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The wonderful people over at Nal'ibali are launching a Charter on Children's Literacy Rights on World Book Day, Wednesday April 23, 2014. Reading through it made me smile and think how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to grow up reading.
Growing up I was a tall, skinny and nerdy kid. In primary school I was the only black kid in an Afrikaans school just straight after South Africa's first democratic elections. This was, of course, a weird period for everyone. My family was (and still mainly is) poor and I didn't really know it until I was in high school and when I knew it I was so used to not feeling poor that it didn't bother me much.
My life is very similar to that of many black kids from the time but it's also very different. I fell in love with reading, you see. I fell in love with stories and I would get my hands on them by all means possible. I spent hours at the library reading. Getting my first library card was one of the best things that have ever happened to me. That library card gave me access to dragons and spaceships.
I experienced bullying in school and hid in the library with my stories till I learnt a little courage from the lives of bullied characters in books. I read about standing up for yourself and over time got around to doing it. I looked up to the kids in the Narnia books, Tolkien's brave little hobbits and drew strength from Harry Potter and his friends. Many books continue inspire me to have a little more courage.
I experienced racism (from white kids and coloured kids in school) and didn't understand why it was happening. I was different and I didn't know why and so I read about racism and prejudice. I read till I understood enough not to be angry but to try and reach out and build friendships with people who didn't know what to do with the only black kid in school. I ended up making some great friends from all backgrounds in South Africa and many other corners of the world. Racism (from all sides) is still a big issue in South Africa but we are learning to love and understand each other a little over time and we should not allow ourselves to slide back into hatred. Nelson Mandela's writing is a wonderful look at overcoming hatred based on fear of people different from you. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom he wrote:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
When I had no money to do the things that other kids did, I read books and those stories took me to places more interesting than what reality had to offer. I have nothing against reality but I learnt to escape into fantasy realms and space age futures that just have a little more to offer. I learnt how to navigate reality by navigating fantasy and sci-fi.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape? . . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
This has been true for me. People thought I was weird and life would get hard because I was also a bit shy and awkward but I didn't mind because I had my books and the wonderful stories in them. I rarely got lonely because books kept me company. When given half a chance I did escape with as many people as I could. I talked about stories till people became sick of hearing about them and went and read them for themselves.
I spoke only Afrikaans and Xhosa as a child and learnt English by reading English. This did result in a lot of confusion with pronunciation and funny things tended to happen when I spoke English to native speakers. Now I speak English better than I do Afrikaans or Xhosa! So now I'm reading more in Afrikaans and Xhosa to balance it out.
I learnt more from books than I did from my family, friends and teachers.
I'm still a little shy and awkward. I'm still weird. But I have managed to convince some people that this is alright and so I have many more friends now than I had starting out. I have done more stuff now but I still love books and reading continues to be one of the most enjoyable and informative activities for me.
Books and the stories they contain are the best thing to have happened to me and every child in the world deserves a chance to discover and fall in love with that magic. This is not the case but we should always strive towards reaching that goal. I work in publishing now and work with children's and youth books and that is my way of trying to keep spreading the magic of stories.
Organisations like Nal'ibali, PUKU, WOW and IBBY (who have invited me to join their Executive Committee, which they don't realise is my first step to world dominance