by Marjorie van Heerden
A PowerPoint Presentation at AFCC Conference in Singapore May 2012
Let me start with a personal experience: I remember when I was about four years old my mother gave me a book called Ferdinand the Bull.
More than half-a-century later I realise what a profound impact that little book had on me – Not only did it trigger in my young mind a fascination with the interaction between words and pictures, but I believe that Ferdinand played a role in me becoming the peace-loving adult I am today.
The book is about a little bull - he lived in Spain – and he loved smelling the flowers. He did not like to fight. Years later I learnt that Ferdinand the Bull was one of the earliest anti-war picture books ever published, if not the very first. It was first published in 1937 and is still in print today! 1937 was, of course, right in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. But, when I was four years old I could not be bothered with boring issues like civil wars. I remember pouring over that wonderful book and loving lines like:
“His mother saw that he was not lonely, and because she was an understanding mother; even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”
I remember some of the pictures showed far away scenes with big, empty, white areas on the rest of the page. Other pictures showed close-up figures completely filling the page. And I wanted to draw pictures like that.
Ferdinand loved to smell the flowers – like the American flower children of the sixties did. In those days my husband and I were also flower children, but we did not protest against some faraway war in Southeast Asia we had read about; we protested against an unbelievably scary thing right there in our own land, a thing called apartheid...
The sixties became the seventies and my head was buzzing with thoughts; anti-apartheid thoughts, anti-war thoughts, anti sexism thoughts… I was a painter and sculptor and I tried to express my feelings through my work.
And then, in 1977, something happened that changed the course of my life as a human being, but also as an artist, in so many ways. I became a mother. Our daughter was born in 1977 and our son in 1980.
Becoming a mother brought my focus back to children’s books. I started illustrating and then writing my own picture books. I started collecting and studying literally thousands of illustrated children’s books. And I realised and became fascinated with what a powerful genre it was.
I studied how the young mind develops. And I learnt how high-quality picture books were much more than entertainment; how a single picture book can play a role in shaping a child’s mind; how it could even contribute to that child becoming a compassionate, caring adult.
And I dreamed of creating that one really beautiful picture book...
But the reality is that to be a children’s book writer and illustrator in Africa you can never forget how desperate the needs of Africa’s children are.
So I had to modify my dream. I now dreamed of creating picture books that might help our kids break out of their vicious cycle of poor education and poverty, give them self-esteem and stimulate their creativity and initiative. I really wanted to create books that could do for them what Ferdinand did for me all those years earlier.
The reality in the developing countries that I know, is that there are only a very small number of children who grow up with books, who have mothers and fathers who have the time to read to them or who have the ability to read to them... The reality is that there are only a very small number of children whose situation is suitable for developing a love for reading or even whose parents can afford to buy them books.
The reality is that the unemployment figures are high and the literacy rate is low and education is inadequate. And due to current world economics it does not look as if this will improve in the near future.
So what can be done? How can that very young child, who will be very young only once, and whose mere survival is often uncertain, how can she or he be stimulated and inspired to get educated... to break out of this vicious cycle of poor education and poverty? And to, in the very first place, develop a measure of self-esteem?
What can we, writers and illustrators of children’s books, what can we do? And how? If we do write and illustrate books, how will they ever reach the children?
While painting this bleak picture, I realise that I am actually talking about war. And we, the writers and the illustrators of children’s books, we need to arm ourselves – in the developing countries we must arm ourselves by getting educated ourselves. We need to really understand how a child’s mind develops. We need to understand that the genre we work in could have a profound impact – profound, even if it is on only one single child. We need every book we create to be our best work. Our work may never carry the label “it’s good enough for... (dot, dot, dot)”.
Through our words and our pictures, a child can glimpse happiness, laughter, can come to terms with his or her fears, can feel understood, obtain clarity, find their dreams, realise that nothing has to be impossible . Through our words and our pictures the child can obtain those special ingredients he will need to develop an Inquiring Mind, Logic, Lateral Thinking, Self Initiative, Creativity.
The child could learn to be humane, to have respect for the environment, respect for himself, respect for other people and especially for people different from himself. He could learn codes of civilised social behaviour. He could learn the knowledge necessary to protect himself and to develop inner strength to cope with whatever the future may throw at him. And he or she could develop a love of books which will make his or her education that much easier.
I absolutely believe that, for a young child to become a healthy well-functioning adult, it is as important that he or she should be given good quality books, as it is that he or she should be given good quality drinking water and food.
You might think I’m a dreamer? NO, I’m a realist who knows about a dream that can become true.
So, what can we, writers and illustrators, do and how can we do it?
