamed the light on me, and subsequently got me another publishing deal. Some of my children’s books have not just won awards but also opened doorsfor me in great places. I started Eleventh House as a home for gifted writers who had something unique to say. Even though, one of our titles won the Association of Nigerian Authors prize in 2020, yet we are still at the early stage and there are greater things to come.
What would you say is the status of children’s literature in a year like 2021 in Nigeria? What is working and what is not working?
This is 2021 and new authors of children’s books are emerging, young publishers are springing up, and gorgeous books are penetrating the market. It’s indeed a beautiful thing to see. It’s pleasing to see children finding themselves in these books.Finally, we are bridging the gap and the world cannot ignore.While a lot can still be done in terms of the story depths, it’s also important for authors to understand that children are smarter than Nigerian authors think – hence they shouldn’t make their stories didactic all the time. Don’t write to/at children, rather use your story to show them multiple paths to amazing thoughts. It’s also quite disturbing to see an individual, any individual, announcing their new children’s book – which they claimed they had written because they were idle and had to tick it off their bucket list. This motive is not acceptable. Children literature is delicate and requires a lot of skills too. Authors need to take professional writing classes, read voraciously, understand the genres of children’s literature, join literary groups, and do everything necessary to hone their writing skills. Writing for children is like breathing life into them. You wouldn’t want to kill a child with your inexperience.
Who did you read while growing up? Did they influence your writing in any way?
I read everything I could lay my hands on in libraries owned by my dad, school and state. Notable authors in the African Writers Series stood out for me. I also enjoyed books written by Enid Blyton, Carolyn Keene, Kola Onadipe and Cyprian Ekwensi. They all influenced my writing in many ways that I can’t quantify. Reading for me is a lifetime practice, hence I am still being influenced by the new books I read too.
How did you fall in love with epic fantasy and can you tell us a bit about THE LEGEND OF ATAOJA?
The Harry Porter Series easily comes to mind. Magic, imaginations and endless possibilities. These fascinated me and I wanted to fuse that into my story. I used the royal history of the Osogbo Kingdom – my hometown – as a foundation for my story. Piece by piece, I created something epic and fantastic. The Legend of Ataoja is my seventh children’s book, which is about how the throne was wrestled from Oriade’s hands – the rightful heir – and given to his ruthless father-in-law, who had a mysterious shapeshifting power. In this thrilling chapter book, Oriade went on a magical adventure, formed new alliances and staged a comeback. The prompt behind this captivating story is to open the eyes of children to leadership, power and a connection to their root. My most recent children’s book, Queen Moremi Makes a Promise, also highlights these values and some key learnings for children too.
What would be your last words or anything to say about the Nigerian literary industry or to children’s writers across Nigeria & Africa?
Writer’s write. And that’s everything.