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Little Hands

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Helen Moffett’s formative reading experiences

justso_elephantchild1.jpgI learnt from an owl, I told it to a king, he gave me a purse of kisses and a Chinese pin, that not far from here at a farmhouse with a stoep, long, long before she was a doyen of SA book editors, a fellow of the African Gender Institute, a poet, an author, and ghost-writer on what is set to become South Africa’s classic book of cricket Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket (to be launched next week!), Helen Moffett had little hands and this is what she read …

Helen’s earliest memory of books and reading:

I have a vivid memory, a few months before my fourth birthday, of a teacher friend of my parents putting a book in my hands and giving me my first reading lesson. I remember how desperately I wanted to unlock the code that would let me understand words on pages. I remember acutely where we were (on the stoep of the farmhouse where we lived), the old-fashioned pictures, the first words (“Oh! Oh! Oh! Baby falls down!”). My next memory is of reading fluently, although my mother says there was an intervening period of several months in which she taught me. I dived into books rather like Lucy and Co walked through the back of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe; I was so young that I didn’t really distinguish between actual and imaginary worlds, so every book was a compelling alternative world into which I could escape. It was one of the most wonderful things that ever happened to me.

Helen’s books:

Ooh, how long have you got? I went through every book in our house like a swarm of locusts. My parents weeded out anything with sex or violence (although Sons and Lovers survived the purge, and greatly puzzled me — I dislike D.H. Lawrence to this day), and also withheld things like comics and Enid Blyton. As a result, I was an unwitting little literary snob — I didn’t start reading popular stuff until decades later. I was particularly attached my illustrated Children’s Bible (which was quite adult, in retrospect) and loved it literally to bits, although I’m not sure I distinguished it from Andrew Lang’s fairy-tales or Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare or Tanglewood Tales, which I also adored. My logic was that of a child’s; I was especially fond of Midsummer Night’s Dream simply because the heroines’ names were Hermia and Helena, and I had a friend at that time whose name was Herma. I had no idea that there was anything special about knowing Shakespearian plots by heart, and gobbled up more low-brow stuff with equal enthusiasm.

I devoured horse and pony books and books about animals — remember, they were all real to me, to the extent that I was convinced that when I grew up I could go to Montana and visit the characters, both animal and human, in the My Friend Flicka books. The same went for the Silver Brumby books set in Australia. It took a few more years before I started understanding that fiction was, well, fictional, and by then it was too late — I still fall into books as if stepping through the looking-glass, or disappearing down a rabbit-hole.

cat3.gifNo picture books per se stand out, but I did love illustrated books; our copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories had lovely woodcut illustrations, and I remember looking at the trail of solo paw-prints left by the Cat That Walked By Itself, and thinking “That’s me”. I was about six, and it was pretty prophetic.

When my sisters started reading, I was long past the picture-book stage, but we all enjoyed Richard Scarry nonetheless — I was so tickled to hear that you were called Lowly Worm, a moniker still handed out in our family to anyone with a pot-belly — “Looks like Lowly Worm swallowed a pea!” The thing about Richard Scarry was that adults could enjoy the jokes — like the bread-baking mouse called Able Baker Charlie (I remember this had my parents in fits). It was the same with Asterix books (the only comic-books we were allowed) — my parents used to shriek with mirth over the characters’ names, and the Latin puns, which was how I realised that reading was something that happened in layers. With the result that I did a lot of re-reading. A familiar book is still incredibly soothing, and I’m as catholic as ever; I re-read authors like Jane Austen and Rumer Godden over and over.

What else? Lots and lots of mythology (Greek, Roman, even Norse) and legendary figures –Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Round Table, Hiawatha, Prestor John, Sinbad, and lots more. I’ve just realised that’s a list of male names, but I remember being very struck by the female characters; Maid Marion was a wonderful role model — all that dashing around in the woods defying convention and corsets; and there was an entire pantheon of interesting goddesses, some sporty, some gentle and patient and long-suffering, some brilliantly brainy, some powerful, some dangerous, and some plain dim (what was Pandora thinking? And Persephone? — idiots).

swordstone.jpgI have to mention The Sword in the Stone – it was because of this book that I eventually did my Masters degree on T.H. White and the Arthurian legend. I was smitten by its mixture of humour and legend, the cosy familiarity with magic, the equal reverence given to human and animal life, the notion that adulthood is both inevitable and tragic, but that one can take into it, and be comforted by, much of the magic vouchsafed only to children. I saw this years later when doing a brief spell of volunteer teaching at Vista Nova (a school for children with cerebral palsy and other special needs); while a lot of fiction and fantasy is about escapism for adults, for children, it’s about possibilities and potential. Every child I encountered, no matter how physically impaired, could fly in imagination

Helen, as an adult, reading with children:

I haven’t had nearly enough opportunities, but when I do read to the children in my life (my Cape Town niece, god-children, friends’ kids), I love absolutely everything about it, especially when (with very little children) they want you to go on and on, and favourite books are brought out. Or they shout “Again!” and you start from scratch, complete with all the different voices and sound effects. There are some brilliant picture-books for really young children these days, and my niece and nephew in the UK have been sent an array of Niki Daly’s books.