Let me tell you about a journey I took:
My early books, like A Monster in the Garden, published in South Africa in 1987, had very subtle anti-racism messages imbedded in the illustrations, and today some local university lecturers even use them as examples of early South African anti-racism picture books.
Although these books were bought by libraries, I realised that most of our children seldom visit a library or even saw a book before they got to school. And I realised that to get books to children, books like Ferdinand, I would have to look at alternative methods to get the books to them.
So I became involved in projects “work-shopping” books specifically for children in underprivileged areas. We were divided into groups and in each group would be a teacher, a writer and an illustrator. The books we produced were good - our Little Library collection won the IBBY Asahi Award in 1996. But in the end there was simply not enough money to reach as many children as we hoped to do.
Then came a lucky break. I was commissioned to design and illustrate educational posters to be distributed to preschools in rural farming areas. Most of these schools had no classrooms. Lessons were given under shady thorn trees. I thought the posters might be handy, but I sold the project manager another idea. This was in 1993. I knew most of these kids had hardly ever seen a picture book and certainly none of them owned one.
So I wrote and illustrated twenty-one stories with interesting black & white line drawings. And I laid each story out on the two sides of an A3 page – four pages on the one side and four pages on the other side.
And then the child or the teacher could simply fold it, staple it and cut the top off. This way the child could end up with her very own eight-page picture book – her very first book! A book to keep, to colour and to read aloud to grandma back home.
These A4 “master pages” were distributed across the rural areas in South Africa. The local doctor or police chief or post mistress was persuaded to make available their photocopier to Xerox a free copy for each kid in the class.
These twenty-one titles became the first picture books owned by thousands of youngsters in our land. The master copies spread quickly… A colleague of mine even saw copies of these little self-made books in Nigeria, more than halfway across the African continent!
And then a publishing house approached me to develop the twenty-one stories into a literacy series of books for beginner readers. Books specifically to be used in the first three years of a child’s schooling - the foundation phase. And these were to become prescribed books across the country. This was my chance! Here was my opportunity to create books that will not feel like school books, but like picture books. And still they will reach young readers all over South Africa. So, back to the drawing board... without the pencil.
I realised, educationally speaking, that there were gaps in the 21-story folding-book project. I’m a mother, but I am not a trained educationist. I did not know enough about how children learn, how children develop, their fears, their needs. I also realised that there were many teachers and even educational specialists in our country who were poorly trained.
Writers and illustrators working in the developed countries have the luxury of simply riding on the wave of their imagination – but in a developing country (what is also known as “the Third World”) we need to educate ourselves before we ride that wave. That’s what I meant when I said you need to “arm” yourself.
So I started arming myself to tackle this challenging project of turning my twenty-one little stories into a proper literacy series for beginner readers, for little children who were to become future book lovers and scholars and researchers and leaders. I started by activating my inner child - tapping into my own memories - remembering what it was like to be a child - remembering what I really enjoyed and explored - remembering my worries and my uncertainties and my fears. I thought back to what I experienced while reading Ferdinand the Bull and why that one book had such a lasting effect on the four-year-old child who was me.
I started doing research on how a child’s brain develops and exactly how a child learns. I studied the works of brilliant scholars, like:
· Bruno Bettelheim: He was a well-known child psychologist and writer who wrote up and published his work from the nineteen-forties into the nineties.
· Ursula Le Guin, academic and writer of fantasy and science fiction.
· Joseph Schwarcz, particularly his 1983 book, Ways of the Illustrator: Visual Communication in Children’s Literature and the one he published in 1991: The Picture Book Comes of Age: Looking at Childhood Through the Art of Illustration. One of his comments had a particularly strong influence on my own approach to picture books: he said, “Do not let us treat children’s literature as a well-kept garden, thus robbing it of it’s nature as a windswept field.” And...
· Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, writer and crystal-clear lecturer. I cannot over-emphasize the impact Campbell’s thoughts and brilliant insights had on my own thinking and my work. He is the one who said, “...stories are the only lasting way to teach children codes of social behaviour.”
And there were many others... These people opened up my world – they helped me to get rid of boundaries and limitations.
And then I let my imagination loose and I wrote and illustrated a series of sixteen books. It was a series for beginner readers and each one was a picture book. And we called it the Bright Books Literacy Series.
But let me tell you how I went about creating these books. I realised that, in our third world circumstances, the school system was probably the best way to get books like Ferdinand to the child. I realised that many of our children, through circumstances outside of their parents’ control, had already missed out on essential early development, but I was not concentrating on the problems - those I accepted - I was concentrating on solutions.
I started by identifying and analysing various areas of development in the young child and then I wrote a story to address each of those areas. Some stories were built on ones I had written for the folding books, and others were new.
