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Little Hands

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Michelle Matthews’ formative reading experiences

Amid the birds and bees and wild flowers of Africa, in an pre-mobile age before Novel Idea, Michelle Matthews had little hands and this is what she read …

Michelle’s earliest memory of books and reading:
I still remember the little library at primary school. It was outside the principal’s office and every time we got to visit it, I was insanely excited! I think I worked my way through it in about 18 months though.

Michelle’s picture books:

How Babies Are Made
I didn’t have a lot of picture books (although I do remember one on How Babies Are Made quite vividly).

Story Teller Magazine
I remember Story Teller, which was a regular magazine of classic stories, serialised fiction and poems that came with a tape. We would pick it up from the local CNA and my dad had to put the tape on in the car because we couldn’t wait until we got home to start listening and reading.

They hugged and kissed each other for ever so long, they did not know why
The first book I was obsessed with was The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley – it seemed so escapist. It had a turquoise cover with these children happily floating on it… He felt how comfortable it was to have<br />
nothing on him but himself
of course, the main character had actually died and it was all an elaborate Victorian social satire, but at the time I fantasised about being a marine biologist and perhaps that’s why the underwater adventure appealed to me.


Michelle, as an adult, reading with children:

My nieces get books every birthday. I love that feeling of a toddler hauling themselves awkwardly onto your lap with a battered favourite book in one hand, and I think I felt as excited as my older niece when she started to read by herself (current favourite: the book of High School Musical).

Luckily, I don’t know a child whose face doesn’t light up when they see a book. Although I work in new media and love the possibilities and challenges of stories published on mobile phones, every time I see a child get excited about a book I’m happy to know that there’s still something about books that’s special.

The Power of Children’s Literature to influence:Charles Kingsley and the plight of chimney sweeps…

The Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788 was designed to improve the working life of climbing boys. The law stated that master sweeps had to ensure that their apprentices did not work on Sundays, and instead were washed clean from soot and were sent to church. This was not well enforced by the police, so made little difference to the boys’ lives.

It was not until 1864 that Parliament outlawed the use of climbing boys, though some sweeps continued to use children until 1875 when it became law that all chimney sweeps had be licensed; licenses were not issued to any sweep who employed climbing boys. These laws were passed only after many calls for change, including from well-known writers such as William Blake (“Songs of Innocence and Experience” 1794 ), Charles Dickins (“Oliver Twist”), and Charles Kingsley.

The plight of climbing boys was brought to public attention by Charles Kingsley in 1863 when he published his children’s story “The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby.” Kingsley was an Anglican clergyman, and became chaplain to Queen Victoria, Canon of Westminster, and Cambridge Professor of History. He was also a Christian Socialist, arguing for better conditions for working people and for social justice. He was a novelist for both adults and children, using his stories to try to persuade people that his views were right.

“The Water-Babies” has become a children’s classic, even though parts of the story can seem rather strange: there is much revenge taken by ‘fairies’ against adults who beat children, for example.

Excerpt from Charles Kingsley’s “The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby” (1863)

“Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom.
That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it. He lived in a great town in the North country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend. He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived. He had never been taught to say his prayers. He never had heard of God, or of Christ, except in words which you never have heard, and which it would have been well if he had never heard. He cried half his time, and laughed the other half. He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise. And he laughed the other half of the day, when he was tossing halfpennies with the other boys, or playing leap-frog over the posts, or bowling stones at the horses’ legs as they trotted by, which last was excellent fun, when there was a wall at hand behind which to hide. As for chimney-sweeping, and being hungry, and being beaten, he took all that for the way of the world, like the rain and snow and thunder, and stood manfully with his back to it till it was over, as his old donkey did to a hailstorm; and then shook his ears and was as jolly as ever; and thought of the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one gray ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man. And he would have apprentices, one, two, three, if he could. How he would bully them, and knock them about, just as his master did to him; and make them carry home the soot sacks, while he rode before them on his donkey, with a pipe in his mouth and a flower in his button-hole, like a king at the head of his army. Yes, there were good times coming; and, when his master let him have a pull at the leavings of his beer, Tom was the jolliest boy in the whole town.”

From Charles Kingsley’s “The Water-Babies,” and working conditions for children in industrial towns in the nineteenth century by Emm Barnes, University of Manchester, 2004

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">Liesl</a>
    August 20th, 2008 @10:33 #

    Not so long ago mobiles were brightly coloured constructions, made from dowel rod and string, that hung from the ceiling above cots and playpens, with butterflies or kits that jiggled in the breeze!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    August 20th, 2008 @10:46 #

    ... kites that jiggled...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Michelle</a>
    August 20th, 2008 @13:02 #

    It's hilarious that you found How Babies Are Made in the Museum of Weird Books. I guess it does look kinda weird in retrospect. (But, sorry to disappoint the narrator of that page, there was actually a [rather less graphic than the chicken image] picture of mommy and daddy in bed, so we could put two and two together...)


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