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Little Hands

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Colleen Higgs’ formative reading experiences

Once upon a time there lived in a certain village a little country girl, the prettiest creature who was ever seen. Her mother was excessively fond of her; and her grandmother doted on her still more. This good woman had a little red riding hood made for her. It suited the girl so extremely well that everybody called her Little Red Riding Hood.Far, far away, in a place of red sandstone, beyond the Mohokare River and the Maloti Mountains, in an era before she was poet, a writer of stories, a champion of small independent presses, before Modjaji Books, Colleen Higgs had little hands and this is what she read …

Colleen’s earliest memory of books and reading:

I remember my mother reading Little Red Riding Hood to me so often that I memorised it and then pretended to read it to her. It was a Golden Book edition, I now think, although can’t be absolutely sure. I thought I was reading, but am pretty sure it was a kind of memorising that I fear I am no longer capable of. I knew exactly when the words on the next page started and my mother loved to tell others that I’d learnt to read before I started school. I have since heard of “illiterate” adults memorising The Bible in a similar fashion.

Colleen’s picture books:

When I was a little older my grandfather read books such as The Wind in the Willows, Jock of the Bushveld and King Solomon’s Mines to my brother and me. We often stayed with my grandparents, who lived on the mines in Welkom. Every night at bed time he would read us another chapter and it was so vivid that even now I have pictures in mind, of Allan Quartermain’s travels in the ‘hinterland’ and the terrible witch-hunts and of King Solomon’s treasures. The stories and his wonderful voice kept us rapt, and longing for more.

I remember hours spent in the Maseru Library – a small sandstone building near where we lived. The library was in Kingsway, the main road through Maseru. The children’s section was one small room, filled with books and as the oldest of four children I found it a wonderful haven of wooden floors and endless shelves of books, all of which could be borrowed. I devoured many of Enid Blyton’s series, all the Famous Fives, the Five Find-Outers, the boarding school series, Mallory Towers and the St Clare’s books. So much so that I begged to be allowed to go to boarding school in Bloemfontein and my mother let me. Obviously it was more complicated than that, but still. The sense that there were more stories about the same characters is something that still appeals to me, particularly to the addictive crime fiction reading part.

I became a reader early and it was always my most favourite thing to do, apart from listening to adults gossip. My mother managed a book shop in Maseru for a couple of years, and in the school holidays as a form of child care I suppose, I was allowed to hang out with her at the shop. This was the early 70’s and the shop stocked books and magazines that were banned in South Africa, I liked to peek at the Playboys and Penthouses when my mother wasn’t looking. The shop also always had fabulous music playing –to this day if I hear Papa was a Rolling Stone by The Temptations it transports back to that time. At 11 I read The Drifters by James Michener after my mother had read it.

Colleen, as an adult, reading with her daughter:

I love reading to my six year old daughter, Kate, and have read books to her that I didn’t read as a child, either because they hadn’t been published then or I didn’t come across them. We have loved Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen and now that she is older Bed Knob and Broomsticks, The Borrowers, and other books that have several volumes – Dr Dolittle’s adventures, some of which are prescient about issues such as climate change and animal rights.

When Kate was two, I was marginally involved in the 2004 IBBY Conference and among many other delights had the great privilege of hearing Owl Babies read by the author, Martin Waddell, who received the Hans Christian Anderson prize that year at the conference. It is the perfect book for working mums. I read Owl Babies to Kate many, many times, it made me feel better about leaving her. Through the story of the Owl mother leaving her babies, Sarah and Percy and Bill, I was telling Kate (and myself) that I would leave her and that I would be back. Her eyes were always wide and glassy with tears as she heard me read the bit, “Bill said ‘I want my mummy’.”

Anthony Browne is one of my favourite writer/illustrators. His revisioning of Little Red Riding Hood as Into The Forest with a little boy as the main character is extraordinary. The book is potentially helpful to parents in all sorts of ways too – as a way of normalising parents fighting, parents having their own worries and difficulties. It took me many readings to see all the visual details that allude to other fairy tales in the depths of the forest.

I have found it fascinating how so many children’s picture books have either as the main theme or as a powerful sub-text the issue of going to sleep. The picture books make it clear how ‘universal’ and desperate is the desire of parents to get their children off to sleep at bedtime, and I think how it is not always an easy enterprise. A vast number of the sweetest picture books feature a baby rabbit, or piglet , or bear, puppy, child, duckling dropping off to sleep. Thankfully. Eventually. With minimal or manageable fuss. The relief is palpable.

From Henry Rider Haggard’s introduction to King Solomon’s Mines:

And now it only remains for me to offer apologies for my blunt way of writing. I can but say in excuse of it that I am more accustomed to handle a rifle than a pen, and cannot make any pretence to the grand literary flights and flourishes which I see in novels–for sometimes I like to read a novel. I suppose they–the flights and flourishes–are desirable, and I regret not being able to supply them; but at the same time I cannot help thinking that simple things are always the most impressive, and that books are easier to understand when they are written in plain language, though perhaps I have no right to set up an opinion on such a matter. “A sharp spear,” runs the Kukuana saying, “needs no polish”; and on the same principle I venture to hope that a true story, however strange it may be, does not require to be decked out in fine words. Allan Quatermain.

Henry Rider Haggard’s Great Nephew’s blog post on reading King Solomon’s Mines:

This is an astonishing fact when you consider that this[King Solomon’s Mines] was the Harry Potter of its day – in popularity – that its ideals were shared by an entire generation. This books represents how the average person thought and felt about their world, and as a portrait of a culture, it is very interesting indeed.

The story concerns the adventures of Allan Quatermain, who serves as the narrator of the novel, as he journeys with his companions, Captain Good, Sir Henry and the Zulu native Umbopa to find Sir Henry’s brother who became lost searching for the legendry King Solomon’s Mines. It was the first Lost World novel and spawned a genre that continues to produce examples today such as Indiana Jones and The Mummy. It is entertaining, full of excitement and laugh-out-loud funny to boot.

It’s not an accident that I should some day have come to read this novel – even though its popularity has waned considerably – and perhaps only tenuously holds its place as a classic. Nor is it an accident that my last name should match the last name of Rider Haggard’s – he is my great uncle (throw in a few more greats for good measure). I was introduced to it by my grandfather, but being a somewhat disinterested teenager, I never read it while he was alive – much to my great regret. Nevertheless my grandfather, through great encouragement of the book itself, inducted me into its values. As he was my introduction to this book you will perhaps forgive me a short digression as I introduce it to you through his eyes…

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>
    September 3rd, 2008 @17:18 #

    I was one of those children who liked to listen in on adult conversation too! Must be one of the early signifiers of the emerging writer.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    September 3rd, 2008 @20:05 #

    Interesting the way children "learn" favourite picture books off by heart. This is where authors like Richard Scarry (mentioned several times in this series) are so clever, because of the way they embed layers of detail in the illustrations, so that on revisiting, there are new discoveries to be made. A truly good children's book illustrator is worth rubies (not that she or he is ever paid what they're worth). I think it was Elinor Sisulu (herself a notable writer of children's books, among others) who said that clever and carefully thought-out illustrations can enable children to share their experience of learning to read with non-literate parents or caretakers, who can enter the text through the pictures without being patronised, shamed or threatened. But this requires real skill on the part of the artist, and for the writer and illustrator to share the same imaginative space. No small feat.


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