Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fairy Tales in Tembisa

I have never been a fan of Disney retellings. Well, maybe when I was ten. I do remember enjoying The Sleeping Beauty although LeAnne the Literalist even then was very aware that the little boy at her christening could not possibly have been the prince who woke her if she slept for a hundred years. And LeAnne, the Lover of Literature, strongly disapproved of the Disney Company completely changing the ending to Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” and refused to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But my aversion to such things is not necessarily shared by the children to whom I read.

This week someone gave me two boxes of used books. Although we are in Africa, the source was white, and I carefully sorted the books into stacks of appropriate, inappropriate and questionable. One of my goals is to offer the children positive images of themselves. I look for books that show children of color and African settings, and avoid books about little white children in America or Europe. Animal stories are popular, but ‘wild’ works better than Old MacDonald’s VERY non-African farm.

I put into the trash the books that were so fragile they would undoubtedly fall apart in the first set of eager hands. There was one about clothes whose author didn’t seem to realize that not all his readers had blond hair and blue eyes. Into the ‘too white’ stack went the European fairy tales with their fair-skinned, blond-haired princesses. I was about to bundle them into the box with the lily-white rejects when I remembered how popular the library’s copy of 101 Dalmatians in Zulu had been last week. I’m not sure where the children have seen them, but they seem to be familiar with all the Disney characters. Several of the fairy tales were in easy-to-read versions. Reading practice is a redeeming value, isn’t it? I put the fairy tales into the bins I carry to the centers.

Tuesday I read aloud the newly-donated, highly-illustrated book on Different Kinds of Snakes. As expected, the boys fought over it afterwards—that and the board book in the shape of a truck! But three little girls of about ten years of age, pulled their chairs close to the book bins, and read Disney’s Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and the other fairy tales one after another, carefully sounding out the words. Wednesday a girl who looked about fourteen, pretended to tuck the worn copy of Disney’s Cinderella into her jacket to show me how much she loved it and wished she could keep it.

What is the attraction of European princesses? Part of it is no doubt the familiarity of the TV images. There is a certain satisfaction in being able to read for yourself the story you have already seen. The fairy-tale world has no more relationship to the reality of the children of Tembisa than to my reality growing up in Indiana. It is as unreal as the world of talking animal stories.

The children’s enthusiasm was fun to see. I went back to my reject box and pulled out another half dozen books. Hopefully I won’t warp their little psyches with the beauty=blond myth by letting them practice reading on a Disney fantasy.

[Although I hear from various people that they are reading my blog, on-line comments are rare. I guess I don’t write much that is controversial. Maybe some of you have some input on the appeal of European fairy tales to people of color, or why including them in my Tembisa book boxes is, or is not, a good idea. I’d love to hear your thoughts.]

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Lord is My Shepherd

Today I read Tim Ladwig’s Psalm 23 to my children in Tembisa. The text is straight out of the Bible, but the pictures show the inner city of Newark, New Jersey—not so very different from the inner city of Johannesburg.

When the Psalm says, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” the painting shows a crossing guard with her stop sign on a high pole, helping the children to get safely home from school. My favorite is the view through the window into a lighted kitchen where the children are having dinner with their grandparents. Outside in the darkness lurk the dangerous-looking characters we saw on the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ pages while the text says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Last night there were riots in some of the informal settlements (i.e. squatter camps, aka shanty towns) of Tembisa and other townships around Johannesburg. Foreigners were targeted. Not white, American-types like me, but Mozambicans and Zimbabweans, fellow-Africans who are political or economic refugees. In tough times it is easy to blame outsiders for your troubles, and right now the seven million Zimbabweans illegally in the country due to Mugabe's election antics make good scapegoats.

I called Tembisa before I went today. “No, it is fine,” Flora said. So I went. I don’t know what these children saw or heard last night. I can’t guess what they might experience tonight, but the message of Psalm 23 seemed especially apt.

On the way to school, the children in Ladwig’s book pass a church with a big stained-glass window of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. When the last verse says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” the picture shows a similar window over the children’s bed. This time instead of a lamb, Jesus holds the children, and instead of trees and streams in the background, there are the streets of the city that we have seen throughout the book.

We talked a little of God’s protection in Tembisa. I don’t know how much the children understood. It was a particularly chaotic day with no adult but me. Some of the boys were loud and rambunctious, but they seemed to identify with the details of Ladwig’s paintings. We read the psalm aloud together. I pray that tonight they will remember.
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Monday, May 19, 2008

Sindiwe Magona’s Passion

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“You can’t infect someone with a disease you don’t have,” says Sindiwe Magona, author of The Best Meal Ever (Oxford University Press, 2006) among many other books. She isn’t talking about HIV, but about a love of books.

Sindiwe is a spry little Xhosa woman. (She told me someone was tall, then admitted with a wave of her hand, “To me, everyone is tall.”) She is passionate about books; she’s passionate about the importance of fathers; she’s passionate about not leaving litter behind. She used to produce anti-apartheid radio programs from New York City, and I can’t imagine her being less than passionate about that.

Sindiwe is a marvelous storyteller who throws herself into her tales from African folklore and from modern life. The Best Meal Ever is about children on their own with nothing to eat. The oldest sister puts on a pot of water, and one by one the younger children fall asleep, their stomachs filled with hope rather than actual food. In the morning a neighbor arrives with a bag of groceries, and the little ones wake up to a satisfying meal.

“How can teachers who don’t read teach children to love books?” Sindiwe Magona demanded at a recent retreat of South African children’s writers and illustrators outside Cape Town. “You can’t infect someone with a disease you don’t have,” she said again.

I think of my children in Tembisa, running to help carry the box of books from my car. I hear the murmur of their voices as they sound out words, and see the ones who linger even when the cook calls that the food is ready. I can’t solve South Africa’s housing problems. I have no comprehensive plan to stop crime and violence in this country. My activities are only a drop in the bucket in the battle against HIV/AIDS. But there are two ‘diseases’ with which I would like to infect these children: a love of God and a love of books. With these two passions they can change the world.

[The above picture was taken on a hike at the retreat. Sindiwe is on the right.]