Children learn to read by reading. It’s a simple thought, a truism, even, but one that, on a continent where books are frequently an unheard of luxury, requires constant reiteration.
If Africa’s children are to learn not only to read but also to love reading they need encouragement from parents, caregivers, teachers — and writers and publishers capable of producing works they will enjoy.
With that in mind, Dr Carole Bloch, a specialist in early childhood literacy and coordinator of the Early Literacy Unit of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa) at the University of Cape Town, and Dr Neville Alexander, the director of Praesa, evolved their hugely ambitious project, Stories across Africa — a collection of books for African children of all ages, all backgrounds and several nations, written in their own languages.
“At the heart of the project,” says Bloch, “was the promotion of the idea of reading for enjoyment. You can make a difference with young children. Early childhood is where it all begins. But if you don’t offer children an incentive they won’t read.”
For the past decade she and Alexander, combining literature and pedagogy, have worked on creating literate environments and learning for enjoyment, trying to transform the way children are taught.
There is nothing limited about the aims of the Stories across Africa project — its ambit includes not only children but also those who create, provide, acquire and use the books.
The primary aim is to motivate and nurture reading and writing among African children and their caregivers by supporting and promoting the development and use of children’s literature in South Africa and other parts of Africa in African languages as well as in English, French and Portuguese.
The first group of books to emerge from the Stories across Africa project was titled Little Hands — 16 tiny format books in vibrant colours and 23 languages, designed for children aged from birth to six.
Some of the books cover subjects such as the senses, animal sounds, comparisons, colours and numbers. Others are complete little stories.
A teenage collection with the same concept is in the pipeline, developed by bringing together people from different backgrounds to elicit what children from those different backgrounds want.
Best Loved Tales
One of Bloch’s latest projects is a series, published by Jacana, titled Best Loved Tales. Its intention is to “put out very good quality material that people can make their own. We thought we should do versions of classic stories that speak to all children through, broadly speaking, their own environment,” says Bloch.
In line with Bloch’s belief that it’s important to get good writers writing for children, the first of the Best Loved Tales are retold by Sindiwe Magona, Margie Orford, Véronique Tadjo and Bloch herself (see review on page 11).
To try to elicit funding for book development work, Bloch and others have set up the Little Hands Trust. A major issue, she says, is “translation” — whether to promote original material written by speakers of a particular language or to translate existing material. Both are significant.
“While the idea here,” she says, “is to affirm what we all have in common, original material needs to be produced for each cultural background and language.”
And, since it is adults who will have to buy the books and introduce the children to them, it is vital “to help to orientate and educate adults in the importance and significance of reading to and with children”.