Casting a light on local children’s literature

2012-05-30 00:00

PROFESSOR Elwyn Jenkins’s interest in books for children started as part of his job of teaching English teachers — though, of course, it really began in his own childhood when his favourites included the Swallows and Amazons

books by Arthur Ransome, Kipling’s short stories and Mary O’Hara’s My

Friend Flicka trilogy. He didn’t read much South African writing then, but that is where his interest has now taken him.

Jenkins is professor emeritus and professor extraordinary in the department of English studies at Unisa, and a past president of the English Academy of Southern Africa. His fourth book on South African children’s literature in English, Seedlings, has just been published and will be formally launched at a children’s literature conference at the University of the North West later this year.

It is an academic book, but accessible to anyone with an interest in the field, as Jenkins turns the spotlight on a variety of subjects— early writing for children in South Africa, some of which, perhaps surprisingly, made pleas for racial tolerance; folk tales and San legends, which have been a very popular field for writers in this country; poetry; writing by children themselves; cigarette cards and the horrors of forced child emigration to the “colonies”, such as Australia, Canada and South Africa in the early years of the 20th century. This last subject involved South African-born writer for children, Kingsley Fairbridge, who believed there were vast, empty spaces in the then empire which could be filled by taking poor children to the colonies to fill them. His intentions may have been honourable, but the results, as Jenkins shows, were tragic.

The majority of books for children in English have been written by whites. “Black writers have to write in English — there are simply not enough sales to make writing in the vernacular possible,” says Jenkins. “There are some excellent books — Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabana and


Come Home

by Es’kia Mphahlele are two of them. And in Seedlings, I deal at length with Unity Dow’s

Juggling Truths and Kagiso Molope’s Dancing in the Dust and The Mending Season

. But there is some confusion about whether or not their work is aimed at children.”

So historically, writing for children was by whites, and largely for a white audience. “Up to the sixties, writing was complacently self-centred, reflecting the society it came from. The first reaction to that was Jenny Seed. I met her when she was in old age, in Pretoria. She was deeply Christian, and wrote historical novels — her research was scrupulous. When writing historical fiction, you can’t change the facts. And just about everything in South Africa is tied up in racist history, so for her, the question was what to do as a Christian and a liberal.”

She focused on the individual in her books — a very liberal project. The message was ‘what you can do as an individual’. She dealt with the human relationships of the characters, and respect for human rights. She was the first to break away from the complacent Euro-centred literature of the first half of the 20th century. But she couldn’t get a local publisher initially — she was published overseas.”

Times change and tastes change. I ask Jenkins whether he thinks contemporary children are still drawn to historical novels. “The younger ones — yes. But modern urban kids want books about modern teens.” Jenkins goes on to talk about the Siyagruva series of novels, edited by Robin Malan, and set around the activities of a multiracial dance club. “They are about dance, the kids have love affairs and how they deal with homosexuality and teen pregnancies. They have flip attitudes and go shopping — the books reflect the commodity aspect of modern society.” The series was a big seller and was written, under Malan’s editorship, by various authors who were appointed after workshops were held.

Jenkins’s knowledge of the field is encyclopaedic, and much of it is distilled into Seedlings. He is proud of having been able to contextualise children’s literature within the broader field of all literature, saying that all too often, teachers haven’t read the adult literature and cannot see connections where they exist. He has also placed the literature in its cultural context of films and television.

Jenkins is aware that one of the problems for writers of local children’s literature is that bookshops here exploit the inevitable gap between buyers (often parents or grandparents) and readers — children living and growing up in an edgy, multicultural society. “The shops trot out the English standards, and adults know the books from their own childhoods, and buy them.” He says people who are interested in getting hold of the best of local writing would be well advised to visit a couple of local websites before they head out to buy.

One is which is Jay Heale’s online magazine that gives news and reviews of local children’s books and the other is which the website of the International Board on Books for Young People South Africa.

• Seedlings:

English Children’s Reading & Writers

in South Africa by Elwyn Jenkins is published by Unisa Press.

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