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Little Hands

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Beverley Naidoo’s formative reading experiences

Beverley NaidooOnce upon a dark time, long before she was exiled from South Africa and so wrote her first two award-winning novels, Journey To Jo’burg and Chain of Fire in the UK, Beverley Naidoo had little hands and this is the story of what she read…

I have a mixture of memories and feelings about my childhood reading. I have always loved losing myself in a story. How amazing to sit with a book and forget where you are because your head and heart are somewhere else! Stories can take you to any place in the world, real and imaginary. You can travel backwards and forwards in time. You can even go inside other people, learning their innermost secrets and thoughts. Extraordinary, nê?
I especially remember four volumes of fairytales, each with a different coloured cover. Chain of FireI still have my copy of the Blue Fairy Book in which Andrew Lang brought together tales from earlier great story collectors, such as the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. These tales could send shivers down my spine and I loved them! In them I learned about anger, jealousy and hate as well kindness, loyalty and love. But these tales were largely set in far away Europe, just as my Enid Blyton’s stories were all set in England. Most of my books opened windows onto far-away lands. The exceptions were the animal tales with pictures where the landscape was like our South African bush.
No Turning BackIt was only years later that I realised the problems with my childhood reading. It was like discovering that some of the ‘sweeties’ that I had eaten contained serious traces of poison. In consuming my books, I had also consumed a good deal of colonial racist stereotyping. Most of the characters in the stories were white and when there were black characters, they tended to be shown as savages, servants or comic buffoons. It still disturbs me to think how easily children’s minds can be influenced and distorted while they are being entertained. When I became an education adviser, it became part of my mission to encourage teachers, librarians and young people themselves to think about questions of representation, stereotyping and underlying messages in books for children. I became committed to critical reading because I had been such an uncritical reader as a child.
Out Of BoundsBut there were also book-related incidents while I was growing up that did puzzle me at the time. Believe it or not, the library at my school was kept locked! I cannot recall once going inside and choosing a book for myself. What’s more, in my matric year, when I asked our vice-principal to sign a form so that I could join the Johannesburg city library, she refused. I can still hear her voice with her Irish lilt…
‘And what would you be wanting to read more books for, Beverley? Have you not got enough with your text books already?’

Burn My HeartI was baffled by her refusal, but later I realised that the nuns who had taught me felt that it was their duty to control the books we read. In class, when we read a story, a poem, a novel or a play by Shakespeare, we were told what the author meant. Our teachers told us to write down what they said and learn it. To them, teaching included teaching us what to think. Reading was certainly not about encouraging dialogue! So at least I was lucky to have some books at home that I would read for pleasure and where my imagination would roam.
The Other Side of TruthThis was all well over 50 years ago, but the idea of keeping young people away from books and controlling their ideas still angers me. I was a white child in a whites-only school and none of my white teachers encouraged me to ask questions, let alone question apartheid and the racism all around us. It’s a bit like we children were little donkeys with blinkers who had to follow instructions from teachers and adults who also wore blinkers.
After I left school, I was very fortunate to make friends at Wits University with people who helped me tear away the blinkers. It was the year after the Sharpeville massacre and, for the first time, in my late teens, I began to read books that invited me to see the world around me in new ways. I was given a banned copy of Es’kia (then known as Ezekiel) Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue about his childhood in Marabastad. That wasn’t so far from where I’d grown up but it could have been on another planet. My eyes opened as he took me down his streets and into his home. I began to realise that our country was like a vast prison for black South Africans and I began to ask the questions that I’d never asked before. What I saw now was shocking, but at least I was beginning to choose my own journey… and books were vital ‘mind food’ along the way.

The Great Tug of WarIt was many years later that I began writing for children. Our family was living in exile in England and I wanted to find a way for our two children, and other young people, to imagine what apartheid was like. If I could tell them a gripping story, they might want to know more…
That was the beginning of Journey to Jo’burg. Once it was published, the story quickly travelled around the world in many different languages. I began to receive hundreds of letters from readers telling me their thoughts and asking me questions. But there were no letters from South Africa because the apartheid rulers banned it until the year after Nelson Mandela was released from jail.
Not having books is not always just about lack of money. It’s also about those in power recognising how important and valuable books are as ‘mind food’. We need to remind our leaders that young people should have the freedom to read, imagine, think and ask their own questions about the world which is already passing into their young hands.

