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Sam Wilson on the importance of reading to your children, the power of words, and the value of storytelling

Nal’bali column No 1, Term 1: Published in the Daily Dispatch, 15 January 2018; Herald, 18 January 2018

By Carla Lever

Scriptwriter, director and Zodiac novelist, Sam Wilson. ©Matthew Brown

 
Your output is amazingly varied – you’ve penned everything from a conceptual thriller to a comic book series commissioned by the Welsh Rugby Union. Your knack for storytelling has spanned different ages, genres and media. What’s the secret ingredient?

Honestly, it’s poor self control. I can’t say ‘no’ to a project if it sounds interesting, no matter what it is or how much I’m already doing. Occasionally it’s a disaster and I won’t sleep, but at least I tried something new.

You have a lot of fun with words, whether it’s for work or play. For instance, there’s your @genrestories Twitter account, where you pepper us with 140-character short stories in wildly varying styles. What is it about stories and language that gets you excited?

Words are incredibly powerful. You can create thoughts and emotions and ideas out of nothing. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

You’ve written four children’s stories for the charity Book Dash, volunteering with other writers, editors, illustrators and designers for a day of intense work to create open access stories for children that are also printed and distributed locally. What makes you so passionate about this cause?

Literacy is a huge issue in South Africa. Book Dash creates books that are free online, and can be printed and sold by anyone. It’s an amazing way to give every child in South Africa their own books. And I get to do something I love for a great cause.

What was your most recent 2017 Book Dash experience like?

Every Book Dash is great. A large group of people makes new books in a 12-hour sprint. It’s a highly creative environment, and as you can imagine, the kind of people who would do it are the kind of people worth spending time with. It’s a blast, and this year the quality of the final books was extremely high.

A recent PIRLS global report put literacy in SA at crisis levels – 8 out of 10 grade fours currently cannot read for meaning in any language. Where on earth do we start as regular citizens?

The simple answer is, read to your children. It takes time, but nothing will have a bigger impact on their enthusiasm for reading.

You’ve created several children’s books that are entirely wordless. What inherent value do you feel storytelling has for children and adults everywhere?

Wordless story books teach something more fundamental than reading: That if you look at them in the right way, a bunch of flat pieces of paper can become a world full of emotions and surprises and things worth knowing. If kids don’t understand this then they won’t want to learn the squiggly symbols we call words. But once children love books, they’re hooked.

What value is there to always playing with words and ideas?

Play looks messy, but it’s a great way to understand things on a deep level. And if you get really good at play, it becomes indistinguishable from work. People pay you to do it. It happens in an office. It can be really, really hard, and it can take years. The difference is that it’s fun.

You have a young daughter. Can you tell us a little about how you are introducing her to imaginative worlds through books and storytelling?

Matilda has just turned one, and we read to her every day. As soon as she can talk I’ll make up stories for her. I’m looking forward to it, but not as much as I’m looking forward to the stories she’ll be telling me.

Help Nal’ibali read aloud to one million children this World Read Aloud Day, Thursday 01 February! Visit the Nal’ibali webpage at www.nalibali.org to sign up and download the brand-new story by acclaimed South African author, Zukiswa Wanner, in any official South African language. You’ll be joining a wave of adults across the country reading to children and raising awareness of the importance of this simple yet effective activity.

Zodiac

Book details

The best books of 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Looking for book recommendations? Who better to ask than the people who create them. Spoiler alert: The Nix gets most votes…

Eusebius McKaiser (Run, Racist, Run)

It is unsurprising that the best local non-fiction titles of 2017 are also the most predictable. They have had public success and rightly so. These include, for me, The Republic of Gupta by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw, Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang, Khwezi by Redi Tlhabi, Reflecting Rogue by Pumla Dineo Gqola and Democracy & Delusion by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. They deserve to be read, and engaged, as an anthology that brilliantly captures the capture of the state, the danger our democracy is in, the elusive promise of exile that one day home will be safe again, rape culture’s persistence, our various identity journeys and crises that endure, and the disillusionment of the youth with the neocolonial leadership of the ANC government. Painful but urgent truths.

