Sunday, 15 September 2019

"Tilly & Thandeka" is here

Sometimes it really feels like I'm just winging it, running on caffeine (and a glass or two of wine) trying to hold on to dreams and reality at the same time, desperately trying to not let anything else drop. It's been exhausting, it's been exhilarating, and yet finally, here it is: Tilly & Thandeka: The Crown of Ancient Ghana.

This is the first in a series of adventure stories about these two brave girls, set in South Africa and is aimed at 7-9 year-olds. There's a lot more I want to say about them, so I think I will reserve that for another post. At the moment it's only available in South Africa. You can buy it here.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The apparent simplicity of language: the text and its shadow

I am a reader.

An avid reader of children's books and an avid reader of books about children's books. This means I often get myself bogged down with particular details about writing that is aimed at children and what exactly makes it "literature for children" and not "literature for adults" or just "literature".

One of the things I like to do in order to find some answers, is explore the boundary around what we call "children's literature". At first this seems obvious (and a waste of time), but once one begins looking more carefully, varied and less-firm territory appears.(For example, if "children's literature" is a body of literature read by children, then what about Harry Potter, who has a large adult fan base too? Or Winnie The Pooh with its sophisticated double address that amuses children and elicits knowing smiles from adults?)

Perry Nodelman is a widely respected critic and academic in the field of children's literature and in his book The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature he traces these boundaries. One of the points he discusses is children's books and their apparent simplicity of language. On the whole it is accepted that children's books should be written with a slightly less sophisticated reader in mind, a reader who does not yet possess the skills and the vocabulary to fight their way through long, complex, Proustian sentences. Let alone have the attention span. (This may be true, but it doesn't have to mean "talking down" to the reader.) Anyway, this rule is not set in stone (no one told Charles Dickens this when he was writing Oliver Twist) and sometimes is deliberately broken (think of Lemony Snicket's informative, context-specific asides to the reader about what difficult words mean in A Series of Unfortunate Events).

However, I would have to agree with Nodelman, that children's books imbue words with a kind of magic that makes them communicate far beyond their immediate meaning. This is what Nodelman refers to as the "shadow text". The writing is simple, yet the shadow text is not. Nodelman states, "The simple text implies an unspoken and much more complex repertoire that amounts to a second, hidden text." Here lies the magic of children's literature.

Of course one can argue that adult texts also have this shadow text, but the disjunction is clearer in children's books because we accept and expect their simplicity of language. The existence of this shadow therefore means that the simplicity of the story actually requires the reader to have more knowledge than the story actually contains. We, the reader (adult and child), must tap into our repertoire of past experiences, knowledge and understandings of the world in order to read the shadow text.

As a result, when we read David Walliams' first line from The Boy in the Dress: "Dennis was different", our repertoire of playground and classroom memories allows us to fully comprehend the story behind that experience. The prose is simple and straight-forward, but the story is not.

Similarly, Eva Ibbotson's first line from Journey to the River Sea, "It was a good school, one of the best in London" doesn't bog the reader down with long-winded and elaborate descriptions of the school and its standing. That introductory line tells us everything we need to know not because of the  text, but the shadow behind it: Maia's privilege and also her limitations.

Good children's books maintain the simplicity of language, but have carefully selected words that have the ability to throw magical shadows.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

"Children are made readers in the laps of their parents"

I always like to begin my classes on children's literature by asking students to reflect on their own experiences of being read to as a child, to look back at the books that built them. 

But you know what? Every year I'm taken aback by how few have this experience, reminding me that it is not something to be taken for granted. And for those who did have the privilege of being read to, the experience pretty much ended sometime during Grade 1 or 2 when they had acquired the skill of reading. 

And every year that makes me kind of sad, because that early reading process is so incredibly important. And special. And magical.

Recently I was asked to contribute to a short article on encouraging young children to read and that got me thinking. Here are some of the things that came to mind and which, for me at least, make all the difference:

As writer Emilie Buchwald stated, “Children are made readers in the laps of their parents”. This sums up the incredibly powerful role parents play in establishing a love of reading in young children. Books represent quality time with mom or dad, be it with cuddles before bed or to calm down and bond after a tantrum, or to giggle and laugh about together during the day. It’s about so much more than just a book or a story at this stage, so it’s important to foster the relationship as well as a love of books.

