Today is Youth Day in South Africa (commemorating the role of the youth in the struggle against apartheid and the start of the Soweto uprising) so it’s a perfect excuse to talk about some of my favourite children’s books. (If this sounds flippant, then it’s not meant to diminish the struggle led by the youth. It’s just a celebration of kids’ books today. It’s common knowledge that books and stories can be as powerful, and more constructive, than violent protest.)
First of all, Dr Seuss.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
“I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try …. And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!”
There’s a kind of manic energy in Dr Seuss which is infectious. His books are basically doggerel with fun pictures. They’re perfect for little kids but doggerel nonetheless. I learned the alphabet with the help of ‘Dr Seuss’s ABC’. Here is the entry for V: “Big V, little v, Vera Violet Vinn is very very very awful on her violin”. The picture shows a little girl with a shock of blondish hair happily scraping away at her violin with sound waves emanating chaotically in all directions while two woolly figures block their ears. My brother and sister both played the violin so that was particularly funny for me, who grew up listening to them. They were actually pretty good and one of my favourite pieces of classical music as a result is Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.
Then of course there’s Richard Scarry (I liked the gorilla with the bunches of bananas), A.A. Milne, Lewis Carrol, Roald Dahl. One of the things about temporarily moving back with my parents is that I have access to some old, battered books I had as a child more than 30 years ago. Perhaps I’m regressing back to being a child (I hope not) but in the picture you have “The Cat in the Hat” and “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back”, “The Digging-est Dog” and “The King, the Mice and the Cheese”. I was going to say that those are brilliant but I’ll rather say that they are fun to read. I could go on and on. C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling ….
When I was small my dad used to read me a bedtime story every night. I can picture that big room with the small bed, and then my brother on the other side of a glass partition. My favourite author when I was about 7 years old must have been Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Danny the Champion of the World; James and the Giant Peach etc. Then we moved on to Arthur Ransome and the “Swallows and Amazons” series. The only book we ever gave up on was Ransome’s “We didn’t mean to go to sea”. There are only so many pages you can take of people being stuck in a boat. (Talking about boys being stuck on boats, it took me quite a while to get into The Life of Pi, which I subsequently enjoyed, as an adult).
I used to work part-time at the bookshop as a student, and when it was quiet and there were very few customers I would plonk myself down in the kid’s section. Some titles that spring to mind: Where the Wild Things Are; The Berenstein Bears; Where’s Wally?; the Paper Bag Princess; the Brothers Grimm; Aesop’s Fables. There were also South African books about wild animals and traditional stories but I can’t think of titles offhand.
As far as writing a children’s story is concerned, I started developing a story I read in the newspaper about some baby crocodiles on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal who were swept out to sea after a storm. I was imagining their adventures as the lost little crocs try to find their way home again. Unfortunately I ran out of steam before they’d got very far.
So what are some of your favourite children’s books? And if you wrote a children’s story, what would it be about?