Storybook sparks love of reading

[Image] Dalubuhle Primary School has a commanding, aspirational presence at the top of the mountain, above the town.
(Image: Lorraine Kearney)

[Image] Nal’ibali supports bilingual literacy development and encourages parents and children to engage with each other through reading and storytelling.

[Image] Author Chris van Wyk held his young audience in the palm of his hand.
(Images: Ogilvy PR)

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Lorraine Kearney

In a bowl of mountains in Western Cape, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, is a small corner that remains determinedly French.

In Franschhoek, Bastille Day is celebrated each year with all the pomp and circumstance you’d expect of Paris. It is also the wine capital of the country, and its estates carry names such as La Motte and Grande Provence. The posh little town is a favourite of well-heeled tourists, and Franschhoek’s restaurants and guest houses consistently score among the best.

But for all its French conceit, Franschhoek has some very South African challenges, not least of which is the gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Its socio-economic problems carry deep scars from yesteryear – the legacy of the dop system, whereby grape pickers and farm workers were paid a portion of their wages in alcohol; the vagaries of apartheid spatial planning; and, of course, the poor quality of public education.

Driving from the Paarl road into what is, despite these issues, a slice of heaven, on the left, going up the mountain, are the townships, the poor homes of the coloured and black citizens of the town. Turn left on Le Roux, and climb ever upwards past increasingly dilapidated houses, rutted roads, stray dogs and dirty children. Right at the top, with a spectacular view over the town, is a beacon of hope.

Dalubuhle Primary School is a smart new building, with clean lines and a palpable sense of possibility. Its geographic position is symbolic – it is a place to strive for; it is a place where achievement is possible; education, it says, can take you higher. And it is here that Sunday Times and Praesa (Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) chose to launch their new Nal’ibali Storytime collection on May 16, as a precursor to the Franschhoek Literary Festival, an annual gathering of authors, readers, publishers, literary agents, and book lovers.

The three-day festival, which ran this year from 17 to 19 May, is a popular event, and tickets and accommodation sell out well in advance. The highlight is the announcement of the short lists for the Sunday Times Literary Awards, the Alan Paton Award and the Fiction Prize. But the programme is diverse: local and international authors do readings from their own works and from the works of others; writers give talks; authors hold talks with each other, or with various erudite personalities and celebrities.

Here’s the story

Nal’ibali, which means “here’s the story” in Xhosa, is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign to spark children’s potential through storytelling and reading.

“Children who are immersed in great and well-told stories – and in languages they understand – become inspired and are motivated to learn to read for themselves. Such personally rewarding learning is a recipe for successful literacy development,” the project explains on its website.

It supports bilingual literacy development and encourages parents and children to engage with each other through reading and storytelling. It works through various platforms, such as newspaper supplements, book clubs and networks, social media and a mobi site. Book packs are distributed to the Nal’ibali demonstration reading club sites, and the partners work with publishers to create and translate reading materials for children in African languages as well as English to help ensure that sufficient, stimulating books are available.

Nal’ibali is driven by Praesa, Times Media, publishers of the Sunday Times, and other partners. “Through sustained mentoring and collaboration with communities, reading clubs, literacy organisations and volunteers of all ages, as well as a vibrant media campaign, Nal’ibali is helping to root a culture of literacy into the fabric of everyday life in South Africa.”

Storytelling

The third Sunday Times Nal’ibali Storytime was launched at a simple ceremony at Dalubuhle Primary School, where the power of storytelling was brought home to the children and to the audience. Author Chris van Wyk, who contributed the short story Mr Hare Meets Mr Mandela, was an inspired choice to spark their interest. This is a man who gets children, and who understands the power of stories. Using English and Afrikaans and the language of the taxi ranks and streets, he gripped his listeners’ attention. And then left them hanging, the rest of the story tantalisingly out of reach: if you want to know more, seemed to be the message, read the book.

But Siphokazi Mangwane, a young volunteer librarian at the school, took up the challenge, and gave a master class in storytelling. She read Van Wyk’s story in Xhosa and had the audience in the palm of her hand – even those who could not understand the words were bewitched by the lyrical sounds and beautiful clicks of the language.

Donald Grant, the Western Cape minister of education, attended the launch, and spoke of the school’s excellent achievements. He said the Grade threes of 2012 had shown “an outstanding improvement of almost 25%” in the annual systemic tests. The Grade sixes had improved 3.9% in literacy, language, and reading.

“Reading and language is the key to everything,” Grant stressed, urging the children to work hard and involve their parents in their school work. “The only time you find success before work,” he said in closing, “is in the dictionary.”

Collection of stories

Carole Bloch, the director of Praesa and the head of Nal’ibali, explained that the book contained 10 stories that could be read to and by children of all ages in primary school. The stories would also appeal to the child in each adult.

“Why do we read?” she asked. “We read to feel good, to become literate. We read to share knowledge, to go on an adventure, to build our imaginations. Nal’ibali sparks a love of stories and reading.”

Funds that made the third Nal’ibali Storytime possible came from Coralie Rutherford, businesswoman and philanthropist. In her message to the children, she said: “Because I can read, I was able to go to school, get a degree, work … and give money to Nal’ibali. My message to you is to work hard and you can also be successful.”

She urged the girls to “do something that will allow you to look after yourself”, and finally to “do something that will make you happy”.

The stories are beautifully illustrated, and there are plans to print the books in all 11 official languages, starting with English. This will be followed by Zulu and Xhosa later this year. The first 200 000 copies will be donated to schools, reading clubs, libraries and other NGO reading initiatives nationwide; two-million copies of the first two collections have been distributed.

The stories were commissioned by Times Media. “We have been fortunate to work with a number of talented South African authors and illustrators in putting together this magical collection of stories,” said Patti McDonald, the publisher of Times Media Education’s supplements. “A treasured storybook can be just the thing to spark a love of reading in children and this is precisely our intention – to skill children to become readers for life.”

Bloch added: “Books and stories deepen our thinking and understanding by stretching our imagination while encouraging creative problem-solving. To have stories that our children can relate to in their home languages is an invaluable asset that we need to keep growing in our country.”