Karin Brynard (Our Fathers)

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was a late discovery for me. I devoured all three of her novels, but Gilead took my breath away. The prose alone felt like a religious experience, never mind the themes of belonging, redemption, salvation and grace. The Third Reel by SJ Naudé – a two-fisted exploration of art, politics, loss and love – left me reeling. Naudé is destined for a great career. I first read A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg by Harry Kalmer in Afrikaans some years back. I’m glad this gem of a book will now reach a wider audience. Johannesburg is like a bedeviled wife. You eventually become besotted with her. Kalmer shows you how. Having read Paul McNally’s The Street, an excellent real- life account of life on a particular street in Joburg, I no longer marvel at the depths of depravity in our politics.

Paige Nick (Unpresidented)

The Nix by Nathan Hill. It’s a fantastic, immersive, topical read that spans lives and decades. The basic plot revolves around an underachieving writer forced to face his mother, who abandoned him as a child. But it’s about so much more than that, including American politics. Good Cop, Bad Cop by Andrew Brown is riveting non-fiction that changed the way I think about South African divides: humanity, townships, crime and policing. It should be prescribed reading for every South African – law enforcement and politicians in particular. I ugly cried and ugly laughed on consecutive pages. Dark Traces by Martin Steyn is one of the most gripping, graphic, dark and twisty crime thrillers I’ve read. Set in the world of a cop investigating teenage girls who go missing, this is a book of much evil for poor Detective Magson, and the brave reader.

Achmat Dangor (Dikeledi)

All The Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan is a riveting story about a passionate love affair between an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian Muslim man that embroils them in all kinds of turmoil. It bravely crosses ethnic and religious “rivers” that divide people. Exit West by Mohsin Mohammed is told through the eyes of a young couple – Saeed and Nadia – who flee from an unnamed city during a civil war. It explores the traumas that migrants and refugees face, without ever descending into rhetoric. To leave their country, they use a magical system of fictitious doors to places around the world, and the story, as it unfolds, introduces us to a new version of “magical realism”.

Hamilton Wende (Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut)

I’m researching a novel on Ancient Rome and Africa at the moment, so my two best books of the year hands-down are: The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus. Its blood and sex-filled chronicle of betrayal and survival across the Roman Empire is as good as anything in Game of Thrones. My second book of the year is Satires by Juvenal. His descriptions of the excesses of Rome are breathtaking: perfumed wine drunk from conch shells at midnight oyster suppers, dizzy ceilings spinning round and dancing tables. The Roman world without too much politics!

Ray Hartley (Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King)

New Times by Rehana Rossouw brings to life a journalist covering the first years of the Nelson Mandela presidency – and dealing with deep personal issues – with such raw brilliance that it is startling. I was gripped and could not put it down.

Karina Szczurek (The Fifth Mrs Brink)

The following books provided me with intellectual, emotional and aesthetic joy: Ingrid Winterbach’s deeply satisfying novel The Shallows; Hedley Twidle’s great essay collection Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World; Sara-Jayne King’s remarkable and moving memoir Killing Karoline; the highly entertaining Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany by John Maytham; Anne Fadiman’s touching tribute to her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir; and the visionary, beautiful Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon.

Mike Nicol (Agents of the State)

Being Kari by Qarnita Loxton is a funny, insightful novel about contemporary life. The Cape Town setting is a bonus. Queen of the Free State by Jennifer Friedman captures the quizzical voice of a young girl growing up in the 1950s. It’s charming. And then the massive Apartheid Guns and Money by Hennie van Vuuren revealed everything we had expected but were too afraid to acknowledge.

Malebo Sephodi (Miss Behave)

Grace by Barbara Boswell will have you gasping at every turn. Her word use is absolutely delicious and the weaving of the story is close to perfection. I would love a sequel because the protagonist has never left me since I read the book months ago. I find myself wondering how she’s coping. If I Stay Right Here by Chwayita Ngamlana. This experimental fiction had me crossing legs. Shifting. Crying. Triggered.

Steven Sidley (Free Association)

The Nix by Nathan Hill is a sprawling tour de force of style and story and character, the great American novel of the year. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry is about forbidden love, deprivation and redemption, the poverty and danger of the American 1850s, told through the eyes and vernacular of a teenage refugee from the famine of Ireland. A masterpiece. Midwinter by Fiona Melrose – a story of two tragedies on two continents and its effects on a father and son, who through mutual awkwardness, incoherent grief and rage play out against their attempts at love and family in the deep and muddy earth of county Suffolk in England.

