William Gumede | For the love of books - what reading to our children teaches them about the world

Reading to children helps them understand the world, writes the author.                        Photo:Supplied
Reading to children helps them understand the world, writes the author. Photo:Supplied

William Gumede reflects on his life growing up, and how a love of reading helped lift him out of poverty. He writes that he has used those experiences to write children's books so that children, in similar situations, can feel validated. 

As a child, growing up mostly in informal settlements, books transported me to safe spaces, to other cultures and to children in other places in similar situations to me who have lifted themselves to better circumstances.

Books lifted my imagination from my limited, dire circumstances to more expansive vistas. Reading made me see that my miserable situation was not unique. Books were ultimately my stepladder out of poverty. Reading lifted me out of poverty – of the mind, vision and ambition. Reading changed the course of my life.

I have developed a life-long love affair with reading, books and libraries. I write children's books to give this generation the same liberatingly reading experiences I had. I want children to discover the same magic about books that I experienced. I write children's books mostly based on my own childhood experiences.

Through writing about my own experiences, I want children to be able to see themselves, their own experiences and everyday lives written in text and pictures – and so validated.

I've tried to deal with the everyday fears, anxieties and joys in my books. I wrote "That's Better", illustrated by Elzette Prins, for children in the womb to three years old. When my children were in their mother's womb, I used to read stories to them.

A love of reading 

I believe adults or older children reading to little ones at an early age will encourage a love of reading. Parents or grandparents reading for children at this baby stage increase the love bonds between adults and children. As the eldest child, I used to read children's stories for my five younger siblings.

After my mother was critically injured in a minibus taxi accident in the early 1980s, and she was physically impaired for years thereafter, I read for her. It is crucial that especially fathers in black communities read for their children, whether they are in their mother's womb or as babies, to foster loving father-child bonds, which is often so lacking in many black communities.

"That's Better", published by the Little Hands Trust and Jacana is a board book specially designed for babies. "That's Better" is about a little baby's favourite blanket which he clings onto during periods of anxiety, unfamiliarity or uncertainty.

When I was a toddler, I was gifted a small, blue plastic, worn old toy car. I grew up with a single mother. We often moved from one informal settlement to the other, and one from one branch of the family to the other. Sometimes we had to stay with relations we did not know, in unknown villages and townships.

I used to clutch my familiar little car for comfort. At birth, I had to be desperately revived, as I had choked on my umbilical cord – and somehow miraculously survived. It was accepted that I would have severe physical problems. I was a very ill child – with severe breathing problems, asthma and allergies. Often, family and community members would look at me helplessly, not knowing what to do, as I struggled to breath. I used to clutch my little car for comfort. 

READ | My Story: I started a library in my village to encourage reading and to create a safe space

My mom finally got job as a machinist at NetSpinners in the Cape, when the textile industry was in bloom, after years toiling as a domestic worker. She worked the night shift. As the eldest of my many siblings, I had to look after them.

As night descended, we were alone in our shack, amid the frightening noises coming through the paper-thin walls from the informal settlement. The drunken fights, screams of someone in pain. I would hold onto my little car. Comforted.

"That's Better" is about a toddler and his favourite blanket. Its night and he is afraid of the dark. He clutches his blanket and feels reassured. His parents leave with the neighbour when they go to work. He feels abandoned. He clutches his blanket and feels reassured. When he falls ill and must go the doctor, he is miserable and frightened. He clutches his blanket and feels reassured.

"A Kite's Flight" is about the relationship between a father and a son as they construct a kite together. It is illustrated by Maja Sereda. Many of my generation grew up mainly with absent fathers. And if fathers were present, they were often absent. Sadly, very little has changed in black communities since my childhood.

One of my favourite hobbies as a child was making kites from bamboo sticks, throw-away materials and old plastic bags. In the book, the father-and-son take the kite they made and fly it. A gush of wind breaks the string and the kite flies away.

The runaway kite flies across Africa – over the iconic landmarks: the Victoria Falls, the Nile, the Sahara Desert. 

Hours daydreaming

As a child, I spent many hours daydreaming of travelling by camel through the Sahara Desert, boating in the Nile and watching the "Smoke that Thunders", the Victoria Falls, the world's largest waterfall. 

The tattered kite falls on a sandy beach in Egypt, where a father and son pick it up, repair it, and fly it together.

As a father myself, I have tried to be present in raising my own children. Reading aloud to my children has been important for me. I started reading for them when their mother was still pregnant with them. I read for them almost every night – and well into their teenage years. I told them stories about people, events and my own childhood. Reading is bonding.

READ | Local mom writes book series amid pandemic to help children 'understand their feelings'

My most recent published children's book is "Upside Down World", illustrated by Vusi Malindi. Its about the sun as a little boy, who on a beautiful summer day, could see the children play carefree, and decides that he is not going to spoil their fun, by setting at the end of the day. The sun refuses to go to bed. When evening comes, the sun is at midday. Children did not go to bed. Animals did not go to bed. Plants did not go to bed. Little children did not go to bed. The world is turned upside down.

The story underlines how the world is an interconnected ecosystem and that if one part of the system is out place, it turns the whole world upside down. The earth has experienced increased destruction by human activity which has caused a climate crisis. We have seen the upside-down world in the rising number of droughts, floods and disasters in South Africa. Although the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak and its transmission pathway is not yet clear, the frequency of diseases passing from animals to humans is rising because of increased destruction of wild habitats by human activity – turning the world upside down. 

Interconnected global ecosystem

Russia's war against Ukraine raises the spectre of the conflict widening into a Third World War, with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to unleash nuclear power, leading to the ultimate doomsday "upside-down" destruction of the world.

Awareness of the interconnected global ecosystem, how our actions impact on nature and others and the dangers of war should be inculcated through reading at an early age to prevent the world being turned upside down.

Reading expands the knowledge of adults and children, fosters empathy for others and builds healthy, loving and trusting relationships between children and adults. It also raises the social awareness of children – all of these ultimately foster more caring, loving and healthy societies.

- William Gumede's new children's book, 'Upside Down World' is published by African Story Book (www.africanstorybook.org). "Upside Down World" is used by KPMG as part of its flagship citizenship program to encourage reading and combat childhood illiteracy. It has been translated into Hindi, Swahili to Bahasa Indonesia. "A Kite's Flight" won the US Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' Crystal Kite Award. 

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