Taking each story, I made a list of playful activities the teacher can use to take the child on a journey of experience, exploration, fun and learning. And in doing so, developing that specific neglected area of development. The earlier stories can be “read” (in inverted commas) without the words, but each illustration has some words associated with it and those words are also listed at the end of the story. I made a list of the elements in each story that are suitable for discussion and/or practical activities for the kids. And the publisher also commissioned some excellent, highly-experienced educators to create a teacher’s guide for those teachers who might not have enjoyed training of a very high quality themselves.
The objective of the Bright Books seems to be to lead learners along the early steps towards learning to read and write. In fact, the primary objective is for the children to learn about basic values and about life in general. And, at the same time, to develop neglected areas of development like counting and basic maths concepts. To develop spatial awareness - concepts like up, down, in, out, over, under. To learn about: shapes; opposites; food groups; personal safety; night and day; names of the body parts; emotions, and many more...
Such focus areas form the core of each story, but the stories are told in such a manner that the tale and the characters always come first, while the lessons are unobtrusive, discreet and learnt through the fun of reading and enjoying the pictures. The situations and characters described, and the colourful illustrations are often humorous and this creates an easy, light-hearted learning situation, where the development of reading skills is associated with pleasure.
I developed a number of families for the stories, and the same characters appear again and again in different stories. And often the element of subtle humour in the characters or the situation is introduced, to make the learning process as enjoyable a possible.
The Bright Books package for the first year consists of the following: Eleven reader books – the books are graded from one to eleven and are meant to be introduced to the child in that order. Each book contains four or five stories illustrated in full colour and a list of activities after each story. In the package is also a Workbook that the child can work and write in, the Teacher’s Guide, and two wall charts, one with the alphabet and the other with numbers, both illustrated with the familiar characters from the books.
For the second school year there are four books, each with six illustrated stories. These stories are populated by amusing and familiar characters in exciting situations and often tinged with humour. The reader is very subtly and unobtrusively introduced to the basic codes of social behaviour, such as: Respect for yourself and for other people, whether they are similar or different to yourself; Respect for the environment; Pride in who you are. The stories, while developing the learner’s reading and literacy skills also help the reader to develop self-confidence, initiative and skills such as communication and entrepreneurship on a basic level.
Here are some thoughts on children learning the codes of civilised social behaviour: According to Joseph Campbell, learning these codes through the story format at an early age has proven to be lasting – and I agree with that. On the other hand, learning the codes of social behaviour through an authority figure, as is so often the case, has the danger that as the child grows older there is the distinct possibility (which happens more often than not) that the child becomes disillusioned by that authority figure. Sadly, the next step, almost inevitably, is some form of violence. We have too many examples in our own South African society... I believe it is essential that young children should be exposed to wonderfully entertaining, stimulating and memorable stories that will help them develop literacy, a love for reading and, at the same time, subtly help them to learn the basic codes of how to behave in the social environment.
In the stories I also incorporated all the phonics to help the child to develop a good grounding in spelling and pronunciation. As with the stories of the first year’s books, the activities of these stories are phonics games and exercises that help the learner to connect sounds with specific letters and groups of letters to develop a good grounding in spelling and pronunciation.
The Bright Books package for the second year consists of the following: Four thicker reader books – the books are graded from one to four and are meant to be introduced to the child in that order. Each book contains six stories illustrated in full colour and a list of activities after each story. In the package is also the Teacher’s Guide and two wall charts, one with Animals in their Environments, and the other with People and Places, both illustrated with the familiar characters from the books.
For the third school year there is only one book of 186 pages with a number of illustrated stories and activities after each story. There is also a separate Educator’s Guide. In the third year book I concentrated on developing the child’s individual creativity and self-initiative and to broaden his or her horizon by introducing the young reader to the outside world. I used the device of “pen pal” letters, ostensibly written by children of the same age, but from foreign parts of the world and from cultures totally different to those in South Africa, such as China, Egypt, Canada and the Amazon forest in Brazil. The activities are more advanced than in the first two years. Learners are provided with fun, appealing material in a combination of fact and fantasy, that will encourage them to discover more about the exciting, challenging and changing world they live in.
In South Africa, a developing country, the following is very important: On all sixteen reader books there is never an indication of a suggested age for the reader, simply levels one, two and three.
Although these books were very carefully conceptualised and planned, I took great care to set aside all the planning and intellectualising while I wrote and illustrated the stories. My focus was on telling the story to a child, trying to create stories that are fun and exciting – really enjoyable for the child. Riding on that wave of one’s imagination! I worked exactly the same way as I do when I write and illustrate a picture book - a Ferdinand the Bull type book! And only when the book was completed, did I check if it did in fact cover the areas I listed beforehand.