Most of the children in my life are now the age where they read on their own, but I still have fun giving and recommending books — I sent my god-daughter in England the first book in Cynthia Voight’s Dicey series, and apparently she is now tearing through them. Meanwhile her older brother got me reading the Alex Rider books (in return I introduced him to Gary Paulsen, especially the Hatchet books), and my step-nephew got me to read all his Harry Potters. One advantage of reading Harry Potter is that you’re able to have long, earnest conversations with 11-year-olds.

P.S Helen’s Poetry Reading:

Next Monday, the 18th, I am doing a poetry reading at Touch of Madness, Nuttall Road, Obs, at 8pm. Entrance is free, it’s all over by 9 (unless you want to stay for the open mike afterwards), and while I’m not as terrified as usual, I would still be extremely grateful for moral support. I’ll be reading a handful of poems about my travels in California and the Caribbean last year.

Old Carrot! A 1903 Review of the Just So Stories – what would the Gender Institute say!

“Mr. Kipling’s Just So Stories is the only recent original book for children whose standing in this connection appears to be fairly sure. It does for very little children much what the Jungle Books did for older ones. It is artfully artless, in its themes, in its repetitions, in its habitual limitation, and occasional abeyance, of adult humor. It strikes a child as the kind of yarn his father or uncle might have spun if he had just happened to think of it; and it has, like all good fairy-business, a sound core of philosophy. Children might like the book just as well, at first, if it lacked this mellowness of tone, but grown people would not like it at all; and when a book for children bores grown people, its days are numbered. One of the dangerous things about giving children unguided indulgence in child-books is that they are prepared to relish, for the moment, such inferior stuff. A normal child has no difficulty in making what seem to him to be bricks out of the scantiest and mouldiest of straw-heaps. He will listen to some maudlin rambling mammy’s tale with the same rapture which a proud father may have fancied could be produced only by his own ingenious and imaginative fictions. All stories are grist to the mill of infancy; but it is true, nevertheless, that very few of them are worth grinding.”

Aims of The Little Hands Trust
• To support initiatives that promote reading for enjoyment.
• To mentor African literary artists, including writers, illustrators and editors, to produce creative, suitable and appropriate children’s storybooks for children of various ages with a focus on early childhood (ages 0 to 9 years).
• To collaborate with African publishers to increase and sustain publication of children’s books in African languages. To initiate and support translations of stories between African languages, from African languages to ex-colonial languages and from ex-colonial languages to African languages.
• To help to orientate and educate adults in the importance and significance of reading to and with children.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    August 14th, 2008 @12:15 #

    Alex, thanks for the illustrations -- the Just So ones brought back a rush of memories, so strong I can sense the faintly dusty smell of the farmhouse we lived in then. Looking at the pictures now, I remember how intrigued I was by the little strips -- almost hieroglyphics -- at the bottom. And also proof that memory plays tricks -- the Cat is intensely familiar, and yet for all these years I would have sworn she left paw-prints in the snow. Seeing the pic again has brought back the premonitory frisson I felt when I first saw it -- excited and slightly nervous at what lay ahead.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    August 14th, 2008 @12:22 #

    Ha! My mother read us the Just So Stories too. Like "Lowly Worm" that got adopted as a moniker in many families, so too "Elephant's Child" was applied to anybody who asked too many questions.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    August 14th, 2008 @14:27 #

    I wondered where those paw prints were when I found the picture -- I thought there must have been another cat in the snow, but now I know, she was in your imagination...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 15th, 2008 @14:41 #

    I've really been enjoying this Little Hands series, and also become limp with nostalgia as I recognise still further books in others' biographies.

    No Kipling in bio, though, apart from 'If', once my mother realised my poetic pretensions. And, [blush], Kahlil Gibran, which my mother used politically: 'Parents Creed' was presented to my father to help him soften his control over us. It helped that it was a Muslim sounding name. We also had a record of a sage-like Richard Harris reading Gibran. LOL.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    August 17th, 2008 @12:25 #

    Rustum, you have me laughing yet again. We encountered "If" as we hit our teenage stride -- it became a kind of sarcastic and funny shorthand for how we coped with the parents and how they coped with three teenagers in the house. And at about the same age I got quite swimmy-eyed about dear old Gibran -- shortly thereafter I hit my Woodstock stage and discovered Crosby, Stills and Nash. "Teach your Children" etc. Ay yi! All my friends were into disco, and I was flapping around in cheesecloth channeling Joan Baez. And from there only a short step to becoming a fearfully earnest strugglista singing "We Shall Overcome". Good (and bad) poems and lyrics are the stars that shape our destiny, dear Horatio...


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