Books

It’s all about the right words

Pat Schwartz

Latest releases on South African shelves prove that if youngsters have material they enjoy, they will read.

Vumile and the Dragon.

Young adults

Cape Town-based Cover2Cover Books has, along with the FunDza Literacy Trust, which it spawned, been named one of the world’s top 10 most innovative companies in education by Fast Company, a leading progressive business media brand.

Cover2Cover, under the directorship of Palesa Morudu, publishes the popular Harmony High series for young adults.

The series was conceived when writer Dorothy Dyer, then teaching English at a Leap school, was trying to instil a love of reading in her students. She had established a mini book club, but realised that persuading youngsters to read and enjoy books was not merely a matter of providing the books, “it was having the right books”.

“There wasn’t a body of books they loved,” she says.

“They did, however, enjoy an American series — the Bluford Series, published by Townsend Press — and this is what gave me the idea of developing a local series set in the townships that my students could relate to.”

Enter Dyer’s friend, fellow teacher Ros Haden, with her vivid imagination, genius for finding exactly the right title and facility for telling a story.

“I gave Ros an example [of the Bluford Series] and she began to write chapters that I tested on some of the kids. They started going viral and everybody wanted them.”

The result was a brief but compelling novel titled Broken Promises. It was the first of the pocket-sized paperbacks in what has become Cover2Cover’s immensely successful series covering the lives of a group of teenagers who attend the fictional Harmony High.

It was followed by Sugar Daddy, also by Haden; Jealous in Jozi, by Dyer and Haden; Too Young to Die, by Sivuyile Mazantsi and Sam Roth, and Dyer’s Two-faced Friends.

The topics addressed in the series are frequently serious, but the books don’t preach or patronise, the language is accessible, the stories are pacy and the issues appropriate and topical. “They have the appeal of soapies,” says Dyer, “but with substance.”

The most recent book in the series, From Boys to Men, is a collaboration with the Sonke Gender Justice Network, informed by Sonke’s One Man Can campaign. Dyer and Londi Gamedze from Sonke wrote the book, which explores issues of gender-based violence and masculinity.

The pool of writers for the Harmony High series is deepening, says Dyer, and new talent is being siphoned in. “Every book is tested in manuscript form on youngsters we work with, so we are sure the characters are authentic and the plot exciting.”

The attractive covers, and their catchy titles, pull in readers by featuring in the foreground young people with whom they are likely to identify.

The models, photographed by a professional photographer, are students who have read and enjoyed the books and who are paid a modelling fee.

Cover2Cover Books has provided activity guides for the first three titles in the series, offering teachers and reading group assistants ideas about how to use the books to develop students’ reading, writing, thinking and speaking skills.

The novels will soon be converted into e-book format and made available on various online bookstores.

Over the years the Sanlam prizes for youth literature have made an important contribution to the body of South African young adult literature and the 2011 winners are superb examples of the talent that is out there:

DREAMING OF LIGHT by Jayne Bauling (Tafelberg)

Every now and again, usually because of some horrific accident, or a shoot-out with security guards, Gautengers are reminded of the presence beneath their feet of a world of “zama zamas”, illegal miners eking out a living from the remnants of once prosperous goldmines.

In this gut-wrenching novel, recipient of the Sanlam gold prize for 2011, Jayne Bauling describes in graphic and horrifying detail the wretched lives of the zama zamas. Her particular focus is on the young boys, some barely in their teens, who have been trafficked by syndicates from their home countries and forced underground for months on end in inhuman conditions.

Regile Dlamini is one of them. Lured from his home in Swaziland with the promise of a job, he has risen marginally above the status of the most wretched of the teenage boys with whom he is trapped and has become as hardened and cynical as his captor, Papa Mavuso.

Or so he thinks. Until Taiba Nhaca enters his dark world, bringing with him an unquenchable optimism that this horror will not last forever and that the almost mythical Spike Maphosa — a zama zama who, legend has it, escaped — will come to the boys’ rescue.

Above ground, Mavuso’s disabled and bullied daughter, Katekani, also has faith that things will change and under their influence Regile, despite himself, finds that he has, after all, perhaps not lost either his soul or his humanity.

THE MAGYAR CONSPIRACY by Neil Malherbe (Tafelberg)

The 2011 silver prize-winner is a ­murder mystery set in Cape Town and Hungary. The Magyar Conspiracy follows the fortunes of Sandy Novák, star water polo player, as he tries to make sense of a tragic event that took place on the slopes of Table Mountain.

Sandy is a member of the school water polo team, which is competing in Hungary, his father’s birthplace.

He uses the opportunity to try to find out more about the early life of the father he revered and lost, and to solve the mystery of his sudden departure from a Hungary under communist rule.

Unwittingly, he uncovers a web of deceit stretching back through the decades and involving not only his father, but also unscrupulous forces willing to commit murder in order to conceal the truth.

This one is a real page-turner.

First books

Ladybird books have enchanted generations of small people all over the world. Now Penguin (South Africa) has created a delightful series of informative, tactile Ladybird board books in Afrikaans for distribution locally.

KOLLEHOND
Illustrated by Maria Maddocks

Tom and his new puppy, Kolle, wander through colourful pages, playing in the park, meeting the occupants of a pond and a tree, investigating footprints and finally returning home to bath, bed and dreams.

KIEPIE KUIKEN
Illustrated by Maria Maddocks

A fluffy chicken introduces readers to farm animals, the sounds they make, their feeding and sleeping habits, and the work done on the farm.

Early readers

VUMILE AND THE DRAGON by Claerwen Howie, illustrated by Lisa Strachan & Meg Jordi (Bumble Books)

Finally, after a long drought, here is an intelligent book aimed at young South Africans in the eight-to-12 age group.

Vumile and the Dragon is well written and enhanced by exquisite artwork in colour by botanical illustrator Lisa Strachan and in halftones by Meg Jordi.

Katie, on a visit to her grandmother with her brother, Joe, follows Granny Ada’s black cat into a magical world of lush flowers and foliage … and a baby dragon. Well, sort of.

The “dragon” turns out to be a chameleon. Katie and Joe are fascinated, but their friend Vumile is less than impressed, because Vumile’s grandmother has passed on to her grandson many superstitions about the strange little creatures with the independent eyes.

In the process of helping Vumile to overcome his fears, the three acquire a considerable amount of information about the Cape dwarf chameleon, its habits and its habitat.

The narrative should appeal to children who are fascinated by insects and plants and to those who aren’t quite so fascinated but like a good story.

A section on “other interesting facts about chameleons” and an illustrated guide to the plants and animals depicted in the detailed colour illustrations add another learning element.

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