BLACK AND WHITE AND READ ALL OVER
Jay Heale reports from South Africa
Children’s literature so often holds up the mirror to social change. For many years, the English-speaking white population were the liberals, outspoken against apartheid – while the Afrikaans-speakers (or a majority of them) seemed contented with things as they were. So it was hardly surprising that the indigenous children’s books (written in English) should reflect liberal thinking.
The earlier stock storyline had been: white boy and black boy grow up together on a South African farm, great buddies, until, naturally, the white boy goes off to boarding school and the black boy stays to look after the goats. This plot was updated and condemned for all time in Sheila Gordon’s powerful novel, Waiting for the Rain (Orchard, 1987), in which the two meet again over a gun-barrel. Such condemnations of apartheid as Journey to Jo’burg (Longman, 1985) by Beverley Naidoo had been banned in South Africa.
The new cliche plot became: gang of white boys meets a black boy, are suspicious of him until he proves that he’s `all right’. Then all can be friends together. Curiously, there were no stories of a gang of black boys welcoming in a lone white! Such a supposedly with-it novel as Lawrence Bransby’s Down Street (Tafelberg) in which a white high school lad dares to declare his affection for a coloured girl, was applauded by liberal white librarians but spurned by coloured ones. (Oh, we still have a problem in South Africa differentiating between pure black Africans and brown-skinned coloureds of mixed ancestry or possibly pure Malay blood. While some whites lump them all together as `blacks’, few are keener to emphasise the difference than the so-called coloureds.)
But the main character in all those children’s books remained the white child. Publishers pointed out that it was whites who bought books, after all. A black protagonist was only found in ethnic folktales, safely relegated to the fantasy shelf. Then the pendulum began to move. I keep statistics on certain aspects of the English language children’s books written in South Africa. The male/female statistics are as interesting as the white/black ratio on the central character:
male female white black
1989 78% 22% 70% 30%
1990 74% 26% 57% 43%
1991 73% 27% 52% 48%
1992 61% 39% 43% 57%
1993 56% 44% l3% 87%
(up to end of October 1993)
In this male-dominated country, we’re heading towards some sort of parity in our male/female children’s literature protagonists! And though the number of 1993 books has been few (due to our staggering economy) only three so far have had a white central character (one of which was written by me).
But the weapons of war are still perishing around us (even if the Zulu maintain their right to flourish an assegai on parade as a `cultural’, weapon’). For we have just seen the publication of the first trickle of indigenous Graphic Novels.
If ever a cultural form was destined to strike horror into the hearts of educationists, the Comic and the Graphic Novel loom like the inventions of Frankenstein. Yet the Storyteller Group has continued to produce a stream of carefully educational comic books (in style owing much to Herge’s Tintin) with such underlying themes as conservation, library use and first aid. The novel, Down Second Avenue (once banned), by the eminent Es’kia Mphahlele, was rendered into graphic form by Sached. And now three short stories by Can Themba, Alex la Guma and Bessie Head have been published as Graphic Literature in the book, Deep Cuts (Maskew Miller Longman/Storyteller Group).
The use of such works in school is still hotly resisted in many quarters (though finding immediate use in the education of semi-literate adults. What! Must the purity of the written word be cheapened in such a way? they cry. Our local publishers still tend to accept a manuscript (of a children’s book) and then look for an illustrator. Seldom are the words and pictures created together. Noteworthy exceptions to this method have been the excellently conceived `Little Library’ books from READ organisation and the ‘Fun-to-Read’ series from Tafelberg.
In June 1992 there was a Children’s Summit Meeting near Cape Town where representative groups of children from all over the country talked over (in commendably serious manner) and produced a Children’s Charter of South Africa.
In this document, it was required that `all teachers should be qualified and should treat children with patience, respect and dignity’. There’s a long road to travel in that direction, I fear. But the phrase which sticks in my mind is `so that children can be children’. Children like what comes to them in visual form. If children had their way, books in comic strip format would be used in school without question.
In South Africa, we look set to have a new government some time in 1994. Our previous 16 educational departments should then be amalgamated into one, which would be a good thing. Whether that one education department will issue proclamations upon what books South African children should or should not read, nobody knows. In my opinion, that would be less of a good thing.
The Recommendations from a conference on Publishing for Democratic Education held last year did decide that:
‘In publishing for a future democratic educational dispensation, the publishers present commit themselves to ensuring that they do not publish publications which promote racist or sexist ideas through text or illustration.’
They didn’t mention Comics or Graphic Novels, but surely they’ve got to come? The new South Africa is on it way.
As well as writing children’s books, Jay Heale is the editor of South Africa’s children’s book magazine, Bookchat. For details contact 7 Louis Trichardt Street, Grabouw 7160, S.A.
