‘Children’s books,” a local publisher told me plaintively recently, “don’t sell.” Those are very sad words because they sound the death knell of what is already an ailing reading culture in this country. If children do not learn a love of books when they are children they will not read when they are adults.
If the present crop of books from South African publishers is anything to judge by, the local industry has already given up on one section of the young reading population, perhaps the most important — those who are just learning to read and who would enjoy the challenge of “chapter books” written with them in mind.
There are a few, too few, lovely local fiction offerings for the “read-to-me” generation and an outstanding haul of intelligent, gripping and well-written novels for young adults but, with one not particularly notable exception, no novels for the six to 12 age group.
So, what is on offer?
For the ‘read-to-mes’
- MISTER KING’S INCREDIBLE JOURNEY)
Written and illustrated by David du Plessis (Random House Struik
This sumptuously illustrated book tells the tale of a king penguin captured by fishermen; of his escape and adventures on his journey back to the South Pole. A great fictional introduction to the world of the sea, it features several varieties of penguin, a humpback whale and seabirds, each illustrated and identified on the final page.
- THE HYENA AND THE SEVEN LITTLE KIDS
Retold by Carole Bloch, illustrated by Hannah Morris (Jacana)
- THE MAGIC FISH
Retold by Margie Orford, illustrated by Lizza Littlewort (Jacana)
Two more offerings in Jacana’s creative series of Best Loved Tales for Africa, which places the well-known stories in a local setting. In Carole Bloch’s version of the Grimm brothers’ The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids the Wolf is a hyena and the kids are being looked after by their gogo. Hannah Morris’s lively, detailed illustrations contribute to a book that is bound to become a favourite in any small person’s library. Margie Orford steps out of her role as the queen of gore to give her version of the classic tale of greed and retribution that is The Magic Fish. In her telling the shrewish wife becomes a demanding younger brother and, at his request, the siblings move from grass hut to brick house. Not good enough. The younger brother wants to be chief, then president, then lord of the universe. It is very much a tale for today, as parents may realise as they read it to their offspring. The children, however, will probably be content to take it at face value and revel in Lizza Littlewort’s delightful illustrations.
- THANDO ROCKER
Dorothy Kowen, illustrated by Craig Sherrell (Jacana)
This story, written in awful verse, of an animated football whose ambition is to be the kick-off ball in a big match did not grab me, though it might appeal to small football-loving children, especially those living in Cape Town. The illustrations are lively and colourful and the book takes the reader on a tour of Cape Town, from Langa to the football
- AFRICAN REPTILES & FROGS
(Random House Struik)
An informative activity book that not only offers information about common and uncommon members of the species but also gives young readers an opportunity to colour in the black-and-white illustrations using the colour guide to each animal that is contained in the book. A fun way of learning.
- GOBLIN DIARIES: APPRENTICED TO THE RED WITCH
Alex D’Angelo, illustrated by Marjorie van Heerden (Tafelberg)
I could not make up my mind about this one — the only locally published offering for the six- to 12-year-olds. But then I am not a fan of weird creatures. It is quite possible, though, that the age group at which it is aimed will love the idea of this crazy goblin family, the youngest of whom, Ymaldris, records its adventures in his diary. I am sure young readers will find joy in the concept of dragons, ghosts, witches and automated manikins and will find the concept of delicious nourishing ratburgers gross enough to give pleasure. Me, not so much.
- STEPPING SOLO
Jayne Bauling (Maskew Miller Longman)
Winner of the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award for 2011, Stepping Solo is a thought-provoking novel set in Mpumalanga and dealing with one of the most pressing and tragic problems in today’s South Africa — the plight of the child-headed family. Ketso is worried about passing grade 11. But more pressingly he is also worrying about providing for his three siblings and coping with the problems of his friends. All the while he battles to adhere to the strictures of his late mother to “step solo”, remain independent and retain his integrity and dignity in his battle against the obstacles inherent in a community beset by the ravages of deprivation, violence, alcohol, fear and greed.
- DARK POPPY’S DEMISE
SA Partridge (Human & Rousseau)
She just wanted to be loved — and which teenage girl does not? So, when the boy on whom Jenna has a crush makes it clear he is not interested she turns to an internet chat room for solace. SA Partridge has produced a finely written page-turner that any high-school book lover would enjoy finding in her stocking.
- SIGNED, HOPELESSLY IN LOVE
Lauri Kubuitsile (Tafelberg)
Amogelang is a wannabe journalist who writes “serious” articles for the school newspaper. When she is asked to become an agony aunt she is initially horrified — until a letter arrives from “Hopelessly in Love” and she jumps to an embarrassing conclusion. This is a well-written, easy read and a typical schoolgirl novel in an African setting.
- MELLY, FATTY AND ME
Edyth Bulbring (Penguin)
In the second of her novels featuring the unfortunately named April-May February, Bulbring explores the nature of the “Other” — the outsider — here in the person of the boy ridiculed as Fatty. Using humour and an acute understanding of the problems of growing up Bulbring manages to tell a good story while unobtrusively pushing a moral line.
- THE GOTCHA GAME
- THE LADY WITH THE PURPLE EYE
(Human & Rousseau)
Bloemhof is a master of the creepy tale and these two books will appeal to teenagers who enjoy a bit of a chill with their reading pleasure.
In The Gotcha Game Lucas finds himself caught up in a computer game that poses a threat to all the people he holds dear. In The Lady with the Purple Eye Chris and Marley’s new school turns out to be a strange and scary place. Two gripping reads.
- DESERT PRISONER
Andrea Abbott (Tafelberg)
This adventure story set in the inhospitable Namib Desert, where 12-year-old Leo Knight has been abandoned by his companions, calls for considerable suspension of disbelief in a whole variety of ways. That aside, it is engrossing, well written and evokes beautifully the alien landscape in which it is set.
- JAMIE JAMES AND THE CURSE OF
Roy Aronson (Human & Rousseau)
While working with a wildlife vet in Nelspruit to gain experience to pursue a career in veterinary science, the eponymous Jamie, scion of a family that has been dogged by misfortune for generations, meets Shadrak, the son of a sangoma. With the help of father and son, Jamie is able to establish the historical cause of the misfortune and to lift the curse. It is an intelligent story, successfully combining the real world with intriguing elements of the mystical and supernatural — and not a vampire in sight!
- FAR FROM HOME
Na’ima B Robert (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)
To my mind this is the best of all the young adult novels. Although not published in South Africa, it is an extraordinary evocation of two Zimbabwean women and the farm that connects them. Tariro’s carefree life in a rural village is shattered when white settlers force her family off their farm and she becomes a freedom fighter. Katie, privileged daughter of a farming family, who is getting her education at an exclusive boarding school, has her idyll equally shattered when war veterans claim the family farm. Robert’s genius is not only in writing a captivating novel featuring two entirely different heroines with each of whom one can completely empathise but also in offering readers an invaluable lesson in the fact that there are, indeed, two sides to every story.