Beverley Naidoo, 13th January 2009

*Read the first chapter of Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth*

Beverly in the years 1954, 1964 and 2004

I hope Beverley will not mind if I include this list of recognitions she has received for her work:

Web of Lies
The New York Public Library – Books for the Teen Age 2007

The Playground
Time Out Critics’ Choice 2004: Best Plays for Children and Young People.

Out of Bounds
A Best Book for Young Adults, American Library Association, USA 2004
Riverbank Review Children’s Book of Distinction, USA 2004
Jane Addams Peace Association Book Award for Older Children, USA 2004
African Studies Association Children’s Africana Book Award (Older Readers), USA 2004
Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award, USA 2003

The Other Side of Truth
Sankei Children’s Book Award, Japan 2003
International Board on Books for Young People Honour Book, 2002
Jane Addams Book Award (older children category), USA 2002
American Library Association Booklist Top of the List, USA 2001
A Best Book for Young Adults American Library Association, USA 2001
Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, USA 2001
Smarties Book Prize Silver Medal, UK 2000
Carnegie Medal, UK 2000

No Turning Back
International Reading Association Teachers Choices for 1998 Josette Frank Award (Child Study Children’s Book Committee Award)1998
Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies 1998
Book Trust 100 Best Books of 1997
Shortlisted for the Smarties Prize 1995
Shortlisted for The Guardian Fiction Prize 1996

Chain of Fire
‘Vlag en Wimpel’ Award 1991
American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults list 1991
Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies 1990
Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal 1990
Shortlisted for the Smarties Prize 1989

Journey to Jo’burg
Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies 1986
Parents’ Choice Honor Book for Paperback Literature 1986 for
Child Study Children’s Book Committee Award1986
The Other Award 1985

Extract from an interview on The Other Side of Truth

Have you ever felt, or had any criticism lodged, that you are unqualified, as a white South African, to write from a black perspective?
I believe we have to be very careful about censoring who writes about whom. Is someone from the 20th century not allowed to write about someone from the 19th century or the 16th century? Is a man not able to write about a woman? Where is the cut off point? What makes us human is that we have actually got imagination to help extend our own experience. The writer must have the freedom to write. The key question is whether the writer writes credibly and well. But of course the political issue still has to be addressed of why more black writers are not being published. There are very few black editors here in the UK. We need to open up the publishing industry, mainstream publishing. It will benefit greatly from a diversity of talent.

What is your opinion of the treatment of asylum seekers within the UK?

I’m extremely unhappy with how asylum seekers are being used as political footballs. Of course every country is entitled to a system of immigration controls but we have an obligation under international law to give refuge to people genuinely fleeing persecution. There is now such a culture of hostility to asylum seekers that I don’t believe we can trust all the decisions about who should enter. Some people, including children, are being sent back to countries where their lives are endangered. It is appalling that Mr Blair’s government should choose to opt out of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to child asylum-seekers. Our current system lacks a human face. You take someone who has been tortured or persecuted in the country from which they have fled, and push them through a system that sends out the message ‘You are not wanted.’ It is not a system that recognises that asylum seekers are often extremely resourceful people who have qualities that any reasonable society should value. They are people who will contribute to and enrich our society. The system also encourages unscrupulous people to make money out of refugees. You know, this whole business of housing asylum seekers all over the country. Some people are converting terrible accommodation that neither you nor I would want to live in and saying that this is fit for an asylum seeker. Government pays them for this accommodation. They are using our money, our taxpayers’ money, to pay them! That horrifies me. As the government makes it increasingly difficult to seek asylum here, it forces people, with genuine concerns for their safety, underground. As soon as you do that you encourage corruption. In my view our present system encourages ‘people smugglers’.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    January 16th, 2009 @15:20 #

    Updated: In the awards section of the original post I missed out the last 7 years including these:
    Web of Lies
    The New York Public Library - Books for the Teen Age 2007

    The Playground
    Time Out Critics’ Choice 2004: Best Plays for Children and Young People.

    Out of Bounds
    A Best Book for Young Adults, American Library Association, USA 2004


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