Books should be everywhere in the home (not just neatly stacked on bookshelves) – on coffee tables, on beds, on the couch, on the kitchen counter, even on the floor. It may seem contradictory, but when children see books everywhere, they become part of their daily lives which is more likely to foster a love of books later on. Bored, in need of distraction or just curious – just grab your nearest book!

Young children, in particular, relate to books as objects first before they fully understand how they work or what they do. They are attracted to the bright, cheerful covers, they want to explore them in a tactile way – what do they feel like? Are they heavy or light? Perhaps even, what do they taste like? There is nothing wrong when toddlers treat books like objects to play with. Learning how to treat a book gently comes later, so for now, books are about fun, exploration and learning. This is where tactile books, books with holes, pop-up books or books with flaps become very popular and can provide endless entertainment for curious fingers and curious minds.

Reading to toddlers and young children should be about interaction, so mom or dad should get creative for story time! There’s no need to stick to the script – much amusement can be had when a familiar story is told with a new twist. The ensuing argument is a great opportunity for language development. Repetition, rhyme, word play and prediction are all part of the parental tool box when it comes to story-telling and language. The child can complete sentences, guess what will happen next, think up reasons why something happened, repeat words or phrases and, in a general sense, let story-time become more of a conversation than about making it from beginning to end.

Probably the most important, yet often forgotten, element of fostering a love of reading in children is for parents to show an interest in books themselves. Little eyes are always watching and they notice the objects that occupy the hands and minds of the adults around them – is it a cellphone or is it a book? What fascinates mom or dad is more likely to draw the attention of children too. Parents should remember, that buying lots of books doesn’t automatically encourage reading, becoming a reading role model does.

Monday, 22 April 2019

What is more generous than a window? Some rainy afternoon reflections

Sometimes it's the simplest things that matter the most:

  • The aural pattern of rain against the paving, dripping through the leaves. 
  • Two little girls keeping themselves busy, enveloped in imaginary worlds.
  • The folded-up comfort of a cat snoozing.
  • A drink, good company, conversation that digs up memories.
  • A stack of books found in an odd second-hand store with someone special.
  • Soup bubbling on the stove.
  • A good book turned over on the table, paused, but just for a moment.
  • The gleam of clean dishes on the sink, an ordinary task completed.
  • The unbreakable beams of support offered by friends.
  • The greeting of a pink hibiscus flower when I open my bedroom curtain in the morning.

These are the things that stand out against a busy world and which mean everything. I have a lot to be grateful for at the moment. Despite the difficult months. Despite everything.

And in celebration of that sentiment, a poem that has always spoken to me:

The Patience of Ordinary Things
Pat Schneider
It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

Saturday, 20 October 2018


Katie Peridot quite likes being ordinary. Unfortunately, some very out-of-the-ordinary things have been happening. On top of that her best friend, Mayuri, isn’t her best friend anymore, a sinister sponsorship programme is taking over her school, her mother is acting more crazy than usual and the only person who really seems to understand her is a peculiar cleaning lady. Then she teams up with Themba, the cleverest (and most unpopular) boy at school, and together their investigation takes them deep into the town’s abandoned mine.
What they find there is more terrible than they could have imagined. Can they save Witchfield before it’s too late?

The title definitely formed first: a town that seemed ordinary and boring, but was not. Then the characters came, rushing, filling that space. A sensible girl who liked rationality and just wanted to fit in. A mother who stood out. The ups and downs of their relationship. The friends around the girl. A lonely boy with big glasses who had his sights set high above the limitations of the everyday. A mysterious mountain. Unwanted magic. A villain with a nefarious plot (of course). And a cat (there had to be a cat).

And so the ideas swirled around me, finally settling into a coherent plot that I could then work on. Which I did. A lot. Deleting and cutting and rewriting. And giving-up and starting again. And giving-up and... Let's just summarise and say it took a long time.