The latest batch of stamps featuring characters from children’s classics were released in February by the Royal Mail, in this case featuring Paddington Bear, Rupert Bear, Peter Rabbit, Noggin the Nogg, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Alice in Wonderland, Dan Dare, Biggles, Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Bears. The stamps will be available for a year and will cost £2.50 for ten in booklet form, including 20 fun stickers. They’re the result of a survey commissioned by Royal Mail which showed that while 99% of children aged 11-14 had heard of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario a much smaller percentage knew of the characters above. The Royal Mail comment: `We hope the new Greetings Stamps will tempt children both into reading more and taking up the fun and popular hobby of stamp collecting.’ (For details of The Collector’s Club, contact Kate Murphy and Susan Turner on 071 436 4060.)
Just after Christmas, when we’d already gone to press with our January issue, we heard of Beverley Anderson’s resignation from her post as Chief Executive of Book Trust. `What?’ do we hear you cry. `Only a couple of issues ago BfK announced her arrival.’ Er . . . yes. Exactly two issues ago, to be precise.
Quite why Ms Anderson made her exit so soon is a matter of speculation (and rumours abound) but the sad fact remains that her main contribution to the promotion of children’s reading was to close down the Children’s Book Foundation and sack its director, Wendy Cooling.
Let’s hope the new Chief Executive, Brian Perman, that is, stays a little longer . . . and perhaps reinstates the CBF or something like it. Books, at the present time, need all the friends they can get as demonstrated by the following report …
PUBLIC LIBRARIES ONLY 45 PAGES OF A BOOK PER PERSON PER YEAR…
The National Book Committee has released its annual survey of public library spending on books, revealing a further decline compared to the 1992 figures.
Book funding in public libraries has reduced to such a low level that, on average, local authorities can buy only 45 pages of a book per person.
After many years of dominance, London, spending £2.27 per person on library books has lost its place as best provider to Scotland, spending £2.35 Northern Ireland trails heavily behind all other areas of the UK with book spending at £1.42 per head.
The report is accompanied by a special statement from the Committee on School Libraries and School Library Services. This urges schools, local authorities and central Government to seek to defend and maintain school library services, pointing out that if these disappear under delegation of education services, schoolchildren could lose the benefit of over £15 million worth of books every year.
HELP WITH READING
Newcastle City Libraries & Arts and Waterstone’s Booksellers, have published two leaflets: Get Set for Reading and Ready Set Read, which offer advice to parents and carers on how they can help prepare children for reading and how to support children when they start learning to read. Book lists of recommended titles accompany the leaflets – which are brief,. attractive and accessible.
For free copies, contact Dilys Harding, Youth Services, Central Library, Princess Square, Newcastle upon Tyne NE99 1DX
(tel: 091 261 0691, fax: 091 261 1435).
READING READING RULES!
Stories to help resource Maths? And Geography? Two more lively publications from a well-tried team:
Counting on Stories, Bill Goodwin and Anne Rowe, £2.95 inc. p&p
An annotated list of excellent reads that support the maths curriculum at KS1 organised according to the following
topics: Number, Measure, Shape and Space, Fractions, Time, Data.
A Place for Stories at KS2, Chris Routh and Anne Rowe, £3.00 inc. p&p
The promotion of Geography is what this booklet is about, but the stories `have been selected first and foremost because we consider them worthy of recommendation in their own right’ say the authors.
Both available from the Reading and Language Information Centre, University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Earley, Reading RG6 IHY (cheques payable to The University of Reading).
Burly by name –
A crisp fiver to Rosanna Nissen, of Walker Books, for sending us the following howler which appeared in The Times Educational Supplement of 21st January on the TV and Radio page:
9.46 TALK, WRITE AND READ
Delve into literature. Berlie Doherty talks about his work (7-11) (Rpt Wed 9.46am)
POETRY RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS
Now available are updates of the Poetry Society’s BP Teacher’s Poetry Resource Files – and very attractive they are, too. Updates 1 are available in both primary and secondary versions and focus on the process of writing. Articles by well-known poetry practitioners – including Judith Nicholls, Graham Mort and Jill Pirrie.
The Updates concentrate on ways to encourage and develop the writing of poetry in the classroom. They’re practical in their approach and will keep teachers informed about the latest approaches to poetry.
In addition, sections for schools in Wales have been produced with support from the Welsh Office, the Curriculum Council for Wales and the National Language Unit of Wales. Contributors include Gillian Clarke and Menna Elfyn, and articles explore the relationship between the Welsh language and poetry using the themes of `sense of place’ and `myth’.
Priced £4.00, Poetry Resources File Update sheets will build every File into a permanent resource. For further information, contact Pel Plowden, Education Officer, on 071 240 4810.