Journalist and writer Maimouna Jallow explores how stories help our children discover new worlds.  

My son Omar doesn’t love reading (yet!). In fact, he finds it quite difficult. What he does love is squeezing next to me on our beige ‘flying’ armchair, and listening as I read to him. For the two of us, reading is a shared safe-place, where after a day of many distractions, we have each other’s undivided attention.

But in as much as this routine roots us in each other, stories are also a way for us to travel the world in our minds. Whether it is Jane the Explorer crisscrossing the seven continents in search of elephants, or the cunning Hare duping the unsuspecting Tortoise, we can traverse the physical space that we are in through the stories that we read. And in a world where many children live in restricted spaces, from congested urban neighbourhoods to inhospitable refugee camps, to have the gift of stories is also to have a certain freedom that no one can take away.

South African author Zukiswa Wanner has written four adult novels, and also two children’s books, Jama Loves Bananas (Jacana, 2012) and Refilwe (Jacana, 2014). “Both as children and as adults, I think stories are absolutely important not only to escape the physical space which may not always be pleasant for a reader but so as to educate a reader about spaces they may not have access to,” she says. “Which of us who read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart did not think as though we were citizens of Umuofia? Which woman can read Mohamed’s Orchard of Lost Souls without feeling as though we were active participants when Siad Barre fell in Somalia?”

The opportunity to transcend their physical space and partake in someone else’s world also teaches children empathy, but as journalist and author Griffin Shea highlights, it is equally important that they are able to see themselves reflected in the stories they read or listen to.

Griffin is white American. It was when he adopted his two sons, who are Guatemalan and Thai-South African, that he became aware of the dearth of books that have non-white kids as their protagonist. “Kids are the stars of their own stories, but when they don’t see themselves reflected in the world, that limits their sense of what is possible. It’s also damaging for white kids, because they are never invited to imagine themselves as child of colour leading an adventure and seeing the world through their eyes. We routinely ask young people to relate to flesh-eating vampires and zombies, but not think about the world from the point of view of a fellow human being from a different background.”

Griffin has taken to studying ethnic diversity in young adult novels, to see what the barriers to getting more books published are. The statistics are pretty grim. In a typical year over the last decade in South Africa, three or four young adult novels get published about a black protagonist. In the US, only 8 per cent of the roughly 3,600 children’s books published in 2013 were about black people. Yet non-whites make up nearly a quarter of the population.

According to Griffin, the consequences of not reversing the status quo are grave. “For Africa in particular, I find the situation incredibly damaging. If we don’t tell compelling stories about African history, culture, both traditional and modern, those things become invisible. And if they’re invisible, they don’t exist in our collective consciousness as humanity.”

Writers like Zukiswa and Griffin are trying to make a dent in these figures. Refilwe is a subversion of Rapunzel, whose long dreadlocks save her from a lifetime stuck in a tower. “When I wrote Refilwe, I wanted children on this continent to see people they could identify with. I did that using a classic fairy tale because I was testing the waters and I wanted to know how children would respond to my version of a story they knew. The response has always been positive.”

And that’s just it. You would be hard pressed to find a child who does not like stories. In February, I embarked on a journey to collect traditional oral stories. I went to Zanzibar in the first leg of what I hope will be a journey throughout East and the Horn of Africa.

On the day I arrived, the first place I went to was the Old Fort in the centre of the historic capital city, Stone Town. Within a couple of hours, I had recorded a dozen folktales from the women who own the curio shops in the grassy amphitheatre. Around us, children pressed inwards, eager to hear the tales.

Efforts are being made to make more diverse books available and get more children reading. Online resources like the African Story Book Project are trying to make it easier for more children’s books to be available in African languages. In Kenya, Storymoja has a Reading Revolution campaign that aims to increase access to books. They have started over 50 libraries in two years. However, it is a drop in the ocean when you consider that there are more than 20,000 primary schools in Kenya without libraries.

So we need more literary festivals, more read-a-thons, more publishers focusing on books that represent the diversity of the world that we live in to reverse the current situation. And we need more parents and guardians to cuddle up with their little ones and create the space for stories. Omar is seven and I have already started to mourn the day when I won’t be able to make funny voices and run my fingers through his halo of curls as he turns the pages for the umpteenth time of his favourite book, A Very Curious Bear. But I hope that by then, he will love reading all by himself, so that the world of his imagination will take him on journeys far beyond the physical space that he inhabits.


*Originally published in the Hargeysa International Book Fair booklet and Warya Post – August 2015