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WHAT SHOULD CHILDREN’S STORIES DO FOR US?

My 84-year-old grandmother has recently been ailing. Every day for the past week, we have had uncles and aunts, cousins, and grandchildren over at our house to see her. With the house full of hum, in the midst of dinner preparations and the banter of a well-bonded family, from her bedroom, my gran called for help. I quickly ran to her side.

Her breathing was raspy. She was in discomfort. Instead of telling me where the pain was as she usually would, this time, she wished to pray. I sat at her bedside, holding her hands. “Do what you will with me, Lord; let not my will, but yours be done,” she prayed, and the air became light.

A flood of tears washed over my face. I wondered how we would survive without her. I thought about the healing that would be needed.

After some moments in my own room, I needed comfort. I thought about Cry, Heart, but Never Break, a children’s book by Glenn Ringtved. This tender story delicately introduces the concept of death to children. Here, joy and sadness are friends, death and life go hand in hand like rain and sunshine, day and night. Cry, Heart, but Never Break strips death of its sting and negative stigma and encourages children to process difficult emotions such as grief as necessary elements of life.

This is how children’s stories should be. Their soft illustrated stories should be a bright light, a hug, guidance from a friend in a moment of grief; showing us how to hold on to hope. It is important that we resist the temptation to make children’s literature only entertainment. Children’s stories should be in the business of capturing the mind, pushing us to question, reimagine and dream while simultaneously nudging us towards reality.

I imagine that my latest offering, Fly, everyone, fly!, which I have written for Nal’ibali’s World Read Aloud Day celebration in February, is such a story. It is about a young boy named Afrika, who lives in a village and dreams of becoming a pilot. His dream is so real he believes he can fly airplanes before he has even boarded one. This is the wonder of stories: that through imagination, they allow us to travel to places we have never been to.

I think of stories like Mpumi’s Magic Beads by Lebohang Masango, where children discover the magic of their hair; The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, where a little immigrant girl stands up against bullying; The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali, on being unapologetic about your religious identity. In the instance that your child is a bully, there are stories to cultivate tenderness: The Only Way is Badger by Stella J. Jones, for example, has lessons of humility for the controlling child.

As children grow, they may encounter undesirable messages about themselves, resulting in shame and a lack of confidence. How do children deal with colorism, for instance? We have Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o and Katinga by Mabel Mnensa on developing pride regarding your skin color and the melodies of your name, even when it sounds difficult in the mouths of others.

We ought to equip the young with stories that will engage them critically and wholeheartedly. We should not shy away from controversial themes like death, race, class, gender, or the abuse of political power. From an early age, children should be taught that its healthy and progressive to discuss such subjects openly.

We need more imaginative and striking stories like The King Who Banned the Dark and The Last Tree by Emily Haworth-Booth, which nourish children with ideas and solutions for the communities they live in. The Girl Without a Sound by Buhle Ngaba offers redemption for those children who feel they have no voice and are unnoticed. Wanda, by myself and Mathabo Tlali, offers affirmations for children who might be confronted with racial microaggressions at school.

It was Chinua Achebe who said, “Children are young, but they’re not naïve. And they’re honest. They’re not going to keep wide awake if the story is boring. When they get excited, you can see it in their eyes.” Children’s stories should capture the largeness and complexities of the human experience.

On Wednesday, 3 February 2021, join me in celebrating World Read Aloud Day with the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign. Let us all read my special story to our children in their home languages. This is to nourish and fortify our children, to help them harness critical thinking, to build excitement about the wonder of stories, and to create fresh bonds between them and their caregivers.

Sihle Nontshokweni is the 2021 author and ambassador for the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign’s World Read Aloud Day celebration. Help Nontshokweni and Nal’ibali read her special story out loud to three million children on Wednesday, 3 February. Visit www.nalibali.org or WhatsApp ‘WRAD’ to 060 044 2254 to make a pledge and get the free story in any official SA language.

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