Diane Awerbuck (South)

Nick Mulgrew’s The First Law of Sadness is tied for first place with Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia. They are both what I love and look for in fiction and poetry: truth in all its awkward beauty. I also love that you can see these two perform their work, because they’re local, and because they care.

Tony Park (The Cull)

The Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith, who writes sparingly yet beautifully and still manages to produce a gripping page turner. A disillusioned veteran of Mussolini’s dirty war in Africa returns to civilian life as a fisherman in his native Venice, which is still under Nazi Occupation. Into his lap lands a beautiful, rich woman on the run. Perfect. The Cuban Affair by Nelson Demille is a good example of how an author can try something different without alienating fans. Ex Afghanistan veteran “Mac” MacCormick is lured out of retirement to take a Cuban-American woman back to her ancestral home to rescue a store of treasure. Mac reflects Demille’s own experiences and many others who return home glad to be out of a war zone but missing the military and a life less predictable. He paints a picture of a Cuba crumbling under Communism, but also squeezes in enough rum and rhumba to make me want to visit.

Book details

The Nix

 
 
 

Run Racist Run

 
 
 

The Republic of Gupta

 
 
 

The President's Keeper

 
 
 

Always Another Country

 
 
 

Khwezi

 
 
 

Reflecting Rogue

 
 
 

Democracy and Delusion

 
 
 

Our Fathers

 
 
 

Gilead

 
 
 

The Third Reel

 
 
 

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg

 
 
 

The Street

 
 
 

Unpresidented

 
 
 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

 
 
 

Dark Traces

 
 
 

All the Rivers

 
 
 

Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut

 
 
 

The Annals of Imperial Rome

 
 
 

Satires

 
 
 

Ramaphosa: The man who would be king

 
 
 

New Times

 
 
 

 
 
 

The Shallows

 
 
 

Firepool

 
 
 

Rapid Fire

 
 
 

The Wine Lover's Daughter

 
 
 

Outsiders

 
 
 

Agents of the State

 
 
 

Being Kari

 
 
 

Queen of the Free State

 
 
 

Apartheid Guns and Money

 
 
 

Miss Behave

 
 
 

Grace

 
 
 

If I Stay Right Here

 
 
 

Free Association

 
 
 

Days Without End

 
 
 

Midwinter

 
 
 

South

 
 
 

The First Law of Sadness

 
 
 

Collective Amnesia

 
 
 

The Cull

 
 
 

The Girl from Venice

 
 
 

 
 
 

78% of grade four learners in SA cannot read for meaning. Read the managing director at Nal'ibali's response on solving the country's illiteracy crisis

Jade Jacobsohn, managing director at Nal’ibali

 
Jade Jacobsohn, managing director at Nal’ibali, recently wrote the following response to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report highlighting SA literacy levels. The report sheds light on South Africa’s devastating literacy crisis, revealing that 78% of grade four learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning. Here’s what Jacobsohn recommends we do to solve the country’s disastrous illiteracy rates:

Where will you be in ten years’ time? Whether it’s a growing business or growing family, we all make plans for our future. Yet our future selves are either enabled or limited by our broader context. So, what is our national context in a generation’s time?

Results from a global literacy study last week paint a devastating picture. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessing children’s reading comprehension has placed South African children last in fifty countries

The stats? 78% of Grade Four learners in South Africa cannot read for basic meaning in any national language. In other words, eight out of ten nine-year-olds in South Africa are currently functionally illiterate.

This survey presents the socio-economic equivalent of Cape Town’s taps running dry on Day Zero. Simply put, it’s the most urgent wake-up call our country has had on what our future looks like, and we need to respond accordingly.

There’s a reason the PIRLS test targeted Grade Fours. The age is a tipping point: if a child remains functionally illiterate at age nine, there is a strong correlation to them remaining so, which in turn leads to an inevitably steep school drop-out shelf.