Of course the publishers extensively tested each book and it was carefully evaluated by consultants and specialists and formally approved by the Departments of Education, before the series was accepted for the Government schools.
This whole project took me five years, until 1999, to complete. They are still in print and schools are still using the Bright Books today.
I have shared with you some of my own, personal experiences as a mother and a children’s book writer and illustrator from a developing country. The challenges that face us are daunting, but at the same time exciting and stimulating. Over the years as a creative artist, and although my true dream is simply to create lovely picture books for young readers, I have found myself being drawn closer and closer to the world of formal education. I am no educationist and I will never pretend to be one. But I am not blind to what is going on around me in the country where I was born and brought up. And, as a writer and illustrator of picture books for young readers, I believe I can also make a contribution to the basic education of our kids and, much more importantly, to their development of civilised codes of social behaviour. In Africa storytelling has been going on for millennia and it is through the stories that I tell, that I am trying to make my own small contribution.
For the Bright Books series I identified a number of very specific development areas I wanted to focus on. And then I covered each of these focus areas through the stories and the pictures. Different stories may cover one or more focus area, but the primary objective in each story is to provide enjoyment and stimulation for the young reader
The first very important focus area I want to mention, is the Cognitive Development of the young child. The child’s cognitive skills are concerned with understanding, thinking and knowing – how the child learns and processes information and organises systems of the mind. Cognitive development involves language, mental images, thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, memory development, and so on. Remember, a child learns seventy percent of all he learns in his whole life, in the first seven years.
The story The fat cat is very early in the graded series of books in the first year. It is the second story in the first book. Therefore the language is simple, but the images are engaging. The primary focus area, the child’s Cognitive Development, is stimulated by the pictures and the text: “A fat cat. A fat fish. Where is the fat fish? The fish is in the fat cat!”
I’d like to underline one of these Cognitive Development areas, and that is the area of Language Development: Language Development in the very young child involves many things... These include things like spoken words, body language, communicating with someone else, understanding someone else... And, in time, the ability to recognise and to read written words and to have conversations. Clearly, the development of language skills at a very young age will help lead to literacy and literacy is critical in the future of developing countries.
When the Bright Books reach Level 2, the second year, the language used in the stories becomes more complicated as is illustrated by this story: The big bad blue fly:
Another focus area in the Bright Books is the area of Social and Emotional Development in the young child. This starts with the dynamics and relationships within the immediate family circle, and then the extended family circle. Then it includes the interaction with people outside the family circle, like other children and adults. Focusing on Social and Emotional Development, some of the Bright Book stories look at feelings, fears and emotions and typical problems that the young child may experience at some point. Stories related to the child’s fear, read in a safe environment, will help the child develop the inner strength to cope with those fears. Stories can enable the young child to deal with the scary things in his or her life. The child can identify with a story character who experiences similar fears, and subconsciously the child confront his or her own monsters, like the character in the story does. And all this can happen on Mum’s lap or in the safety of the armchair in the child’s own home.
In the story My brother, a young girl learns to accept a new baby into her small family circle and to share her home and her parents with him...
In the story New Friends, a young girl makes a new friend, a girl who happens to be deaf, and the two of them learn to communicate...
An important part of Social and Emotional Development is developing a Sensitivity and Respect for the Environment. This is a focus area in the Bright Books that looks at Nature and the Animals around us. The children’s book writer and illustrator, Robert McCloskey wrote: “The picture book may well be the child’s first and most meaningful introduction to the beautiful. And it may even play a role in making future citizens more sensitive to our natural environment.”
The story, The little elephant, also looks at nurturing and respecting the environment and the creatures around us.
In this story, My Bed, various animals appear in a young girl’s personal environment, her bedroom. They also need a place to sleep. Then the story focuses on basic issues of ownership and sharing.
Another development area I focused on when I created the Bright Books stories, is the area of Creativity. I find the development of Creativity of the utmost importance in the early years of a young child’s life. Creativity cannot be learnt – it is a subconscious development . It happens while the young child looks and sees, while he or she experiences the “messages” (in inverted commas) in and around the images he or she is seeing and observing. These images may be three-dimensional, like the world around the child, or they may be two-dimensional, like illustrations or pictures in a book. This impact is especially great when an image is unfamiliar, or stimulating, or interesting, or beautiful, or puzzling, or whatever – so long as it triggers an emotional response. Ideally this emotional response will end in a question mark, a “What If ?” And to find an answer, the imagination is triggered and the result is Creativity!
