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Little Hands

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jo-Anne Richards’ formative reading experiences

The Fisherman and his Soul
Once upon a wistful time in friendly Madiba Bay, a dozen years and more before The Innocence of Roast Chicken, Touching the Lighthouse, Sad at the Edges and My Brother’s Book, Jo-Anne Richards had little hands and this is what she read …

Jo-Anne’s earliest memory of books and reading:

One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading the Oscar Wilde children’s stories to us – I was four. (I was the youngest, so I suppose I just slotted in with my older brothers.)

She read us The Nightingale and the Rose and I found it so sad and wept so inconsolably, they didn’t know what to do with me. My father had to tell me 3 baboon stories before I could sleep. (My father used to make up stories about a family of baboons.)
The Birthday of the Infanta

But although I found it unbearably sad, I don’t remember that I found the experience unpleasant. The memory is still vivid and still evokes a sensation of lyrical beauty – I loved the flow of the words.

I took the book with me to nursery school and pretended to read the story to my classmates – I remembered just about every word of it, enough for the teacher to think I was actually reading. I have loved those stories all my life, and still read them.

I passed the love of those stories on to my own children. My daughter spent 6 months overseas last year and one thing she brought back was a beautiful edition of the Oscar Wilde stories she’d found over there.

Jo-Anne’s picture books:

My very favourite book was Pookie, by Ivy Wallace, the rabbit with wings. I still keep a couple of Pookie books. (Pookie was teased for his ridiculous, tiny wings. He left home with his spotted red and white hankie over his shoulder, but got caught in a terrible storm. Nearly dead with cold, he was saved by Belinda, the woodcutter’s daughter. She loved him so much that his wings grew and grew until he could fly. He then had many adventures, but whenever he strayed too far from Belinda, or was imprisoned in a circus, his wings shrank.)

When I fell in love with a man who had been desperately hurt, I gave him a copy of Pookie. (I suppose I have a Belinda complex.) I loved the spooky quality of the wood in the illustrations , the icicles of winter and the cruel north wind. And I loved the cosy fire in Belinda’s cottage.

Particularly in primary school, I wasn’t happy in school. I was a dyslexic child who struggled to read, and wrote mirror-fashion. (My mother said she thought it a sign of extremely superior brain power that I could write backwards like that.) So the school library was a haven and a refuge for me. At first, I loved the picture books because I struggled with the words. But once I learnt to read (although I’ve remained extremely slow – I read every single word) I used to read or daydream to escape real life. I read when i should have been doing homework. I often hid a book inside a schoolbook. I read under the bed covers with a torch.

Whenever I was sick, my mother would read to me. (When I was in my 40s and desperately ill in hospital, the thing I wanted most was for my mother to sit and read to me. And she did – she travelled up from PE to do so – odd how we regress at times like that.)

As a child, she read me Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose (weeping all the way through) and Love of Seven Dolls. I read those to my children, and to the love of my life, when I met him. (And I wept all the way through reading them too.) When my daughter packed for university this year, I noticed she took Love of Seven Dolls with her. We read the Just So stories and the Jungle Book.

Later, I read all the Enid Blytons and loved every one, especially the “…of Adventure” series (Island of Adventure etc). I loved Little Women and its sequels. I loved Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles, and Anne of Green Gables.

Jo-Ann, as an adult, reading with children:

I think feeding your child is nearly as important as reading to him or her. Children won’t develop a habit of reading unless it’s fun. That’s the only sustainable way. Reading keeps you tolerant, keeps you growing, keeps you learning all your life.

I read through the Roald Dahls with mine, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, The Hobbit. (They read Lord of the Rings by themselves.) They loved it and found it comforting. Sometimes I was relaxing wiht a glass of wine and didnt feel like it, but once I started I always enjoyed revisiting stories I’d loved.

As a tiny tot, my daughter developed a craze on the Wizard of Oz. I could only find a script version, which we read over and over till she knew it off by heart. She also became fascinated by our book of garden birds, which I read to her until I discovered that she could identify Crested barbets and grey louries in the garden. (She was 3). My son loved lurid comics for a time. I think it doesn’t matter what they want to read, as long as they want to.

My children read many of the things I did, but then diverged and discovered authors like Philip Pullman. They both loved fantasy but each developed their own taste. My son loved humour, while my daughter enjoyed dark and gritty.

I think reading helps children develop a sense of imagination, of things beyond themselves and their own lives. I don’t think it’s that important that children read only books about things they can identify with. That’s the point of reading – to get out of your life for a time. I had a diet that was almost totally foreign. I’d never been abroad until I was in my 20s, and certainly didn’t consider myself English. Yet I was perfectly at home in Belinda’s cottage, with Jo and Amy in America and with Anne of Green Gables in Canada. As a child, you imagine yourself there and just imagine things like snow.

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>
    September 7th, 2008 @22:15 #

    Paul Galico! Anne of Green Gables! (although I preferred another L.M. Montgomery heroine, Emily of New Moon.) Oscar Wilde's fairy stories! Love the illustrations... oh, and threatening to leave home with a red and white spotted hankie is a standard tease in our family to this day.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Carole</a>
    September 8th, 2008 @19:30 #

    I wonder if Joanne remembers that she and I were at the same school...
    I write this from the home of Hans Christan Anderson, where the IBBY conference is happening, and I have talked about Stories Across Africa, and told people about this very blog!! There are very few Africans here, as usual...but our issues are similar to so many countries, like Chile, Colombia, Mexico,Nepal - many people have told me that our work inspires them, so on we go.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    September 8th, 2008 @21:22 #

    I had forgotten about Pookie! thanks for that - such rush of memories... The Snow Goose too - we had a record of it with somebody sad-sounding and famous reading. Me and my brother and sister would listen to it over and over. then when my mother went for afternoon sleep would switch to our recording of 1001 Nights. There was a fabulous scene in which the wife before Sheherezade is beheaded. With all the sound effects including the head bouncing into a basket (I always imagined) that we would listend to endlessly. And charge our friends to listen too - not such nice children, but not much happened in Windhoek in the AFternoons in the early seventies

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 8th, 2008 @22:01 #

    Margie, I owned one, much beloved Pookie book too -- I think it was Pookie at Christmas (oooh, the pictures were so pretty) and had totally forgotton the rabit with wings until Jo-Anne sent me her answers.

    Carole, the meeting at the home of Hans Christian Anderson sounds very interesting -- is there any chance some of the delegates from Chile, Columbia, Mexico, Nepal (!), might agree to answering the questions???

    Helen, I'm not sure of those Oscar Wilde images were the ones Jo-Anne saw when she was a child, but I have to confess that when I was trawling around the Internet looking for images, I found those by Jessie M. King and was enchanted (that green, I can't stop looking at it), so I couldn't resist using them.


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