A 78% illiteracy rate in Grade Four means the next generation will enter the workforce without these very basic skills needed to raise themselves out of poverty. It means a generation without the capacity to learn, to teach, to lead. More alarmingly, it means a generation unable to pass along literacy to their own children, exacerbating the situation still further with every passing year.

In the United States, there is an alarmingly precise correlation between the number of illiterate third grade boys and future incarceration statistics (the United States, for reference, scored just 4% on the PIRLS survey). In South Africa, boys have fallen behind to such an extent that they are now a full year of learning behind girls of the same age – the second highest gender gap in the world.

The PIRLS survey also attempted to quantify social inhibitors to education, such as bullying amongst peers. The results? We are also world leaders there, with 42% of South African Grade Fours experiencing bullying weekly (by comparison, 15% of learners reported the same experience in the US and UK).

What kind of future can we build when our children cannot build empathy?

Government is putting urgent plans in place to secure our resources – sustainable water, electricity supply and so on. We all weigh in on these because South Africans care about what our country looks like and we’re willing to make a noise when we feel a lack of leadership on these matters.

Where is the noise here?

If literacy is everybody’s problem, then it’s also everybody’s solution.

These results need to be the rallying call to the heart of our nation.

The good news – and there is much of it – is that change can happen. After all, Japan and more recently Chile, turned around their literacy rates by simply making it a holistic national priority.

But how do we start with a similar approach in South Africa? Where do we begin?

Take heart that many of us began a long time ago. NGOs have determinedly been stepping up to the plate, introducing and quietly maintaining extraordinary, effective, and targeted initiatives to support literacy development across the country.

Nal’ibali, for example, operates country-wide to spark children’s potential by creating opportunities for children to fall in love with books and stories in home languages as well as English. Research proves that regular reading and a strong foundation of language in children’s mother tongues are two of the most significant indicators of future academic success – even more than socio-economic status. That’s food for thought in a country where the poverty trap seems inescapable.

We are hardly tackling this problem alone – it takes a nation to nurture a reading culture and Nal’ibali works hand-in-hand with hundreds of partners. Together we’ve seen extraordinary successes in our five years of operation. We are fighting the odds and winning; helping to root a culture of reading in South African by immersing children, caregivers, and communities in great and well told stories in relaxed and meaningful ways rather than focusing on the mechanical literacy instruction so common in the classroom.

We are weaving a web of support and creative solutions that, given enough backing, will catch our learners when they fall through the cracks of the formal education system. Just imagine what we could do if our work was amplified and enthusiastically championed across the country!

It’s time for us to join forces.

Those who can’t in financial or practical terms can still play a vital part, simply by picking up a book. Reading or giving a good book to one child may feel like a tiny act, but the ramifications of these small, everyday actions can have startling consequences down the line. Stories teach us at a linguistic level – the basic vocabulary, spelling and grammar pour in unconsciously. But stories also teach us at a human level – they help us to imagine worlds and possibilities that are different to the ones we are currently experiencing.

In South Africa, right now, that’s surely a talent that every one of us needs to learn to develop.

For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages visit www.nalibali.org and www.nalibali.mobi or find us on Facebook and Twitter: nalibaliSA.

Ontdek die wêreld deur die oë van Oliver Scherz se besonders verbeeldingryke Ben!

Ben is ’n Indiaan, skatsoeker en kaskarbestuurder. Ben is sommer enigiets wat hy wil wees.

En sy troeteldierskilpad gaan oral saam.

Of hulle nou as dapper Indiane (skelmpies) Ben se ouboet se boomhuis gaan verken, of in die spruitjie gaan toets of Meneer Skillie nie dalk vinniger in die water is as op land nie …

Enige uitstappie is pret, en ’n wêreld van avonture wag op hulle.

Die stories is vanuit die seuntjie se perspektief vertel en is hartlik en snaaks.

Boekbesonderhede

Launch: My Great Expedition by Justin Fox (9 December)


 
Event Details

Quality education begins at home: read Jenny Hobbs's advice on fixing South Africa's literacy crisis

“Education is the new weapon in the liberation struggle, and our youth must arm themselves with books.”
Adelaide Tambo

 

The literacy crisis among South Africa’s youth is worse than expected. It was recently announced that eight out of 10 grade four pupils still cannot ‘read at appropriate level’. Dr Nic Spaull of Sellenbosch University is quoted saying that an inability to read properly means ‘many pupils never get a firm grasp on the first rung of the academic ladder and fall further and further behind.’

