There are massive benefits to reading to our children, but how can we best harness storytelling? Charl Blignaut chats to Lauren Beukes, the queen of South African novelists and one of the headliners at the SA Book Fair, about reading to her six-year-old
YOU OBVIOUSLY DID A LOT OF READING WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP.
Our parents always encouraged us to read. When I figured out I could get paid to write, it was the only career I wanted. I was about five. I found out that Enid Blyton had made £1 million from her books. It wasn’t about being rich, but about it being a viable career. My dad told me I read The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien myself when I was five. It was an illustrated edition. I was frustrated because my parents were taking too long to read it. I was a voracious reader. Russian fairy tales, Greek mythology, I loved Roald Dahl … comic books. My brother learnt to read through Asterix and Tintin. My daughter Keitu loves comics too. We were reading one the other day and she said: ‘Oh, so this is how I’m gonna learn to read.’
Has KEITU ALWAYS LOVED BOOKS?
Where we live, there’s a little book store on the corner that had kids’ readings on Wednesdays. Even when she was six months old, there was something about the rhythm that had Keitu enthralled. She would sit in the front, riveted, while the other kids were fidgeting and squirming. She was a story fan from the beginning. Now she’s older and she’s been coming out with me to art events and dinners, and it gets late and I say to her: ‘We’re going straight to bed. No TV.’ And she’s like: ‘But not without stories!’ And I’m: ‘Of course not!’ Story time is inviolable.
EVEN WITH THE ADDICTIVE DOMINANCE OF TV AND COMPUTER GAMES?
She loves iPad games and movies and TV. It’s just a different kind of storytelling. As long as you balance it. But reading brings a really special mom-daughter bond. Some books, I’m the only one allowed to read to her because I do the funny voices. The other day I got one of the voices wrong and she told me off from on high.
YOU WROTE YOUR WONDER WOMAN COMIC FOR HER, THE ONE YOU’RE READING AT THE SA BOOK FAIR.
We read a lot of comic books, including Bone by Jeff Smith. I had to track down the colour edition because she’s a comics snob. And it’s a thick book – it took three months to read. When we were finished, she gave a satisfied sigh and said: ‘Now that was a good story.’ Then the dreaded word: ‘Again.’ We’ve read it five times now.
WHAT IF PARENTS DON’T HAVE THE TIME OR ENERGY TO READ to their children?
The other thing Keitu loves is audio books. I got an Audible subscription for about R135 a month. She listens to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when she goes to sleep and on long car trips. If parents can’t afford to buy audio books, they could always use their cellphones and record themselves reading a book, or granny or gramps could if they’re good storytellers. It keeps alive the oral storytelling tradition. If you’re reading to your child, put in some effort, do the silly voices, that’s how kids learn to love reading. I do the villains in silly UK accents. For reading, books that really work have rhyme. Julia Donaldson is so much fun to read. Often, I get teachers asking what the kids should be reading. I know they want me to say Dickens and Tolstoy – and I love Dickens – but you should read what you love, whether it’s Twilight or Dan Brown. The thing about books is that they’re a gateway drug. Bad books lead to good books.
DO YOU ALSO MAKE UP YOUR OWN STORIES?
All the time. There are also cool storytelling apps that can help you do that. Make it interactive. Say there’s a unicorn, a pirate and a mermaid, and offer plot twists. So the pirate queen is having a duel with the unicorn. She falls overboard and a shark is swimming towards her. What now? Does the unicorn save her? Is she buddies with the shark? It’s always about asking ‘what if?’ That’s the starting point to spark their imagination. What if your teacher turned into a T rex? What’s gonna happen? And then what? You can do it walking down the street. Well, that lady looks interesting with her green hair. What if she’s a ninja?
WHAT DOES READING TO KIDS BRING THEM?
Morality, sympathy, understanding of other people, climbing into their heads, walking in their shoes. You live in a book. I write because it’s a way of understanding the world and human psychology. I’m interested in the complexities of what it means to be a human being. Also to live adventure. As a kid, I loved Narnia. I used to open up my cupboard every day to see if it led to Narnia. Keitu said the same to me when she was little: ‘I wish I could climb inside the book and live there.’ I said: ‘You and me both, baby.’ Because books allow us to be more than we are.
Watch Lauren reading to Keitu