Creativity is basically a form of problem-solving – and often through lateral thinking. It involves adaptability and flexibility of thought. Creativity involves solving problems for which there are no easy answers: that is, problems for which popular or conventional responses do not work. Creativity involves expanding existing knowledge.
Although educators often point to creativity as very important in the learning process, the developing and stimulation of creativity and creative thinking is very often neglected, even in the early years of school! Even educators often link creativity to artistic talent only. Intuitively many people feel that one only needs to develop creativity if you are going to be a painter or a writer or a composer. Obviously this is extremely narrow- minded, and it is clear that creativity and creative thinking will play a role throughout the curriculum, in science, in social studies and in other areas. For a proper understanding of creativity in the young child, one must immediately distinguish creativity from intelligence and talent. Research has shown that intelligence and creativity are independent of each other - a highly creative child may or may not be highly intelligent, and vice versa.
The story, Our colourful hut, opens up the child’s mind to lateral thinking: It tells about a city family who has to downsize – the father takes them back to his roots in the country, but he does not paint the hut they move into. He wants them to see the way nature will change the colour of the walls as the seasons and the time of day changes. – Lateral thinking!
This story also helps the young reader to develop a sensitivity for the fact that one can only see the beauty around you if you take the time to look.
Another development area I focused on when I wrote the Bright Books stories, is the area of basic mathematics and science concepts. In the developing countries of Africa I’ve found that, for very young children, the learning areas around mathematical and scientific thinking have very often been neglected. I believe, however, that the ability to develop rational and logical thinking skills can be nurtured from a very early age.
Here’s an example: The story The magic chicken is later in the graded series of books in the first year. It is the first story in book eleven. It tells the story of a chicken who could change her shape. This story, together with the Bright things to do section at the end of the story, introduces basic mathematical shapes to the beginner reader. Although the main focus is on introducing some mathematical and scientific concepts, the story also contains some other elements. It has elements of creativity – seeing and identifying the different shapes – and also elements of Social and Emotional Development, like the element of self-discovery – who am I? And the element of copying and imitating someone or something else.
The mathematical concepts are important components of rational and logical thinking. It also involves the children’s interaction with their environment and with other people in their world - how they begin to see order in and make sense of their world. Learning to count is a process similar to learning the alphabet - recognising and understanding numbers, to add, subtract, divide and multiply.
But mathematical understanding does not only involve numbers... On an introductory level Maths is to explore ideas related to patterns, shapes, numbers, and space.... to understand concepts such as tall and short, empty and full, near and far, first and last, high and low, in and out, few and many, light and heavy, all and none... It goes together with developing basic skills like how to pair, to group, to sort in a logical way, the concept of comparing... Recognising sequences helps the young child to develop a sense of order, logic, and reason – and eventually it helps the child to start developing a basic mind-set for rational and logical thinking.
Another development area I focused on, is the area of basic scientific concepts. In Book Four of Level Two I tell the story of A magician on the moon.
One night a magician cannot fall asleep because the moonlight is too bright in his bedroom. So he uses his great-grandmother’s book of magic spells to catch all the moonbeams... and then things go wrong. Eventually the magician jumps onto the moon to take the moon’s beams back and to tie them to the trees on the moon – but he cannot find any trees! (quote) “So the magician decided that he had to stay on the moon and hold the moonbeams himself, so that they would shine down on the earth below...”
This fantasy story about the man on the moon intrigues the young children’s imagination. They know the story is not true and they are amused by the use of the old nursery rhyme of the cow who jumped over the moon and that the magician creates magic while he is sitting on the moon. This playful reference to other well-known stories and the creation of new versions is a way to release the child from constrictive thinking – it also stimulates his or her creativity. At the same time, in a subtle and entertaining way, through fantasy, the story introduces some basic scientific concepts to the young reader.
Some time ago I read an article by Chet Raymo, an American professor of Physics, in the Horn Book magazine – this is a very good bi-monthly periodical about literature for children. The article was called Dr Seuss and Dr Einstein: children’s books and scientific imagination. Raymo talks about the importance of developing the young child’s imagination, because (quote) “if you cannot imagine that there could be something like an atom, how will you every go looking for it?” (end of quote) I’ll read it again: “if you cannot imagine that there could be something like an atom, how will you every go looking for it?”
My conclusion: If we, the children’s book writers and illustrators in developing countries, can contribute to free our children’s imagination, and if we can make them realise that anything is possible, then I think we have made quite a good start.
And I constantly remind myself that every book I create for our children has to be as good as I possibly can do it – because that book might just be some little girl or some little boy’s very first book. Or maybe... his or her only book.