Co-creator and former managing director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival (and author!), Jenny Hobbs, composed the following piece on the necessity of nurturing a love of reading among children, including helpful tips on encouraging a reading culture in South Africa:

Here’s the important thing about quality education: it starts with you, parents and caregivers, from the time babies are born. Talking and singing to them, giving them words and songs and stories, is the best way to ensure that they learn to talk and read confidently. These are the building blocks of education and success in life.

• Parents, gogos, caregivers and child minders: talk and sing often to babies and toddlers, passing on the magic of spoken words and singing.
• Speak from the beginning in your mother tongues, adding words and songs from other languages (especially English) as they grow. Languages are easily picked up by small kids and you will be giving them invaluable free skills.
• As soon as they can sit on your lap, tell them stories and read to them from books, magazines or catalogues, letting them turn the pages – however clumsily! – to discover the excitements on the next page.
• Encourage them to talk, chat and tell their own stories. Teach them the songs you sang and the games you played, family history and traditions. Children who own many words talk easily with friends and adults.
• Take them as young as you can to libraries to enjoy exciting, different books and choose some to bring home. Municipal and community libraries are free, and librarians are always ready to help with advice.
• Give children books as presents. Ask at the library for the late, great Chris van Wyk’s Ouma Ruby’s Secret, which tells the story of how his loving grandma bought him books in second-hand shops, always asking him to choose and then read them out loud to her. He only realised when he grew older that she couldn’t read – like so many elders who were denied education.

• Seeing parents read newspapers and books is inspiring for children. Keep books in your home and make reading a cool thing to do.
• All reading is good reading. Look for book sales and street vendors selling comics and well-priced picture and story books. Visit a library to access the online South African book sites for children and teens.
• Enrol children as soon as possible in early learning centres to expose them to new skills and the first formal steps to reading.
• Fight harder and more fiercely for schools with libraries that actively promote reading and a culture of independent learning.

Note: The government mandates weekly library lessons in schools which all receive library allocations, but random bookshelves are not enough. Libraries need assistants to help readers and control the books. For more information, see the downloadable school library booklet at http://www.flf.co.za/schools/.

• Link older children and teens with the FunDza Literacy Trust for daily reading on their cellphones.
• Readers should recommend books they’ve enjoyed and circulate personal libraries in their communities. Record who has borrowed each book by taking a cellphone photo with them holding it.

Surely it’s time for VAT on books to be abolished – it’s a tax on learning!

Online sites for South African children’s & young adult books:

Biblionef: http://biblionefsa.org.za/
Book Dash: http://bookdash.org/
Children’s Book Network: www.childrensbook.co.za
Fundza: www.fundza.co.za
Nal’ibali: http://nalibali.org/
Wordworks: http://www.wordworks.org.za/

11-year-old Lindiwe Makhoba from Mangaung, Bloemfontein, the 2017 winner of Nal’ibali’s annual Story Bosso contest

 

Quotes about reading to live by:

It is my wish that the voice of the storyteller will never die in Africa, that all children in the world may experience the wonder of books, and that they will never lose the capacity to enlarge their earthly dwelling place with the magic of stories. – Nelson Mandela

The key to a healthy society is a thriving community of storytellers. Stories are what really make us human. – Franco Sacchi

Reading books at home is an important part of the early development of children during which they confront in a pleasurable activity those human passions of love and hate, of ambition and desire, of change and hope. – Jonathan Jansen

If we want to break down barriers between ourselves across race, linguistic and cultural lines, we must promote reading. Fiction forces you to live in other people’s worlds. It develops our empathetic capacities … it can and does help to build bridges. Reading will help us to humanise each other. In a time of violence, we must spread the word about the power of books to make South African life a little easier. – Eusebius McKaiser

A book can change your life. You can read yourself out of poverty. – Annari van der Merwe

Books not only change the mind, they can change the course of society. – Jonathan Jansen

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture – just get people to stop reading them. – Ray Bradbury