I've always been fascinated by unconventional parent-child relationships and Katie and her mother gave me the opportunity to play around with this idea through their delightful, frustrating, bohemian ways. What I also really longed for in the story were the familiar contours of the South African landscape; a setting that reaffirmed that South African children's lives existed in books too. Having said that though, this was not the point of the story. It was never created to fill a literary gap. I  wrote it because these characters arrived insistently in my mind and had to be brave and go on an adventure. That's what drove the writing process, and if South African children smile because they recognise a little bit of themselves and their lives in Katie and Themba and Mayuri,  I certainly will be delighted too.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

I wrote a book

I wrote a book.

(I may or may not have also written a whole heap of other things regardless of the fact that nothing is ever published. In this regard, writing is like a bad, slightly embarrassing habit that I can't seem to stop. I write quietly, perhaps a little secretively, in the extreme margins of my days. There's not much space, not much time, but somehow, it's been enough.)

But this book.

I knew there was something special about it when I started writing it ten years ago. The name. The characters that rushed at me so eagerly that I felt swamped. I haven't actually been writing it for ten whole years; for much of that time it was pushed aside, abandoned, banished, forgotten, rejected, hidden. Life happened. But it wouldn't go away; eventually, I pulled it out and faced it again. And again. And again.

So, here it is.

My book in my hands. It's been a long, long journey and the feel of its pages beneath my fingers is a kind of homecoming for me.

That seems all I'm capable of for now. I shall write something more useful soon, like what it's about, how I did it, what happens next and what I plan to do with it.


(And by the way, if anyone is wondering whose magic created this beautiful cover, I was very lucky to find the amazing, extraordinary Cristy Zinn. Find more of her work here.)

Friday, 21 July 2017

Can we talk about Enid Blyton?

A picnic with my two lovely girls at the Botanical Gardens got me thinking about Enid Blyton. We packed some snacks, a blanket and some books, one of them an Enid Blyton classic, The Secret Seven. The kid (who is now seven) has become enchanted by the Faraway Tree and The Secret Seven. If I read her a chapter, she will soldier on determinedly on her own, eating up the story word by word, a finger marking the steady progress. I never thought that watching a fledgling reader could make me feel so happy, but it does.

Which brings me to Enid Blyton.

The Wishing Chair, The Faraway Tree, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and all those page-turning adventure stories made up my reading childhood. I discovered the heady addiction of stories, the desperate need to find out what happens next even after lights out, through these books. I was eight when I started to read in English, having just moved to South Africa with my parents. Enid Blyton books quickly became part of my reading diet and continued to be favourites for years. Reading them felt a bit like making friends in a new place. A lot of it didn't make sense to me or reflect my new life in South Africa. I still have no idea what sort of meal "tea" is. Green meadows and lanes, and the cold, misty, rainy weather all took on mythical qualities in my mind. The humidity and heat, the lush, out-of-control coastal vegetation with its troupes of vervet monkeys, the street vendors at the intersections, the rickshaw drivers at the beachfront, the intoxicating multiculturalism were all absent in the stories I picked up. But it didn't matter. I loved reading them anyway.

Much criticism has been leveled at Blyton for her culturally insensitive, gender-stereotypical stories, but for all that she did wrong, she certainly did something right. Children, pretty much everywhere, love her stories. And this raises a very important question, one I often engage with, namely, who determines what "good" children's literature is? Good according to whom? Who decides? Children or adults? Are adult critics even qualified to do this?

The lack of working mothers, touches of racism and xenophobia, the obvious classism are sometimes hard to overlook as an adult now rereading some of my childhood favourites, but then I watch my fledgling reader's growing hunger for them and suddenly I don't feel so qualified to tell her what she can and can't read.

I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk The danger of the single story is particularly relevant to children's literature. Perhaps the solution to the Enid Blyton problem is not to eliminate her from children's reading diets, because she certainly has earned her place there, but rather to feed them a rich variety of stories from different places and backgrounds. In other words, offer them a balanced diet with a healthy sprinkling of magic.

So, what are your views on Enid Blyton?


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