Bringing the gift of reading to the children of Africa

EVENT: African Children's Literature (Wednesday, 21 September; Lobby Books)



Veronique Tadjo, Sindiwe Magona and Tanya Barben in discussion with Glynis Lloyd.

Significant challenges face the future of children’s reading and the authors who dedicate themselves to writing for this developing audience, not least the high cost of books, which Veronique Tadjo decried as “one of the scandals” of South Africa. And Veronique would know: born in Paris, Sorbonne-degreed, brought up in the Ivory Coast, a compulsive traveller who now lives in South Africa, and author of ten children’s books, among other works, so alarm bells should be clanging when she, who is in an expert position to compare, balks at the prices of our books.

This was one of many issues under consideration at a panel discussion on African children’s literature between Veronique; Sindiwe Magona, who has written three children’s books and boasts a rags-to-riches (Gugulethu-to-the-UN) tale second to none; and Tanya Barben, senior Rare Books Librarian at UCT. Moderated by independent editor of children’s books, Glynis Lloyd, the discussion kicked off with Veronique explaining that the motivation for her award-winning children’s book, Mamy Wata and the Monster, was to save the mythology of the mermaid in history from calls from west African religious groups to ‘outlaw the mermaid’ on the basis that such beliefs constitute heathenism.

Sindiwe’s The Best Meal Ever! aimed, she said, to give hope to hungry children in a fairy tale style of unfolding a young girl’s inventiveness in feeding her siblings by making “the best meal ever” – the meal of hope.
The discussion centred on the challenges facing the field of children's literature and what can be done to overcome them. 
The major challenge was identified as a lack of a reading culture, caused by, among other things, many teachers’ disinterest in reading, parents’ reluctance or inability to buy books for their children, and the government’s feeble attempts at improving children’s reading practices.

These challenges, it was agreed, are compounded by the reluctance of most talented writers to venture into the arena of children’s books; a lack of strong and sustained networks among people working in the area of children's books (writers, illustrators, publishers and booksellers); and, particularly, the high cost of books in South Africa. Most members of the audience in one way or another had a stake in children's literature, and several suggestions were made on how to make children’s books more accessible.
Sindiwe appealed to teachers to educate by example: “If teachers do not read, how can the children develop a reading culture?” she asked, pointing out that books were imprisoned in libraries and classrooms, where they were read as part of school exercises, not for fun.

She also called for a national canon of children’s literature to enable all South African children to read the same books in different languages.

In addition, Sindiwe somewhat controversially pointed out, that unless government takes children’s reading more seriously, children could in fact ‘pose threat to national security [later in life] as there is a clear correlation between illiteracy and burglary.’

Veronique called for better quality of work. “Africa’s population has been described as a young one, meaning that children’s literature has a big market, but we have to get the quality right.” 

Tanya, who has over the years built a rich collection of children’s literature, some of which she exhibited during the discussion, called for more collections of children’s books from the rest of the continent: “Much has been done in other parts of Africa that we need to collect and popularise,” citing the Macmillan Pacesetter novels, although their popularity over the past three decades has fluctuated, as an example. These books are intended to make African literature more accessible to areas, both in Africa and internationally, where it may be more difficult to get hold of.

Another example was an organisation, PUKU: Children’s Literature in Southern Africa, which is developing the idea of  a “pukupedia” – an encyclopedia to make children’s literature accessible online. A visit to the website,, explores the many initiatives the organisation has developed to promote children’s books in southern Africa.
With contributions from the audience, it was emphasised that there is need for all stakeholders in the field to share experiences, through workshops and correspondence, for instance, on how to improve the quality and quantity of children’s writing, as well as how to promote reading in homes and schools, both among children and adults.

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